Javelin felt awkward in the silence that followed his and Raven’s terse exchange. He felt the need to explain himself regarding Cara but he wasn’t sure what it was he actually had to explain. Not knowing what to say, Javelin picked the easier route. “Did Bill have anything new to report? Did anything happen while we were gone?” he asked.
Raven removed the outer layer of her robes and flopped down on her own bed with a sigh – it was a relaxed and normally sloppy gesture, but in Javelin’s eyes, Raven still managed to do it with grace. “There was nothing major,” she said, staring up at the ceiling.
“That’s a welcome change,” said Javelin and in a way he was right. Ever since Raven had returned from her meeting with Sky Academy’s headmaster three years ago, telling him about how the Talon’s were likely attempting to start a war, there hadn’t been many peaceful moments.
Every month there would be signs of ill deeds preformed by the Talons – or people associated with them – all with the goal of destabilizing the empire. It would be small things, things that could be attributed to simple bad luck, but when added together the consequences were potentially catastrophic. For example, about a year back, Sky Empire’s already meager rice production took a great hit due to an unusually intense bug infestation.
Since the Sky Empire consists mostly of mountains, farming has never been a big food source and most such produce would be imported from the plains of the neighboring Earth Empire. Consequentially, one years failed crops wouldn’t normally make such a big difference for the empire as a whole . . . had it not been for the centuries old conflict between the two main merchant guilds that trade across the border, bubbling up to the surface again – efficiently halting all trade between the two empires for months.
After further investigation, they had managed to learn that the Talons had played a part in bringing about both ‘mishaps’.
‘It’s fortunate that at least the headmaster believes us,’ thought Javelin. He and the twins had been happy to plot against the Talons for the sake of teaching Dunlin a lesson, but stopping a war was a bit beyond them. So since Headmaster Swan became involved, Javelin and the Griffin twins had mostly helped out by keeping their eyes and ears open, as well as discreetly spreading discontent with the Talon Clan in their own circles. The three of them had wanted to tell their parents about everything they had found out, but the headmaster had been afraid that do so before they knew why the Talon Clan was so brazen might not be a good thing. Who knew how deeply their dark vines had spread?
“I’m not so sure. . . .”
“Huh?” Raven’s voice snapped Javelin out from his thinking, but he didn’t understand what she was referring to.
“I’m not so sure that it is good news, Javelin. If our information is correct, the Talon Clan started off this little uprising with something as grand as framing the Empress for treason – even the Nightingale Clan’s downfall might have been instigated by them – but since then, they’ve been much more discrete.”
“You call starving an entire nation for half a year discrete?”
“Relatively, yes.” Raven propped herself up on her bed and her eyes met Javelin’s. Her gaze sent shivers down his spine, but not necessarily bad ones. “Think about it Javelin. Framing an Empress, possibly killing her as a result, is something a country would go to war over if the culprit was found. Hunger on the other hand is less direct. I’m not saying that people wouldn’t go to war over food – it is done all the time – but usually it would only be an underlying cause. Where is the spark that will set it off?”
Javelin frowned. She had a point.
“Then what do we do?”
“There is not much we can do but wait – sooner or later they’ll reveal what they’re up to.”
Javelin grew silent. ‘Is that really all we can do? What if we find out too late?’
“Which reminds me,” continued Raven, “you, but particularly the twins, need to stop interfering for a while.”
“What? Why!?” Javelin nearly jumped up from his bed in surprise but Raven remained as calm and unaffected as always.
“Because you were spotted,” she said and tossed him a jade colored glass orb. Javelin viewed what was recorded inside and sighed. “Fine,” he reluctantly agreed. “The Lunar Trials are coming up anyway, might as well focus on our cultivation for a while.”
Raven gave him a crooked smile and this time the shivers were undoubtedly of the bad kind. “Want me to update your regime?” she asked, way too merrily for comfort. Javelin had always known that there is no such thing as a genius cultivator who doesn’t put in effort, but Raven put that statement into new light. These past three years Javelin had been guided in his cultivation by Raven and what she put him, and herself, through was training many times harder than what his father had put Javelin through when he was younger. He couldn’t help but be constantly amazed by the martial prowess this preteen girl possessed.
“Ah! Actually, I’m not quite done with the last one you gave me yet. . . .” Javelin felt an itch at the back of his neck and instinctively lifted his empty hand to scratch it.
“You really are a lot like him. . . .” Raven said softly as if to herself.
Raven’s eyes widened in surprise but then she smiled sadly. “No one,” she said and turned over in her bed to look once look up in the ceiling. “An old . . . friend.”
Javelin felt a stab of pain. “Sorry,” he whispered before he knew why.
Raven chuckled but the sound was hollow. “For what?” she asked, glancing over at him.
‘For your loss,’ Javelin thought but his voice failed him.
When no reply came Raven turned over to lie on her side with her back towards him. “Get some sleep, Javelin,” she said with a voice that suddenly sounded much older than usual. “I’ll help you prepare for the Trials tomorrow.”
