As dozens of Everest Hawks spread their blue-tipped wings and took flight – carrying the vast majority of students enrolled at the Imperial Sky Academy of Divine Arts towards the trial grounds – Raven was still seated in the armchair that the headmaster had left her in. She had yet to even touch any of the Divine Scrolls in front of her; the spirit essence fluctuations around them were just too mesmerizing.
Judging by her prior experience with scrolls of lower level Divine Skills, she guessed that of the three skills before her, two were amazingly enough level eight skills! The lay next to each other, radiating equally dazzling aqua green light that would put any gem to shame. However, the scroll that caught Raven’s attention the most was the third, slightly dimmer scroll. The Divine Skill stored within seemed to be a level lower than the other two – its essence fluctuations were a bit less oppressive – but what made it unique was the color of said fluctuations.
Contrariety to any other scroll Raven had laid her eyes on, this one was shrouded in pulsating, pitch black flames that, every now and then, shimmered with purple light.
Hesitating for only a moment longer, Raven took a deep breath and picked up the black scroll. The moment it came in contact with her skin, Raven felt the familiar sensation of foreign spirit essence flowing into her, probing her, only it was more intense now than it had been with the Twilight Lullaby.
‘How peculiar.’ Raven suddenly got the feeling that the scroll was almost sentient, and if it didn’t approve of her, she would never truly unlock its secrets.
Carefully, Raven unrolled the part of scroll that wasn’t sealed to read the skill description within. The first thing she saw the skill name, written in golden letters at the beginning of the scroll: ‘Retribution’. A sudden shudder Raven down Raven’s spine.
Oddly enough, there was no further description of what the Divine Skill actually did, there was only a small verse:
If they can’t be forgiven,
then let them be burned.
For that which is given,
must be tenfold returned.
A second shudder ran through Raven as she finished reading, only this time it reached her very soul causing her spirit essence to stir involuntarily. Subconsciously, Raven retrieved her identification stone from within her spacial ring. She was about to unlock the seal on the imprint when her hand paused.
‘What am I doing?’ she thought, ‘I don’t even know what this skill is. . . .’ Her gaze was almost frightened as she stared at the scroll in her hands. Quickly, Raven returned it to the table, but even as it left her hands, that probing sensation stayed with her.
“What I’m lacking most right now is a powerful finishing blow,” she muttered to herself, shaking her head in hopes of clearing it. “I should look at the other skills first. . . .”
Before Raven had a chance to finish her train of thought however, the purplish black flames around the Retribution scroll intensified and searing pain stabbed at Raven’s mind. Instinctively, Raven cradled her head and tried to activate her spirit essence to block out the sudden assault on her Soul Prism, but to no avail.
Raven could only helplessly observe as the foreign spirit essence from the scroll pierced her soul prism like a hot knife through butter. A connection between her Soul Prism and the scroll was established, causing the latter to once again intensify its glow. As if aided by invisible hands, the scroll hovered above the table and slowly unrolled itself, completely ignoring the seal that had been placed on its imprint.
Raven felt the words of the verse being imprinted on her soul prism, together with two more verses she couldn’t quite make out. A few minutes later, the pain subsided together with the foreign spirit essence. The scroll, now dull and lifeless, fell back down on the table with a hollow *clunk*; the imprint was done.
For a couple of minutes Raven sat in a daze. She had no idea what had just happened, and more importantly, she didn’t know how it even could happen. Raven had never heard of a Divine Skill that forced a imprint with a spiritualist before. In her soul, she could sense the insights from the imprint slightly altering the structure of her soul prism; it felt sturdier somehow, her spirit connections seemed more resilient.
As for the Divine Skill itself, the instructions were unusually vague. Raven could tell that there were stages for mastering Retribution, which all revolved around reflecting an opponents attack and returning the damage tenfold. The higher her stage of understanding, the stronger attacks would she be able to return. But apart from that, not much guidance was provided. It was more like the imprint showed Raven the destination but she had to find the right path on her own.
