Quickly Javelin moved with the intention to stand up and give proper respect to his teacher, but Elder Gadwall motioned for him to remain seated.
“There is no need for formality,” smiled Gadwall, his eyes sparkling with his usual jovial curiosity. “I see you are training as hard as ever – do you never rest?”
“Not if I can help it, Elder,” replied Javelin with earnest determination.
Gadwall chuckled softly. “It is good that you are ambitious, Student Hake, but remember that rest and recuperation are important aspects of cultivation as well.”
Pleased by Javelin’s response Elder Gadwall was about to leave when he stopped, seemingly remembering something. “Oh right! Student Hake,” he called offhandedly with an inquisitive voice, “I have noticed that Student Night has been absent from class the last couple of days – the headmaster has told me not to fret about it and let him train on his own for a while, but I can’t help but worry for the boy. . . .” Elder Gadwall looked quite concerned as he spoke. “Do you know how he is doing?”
Elder Gadwall was not the first to ask this of Javelin over the past few days, so he neither found it odd nor was he caught off-guard. He simply gave the answer he had given all the others who asked: “Apologies, Elder Gadwall, but I don’t know much about it either. . . . All I know is that his uncles came to visit a while back and Raven left with them. Supposedly for some sort of intense training.”
Gadwall raised a surprised eyebrow. “His uncles? What could they teach him that can’t be taught here at the Academy?”
“I don’t know, Elder, but they left the city last week.” As he said this Javelin carefully observed Elder Gadwall’s reactions. Raven had told Javelin to only disclose the ‘fact’ that she had left the city if an Elder asked him about it, but so far only other students had been curious enough to ask. Surprisingly, Elder Gadwall didn’t seem too shocked by the news. Instead, it seemed more like he had his suspicions confirmed.
“I see,” he said, holding up his hands helplessly. “Well, I suppose it’s okay since Headmaster Swan doesn’t seem to have any objections.” Gadwall smiled. “I didn’t mean to drill you about it, Student Hake, it’s just that with both Student Talon and Student Tanuki away on their own, I can’t help but feel like the Advanced Classes are a bit empty.”
Gadwall winked playfully at Javelin and the latter couldn’t help but feel that the gesture was a bit inappropriate; there was no way that the vice headmaster of the academy would not have been informed of Dunlin’s death and Jack’s subsequent disappearance, and while the student body remained blissfully unawares of the situation, joking about it was more than Javelin would have been able to do if their situation had been reversed.
“I won’t bother your meditation any further, Student Hake,” Gadwall said, still smiling warmly; “But speaking of the Advanced Class, I have something special planned for all of you this afternoon, so make sure you’re on time.”
“I will, Elder Gadwall.” Javelin lowered his head respectfully as Gadwall turned on his heel and walked off. When the latter’s footsteps faded into the distance, Javelin raised his head and looked pensively at the departing Elder.
‘Raven explicitly told me not to trust anyone but herself and the Headmaster, especially when it comes to other elders at the school. . . . Does that include Elder Gadwall?’ he wondered quietly to himself before resuming his meditation with steadfast determination.
When the man known as Gadwall walked away from the young, so-called genius from the Sea Empire, he couldn’t help but sneer slightly as he considered the latter’s futile attempts at cultivation. While this Javelin Hake could indeed be considered to have quite a decent amount of talent in this realm, it was mere scraps compared to other places he’d been to.
‘I just don’t get why the Council of Realms insist on preserving places like this one – there are no true talents on this continent. . . .’ he thought mockingly, but his smug feelings quickly dissipated. ‘That Night kid though . . . he ain’t half bad; his talent could be considered mediocre at least.’
Gadwall kept walking through the campus grounds, his inner thoughts still focused on the peculiar youth he had been trying to keep track of over the past couple of years. The little bugger had been slipperier than expected, and Gadwall couldn’t shake the feeling that everything he knew about Raven Night was odd somehow – orchestrated almost.
He frowned. ‘The Hake brat’s story adds up with what my spies are telling me – Night left the city eight days ago and has since then been traveling and training with his mercenary uncles in the wilderness. Meanwhile the strategic attacks on all my assets keep escalating. . . . Does this mean my theory was incorrect – does Night truly have no connection to the Talon Clan’s recent bad luck?’
A dangerous glint flashed deep in the vice headmaster’s silvery eyes, momentarily turning them black. Lately all of his carefully constructed plans had started to unravel and yet he couldn’t figure out why; it was as if every guild and institution in the nation had started making decisions that were disadvantageous for him and the Talon Clan. Clearly someone else was working behind the scenes, but who?
‘Could there be another High Realm Native on Trinity continent who is working against me?’ The sudden notion startled Gadwall, but he quickly dismissed it. ‘If there was, surley they would have stopped me more directly by now, right?’
Nonetheless a sense of urgency filled him and Gadwall’s pace grew more steadfast.
‘I will need a few precautions, just in case. As for the Talon Clan’s involvement. . . .’ Had any of the students or faculty members seen Gadwall now, it was likely that none of them would have recognized the man; his usually amiable eyes were filled with an almost savage hunger – a hunger only more power could sate.
