Under the coordinated attack of ten Panthera Drakes, all with similar strengths as the restrained Raven, the pressure on the latter increased tremendously. The beasts’ pack instincts shone through as they expertly covered each others weaknesses, making it increasingly hard for Raven to find an opening.
Nonetheless, in the flurry of tail lashes, claw swipes and charging headbutts, Raven managed to avoid injury by relying mainly on movement skills such as Shadow Walk and Illusive Step – one of her newer skill additions that employed a peculiar type of footwork to fake her own trajectories. Simultaneously, whenever she found the opportunity, Raven lashed out with her sword, faster than the eye could follow, and although she had yet to bring down a third Panthera Drake, all of them had vicious lacerations criss-crossing their bodies within seconds.
Realizing that they were having a hard time pinning down their new attacker, the ten beasts growled angrily. Vicious streams of spirit essence surged through their bodies, collecting at the back of their throats.
“Watch out!” called three boys who sensed the rising essence in the Panthera Drakes, but Raven had already reacted.
As the feline creatures opened their fanged maws, raging blue flames were breathed out towards their opponent, an almost serene calm descended on Raven’s face. When the flame breath of the closest Drake was merely an inch away from slamming into her upper body, the twins couldn’t help but look away. Only Javelin, who had already lost the strength to even stand and yet forced himself watch, saw his roommate back bend flexibly out of the flames path to the point where Raven’s unarmed hand actually touched the ground behind her.
The same instant her hand made contact with the ground, asoft chime of bells rang out in the forest and a subtle yet undeniable tremor ran through the ground, causing the leaves in the nearby trees to rustle slightly as the minute vibrations spread up their trunks. But Raven’s movements didn’t stop there. Her body continued its motion and, for a moment, ended up standing on one arm, before she pivoted around – avoiding another three fire blasts in the process – and got back on her feet, causing yet another chime of bells to ring out.
At this point the intensity of the battle increased dramatically; blue streams of flames attacked Raven from every angle but she swiftly avoided them all, bells chiming out every time she made contact with the ground. For Javelin, it looked more like a nymph dancing in a sea of blue fire, than a boy fighting for his life.
Suddenly, Raven saw an opening and lashed out with her sword. Needless to say, she had judged correctly and the blade hit its mark. It wasn’t a very powerful stab, and Raven barely pierced an inch into the Panthera Drakes thick skin, but as the black blade sunk an inch into the beast, and that same bell noise rang, the following vibrations were a lot more intense than before.
The beast’s body shook violently and immense pain could be seen in the animal’s eyes. It did it’s best to resist but it didn’t take long before it spat out a mouthful of blood and collapsed to the ground.
For a brief moment, the remaining nine Panthera Drakes halted their assaults as they stared disbelievingly at their fallen comrade. They too had witnessed how Raven’s strike barely penetrated the skin, and yet, the results were an almost instant knock out!
‘Tch, I got it wrong,’ thought Raven as she observed her handiwork. The Divine Skill she had been utilizing during these last couple of exchanges was the sixth level Sonic Sword skill, Dance of Bells that she had gained her first insights in a while back. When executed perfectly, Raven’s hands, feet and blade would induce a subtle shock-wave upon contact that, if tuned correctly to its targets body and mass, would resonate with the various internal organs, leading to self-destruction. The beast in front of her had been severely wounded, but not to the maximal degree.
Although taken aback, the Panthera Drakes only hesitated for a moment before they resumed their attacks with bloodshot eyes and blind rage. However, Raven was not an opponent who could be defeated by someone who had let their emotions get the better of them – five minutes later, the eleventh beast fell, unconscious, to the ground. The final creature, who finally realized that it would undoubtedly die if it stayed around, turned to flee.
The sight of the fleeing spirit beast caused the three boys to release a collective sigh of relief – the battle was over at last. Raven on the other hand didn’t relax quite yet. She retrieved a set of daggers from within her spacial ring and launched them after the fleeing beast. Sparks of lightning trailed after the daggers as they blasted through the forest with incredible speed. Before the lone Panthera Drake even realized what was happening, the daggers had already penetrated its back, sending paralyzing electrical shocks throughout the already wounded beast’s body.
