Raven’s mind reeled. Many questions that had been hard to grasp before started to get some reasonable answers as she considered the possibilities that these outer-realm people added. There was for example the supposedly mythical Phoenix Death Lotus that had been used to kill her family; it was a flower that only existed in legends yet somehow the Talons had gotten a hold of it. It should be impossible, but who knew what could be found in all the other realms?
Raven also couldn’t help but remember the rumors that Dunlin and his gang had spread concerning her supposedly stolen cultivation. It had seemed like a preposterous thing to claim at the time – there were simply no records of any theft or transferral of cultivation ever taking place – but perhaps it had not been as random an accusation as Raven had first assumed. If Gadwall was the original instigator, then perhaps he was speaking from his own experience.
She needed to know more.
“I take it they do not like us very much,” Raven half stated, half asked, the still mumbling Headmaster. The man blinked and looked at Raven. “The people from the other realms I mean,” she continued.
Swan sighed, finally relaxing his fists a bit. “To say that they don’t like us, would imply that they cared enough to form an opinion.” He tucked his hands into the sleeves of his robe, leaning back on his heels. “And why would they? From what I gather, even twenty year old Spirit Masters aren’t unheard of in some of the other realms. . . .” A trace of melancholy filled the man’s golden eyes as he stared off at the central pillar of water. “No, it’s more like they find it wasteful to leave so many resources in the hands of us weaklings.”
“Then why do they?”
“Huh?” The question had caught the headmaster off guard.
“If they do not approve of us being here, why don’t they just take over? Surely one man’s saved life would not be enough to keep all of them at bay forever.”
“Ah, I see your point, Student Night, but you don’t need to worry about any invasions.” He gave Raven a reassuring smile. “They might not be polite towards us, but neither will they harm us.”
From his expression, Raven could tell that the headmaster intended to leave it at that, but Raven persisted; “but why not?”
Swan seemed to grow a bit frustrated at her insistence but he chose to reply nonetheless. “Because those are the rules; no realm is allowed to make moves to seize control over a . . . less developed realm. Doing so would cause the other realms to unite in exterminating the initiator. This is done to protect the variation in the realms.”
Raven frowned. ‘Then what is Gadwall doing?’ If her new theory was correct then Gadwall was likely the mysterious foreigner referred to as ‘Elder W’, only he wasn’t simply from another empire but rather from one of the other realms. However, he must have a motivation for coming to this specific realm and stirring up trouble. While Raven pondered this, Headmaster Swan casually gave her another piece of information.
“Of course, for that same reason, they would have no choice but to intervene if a lesser realm was on the brink of self-destruction, though I doubt that happens very often.”
Raven’s eyes widened and she almost jumped up and down on the spot. ‘That’s it!’
“That’s what?” asked the slightly confused Swan, and only then did Raven realize that she had spoken out loud. Raven quickly raised her hands to cover her mouth, but as countless possible lies – with all their pros and cons – were being constructed in her mind, Raven recognized that perhaps this was the time to come clean and gain a powerful ally in the process.
‘While I am confident to be able to handle the Talon Clan in a few years time, if Gadwall is truly from another realm. . . . Even if I get strong enough to handle him, who knows how much damage he will have done to the political situation in the three empires by then!’
Raven made up her mind.
She lowered her hands from her mouth, all her faked youth gone. “Headmaster, if I open the seal and swear on my soul prism that I will do everything in my power to reach the requirements for entering the multi-realm tournament, will you hear me out regarding something else?”
Taken aback by the sudden maturity and seriousness in his student, headmaster Swan simply stared at Raven, astounded. She held his gaze and eventually the headmaster’s long white hair shook as he nodded his agreement.
“Headmaster, you must promise me that you will listen to everything I have to say, including a rather selfish request.” Raven pushed the matter once more, her red eyes glowing with intensity and, despite himself, Swan – the Spirit Master – felt a shiver run down his spine. For a moment he forgot that the person in front of him was a barely seven years old youth, who was so far from him in terms of power that it was like comparing a mountain to a pebble. He swallowed.
“I, Eider Swan, swear on my soul prism that I will listen to everything you wish to tell me today and will likewise take your request under serious consideration, or let the Spirit Star forever turn its back on me.” As the last words left his mouth, a pure white spirit star appeared on his forehead. Slowly its light faded, as it was absorbed into the skin.
Raven was pleasantly surprised; she had not expected the headmaster to go so far as to swear a soul-oath to her, and that even before she had made hers. Soul-oaths were powerful things. Nobody really knew why they worked, but any spiritualist could do it – no imprint required. It was a way to bind your own soul to a specific task, failure to comply would cause the soul prism to seal itself permanently from further influence from the outside world. Choosing the words for the oath carefully was vital though; a single poorly chosen word and one might, unintentionally, put oneself in an impossible situation.
Noticing Raven’s surprise, Swan too seemed to realize that his actions had perhaps been a tad rushed. He thought back on what he had just said and couldn’t help but sigh a breath of relief; at least he hadn’t promised anything impossible.
“Since Headmaster has already made an oath, I might as well speak first.” Raven sat down, cross-legged, on the ground and indicated for Swan to do the same. “You told me the true story of Sky Academy’s founder. Now let me tell you the true story of the small girl who, on a warm autumn day seven years ago, was born into the loving and devoted head family of the Nightingale Clan.”
Raven relaxed her muscles and released the shrouding effect of the Fox’s Veil arm-guard she always wore under her robes. Headmaster Swan gasped as he witnessed the transformation, but Raven ignored his outburst and calmly started telling her story.
