It took nearly a week for the Everest Hawk to fly Raven and the other four students back to Sky City and the academy. When they arrived, the group’s leader dismissed the rest of them, graciously offering to take care of the tedious task of reporting their results to the headmaster alone.
Raven shook her head as she watched the boy walk away. He might have the highest cultivation of the group but his tactical planning had been dismal; had it not been for Javelin’s and her own inputs, they wouldn’t have found even half as many rogue spiritualists. In fact, the boy’s rash actions had almost cost them their healer at one point – not that he would ever admit it though.
“All that flying has made me quite hungry,” said Cara suddenly and once more moved to snuggle up next to Javelin. “Need I remind you that you promised to let me fix you dinner once we returned?”
Raven rolled her eyes. Cara had coaxed that promise out of Javelin after the group leader’s mistake had almost gotten her killed by a rampaging spirit beast. Raven had been the one who intervened in the last second and saved her by chasing off the beast, but to hide her strength Javelin had been given the credit. Ever since, Cara seemed absolutely smitten by Javelin and was very persistent in her advances. ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have rescued her. . . .’ Raven thought bitterly.
Even after over a week of this type of attention Javelin couldn’t help but become a bit flustered by Cara’s closeness. He glanced up at Raven, instinctively swallowing when their eyes met. He cleared his throat and tried to pry away from the clingy girl, which was nigh impossible without pushing harder against her chest. “Ah, I’m not sure now is a good time. . . .”
“Why not?” pouted Cara and tightened her grip around Javelin’s arm, sinking it deeper into her bosom.
Javelin gave Raven a helpless look and for some reason it annoyed her immensely. “I’m visiting my uncle,” she said coldly, “so don’t mind me.” With a final pointed glare towards Javelin, Raven turned and remounted the Everest Hawk. Before Javelin had a chance to protest, the great bird had taken flight, heading for the lower levels.
‘Don’t feel like rejecting her on your own? Well I’m not going to help you!’
Left behind was Javelin, completely at a loss for what to do.
A still annoyed Raven slammed open the door to her uncle’s house less than half an hour later. With unnecessarily loud steps she strode into the kitchen and sunk down on the closest chair. She lay back her head and sighed heavily.
“Welcome back, sir.” Bill’s polite voice was quick to greet her but Raven only waved her hand grudgingly in return, however the motion froze mid-air and her eyes popped open. ‘Did he say sir?’
A familiar voice filled the kitchen. “The little brat didn’t notice us, how unusual. Let me guess: it’s because of a girl?”
The sharp noise of slap rung out. “Not everyone thinks with his pants, Saltmarsh.”
‘I’m getting rusty,’ thought Raven and smiled wearily. She had let her emotions get the better of her and hadn’t even registered that there were three people in the house rather than one – something she should have known nearly a third of a mile away.
Raven chuckled and straightened in her chair. “Actually, he’s about half right this time, Uncle Dove.”
“Haha, see? I told you the brat’s growing up!” Saltmarsh jabbed an elbow into Dove’s ribs. “Tell me all about her! Is she . . .” he held up his hands to his chest to illustrate his point, causing Dove to shake his head disapprovingly.
Raven didn’t honor Saltmarsh’s question with an answer and instead asked one of her own; “I thought your mercenary corps was given a long time assignment at the Earth Empire’s border until next winter – how come you’re back already?”
Saltmarsh snorted at the change of subject but answered before Dove could nonetheless. “We were – and still are – but we were asked by the boss to escort an old man from the border. We arrived just a few hours ago and figured we might find you here.”
“Escort?” Raven was confused. The assignment her uncle’s mercenary corp had agreed to was a difficult but very well paying one – coming from the Imperial Palace itself – so for their boss to agree to a separate escort mission at the same time just didn’t make sense.
“Yeah, the fellow was apparently afraid of flying; weak-minded old fart,” explained Saltmarsh but Dove didn’t seem to agree. “I’m not so sure. . . .” he said pensively and actually shuddered; “I felt very uncomfortable around him all the way.”
“Ha! You just don’t like riding!” jeered Saltmarsh with a laugh. Dove grimaced towards his friend but said nothing.
“Did the man have a name? An occupation?” Raven asked, unconvinced by Saltmarsh’s explanation.
“We weren’t told. We just referred to him as mister Hound. As for what he does for a living I haven’t the faintest,” Saltmarsh said with a shrug and the room grew silent. Raven kept observing Dove who still seemed perturbed by his reaction to the man.
Noticing the pause in the conversation, Bill stepped forward and gave Raven a cup of warm broth, before facing the other two. “Will you, sirs, be staying for dinner?” His tone was that of a polite servant; as far as Raven’s mercenary uncles were concerned, Bill was a ex-slave that Raven had taken pity on and given a proper, payed job as a housekeeper.
“Unfortunately not,” replied Dove. “We have orders to return right away – by Hawk this time.” He gave Raven a loving look. “I’m glad to see you’re warming up to your friends.” Raven frowned and Dove smiled in response. Saltmarsh walked over and placed a heavy arm on Raven’s shoulder. “Yeah, when we left you here, brat, you wouldn’t have bothered with – let alone become frustrated by – the ladies.” He reached up to ruffle Raven’s hair but she stomped down on his foot causing him to yelp in pain and jump away.
Raven and the others talked only a little while longer before Saltmarsh and Dove had to leave. Once alone, Bill went over everything that had happened during the couple of weeks while Raven had been away which, for once, was fairly little.
“That Limpkin left a message for you though – said he had something to give you. Something important.”