That last sentence made Javelin gulp. He was about to put down the jade colored orb and crawl into bed when his hand paused. He looked at the orb. “Raven?” he called and got a soft hum in reply. “Where did you get this orb? Bill isn’t recovered enough to fight of the spiritualist who made this. . . . At least not without causing a ruckus.”
“Limpkin collected it for me.”
Her reply was nonchalant, sleepy even, but Javelin’s grip on the orb instantly tightened. Just the mere thought of Raven and that steel-blue haired assassin angered him. . . .
For more than three years now, Javelin had been sparring with Raven and during all that time together had he not once been able to force her to fight him seriously – not even when her limiters kept her at a lower cultivation then his own. There was always an air of effortless ease around her that had grown increasingly frustrating for Javelin to accept, even more so after he had witnessed a bout between her and Limpkin.
Raven, or rather Singer, had since long stopped attending the competitions at the Combat Abyss – much due to the fact that her body had grown too quickly so people would suspect her age if she came. However, before she stopped going, Raven had challenged Limpkin to a closed bout, meaning no viewers were allowed and only the results would be announced to the Abyss. Javelin had pleaded persistently and, under the pretense that he was Singer’s student and observing would be a good experience for him, Raven and Limpkin had eventually agreed to let him watch,.
At the time, Limpkin had finally made the advance into the low Spirit Champion level, while Raven had been a peak Spirit Adept, ready to advance into a Champion at any time. However, getting hung up on cultivation levels would have been a fatal mistake, for the battle the followed would have shocked even mid Spirit Champions senseless.
Closing his eyes, Javelin could see all of it, replaying vividly in his mind.
The two of them stood, motionless, at the far ends of the fighting arena, surrounded by thousands of abandoned metal seats and an eerie silence. I claimed the empty honorary seat for the best view and could almost taste the tension in the air.
Without warning, both suddenly dashed forward, spraying dust behind them, before they collided in a cloud of wild spirit essence at the center of the stage. At first none of them used any weapons, but their attacks were so fast that I was hard pressed just to follow them with my eyes.
As they fought it slowly became clear that while Limpkin had the upper hand in pure strength, he couldn’t quite match Raven’s speed and flexibility, making it hard for him to deliver any real finishing moves. I couldn’t help but think that it must have been a hard blow to handle for Limpkin who usually specialized in speed.
Eventually, weapons came out and the battle intensified even further. The staggering amount of Divine Skills which were being activated filled the air with residue spirit essence to the point where it grew hard for me to breathe – even with the protective barrier around the fighting stage absorbing most of it. Then again . . . perhaps it wasn’t actually the spirit essence that made it hard for me to breathe. . . .
My eyes had become transfixed on Raven. As she spun in and out of her attacks, every fiber of her body radiating with spirit essence, something in her demeanor had changed. She fought like in a trance, her normally cold blood-red eyes were absent of any emotion except one – joy. Even with the lower part of her face covered, I just knew that beneath that black piece of fabric was a splendid smile.
One that I have never seen; before, or since.
Javelin’s grip on the orb tightened even further, to the point where small cracks started forming on the orb.
“Don’t break it,” muttered Raven, half asleep, and Javelin instantly relaxed his grip. From his bed he looked over at Raven’s slender back, following her spine down to her ankles, where the bed’s blanket covered her two Limiters.
There was no doubt that Raven’s cultivation advanced at a frightening speed which he had little hope to catch up with. It had been over a year since she successfully broke the barrier between Adept and Champion – becoming the youngest Spirit Champion the continent had ever seen at the mind-blowing age of eight – whereas Javelin still remained a that bottleneck between the two cultivation realms.
He rolled over on the bed, ending up with his back towards Raven. His teeth clenched as he stared intently at the wall. He wasn’t jealous of Raven’s cultivation, quite the contrary, but he didn’t like the feeling of being left behind.
‘I will catch up!’ he vowed resolutely to himself.
Days passed and soon the start of the bimonthly Lunar Trials was just a day away.
Raven had spent most of her time since she returned from hunting down bandits on training with both Javelin and the Twins, leaving only the night hours to slip away and survey what was going on in the town. Hoatzin had gone back home – or rather back to what used to be their home – so that he could keep an eye on what their aunt was planning, which meant that Raven had one less pair of eyes in the city.
However, with her superb senses and Limpkin keeping an eye out for anyone looking into her friends, Raven still did an okay job at keeping track of the city. Of course, the headmaster and Bill were helping too.
“Argh, no more!” wheezed Martin as he collapsed on the ground. Seconds later, he was drenched by a bucket of ice-cold water. He yelped, sounding a lot more feminine than he looked.
Next to him, a second bucket slowly descended before an equally exhausted Lark also collapsed on the ground. “That’s what . . . you get . . . for neglecting your spirit control . . . twin.”
Raven smiled slightly at the two boys. When she had first seen them they had been absolutely identical, but with time and very different fighting styles, their bodies had matured in different ways. By now, only their height and hair were identical. They were fifteen soon, but just like all spiritualists who start cultivating at an early age they both looked older than their years. The disparity was not as large as for Raven, or even Javelin for that matter, but it was still apparent.
