Nestled in their armchairs around the fire pit, Raven and Headmaster Swan sat in silence for quite some time. Their thoughts were immersed in the problem at hand, reviewing it from different angles.
Eventually, Raven broke the silence, bringing up a subject she had been concerned about for quite some time. “Headmaster, is there anything we should do to hinder Gadwall from attempting similar assassination plots in the other empires? If he put together something like this here, there is no reason to think he wouldn’t attempt it elsewhere.”
Headmaster Swan looked up from the flames and gave Raven a wry smile. “Under these circumstances? Nothing really. . . .” he sighed. “I’ve been in contact with my counterparts at the other imperial academies – don’t worry, I haven’t said anything too directly, but I have warned them that someone is acting behind the scenes, trying to push our three empires into war. I am confident they will keep an eye on things on their ends; the three of us have known each other for as long as I can remember and I would trust them both with my life.”
Raven gave the headmaster a scrutinizing look. “Like you would have with Gadwall, three years ago?”
The headmaster sighed again. “That’s why I haven’t told them anything straight out. . . .”
The two of them once more sat in silence, but it didn’t take long before Swan stood up with a frustrated grunt. “This is so vexing!” He started pacing behind his chair. “If it was only the Talon Clan stirring up trouble it would be no large issue to deal with them – taxing, perhaps, but doable – yet with Gadwall . . .” Swan stopped in his tracks; he had caught sight of Raven, who looked at him with wide eyes. “What?”
Raven shook her head. “Nothing. It’s just so rare to see Headm-. . . Senior Swan get so emotional.”
“Ah.” Swan coughed and reclaimed his seat in the armchair. His checks flushed a bit – an odd look for such a refined man, seemingly in his sixties. “Regardless, Gadwall is a problem. Although his cultivation level appears to be that of a peak Champion, who knows if that is truly it. Considering all this dark spirit essence you have been witnessing I doubt that’s the case.
“There is also the issue with why he is here. If Gadwall has come on his own volition then simply informing the representatives of the multi-realm tournament should be enough to have him removed. However, if he is sent here on someone else’ mission, then it’s important that we tell the right people of his presence.”
The headmaster continued to list all the problems surrounding their main enemy while Raven listen quietly. Everything the Headmaster Swan brought up were things she had already considered and, just like him, she was not sure of how to get around them. As for how she wanted to deal with the Talon Clan, that plan had been formulated years back, but all the mysteries and hidden dangers around Gadwall kept her from acting freely on them.
“It shames me to admit it, but our insight into the other realms is simply too lacking,” Swan leaned back in his chair. “Additionally they don’t even care to answer simple questions. . . .” He glanced over at Raven, and a sense of excitement was burning deep within his eyes.
Two years ago, when the representatives of the Multi-Realm Tournament had arrived at Sky Academy to make their mandatory delivery of the invitation, Headmaster Swan had met their conventional disregard with extraordinary politeness, all in hopes of learning something more about them and the realms they came from. It had, however, failed.
It had been just after five in the morning when two middle aged men popped out of nowhere in the headmaster’s chambers. They had been slightly surprised when they found the former not asleep but wide awake, with a minor feast set out on his dining table.
Swan had no way of telling exactly when they would be coming – except that, from experience, they would likely pick an inconvenient hour – so, for over a month the headmaster had sat vigil every night, prepared for their arrival, with a meal that would make even an emperor’s mouth water.
When they finally arrived they had indeed been surprised, but unfortunately not to the point where they were impressed. Instead they had barely glanced at the food before they flicked out a jade slip and left. The only thing the headmaster had managed to learn – through an offhand comment made by one of the men – was that the duty of delivering invitations seemed to alter each tournament.
“As it stands, I’m not even sure they would be bothered to hear me out when the new representatives arrive ten months from now. . . .” Swan stared off into the flames in front of him, lost in thought.
‘It is indeed a problem,’ thought Raven. ‘If they had a tendency to stir up trouble, rather than just come and go, we would at least get the opportunity to speak with them.’
Suddenly Raven had a thought. “Senior Swan, do you remember the mysterious spirit beast Fenris whose grandchild I saved – is it not likely that he is from one of the other realms, or at least know of them?”
