While Raven and Hoatzin went over what they had experienced during the Day of Light, Javelin trekked through the knee-deep snow that covered every nook and cranny of the winter-white Sky City. At a steady pace he made his way towards the city’s center, but contrary to his walking, Javelin’s mind was far from steady.
As he walked, Javelin thought back on the conversations he had just had with Raven – his shockingly female roommate – and couldn’t help but grow confused. As far as he could tell, Raven had been honest with him about her past. She had perhaps withheld some information here and there, but that gut-feeling – the one that had been helping him spot Raven’s lies as of late – didn’t stir more than once or twice.
‘Then she can’t be the same Raven. . . .’ he thought, ‘their childhoods don’t match.’ However, as he thought this, Javelin felt that very same gut-feeling warning him that something was wrong with his conclusions. ‘If they are not the same person, then why do I keep seeing . . .’ he couldn’t make himself finish the thought.
Javelin continued his silent walk, opting to take the longer path rather than heading straight for the nearest transporter outpost. After nearly an hour of walking and then flying, Javelin finally arrived at the Sea Empire’s embassy – one of the few businesses located on the Mansion Tier – but his thoughts were still a mess.
He sighed; Javelin could understand why Raven would want to keep her gender a secret. He himself had been betrothed to a promising spiritualist girl since before he could remember, and even without his heart yearning for someone already dead, Javelin would not hesitate to break off the engagement if opportunity arose.
‘Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking on my part. . . .’
Ironically, this Raven was perhaps unique enough for even his strictly traditional father to agree to backing out of the arrangement with his fiancée’s family. At least if it had been any other family. . . .
It took another two days for Raven to fully stabilize her core, but even then her muscles still felt sore – stronger than ever, but very sore. Nonetheless, her cultivation had kept improving, solidifying her as a high Spirit Adept. Over these two days Raven had also tried to figure out what had changed within her soul prism – she was certain something was different but no matter how hard she looked, Raven couldn’t pinpoint what had changed.
While Raven recuperated, Hoatzin had refused to leave her side, no matter how hard she insisted that they needed to look into what the Talon’s were up to. “Not until you are better,” he would repeat resolutely every time the subject was raised.
Meanwhile, Javelin had returned to the house several times, but he would always stop about a hundred meters away, pace back and forth a few times and then leave. Raven found this behavior a bit amusing at first but after a while she started to wish that Javelin would find the courage to simply ask whatever it was that he had on his mind.
“He’s come again,” noted Hoatzin out off nowhere.
“I know,” sighed Raven. She wondered briefly if she should go out and confront the boy, when her thoughts suddenly froze. Raven stared at her brother. He sat nestled deep within the fibers of a fluffy carpet in front of the living room’s open fireplace – there was no window nearby that could possibly allow Hoatzin a view of the street outside. “Brother, how come you know that Javelin has returned?”
Hoatzin didn’t look away from the flames as he lazily answered, “who else would be walking back and forth at that same spot in the middle of the day? Everyone else is at home with their families.”
Raven raised a surprised eyebrow but said nothing. As if sensing his sister’s gaze, Hoatzin lifted his still white feathered head. “What?”
His apparent confusion caused Raven to chuckle lightly. “Javelin is nearly a hundred meters down the road, big brother – don’t you find it odd that you know he’s there?” she said with a crooked smile.
“He’s not a hun-. . .” Hoatzin’s brown eyes widened. Immediately he spread his wings and flew over to the window facing the street where Javelin could be glanced further down. “I’ll be damned, he really is a hundred meters away! How come I can tell he is there?”
Raven got up and joined her brother by the window. Outside was an exceptionally quiet street, covered in muffling snow. Even with Raven’s hearing not a lot of sounds could be heard. ‘That must be it,’ she thought as she held out a hand for her brother to land on.
“Big brother, how many spirit connections do you have right now?”
“54,” snorted Hoatzin, a bit dejectedly. “You know, it’s not fair that you, my little sister, gained over a hundred new connections for nearly dying while I, who actually died, only gained fifty!”
Raven blinked a few times before she burst out laughing.
“Brother, haven’t you noticed that you can see, hear and feel a lot more than before?” Hoatzin tilted his head in confusion, so Raven in turn inclined hers towards an ice tap hanging over a window across the street. “See that? Tell me, can you not hear the drops hitting the small ice patch below the tap?”
Hoatzin was about to declare his sister crazy when his little eyes widened yet again. “How is that possible?”
