The evening training eventually came to an end, and Raven left her Pressure Room feeling more tired than usual. It would soon be three full days since Raven had gotten any sleep and it was clearly starting to take a toll on her.
Spreading her senses, Raven couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief; it would seem like Dunlin and company were still in their rooms, no doubt getting punished by Elder Wyrmouth for skipping class the day before. Someone who was out of his room, however, was Javelin. He was already on his way out of the building so Raven increased her pace to catch up with him. She did so just as they left the building.
“How did today’s lessons go, Javelin?” she asked.
Javelin barely looked up from the ground as he answered, “fine,” and continued to walk towards the academy garden with brisk steps. Raven frowned.
“Um, Javelin?” She grabbed his robes and tugged him to a stop. Finally, Javelin looked at Raven, but he seemed a bit . . . distant, or perhaps even annoyed. Despite herself, Raven felt her frown deepen with worry. “I’m sorry for yesterday,” she said sincerely, “I too have things I’d rather not talk about, so I should have known better.”
For a moment, Javelin’s gaze softened but it didn’t last long. “Don’t worry about it,” he said, “I brought it up first.” He was about to turn around and leave when he paused and instead asked, “Night, how did you know that I was eight when Rav- . . . when it happened?” His stare grew intense as he waited for Raven’s reply.
‘Shit,’ thought Raven to herself but instantly answered, “Lark told me about it after the tower thing.” She looked confused, as if Javelin was asking an obvious question he already knew the answer to.
Javelin breathed a dejected sigh. “I see,” he said and actually turned to walk away.
“Hey, Javelin, I wanted to talk with you about Lark,” called Raven after him, but he shook his head. “Another time,” he called back without turning around.
Raven grunted as she watched her roommate leave. ‘What’s gotten him all wound up?’ she wondered as she headed off in the same direction as Javelin, only at a slower pace. For a moment Raven felt oddly compelled to follow Javelin and see what he was up to, but she had things she needed to do herself, so it would have to wait.
“Big brother?” Raven probed mentally, “how is Bill doing?”
A moments silence, and then “he’s fine.” Hoatzin’s voice sounded agitated.
‘Not you too,’ thought Raven but instead asked, with obvious concern, “Is something wrong, big brother?”
“Oh, no, nothing is wrong,” answered a clearly annoyed Hoatzin, “it’s just that my little sister left to join an assassins’ guild nearly eighteen hours ago and I haven’t heard anything from her. . .”
“Oops. . . . Hoatzin, I’m sorry! It slipped my mind. . . .” Not that he could see it, but Raven actually looked quite ashamed at the moment. She was too accustomed to acting alone when it came to assassin work and it had been so simple to fall back in old habits.
“Slipped your mind? Do you have any idea how worried I was? I couldn’t even speak to you in case I might distract you! That’s it, next time I’m coming with you!”
Raven didn’t argue. She had no intentions of introducing her brother to her assassin ways, but there was no point in arguing about it now. Instead, Raven apologized a few more times, until her brother seemed to accept it, before inquiring about Bill yet again.
“I told you he is fine,” answered Hoatzin, “and in general that is true. When Bill surfaced, after you had left, he read your note and decided to stay for at least a couple of days – he talks quite a lot to himself, this one. Not long after that, he tried to get some sleep, but he kept breaking out in cold sweats and waking himself screaming. . . .” Hoatzin made a deliberate pause. “A few hours ago, he gave up and finally mixed the herbs you had mentioned – he is out like a light now.”
Raven nodded approvingly. She had written down the recipe for a heavy sleeping draft that could be made by the few herbs that were available at the house. If used frequently, the concoction could become quite addictive, but sometimes getting a full night’s sleep was more important.
“What are your plans for the evening, sister, and can I come along? It’s getting a bit boring watching over a sleeping man. . . .”
“You can come, but it won’t be very much more exciting – I need to sleep tonight too,” answered Raven. “I’m just going to see if I can find out why Dunlin and Jack were absent from the afternoon classes yesterday first, and if I can find Lark in the process that would be great.”
“Lark? What for?”
“He seemed upset today. I had hoped that my little bet with Dunlin would cheer him up, but not enough apparently.”
“Hmm. . . . Well, I should come and help you search then,” replied Hoatzin with a chipper voice. Clearly he hadn’t been exaggerating when he said he was bored.
“Then head to the building where the advanced classes are being held – if the rumors about Elder Wyrmouth are accurate, Dunlin and Jack will be there for quite some time. I’ll ask around a bit – hopefully someone saw something.”
For half an hour, Raven moved from one group of students to the next, asking about Jack and Dunlin. Of course, most students were too afraid of either Raven herself, or Dunlin’s later retribution, to answer a straight question. Instead, she would walk past the students, just close enough so that they could hear her grunting angrily; “Bloody Dunlin! You have to go and get the Elder pissed off by skipping class! If I found out where you went, I . . .”