Swan looked up from the fire pit. “How does that help? I assume you have no way of contacting him.”
‘I don’t, but my brother might,’ thought Raven. Just like her, Fenris had been capable of speaking directly into Hoatzin’s mind due to his connection with the Life Link Ring. Even now, when Hoatzin was halfway across the country and too far away for her to actually speak to him, Raven could still sense his general location and it was something that worked both ways; Hoatzin could tell where she was too. ‘If the same thing applies for Fenris, then perhaps . . .’
“It might not be impossible for me to find him again,” Raven said pensively – she had still not revealed that her brother had survived – not to anyone – and would not do so now. “Perhaps after this moon’s Lunar Trials I could get some time off from my classes to go look for him? I would only make a short attempt and be back before the next trials if I fail. . . .”
She tried her best to not sound too decisive in her suggestion, letting the headmaster consider the option on his own. Ever since she broke through to Champion realm two years back, Swan had grown increasingly protective of her. It wasn’t a fatherly type of protectiveness, one that wishes for no harm to ever befall his child, but rather the protectiveness a sea captain might feel for his vessel; naturally he wants to travel her safely home through every journey, but he would be most proud of his ship when she returns after a great storm, battered but whole.
Nonetheless, a good captain would not chose routes he figured too dangerous, and Swan was the same; he gave Raven rather free reign but still kept a close eye on her, sometimes even objecting to her more risky endeavors.
Swan sat silently for a while, clearly considering Raven’s suggestion. “Where would you go?” he eventually asked.
Raven shrugged. “I figure I’d start with where I first met him – perhaps he and his grandchild is still in the area. I think the important thing is to let him know I’m looking for him – I doubt Fenris is the kind of creature you find simply because you want to.”
Silence once more.
“Very well, you may go.” Raven smiled at him warmly but she knew it wouldn’t be that easy. “However,” Swan continued, “you will bring a bodyguard with you.”
“Who? It’s not like you can leave the city right now, even if a trip with your disciple would be a good enough excuse to do so.”
“You will bring my brother,” said Swan as if it was the most matter-of-fact thing in the world.
“Your brother . . .” Raven looked confused for a moment but her eyes quickly widened in realization. “The guardsman to the southern peak campus.”
“You guessed it?” The headmaster was truly surprised. “Everyone always say we look nothing alike.”
“It’s not how you look, but how you feel. . . . I should have known ages ago!” Swan still looked confused but Raven ignored him. “So he knows – about Gadwall and everything?”
The bewildered expression on the headmaster’s face faded and he gave Raven a profound look. “We cannot do everything entirely on our own, Raven. Sometimes we must trust in others.”
“I know the importance of working together with a team,” offered Raven but the headmaster shook his head.
“I am sure you do, but I’m not talking about teamwork, child, I’m talking of trust; real trust, where you truly let someone in.” Noting Raven’s unconvinced scowl, Swan gave her a soft smile. “Can you imagine trusting someone to the degree where if they asked for permission to stab you through your heart, you would agree?”
“Well , I . . .” Raven was about to answer that she thought so when she was interrupted by Swan’s calm voice. “Don’t lie to yourself, Raven. It will do you no good.”
The headmaster got up from his chair and dusted off his already pristine white robes. “The moon rises soon – you might as well head directly for the waterfall to cultivate. I shall speak to your friends.” He patted Raven lightly on her shoulder before he turned to leave. Right before he reached the corridor that led back to his office, Swan paused. “Now that I think about it, you might as well bring those three friends of yours with you on the search for this Fenris fellow. It might do all of you some good, and we both know you would only be worried if you can’t keep an eye on them.”
With that, the headmaster left. Raven sat, silent, in her armchair; first staring into the dark corridor Swan had left through and then into the slowly dancing flames of the fire in front of her. In her mind several faces surfaced from her memories – some from this life, but most from her previous one.
There were perhaps not many people Raven would claimed that she trusted, but there were still a handful, and every single one of them she would gladly fight together with, even in the face of imminent death. But what Swan had talked about, trusting to the point where she would literally hand over her life to that person . . . “What idiocy,” she mumbled.
One face, however, lingered a bit longer in her mind than the rest, but in the end she shrugged it off as well. ‘It was guilt you were feeling, nothing more.’
