The great doors made of pitch black wood swung open as Headmaster Swan approached the Spirit Hall Tower, revealing a long corridor that disappeared into the darkness within the tower.
With a calm pace, the headmaster passed through the open doors, his white robes and hair standing out in stark contrast against the black marble walls of the building. For every step he took, a small globe of light lit up above him, slowly lighting up a path to the staircase which was now visible in the far end of the corridor.
By the time Raven reached the tower’s entrance, the headmaster had already started ascending the first set of stairs, closely followed by the other elders – however, some stayed behind, most likely to guide the students who were supposed to stay at the first floor.
The moment Raven passed through the black doors and entered the tower, she felt an abrupt change in the air around her. Just like before, Raven could not rely on her spirit connections to sense anything of the world around her, but the reason was the absolute opposite of what it had been before. Instead of a total lack of spirit essence in the air, there was simply too much of it here. For Raven, the narrow corridor that had seemed black and lifeless from the outside, turned into a sea of color as abundant spirit essence spiraled uncontrollably in every possible direction.
Raven couldn’t help but stop and gasp in astonishment; the transformation was just too big; like finding an oasis after days of dehydration in a desert, only to slip and fall into the water – drowning.
“Night?” asked Javelin, confused.
“Nothing,” said Raven with a shrug and started moving again. “Just surprised by the density of the spirit essence in here.”
Hesitating a bit, Javelin nodded. He too could feel that there was a lot of spirit essence present in the tower, but without the contrast provided by Raven’s superior senses he didn’t find it that breathtaking. Yet, he could think of no reason justifying his doubts.
Together with the other advanced students, they followed after the elders, climbing up the staircases. More students joined in behind them, but their numbers dwindled with every floor as the others reached their designated floor. Eventually even the elders started dropping off to enter rooms of their own.
But the advanced students continued climbing. The further they ascended, the denser the spirit essence around them grew and by the time they had reached the 21st floor – which marked the beginning of the five octagonal floors dedicated for them – even the others were being overwhelmed by the copious amounts of spirit essence present.
“Okay then,” said an elder who had been waiting for them at 21st floor. “All of you know your allocated Spirit Halls. Go to them and meditate until midnight.” The students bowed and walked off towards their rooms, most of which were on next couple of floors. Javelin however glanced at Raven and was about to say something when the elder cut him off with a stern voice. “Junior Student Hake, head to your room. Junior Student Night, follow me.”
The two of them looked at each other and Javelin mouthed the words “good luck” before he walked over to a door nearby and disappeared inside.
Raven instead followed the elder up the stairs to the next level. There, her eyes happened to meet with Dunlin’s, who was just about to enter his own Spirit Hall room. When the latter noticed that Raven was being led up even the next flight of stairs, his eyes first widened in shock and then narrowed in anger. Dunlin looked like he wanted nothing more than to attack Raven, right then and there. However, he restrained himself and Raven continued up the stairs and moved out of his line of sight.
The Elder kept leading Raven upwards – something that surprised more people than just Dunlin – until they reached the the 25th floor, the top floor of the octagonal section. All that remained above them were the final five, nine-sided floors, which were reserved for the headmaster and four other core members of the academy. Raven’s guide stopped and pointed at a black door situated just to the left of the next staircase. “Headmaster Swan wishes that you use that room. If you have any problems, you are not to hesitate but head directly for the headmaster’s floor for assistance. He is at the very top.” With that, the elder turned and left, heading back down the stairs.
‘They really nurture their young talents at this academy,’ Raven thought as she looked around. The further up you went in the tower, the stronger would the benefits of the Day of Light ceremony be for the spiritualist’s cultivation. Many schools might reserve those benefits for its elders.
Delaying no further, Raven opened the door to her Spirit Hall room and entered. Inside, the spirit essence density was more normal, letting Raven draw a breath of relief. The room itself was practically shaped like a triangle, and large decorative windows filled the wall opposite the entrance.
On the floor , in the very center of the room, was the familiar Spirit Star, the symbol for all spiritualists. Just as it had been in the Nightingale’s Spirit Hall, the symbol consisted of three overlapped and interlocked triangles, made with nine different precious stones – the black one barely discernible against the marble floor.
Hoatzin nudged his way up from under the scarf around Raven’s neck. He let out an impressed whistle when he saw his surroundings.
“It is very similar to our old Spirit Hall,” he said mentally and Raven nodded in agreement.
“There are not many minutes left until midnight,” she noted as she walked over to check if the windows could be opened – they could not. “Brother, you should take your place by the Spirit Star. I’ll wait in the corridor.”
“Is that safe? Would it not be better if you stayed in here – what if someone comes?” Hoatzin sounded a bit nervous, but Raven shook her head.
“Fenris said you needed to be alone in here. Besides, who would be moving around outside the Spirit Halls at this time?”
