Feigning sleep, Raven remained motionless in the bed, thinking.
‘I was at the Spirit Hall Tower . . . waiting for Hoatzin. All the spirit essence stormed at me . . . and I passed out. Brother must have noticed something and then turned to Javelin for help.’ Raven felt her headache worsen, but for other reasons than overexposure to spirit essence.
Judging by the sounds and people around her, Raven could tell that she had been brought to her uncles’ house on the outskirts of Sky City. Bill was moving around in the kitchen below, Hoatzin sat perched on her bedpost and a few meter away, leaning against the window frame and staring intently at her, was Javelin. The two latter’s presences had changed quite a lot – especially her brother’s, whose had gone from a dull white-ish tone to a vibrant pink – but there was still no doubt about who they were.
Without opening her eyes, Raven sent a mental thought to her brother. “How much does he know?” she asked, and immediately Raven felt Hoatzin taking flight and landing right next to her head.
“Sister!” his concerned voice echoed in Raven’s mind, poking at her headache. “Are you alright?”
“I think so,” answered Raven, but in all honesty she was afraid to check – Raven could tell that something had changed within her, but remembering that beastly figure within the spirit essence, she wasn’t sure the changes were for the better.
“Oh thank the Skies!” Hoaztin nudged his small body against Raven’s face. “When I felt our connection fading I didn’t know what to do. . . . I couldn’t move you by myself, so I had no other choice . . .” his sentence trailed off.
“How much?” Raven repeated her question from before just as Javelin leaned off from the window and started walking towards her, pausing at the foot of the bed.
Hoatzin hesitated. “He knows you’re a girl, and your cultivation. I don’t think he checked your soul prism but he seems to suspects something else. He hasn’t spoken much though, so I don’t know what. He asked Bill a few questions about how he knew you, but Bill would not answer any of them. After that, Javelin has been quiet.”
Raven was about to ask her brother how long she’d been unconscious when Javelin spoke first. “You’re awake, aren’t you?” he asked. There was both relief and irritation in his voice, and when Raven showed no signs of admittance he added, “Tzin has been like a statue for the past eighty hours, yet suddenly jumps to your side? I’m not that stupid.”
“Eighty hours!” Raven’s eyes popped open as she tried to sit up, but every muscle in her body burned with pain at the sudden movement. The pain caught Raven off guard and she drew in a sharp breath.
Javelin dashed forward, gently placing a hand behind Raven’s back to support her. “Careful,” he sounded almost chiding, “your body was in a mess when I found you and although I have some Divine Healing Skills, they were not meant to deal with your kind of damages. I wanted to bring you a healer, but Bill refused. . . .”
Javelin was clearly upset about Bill’s choice, but Raven smiled wryly. “No point in getting mad at him, Javelin, he was only following orders.” At this point, the door to Raven’s room burst open and Bill rushed in.
“Ma’am!” he howled and fell to his knees next to the bed. Raven couldn’t help but blink in surprise – the man looked absolutely awful. His eyes were red and sunken, from prolonged lack of sleep no doubt, and his skin was sickly pale. “I . . . I was afraid . . .” he started, but the rest of the words wouldn’t come.
Raven braved the pain and placed a hand on the man’s shoulder. “I know, Bill, but I’m going to be fine. You did as you were told – thank you.”
Hearing Raven’s voice, Bill seemed to regain some of his spirit. He got to his feet again and when he noticed Raven’s awkward sitting position, he quickly arranged some pillows for her to lean against. “I’ll bring some soup and bread, ma’am,” he said and then left the room without waiting for any confirmation.
Javelin followed the departing man with his gaze, some of his anger towards the latter clearly lessened.
Silence descended over the room and it remained until Bill returned, holding a tray that was filled with a lot more than just soup and bread. After placing the tray next to Raven, Bill glanced at Javelin – who had returned to his position by the window – before giving Raven a questioning look. Raven just shook her head.
“I’ll be outside if you need me, ma’am,” he replied, with a slight bow. As Bill left, Raven smiled softly at his back. Over the last couple of months, Raven had been spending a lot of time with Bill, often helping him cope with the memories he had inherited from her. As a result, the man’s mind had started to grow more stable. It was still some way to go before Bill could start cultivating again, but Raven could tell that it was only a matter of time. At least, once that time came, he was likely to gain quite a bit from those memories.