Only when the last spirit beast hit the leaf covered ground did Raven seem to relax her body a bit. With hurried steps she approached her three friends – even without touching them, she could tell that they had some serious internal injuries, especially Javelin. Despite this, all three of them were doing their best to stay conscious.
Raven’s hands started glowing with a warm light as she crouched down next to them. She placed one hand over Javelin’s abdomen, where a large gash oozed fresh blood, and the other on Martin’s thigh, which was severely burnt. The healing energy from her Blessed Hand skill seeped into the two boys and the pain in their faces lessened significantly, but as for actually healing their wounds, the process was slow and ineffective; it was after all only a level two Divine Skill and Raven was far from adept at using it.
“Do any of you know a stronger healing skill?” she asked.
Lark, who was slightly better off than the other two glanced at Javelin before he sighed deeply, causing himself to wince at the sudden stabbing pain in his chest. “Javelin does,” he wheezed, “but . . .”
He didn’t need to finish the sentence, Raven knew that Javelin was in no condition to use any Divine Skills at the moment. She looked down on the bleeding wounds she was treating and frowned, her healing was simply not effective enough. If it continued like this, the damages might have permanent consequences.
“We have this though.” Lark’s voice interrupted Raven’s silent contemplation. In his outstretched was a small glass vial with a opaque red liquid within. Raven’s eyes widened. ‘Philosopher’s Blood!’
She paused her healing and quickly snatched up the bottle. She poured a third of its content into Javelin’s mouth, another third into Martin’s, but when she held up the bottle to Lark he refused. “Give it to Javelin, he can heal me once he’s fixed.”
Raven hesitated for a moment. She cold tell that Lark’s wounds were not as simple as he would have her believe, but eventually she poured the rest of the red liquid into Javelin’s mouth, gently tilting his head to help him swallow. She then moved next to Lark and once more activated her Blessed Hand and started healing him best she could. As for the other two boys, Raven didn’t feel worried anymore. The moment the red liquid made contact with their lips, the amazing restorative qualities of the Philosopher’s Blood already started having effect and by the time Raven had returned to give Javelin his second dose, the gaping wound in his abdomen had already stopped bleeding.
“Impressive stuff,” said Lark absentmindedly as he stared at his brother and friend. “I need to thank Father later. . . .”
Raven didn’t reply. The Philosopher’s Blood was one of the highest level healing potions in existence and it was exorbitantly expensive; even the families of prefecture lords would be hard pressed to afford buying more than one bottle every decade or so. It was a life saving potion that could bring you back from the brink of death if you had enough of it.
It didn’t take long before both Martin and Javelin were healed enough to sit up on their own, the sickly pale tone of their skin replaced by a healthy glow. The two of them glanced at each other and Martin gave a short laugh. “Ha, well that was close!”
“That’s one way to put it,” muttered Raven. “Why would you go this far from the campsite?”
The faces of the three boys darkened.
“We didn’t,” answered Javelin with a grunt, “we were tracking a peak mid level spirit beast that had clearly been wounded in battle, but when we found it Dunlin and his snob crew appeared.”
“I bet you they had been following us. . . .” Martin chipped in and Lark nodded, slowly on account of his own injuries.
“We argued for a while but surprisingly enough the snobs backed off and left,” continued Javelin. “But before we had the chance to finish collecting up the valuable parts of the beast, the Panthera Drakes arrived. They must have been the ones hunting the other beast from the beginning and since we knew we couldn’t win, we figured it was best to simply run away. . . .”
“But they pursued you instead of dealing with the corpse?” asked Raven with a frown. Peak mid level beast had strengths approaching the Spirit Champion level of cultivators – for other beasts, with lower strengths, their bodies would be a priceless cultivation resource. It made no sense for them to abandon their initial prey for three weaker humans.
“They sure did! We tried everything to shake them off, and even succeeded a few times, but they always found us.” Martin shook his head, dispirited.