That night Javelin returned to the house owned by Raven’s uncles for the first time since before they set out in search for Fenris. Ever since they had returned to Sky City, Raven had basically taken a leave of absence from the school, allowing her to focus on putting all her plans into motion against the Talon Clan, so Javelin hadn’t seen very much of her.
The uncles’ house was the only place he was sure to run into Raven. It wasn’t that he hadn’t wished to come earlier – nor that he wasn’t allowed to – but Javelin knew that his presence might endanger her, so he opted to keep his distance until needed.
Tonight, however, was a bit different. Raven had asked to be notified when Elders started asking questions about either her location or Dunlin’s disappearance. Naturally, Javelin didn’t really need to go in person, but he had to admit that he really wanted to see Raven and she had given him permission to visit the house occasionally.
As soon as he arrived, Javelin knew that Raven was in, the reason being the sweet aroma of newly cooked meat that could be smelled even outside the door. Bill never cooked anything extravagant when he was alone.
Filled with both nervousness and anticipation, Javelin hurried into the house and the kitchen, his eyes immediately falling on the lean figure standing, barefooted, at the kitchen counter.
Raven only had a loose black shirt on that extended down to her bare knees, doing nothing to hide her elegant, pale legs and a sash around her waist helped emphasize the subtle curves of her figure. Her movements were smooth and unhurried as she stirred a large pot standing over the fire on the stove.
“Hungry?” she asked in an unusually gentle voice and for a very brief moment Javelin felt an acute sense of deja vu. He quickly brushed it off though, because he knew for a fact that he had never seen Raven like this before; not in this type of clothing and definitely not cooking.
It was not until his name was called that Javelin realized that he had been staring. Instantly he could feel his cheeks flush, with perhaps more than just embarrassment. “Um, where is Bill?” he asked, grasping the first conversation topic he could think about.
A slight twitch at the corner of Raven’s lips told Javelin that she was finding his reaction amusing, but thankfully she didn’t push the matter. “Out,” she answered instead, pulling out two bowls from a nearby cupboard. She filled them both with the sweet-smelling meat stew that she had been stirring just moments before and handed one of them to Javelin.
Not sure what else to do, Javelin accepted the bowl and quickly started eating. The instant the food entered his mouth, Javelin’s eyes widened in surprise. “That’s delicious!” he exclaimed, slightly shocked by the richness of the flavor.
Raven raised an eyebrow at him, and Javelin chuckled nervously. He could tell that she had picked up on his surprise but there wasn’t really anything he could say to his defense; Javelin really hadn’t expected that Raven could cook this well. Out of habit, Javelin’s hand reached for his neck but, out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of yet another suppressed smile on Raven’s lips.
It felt rather odd to see Raven like this; she seemed so . . . relaxed.
“Did an Elder start asking questions?” Once more Raven chose to not push the issue and instead changed the subject.
Javelin gladly accepted the free-pass and nodded in agreement. “Yeah, Vice Headmaster Gadwall wondered if you were alright,” he explained and then stuffed his mouth with yet another spoonful of stew.
Raven didn’t seem too surprised by this and only nodded quietly. “Anyone else?”
“Nhm,” Javelin mumbled a ‘no’ without taking a pause in his eating.
Seemingly satisfied with his response, Raven asked no further and instead focused on her own food as well. Soon, the two of them had finished first one and then two bowls each.
“Congratulations on your advancement, by the way,” Raven suddenly said as she filled up a third bowl for Javelin. “You are not far from breaking through to the Champion realm now.”
“You can tell?” Javelin was a bit surprised at first, but he had since long come to terms with that Raven always knew more than she let on, so he quickly brushed it off. He shook his head, slightly dejected; “it’s nothing worthy of congratulating though; almost all of us made great improvements today.”
Raven frowned. “All of us?”
“Yeah, all the Advanced Students. It’s a pity you weren’t there – Gadwall has managed to get a hold of some first-rate cultivation medicine that helps your spirit core collect essence more freely if you eat it. It was really an ama-. . .”
Javelin didn’t have time to finish the sentence before Raven appeared right next to him, her jade white hand softly placed on his abdomen. Moments later, Raven’s other hand cupped his cheek, turning Javelin’s face towards her. In that instant, Javelin’s mind went blank. All he could think of was the cool but soft sensation of Raven’s hands against his skin, and the sweet scent that suddenly enveloped him.
‘Has she always smelled this good?’ he wondered absentmindedly, barely noticing how Raven sent strand after stand of her spirit essence into his body, carefully examining every inch of him.
The contact between the two of them held for perhaps five minutes and, for Javelin, the refreshing, cool touch started to spur on a deeper, burning sensation. Just as Javelin felt his breathing grow a bit ragged, Raven pulled away, her face awash with relief.
Javelin felt very confused about what had happened but before he had a chance to gather his thoughts and ask, Raven was already yelling at him.
“Didn’t I tell you to be cautious around the Elders? What are you doing stuffing random medicine in your mouth!?”
