As Javelin walked away from the frozen wonderland that was the academy’s grand garden, a cold wind swept over him, causing him to shiver and instinctively tighten the animal pelts around him. He steadily made his way towards the nearest outpost of transporter birds that would take him to the Mansion Tier where his friends were waiting.
Since the Day of Light was around the corner, all classes had been cancelled for self-cultivation and not a soul was out and about in the freezing winter weather. However, it was unlikely that Javelin would have noticed them even if there had been any around; all he could think about as he plodded through the snow was his latest conversation with his roommate, Rave Night.
‘He lied,’ Javelin thought over and over again. ‘Why is he still keeping secrets from me?’
At first, Javelin had been convinced that while Raven surely didn’t tell him everything, what was told was truthful. After years at sea with his father hunting bandits, Javelin had grown fairly skilled at spotting lies and Raven had never come across as deceitful to him before.
However, as the two of them spent more time together, Javelin would sometimes get the feeling that his roommate wasn’t always telling the truth. He couldn’t put his finger on what it was – outwardly Raven seemed just as forthcoming as ever – and yet, every now and then, Javelin somehow just knew something was wrong. For a long time he thought he was simply imagining things, but now he knew that this wasn’t the case.
It so happened that a friend of his father’s had come to Sky City, about a week back, and had wanted to meet. Coincidentally, that friend had been traveling with a group of mercenaries who kept bragging about the six-year-old boy genius they had taken in under their wings and helped enroll at Sky Academy. The friend had been very curious to know if the rumors were true and Javelin had quickly realized that it was Raven’s uncles who had been the traveling companions in question.
“According to my father’s friend, Night’s uncles returned days ago. . . .” muttered Javelin as he just barely brushed past a lamppost he wasn’t paying attention to. ‘What didn’t he want to tell me? Could it be related to Singer somehow. . . ?’
In a momentary burst of anger, Javelin kicked his foot deep into a nearby snowdrift, causing the snow to explode in every direction. “Argh! Doesn’t he understand that I get how impossible it is to force Singer to meet me? Why lie about it!” Javelin shouted out into the air with frustration, but no one was there to hear him.
Grumpily he continued his journey. There was a growing knot in Javelin’s chest and he wasn’t sure what was bothering him more: the fact that whatever secrets Raven kept most likely had to do with Singer, or that Raven felt the need to keep them at all.
Meanwhile, Raven hadn’t moved from her spot in the snowy garden. She had once more entered into her meditative state, slowly filling her lungs with the piercingly cold air and using her spirit essence to rotate this cold sensation throughout her body. Every cell in her body quivered – nearly freezing beyond repair – before they relaxed again, revitalized and slightly more taut than before.
Part of the reason Raven had declined Javelin’s invitation was because she expected her brother to report back from his spying within the next couple of hours – they had been putting a lot of pressure on the Talons’ financial endeavors as of late, and it could only be a matter of time before they would have no choice but to turn to their hidden allies for help.
The other reason Raven opted to stay behind was that recently Raven had felt a few changes in her spirit core. When she fought with her full strength, as Singer, she sensed a slight pulsating vibration in the spiraling red vortex at her center; she was close to stepping over the line and becoming a high Adept. If not for the fact that Raven would be giving her spot in the Spirit Hall Tower room to her brother, she was certain that the ceremony of the Day of Light would have advanced her firmly into the high Spirit Adept level. As it was, Raven was instead eager to push her cultivation along with the aid of the cold weather.
The brief hours of sunlight had already passed and yet Raven remained outside, submerged in the darkness and ice, for several hours. At some point a few students, who had come to the garden for a bit of fresh air, caught sight of Raven amidst the snow. The students had glanced at each other briefly before they too sat down, keeping a respectful distance. Letting their coats fall off of their shoulders, they also started to meditate, trying their best to replicate Raven’s breathing.
Ever since Raven arrived at Sky Academy, she had been constantly breaking one record after the other. By now, some of the other students had come to idolize Raven and would use any opportunity they could find to get closer to her – perhaps they figured her genius might rub off on them too, just as it seemed to be doing with her three friends, who had been improving noticeably faster lately.
Barely half an hour after the other students had joined in, their skin had already turned blue with frost and their bodies were shivering uncontrollably. Yet, they refused to give up and stubbornly attempted to mimic the flow of Raven’s spirit essence and breathing.
“You know,” Raven’s voice suddenly broke the silence, “you’re going to die if you continue like that.”
Her words were stated matter-of-factly. Her eyes remained closed. Hearing her, one would feel like she was more inconvenienced by the possibility of the students freezing to death so close to her, rather than the actual freezing-to-death part.
The surrounding youths shuddered – a motion that caused their faces to distort in pain; many of them had been too focused on replicating Raven to even notice how close they were coming to losing their lives.