“We tried to run towards the campsite but the Panthera Drakes cut us off. It was almost as if they wanted to push us further away from the great tree.”
Raven was silent for a moment. “Did you get anything from the first beast?” she finally asked.
The other three shook their heads. “Nothing,” said Javelin, “but Dunlin got the beast’s heart though.”
“Dunlin got it?” Raven frowned.
“It was the only thing he really wanted from the corpse and he offered us this chunk of high grade soul ore as payment.” A silvery rock appeared in Martin’s hand and a pungent smell that Raven had only barely noticed before practically exploded out. Raven couldn’t help but cover her mouth, braking her healing contact with Lark.
“What is it?” asked Javelin confused.
“You can’t smell that!?” exclaimed Raven. Suddenly her eyes widened; she could feel the closer spirit beasts stirring, sniffing the air hungrily. Before the youths had a chance to react, Raven was on her feet and had already grabbed the lump of soul ore from Martin’s hand. In the next instant, she pulled her arm back and hurled the stone into the air with all her might.
A thunderous bang rang out as the stone broke the treeline above them and continued several hundred meters into the air. Just as it reached its apex, there was high pitched scree followed by the overwhelming sound of swooping wings. A vicious-looking flying beast, twice the size of an average Everest Hawk, dove down out of nowhere, swallowing the lump of ore in one go before flying off again.
Down below, the three boys sat frozen drenched in cold-sweat.
“That . . . it . . .” they stuttered.
“You’ve been fooled,” said Raven coldly, as killing intent seethed behind her red eyes. “I don’t know how they did it, but that piece of ore was covered in something that would lure beasts to you. It is fortunate that it was only the Panthera Drakes that had picked up on it, or you would have been killed long before I arrived.”
“That bastard!” exclaimed Martin. “I’ll kill him! I swear, I’ll kill him!”
Both him and Javelin sprung to their feet, ready to storm off into the forest in frenzied rage.
“Calm down,” Raven’s steady voice cut through their anger, “Lark still needs treatment!”
“Ah!” the boys’ faces turned red in shame.
“Sorry, Lark,” said Javelin apologetically as he sat down next to his friend. While Javelin’s entire body was enveloped in a sea green glow, Martin too sank down to the ground again. He said nothing but Raven noticed the Twins giving each other silent stares.
“Besides,” continued Raven, “what are you going to do once you find them? Dunlin has plenty of followers stronger than you three, and even if you could harm him, the result would only be your own undoing; we have no real proof of what Dunlin did.”
Silence; only after a considerable time passed and Lark’s wounds were sufficiently treated, was the silence broken.
“We should have known something was off the moment he proposed a trade. . . .” sighed Javelin bitterly. “That jerk never does anything he doesn’t win on.”
“Win on? He nearly killed us! Had it not been for Night arriving when he did we would likely be dead by now. . . .” Lark’s voice was once again strong as he uttered his complaints.
The other two boys nodded. Suddenly Martin stretched out an arm and punched Raven on her shoulder. “Dude, you’ve been holding out on us! You fight like a demon!”
It was Lark’s turn to nod. “Truly! Had I not seen it my self I would never believe a lone Spirit Novice could take out twelve Panthera Drakes, without even a scratch. . . .”
The two twins looked at each other and spoke in perfect unison: “We have to train more!”
The two twins kept praising Raven’s fighting skills for a while and even started to joke around a bit, their moods clearly improved, and Raven just smiled slightly while avoiding most direct questions about her strength.
Eventually though, Javelin spoke up, causing Raven to instantly stiffen.
“Singer,” he said with a firm voice and for what felt like an eternity, no one said anything. Just as Raven was about to assume that Javelin had seen through her charade, the blond boy spoke again. “The assassin Singer, you know her, don’t you?”
Both twins drew in a sharp breath of air and they fixed their eyes on Raven. They had felt that there was something familiar about Raven’s fighting style, and even though they had not been able to identify all the Divine Skills that had been used, there was still a sense of déjà vu over it.
Raven swallowed down her relief. ‘At least he hasn’t figured out we are the same person,’ she thought, but then frowned slightly. ‘What excuse should I give?’
