It was barely past noon, but the low rising sun of early spring had already started its descent, shrouding most of the northern Sky Empire in premature darkness. However, not all parts of the vast mountain-range empire was as strongly effected.
Deep within the seemingly unending mountain forest located in the far south-west of the Rock Wren Prefecture, some defiant rays of sunlight trickled its way through patches in the heavy leaf canopy. One such opening was above a small and well-hidden waterfall.
Usually only wild animals and spirit beasts would be seen here, carefully drinking of the cool water that gathered beneath it, but not today. Today, a young girl had submerged herself in the crystal clear pool with a serene look on her twilight-lit face. Her eyes were closed as she floated with her head just above the surface of the water.
Dark, shoulder-long hair spread out like a flower around her pale face as the transparent water did little to hide the maturing body of a girl in her mid to late teens. While she could not yet be considered truly alluring, every muscle in her body was toned to perfection and there was an air of grace about her that would put an empress to shame.
Suddenly, roughly fifty meters away from the waterfall, there was a slight rustle in the leaves, followed by a muffled groan. Any normal girl would have panicked at the sound and hurried to cover herself up, but not this one. An amused smile crossed her face, and without opening her eyes she called out into the forest.
“Getting tired?” she asked, her voice soft like summer rain, but there was only a grunt for a reply. “I warned you that I would take my time. . . .”
Once more there was no proper reply but begrudged mumbling still reached the girl’s ears; “why do girls love to bathe so much?”
The girl’s smile widened and fortunately no one was there to see it, for they would have been spellbound by it.
“Although I find your wish to protect my secret charming, you know as well as I do that my senses are stronger than yours,” as the girl spoke her smile twitched slightly, becoming more mischievous in nature. “If you insist on keeping me company, you might as well join me in the water. You’re a great swimmer, after all.”
Before the last words even left her mouth a loud cracking noise with a subsequent crash rang out through the forest – her guardian had snapped a branch, tumbling to the ground. The girl started giggling uncontrollably, forcing her to steady her feet against the rocks at the bottom of the pool or risk drowning.
“D-Don’t be ridiculous!” the other person finally called back, his male voice oddly high pitched. The girl’s giggles turned into hearty laughter and the boy in the woods cleared his throat. When he spoke again, his voice was deeper, manlier. “Ehem, I like my eyes where they are, thank you very much, and I will not have your bird poking them out over a mere waterfall dip.”
“A mere dip, huh?”
Without the boy noticing, the girl had already left the cool waters and moved to stand behind her companion. The boy jumped up from the ground in a start, revealing the broken branch he had accidentally broken off earlier.
Now standing, the boy – or rather young man – was approaching two meters tall, and even through the multilayered robes he wore, his impressive muscular structure was apparent. Unruly blonde hair framed his slightly sun tanned face. He seemed to be around eighteen and he was refreshingly handsome.
“Ra-Raven!” he stuttered, his eyes widening as they fell upon the hip-long grey robe jacket that clung tightly to Raven’s still dripping body. Quickly he averted his gaze and backed away a few steps, causing him to slam into the tree behind him.
Raven’s deep red eyes twinkled with amusement at the boy’s reaction. “I’d think you’ve never seen a woman before, Jav,” she teased and Javelin’s ears turned bright red. “Of course I have!” he retorted with a glare but his face reddened even further so he quickly looked away again.
Raven chuckled but chose to not entice the boy any more. “Anyway, I’m done now. You might as well go get the others while I change. I’ll need five minutes.”
Javelin opened his mouth to protest but decided against it. Instead he nodded and rushed off into the forest. Raven smiled at the disappearing back of her friend. It had been a bit over three years since Javelin had learned that Raven was actually a girl, and he had made it his mission to protect her secret at all costs.
Raven couldn’t help but chuckle as she thought back on some of the more peculiar situations this protectiveness of his had put them in.
‘So much has changed since then,’ thought Raven as she returned to the water’s edge and glanced down at her reflection. What met her was undoubtedly a young woman rather than a boy. Her lifelong cultivation had sped up her body’s development more than Raven had expected so even though she was technically only ten, she had the height and body of a fairly well-developed sixteen-year-old. ‘It won’t be long now before wrapping my chest won’t be enough….’ she concluded with a sigh.
Nonetheless, Raven picked up some long linen straps from the ground and started molding herself into a manlier form. She put on the rest of her robes, activated the Fox’s Veil; once she was done with her transformation, few would ever suspect her as anything but a tawny teenage boy.
Not long after she was ready, Javelin’s voice called out to her in attempt to warn her that he and the other students he had picked up were approaching – not that his warning was necessary since none of them had ever left the range on Raven’s senses. Raven met up with the group, consisting of Javelin and three older, last year students – one of which was a low Spirit Champion from the advanced martial class who acted as the leader for their little group of five.
It was not only Raven’s body that had changed over time, the political situation within the three empires had changed a lot too. Nothing so drastic as an empress accused for treason, but a steadily increasing unrest among the people had started to cause significant tension on the continent. The unrest didn’t have one specific cause and was rather a complex construction of many different things, which made it very hard to deal with.
One of the problems stemmed from an increasing amount of rogue spiritualists who had been making a habit of robbing traveling merchants. The robberies made the already harsh roads downright deadly and these five students, together with several other similar groups, had been sent out by Sky Academy with orders to help lessen the rogues’ hold on the land routes. They had been at it for over a week, breaking up several bandit crews in the process, and it was now time for them to head back to the Academy.
“We’ve wasted enough time,” said the low Champion begrudgingly. He had a very strict personality and had not approved of the group’s wish to take a longer break here on their way back to Sky City – had it not been the wish of the group’s healer, and only openly female member, he would likely have refused outright. “If any one even mentions the word rest to me again I will beat them into a pulp. Got it?”