For nearly three hours Raven and Swan sat on the cold stone floor next to the abyss surrounding the reverse waterfall, at the very heart of the city’s central mountain peak. Raven retold the events that had transpired since her birth with as much accuracy as she dared. She left out her former memories and her instant cultivation success, instead attributing her rapid influx in spirit connections to the near-death experience brought on by the Phoenix Death Lotus.
Raven also made no mention of her brother’s nigh escape from death. She was aware that doing so might convince Swan to give her an extra Spirit Hall room during the Day of Light, but the benefits of doing so were far outstripped by the risks. Until Hoatzin regained a human body, Raven wouldn’t tell a soul about his existence even if her life depended on it.
As Raven spoke, she brought out the relevant evidence that she had gathered to support her claims, showing everything from I’iwi’s recording of the Talons’ conversation to the documents and statistics Raven had compiled together with Bill and her friends over the last few months. The only tricky part had been to explain what she had been doing outside her Spirit Hall room without bringing Hoatzin into it, but she managed to rather elegantly shift the focus to the two boys passing by on their way to Gadwall.
All this time Headmaster Swan had said nothing. As per his oath, he listened patiently, but his eyes and his breathing clearly gave away his emotions. At first he had been very skeptical – angry even – but as Raven continued to talk the anger had turned to reluctant realization and eventually pain.
Finally Raven came to the end of her story.
“I can come to no other conclusion than that Vice Headmaster Smew Gadwall is likely a person from one of the other realms, who has come here with the intention of pushing the three empires to the point of self-destruction, thus giving his realm a reason to intervene and take over the control of the continent.”
She folded her hands in her lap to show that she was done and waited.
For a very long time, Swan continued to say nothing. Raven could tell the inner conflict going on within him. From what she knew, Gadwall and Swan were fairly close, not sworn brother’s or anything like that, but the two of them had spent a lot of time together and appreciated each others company. Whether those memories were as false as the ones Fenris had given her mercenary uncles or if the real Gadwall had been killed and replaced, Raven didn’t know, but either way it would be a harsh reality to accept. However, the silence did not last forever.
“You have been very thorough in your investigations,” he might have intended it as a compliment, but Swan’s voice held none of its usual warmth and it didn’t feel very endorsing. “I can’t believe . . . no, I don’t want to believe that Gadwall is anyone but the kindhearted scholar I got to know all those years ago, and yet . . . when I listen to you, young Lady Nightingale, I can’t help but remember quite a few inconsistencies that further strengthens your claim.”
Swan closed his eyes and started massaging his temples – he seemed so much older all of a sudden. Drained, the headmaster got to his feet. “I must inform the emperor of this.”
“Wait,” called Raven as Swan turned to leave. “You have not heard my request yet.”
Swan stopped. It looked like he wanted to object, but his oath still bound him. “What is it?” he asked.
“Gadwall’s schemes have led to the eradication of my clan and no doubt puts many more at risk. I want justice for my family, but we were strangers to begin with so I do not really care what form it takes in Gadwall’s case. However,” Raven paused as a bloodthirsty glint flared in her eyes and thick killing intent filled the air around her, “my shrew of an aunt and her opportunistic family chose to kill their relatives for the sake of power. I will never forgive their sins, and I ask of you to be patient enough to let me deal with them personally.”
Cold sweat formed on the headmaster’s forehead. He was a proud Spirit Master – one of less than ten on the entire continent – who had spent nearly a hundred years striving for higher cultivation though battles and near-death situations, but in front of this scrawny, one-and-a-half meter tall girl he felt as helpless as a newborn infant. In his mind Swan knew that his reaction was ridiculous, but his body acted on its own.
However, intellect and reason pushed through. He gave Raven a pitying look. “Lady Nightingale, I . . .”
“Student Night, or simply Raven is fine, Headmaster,” Raven interrupted.
“Raven then, you must realize that we can’t put this off for too long. If we don’t act quickly, who knows who much damage Gadwall and his associates will do. With your cultivation . . .” He didn’t finish is sentence because at that moment the two Limiters around Raven’s ankles finally fell to the ground with a heavy thud. In her hand appeared a glowing orb of spirit essence, and while Swan couldn’t sense the quality of Raven’s spirit essence while it was in her body, he had no problem with doing so once it materialized outside her body.
“Hi-high Spirit Adept?” Swan didn’t believe his senses. “That’s just not . . .”
“Possible?” Raven filled in. “Perhaps so, but it is what it is. Additionally, I can see the seal that the Novum heir left behind.” The headmaster was panting heavily now, his excitement covering up the exhaustion he had felt only moments before. “I don’t need a lot of time, nor do I ask that you do nothing while I grow stronger” continued Raven, “but I will personally bring retribution to the Talons, whether it is now – when I’m too weak – or a few years from now. It is your choice.”
Both Raven and Swan stood in silence, looking at each other. Whereas Raven’s eyes were steady with ruthless determination, Swan’s oscillated between extreme joy and deep worry. He could tell that Raven was serious; she would fight to the death if need be to get her will through, but a genius like her was not one the Sky Empire, or even the Trinity continent, could afford to lose.
“Four years,” Swan said eventually, “Four years from now, the invitation for another tournament will arrive and with it outer-realmers. If you can open the seal, you have until then before we must use those visitors to make our move against Gadwall. I don’t know what you will be able to accomplish by then, but if you’re not strong enough I must ask you to let me handle things.” Noting Raven’s pleased smile, Swan lifted a hand in caution; “however, if you cannot open the seal, then I cannot wait, and will use their visit next year instead. Also, if something unforeseen happens, I might have to act sooner anyway.”
“That is all I ask for,” said Raven with a predatory smile.
She turned over the hand in which she held the glowing orb of spirit essence and slammed it down on the translucent, essence-made Spirit Star on the floor.
– End of Volume 3 –