The thundering sound of rushing water was deafening as Raven knelt down on the damp cave floor in front of the faintly flickering Spirit Star seal at the cave ledge’s edge. It was roughly sixty meters to the actual water that flowed in reverse straight up but stray water drops would, every now and then, find their way to Raven. Despite the spray of drops, Raven remained motionless, her eyes closed.
Suddenly, the flickering stopped and the Spirit Star seal stabilized. Noticing the change, Raven opened her eyes. ‘It is time.’
Pouring her own spirit essence into her hand, Raven reached out and pushed down on the faint seal. The minute the two made contact a tingling sensation spread through Raven’s palm and she could feel the cave floor vibrating slightly beneath her. The vibrations grew more intense before finally a dense stream of translucent spirit essence surged out from the rock and shot straight for the water stream at the center of the abyss. As soon as that stream reached its destination, slamming into the waterfall, the water changed its flow, revealing a passageway to its depths.
Taking a deep breath, Raven got up and stepped out on the oddly colorless spirit essence bridge that had formed between her ledge and the waterfall. While she walked, Raven couldn’t help but look down and shudder. Raven was by no means uncomfortable with heights but even with her extraordinary eyes, Raven could not see or otherwise sense the bottom at all – a fall would undoubtedly lead to death.
Raising her gaze, Raven focused on her destination. A faint smile appeared on her lips as she thought back on her first visit to this place. While the stream of spirit essence was extremely dense, it was a still quite allusive and hard to sense, even for Raven. When she had unlocked the seal for the first time, the Headmaster had not been able to sense its arrival at all and had thought that the unsealing was perhaps a failure – what use is a hollow in the waterfall if you have no way of getting, or staying, there? Imagine his surprise when Raven had gotten up and simply walked off the edge, seemingly on thin air!
It didn’t take long for Raven to reach the opening in the waterfall. Taking another deep breath, Raven readied herself for the sensory overload she would soon receive and stepped forward. The moment she walked inside the path behind her started to close up, sealing off her exit, but Raven wasn’t worried. Instead she continued deeper in and after ten paces, she reached the center of the column. Around her, the water formed a spherical bubble, encasing her in a nautical world.
Calmly, Raven sat down cross-legged and closed her eyes, and like flipping a switch, the entire world went from night to day. Clear spirit essence swirled into her, body and soul, and instantaneously every little speck within well over a hundred meters from Raven became like an extension of her body. She could feel the water molecules rushing past her, and the air particles drifting around outside; she could sense life within them and, vaguely, her possibility to control them as her own – though she was not there yet.
Raven started circling her own spirit essence, adapting to the paths that the foreign spirit essence took as it moved through her body and the space around her. As it moved, Raven felt the strength hidden within those patterns and like every other time she had been here, she started to comprehend where that strength came from. She couldn’t shake the feeling that if she managed to learn these patterns and adapt her Divine Skills to it, their effects would skyrocket.
For three days Raven would sit like this, without rest, before the sensation of the translucent spirit essence would pass and the path out of the waterfall would appear again. Once out, the world would seem dull and grey for her, leaving her with an odd feeling of loneliness. It was not an emotion Raven was accustomed to – she had almost always considered herself alone, but never felt lonely because of it – and Raven didn’t like it. In fact, had it not been for her pressing need to grow stronger, she would perhaps not have returned.
As it was, Raven had returned – every day – until the seal once more had given a steady glow and it was possible to reenter the waterfall. Her numerous visits over the years had contributed greatly to her progress, both in cultivation and essence control, and Raven found herself growing quite fond of the time she got to spend cultivating here.
The three days went by in a flash, and eventually Raven had no choice but to leave the waterfall space for this time. When she did, that now familiar feeling of loneliness swept over her as the world grew dimmer around her, her senses returning to her own. She walked back to the ledge, but as she was about to leave, Raven had the sudden urge to turn around. She complied but, looking back, everything seemed the same, with nothing out of the ordinary.
‘Did I imagine it?’ she wondered, puzzled, but in the end she still left.
While Raven’s figure disappeared behind the bend in the corridor, two vicious looking eyes made of pure spirit essence shimmered in the midst of the waterfall. Even through the stone walls, their gaze seemed to follow Raven as she walked further away.
“Soon. . . .” breathed an archaic voice that no one could hear.
A few hours later, Raven finally exited Headmaster Swan’s office, giving a respectful bow before she closed the door behind her. The other students had just returned from the Lunar Trials and a handful of them had, as always, been sent to the headmaster’s office to give a report of how the three days had gone. When they saw Raven walking out from the office, the gathered students all showed various reactions on their faces. Some were afraid, others awestruck, but one thing they all of had in common was some measure of jealousy.
For them, getting accepted into Sky Academy had felt like the greatest achievement. It had been instant proof of how talented they were and even the most kindhearted among them couldn’t help but feel a sense of superiority because of it. Once enrolled, they had learned of the even more amazing students, the Advanced Students, whose genius made them feel small and insignificant again.
