Raven wiped off the blood from her dagger, using the robes of the dead man in front of her.
“Another dead end,” she muttered to herself as she pulled out a small piece of paper from the folds of her robes. It had gotten damp due to the rain but the slightly smudged writing was still legible. Using a cheese knife that she had found lying around, Raven pinned the note to the man’s chest, grabbed the ledgers he’d been reading not even twenty minutes earlier, and left the house.
Although the night’s exploits had yielded little new information, Raven was at least relieved that she had managed to convince Hoatzin not to come along. She didn’t mind performing the additional requests that the Assassin Guild’s clients often had – in fact, these personal touches made it less obvious who’d actually done the killing so she almost welcomed them – but Raven suspected that her brother wouldn’t approve.
The reason was that, hours later, when the early-rising firstborn son of the Featherborn household wakes up and sneaks out towards the kitchen for a morning snack, he would come to find the eyeless corpse of his father, propped over the kitchen table with the words “Who’s lacking vision now?” stabbed to his bloodied chest, and his gorged out eyes staring back at the boy from a plate on said table.
Raven was no saint, far from it. In her past life she was singlehandedly responsible for more assassinations than anyone in that ancient world’s recorded history; her death toll was in fact comparable to some of the more extreme natural disasters. The time she had spent with her new family at Nightingale Palace had been her first and only true reprieve from all that bloodshed. Those four years had changed her greatly, but at the moment, her old persona fit her needs better and she effortlessly slipped back into it.
As Raven made her way back towards the outskirts of town, she sent a mental message to her brother; “It’s done.” she said. “Anything new on your side?”
Just through their connection, Raven could almost feel how Hoatzin sighed heavily. Over the past few days Hoatzin had been tailing one of the Talon Clan’s Elders, in hopes of catching him making contact with someone interesting. However, so far, the Elder had made no suspicious moves at all.
“It is like watching paint dry. . . .” grunted Hoatzin.
“We knew this would take time, big brother. They are being extremely cautious, but they will slip up eventually,” assured Raven.
“Yeah, yeah,” muttered Hoatzin, causing Raven to raise a thin eyebrow in surprise. Her brother rarely used such informal language; this fruitless spying was clearly bothering him.
“Keep up the good work, big brother. If we don’t get anything useful in the next couple of days, we’ll consider other options. Starting tomorrow I’ll go back to the Abyss to raise my rank above 25th. It’s high time we get access to the B-level spiritualist records at the Assassin Guild Hall.”
“Then what about the Lunar Trials?” asked Hoatzin.
“What about them?”
“Well, they start tomorrow, do they not? Practically the entire academy will be shipped off into the wilderness for three days.”
Raven stopped walking and swore under her breath; the upcoming exam period had totally slipped her mind – an impressive deed since it was all any of the students would talk about these last few days. That, and Raven’s challenge to Dunlin of course.
When Raven gave him no reply, Hoatzin sent another question; “also, what are you going to do about Dunlin, and can I come and watch?” There was a hint of excitement in his voice.
Raven shook her head. Lately she had almost started regretting how she let her emotions get the better of her and caused her to challenge Dunlin. When she considered the various scenarios that could unfold tomorrow, few of them allowed Raven to keep as many secrets about her abilities as she wished. She had very much enjoyed seeing the growing desperation that her cousin failed to hide whenever they met. Raven likewise had no intentions of letting him off easy, but she knew that the price to pay for it might be higher than she initially intended.
“I will push him down a notch,” she answered her brother, “but I’m sorry brother, you should keep following the Talon Elder – perhaps the Lunar Trials will cause a change to his routines somehow.”
“. . . Fine.” Hoatzin did not sound pleased.
Because of the change of plans, Raven increased her pace, rushing back through the rain to the house where Bill waited. Since all students would be expected to rise early on the first day of the Trials, Javelin would most likely not spend as much time at the Abyss tonight as usual, and Raven would like to be in their dorm room by the time he got back. But first she needed to give Bill instructions on what to do if her uncles were to return while she was gone.
