Almost every person in the auditorium drew a collective breath of shock as they witnessed the fine powder of the crushed stone falling to the ground, like a small river of dust. They simply could not believe their eyes.
Raven’s lips twitched slightly while she lowered her gaze towards the newly formed dust pile below her hand. Although the Frozen Onslaught was based on a martial technique very similar to one she already knew, without the added benefits of the spirit essence the destructive force had never been that great. Nor could it be executed while in actual contact with the target – one would have needed at least an inch to gather some momentum for the strike to have effect.
‘Spirit essence is truly wondrous,’ Raven thought, pleased, to herself as she relaxed her body.
Only now did Raven take note of the oppressive silence in the hall. As she lifted her head, her eyes met with Gadwall’s and, for a brief moment, Raven thought she saw a shimmer of black light flashing across his otherwise golden eyes. However, the vice headmaster soon looked at her with same fresh curiosity as always, only perhaps more intently now.
Off to the side, Dunlin stared at the spot where the stone had previously been held in unbelieving shock. He, more than any of the other students, could clearly tell that what Raven had just pulled off was a perfectly performed Frozen Onslaught. Almost subconsciously, Dunlin’s eyes shifted to size up the reactions of the various Elders gathered on stage. To his malcontent, he noticed that the previous looks of quiet approval towards him, had been replaced with wondrous awe for Raven. Even the headmaster seemed genuinely impressed by Raven’s performance.
As for the other students, none of them had even had the chance to process what they just witnessed before Raven turned to the Headmaster and gave a shallow bow, with that same motionlessly cold look she always wore. “I ask for the Headmaster’s guidance,” she said as she straightened out.
Swan blinked a few times; for a moment he seemed to have forgotten the reason behind Raven’s words, but his grey eyes soon soon cleared and he smiled warmly at her. Slowly he shook his head. “Most impressive, Junior Student Night, but I’m afraid I have no further advice to give; that Frozen Onslaught was perfectly executed.”
With their headmaster’s statement, the rest of the students finally accepted what they had previously thought impossible; Raven had mastered the infamously impossible skill. This caused an uproar of murmurs to explode in the auditorium but they were, however, quickly surpassed by Dunlin’s angry voice.
“How is that even possible?” he shouted. “Clearly he must have cheated somehow!”
Headmaster Swan frowned but before he could say anything Raven spoke first; “and how do you propose I cheated?” she asked giving Dunlin a cold glare. “You can’t get away from the fact that I just performed a mastered Frozen Onslaught, or do you doubt the Headmasters judgement as well?”
Dunlin swallowed. “Of course not, but you . . . you must have learned it before enrolling at Sky Academy! It shouldn’t count to our bet!”
Raven was about to speak again when, this time, the headmaster stepped forward instead. “Now, now, students, let’s not argue about details. As I understand it, the bet was regarding whether or not Student Night could master the Thunder Lock before Student Talon mastered the Frozen Onslaught, correct?” Apparently Swan thought the question rhetorical, because he continued speaking without waiting for a reply; “I think we all can agree that Student Night succeeded in this.”
The other Elders nodded in agreement, and yet Dunlin wasn’t willing to give up. “But Headmaster,” he shouted. “This sla-. . . I mean, Student Night must have learned the Frozen Onslaught before coming here, what’s to say he didn’t . . .”
“Enough,” Swan’s soft, yet oddly firm voice cut Dunlin off in mid-sentence, his grey eyes fixing themselves intently on the boy. “Even if student Night picked up one, or even both, skills before coming here, the fact remains that he mastered them before you did. Considering his age, that is an impressive deed in itself. My ruling is final, Raven Night is the winner.”
Roughly half the students in the audience started cheering wildly, with the two twins’ cheers almost drowning out the rest all on their own. Javelin had a quiet smile on his face as he too clapped loudly. Slowly the students’ cheers turned into a chant; “Senior Night! Senior Night!” they called excitedly. Evidently they had heard what the stakes were for the bet.
Dunlin looked almost nauseous up on stage. He looked from the Elders to the students, and finally resting his eyes on Raven, who seemed as emotionless and unfazed as ever. He knew what he had agreed to, but to actually have to do it – call the little slave his senior, and before the entire Academy to boot – would be his greatest humiliation yet.
