As Raven sat on the cellar floor in an enlightened daze, loud steps could be heard from above. Moments later, Bill came running down the stairs with a short pike in one hand and what looked like a teacup in the other.
His eyes darted around the room, widening as they fell on Raven. “Ma’am!” he shouted and rushed forward, dropping the pike to the ground as he ran. “Are you alright, ma’am?”
Raven blinked. The strain of thoughts that had started to form in her mind faded before she could completely grasp it.With a tired sigh, she met Bill’s gaze.
“I’m fine Bill, and so is Javelin.” She inclined her head towards the now dead man a few steps away. “I was just a bit careless – he was hiding his strength, or perhaps . . . had a way to significantly raise his cultivation level. . . . I’ve never seen anything like it. Although the odd spirit essence was similar to the one around Gadwall and the Talons.”
“So this was their doing as well?” Bill asked.
Raven glanced over at the still living assassin that was chained to the far end wall. “Most likely. That one doesn’t seem to know much though, and this one,” she used a foot to poke at the corpse, “won’t be admitting anything anytime soon.”
Bill nodded gravely. He knew that, with the attacker dead, it was unlikely that they would get anymore insights into this.”And Mister Hake?” he asked instead.
Raven thought she felt her heart skip a beat, but surely she was imagining things. “Ah, he got cut by a Hemlock Blade strike,” she explained and saw Bill’s eyes grow wide yet again; the Hemlock Blade was a fifth level Divine Skill that coated any weapon, be it blade or hand, with a deadly poison, condensed from the air itself – if not treated immediately, it would lead to a quick but painful death. “Don’t worry, I got out most of it out – he should be fine after some rest. Will you take him up to one of the beds?”
Bill looked from Raven to the cut on Javelin’s throat to Javelin’s oddly happy face and for a brief moment there was amusement in his eyes, but as he felt Raven’s stern glare it quickly faded. “Yes, ma’am!” he complied with a cough and quickly moved to pick up the boy.
“Oh, and Bill,” inserted Raven as the former started up the stairs, “the next time you come to my rescue, may I suggest you pick something sturdier than a porcelain cup as your shield?”
With one foot already on the staircase, Bill twitched, his ears turning bright red. “Yes, ma’am. . . .” he muttered, embarrassed, and disappeared up the steps. Raven couldn’t help but chuckle softly at the sight.
Her humor was, however, short-lived. Stone faced, Raven turned her head back to the corpse on the ground before she looked up at Rooter. “Did you know?” she asked, but she didn’t really need to wait for the reply to know the answer.
“No . . .” his voice sounded frail more than anything, “he . . . he was a peak Champion?”
“So it would seem.”
Raven grunted as she pushed off from her place by the wall and moved in close enough tug at the various rings the man wore. None of them looked like a spacial ring, but considering all the strange things Raven had been experiencing as of late it was best to make sure. While she carefully probed the man’s jewelry with her spirit essence, Rooter continued mumbling to himself.
“If he was a peak Champion, why hire me? Why follow m-. . . .” Suddenly Rooter seemed to have come to an understanding. His face turned red with rage. “He wasn’t sent to observe me, he was sent to kill me once the deed was done!”
“So there is a bit of brain in that hollow head of yours after all,” mocked Raven.
“Let me out,” he bellowed. “Let me out and I’ll make those bastards pay!”
With a cold smile, Raven removed an inconspicuous-looking ring from Sparv’s left pinky and lifted her head to face Rooter. “Which bastards are you referring to?”
Rooter blinked in realization – he didn’t actually know who hired him, apart from the fact that the order came from his clan head. However, his shock quickly turned to anger. “Who cares? I’ll find out who did it – let me out!” He started struggling against the chains that bound him but to no avail. Raven chose to ignore him.
She instead focused on the small ring in her hand. It had none of the usual signs of a spacial ring – such as the copper-like hue the soul ore would get during crafting – but when she probed it with her spirit essence, she could feel a great depth within it. Raven glanced down at the corpse. ‘If it is a spacial ring, or any other spiritualist artifact for that matter, the death of its previous owner should have removed the seal on it.’
Raven only hesitated for a moment more before letting a drop of her blood fall on the ring. Instantly, her eyes lit up; it was a spacial ring, and with a lot more space than normal, summing up to roughly five cubic meters rather than one.
However, despite the space, the ring was mostly empty. Apart from a few hundred silver coins – which could at most buy you a well-used sword – there was only a small piece of parchment, no larger than a page in a book. Without removing the paper from within the ring, Raven used her spirit essence to read what was written on it and at once her brow creased into a frown.