Later that night, when an oddly dry but tired Javelin returned back from yet another Singer-free excursion to Combat Abyss, he glanced over at his roommate’s bed and found the boy in question sleeping there, deeply, and snoring like a bear. With a lopsided grin, Javelin walked over and gave the kid a soft shove, efficiently shifting the latter’s sleeping position and ending the snores. It would seem like he was used to the procedure.
Silently Javelin slipped into his own bed and for a while his head faced the other side of the room and his sleeping companion. As he looked at the fair-skinned boy, all of Javelin’s frustration seemed to melt away. At that point, Javelin no longer felt so annoyed by the fact that he would miss a few nights at the Abyss, in fact, a few days in the wilderness might do him some good.
As the very first strands of daylight started to brighten the northern sky above the imperial city, the two youths in room 207 stirred from their sleep almost simultaneously – or rather, Javelin stirred from his sleep and Raven felt it, so she stopped pretending that she was asleep.
Together they got ready to leave for the main auditorium, where all students would gather before the Lunar Trials. Despite this being a rare moment, when both of them were present at the same time, very little was said between them, aside from the general pleasantries, such as “good morning,” and “did you sleep well?”. Nevertheless, the silence didn’t feel awkward to either of them. Quite the opposite, actually.
They made their way to the auditorium, where most students had yet to arrive. However, even if the hall had been packed with people, the wild fires that were the Griffin twins’ hair would still had made them stand out from the crowd. As it was, Raven and Javelin had no problem whatsoever to find the pair and take their seats next to them.
As the minutes passed, more students kept arriving. Once the appointed meeting time was only minutes away, Dunlin, and the other pro-noble students who kept following him around, arrived. To Raven’s surprise Dunlin no longer looked as desperate as he had before. Instead, he rather looked a bit smug as his eyes met Raven’s for a brief moment.
‘He must have something planned,’ thought Raven while she refrained from frowning.
“He looks pleased with himself,” noted Javelin next to her and indicated his head towards Dunlin. “Will you be okay?”
“I’ll manage.” The corner of Raven’s mouth twitched into a small smile causing Javelin relax a bit. Martin, who sat on the other side of Raven, chuckled. “You better show him what real talent is, Night!” he encouraged and nudged Raven firmly in the ribs with his elbow.
Raven didn’t bother replying because at that moment roughly a dozen Elders walked out onto the stage. Apart from Elder Willow, all her other teachers were present, and so were the first three Elders who Raven had come in contact with when she first entered the academy – Elder Kagu, Vice Headmaster Gadwall and Headmaster Swan. The other Elders bowed deeply as the Headmaster moved to the front of the stage. His shimmering white robe, and equally white hair, swayed softly with every step he took.
He gazed over all the students seated below with eyes that held what felt like unfathomable knowledge. “Dear students,” he said with a soft voice that still managed to reach every soul in the hall. “For those of you who have yet had the chance to meet me, I am Headmaster Eider Swan, and I welcome all of you to my Sky Academy. As you all know, Sky Academy is unquestionably the best spiritualist academy throughout the empire, and has nurtured many outstanding spiritualists over the years. Part of that is due to the bimonthly Lunar Trials.”
“During the next three days, all of you will be sent into the wilderness outside the city. You will have no protection from us elders and can only rely on yourself and your fellow students to survive.”
He placed his hands behind his back and as if on a given sign, all doors to the auditorium swung open in unison. Seconds later, neat rows of girls dressed in gold-rimmed, deep grey robes filed in quietly. They were led by a handful of female Elders in lighter robes. Within this sea of women, Elder Willow was the only male, but his good looks prevented him from sticking out like a thistle among roses..
The boys of the martial department stared at the over a hundred elegant girls with wide eyes. Slowly murmurs started spreading, but before they became too strong the headmaster spoke again. His soft voice immediately brought silence to the hall.
“This year we have decided to send both the Martial Department Students and the Healing Department Students to the same place.” Raven could almost taste the boys’ excitement in the air. “However, do not think that this will make things easier for you.” He paused briefly. “This year, the Lunar Trials will take place in the Beast’s Cradle.”
The excitement died out at once. The Beast’s Cradle was a valley, slightly north of Sky City, that was infamous for the vicious spirit beasts that roamed there. Surviving there for three days would indeed be a challenge.