Finding no real reason to object, Hoatzin left Raven’s shoulder and landed on the black marble floor. Raven looked at her brother’s tiny white form and suddenly felt a bit nauseous. She had been trying to not think too much about what would happen tonight if things didn’t go well, but now, as she was about to leave her brother alone in the Spirit Hall, reality caught up with her and she knew this was a make-or-brake moment; either it worked, or Hoatzin would perhaps never regain his human form.
Raven kneeled down in front of her brother, causing him to raise up his little bird head towards her. “I’ll be right outside,” she said. “If there are any problems, call out and I will be in here before you know it.” She tried to keep her voice calm and steady but there was a slight quiver to it – it was so small that no one else would have noticed it, but Hoatzin did. His little bird body straitened and his eyes got a warm glow to them.
“Don not worry, little sister,” he said, without any trace of nervousness left. “I will be fine.”
Raven blinked in surprise a few times before she used a finger to ruffle up the feathers on the top of Hoatzin’s white head. With a large, genuine smile on her face, she got up and quietly left the triangular Spirit Hall.
Once back in the corridor Raven couldn’t help but chuckle. ‘Did I seem that worried? That was the first time since our parents died that he called me his little sister. . . . I must be slipping.’
Sighing, Raven sank down outside her brother’s door and closed her eyes. The unruly spirit essence that overwhelmed her senses had now grown almost frantic, storming back and forth in the narrow corridor as if desperately searching for something. Raven made some attempts at using breathing techniques to absorb that spirit essence, for her own cultivation, but the essence resisted her and she soon gave up the notion.
The minutes ticked by. Suddenly Raven’s eyes popped open. Without hesitating, or making a sound, she scurried up from her place on the floor and ducked in behind the staircase leading up towards the next floor. Just as her body melded with the darkness under the stairs, a familiar head emerged above the other entrance.
‘Dunlin?’ Raven frowned. ‘Why would he abandon his room now?’
Dunlin hurried up the last couple of stairs and was soon joined by Jack. The two of them moved quickly towards Raven, clearly heading for the levels above them.
“Are you sure it’s okay for me to join you?” asked Jack, his hushed voice filled with anticipation.
“Stop fretting,” grumbled Dunlin, “he told me to bring you. If you don’t want to come, go back to your room and let me take all of it!”
“No, I just . . .” the sentence continued but the pair had already moved up to the next floor and the surging spirit essence drowned out the words.
Raven sat frozen in the darkness. Her eyes glided over towards Hoatzin’s door before she swore and left her hiding place. Slowly she followed the two boys up the stairs. ‘I’ll see where they’re headed and then come back,’ she thought to herself. ‘There are still a few minutes till midnight. . . .’
Even before Raven reached the top of the stairs, she could tell that there was a fundamental difference in the layout of the next, nine-sided, floor of the Spirit Hall Tower. For one, the staircase didn’t seem to end at the next floor. Instead it turned into a spiral-staircase, which quickly disappeared into the darkness of the higher levels. A thin membrane blocked the entrance to the 26th floor. Tentatively stretching out her hand Raven was relieved to find that it passed through the membrane unobstructed.
Carefully, Raven climbed the last couple of stairs and let her head pass through the membrane so she could peek in on the 26th floor. Instantly, the incomparably high pressure from disorderly spirit essence slammed into her, almost causing her to gasp in pain. There was significantly more of it here and even though the spirit essence wasn’t actually trying to hurt her, Raven’s high sensitivity to it made its mere presence painful. Forcing herself to ignore the ache in her mind, Raven tried to focus on what she could actually see using her eyes.
Contrary to the other floors, there was no narrow corridor here. Rather, the entire floor was empty except for a barely transparent glass structure that stood at the center of the room. Raven’s gaze fell on this structure just in time to see Dunlin’s and Jack’s figures slip through a well hidden glass door that was facing her.
Raven frowned and strained her eyes; the glass walls were thick, and even though there was a dim light glowing inside, it wasn’t enough for her to get a clear view of who was inside. All she could tell was that apart from the two youths, there seemed to be a third, possibly white-robed, person inside.
‘Should I move closer?’ Raven hesitated. There was nowhere for her to hide up there, and she couldn’t be sure that the glass wasn’t more transparent from the other side. ‘It’s dangerous, but for them to skip out on the Day of Light ceremony . . . it must be important.’
As Raven was considering what to do, a sudden tremor ran through the building. Instantly the abundant spirit essence in the air stopped its hectic movements, as if time itself had been ground to a halt.
‘It’s midnight!’ thought Raven and was just about to turn back down the stairs when the dim light within the central structure intensified. Raven paused. With the added light, the three figures had become a bit clearer – only a bit more and she would likely be able to see what was going on inside. ‘Brother. . . .’ She bit her lip and glanced down the stairs, but ultimately chose to stay.