Javelin swallowed, the growing heat within him instantly stifled.
‘Oops. . . .’
Javelin knew all too well what Raven’s current expression meant; he had screwed up and this was going to be a long night.
Three weeks – on the day – after Anhinga learned of Dunlin’s death, two particularly large Everest Hawks swooped down in the open courtyard of the Talon Clan’s city manor in Sky City. The two birds were exhausted to the point of fainting and as soon as their cargo touched the ground, both of them did just that – they fainted.
Swarming out from one of the cabins came several well armed spiritualist soldiers, all of them low Spirit Champions. Despite their heavy armor and strong cultivation, the entire group shot nervous glances at the second cabin, seemingly afraid of what – or rather who – would emerge from inside it. Fortunately for them, the soldiers had things they needed to do – such as take care of the two knocked out birds – so they only lingered for a moment before scurrying off to their respective tasks.
The regular servants were not as lucky, but it still took less than a second before a brave servant hurried up towards the closed door, preparing to open it and then quickly get out of the way; all of them knew their mistress’ temper well and while being in her way when she was angry might be fatal for a few of them, staying away would have even greater consequences. However, before the jittery servant even reached the cabin, its metallic door swung open and a large, grease-covered man flew out like a cannon ball.
The people present watched, wide-eyed, as their lord and master half flew, half rolled, several meters across the courtyard before his large body ground to a halt. The city manor’s servants didn’t manage to stop themselves from drawing in a sharp breath and staring at the open cabin door in shock; they could guess what had just happened but while very few of them were unaware of Anhinga’s disdain for her husband, the lady had never so blatantly mistreated her spouse as she did now.
Half a heartbeat later, Anhinga’s figure strode out of the cabin which her husband had just been shot out from. She seemed noticeably older; her body and hair was thinner and her eye-sockets more hollow, but the eyes themselves burned with an impressive rage.
“Councilor!” she roared and stormed into the house without casting so much as a glance at the people around her. As she disappeared into the manor, the nervous servant who had first approached the cabin Anhinga was in, breathed a sigh of relief.
Not so lucky was the old shriveled up man who Anhinga had just called out for. When she reached the innermost room of the manor where the man was, he stood leaned over a table filled with documents and greenish glass orbs. If the man had looked old before, he now seemed more like a corpse who had lost his coffin, but while a more kindhearted person would be concerned for their relative, Anhinga couldn’t care less.
“Any news?” she demanded, her voice clearly indicating that she was doing her best not to lash out and kill the old man on the spot.
The Councilor listlessly gathered up a handful of reports and held them up to Anhinga. “Plenty.”
For a brief moment Anhinga’s rage was replaced by shock; it had only been tree days since Anhinga got her last Stormbird delivery and yet there where so many new cases?
While it had taken the Everest Hawks nearly three weeks of extremely hard flying to make it from the Black Talon Prefecture to Sky City, several Stormbirds had flown back and forth between the capital and the advancing Hawks, bringing summaries of what was going on. At first all attention had been on discovering what happened to Dunlin and trying to locate the missing Jack, but eventually the abnormal events regarding the Talon Clan’s assets couldn’t be hidden by the chaos surrounding the dead heir anymore.
“How is this possible?” Anhinga’s rage was resurfacing yet again as she demanded answers, but the old Councilor only shook his head; if he was afraid of Anhinga letting her anger out on him, he didn’t show it.
Anhinga slammed down the pile of papers on the nearby table. “Leave!” she shouted, amazingly enough keeping her emotions somewhat in check long enough for the elderly man to leave her alone in the room. Just as she was about to go on a minor rampage, a cold and detached voice spoke out behind her.
“Good evening, Lady Talon.”
Anhinga spun around, coming face to face with none other than the Sky Academy’s own Vice Headmaster Gadwall. Briefly, Anhinga was too stunned to even react at the man’s sudden appearance but it didn’t last long. Ignoring reason, she jabbed her finger at Gadwall and shouted accusingly; “You! You have some nerve showing up here after letting my son get killed! How dare you!?”
To Anhinga’s ire, Gadwall looked more amused than anything else at her berating and smiled a smile that wasn’t really a smile. “Letting him die? I don’t remember promising to protect him. I gave him strength beyond his talents – it’s not my fault he still couldn’t handle himself.”
Enraged, Anhinga violently circulated her spirit essence and lifted her hand to give Gadwall a full-on slap, but half-way through the motion, Anhinga felt a cold shudder run down her spine. As her eyes met Gadwall’s, she could feel her own rage melting away, whimpering like a puppy in front of a wolf.
“Good girl,” mocked Gadwall as he saw the fear in her eyes. “Now, you are obviously in mourning, so I will get straight to the point; I came to tell you that your deadline has changed.”
Anhinga swallowed nervously and glanced down on the heaps of documents on the table next to her. Even though she knew it was futile, Anhinga couldn’t help but pray that the change meant more time, not less. Unfortunately for her no gods seemed to be listening, because in the next breath Gadwall continued; “Two months – two months until this continent is plunged in war, or bear the consequences.”