Noticing the change in atmosphere, Headmaster Swan smiled slightly and started going over the details for the following days. “Any questions?” he finally asked, and for a while no one spoke out but suddenly Raven’s face darkened. Moments later Dunlin coughed lightly and stood up.
“Honorable Headmaster, this one would like to take the opportunity to settle a disagreement with a junior, if Headmaster Swan would be so kind as to act as our witness.”
Swan wasn’t the only Elder on stage who frowned slightly at Dunlin’s request, but the headmaster quickly recovered. “Is this perhaps related to the skill-challenge that was given in the Divine Library, just over a month ago?” he asked calmly.
At first Dunlin looked a bit surprised but he soon bowed respectfully. “Headmaster is indeed wise.”
The white clothed headmaster looked over at Raven, who returned his gaze calmly. Behind him, Elder Kagu stepped forward to object but Swan lifted a hand to stop him. “Very well,” he said. “Both of you, come up on stage.”
Dunlin shot Raven a vicious snicker and walked up on stage devoid of hesitation. Her cousin’s odd confidence baffled Raven. She had assumed that Dunlin would want to push it all off as long as possible, but here he was, rearing to go, and in front of practically the entire school.
‘I don’t believe he’s actually mastered it. . . .’ she thought as she too stood up and headed over to the stage. ‘Not much I can do about it now though.’
Once both were on the stage Dunlin started to give a very biased description of what had happened in the library, weeks before. Some of the Elders, who clearly hadn’t heard the story before, widened their eyes in shock when they heard which skill Dunlin had agreed to learn; all of them knew how impossible the Frozen Onslaught was to master.
Finally Dunlin turned to Raven. “I’ll give you one last opportunity, Junior Night; admit your mistakes and we shall put this behind us,” he offered with well-faked sincerity, but Raven’s only response was a cold stare.
“Very well,” sighed Dunlin, but bright glee filled his eyes. “I gave you a way out. Perhaps you will regret it after you’ve seen this.” He waved his hand theatrically and a thick brick appeared in it. “Would an Elder be so kind as to assist this one by holding this?” Dunlin bowed deeply. All the Elders furrowed their brows; none of them felt inclined to get involved in a what they saw as a squabble between students. They were however equally surprised when Vice Headmaster Gadwall suddenly stepped forward, his eyes curious and alert as always.
Dunlin bowed once more, gave the brick to Gadwall and then turned to talk to the other students. “The Divine Skill I’ve been learning is perhaps not a very strong one, but it very profound. The principle behind it is to produce maximum strength with minimum movement. Observe.”
He turned back to towards the Vice Headmaster and let his clenched fist hover barely a decimeter from the stone brick. Suddenly wild currents of spirit essence surged through his body and condensed at his fist. With a loud shout, Dunlin lashed out and punched the brick. With a click, the brick split evenly in two.
The students and elders looked at Dunlin with equal shock. He had just executed the Frozen Onslaught!
“How is that possible?” breathed an Elder baffled.
“A genius! An utter genius!”
The Headmaster shook his head slightly. “It is indeed impressive to have gained such understanding towards the Frozen Onslaught in this short time, but the skill is not yet mastered. Nonetheless, well done, Junior Student Talon.”
A dark shadow flashed across Dunlin’s eyes but it disappeared before anyone noticed it. He lifted up one of the broken pieces of the brick and tossed it towards Raven.
“It is true that I have yet to fully master it, but I will get there soon.” His eyes drilled into Raven’s. “Can Junior Night say the same for your skill?” he mocked.
Raven blinked a few times while she stood, seemingly dumbfounded, with the broken brick piece in one hand. Her friends in the crowd even started to worry something might have gone wrong.
While her friends worried, Raven bit down on her tongue to stop herself from laughing. ‘You call that a Frozen Onslaught?’ she thought to herself. ‘Oh, Dunlin. . . .’
“Something wrong?” jeered Dunlin, snapping Raven back to the matter at hand.
“Not at all,” she said with a cold smile. “I was simply considering who I should ask to aid me in my demonstration. I require someone to attack me, with a sword preferably. Perhaps, Senior Talon would do me the honor?”