However, instead of cursing himself for picking such a public stage, his contempt towards Raven only grew as he blamed her for his predicament. He clenched his fists. He was frantically thinking of a way out of this bargain when Raven moved towards the edge of the stage, causing the students to quiet down.
“Although I won this bet, having someone nearly six years my senior referring to me as their Senior . . . just doesn’t seem right.” Through the corner of her eyes, Raven shot Dunlin a cold glare that no one else noticed. “I would be more than satisfied if he simply refrain from slandering me and my friends by giving us nicknames in the future. Referring to me as a fellow student is more than enough.” Raven flashed the crowd a rare smile before she turned her attention towards Dunlin.
While Raven spoke, Dunlin’s face had grown increasingly purple. Although it might seem to others like Raven was giving him an easy way out, for Dunlin, she was actually only making it worse. Before it had only been part of a bet – he could have called her Senior Night once and been done with it – but now the slave was showing mercy to him, the noble.
Not only that, the fact was that removing the seniority part from the prefix was generally something nobles only did for other nobles. It was fine as long as people were ‘Junior Student’ or ‘Senior Student’, since that was simply a question of age, but just ‘Student’ was a sign of equality.
At the same time, if Dunlin now chose to ignore Raven’s supposed olive branch and instead called her ‘Senior Student’ anyway, he would have to explain his actions by admitting Raven’s superior talents. Dunlin really couldn’t say which option was worse.
Eventually, Vice Headmaster Gadwall gave a slight cough. “What are you waiting for, Junior Student Talon?” he asked impatiently.
If looks could kill, Raven would have died on the spot but under Gadwall’s urging, Dunlin finally grunted out “it’s your win, Student Night,” and stalked off of stage. The students went wild yet again.
With a hidden smile, Raven started following Dunlin off the stage, but she stopped when the headmaster stepped in the way of her path. Facing the other students, he quieted them down and instructed them to gather at the landing platform allocated outside the Academy’s main entrance, in one hour. As the students started filing out of the room, Swan instead turned to Raven.
“Come with me,” he said with a smile and left without waiting for a reply. Raven glanced out towards Javelin and the twins before she obediently trailed off after the headmaster.
Headmaster Swan led Raven down practically the same path as Elder Kagu had, almost two months prior, finally ending up in the spirit essence isolated office that Raven had been having so much trouble getting into.
This time Headmaster Swan didn’t head for the seat behind the large desk but instead sat down in one of the lavish armchairs in the room, indicating for Raven to do the same. Swan watched Raven sit down with warm eyes – until now, neither of them had said a word.
Raven couldn’t help but feel a bit nervous, subconsciously tensing her body in preparation to flee if things turned bad. She didn’t like that Swan had known she was holding back her abilities, and fact was that he was way too strong for Raven to be able to put up a fight if he turned out to be an enemy; just sitting this close to him and the brilliantly yellow presence of a Spirit Master made her feel slightly dizzy. Raven could only hope that the Twilight Lullaby would buy her whatever time she needed to get away, if need be.
As if sensing her discomfort, Swan’s smile widened. “Don’t worry Night, you’re not in trouble,” he said and produced a white paper scroll, seemingly from the spacial ring on his finger. “I just wanted to talk to you about this.”
Raven accepted the outstretched parchment and started unrolling it. Immediately her eyes widened unnoticeably before she, amazingly enough, genuinely started blushing.
‘Of course,’ she thought to herself, ‘I should have guessed!’
Within the scroll was, listed in neat rows, hundreds of Divine Skills, and Raven recognized them all; it was the 487 skills she had managed to find and imprint with since she started at the Academy. Even Raven had been quite pleased with her haul, and had recently considered moving up to the second floor, only there were too many people there for her to work unnoticed.
“That is quite an impressive accomplishment,” said Swan, his thoughts unfathomable behind that warm smile of his.
For once, Raven wasn’t sure what to do. It didn’t really matter that the headmaster knew how many skills she had learned, what mattered was whether or not this would cause him to investigate her past more closely or start restraining her moves. Especially the latter would be . . . problematic.
‘I’ll have to wait and see where Swan is going with this,’ she decided and gave the headmaster a simple nod as her reply.
“From today’s display I assume you have an affinity for learning Divine Skills, rather than having found some kind of loop hole in the system, am I right?”