“He’s a good servant.”
Raven turned her head to look at Javelin. “He is,” she agreed.
“Why did you save him?”
Raven’s eyes narrowed; did he know, or was he fishing for more information?
“You mean, why did Singer save him?” she asked, but Javelin tilted his head to the side and gave her a pointed stare. “Is that not the same thing?”
She sighed. From his demeanor, Raven already had her answer – he wasn’t fishing. ‘So he knows about Singer. . . .’ She couldn’t help but wonder how much more he had figured out.
“I guess there is no point in hiding it anymore,” she gave Javelin a helpless smile. “Yes, I saved him. It was mostly on a whim, though.”
“It was not because he was a former clan member of yours, Raven Nightingale?”
Raven blinked and she could feel Hoatzin’s body tensing up next to her.
“It’s you, isn’t it?” Javelin impatiently prompted. In his face was a myriad of complicated emotions, ranging from anger to hope. “I mean, I can’t believe I didn’t see it! You are the same age, have practically the same names – even your pet is named after your brother! You might move and act like a boy but taking a closer look, it’s just so obvious that you’re a girl. . . . I’m surprised anyone fell for it to begin with!”
Raven kept starting at Javelin, for once, at a loss of words. She had to give the boy credit; he might only be a few months away from eleven, but his deduction skills were a lot more advanced than what you would expect form a preteen boy. Then again, he was both a talented spiritualist and a general’s son who had spent a considerable amount with his father at sea.
Both of these qualities had helped him mature faster and just like his body seemed to belong to someone who had lived past at least fifteen winters, his mind was equally advanced. Nonetheless, Raven had to admit that she should perhaps have ignored old sentiments and chosen another alias. . . .
Javelin took a few steps away from the window, his eyes filled with hurt bordering on betrayal. “Why didn’t you tell me, Raven? Don’t you trust me?” When no reply came, he slammed his fist into the supporting pillar in the center of the room. “By the Seas, Raven, I told you that I had loved you! That I still . . .” His voice trailed off as pained tears filled his eyes.
Raven felt a lump gathering in her throat. Love. It was something she had always found it hard to deal with. In her past life it was trained out of her. In this life it was yanked from under her. Looking at the young Javelin, who despite his young age held so much passion for her in his heart, Raven couldn’t help but feel her own heart thawing.
In that moment, Raven wished nothing more than to confess everything to Javelin; to hold him in her arms and tell him she was sorry, tell him about her life – past and present – and try to help him understand why she had done what she did.
Before she knew it, Raven had opened her mouth to speak, but even as the words started to come fear gripped her. Suddenly the vision of Vice Headmaster Gadwall absorbing that odd black essence from Dunlin and Jack flashed across her mind, causing Raven to hesitate and glance down at her brother’s bird body sitting next to her. She barely registered the changes with his plumage and instead envisioned how the then ten-year-old Hoatzin collapsed, lifeless, on the reddish marble floor of the Nightingale mansion.
Looking back up at Javelin – the young and innocent boy whose eyes contained galaxies and who always put his friends first, even to the point of risking his own life – Raven felt a stab of pain in her chest that resonated with her very soul.
She couldn’t do it.
With moist eyes, Raven shook her head. “Javelin, I’m sorry . . . you’ve got it wrong.” Her voice sounded weak and sorrowful.
“What do you mean I got it wrong? You are Raven Nightingale, daughter of Maleo and Besra Nightingale, aren’t you?”
A set of tears streaked down Raven cheeks but she continued to shake her head in denial.
“Then who are you!?” Javelin roared – he was brimming with anger and clearly didn’t believe her.
Raven swallowed. Who was she?
Restricted by her fears, Raven told herself that until she figured out what was going on with Gadwall and the true reason behind her family’s death, Raven should keep Javelin out of it all. However, she also knew that it was too late for that; he was already involved, and she only had herself to blame.
