It wasn’t until right before dawn the next morning that Raven and Javelin turned up at the meeting site which Raven had described to Aves the day Before. The two of them had spent most of the night searching for a sheltered cave where they could leave Jack without fear of any wild animal stumbling across the defenseless boy and it had taken longer than expected to find a suitable one.
They had left some food and water with him, but whether Jack would actually eat anything was a bit unclear but his superior constitution should keep him alive up towards at least a month anyway. They had then craftily sealed the boy inside the cave – if anyone else were to stumble upon it, it would look like the cave entrance had been collapsed from within.
At the meeting site the three men who had been waiting for them were overjoyed, seeing that both Raven and Javelin arrived unscathed. This was especially true for Aves; he felt like a huge weight had been lifted off his shoulders as he would no longer have to explain to his elder brother how he had managed to lose not only a foreign student, but their brightest hope in advancing past this realm’s borders.
Immediately everyone started asking questions and while Raven and Javelin chose not to divulge what had happened to them – claiming to have simply passed out in that massive phenomenon of nature – the other three were more than happy to speak of their experiences.
It turned out that the” hold up”, which Dunlin had mentioned, had been a smaller hoard of Flame Eye Bats – individually weak, but notoriously hard to deal with in larger numbers. The bats had swarmed the then airborne cabin shortly after Hoatzin had left them, starting a very tricky battle in the air. Things had been looking rather grim when suddenly the sky darkened and storm-clouds rushed by them. Instantly, the entire hoard of Flame Eye Bats had frozen, mid-air, before fleeing as fast as their wings could carry them.
Aves’ Everest Hawk had also freaked out and no matter what orders Aves had given it, the bird had refused to fly in any direction but away from the center of the storm – not that Aves had tried very hard. . . . The menacing atmosphere brewing in the storm had sent shivers down his spine while the younger and less experienced twins had actually fainted – something they were very reluctant to admit.
“I have never sensed killing intent so strong. . . .” muttered Aves, giving Raven a sidelong glance as he remembered that sinister aura he had felt deep within the storm. He himself had been too far away to be able to ascertain who, or what, had been the source of it, but his instincts told him that the little Raven was somehow involved. If nothing else, he definitely did not believe that she had simply passed out and had no idea about what had happened.
Despite his suspicions, however, Aves never even considered that Raven might actually have been the cause of it all. Few knew exactly how killing intent worked, but what was known was that the amount of killing intent one could manifest was directly linked to how many people one had killed. The amount of kills required to actually cause the very weather to change was simply beyond imagination.
“Well then,” Raven said, suddenly changing the subject as she brushed off some dry leaves from her robes. “We might as well return to the Academy.”
“The Academy? What about our mission?” Martin asked and by the looks of it, both Lark and Aves shared his confusion.
“Our mission isn’t really relevant anymore,” said Raven, shaking her head; “it was unlikely to succeed in the first place and I believe reporting to the headmaster about yesterday’s incident should take precedence. Do you agree, Protector Aves?” Raven looked pointedly at Aves who was quick to catch the hidden message in her words.
“Ah, yes, Student Night is indeed correct. We shall postpone this mission for now and return to campus.” The man must have picked up on the twin’s disappointment because he quickly added, “don’t worry, while no merit points will be awarded for the original mission, all of you handled yourself well in the face of grave danger; you will be rewarded accordingly.”
The twins smiled smugly and Raven couldn’t help but chuckle silently at the sight of it. As prefecture heirs, neither Lark nor Martin really had to worry about using merit points to buy weapons or cultivation resources, but having the highest amount of merit points had become a not-so-silent competition between the three prefectures. Before they left for this mission the twins had been neck to neck with Dunlin, so any addition would put them in the lead. Little did they know that the lead was already theirs…
With Javelin right behind her, Raven headed for the cabin parked nearby. Her eyes fell on the beast in charge of carrying it and, as their gazes met, Raven didn’t miss the subtle shudder that ran through the Everest Hawk’s giant body as the bird quickly looked away.
‘You too, huh?’ thought Raven, bemused. Before she had the time to dwell on the beast’s attitude any further, however, Raven felt two arms landing heavily on her shoulders.
Both Martin and Lark leaned in close to her face, smirking, and Raven could guess what they wanted to talk about, so she had chosen not to avoid their embrace.
“So,” said Lark.
“You’re a mid Champion, are you?” asked Martin.