Raven nodded again and she could see a flash of excitement in Swan’s eyes. “Could you walk me trough what happens when you make an imprint with a Divine Skill?” he asked.
Raven pondered this for a moment. “There’s nothing to it really,” she eventually said, pensively, “I make the imprint and images of how I should move both my body and my spirit essence flow through my mind. Then I just need to mimic it.”
More excitement flashed behind Swan’s grey eyes as he sat, silently observing Raven for a while. His gaze made Raven feel slightly uncomfortable, but she showed none of it to the white haired man in front of her. Finally, the headmaster flicked his wrist and three new scrolls appeared, landing on the small coffee table between them.
The very second the three scrolls appeared, strong fluctuations of spirit essence accompanied them, and Raven couldn’t help but stare at the scrolls in absolute awe.
“Th . . . these are . . .” she stuttered.
“These are three of Sky Academy’s most legendary Divine Skills,” said the headmaster proudly. “They are legendary not only because of their levels, but also because of how hard they are to learn.”
Raven kept looking at the scrolls. In her eyes they shined so brightly that not even the thousands of scrolls on the first floor of the Divine Library combined could rival their luminescence. She felt her mouth go dry, her breathing more rapid.
“Seeing how you have a knack for learning Divine Skills, I will let you pick one of them. If you can master it before you graduate, you may pick a second one.”
Only now did Raven’s head snap back up. “Are you for real?” she asked, her blood red eyes meeting Swan’s grey. Her previous apprehension towards the man was gone without a trace. The presence of the scrolls was too enticing.
The headmaster nodded and got up from his chair. “Take your time, Night, I will give you some privacy.” Swan walked over to a second door which Raven had barely noticed last time she was here. “When you’ve decided, let me know.” He walked into the next room, but before he closed the door behind him her popped out his head again and added; “Oh, and don’t worry about the Lunar Trials, I will have someone bring you to the Beast’s Cradle once you are done.”
With that the door closed and Raven was left alone in the headmaster’s office with the three brightly shining Divine Scrolls.
In another small and secluded room, with walls well guarded against uninvited ears, stood three figures in what seemed like heated argument. The first, and largest figure stood leaning against an unlit, open fireplace – his face was partially hidden by shadows but dark eyes gleamed in the dim light. The other two figures were considerably smaller, but were seething with anger. This was especially the case for one of them, whose hair and skin was noticeably lighter than the other one’s. With a raised fist the brown haired boy shouted loudly at the taller figure.
“You said it was only a trick! You assured me that the little prick was simply mimicking the ability superficially and that it would be enough for me to do the same!” Dunlin slammed his fist into a nearby cabinet. “Do you realize that I’ll be forced to call that little slave my fellow student from now on?”
The taller figure said nothing.
“Dunlin has a point,” added the third person with a voice belonging to Jack Tanuki, “this will weaken our position here at the school. . . .”
Still, the figure by the fireplace said nothing.
Dunlin’s already red face turned even redder. “Need I remind you of your agreement with the Talon Clan, Elder W?” There was a tone of mockery in his voice when he spoke the name.
Finally, there was some reaction from the figure, but perhaps not the one Dunlin had expected; holding out a pale hand, the mysterious Elder W simply snapped his fingers. At once hot flames appeared in the fireplace, without so much as a trace of detectable spirit essence reaching the two youths behind him. Jack and Dunlin stared wide-eyed at the flames as a gravelly voice, which seemed almost otherworldly, filled the room.
“You don’t need to remind me of our agreement, young master Talon,” said the figure with repressed anger, “but I warned you about that child, and recommended you befriend him. When you didn’t, I still helped you gain some insights to that so called Divine Skill of yours. It was your choice to act as you did, and you will have to deal with the consequences.”
Dunlin snorted, but said nothing more. However, the figure continued speaking; “Leave the Night child alone for now – I may have use for him.” At this, Dunlin’s eyes narrowed, he was about to object when the flames in the fireplace shuddered once and turned from orange to dark black. Suddenly both Jack and Dunlin found it hard to breathe – instinctively, they took a few steps back.
“Go, you have a Lunar Trial to attend to,” the gravelly voice spoke once more and not surprisingly both of the youths left without a fuss.
In front of the fire, the figure muttered quietly to himself – whatever he said, no one was there to hear him.