‘This is bad. . . .’
“Hey! Are you listening?” Rooter called for perhaps the tenth time. Whatever fear he had for Raven seemed to have been dampened by his rage at being double-crossed. “Heeeey!”
Raven’s body swayed and in the next instant she stood face to face with Rooter. No traces of her frown could be seen, in fact, she looked almost sweet as her big red eyes stared into Rooter’s. An uncontrollable shudder ran through him at the sudden sight.
“It’s your lucky day mister Hound, I know who ordered the assassination, and your subsequent murder – wanna know?” She placed her hands behind her back and leaned in closer, her face merely inches away from Rooter’s. She loosened her facial muscles slightly, letting her femininity shine through more.
“Tell me.” Rooter wanted to yell it, but it came out more like a whisper.
“Oh, I will,” Raven smiled, “only, I wondered if you could tell me something first. . . .” She leaned in even closer and Rooter was nodding obediently before he even knew it. “You see, Myrtus Willow, he’s my so-called ‘Elder’ at the Academy. I haven’t known him for very long, but I would like to know why you seem to detest him so much.”
“That wimp?” Despite having grown quite flustered, Rooter spat the words. “To think that Myrtus has the nerve to call himself a Willow, after abandoning the Clan. . . . He deserves the end I’ll give him!”
“Yes, end. Any Willow who strays from the path of blood is no Willow! There has never been one, and there shall never be one in the future.”
Raven took a step back, her eyes flashing with coldness. “So, the Willow Clan is a clan for warriors and assassins and since Myrtus chose to become a healer, you will have him killed?”
Rooter laughed, seemingly oblivious to the murderous glare Raven was giving him. “He would have died long ago, had he not kept himself huddled up at one imperial academy after the other!”
“So, I’ve answered your question, now tell me who hired me and let me go kill the bastard!”
*Cling!* The clear sound of metal meeting stone echoed softly in the small cellar and Rooter looked down at his chest, confused. An ornately engraved blade was sunk straight through his heart, all the way out his back where it had hit the stone wall.
“Why?” Raven filled out the question Rooter was incapable of asking. “You are no longer useful to me.”
“But then why not let you go so you can hunt down our common enemy? You tried to kill my friends, Rooter, that can’t be forgiven.” Raven pulled out her blade with ease, flicking away the blood in the same motion. “Besides, I can’t have you running off and killing Elder Willow simply because he’s not what you want him to be.”
Raven turned to leave, but paused and looked down at her sword, a touch of sadness filling her eyes. ‘For five years I haven’t used this sword, yet today I used it twice. . . . I bet Father wouldn’t approve.’
Shimmering in the torchlight that fought against the darkness in the cellar, Raven’s sword flickered and disappeared.
We were, as always, alone in the cabin and, also as always, heavy snow was falling outside. However everything wasn’t as it always was.
She – the most intriguing woman I had ever met – was staring at me intently but, for once, her eyes weren’t cold and distant. For once, I saw something else in those pitch black gems that seemed to see right through me.
“You’re beautiful, Ra-. . .” I tried to speak but I was silenced by her lips, pushing down on mine with fiery passion. As the kiss deepened my mind went blank, and all I could manage to think was: please don’t let this be a dream.
With a start, Javelin sat up straight in his bed, but immediately he felt his head spinning and he had to push down the urge to vomit.
“Easy there, boy” snickered Bill’s familiar voice. “Or I’ll have to tell madam Night that you got sick in her bed.”
“Shut it, will you,” moaned Javelin, clutching his head.
“Suit yourself.” Steps could be heard as Bill moved away from the bed, stopping in front of the open fireplace further down the room.
His eyes still closed, Javelin let himself fall back into the bed. ‘What was that . . . dream?’ he wondered, still muddle-headed. ‘It felt so real.’
In his mind, the dream slowly changed, superimposing on Raven’s forceful kiss in the cellar; Javelin could feel his body heating up at the mere thought of it. ‘Does this mean she actually likes me?’ he wondered to himself as his hand instinctively reached for where Raven’s lips had touched his skin earlier.
What he found there, however made him frown. ‘A bandage? I’m hurt?’ As he thought this, memories of the prisoner breaking free flooded his mind. He saw the green covered hands stabbing at him and felt Raven pull him out of the way just in time. Javelin lifted the fabric around his neck only to find a small cut underneath. ‘I was . . . poisoned?’ The realization stabbed at his heart and Javelin clenched his fists hard, ignoring the pain it caused in his palms.