“Such a profound skill,” she breathed. Without bothering about her location, Raven started sifting through all the Divine Skills she had already mastered, as well as the countless martial techniques she had learned to perfection in her past life. Every now and then she would come across a technique or skill that the Retribution imprint seemed to resonate with, giving Raven some indication of which direction she should continue in.
It wasn’t until a soft cough sounded out next to Raven’s ear that her concentration was shattered and she realized that she was no longer alone in the office; the headmaster had returned. Raven frowned slightly, she didn’t expect him to return so soon, and certainly not without her noticing him entering.
Swan smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry, Student Night, but I need my office back.” Noting Raven’s confusion he quickly added, “it’s been almost a day. . . .”
“An entire day?” Raven’s eyes widened. ‘That’s impossible!’
“Indeed.” Headmaster Swan held up the drained scroll that had held the Retribution imprint. “I see you’ve made your choice.”
“That . . .” started Raven but Swan stopped her. “Don’t worry,” he said, “these are all one-use scrolls.” He sank down in the armchair across from hers. “So, what do you think about the Divine Skill Retribution, will you be able to learn it?”
For a moment Raven considered telling the headmaster what she had experienced, but opted against it in the end. Her gut told her that being chosen by a Divine Skill was something best kept to herself. Instead she sighed and answered the question she’d been asked.
“I’m not sure . . .” Raven said, “it’s so different from what I expected.”
“Give it time, Student Night. With Divine Skills like this, it’s sometimes best to not force it.” The headmaster held out his hand and a brown bag appeared in it. “Here, take this. I have arranged for someone to take you to the Beast’s Cradle – you will have missed half the trials but the adventure might do you good.”
Raven took the bag that, her senses told her, was filled with dried fruits and meat. After a slightly dejected glance around the office Raven left. She now regretted not having the presence of mind to look around a bit before examining the scrolls.
Once the door closed behind Raven, Headmaster Swan’s warm smile faded slightly as he looked out the rooms only window. Intermingled with his smile was now an odd mixture of excitement and pity.
In the next breath, the door headmaster Swan had previously left through opened and a seemingly ordinary elder walked in. He looked very relaxed in his movements, and had Raven still been inside she would immediately recognized the man who usually dozed by the gateway to the southern peak campus.
“I thought you were going to tell the boy about the other realms, big brother,” said the man.
“I was, but then I saw this.” The headmaster tossed the now empty scroll to his brother, whose eyes instantly widened in shock when he realized what he had caught.
“Retribution,” he breathed, “and he drained it fully. . . .”
“Not only that, the kid started gaining insights right away – he didn’t even notice when I entered the room.”
Now the headmaster’s excitement was mirrored in his brother. “Do you think he is . . .”
“Perhaps, but what’s important now is that we help him grow. We should know more in a few years.”
The brother nodded before a gave a small sigh. “It’s a pity that he is not yet an Adept or we could have started right away.”
“Aves, do not get over excited. The child is barely six – even by their standards, that isn’t considered slow,” reprimanded Headmaster Swan. “Let us be patient. And not a word about this to anyone.”
His brother nodded in agreement.
Meanwhile, a still slightly bewildered Raven had made her way out of the building and was now seated on the back of an Everest Hawk, headed straight for the Beast’s Cradle. She had been asked if she wanted the Elder to follow her all the way to her destination but had declined. She wanted time to think and the Everest Hawk would have no problems flying the fairly short distance without constant supervision.
The Everest Hawk soared through the sky, while Raven tried to analyze what she had just experienced but not much could be deduced apart from the vague direction her new skill wanted her to train in. Her lips twitched slightly. ‘It would seem like I have found myself a challenge. . . .’ The thought made Raven feel a sort of excitement she hadn’t felt in a long while.