However, although hard, it was not impossible to strive for that role themselves so everyone quickly came to accept the arrangement. Raven, however, had changed everything. Not only had she been unbelievably young when she enrolled, she had quickly gained the favor of the headmaster, even to the point of becoming his disciple – something that almost never happened.
Ever since, Raven’s cultivation had kept increasing steadily and although all students believed her to be simply a high Adept, this was still the cultivation level that the majority of the students had when they graduated! Needless to say, many attributed this incredible growth to the headmaster’s guidance, causing the jealousy to grow.
With her normal cold face, Raven totally ignored all the students who were waiting outside the headmaster’s office, only giving a slight nod to a guy she recognized from her own fourth grade class. The boy nodded back with pride in his eyes. For him, the fact that Raven even bothered to notice him felt like a great honor, something he could brag about later. However, had someone told this boy, four years ago, that once he enrolled at Sky Academy he would come to practically worship a young boy of common birth, he would have either collapsed in laughter or given the person a beating for slandering his name. The boy was none other than Brolga Sarus, the snobbish noble child who had caused trouble during the academy registration all those years ago.
While Brolga relished in the brief greeting, Raven continued down the corridor, unfazed, but just as she was about to reach the end of the hallway, her face stiffened slightly. The change was so subtle and short-lived that no one had a chance to notice it and Raven simply kept walking as if nothing had happened. She turned around the corner, heading for the nearest staircase and, as she took the first steps downwards, a familiar voice greeted her.
“Well, if it isn’t Junior Student Night – good afternoon!”
“Good afternoon, Vice Headmaster,” replied Raven, pausing her descent to give a respectful bow to none other than Gadwall, who was approaching from below.
“How was your personal training, these past days?” asked Gadwall in a friendly tone, his grey eyes flashing with the perky curiosity that always seemed present within the man.
“Challenging,” said Raven matter-of-factually. “As always.”
Gadwall smiled warmly and Raven couldn’t help but admit that the man was a masterful actor for his heartfelt interest seemed truly genuine – it always did. In fact, had it not been for her coincidental witnessing of Gadwall’s interaction with Dunlin and Jack back in the Spirit Tower, Raven would perhaps have doubted her conclusion about Gadwall’s involvement all together.
“That is training at its best. One of these days, you and Swan will have to tell me what it is the two of you do during you training sessions – I’m impressed by how effective it is!”
“If Master Swan wishes it,” was Raven’s reply, just as it had been every other time Gadwall had made enquiries about the matter before. Although the reverse waterfall was no great secret, the cultivation space within it was, and Raven was not about to tell her enemy about it. Then again, for a man like Gadwall, Raven had no doubt that he wouldn’t find it too challenging to figure out more details about Raven’s training, but he fortunately didn’t seem too interested.
“Next time then.” Gadwall kept smiling. “Well then, I shall keep you no longer, Junior Student Night. See you tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” asked Raven, genuinely confused. It was after all rather rare to run into the vice headmaster on a regular day.
“Yes, I’ll be taking over the Advanced Classes for the unforeseeable future so we shall be seeing a lot more of each other from now on. The Emperor had been trying to get the regular Elder – Elder Wyrmouth – to assist with the army for years, and today he finally agreed.”
“The empire is most fortunate,” replied Raven as she bowed slightly. While Gadwall seemed overjoyed by this, Raven couldn’t help but feel a bit depressed about the sudden change. It would give her one more thing to think about as she trained. Raven let some of the disappointment show on her face. “Unfortunately,” she said apologetically, “Master Swan has appointed me with a task that will likely take a month or so to complete. I’m afraid I will have to wait a bit longer before I can enjoy Vice Headmaster’s cultivation insights.”
For an instant, an eerie darkness flashed across Gadwall’s eyes but his smile quickly returned. Raven and Gadwall exchanged a few more pleasantries before the two of them parted ways. Raven held on until she had left the building and was alone before she loosened the reigns on her emotions. Instantly, from a tree not too far away from her, a dozen bird’s took flight as intense killing intent surged through Raven. Her already red eyes glowed with an even deeper crimson that seemed ready to swallow the world.
Raven took a deep breath, steadying herself emotionally. ‘It will be over soon,’ she repeated in her mind, letting the reality of this sink in; ‘soon. . . .’
Once her emotions were somewhat in check, Raven made her way towards the Academy’s main landing area for transporter birds, where most Everest Hawks would arrive and depart. Before she left the headmaster had told her that Javelin and the twins had already been informed that they would be accompanying Raven on a search mission for a missing man. He had stressed that time was of the essence so therefore, despite the fact that the boys had returned only hours earlier, the trio had still been asked to prepare for departure immediately.
As Raven approached the landing area, her already sour mood took a turn for the worse. ‘What is she doing here?’ she thought venomously as her senses told her of an unwanted female presence, clinging closely to Javelin; Cara was there.