He didn’t wait for the others to reply before he strode off towards their Everest Hawk that waited in a tree top about hundred meters away. Javelin’s gaze met Raven’s and they both rolled their eyes theatrically. That older student acted so harshly because he believed he was the strongest in the group, which otherwise consisted of mid and high Adepts, but Javelin knew that he wasn’t – far from it actually.
It looked like Javelin was going to say something but before he had the chance, a pair of pale hands wrapped themselves around his arm. Lady Cara Nestor, the team’s extremely talented healer, nestled up against Javelin with a seductive smile. “Shall we go?” she asked in a soft voice, her plump chest nearly burying his arm. Javelin’s face flushed pink and, without really realizing it, he was already being lead after the group leader. He shot Raven an apologetic smile over his shoulder, but didn’t resist.
Raven shook her head. Javelin was soon to be fourteen and even though his cultivation and upbringing had matured both his body and mind greatly beyond his age, puberty was after all puberty; it would be stranger if he didn’t react to a girl’s advances. Nonetheless, Raven couldn’t help click her tongue disapprovingly at Cara’s behavior. Initially Raven had been quite fond of the girl since the latter had shown consideration to Hoatzin during his acceptance banquet all those years ago, but now Cara only annoyed her.
‘The girl is over eighteen – can’t she hunt someone her own age?’ Raven thought bitterly as she followed the pair towards the waiting Hawk.
Meanwhile, further north in Sky City – which that low rising sun had long since abandoned – a tawny man ran for his life. In clothes more akin to rags the man weaved in and out through dark alleyways of the Business Tier, doing his best to shake his pursuers.
Although the man’s attire pegged him as a nothing more than a beggar, his spirit essence boosted speed revealed him as something more. Most likely, he had been sent to spy on someone in an area where his normal clothes would catch too much attention. Unfortunately for him, the subterfuge had only been partially successful.
As he ran, his eyes were wrought with fear but also determination; ‘I must bring this information to my mistress!’ he vowed to himself as he tightened his grip on the small orb in his hand. ‘Only a little bit further. . . .’
Not too far away was the messenger outpost that was the man’s destination and safe haven – just two more turns and he would be there – but as he headed down his next passageway, the hairs on the back of his neck suddenly stood on end.
In the nick of time, the man in rags managed to grind to a halt and throw himself backwards, narrowly avoiding the silvery blade that otherwise would have logged itself deep in his head.
Realizing that he could run no more, the man readied his spirit essence for a fight and called out into the darkness defiantly. “Show yourself, you bastard!” he spat.
At first there was no response, but slowly a dark figure emerged from the shadows. The newcomer wore tight-fitting black robes that allowed free movement and small daggers were lodged between his gloved fingers. He wore a hood too but as he stepped out into the dim light of the street lanterns he used the tip of one of his daggers to pull it back, revealing his well-trimmed blue-grey hair and similarly colored eyes.
“You!” the man in rags gasped, his fighting spirit gone.
“Yes, me.” The reply was calm and unfeeling. “But I don’t appreciate being called a bastard – only my parents can call me that.”
“But . . . but why? We’ve paid you . . .” There had been more the man had wanted to say but it never got out as a dagger suddenly pierced his throat.
Lifeless, the posing beggar slumped to the ground and from his hand rolled the jade green orb he had died trying to protect. It came to a halt next to the killer’s feet.
“Sorry man,” the one left standing said as he bent down to pick up the orb. “but some things weigh heavier than gold, and you poked your nose where it doesn’t belong.”
With a flick of his wrist, the orb disappeared as it instead was stored inside a spacial ring. He sighed. “Seriously though, how many people has that woman pissed off? I thought this favor of hers would be . . . simpler.”
Without further comment, and without bothering to hide the corpse, the man with the blue-grey hair also disappeared, melding with the shadows once more.
A few days later, and many miles away, a lavish and obscenely expensive porcelain vase was flung across a vast room, shattering into a million pieces as it hit the brown-red marble floor. A frustrated shout followed that could easily be heard even outside the room’s thick stone walls.
Lady Anhinga paced angrily back and forth with the fabric of her blue velvet gown billowing about her. “Say it again!” she bellowed at the poor messenger who had spurred this reaction with his news.
Standing on his knees, drenched in cold-sweat, the boy didn’t dare do anything but comply. “The . . . the Clan Elder has reported that we have lost another two spies. They still don’t know who is behind it.”
“Incompetent fools!” Lady Anhinga grabbed another priceless vase a threw it across the room in rage. This time it landed fairly close to the messenger boy and some of the shards hit him. He winced in pain but knew better than to complain. Fortunately Anhinga felt no need to keep the boy any longer. “Get out!” she ordered while flicking a third and substantially smaller pot in his direction, but the boy managed to dodge it.
Once alone, Lady Anhinga slumped down in the large, throne-like armchair at the center of the room. For a moment she seemed old, so very old, and her eyes drifted off into the distance. A barely audible “brother. . . .” escaped her lips as her eyes turned misty.
Out of nowhere, she suddenly slammed her hand down on the armrest with full force, causing the chair to vibrate noticeably under her. “No! It was my right!” she yelled firmly, perhaps to convince herself. She shook of her melancholy and the earlier anger returned to her face.
“I can’t believe those old geezers – how many times must they fail before they start bringing results! Ever since this mess started, they have only grown evermore useless. . . .” She grunted angrily and started ranting to herself about everything that had gone wrong lately, and everything she wanted – no needed – to go right in the near future.
She ranted to let off some steam, believing she was alone and safe from prying ears. What she didn’t notice was a small red and white bird perched on a beam high above her head. The birds eyes were full of even more anger and resentment than Anhinga’s as it quietly listened to everything that was said below.