“It’s your spirit connections. Once you pass fifty there is a huge leap in your senses’ quality. I’m surprised you didn’t notice, but perhaps the lack of activity around here has made it harder to pick up.” Raven was still smiling. Before, her brother’s soul prism, or rather soul shard, had barely been strong enough to sustain the few spirit connections she had given up so that Hoatzin could gain a physical body. Now, he had over fifty connections and a cultivation equivalent to a brand new Spirit Adept. Clearly he had made huge progress towards his goal.
“It’s from my spirit connections?” Hoatzin didn’t seem to understand.
“You will see what I mean once we get to a more crowded area – it might overwhelm you at first, but you’ll get used to it.”
With Hoatzin still in a daze, Raven scooped him up and started walking towards the front door. It was about time for Raven and her brother to return to reality – they needed to start finding the answers to all their newfound questions.
Outside, Javelin paced back and forth in a dim alleyway. It was the fifth time in two days that he had made it this far, but every time the actual house came in sight, his determination faltered.
“By the seagull’s cry, just ask her!” Javelin shouted out in frustration as he kicked the house wall next to him.
“Ask whom what?” an amused voice rang out behind him.
Javelin spun around only to see Raven standing no more than a meter away from him. “Ah, Ra-Raven!” he stammered but just as the words left his mouth, the grey robed Raven took a small step backwards. Javelin barely managed to register this shift before a heap of cold snow flopped down on top of him.
Like an avalanche, practically all of the snow that had been on the roof, slid down from above. By the time the downpour stopped, Javelin was chest high in snow, with a lump of the cold stuff stacked like a cone on his head.
For a brief moment there was silence, but it didn’t take long before Javelin noticed how Raven’s slender shoulders shook violently, as if she was trying her best not to laugh. Javelin felt his cheeks heat up. He was so embarrassed – and the fact that even Tzin, the bird, seemed to be holding back a laugh didn’t make it better.
“You could have warned me too,” he grunted.
He tried to move out of the snow but it was harder to lift his legs than Javelin had expected, nearly causing him to fall over.
*Pfft* Raven couldn’t hold it in any longer and a small laugh escaped her. Tzin on the other hand was wheezing with what Javelin assumed to be a bird’s heavy laughter.
“It’s not funny.”
In flustered frustration Javelin activated his spirit essence to force the snow away from him. He had expected some of it to slam into the now giggling Raven, but the snow just skid past her. Tzin, on the other hand got hit, causing him to instantly go tumbling off of Raven’s shoulder, disappearing into the deep snow behind her.
This in turn led to Raven laughing even more and Javelin could feel his cheeks warm up yet again, although, not with embarrassment this time. ‘Laughing suits her. . . .’ he thought in a daze.
Steam rose from the hole Tzin had made with his body and soon an ember covered bird popped out of it, heading straight for Javelin’s face with impressive speed. Wide eyed, Javelin was about to defend himself when the still laughing Raven intervened by moving in between them.
“Now, now, Tzin, don’t blame him. I could have blocked it for you too.” Raven turned and smiled warmly at Javelin. “Sorry, Jav, I couldn’t resist.”
Javelin just stared. For three days he had watched over the unconscious Raven. For three days, Javelin had been reevaluating everything he knew about Raven’s appearance but it was perhaps first now that it truly hit him; Raven was a girl, and beneath those icy cold eyes, she was beautiful.
As if realizing his thoughts, Raven’s smile dropped, only to be replaced by the harsher expression he had grown accustomed with. Instantly, Raven grew more masculine – Javelin could hardly believe the transformation.
“Did you want to ask me something?” she prompted and the distance in her voice was like a bucket of cold water over his head.
“Well, um . . . I just wondered . . .” Javelin floundered about. The question he had wanted to ask didn’t seem right anymore. “I just wondered, you being Singer and all . . . will you help me, um, train. . . ?”
Raven looked at him disbelievingly for a while and Javelin thought his heart would stop, but eventually Raven gave one of her signature cold smiles and nodded. “Sure,” she said, “but I doubt you’ll like it.”
Without waiting for a reply, Raven started walking down the street and Javelin breathed a sigh of relief. ‘Why does her stare seem even more intense now?’
At this point Javelin could have sworn he heard a snort. When he looked around, his eyes met with Tzin’s. ‘Is the bird sneering at me?’
“Coming?” called Raven further down the road.
“Coming?” Javelin was confused.
“You wanted to get help with your training, right?” Raven glanced over her shoulder and Javelin didn’t miss the mischievous glint in her eyes. She raised a pale hand and pointed towards the Academy Tier. “Guess who has an appointment with the cold air in Sky Academy’s garden.”
Javelin’s face fell.
A few hours later, darkness had already descended over Sky City. After giving Javelin the necessary instructions to begin his sub-zero meditation, Raven headed towards the headmaster’s office, while Hoatzin finally agreed to take a flight around the city to find out what the Talon’s were up to.