Taking her silence as a reluctance to share, Javelin prompted her once more; “how do you know her? Has she trained you or something?”
Raven made up her mind. Outwardly, her gaze wavered slightly and she looked away from Javelin and the twins. “I . . .” she said hesitantly.
“Whatever secret you’ve promised to keep, you can trust that we won’t spread it,” said Lark reassuringly, but he couldn’t hide the excitement in his voice; finally, they might have a link to the mysterious assassin.
When Raven still hesitated, Javelin got something almost desperate in his eyes. “Please Raven, I need to know.”
Hearing Javelin use her first name, Raven was slightly startled – he had only used it once before, when she “fell” from the Spirit Hall Tower – but she kept her charade. “Well, I . . . I wouldn’t say I know her . . . she traveled with us for a brief while on our way to Sky City. I was inspired by her fighting style so she gave me a few pointers.”
Javelin looked at her disbelievingly. “Your fighting style is so close after only a few pointers, before you even got that many Divine Skills to work with?”
Raven’s eyes widened a bit, while she smiled inwardly – Javelin had a sharp mind for his age. She squirmed uncomfortably. “I might have been getting some more pointers from her lately. . . .”
“You little bugger!” Martin gave her an other punch on the shoulder. “We’ve been looking for the Midnight Singer . . .” he gave Javelin an meaningful stare, “. . . for over a month, and you haven’t said a word!”
“I wanted to!” Raven lifted her shoulders defensively. “She forbid me!”
Both twins threw their hands into the air, growling in defeat. Javelin, however kept his focus on Raven.
“Can I meet her?” he asked.
‘You already have,’ she thought with an silent laugh, but outwardly Raven looked troubled. “I can ask her,” she said, “but it’s not likely she will agree. . . .”
Javelin looked a bit disappointed but he nodded in understanding. “That’s all I can ask for,” he said solemnly.
“Awesome!” cried Martin excitedly and put his arm over Raven’s shoulders. “Even if Sing- . . . I mean, even if the Midnight Singer says no, we can still turn to our little fighting demon here for pointers.” He rubbed the top of Raven’s head so hard that the top knot in her hair started to come undone. “I guess we should do what Dunlin wouldn’t and start calling you senior, shorty!”
“I’ll have you know that I’m considered tall for my age,” protested Raven and slipped out from under Martin with ease.
All four of them laughed heartily.
“Speaking of Dunlin,” said Lark once the laughing died down, “what are we going to do about him?”
“Separate him from his followers and beat him up?” suggested Martin happily but Lark shook his head. “You know as well as I do that it would only lead to more trouble than it’s worth. . . . Especially as long as Auk Wren is on Dunlin’s side.”
“Lark is right,” agreed Javelin, “but we have to do something!”
The three boys started brainstorming ideas while Raven sat silently and listened. Sometimes Raven found it hard not to smile; though these young nobles were very mature for their age, their youth shone through in their suggestions – many of which were akin to high school pranks, only with spirit essence involved. After a while Raven interrupted what had grown into heated bickering.
“I have a suggestion,” she said, causing the other three to quiet down immediately. “We have already concluded that anything we do to Dunlin directly will likely only cause us backlash, so let’s do nothing.”
“What?” cried the boys in unison but Raven held up a hand to quite them.
“Hear me out first. We will do nothing to Dunlin directly, in fact we will even thank him for the favorable exchange,” she wave towards the twelve corpses behind her. “Dunlin enjoys seeing us squirm so we take that away from him.”
“Makes sense. . . .” said Javelin pensively, “but it’s still feels a bit meek.”
“Well that’s only step one. Tell me, as the heirs of the Red Griffin Prefecture, you must have quite a few connections in the city, right?” Raven looked at the two twins, who nodded with confusion. “There is more than one way to hurt someone so obsessed with status.” Raven smiled coldly. “We have a lot to discuss once these trials are over, but for now, let us take care of these Panthera Drakes and head back to the campsite – I bet the Everest Hawk that brought me here is still circling nervously above us.”