It didn’t take long for Raven and the twins to reach the lantern lit streets of the Business Tier. Although the sun had already set, many hours remained before the various stores and stalls would close up for the day so the streets were still bustling with activity.
As the trio walked down these streets, many people would stop and stare at their passing figures, taking in their grey academy uniforms with awe – some even gave them a slight bow out of respect. Very few spiritualists were skilled enough to enter Sky Academy and most who did would graduate to hold very prominent positions in the empire, thus people wished to stay on their good side. All Sky Academy students could expect such reactions when in public and were used to ignoring it.
“So, what is it the two of you need to get for the Trials?” asked Raven.
Lark started to answer but Martin cut him off. “Never mind that! Let’s head for the main market – we’re going to be submerged in harsh conditions the next couple of days so we should have some fun first!”
He strode off with determined steps while Lark and Raven exchanged a look. Both shrugged their shoulders indifferently, but their eyes showed excitement. Hurrying after Martin, they made their way north. Soon the noise level rose to new heights as the northern peak grew closer. Finally, Martin stopped. Broad-chested and with his hands on his hips, Martin basked in his own excitement as he gazed out over the enormous open area in front of him. Without warning he drew a deep breath.
“Aaah. . . .” he exhaled loudly, causing surrounding passers by to look up in a start. “I just love this place!” he bellowed merrily.
Spread out in the area before him were hundreds upon hundreds of tents and stalls, each peddling their own unique wares. Little of what was sold here had any real value, and most of the buyers were ordinary humans, but a greater variation of goods would be hard to find anywhere else in the empire.
Here one would find anything from ordinary food to odd, crafted contraptions that would allow non-spiritaulists to perform things that otherwise required spirit essence – nothing beyond what a low Spirit Novice could pull off though, but it was impressive enough anyway.
Despite the fact that most spiritualists would find little of use here, Raven and the twins were not alone in visiting this place. In fact, Raven detected quite a few spiritualists among the crowd. Perhaps they, just like many before them, had once stumbled upon some hidden treasure within the sea of stuff that made the search worthwhile and enticed them to come back. Perhaps they were like Martin and simply enjoyed the atmosphere.
“Stop scaring the civilians, Martin,” chided Lark as he moved up next to his brother and gave him a crisp slap to the back of his head. Lark didn’t put in even a fraction of his full strength and Martin’s head barely moved at all from it, but the sound caused by the impact rang out like a hammer striking a metal. The few pedestrians who hadn’t reacted to Martin’s bear-like exhale definitely reacted now.
Lark met their gazes with wide eyes, his face reddening faster than a shrimp in hot water. “Oops. . . .”
Behind them Raven snorted as she failed to hold back her laughter. Lark twirled around and glared at her. “It’s not that funny, Raven!”
“Oh, but it is,” she disagreed and flicked her thumb off to the side. Both Lark and Martin looked over and suddenly Martin too couldn’t help but snort and burst out laughing. Lark on the other hand paled.
Standing a few meters away was Elder Willow, only, his usually pale-grey elder’s robes had now been colored black by what looked like ink of some sort. The young teacher had a look of annoyed helplessness on his face, for while he had spotted his students arrival and therefore anticipated the noise from the slap, the poor salesman next to him had not.
Raven had seen it all go down. The sudden bang had caused the salesman to jump in fright, effectively lunging the open ink bottle right at his intended customer, Elder Willow. Normally, a spiritualist of Elder Willow’s capacity should have been able to dodge the bottle or just block the ink’s approach with spirit essence, but Elder Willow had been watching his students with keen interest and noticed the incoming missile too late.
“Myr-. . . Elder Willow,” stuttered Lark, nervously rushing forward to inspect the sullied robes. Meanwhile, the salesman looked ready to have a stroke. “I am terribly sorry, my lord customer!” he pleaded and was seconds from groveling on the ground when Willow held out a hand to grip the man’s elbow, keeping him upright.
“No need for that,” he said, smiling his dashing smile, “it was an accident.” Willow leaned around the fretting Lark and gave both Raven and Martin a pointed look. “But I would appreciate it if you stopped laughing nonetheless.”
Martin’s eyes widened and he forced himself to stop laughing at once – nearly choking himself in the process. Raven simply let her laughter fade, but traces of amusement remained in her eyes.
Looking at the now 22 years old teacher Raven couldn’t help but sigh inwardly; the man truly was handsome. His overall appearance hadn’t changed much over these three years but his originally already handsome face had matured a bit more, giving it an almost elven quality.
Willow traced his pale hand over the stain on his clothes, stimulating his spirit essence to remove any traces of the black liquid as it passed. Once it was all gone, both Lark and the salesman seemed to relax a bit.
