With narrowed eyes, Gadwall observed the petite woman who was standing quietly a few steps away from her mistress, the Empress Nene. A few seconds ago, Gadwall could have sworn that he felt a bone-chilling killing intent surge out from the maid’s small body, to the point were even he himself felt threatened. However, looking at her now, Gadwall couldn’t help but believe that he was mistaken.
‘How could such a weak little thing possibly shake me?’ he tried to convince himself and yet, as he looked closer at the girl, Gadwall felt an odd sense of familiarity. ‘Have I seen this girl before?’
“What do you mean by ‘first step’, Lady Talon? Are you saying that the deaths of the Nightingale Clan’s head family wasn’t an accident?” Emperor Mallard’s stern voice pulled Gadwall’s attention back to the scene in front of him.
“I am, your Majesty.” Anhinga sounded extremely sad as she reminisced on the past. “Until recently, I too thought my brother had perished due to a careless mistake on his part but, when I went through my son’s possessions I found something that he must have been too afraid to share with anyone. . . .”
With anger still boiling within her, Raven watched as Anhinga pulled out a small glass-like green orb and a larger metallic bowl from within her spacial ring. Slipping the orb into the bowl, Anhinga placed them both on the ground and took a few steps back. Seconds later, the orb started to glow softly before a beam of light shot out, projecting images onto the nearby wall.
Initially, Raven had only intended to glance at whatever nonsense her cousin has supposedly recorded but as she saw the proud deep-green eyes of her father staring back at her, Raven’s head snapped up, her gaze locked on the projected image.
There, in the all-too familiar main hall of the Nightingale Manor, Lord Maleo smiled warmly at her as he lovingly held his wife – Raven’s mother – in a tight embrace. The graceful figure of Besra Nightingale leaned into Maleo’s arms as she too smiled at Raven. Seconds later, a young boy ran into the picture and happily jumped into the pair’s now outstretched arms.
It was her brother.
A lone tear escaped Raven’s eyes. Her family. How long had it been since she had seen them like this? Happy and united. Alive.
For a moment the world around Raven seemed to disappear – there was nothing but her and her family, looking lovingly at each other – but suddenly a fourth figure entered the frame. Raven saw herself rush in. She was younger and dressed in fine silks, with her dark hair nearly brushing the floor, and she was giggling happily. The young Raven turned to face her, beckoning the older Raven to come closer.
“Come on, cousin!” the young Raven called; “let’s play together!”
Only now did Raven’s mind snap out of the daze that seeing her family alive again had put her in. She wasn’t at home with her family – she was only watching a recording!
Raven’s awareness was pulled back into the audience hall at Indigo Cloud Palace, were a quick glance over at the now crying Anhinga caused Raven’s fists to cramp in rage. Raven’s memory was excellent; she had never treated her cousin so warmly. The memory recording was faked.
Returning her attention to the false memory, Raven’s fists turned even whiter and it didn’t take long before red drops escaped from within, tainting her white apron. She could guess what was coming, but she couldn’t look away.
On the projected image, the younger versions of Hoatzin and Raven could be seen playing happily with the recording Dunlin, eventually opting for a game of hide-and-seek. The young Raven had insisted on doing the searching and Dunlin had quickly hid himself in a large cupboard, leaving a small crack open in the door so he could see outside. He watched as the young girl counted down.
“13, 12, 8, 11, 10, 7 . . .” The few mistakes she made in the number sequence caused not only her recorded parents, but also some of the Councilors, to chuckle softly.
It was an idyllic scene, but just as the young Raven finally reached zero that peaceful atmosphere was instantly shattered. With a loud bang, the large doors to the room were shattered open and five black-dressed individuals stormed in.
What followed was nothing short of a bloodbath.
Caught unawares, Maleo did his best to defend his family but the opponents seemed to have the same cultivation level as he did, so in the end there was nothing he could do but watch as two of his opponents rushed past him and swung at the defenseless and terrified little Raven. The sword came down but before it could reach its mark Besra’s anguished voice called out as she threw herself in front of her daughter.
The strike was instantly fatal.
Maleo seemed to go mad with grief and somehow he managed to strike down one of the men he was fighting, but before he could reach his daughter’s side, a second attack was made against little Raven. Once more the blade descended, but once more it fell short of its mark. This time around it was Hoatzin that had miraculously managed to deflect the incoming sword just enough to be able shove his sister out of the way. “Run!” he shouted as he bravely stood between Raven and her assailants, but the young girl’s legs wouldn’t move.
Even though Maleo desperately fought to reach his children, the result was unavoidable; what could Hoatzin, a mere Spirit Novice, do to delay two mid Champions? The boy was rammed through by a jade-green blade within milliseconds and the young Raven was scooped up, a second blade held against her throat.