“Fe-fellow . . . s-student Night,” stuttered a young man through frozen teeth. He was a fifth-year who was yet stuck in the Novice realm, “pl-please give us guidance.”
Raven resisted a sigh. She partially admired these kids for their tenacity – and that fifth-year actually risked getting expelled if he didn’t advance his cultivation soon – but she was neither their teacher nor their friend, and now was not the time for her to lose focus.
Raven was just about to refuse the students when every one of them grit their teeth and forced themselves into a low bow – something that ought to be very painful for their frozen bodies.
“Please!” they chanted.
Finally, Raven opened her eyes to look at them. There were seven students seated around her, all covered in a layer of frost. She shook her head. “Put on your coats – my training is not beneficial for you,” she said calmly. When they looked up to protest, Raven simply brought out a piece of paper from her spacial ring and started scribbling.
The others looked on in confusion. Finally, Raven stopped writing and handed the note over to the fifth-year boy. “Here,” she said, “these breathing techniques can all be found on the first floor of the Divine Library. They will fit you better than the ones you’re currently using.”
Before the boy had a chance to respond, Raven had already gotten up and departed without a trace. The students couldn’t help but to feel a bit disappointed; breathing techniques were different from most other Divine Skills and acquiring one of a higher level was not very hard – whatever techniques Raven had recommended from the first floor, those would no doubt be less advanced than the ones they already used.
The only one that wasn’t disappointed was the boy who had received the note. He stared down at it with wide eyes. Noticing his shock, the other six shuffled closer only to share his amazement.
Raven didn’t share classes with even one of them nor had they been introduced to the academy’s new prodigy, and yet there, on that small piece of paper, were seven neatly written lines, each one containing three things: the name of one of the students, that student’s current breathing technique and finally the recommended new technique. As far as they were concerned, the fact that Raven knew their names was impressive enough, but their breathing techniques? Perhaps even their own teachers would have to ask about those!
The seven students swallowed, and though they said nothing out loud, they all decided to give Raven’s suggestions a shot.
“Go ahead,” thought Raven to her brother, as she left the seven students behind her, “I am alone now.”
Hoatzin had contacted her just as she was about to give her advice, causing her to opt for the swifter note.
“Do you want the good news, or the bad, sister?” asked Hoatzin a bit mischievously.
“Both,” replied Raven with a slight smile; Hoatzin’s mood had been improving considerably as of late – this despite the fact that his bird body had been growing increasingly uncooperative as the two year mark grew closer.
“Well then, the good news is that the Talon’s treasurer estimates their monetary losses over the last month alone to be roughly a million gold.”
Raven whistled, impressed. For a prefecture clan, one million gold was not a big deal – at least not in comparison to the whole clan’s fortunes – but it was still an amount comparable to buying a mid sized house close to the city center. It was definitely a step in the right direction.
“They are starting to get really annoyed and are suspecting that someone is acting against them – though they don’t seem to have any guesses as to who it might be yet,” continued Hoatzin.
Raven nodded – this was as she had expected. “Have they made any contact with their foreign friend?” she asked.
“Well, that is partially the bad news. They said they would make contact if they made no progress before the Day of Light, so . . . I might not be able to catch them in the act. . . .”
It was imperative that Hoatzin got the night alone in her appointed Spirit Hall, or the stability of his current body would crumble, most likely permanently this time. Raven considered their options for a moment before she lifted her shoulders in a shrug.
“Well, we don’t really have a choice about what we do that night so there is no point agonizing over it now. If we miss their making contact with Elder W this time around then we will only have to force them to make contact yet again.”
“Okay. . . .” Although he didn’t shout his approval, Hoatzin nonetheless seemed relieved by Raven’s approach.
“You said this was partially the bad news, what is the rest?”
“Our dear Aunt is coming to the capital,” answered Hoatzin after a moments pause, his voice ripe with loathing.
Raven stopped in her tracks. “Aunt Anhinga?”
“Indeed. She will be leaving Black Talon Prefecture right after the Day of Light ceremonies are done.”
“Do you know why?”
“The official version is that she wants to meet her son for the holidays, but the elders are afraid she might be coming to stay – so she can keep an eye on the failing business, so to speak.”
A hungry look flashed across Raven’s eyes. She hadn’t seen her aunt since she watched I’iwi’s recording of the woman: seated at a lavishly filled dining table and laughing at the death of Raven’s entire family.
‘Good,’ thought Raven to herself as she started walking again, ‘I hope she stays – it will make killing her all the more easy.’
The darkest day of the year arrived. For nearly forty hours not a single ray of sunlight would reach Sky Empire’s capital city. During this day, millions of lanterns would be lit, turning the dark mountain city into a sea of small flames.
While the average citizen spent this day enjoying themselves at various festival-sites throughout the city, for the students of the Imperial Sky Academy of Divine Arts – and any other spiritualist who could afford access to a Spirit Hall for that mater – the hours leading up to midnight were quiet and calm ones.