Without brooding over it any longer, Raven got to her feet and headed off deeper into the grand hall, taking the corridor that led to the very center of the mountain.
Javelin and six of the other seven students of the seventh grade were seated in a modestly furnished cabin, being flown by one of the academy’s Everest Hawks deep into the mountain range. They were headed for the location where the Lunar Trials would be held this time around – the Crimson Caves, not far from the prefecture border closest to Sky Academy.
Normally all students of the same grade would have traveled together, but Dunlin had of course insisted on using his personal Hawk and cabin; good riddance, if you asked the Griffin twins.
While most of the other boys were chatting merrily among themselves, both Javelin and the twins sat in silence. The twins were, understandably, still a bit shaken up over their encounter with the Blood Hound and didn’t feel like talking at all. They had been told that Headmaster Swan had been looking for his disciple and had been lucky enough to reach them right before the assassin managed to harm them, but the notion of being so close to death – and particularly all that killing intent – was still vivid in their minds.
Javelin on the other hand was immersed in thoughts about Raven. He hadn’t seen her since he fainted in Bill’s cellar, but at the moment he wasn’t so sure that was a bad thing.
‘How am I going to treat her after this?’ he wondered helplessly. ‘For her that . . . kiss . . . might have been a means to an end, but for me. . . .’ He sighed heavily, causing some of the other guys to shoot him questioning glances, but Javelin ignored them. ‘No matter what she says, she must be Raven Nightingale – there are simply too many coincidences for her not to be!’
Subconsciously, Javelin started fiddling with the blue and coppery bracelet around his wrist.
‘Even if I don’t count her age as well as hers and her pet’s similar names, there is still that sword. . . . Although I haven’t seen it myself before, Hoatzin’s mother often wrote about his kid sister’s odd love for an oversized and ornate blade called the Nightingale’s Blessing. Surely that too can’t be mere coincidence?’
Where Javelin would normally feel that something was off when he considered Raven’s background, his current conclusions felt extremely . . . right, and more so than just wishful thinking.
‘She survived . . . she actually survived!’ The mere thought of it made Javelin want to jump out the cabin window and shout his elation to the mountain tops. He figured he should feel betrayed; so many times had Raven had the opportunity to tell him, but had chosen not to. She had even lied to him when he first figured out her identity – although, while it confused him, Javelin still felt that there had been truth to her words even then. However, regardless of all her lies, Javelin couldn’t get mad at her.
‘She must have had her reasons. Her entire family had just been murdered and . . .’ Suddenly Javelin froze. ‘Her family . . .’
At once so much made sense. That was her reason. Ever since they had started their campaign against the Talon Clan, Javelin had felt that Raven’s investment was perhaps a bit extreme. Although she hid it well, Javelin could still sense the nearly boundless hate Raven felt towards the clan. It wasn’t so much her actions that told her off, but rather her eyes; sometimes those crimson jewels would turn so unbelievably cold and vicious, becoming like windows to hell itself. It had scared him.
‘How many indications have we not found that it was in fact the Talon Clan that staged the fire and caused the death of the Nightingales? No wonder she wants them gone.’
Javelin clenched his fists until they turned pale white. As he imagined the then four year old Raven, curled up in the forest somewhere, with all her family members murdered – by her own relatives no less – Javelin could feel his rage building.
‘How dare they do something so heartless?’ By now his nails had pierced into the soft tissue of his palm. ‘I won’t let them get away with this!’
Eventually noticing the stinging pain in his palm, Javelin forced himself to calm down. He was mature enough to know that simply getting angry would solve nothing. Raven had no doubt been planning her revenge for years; the best thing he could do was intensify his efforts to help her.
He vowed to himself that he would make it his mission to help Raven in any way he could. ‘I must support her, she is after all my . . .’ His train of thoughts ended. What was Raven to him now? Raven Nightingale had been his first love; a childish crush on a fairy princess from another empire that was bound to fail. Raven Night on the other hand was a . . . friend? More than a friend?
Javelin couldn’t deny that he enjoyed her company, missed it even, whenever she wasn’t around. He felt more at ease with her close. Javelin’s mind couldn’t help but go back to the incident in the cellar and right away he could feel his body heating up, tingling even.