Before, she had assumed that they boys’ backgrounds would keep them relatively safe but she was not so naive anymore. Whatever Gadwall was doing, it felt . . . otherworldly; she had never head of or read about anything like it. As a result, the events at the Spirit Hall Tower might have given Raven some more information, but it had given her even more questions, and the thickening plot made her apprehensive of what else might be hiding behind the scenes.
She silently cursed herself for having acted too quickly when she asked Javelin and the twins to help her with repressing the Talons. Knowing them, they wouldn’t back down even if she asked them to now, and truth be told, she was aware that she couldn’t do without them either; their family connections were too vital.
“Well?” Javelin almost shouted and Raven made a show of flinching, something which quickly became very real due to the intense pain it set of in her body. Once more, concern overshadowed Javelin’s anger and he took another set of hurried steps towards her.
“I’m truly no one,” Raven blurted out and looked away shamefully before Javelin could reach her. Inside, Raven decided that while she wouldn’t tell him the truth, she didn’t really want to lie either. “Javelin, earlier than I can really remember, I was sold to a group of vicious people for mere pocket change. Those people took me to their base and what followed was seemingly endless torture, or ‘training’ as they called it; it was nothing but constant pain and fear. Most of my friends couldn’t take it, and one after one they either died or grew insane. I don’t know why I survived it really . . . but eventually, I was rescued.”
Javelin froze in his tracks as he looked at Raven with confusion in his eyes.
“I don’t remember my original name, but I was given a name by my rescuers. They decided to called me Raven – said my eyes held too much wisdom for my age.” Raven chuckled weakly at the memory of her loving father, Lord Maleo, as he held her in his arms and gave her the very same name she had gone by in her previous life.
Raven wiped her tears and looked up at Javelin, who stood less than a meter from her bed by now. He still seemed confused. What Raven didn’t notice was that next to her, Hoatzin watched her intently with deep agony in his eyes.
“But . . . your last name . . .” Javelin faltered.
“I had to pick something, right? What is more fitting for a broken assassin that belongs in the darkness.” Raven averted her eyes again – she really looked broken.
Javelin took the last few steps to once more crouch down at Raven’s side, now grabbing her hand. “You don’t belong in the darkness, Raven,” he said as he flashed her a halfhearted smile. With his free hand, Javelin brushed a loose strand of hair out of her face. “You are more than an assassin too.” Javelin’s smile grew warmer and yet another memory surfaced within Raven.
He stood in front of me, bravely blocking my path. As always, he radiated warmth and life, but his eyes held a seriousness I’d only seen in him when he worked.
“Raven,” he said with his husky voice; I didn’t want to admit it, but that voice sent chills down my spine, and not in a bad way.
I attempted to step around him, but he moved to block me. If it had been anyone else, such actions would impossibly be enough to stop me but not for him.
“Raven I am serious, run away with me.”
I shook my head and was about to list everything that made such silly notions insurmountable, but he knew what I was going to say before I said it. “Don’t tell me it can’t be done,” he intervened, “I know you’ve helped others do it.”
“That was different,” I almost yelled. “You don’t know what I’ve done, what I am.”
He refused to back down, just like I knew he would. “I now more than you think, Raven, but I also know that what you do is not who you are! You are so much more than that!”
Looking into his passionate eyes, I so desperately wanted to believe him. But I didn’t. I never would.
Uninvited, a genuine tear ran down Raven’s cheek and landed on the hand Javelin still held by her chin.
As if the sudden moisture made him realize the intimacy of his actions, Javelin’s face reddened and he backed away from the bed. His hand instinctively went to the back of his head, scratching it nervously. “Ah, um, sorry for yelling at you before. I shouldn’t have assumed . . .”
Stuck in old memories, Raven briefly didn’t understand what he was referring to but her mind quickly cleared. Once more wiping away her tears, she shook her head. “No, you have every right to be upset. I did lie to you after all.”
“Why would you lie about it though? I mean, a seven years old high Adept is world-shattering in itself, if the school knew you were a girl they would fawn over you endlessly – heck, the entire continent would!”
“I didn’t want to . . .” Raven stopped mid-sentence, shocked. “High Adept?'”Javelin’s statement caused her to do what she’d been putting off the entire time since she regained consciousness; she turned her attention inwards.