Raven raised her eyebrows in surprise. Limpkin, one of the top ten assassins in the Combat Abyss’ ranking, had put himself in the precarious situation of owing Raven a favor. He, much like Saltmarsh, was the flirtatious sort. In itself this wasn’t really a problem but when you try wooing the wife of the number one assassin things can go downwards quickly and bloodily.
“If he has something for me then it must be concerning either the twins or Javelin. . . .” Getting Limpkin out of his predicament, with both his life and job intact, had not been easy and ever since then Limpkin had been helping ‘Singer’ keep an eye out for people targeting her friends. Raven got up from her chair. “I better go at once. No need to prepare dinner for me – I’ll head back to the academy afterwards.”
With most of her face covered by a black veil, Raven made her way to the Hidden Pearl, the one place she knew could always lead her to Limpkin. The Hidden Pearl was a small but lusciously decorated bar at the southern outskirts of the Mansion Tier. It was one of the few non-residential buildings on that tier and, in theory, only noble women were welcome as guests.
However, there were of course exceptions, and Limpkin was one of them.
Raven paused outside the building, carefully checking her surroundings, before she kicked off from the ground and leaped up to a windowsill on the second floor. The move looked effortless and not even a creak could be heard as she balanced on the narrow ledge.
At the tip of one of her index fingers, a small sliver of spirit essence poured out, shaping itself into a tiny blade. The amount of spirit essence was so minuscule that few would notice it, but as Raven ran her finger along a crack in the window frame the soft click of an opening lock could be heard. She pushed open the window and slipped into the dimly lit room within. Then she simply picked a chair and waited.
Barely ten seconds later, the intoxicated giggling of an older woman approached the room, occasionally joined by more male laughter. Moments later the door to the room swung open and the joyous pair entered the room. Neither of them seemed to notice Raven as they stumbled towards the bed.
“Seriously, Limpkin, how you’ve made it to the top ten as an assassin is beyond me.” Raven sudden voice caused the male to look up at her, his grey-blue eyes a lot clearer than one would expect from a drunkard. The female on the other hand reacted more slowly and by the time she had realized that there was an intruder in the room Raven had already moved to her side. Raven’s essence laced thumb pushed down right above the woman’s bare collar bone, causing her to instantly lose what little consciousness she had left.
“Spoil sport,” Limpkin grunted, but his eyes twinkled with mischief as he looked at Raven’s half-veiled face. “Here I thought you had finally agreed to join the world of the living and have some fun with us.”
“Only in your dreams, Limpkin.”
“Ai,” sighed Limpkin, “those are arduous enough for the both of us.” He gave Raven a wink and she snorted, but there was no malice in it.
“You had something for me?” she asked, moving on to the point at hand.
“Indeed I do.” Limpkin held up his hand and a jade colored orb appeared in it. “They got close this time.”
Raven stretched out a hand to grab it, but Limpkin pulled his hand back. “Not even a thank you? At least let me see that pretty face of yours.”
“How do you know it’s pretty if you haven’t ever seen it?”
“Male intuition,” answered Limpkin proudly but since he closed his eyes slightly in the process Raven used the opportunity to snatch the orb away from him.
“Hey!” Limpkin called out but Raven ignored him, instead focusing on the images and other information recorded in the orb. She frowned. The evidence gathered wasn’t very solid but it revealed some correct facts about Martin and Lark’s involvement in instigating Griffin Clan members to disfavor the Talon Clan whenever the opportunity arose.
“This isn’t good.”
“No,” agreed Limpkin solemnly, his flirtatious attitude gone.
“Think any of it made it to the Talons?”
“Not sure, but I don’t think so.”
“Allright then.” Raven moved towards the window she had entered through. Before she reached it though, Limpkin called out behind her. “I’ve known you for three years now and all you do is train and work. How come you care so much about these three kids?”
Raven paused at the window and looked over her shoulder. “You’re not the only one who needs to repay a debt, Limpkin,” Raven said with a soft smile she knew he couldn’t see. She then climbed out the window and left.
Inside the dim room Limpkin stared at the open window for a while before returning his attention to the now snoring woman on the floor. He lifted her limp body and placed it on the bed. He looked her over, almost hungrily, but then suddenly frowned.
“How odd. How come Singer wasn’t shorter than this woman? I could have sworn she was when I first met her. . . .”
Back in the southern dorms of Sky Academy a thoroughly exhausted Javelin lay sprawled over his bed. In the end he had been left with no choice but to accompany Lady Cara for her self cooked meal.
At first he thought that it perhaps wouldn’t be so bad. Surely a nice, home cooked dinner with an admittedly pretty girl would be enjoyable at least, but as the hours ticked on Javelin had grown evermore suffocated.
He couldn’t really figure out why though. Lady Cara was nice, pretty and he had to admit that his body reacted when she moved in close – which she tended to do regularly – and yet, something felt wrong. Forced.
Javelin sighed. ‘No point dwelling on it,’ he thought and was just about to prepare for bed when the dorm-room door opened and the familiar figure of his roommate entered.
“So you’re still awake. How was Lady Cara’s cooking?” asked Raven, her voice shifting from her faked male tone to her natural one as she spoke. Javelin couldn’t help but shudder; he still hadn’t gotten quite used to how extreme Raven’s transformation was as a boy. “Well?” she asked again and only now did Javelin pick up on the annoyance in her voice.
“Fine,” was all he got out and he silently cursed himself for not saying more. ‘It wasn’t fine – it was a drag!’
Raven walked over to her bed without further comment.
“Um, how was Bill?” Javelin fished for a subject.
Javelin winced. ‘Guess I should have seen that one coming. . . .’