Just like before, Raven could sense nothing through the isolating walls and door that surrounded the isolated office. Double-checking the control on her Limiters, Raven knocked on the door. There was a brief silence before the large door swung open.
“Come in,” called the familiarly soft voice of Headmaster Swan. Raven did as she was told but had to bite her tongue not to freeze up on the doorstep. Seated in the armchairs by the fireplace was not only the headmaster but also Vice Headmaster Gadwall, cousin Dunlin and also a pale-haired woman in her forties.
It might have been thirty months since Raven saw her last but even if her senses had been reduced to a non-spiritaulist’s, Raven would still have recognized that woman right away.
It was Aunt Anhinga.
“My apologies, Headmaster,” said Raven with a bow. “I was not aware that Headmaster had company.”
Raven’s body and voice was acting entirely on reflex. She barely registered what she had said, nor how she now straightened and was about to leave the room all together. The only thing Raven could think of was the ghastly sight of her collapsing family members and aunt Anhinga’s harrowing laugh.
“By all means, Student Night, stay,” urged Headmaster Swan and instead looked regrettably towards the rest of his guests. “As I warned, my next appointment has arrived. I will, however, be delighted to resume our discussion at a later time.”
Anhinga smiled warmly at the headmaster as she got up from her armchair. “It must be hard, taking care of so many students; making men out of mice. . . .” She gave Raven a cold glance, but the latter wasn’t looking her way so the two didn’t make eye contact. When neither the headmaster nor Raven reacted, Anhinga curtsied lightly towards the former. “Until later then,” she said and left, closely followed by Dunlin who glared angrily at Raven as he passed her.
Apart from Raven and the headmaster, only Gadwall remained in the office. For a moment Raven thought the man would remain, but before the doors had completely closed behind the departing Talons, Swan cleared his throat; “Smew, you have preparations for the next term to see to, I believe. Don’t let my small whims keep you.” Swan’s smile was warm and genuine, and although Gadwall seemed a bit disappointed, he too smiled warmly. “Thank you, Headmaster,” he said and left.
As the door clicked shut behind her, Raven could feel cold sweat running down her spine. ‘Mid Champion. . . . aunt Anhinga is a mid Champion!’ This had truly shocked her. Although Raven had known that her aunt was a spiritualist, the last time she heard her father speak of it, her aunt hadn’t even matched up to Raven’s mother, a mid Adept.
‘What is going on with the Talons’ cultivation levels? Is it perhaps Gadwall’s doing?’ Raven’s mind spun with images of the dark essence flowing from Dunlin and Jack to the vice headmaster. ‘Was I imagining things or had Dunlin’s presence faded a bit?’
“Junior Student Night?”
Raven reacted to her name being called, only to realize that the headmaster had actually called to her at least two times already, without Raven really registering it.
“My apologies, Headmaster!” Raven bowed deeply, but Swan only chuckled.
“Don’t worry about it, young Night. Have a seat,” he gestured towards the armchairs that had just been vacated. Raven didn’t really feel like sitting in those chairs but she took a seat nonetheless.
“How was your first Spirit Hall experience?” Swan asked after a moments silence. “I heard from Student Hake that you gained quite a few benefits.”
Raven was already prepared for this question. “It was a very thrilling experience,” she said with awe-filled eyes, “the moment that first batch of spirit essence entered my soul prism it was as if the world and I was one being. Truly marvelous! I even managed to break through to the Adept realm!” Raven blurted out one sentence of praise after the other, being every inch an excited seven-year-old. When she mentioned her new cultivation, shock flashed across the headmaster’s eyes, quickly followed by immense joy.
“I only wish that the sensation could have lasted longer. . .” Raven hurriedly continued but at this point she shuddered slightly, as if afraid. Internally, she hesitated a bit – after Gadwall’s odd display and the earlier meeting with the Talons, Raven wasn’t sure she trusted the headmaster either, but she needed to start somewhere.
Picking up on Raven’s apparent fear, Swan frowned slightly. “Did something go wrong during the ceremony?” he asked.
“Not wrong, exactly. It’s just . . . I thought I saw a beast within the spirit essence at the end. . . .” Raven’s voice trailed off.
This was a gamble. All of Raven’s senses were focused on Headmaster Swan as the last words left her mouth. The reaction from the white-haired man was more instant and dramatic than Raven had expected.
Swan stood up from his armchair so fast that it fell backwards and slammed into the marble floor. His face was filled with utter shock and disbelief as he dashed forward and grabbed Raven’s arm before the latter had a chance to even react.
“What did you just say!?” Headmaster Swan’s voice was anything but its usual calm as his fingers clutched Raven so tightly it actually hurt.