Many had chosen to spend the majority of the day in meditation, and Raven and her friends were no exception. Together with most other students, they sat cross-legged a few hundred meters away from the Spirit Hall Tower. They faced north and looked out over the city below, where the distant lights were mesmerizingly pretty to behold. A barely visible membrane enclosed all of the students, protecting them from the biting cold of the mid-winter night. In only a few hours, the large doors to the Spirit Hall Tower would open, and the students and Elders would flood inside.
“I’ve never seen a bird so still before,” commented Martin out of nowhere. His gaze was fixed on Hoatzin’s small bird body. He was perched on Raven’s shoulder and was so motionless that he seemed almost stuffed. “It’s like he’s meditating too,” joked Martin laughingly.
“You should try it some time.” Raven had opened one eye to give the twin a pointed glare. The boy had been fidgeting for a while now and it was starting to get on her nerves – which was an accomplishment in itself.
“Ha ha,” muttered Martin sarcastically, “you’re only calm because you’ve never been through a Day of Light ceremony in a Spirit Hall before. If you had, you would have a hard time sitting still too.”
Raven closed both her eyes again. “Your brother seems to be doing fine.”
Martin snorted, but couldn’t retort – Lark really seemed to be doing just fine. Martin quieted down for a few moments, but soon started fidgeting again. “Seriously though, Night, aren’t you nervous – or at least curious – about what’s going to happen in there? Let me tell you, it’s an experience unlike anything else!”
Raven sighed. Briefly she considered knocking the boy unconscious for the last remaining hours – so she could get some peace – but eventually decided against it; Raven was aware that she was strung a bit tightly because of how important this night was for her brother, and taking it out on Martin wouldn’t help.
“I’m not nervous,” she said with a voice filled with strained patience. “All I have to do is go in there and sit still in a room for a few minutes – no matter how much I fret, I won’t be able to change that. Now calm down, or you might actually lose out on your cut of the spirit essence.”
At this Martin paled a bit. He knew that what Raven said was only a rumor that the Elders had been spreading to make the students meditate diligently. They claimed that the amount of essence received would decrease if you weren’t in a peaceful state of mind during the ceremony – something utterly untrue – but the thought of not getting his fair share still made Martin uncomfortable. He forced himself to calm down right away.
Raven’s mouth twitched slightly at the sudden peace. However, instead of employing any breathing techniques to resume her meditation, Raven chose to focus her senses on the hundreds of students seated around her. By now, every single student was present, both from the Martial and Healing Departments, and the same could almost be said for the elders. Only the headmaster and the vice headmaster, as well as the matron in charge of the Healing Department had yet to arrive.
Despite the large crowd, barely anyone spoke, and if they did, their voices were hushed, as if out of respect for the darkness of this special night. Even Dunlin and the other, usually obnoxious, nobles he hung out with were oddly quiet.
The minutes ticked by. Soon, only half an hour remained before the stroke of midnight. At this point Raven felt the approaching presences of the three missing Elders.
“It’s time,” she thought softly to her brother. Stirring from his tranquil state, Hoatzin furrowed himself deep into the rather fluffy scarf Raven was wearing solely for that purpose. They weren’t sure if the Elders would object to her bringing “a pet” along, but they weren’t about to take any chances.
Headmaster Swan walked up to the very edge of the Academy Tier’s ledge, where he stood still for a moment, observing the faintly shifting lights – some over a kilometer below them. It really was a sight worth seeing. Eventually he turned to face the students.
“The darkest night of the year has descended upon us,” he spoke in his soft but domineering voice. “Today, the world grieves a year that is dying – a period that has brought changes, good and bad, but that now must come to an end. . . . However, in death, there is also life, so tonight the world also celebrates a new year that is about to be born, which will bring new changes to us all. Who knows what the next year will challenge us with, but only by embracing the unknown can we truly make progress.” He paused and looked out over everyone in the crowd.
“It is time.” With his snow white robes sweeping about him, Headmaster Swan started moving towards the large black tower that was the Spirit Hall Tower.
In a very orderly manner, every student and Elder got up and followed after the headmaster. The Elders went first, followed by the fourteen Advanced Martial Students, and then every class in descending order from oldest to youngest. As for the Healing Department, they had a floor dedicated for them alone, so they walked separately from the rest.
As Raven approached the tower, an uncanny feeling swelled up in her; once more she felt her spirit senses gradually being swept away, her other senses dulled. The notion of spending a few hours in this area, seemingly devoid of spirit essence, suddenly made her tense up anxiously; there were so many possible enemies around and the uncertainty surrounding her brother only made things worse.
‘Tonight is going to be a long night. . . .’ she thought to herself as the last strands of surrounding spirit essence faded together with the presence of every person around her.