After that, it was only a question of staying within earshot from the students she had passed – an easy thing to pull off with Raven’s hearing – and wait for the comments to come raining in. Unfortunately, all students had themselves been in class at the time so no one seemed to know where the two had gone.
‘This isn’t working. . . .’ Although far from every student had been ‘questioned’, the fact that they all would have been in class wouldn’t change. Raven figured that her only options right now were to either confront the duo directly, or try to coax it out of one of the Elders who hadn’t been busy teaching at the time. Either way, Raven would need to head back to the southern part of the academy.
“Any movement from Dunlin and Jack?” she asked her brother as she made her way back.
“Unfortunately no,” replied Hoatzin with a sigh. “This isn’t much better than watching Bill sleep. . . .”
“Oh, wait! Speak of the devil, they seem to be done.” He sounded thrilled as he spoke. “Haha, you should see this – they look awful!”
“Courtesy of Elder Wyrmouth no doubt,” chuckled Raven.
“If Wyrmouth is our mystery elder, then he is at least doing a good job at keeping up appeara. . .” Hoatzin started replying before he grew silent for a moment. “Sister, you better hurry.”
Raven frowned and picked up her pace before she even asked why. “What’s wrong, brother?”
“Well, the good news is that I’ve found Lark,” Raven started running, “the bad news is, so have Dunlin and Jack.”
“Martin and Javelin?”
“Not here, nor are there any elders in sight.”
By now, Raven was alternating between three different Divine Skills to push her speed to the max. One for fast straight running, one for maneuverability and a third for explosive boosts after making turns and evasions. At the same time, she employed Void Tracker to counter sound, air resistance and her spirit essence. She had yet to completely master the skill but at least it partially hid her spirit essence – she didn’t need to hide it completely, since anyone that saw her would know that she was using some Divine Skill to move so fast, but she preferred it if people didn’t realize which skills she were using.
Raven dashed across campus with astonishing speed. She was so fast and silent that some didn’t even register her passing them, but as she rushed through the gates to the southern peak, the usually relaxed Elder sitting by the gates flashed open his eyes and nearly toppled off of his chair. Raven noticed his reaction but didn’t bother stopping; Hoatzin had just informed her that things weren’t going very well over at his end.
Finally, Raven was close enough to sense the three boys, standing huddled and slightly secluded behind a building a few hundred meters away. Hoatzin was seated on the roof above them. Grinding to a halt just around the corner of the building, Raven paused to listen to what was being said.
“So what are the flowers for, Larky?” mocked Jack.
“I said it none of your business, now step aside!” Lark did his best to sound assured of himself but he couldn’t hide his nervousness from Raven’s ears.
“Or what? You’ll tell your dad? I bet he’d like to hear why his oldest son is growing flowers, rather than increasing his cultivation,” laughed Dunlin. “If only you were headed towards the girl’s dorms, I could kind of understand it.”
“Pointless,” snickered Jack, “women are best claimed by shows of might! Flowers will only make them look down on your masculinity.”
Raven shook her head; she had heard enough. “You’d be surprised by what a mere flower might lead to,” she said coldly as she stepped around the corner. Immediately she got a clear view of the three boys – apart from Lark, the other two had their backs towards Raven, and clutched in Larks arms was a medium-sized pot of exotic-looking daffodils.
Both Dunlin and Jack spun around in surprise – they had not heard Raven’s approach at all. However, their initial shock didn’t last long. Instead, the two of them sneered as they glanced at each other.
“I know, perhaps it isn’t a woman he’s trying to impress,” suggested Jack smugly.
Dunlin’s eyes widened in over-acted realization. “Oh, you’re right! They do say that birds of a feather stick together – if the slave boy is a pansy, then maybe this one is too.” He jabbed his thumb over his shoulder towards Lark, whose face had started to turn slightly green.
“Slave boy, huh?” Raven’s insinuating tone caused Dunlin’s smile to drop, but Raven didn’t let him go so easily. “How is the Frozen Onslaught? I’ve heard it can be quite tricky. . . .” she said with a cold smile.
“You bastard slave!” roared Dunlin and took a hostile step towards Raven, pointing at her with a shaking finger. “You knew, didn’t you!?”
“Knew what?” asked Raven, bursting with innocence.
“You knew that no student has been able to master that damned skill at all!”
Raven didn’t have to act her surprise. ‘No one has mastered it? It wasn’t that impossible of a skill. . . .’ she thought to herself and suddenly had to force herself to not start smiling; ‘I wonder how he would react if he knew I’d mastered it already?’
Controlling her emotions, Raven instead looked at Dunlin as with newfound awe. “I must say I’m impressed by Senior Dunlin; to be daring enough to stake your honor on learning such an impossible skill within less than two months. . . . Impressive!”
Dunlin took another step forward, and Jack followed behind him. “Don’t you try fooling me, you dipshit! Admit it!”
Just as Dunlin was about to move forward yet again, a shrill shriek filled the air and a white projectile shot down towards Dunlin’s head. Taken by surprise, Dunlin barely managed to jump out of the way before the spot he’d been standing in was pierced through by the white shadow. Before he had a chance to gather himself though, the white beam targeted him again.