“I am.” Raven’s reply was as short and matter-of-factually as always and she could almost feel Javelin rolling his eyes behind her.
“Well isn’t that awesome!” beamed Martin and rubbed the top of Raven’s head, efficiently ruining the low knot she had tied up her once again short hair in. “How many more epic secrets are you hiding in that small body of yours?”
Martin laughed and Lark laughed, their heartfelt joy for a good friend apparent, but all Raven could do was smile weakly.
“If they only knew the half of it . . . right?” Hoatzin’s amused voice rang out in Raven’s head as he stole the words right out of her mouth. His small, red body flew down from a nearby tree and headed straight for the comforts of the cabin, winking at her as he passed.
‘Indeed,’ thought Raven as she followed in behind her brother, paying more attention to him than the two friends still clinging to her. ‘Indeed. . . .’
For the return trip, Raven had Aves push the Everest Hawk even harder and in just under a week the iconic mountain peaks of Sky City came into view from the cabin’s windows.
As soon as the cabin touched ground, Raven swiftly made her way to Headmaster Swan’s office, making sure not to run into any of the people she knew were associated with Gadwall or the Talon Clan. It wasn’t so much that she feared they would learn anything from meeting her, but at the moment she couldn’t be bothered to deal with them.
By Raven’s estimate, it would be less than two days before the Stormbird was bound to arrive at the so called Talon Mansion with her ‘gift’ to dear aunt Anhinga. Before then, Raven had a few things she needed to set into motion.
“Back so soon?” wondered Headmaster Swan, confused, as Raven walked in through his office door. “Did you give up on finding Fenris?”
“In a way,” chuckled Raven, “but not in the way you think.”
Raven then continued to tell about what had happened over the past few weeks, starting with her brother’s report and the Shadow Blood Raptor’s attacks, all the way up to her killing Dunlin. Of course, there were some bits she left out – like explaining where she had gotten the report or why Fenris had come looking for her, neither did she mention the torture of Dunlin nor her subsequent loss of control – but Swan seemed too shocked by everything else she was telling him to even notice that it didn’t exactly add up.
“So Fenris will help us?” he asked again, not really believing how easily they had removed their largest problem.
“He will, but he can only stop Gadwall if he catches him in the act.”
Swan frowned. “Is the proof we already have not enough?”
“Almost. . . . The problem is if Gadwall claims that he didn’t do it himself; Gadwall is not forbidden from being on Trinity and could perhaps claim that someone else is acting behind the scenes.” Raven held out her hand, and five translucent rocks appeared in her palm. “He gave me these. Once we get Gadwall to act in person, we are to crush one of these and Fenris will come to our aid right away.”
Swan looked a bit skeptically at the stones but in the end he nodded and picked out two of the rocks.
“Then what are your thoughts on drawing Gadwall out, Raven? Surely simply confronting him won’t do the trick.”
Raven had been considering this for a long time now and quickly gave her opinion; “It is clear that the majority of Gadwall’s influence has been focused on, or is tied to, the Talon Clan. I think that it is time we took our evidence against the Talon Clan to the Emperor – at least everything regarding their planned coup – and move to force them from their power. I doubt Gadwall would allow over five years of planning to go down the drain, especially so close before his supposed dead-line; he will have no choice but to act directly.”
For a while Swan said nothing. Although he had long since promised to let Raven deal with her treacherous family however she saw fit, he couldn’t help but worry about what it would do to her. However, thinking about the immense progress her cultivation had been making since he first met her, he really had no room for complaints.
“Very well,” he said finally; “I shall bring our evidence to the Empress.”
Raven smiled slightly; she had long since learned how strong Empress Nene’s influence was over the Emperor and considering the woman’s love for Raven’s mother, it would indeed be easier to convince her of the Talon Clan’s evil deeds.
“Do you wish for me to tell them about your survival?” Swan asked.
For a moment Raven hesitated but eventually she shook her head. “I still have some things to do that require discretion. You may show them what I’iwi recorded though.”
“Very well,” agreed Swan.
“I’ll be spending the next couple of days setting somethings in motion but if there is anything you need me to know, tell my bird.” Raven nodded towards the window where Hoatzin’s red body could be seen on the other side of the glass. Swan looked a bit confused but before he could ask Raven had already started to leave. Once she reached the door, Raven paused.