As expected, Dunlin happily agreed. It would seem like he truly believed that Raven had made no progress at all with her Thunder Lock. Moments later, the two cousins stood face to face, both armed with double-handed swords. Dunlin didn’t wait for Raven to ask and instead swung at Raven’s head without warning. He used no spirit essence, but Raven was sure that it was only due to the presence of so many witnesses.
Dunlin had expected Raven to freak out at his sudden attack, but her face was as unmoved as a mask. Her body, however, was not so motionless. As Dunlin’s heavy blade approached her head, Raven swung up an arm, covered in electrical sparks, and wrapped it around the sword. At the same time, she used her other hand to stab the two-handed sword towards Dunlin’s heart. A thunderclap rang out in the air as thousands of sparks flowed from Raven’s arms and hands, through the two swords and directly at Dunlin.
Dunlin’s eyes barely had the time to widen in shock before Raven’s blade and two-pronged thunder attack reached him. Her response had been too quick and too unexpected for Dunlin to be able to muster up any kind of defense. A murderous flare lit up Raven’s deep red eyes.
“Enough.” Headmaster Swan’s voice was still as soft as before, but everyone in the auditorium could feel the oppressive force behind it.
Raven immediately froze, her blade only a hair away from stabbing into Dunlin’s chest, but while her body stopped moving, she made no attempts to stop the electrical current from blasting into Dunlin’s body. The sudden impact flung him backwards a few meters where his body twitched violently a couple of times in intense seizures. About half of the students in the crowd burst out laughing at the sight.
Hiding her glee masterfully, Raven quickly bowed so low she might as well have kowtowed. “This one is deeply sorry, Headmaster Snow. The Thunder Lock is still new to me and there are a few . . . control issues remaining.”
“Control issues, my ass!” bellowed Dunlin, who somehow had managed to get back up on his feet. “You did it on purpose!”
“Junior Talon,” Vice Headmaster Gadwall cut in with a stern tone, “mind your words.”
As if reminded of his situation, Gadwall’s warning caused Dunlin to clamp his mouth shut immediately. Amazingly enough, he even managed to rein in his rage after only a few breaths. After a last glare, he instead turned to the headmaster. “What is Headmaster Swan’s ruling?”
The headmaster seemed to consider it for a while. “Well, even though it is an impressive feat to have learned the Thunder Lock in such a short time, I must say that Junior Student Talon’s understanding of the Frozen Onslaught is more impressive. . . .” As he spoke white haired man glanced over at Raven. The look in his eyes caused Raven to frown.
‘Does he know something?’
“Well,” continued the headmaster, “if no one has anything more to add . . .”
Now Raven was certain; Swan knew she was holding back.
‘I bet they keep records of what skills students learn,’ Raven realized. A cold smile spread on her face. ‘No point in hiding it any longer then,’ she decided and took a step forward. “Actually,” she said, stepping forward a few more steps, “I was wondering if Headmaster could give me some pointers.”
“You see, I have also been studying the Frozen Onslaught, but my understanding seems to be quite different from Senior Talon’s. . . .”
Dunlin stared at Raven in shock, but it quickly turned to contempt. “You shouldn’t waste the headmasters time with your little tricks, Junior Night. We all know that there is no way you could have understood anything at all about that skill. Don’t be such a sore loser and just admit your defeat.” Skilfully hiding his mouth from the Elders, Dunlin continued to spell out the word ‘slave’ for only Raven to see.
The headmaster on the other hand smiled warmly. “Now, now, I’m always happy to give advice to my students. Show me what you have learned.”
Raven bowed and questioningly held out the half of the brick Dunlin had lobbed to her earlier in front of her. She didn’t need to ask before Gadwall stepped forward to hold up the brick for her.
Raven took a deep calming breath and held up her fist, just like Dunlin had, the only apparent difference was that Raven placed her fist directly on the brick. Dunlin couldn’t help but snort at the sight, but Raven took no notice. She stood like this, with her fist to the rock, for perhaps two breaths time before she suddenly exhaled forcefully. Within her, spirit essence exploded forward, but there was an overwhelming sense of structure to it – with so little spirit essence leaking out that most students didn’t even notice the Divine Skill being activated.
With a soft *click*, the brick held up between Gadwall’s hands and Raven’s fist, shattered into a thousand pieces.