Raven almost gasped in shock. Within her, spinning at an incredible speed, was a large red vortex of spirit essence – judging by its size, there was no doubt that Raven was a high Adept. ‘I’m almost halfway to the Champion bottleneck!’ This was a conclusion she simply couldn’t believe – even for an advanced student, the transition from peak mid Adept to peak high Adept was one that should take roughly six years!
Subtle bursts of essence pulsated out of it every now and then, sending waves of strengthening energy throughout her body. ‘It’s still unstable. . .’ When a spirit core made qualitative leaps, it would enter a period of instability, where it tried to hold more spirit essence than it actually could handle. Like an overfilled glass, this essence would spill over, in turn strengthening the spiritualist’s body further.
Usually, these effects would only last about an hour or so after the initial breakthrough. The fact that it was still going on, indicated how big Raven’s leap actually was.
Despite her newfound strength, Raven still felt a bit apprehensive. Her current aches could be attributed to the rapid changes of her body, but what about that beast she had seen? Tentatively, Raven started examining every inch of her body but found nothing wrong. Even her soul prism was relatively unchanged – she had gain yet another spirit connection but what was one connection more when you already had 373 of them?
‘Why can’t I shake the feeling that something is a bit off with my soul prism?’ Raven pondered. ‘Is it the imprints?’
Before she could investigate further though, Javelin’s confused voice broke the silence. “Raven?” he asked confused – she had, after all, just stopped talking out of nowhere.
The boy’s voice brought Raven’s focus back outside. “Ah, sorry, got distracted by the improvement in my cultivation,” she smiled apologetically. “I didn’t want anyone to know because I like my freedom. Prodigies tend to die young and while I would perhaps be protected by my sex, that would likely only work as long as I agreed to be married off into the right family.”
Javelin’s eyes narrowed a bit, but he slowly nodded in agreement. What Raven said wasn’t wrong. Everywhere on the Trinity continent, strength ruled the world. Those who held the power would not approve of such a powerful free agent as a former slave. While fewer would be inclined to act against a woman, strong spiritualist women were considered prime mating material. As the youngest high Adept Javelin had even heard of, Raven would not have a free day in her life.
The two of them continued talking for a while. Javelin had a few more questions, mostly about what had happened to Raven to make her pass out in the hallway – something she honestly explained as being overwhelmed by the spirit essence from the Day of Light, supposedly fainting on her way to get help from the headmaster. In turn, Raven was eager to learn how Javelin had explained her absence over the last three days. “Closed-door cultivation after a big breakthrough”, apparently.
As they talked, Raven noticed Javelin growing quiet every once in a while. It was as if he suddenly thought of something that he’d like to ask but ultimately decided against. Still, Raven was impressed by how easily Javelin seemed to adjust to her being a girl. ‘Perhaps he sensed it before’ she wondered.
Eventually though, Javelin left. He had been watching over Raven almost around the clock ever since he brought her out from the tower but later that evening he was expected to take part in an event at the Sea Empire embassy, so he needed sleep.
“Thank you for helping me, Javelin.” Raven had called out to him as he left. Javelin had paused at the door and given her a smiling nod. Just as he walked out the room he had stopped again.
“I nearly forgot. Headmaster Swan wishes to see you once you get out of your ‘closed door cultivation’.”
“Okay, thank you,” replied Raven but Javelin had already walked out of her line of sight.
“Well, that went better than I expected,” said Hoatzin as he flew down and landed in Raven’s lap. “He seemed to believe you – he has even stopped calling you ‘Night’.”
Raven nodded pensively.
“So it would seem. . . .”
“Then again, you didn’t really lie, did you?”
Raven looked down at her brother and when he saw the defeat in her face, Hoatzin held up a red-tipped wing and shook his head. “Never mind, sister, never mind,” he said and changed subject; “at least my Day of Light experience went well – look, what do you think of my new feathers?” He spread the feathers wide to give Raven a better view. Immediately her face softened.
“Very handsome,” she said, a mischievous glint appearing in her eyes. “I bet all the other birds will swoon at the very sight of you.”