“Oh right, within the next thirty hours or so Lady Talon will learn of her son’s death. I don’t know under what pretext Dunlin and Jack were out in the wilderness, but there is a chance they will start looking for Jack, as well as demanding answers from the academy.” Raven turned and tossed a small spacial ring to the headmaster. “It might be a good idea to be a bit proactive and use their own framing skills against them.”
With that, Raven left, leaving Swan staring down on the ring in his hand. Using his spirit essence to examine its context Swan’s eyes widened in shock. For a moment his didn’t know whether to laugh or cry; inside the ring was seemingly impeccable proof that Dunlin had tried to attack Jack, using a beast taming horn, while in the wilderness. According to the information within the ring, Jack had managed to get away briefly and had sent a Strombird with this distress call before planning to hide out in a cave.
This truly was a case of fighting fire with fire.
Without further ado, Swan got up from behind his desk and swiftly exited his office. Time was of the essence now.
Exactly twenty seven hours later, Lady Anhinga Talon was sitting by her bedroom table, enjoying her extremely lavish breakfast. Her silk sleeping gown glistened in the soft sunlight, as did the superfluous golden etchings that decorated every inch in her room.
She was alone; by now she had already arranged separate bedrooms for her and her lump of a husband, giving her the breathing space she so desired.
As tradition had it, breakfasts were a time of peace; no reports were allowed to be delivered – unless the news was exceptionally good – and the entire mansion was under strict orders to keep noise levels to an absolute minimum.
Unexpectedly, the quiet atmosphere was suddenly broken by the labored sound of beating wings, approaching her window from outside. Vexed, Anhinga raised her gaze only to see a Stormbird headed straight for her. The bird was carrying a box that was clearly too big for it so its flight was rather slow, yet relentless.
‘Who would use a Stormbird for such a large delivery?’ she wondered.
With her curiosity raised, Anhinga stretched out a hand and sent out a gust of spirit essence to open the window. The sound from the Stormbird’s wings instantly intensified and seconds later the exhausted bird whizzed into the bedroom, dropping its heavy cargo unceremoniously on the floor. Anhing had expected the bird to stick around for a moment, if nothing else to catch its breath, but the Stormbird quickly turned around and darted off the way it had come. It seemed oddly keen to get away as fast as possible, pushing its already tired body to its max.
Anhinga watched the bird disappear out of sight before she turned her attention to the box on the floor. Examining it more closely, Anhinga was slightly impressed by the craftsmanship of this black wooden box, but it was a bit too bland for her taste. The familiar combination of bored expectation that always filled Anhinga when she received various gifts and bribes welled over her.
‘I wasn’t expecting any deliveries today,’ she thought to herself as she bent down to pick up the black box. ‘But then again, it is no secret that I love a good surprise.’
A smug and content smile spread across Anhinga’s face.
In her mind, this gift was proof that her power and influence had finally taken root. It had been hard; surprisingly many seemed to oppose her taking over after her brother, but she had battled on – using any means at her disposal to strengthen her position – and finally people were starting to give her respect even without her demanding it.
Still smiling, Anhinga removed the strings around the box and moved to crack open the lid, her eyes beaming triumphantly, but as soon as even the smallest gap appeared between the lid and the rest of the box, an extremely vile smell flooded her bedroom. Anhinga’s face of victory instantly turned into that of repulsion as she quickly held the box at arm’s length.
“What is this!?” she growled, and with a face nearly black with rage, Anhinga flung the lid open completely and stared inside the box.
At first she couldn’t understand what she saw. Her eyes registered a coil of dark purple hair lying on top of something that looked like unprocessed leather, stained with dry blood. Anhinga frowned.
“What kind of gi-” the words got stuck in her mouth as Anhinga finally caught site of the metal emblem that lay at the center of the hair coil. Instantly all color in her face drained as she instinctively let go of the box and jumped back. “I-it can’t be. . . .” she stuttered, unwilling to look but unable to avert her gaze as she watched how, seemingly in slow motion, the black box tilted and fell towards the marble floor. With the lid ajar, the metal emblem toppled out of the box even before the latter made contact, but as the box bounced against the hard floor the rest of its content was flung out.
Eyes filled with horror, Anhinga saw her son’s deflated face sliding across the floor towards her, and next to it, the round metal emblem that proved his identity as her son and heir, spun unceasingly on its point, taunting her with every turn: your son is dead.
Finally everything slowed to a halt and the emblem came to rest on the floor with the soft but clear clink of metal against stone.
A deathly silence filled the room, but the peace didn’t last long; it was now Anhinga who screamed – screaming like she never had before.