Raven observed her brother taking repeated shots at Dunlin with extreme attention and mixed feelings. She had preferred to not flaunt Hoatzin’s existence in front of Dunlin, but on the other hand, her cousins current expression was utterly priceless.
However, it didn’t take long before Dunlin’s shock turned to anger and he started activating his odd spirit essence.
“That’s enough!” called Raven to her brother so only he could hear it and, immediately, Hoatzin stopped his assault and landed on Raven’s shoulder. He would rather have picked Dunlin beyond recognition but he trusted his sister’s judgement and knew his current body’s limits.
Seeing the white bird perched on Raven’s shoulder, Dunlin’s eyes narrowed in newfound rage. The bird had truly surprised him, and even managed to get a hit in, causing a small, bloody nick on his left cheek. “What kind of abomination is that?” he bellowed. “Kill it now, or I will!”
Raven grew stiff.
“Did you hear me, slave! As prefecture heir I demand that you kill it!”
Raven said nothing. A faint, red shimmer started forming around her, but it was too diffuse for anyone to notice.
“Suit yourself!” shouted Dunlin and dashed forward. His legs and hands were wrapped in a black glow only Raven could see, but right now she didn’t care. As Dunlin approached her, the world seemed to move in slow motion. In her mind, she saw her parents and brother surrounded by ever-burning flames, she heard the Talon family laughing as the flames consumed the only family she’d ever known. ‘It would be so easy to kill him right now. . . . ‘
Without even reflecting over it, a dagger was willed out of her spacial ring and hidden in the palm of her hand. Murderous spirit essence surged towards the hand holding the dagger. ‘It would be so easy to kill him right now. . . . ‘
Dunlin was only milliseconds away from reaching Raven but at that moment a huge oppressing force pushed down on everyone in the ally. The sudden pressure caused Dunlin – whose stance wasn’t stable enough to resist – to immediately slam into the ground and the weaker Lark almost followed suit, but managed to stay standing on one knee. The pot of flowers however, slipped out of his hand and clashed towards the ground, breaking on impact. At the same time, Hoatzin almost fell off Raven’s shoulder, but she managed to move her arms enough to catch him.
“What is going on here!?” The angry voice echoed off the surrounding buildings, making it hard to pinpoint it’s origin, but Raven could, and she only hoped that its owner hadn’t noticed her murderous intentions only moments before.
“Sorry respected Elder,” grunted Jack through clenched teeth. “We were only exchanging some pointers.”
“You know the rules,” boomed the voice, “if this happens again, there will be consequences! Understand?”
“Yes Elder,” answered all four students, and the pressure subsided.
“Return to your dorms,” ordered the voice, now with less anger, before Raven sensed the man walking away. She sighed a breath of relief. ‘So that’s the pressure of a high Spirit Champion.’ Raven shivered. ‘I doubt he even used part of it though. . . .’ The man who had intervened was the same elder who usually guarded the gate to the southern peak.
Brushing off some dust from his robes, a red faced Dunlin got to his feet. He looked at Raven viciously. “Count yourself lucky this time,” he snorted, “and don’t think your little parlor tricks yesterday fooled me – I’ve got you all figured out, slave boy!” Stomping his feet loudly he finally walked away. Jack attempted to step on Lark’s flowers as he followed after Dunlin but Lark managed to scoop them up before Jack got the chance to do any damage.
Raven made an obscene gesture with her hand towards their departing backs before she turned her attention to Lark.
“You okay?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he answered unconvincingly.
“Where are Martin and Javelin? It’s rare to see you alone.”
“They went to the Combat Abyss,” he answered and then added, “it’s a fighting arena in the Business Tier.”
Raven nodded towards the flowers. “Those are pretty. Will they be okay?”
Lark sighed. “Once I get them a new pot, yes.”
“They’re Frost Bell Daffodils, right?”
Lark’s eyes brightened slightly. “You know your flowers, alright; it’s quite rare.”
Raven only gave him a bittersweet smile. It was indeed a rare flower. Its frosted golden flowers only bloomed at high altitudes and only during a few weeks of spring. Her mother had once taken Hoatzin and her to a field full of them – it had been a magical sight, made only more wondrous by a sudden gust of wind that ruffled the flowers and filled the air with the soft sound of bells.
“I’ve been growing them as a hobby,” continued Lark when no further explanation came from Raven. “I mentioned it to some of the girls at the Healing Department, but um, Elder Willow overheard me and asked if I could show them to him. . . . The Frost Bell Daffodils make good medical herbs.”
Raven continued smiling, but it was a warmer smile now. “Do you want me to escort you to him?” she asked with a wink as she extended a hand to her friend.
“Haha, wouldn’t that be a sight?” chuckled Lark as he let Raven pull him to his feet. “But I think I should head back and replant these first; I don’t want them dying on me.”