‘I thought she . . .’ he didn’t let himself finish the sentence. ‘Stop it. I have a fiancée already. Raven should . . .’
Suddenly, Javelin’s eyes flashed open and he sat back up again, forcefully ignoring how awful it made him feel. “Bill!” he shouted, “where is Raven?”
“I thought you wanted me to shut up,” said Bill over his shoulder, but before Javelin could protest he answered the question properly. “Madam Night is back at the Academy. She had to speak with the Headmaster about something urgent. You and the twins are in my care until she returns or you are fit to leave on your own.”
“Then the assassin . . .”
“Dead. Both of them.”
Javelin blinked and tried to think back on what he could remember from the cellar; things had changed so fast that he couldn’t quite follow it. In one moment they had been interrogating Rooter, Elder Willow’s cousin, and in the next Javelin had been flung across the room, only to see Raven, on the floor with her sword stabbed through the other prisoner’s head.
“The second prisoner, Sparv, he was a peak Champion.” Javelin said it more like a statement then a question but Bill confirmed it with a nod anyway.
In his mind Javelin could see her slim figure and her dazzling sword, moving as one, as she fought with predatory grace on a bloody battle field.
‘She was born for battle, that one. . . .’ he mused to himself with quiet amazement. ‘Wait, that sword . . . wasn’t there something written on it?’
Javelin strained his mind to remember and all of a sudden his eyes popped open.
“Nightingale’s Blessing. . . .” he whispered breathlessly.
Hundreds of meters above the house where Javelin and the twins were still recuperating Raven walked through a damp and narrow corridor, a small orb of light hovering above her as she moved.
Soon she reached her destination and the corridor widened to a great hall, with one wall completely covered by a huge painted map. In the center of the room burned a small fire and three plush armchairs were pushed up close to the flames. Seated in one of them was the familiar white figure of Headmaster Swan. In his hands was a large scroll that he had been reading intently but when Raven entered, he looked up at her with a smile.
“You’re a late,” he said sternly but his facial expression gave away his true feelings.
“Apologies, Headmaster,” said Raven with a bow, causing the white-robed man to frown slightly.
“Come now, Raven, I thought we agreed to skip the formalities – or do you wish for me to start referring to you as Lady Nightingale?” A cold glint flashed across Raven’s eyes at the headmaster’s mention of her actual title but the old man ignored it. “So, why the delay, Raven?” he asked instead.
“There was an assassination attempt,” said Raven but the headmaster didn’t seem fazed. “On the Griffin twins,” she continued and this time Swan reacted. He dropped the scroll he’d been reading and it nearly rolled into the fire.
“What!?” He was truly shocked. Both of them had been working hard to make sure that the twin’s, and Javelin’s, involvement would be kept a secret – and that the price required by the Assassin Guild for their assassination was kept high. No one should want or agree to have them killed.
Raven started retelling what had happened to the headmaster, leaving nothing out, and by the time she had told of Sparv’s sudden leap in cultivation – and quick defeat – Headmaster Swan had turned almost as pale as his hair. So many things could have gone wrong that evening and just one of them would have been catastrophic.
“Is there any chance that Elder Willow is actually involved in this?” he asked with a slightly unsteady voice.
“There is no such thing as absolute certainty, but I don’t think so.” Raven held out her hand, revealing the piece of parchment that she had found within Sparv’s spacial ring.
Swan looked picked up the paper. There, in very elegant handwriting were the words: “Thank you, dear cousin, for agreeing to help me get rid of those little pests – with them gone I can truly make a difference in the course of this Sky Empire. I will make father proud.”
The headmaster’s eyes widened; he, more than anyone, knew how bad the situation was between Elder Willow and his clan – Swan was actually part of the reason Willow had managed to leave Earth Empire. Needless to say, he knew that what this letter implied, was simply not probable. “So they wished to frame him for the prefecture heirs murder? That’s insane!”
“Perhaps,” conceded Raven, “but remember, during Empress Nene’s so-called treason, there were multiple signs pointing towards Elder Willow then too, simply there was nothing truly substantial. It would start being hard to ignore it after the death of Martin and Lark. Since we have no way to actually prove Gadwall or the Talon’s involvement, it would be hard to shift the blame back where it belongs.”
The headmaster looked up from his armchair with serious eyes. “We are running out of time, Raven,” he said and Raven had to agree – assassinating a neighboring empire’s prefecture heirs would no doubt cause a war to blossom out.
This time they had been lucky and Raven had been at the right place at the right time, but there was no guarantee that would always be the case.