Still smiling, Willow’s eyes met Lark’s. “Are you here for some pre-Trial resupplying?” he asked him, but quickly expanded his gaze to include both Raven and Martin. Before Lark had the chance to reply Martin stepped up next to his brother, wrapping his muscular arm over Lark’s shoulder.
“That’s the idea, Elder Willow, and we have detained you long enough already. Let’s go!” Martin forcefully turned Lark away from the young teacher, pushing his brother towards the center of the market. Raven just observed in silent amusement.
“Wait!” called Willow and took a step forward. He was about to grab Lark’s elbow but stopped himself in the last second. Even without the grip though, Lark danced out of his brother’s embrace so he could face Willow.
“Yes, Elder?” he asked with glowing eyes.
“I, eh, just thought I’d let you know that the seeds you provided me with before, the Amber Ambrosia, have taken root. I’m expecting my first batch of the medicinal flowers in a week or so. . . . So, if you want to learn what I do with them, you may come join me in harvesting them later.”
“Really? That would be great!” Lark’s response was instant and enthusiastic; he would have taken a step forward if not for Martin’s arm once more latching on to his shoulder and pulling him back.
“Later then,” said Martin curtly, “Elder.”
This time Willow didn’t call out again and Martin succeeded in leading away his twin brother. As the two of them moved deeper into the crowd Raven remained behind briefly. She looked over at her teacher. “Elder, Lark’s Frost Bell Daffodils are still too immature for harvesting, right?” Raven’s voice and smile seemed friendly, but there was a dangerous glint in her eyes that Willow didn’t fail to miss.
“Correct,” he answered carefully. “Why?”
Raven shrugged and started walking away. “Just curious,” she called over her shoulder as she left the pensive Willow behind. Raven could hear the ink salesman grunt disapprovingly as she left. “Too much arrogance in that one,” he muttered, perhaps more to himself than to Willow, “even prodigies should show respect to their elders.”
“I wonder about that. . . .”
Hearing Willow’s reply, Raven’s smile grew a bit more genuine, but she had only taken a few steps before her smile twitched, nearly turning into a frown.
‘That presence. . . .’
For a while now Raven had sensed several people following her and the twins. This was nothing out of the ordinary – as heirs to a prefecture, it was only natural that Lark and Martin would have someone keeping an eye on them when they moved around in such a crowded city. As for the others that hovered around them, they had their own reasons to follow three prominent students from the Sky Academy who would greatly influence the empire in the future.
Over the years Raven had grown familiar to all these presences, even removing some of the more ill-natured spies and nonchalantly inviting others to join them for, say, dinner when they came too close. However, what Raven reacted to now was a new person whom she hadn’t sensed before. It was a male low Champion who had been keeping an impressive distance to Raven and the twins. She had noticed this man’s presence before but hadn’t noted any indication that it was actually them that was the target.
However, when Raven had moved to catch up with Martin and Lark a faint sliver of killing intent had seeped out from the man, and Raven clearly got the feeling that whoever this person was, he was not too pleased with the fact that she had chosen to stick with the twins.
Picking up her pace a bit, Raven caught up with the twins, who were eagerly arguing about Martin’s curt behavior towards Willow. At first, Raven didn’t say anything and simply let the boys decide where they should go. For a few hours, the trio aimlessly drifted through the market, mostly buying food and random curiosities but also taking part in various contests spread throughout the area. Finally, the twins started to grow bored and decided it was about time to fix the things that they had set out to do in first place.
“Did you want to get your long-sword sharpened?” Raven asked Martin as they payed for the last of their supplies.
“Yeah, but I thought I’d do it myself this time – Father says it’s the best way to get to know your weapon.”
‘Perhaps,’ agreed Raven silently, but that wouldn’t suit her purposes this time. “Before dawn tomorrow?” she asked skeptically, “you need a bit more time than that if you’re not used to it.”
“He has a point, twin. It’s a bad habit of yours; you always save things to the too-late minute,” joked Lark.
“I know a good place,” said Raven and strode off without giving Martin a chance to protest.
As she walked Raven focused most of her attention on the presence of the low Spirit Champion she still sensed in the distance. Raven had tried luring that murderous presence away from the twins but it stuck with them like a band-aid.
Normally she would just send the twins back to campus and then chase after any unwanted follower on her own, but tomorrow the twins would leave for the Lunar Trials and Raven feared that if she failed in catching this particular stalker this time, he might lash out against the twins when she wasn’t around. Thus, Raven needed to change her approach if she wanted to definitely flush him out, without fear of the man escaping.
Raven led the boys off the more well trafficked streets. It didn’t take long until the three youths were alone, apart from their persistent followers.
“Are you sure this is the right way?” asked Martin. “I’ve never heard of a blacksmith around here.”