The journey to the Beast’s cradle by Everest Hawk was truly not a long one. Less than an hour had passed when Raven and the glacier blue bird she was riding passed over the outer rim of an exceptionally vicious looking mountain range. This mountain range formed a large ellipse, filled with dense forests. At its very center grew an enormous tree that stretched up above the others with a couple of hundred meters. Raven was still a kilometer away, but she could easily tell how monstrously big that tree was.
Supposedly, the academy students should have made their camp in a small alcove at the foot of the tree. From there, the stronger, or perhaps simply bolder, students would venture out into the surrounding forest to hunt for spirit beasts and other things that would give them merit points.
Currently Raven was heading straight for that large tree, but before she could get even half way there, cold killing intent burst out from her, causing the large bird under her to noticeably quiver in fear. Without bothering to attempt overriding the instructions that the bird had been given by the elder that had sent her off, Raven simply took a step to the right, letting herself slip off of the birds back and plummet towards the ground.
She had been barely one hundred meters above the tree line and by the time the bird realized what she had done Raven was more than half-way down. With a shriek the Hawk dove after her, desperately flapping its wings to catch up, but it was too late; Raven small body crashed into the tree line causing a whirlwind of leaves to swirl up into the air. The Everest Hawk had no other choice than to forcefully halt its decent – the branches were simply too densely packed for it to be able to follow Raven down. Worried, the big bird started circuling above the trees.
Down below, Raven hit the ground running with gusts of wind blowing around her feet. She had utilized the trees and a couple of movement skills to slow her decent to an impact speed her body could handle. At some later point she would reflect over the fact that she had managed a free fall of over a hundred meters without as much as a scratch but now was not the time.
Three hundred meters further east of her current position Raven felt the familiar presence of Javelin and the two Griffin twins, but the reason for her haste was not their presence, rather it was the dozen spirit beasts that surrounded them.
The three boys were fighting valiantly against their opponents, especially Javelin, who used a long metal staff to fight off multiple attacking beasts at the same time. However, even from the air Raven had been able to tell that it was a losing battle for the boys. Although they were individually as strong as – or in Javelin’s case, stronger than – their opponents, the numbers were simply against them. Raven could clearly smell the tang of human blood in the air growing thicker by the second.
Running at full speed, it didn’t take Raven long to come within sight of the battle ground. Even between the trees, Raven saw how twelve Panthera Drakes took turns attacking her friends. Their swift leopard dotted bodies would blur and reappear next to one of the boys, where they used spirit essence covered talons – reminiscent of a dragon’s – to swipe down at their target with amazing force and speed.
However, the claws were far from the most dangerous aspect of these beasts; they possessed two sharp horns, growing where their ears should have been, and their tails were long, whip-like things with spikes at the tip. Seeing the beasts in person, it became clear to Raven that they were only toying with the boys – they wanted to make a sport out of their kill.
By the looks of things, they were not far off from succeeding.
The killing intent within Raven surged and, even though she was unsure of how its effects would be on multiple targets, she didn’t hesitate before activating the Ode of Woe. A barely tangible red mist shot out towards the pack of Panthera Drakes. For a moment they shuddered as a sudden sense of peril rolled over them, but their fear didn’t last long; their primal nature kicked in to set them free from the thin-spread effects of Raven’s attack. However, that heartbeat of frozen fear was all Raven needed to arrive among them.
Like an angel of death, Raven descended on the group and crouched down low to plunge a black short-sword into the belly of the closest beast, piercing its spirit core with steadfast precision. Even before the beast’s corpse hit the ground, Raven had moved on to the next one, making a similarly easy target of it. By now, however, the rest of the beasts had shrugged off the initial fear induced by the Ode of Woe, and realized that a new enemy had arrived. Veteran killers, the beasts immediately shifted their attention to Raven – the three boys had been pushed too far to pose any real danger to them anyway.
As one, the remaining ten Panthera Drakes roared and charged at Raven; they weren’t playing around anymore.