“Stop fighting, or the girl is dead,” the man holding Raven shouted and instantly her father froze.
At this point the real Raven closed her eyes. Somewhere along the way every muscle in her body had tensed to their max before suddenly relaxing completely. When Raven reopened her eyes, not even a whiff of killing intent could be seen in what were now two obsidian-black holes.
In fact, no emotions whatsoever were present on Raven’s face as her entire being seemed to melt into the surroundings; it was like she was there and yet not there at the same time.
She was calm. Deadly calm.
Another shudder ran through Gadwall’s body. This time there was no oppressive killing intent in the room, it was rather a question of instincts. He looked around the room, but he couldn’t find anything out of the ordinary. Gadwall’s eyes finally landed on the Empress’ small serving-girl and was surprised to find her pitch black eyes staring apathetically at the memory being projected on the opposite wall.
Previously the girl had kept her gaze lowered so hadn’t seen her eyes, but now that he could see them, Gadwall felt himself unable to look away. He had never seen such lifeless and cold eyes before.
By now, every Nightingale in the projected memory had been killed and a sixth black-robed individual had arrived in the room. The several Councilors who were watching suddenly drew in a deep breath as the hood slipped off from that last individual, only to reveal the stunningly handsome face of one of Sky Academy’s more famous Elders, Elder Willow.
The image faded, seemingly due to Dunlin fainting, and the audience hall descended in silence, only disturbed by Anhinga’s quiet sobbing. Glancing about the room, Gadwall noticed with glee that shock was apparent on everyone’s faces. Well almost everyone’s; the servant girl was as cold and apathetic as before.
“Your Majesty,” wept Anhinga, “please! While your Majesty might not believe in Jack’s involvement in my Dunlin’s death, please believe in this record left by my son! Elder Willow clearly ordered my poor brother’s death! Just think how afraid my son must have been, attending the same academy as that monster!”
Anhinga’s crying intensified as she collapsed on the floor and Gadwall had to admit that the woman was fairly quick-witted. Directly pushing the responsibility of everything her clan had done onto the other empires, had only been a back-up plan, should all else fail, and yet she had prepared it with so much detail. Even he was impressed by her ability to manipulate memory orbs.
Looking up at the Emperor and his wife, Gadwall finally saw some doubt. Until now it had seemed as if they already had an opinion about what was going on, but now they were starting to have doubts. Just a bit more and war would be inevitable.
“Emperor, if I may?” Gadwall decided to provide the last nail in the coffin himself. “A thorough investigation into the orbs authenticity must be made but that will take time. I suggest we capture and interrogate Elder Willow at once. I have always liked the man and if this is indeed true then I would like to think that he is likely only working under someone else’s command.”
Several Councillors murmured their consent but the Emperor looked confused. He kept glancing up at his wife, who seemed equally unsure of what to do. More opinions and suggestions were given and Gadwall was just about to speak again when a cold and detached voice cut him off.
“There is no need.”
It was a simple sentence, spoke without shouting, but at once the growing buzz in the audience hall quieted down. Everyone’s eyes fell on the Empress’ maid-in-waiting who slowly stepped forward.
It wasn’t until the girl stood a mere meter away from Anhinga that the latter finally reacted. “Why are you even talking, servant girl!?” she shouted and was about to get to her feet when the girl’s black eyes locked in on her. Immediately, Anhinga faltered, choosing to remain on the ground. “Th-this doesn’t involve you. . . .” Anhinga managed to stutter out.
“Doesn’t involve me?” the girl’s mouth twitched into a smile that wasn’t really a smile. “You are spewing lies about the death of my family and you say it doesn’t involve me?”
“What the. . . ?” Anhinga started but before she could finish her sentence a silvery flash stabbed down in front of her. A beautifully etched sword sunk into the marble floor like butter, its finely vibrating blade producing a soft hum that filled the audience hall.
“Recognize this?” the girl asked and Anhinga’s eyes widened in shock, her face paling. Gadwall’s eyes narrowed; this didn’t look good.
Despite her reaction stating otherwise, Anhinga still shook her head, denying to recognize the sword.
“You don’t recognize it? Then how about this?” the girl yanked at her clothes, swiftly ripping off the concealing shawl around her head. As she straightened out, Anhinga wasn’t the only one to stare in shock. Shoulder-long midnight-purple hair framed the porcelain face of a young girl, whose previously plain appearance now bore a startling resemblance to that of the late Lady Besra Nightingale. Only the girl’s black eyes and emotionless expression made her seem a bit out-of-place.
“Well?” she prompted. “Do you recognize the face of your beloved brother’s daughter?”