“It’s a tip from our friend,” answered Raven with a wink and Martin quickly grew excited – he figured the famed Singer, or Night Singer as people had started calling Raven’s female persona – had given Raven the tip.
The trio had to keep walking a bit further before that presence Raven was concerned about made it’s move. To Raven’s pleased surprise, the man started off by silently eliminating all the other people who had been keeping track on Raven and her friends. He worked quickly, removing even the twin’s low Champion guard silently – Raven felt a bit bad for the Griffin attendant, but she too required an observer free environment for what she had intended to do.
‘He left one mid Adept alone though. . . . Interesting.’
Finally, Raven and her friends turned a corner and there he was, standing dead center in the middle of the road, a vicious aura of death surrounding him.
Both twins reacted instantly at the sight of the man and halted their steps. Raven on the other hand observed the likely assassin with calm eyes. He wore dark green robes but the hood that would normally hide his face was pulled back, revealing a beastly smile.
“You are most unfortunate,” his voice was raspy and mean sounding, “to have me, the Blood Hound, sent after your lives.”
He started walking towards them, hungry killing intent burning in his eyes. Instinctively both twins retrieved their weapons, moving closer to Raven in a ready-to-fight formation.
“No point in putting up a fight, brats. Had it been anyone else you might have had a chance but now that you’ve met me, your death is certain. ” His spirit essence surged, revealing his cultivation to the twins as well. “Since I was five I’ve been to training to become an assassin and I killed my first target at the age of six. By the age of seven I had killed off all my companions who had been training with me and became a full-fledged assassin. There are many assassins in this world but no one can match me in hit-count; with you three I will have killed a total of 19,553 people! I live in the darkness with death as my servant.”
Raven just stared at the man in front of her, flabbergasted.
‘Is this really happening?’
Another hungry smile flashed across the man’s face as his killing intent started seeping out of him in wisps of red smoke. Raven was actually slightly impressed by the pressure his killing intent unleashed – it was the first time she had come across an assassin who managed to manifest it, besides herself of course.
‘For a low Champion he’s actually done quite well for himself,’ she thought as she continued to stare blankly at the man, completely unfazed by the pressure he exhibited.
The Griffin twins on the other hand were shaking in fear. Nonetheless they kept their wits about them and frantically circulated their spirit essence, preparing to fight.
“You can at least take pride in being slayed by my, the Blood Hound’s, hand.” A silvery blade was revealed from within his robes and without a word both Martin and Lark tensed their bodies, ready to fight for their lives.
Looking at the scene in front of her, Raven rolled her eyes. Swiftly, she placed her hands on the shoulders of the two twins and pressed down; her own spirit essence seeped into them and, together with the pin-pointed pressure from her thumbs, the two boys lost consciousness in less then a second.
Now it was the assassins turn to stare blankly.
“…I’ve been hired to kill those two and leave no witnesses, putting them to sleep won’t change anything,” he said, confused.
Raven smiled sweetly and started walking over to the man.
“I would like you to tell me who hired you.” Her voice was polite and almost cute as she spoke.
“You’re joking. right?” Amused disbelief filled the assassin’s face. In the shadows, the last remaining observer seemed just as confused, even accidentally making some noise when the person chose to move closer.
“Not really, no,” said Raven, ignoring the sound. “Was it our infamous Elder W, perhaps?”
The assassin’s eyes narrowed.
“I don’t have time for this, kid.” His knife flashed as he dashed forward, dark orange spirit essence circling within him.
“How you managed to kill nearly 20,000 people is absolutely beyond me.” Effortlessly, Raven activated her Ode of Woe, releasing incomparably dense killing intent that bellowed out like thick mist that easily enveloped both the assassin and the second person in the shadows. “What assassin with self-respect walks up to his targets and introduces himself?”
Instantly the man froze; absolute horror was on his face, and he started shaking like a leaf in the wind. A foul smell filled the air as the weaker man in the shadows soiled himself and collapsed, unconscious, to the ground.
“Well then, now that you seem to have found the time, I’ll ask again: who hired you?”
“How…?” The man stuttered, still not willing, or perhaps not capable to answer Raven’s question.
Calmly Raven took the knife from the man’s outstretched hand. There was no resistance as soul shattering fear kept him from moving. She leaned in closer so she could whisper in his ear: “you see, the problem with living in the darkness is that there is always someone bigger and darker living further in.”
Killing intent and spirit essence slipped through the man’s ear, penetrating into his mind. His senses reeled; his nose filled with the metallic tang of blood, his eyes saw nothing but an endless sea of blood, and in his ears he heard the pained wails of thousands of tormented souls, pleading for salvation.
Every fiber of his body helplessly accepted what his soul knew was an absolute truth: he was going to die.