Martin, who specialized in the two-handed broad sword, had a stout body built of pure muscle. Lark was leaner, with a body more akin to a dancer’s, capable of challenging even Raven in terms of flexibility. You would be hard pressed to find another mid Adept that could match his speed with dual short swords.
“Giving up already?” teased Raven.
“What do you mean already!?” groaned Martin. “We’ve been doing this for an hour!”
Raven raised an unimpressed eyebrow. “Oh, then how about him?” she asked and shifted her body so she could point towards Javelin. The boy was drenched in sweat as he stood on his hands, a huge bucket hovering above his feet. The task had been for them to keep standing on their hands while focusing all their spirit essence on keeping the bucket steady in the air. The size of the bucket had been determined by their cultivation level but the other part of exercise was purely based on physical strength. “He’s been at it for two hours now.”
“Javelin doesn’t count – he’s become obsessed with cultivation. . . .” protested Lark weakly.
“Perhaps, but he is also almost two years younger than you two, yet is already a peak Adept – how do you plan to catch up if you don’t put in the effort?”
“You’re one to talk,” grunted Martin, “you’re just a mid Adept too.”
Raven gave him an amused look. “You really want to compare my cultivation and effort to yours, Senior Martin?”
Martin swallowed. “No.”
Raven’s mouth twitched unnoticeably; as far as the twins – and basically everyone else – were concerned, Raven’s cultivation level was that of a mid Spirit Adept who was likely to move into the high Adept range soon. As a ten-year-old, that was unheard of. ‘Imagine if they knew that it’s not the Adept realm I’m a ‘mid’ in. . . .’
“Bah,” Martin suddenly breathed out heavily, and struggled to get to his feet. Water dripped from his robes, forming a small puddle underneath him. “Javelin is likely going to be at it for another hour. Lark, we might as well go buy the stuff we will need for the Trials.”
Lark didn’t seem too fond of the idea of moving, as a concept, right now, but he still nodded. “Do you want to join us?” he asked Raven. “The break might do you good. I know you don’t need to buy anything but it will be more fun than watching mister cultivation over there.”
The reason that she didn’t need to buy anything in preparation for the Trials was simple; she didn’t take part in them anymore. When Raven infused that hidden Spirit Star seal with her spirit essence three years ago, it had opened up a path that she alone could see. That path had led straight into the reverse flowing waterfall where an odd spherical space had been created. The second she entered that space the world around her had grown clearer, much like it would become during the Day of Light ceremony – only the sensation was much stronger. Sitting cross-legged in that sphere Raven could feel everything, down to a cellular level, and she could easily tell how strings of spirit essence seemed to tie every little cell together.
The sensation had brought instant results to Raven’s understanding and control of spirit essence so the headmaster had insisted that Raven should be meditating in there whenever possible. As it turned out, the wonders of the sphere only lasted for three days before it had to be replenished, which it was at every full moon. Thus, Raven could get three days of meditation in every month, and so as to not miss too many classes, she was given a leave of absence from the Lunar Trials.
The headmaster had also insisted that she become his disciple. He said it was to not raise suspicion about her absences, but Raven got the feeling he just wanted to keep her close so he could nurture her to the best of his abilities. Nonetheless, he had proven to be a more fitting master than Raven had anticipated, giving her very helpful advice when it came to things related to spirit essence control and spiritualists in general. In fact, today’s somewhat steep exercise with the buckets had been his idea.
Raven glanced over at Javelin before returning her gaze to the two twins. While it was true that Raven didn’t need to buy anything she didn’t like the rumors she had been hearing around town. Even though Limpkin had caught and disposed of the spy that was looking into the twin’s involvement against the Talons, it still seemed like there were suspicions concerning them.
“I’ll go,” she said and instantly heavy thuds rang out in the courtyard as the three metal balls, which had been spinning rapidly around her, fell from the air. Gracefully Raven lowered her feet to ground and straightened out her body so she stood upright. “To the market,” she said with a smile and walked towards the exit.
Martin and Lark glanced at each other as they watched Raven’s departing figure. Raven had been upside down ever since the arrived, yet it had seemed more like a game than training.
“How long had he been here before we came?” asked Martin.
“Elder Willow told me that Raven had asked if he could borrow the courtyard right after lunch. . . . He said he wanted to get some training in since there were no afternoon classes today.”
“Four hours!?” Martin couldn’t help but gasp. He bent to pick up one of the balls, expecting it to be light, but surprisingly it weighed at least two kilos. The three balls together would weigh just as much as the buckets they themselves had been straining to just keep floating for one hour.
The two twins looked at each other and without saying anything they knew what the other was thinking; ‘that boy is a monster!’
“Are you coming?” Raven called over her shoulder. Prompted by her call, both boys glanced at each other once more before big smiles broke out on their faces.
They hurried to catch up with Raven, both throwing their arms around her shoulders, while Martin ruffled up her hair. She could have avoided them, of course, but chose not to.
Together, the three of them left the courtyard, leaving Javelin to his training.