Anhinga was incapable of answering. She stared at the girl as if she had seen a ghost and that was all Gadwall needed to confirm that the servant girl was indeed Raven Nightingale.
‘Wait . . . Raven Nightingale?’ Gadwall looked closer at the girl. ‘It is him; Raven Night is actually Raven Nightingale! I knew I’d seen that face somewhere!’
The realization made Gadwall extremely frustrated. With the real Raven showing up, it was unlikely that Anhinga’s plan would succeed. If anything, it was more likely that everything he had striven so hard to disrupt would be resolved, just because one little girl escaped. Seeing how such a young child had survived it was also apparent that she must have had some sort of help – perhaps they were the ones behind his other plans falling apart as well?
Gadwall sighed. Had he not been so greedy and wished for Raven Night to grow stronger before he stole the kids cultivation, things would most likely have gone much smoother.
Now he would have to do things a bit differently after all.
Raven’s mind zeroed in on her aunt but despite her focus, Raven still picked up every little movement within the audience hall. It hadn’t been her initial plan to confront her aunt like this, but she had been left no choice. Not only would Raven’s rage not let Anhinga’s false testimony slip by, but the recorded images had sowed a seed of doubt within both Nene and Mallard; unless she revealed herself the pair might actually start believing her aunt’s story.
“You have no words for me, aunt?” Raven sneered. “You kill my family, plot against not only your own empire, but the other two as well, and not even a sorry?”
For a while now a seething and viscous anger not entirely her own had been seeping through Raven, threatening to push her out of control any minute. She wanted nothing more than to charge at her aunt, barehanded, and tear her to pieces. It was perhaps only the wish to see the despair in Anhinga’s eyes when she realized her doom was near, that kept Raven sane. There was also the issue with Gadwall. . . .
Raven felt a growl growing in the back of her throat. ‘Fuck it,’ she thought as she looked at the pale and shaking Anhinga. ‘I might as well kill her now and see what Gadwall has to say about it!’
“Emperor Mallard,” Raven boomed and tossed a jade seal over her shoulder without taking her eyes of Anhinga. “That is proof of my identity. Your Majesty has seen the evidence that the headmaster and I have collected. I am claiming justice for my family here and now and only ask not to be interfered with. I will bear the consequences of my actions.”
Without waiting Raven grabbed the hilt of her sword and closed the last meter between her and her aunt. She noticed Mallard moving to protest but Empress Nene placed a hand on his shoulder, casting meaningful glares at the present palace guards. The meaning was clear; don’t interfere.
Pleased, Raven leaned in to her aunts ear. “Dear aunt,” she whispered in a killing-intent laced voice that only Anhinga could hear. “Send my regards to Dunlin. Hopefully the heat of Hell keeps him warm enough, even without his skin.” Anhinga’s eyes widened in fear and shock, and while she wanted to move the thick killing intent locked her in place.
“Oh, right,” added Raven, “you better enjoy Hell while you can, auntie dear – it won’t be pleasant for you once I get there.”
Feeling her control slipping further, Raven let out a low growl as red and black spirit essence condensed around her sword. With a stab so fast that even headmaster Swan couldn’t quite catch it, Raven’s sword sliced clean through Anhinga’s throat. However, the expected stream of blood never came.
Raven swirled around and glared viciously at the white-robed figure that was hovering mid-air, holding her barely conscious aunt by the neck of her robes. Streams of black, semi-translucent spirit essence swirled around them both as Gadwall looked at those below arrogantly.
“Gadwall!” Raven bellowed but even through the raging anger, she couldn’t help but feel a bit dumbfounded. ‘He can fly!?’ Strong spiritualists could jump incredibly high and, once you reached the Spirit Master level, controlling spirit essence to slow ones decent wasn’t impossible, but flying? No way.
Before Raven had any time to consider this further, Gadwall turned his gaze towards the ceiling and pointed. The instant his finger jutted out, an incredible gale of pitch-black spirit essence surged out from him, directly blasting a hole through the roof. Raven’s eyes widened as she sensed the presence of an approaching Spirit Beast outside and even before Gadwall had started moving, Raven kicked off from the ground.
Below her, Headmaster Swan’s face paled, but there was nothing he could do; Gadwall had already acted. With a casual flick of his wrist Gadwall tossed Anhinga out of the opening in the roof and even though his movement had started after Raven moved, Anhinga was long gone by the time Raven reached him. At the same time, a transparent membrane had spread out beneath Gadwall, which didn’t even shudder when Raven slammed into it with all the strength she could muster.
Like a shooting star, Raven slammed back down on the ground, creating a cracks in the hard marble tiles.
“Not so fast, little one,” Gadwall chuckled, his voice sounding nothing like it had before. “I’m afraid time’s up.”