A second, slightly stronger, tremor shook the tower. The light increased again and Raven could now tell that the third person was definitely wearing white robes. A third tremor came and this time the spirit essence in the air vibrated too. ‘Who is that?’ Raven squinted her eyes to no avail. However, when the forth tremor – or rather quake – hit, her jaw dropped. ‘Is that . . . Gadwall?’
Raven’s mind reeled. This didn’t make any sense! Why would the vice headmaster of the academy bring those two to his own Spirit Hall? Surely it would be more beneficial for everyone if Dunlin and Jack stayed in their own rooms. . . . ‘Could he be the Talon’s partner at the academy? But then what about Elder W?’ Raven had spoken to Gadwall several times, about many different things, and he had shown no signs of deception whatsoever. Every sing pointed towards him being a caring elder, born and raised in Sky Empire.
While Raven was trying to make sense of what she was seeing, increasingly powerful quakes shook the Spirit Hall Tower and by the time the sixth one hit, the light within the glass structure was almost blinding. Now clearly visible, vice headmaster Gadwall could be seen, sitting cross-legged on the floor inside the structure. Opposite him, with their backs to Raven, sat the two boys.
Between the three men, rose a vibrantly colorful stream of spirit essence, whose full splendor was visible even to the naked eye. At the seventh quake that stream split up in two equal strands and, after hesitating for a heartbeat, they shot towards Dunlin and Jack.
‘What the . . ?’ Raven’s confusion grew; ‘why didn’t Gadwall receive any?’
Usually, the spirit essence arriving in a Spirit Hall during a Day of Light ceremony would split up in accordance with the spiritualist’s soul levels. This was an indisputable fact, and the main reason Hoatzin needed to be alone tonight; for the two boys to get all of it was simply unthinkable.
However, before Raven had a chance to reflect too much over this, an eighth quake reverberated though both her and the tower. To Raven’s bewilderment, two new strands of spirit essence now started pouring out of the boys – heading towards the vice headmaster instead – only, while the initial strands had been vibrant and full of life, the new ones were pitch black and reeked heavily of death.
Raven shuddered; she had been around a lot of death in her lives, but there was something sinister and otherworldly about those two black strands. Her instincts told her to run away – they screamed at her that this was not an opponent she could handle. Subconsciously, Raven started backing down the stairs, out of danger’s way, but then the ninth quake hit.
In that moment, the previously frozen spirit essence in the air sprang to life again. Like a hungry beast, the stored essence rushed towards the central structure, ready to swallow it whole. Just before it could reach its target, however, the enormous mass of essence abruptly came to a halt.
For a moment Raven thought she actually saw the shape of a vicious beast, submerged deep in that spirit essence. The beast slowly turned around, it’s eyes locking with Raven’s, and before she had a chance to react, the beast pounced towards her dragging all the spirit essence with it.
In the next instant, searing pain filled Raven’s mind as endless spirit essence slammed into her, forcing it’s way to her Soul Prism. Within fractions of a second, the sea green prism was filled to the point of braking, and more was coming. Desperately, Raven tried to control the new spirit essence within her soul, forcing it out and down towards her spirit core, but no matter how hard she tried, Raven just couldn’t keep up with the rushed inflow. If this continued, her Soul Prism would shatter under the pressure.
Partially collapsing, Raven had no choice but to let her body fall down the stairs she stood on – she just couldn’t focus on anything but controlling the practically rogue spirit essence within her. As her head dropped bellow the protective membrane between the 25th and 26th floor, Raven felt the immense influx of spirit essence being cut off; apparently the spirit essence above couldn’t follow her through that membrane.
Unfortunately, her relief would be short lived.
Raven’s body slammed uncontrollably against the marble landing – she was still too preoccupied by her overfilled Soul Prism to care about anything else. Without moving from where she had fallen, Raven started to get the situation in her soul under control. Thinking that the worst was over, Raven felt shaken but relieved, but at that point, the free spirit essence on the 25th floor repeated that same pause in its movements, stopping it’s original path towards the surrounding Spirit Halls.
The tenth quake came, and with it the spirit essence that charged at her.
Now Raven grew truly concerned. There was a lot less spirit essence on the 25th floor, but her own strength was leaving her, and fast. She wasn’t sure how much longer she could keep her soul prism from shattering. Raven looked up at the door leading to where her brother was; she didn’t fear death, she hadn’t for a long time, but leaving her brother behind . . . no way.
‘I must make it!’
Raven gritted her teeth and forced herself to stand up – unfortunately, yet another quake caused her to stumble so she had to catch herself against Hoatzin’s door not to topple over again. Feeling the last of her powers leaving her, Raven rested her head against the door.
“Be well, brother,” she whispered, before she used a final burst of strength to throw herself in behind the staircase she had previously hidden under – she never registered her head hitting the marble floor.