An almost perfectly round moon shone brightly in the sky above Rock Wren Prefecture, illuminating the chill night. Despite the clear night, most of the region’s forests were nonetheless shrouded in darkness; the foliage was too dense to let more than a few slivers of the moon’s silvery light reach the forest floor.
However, everything wasn’t black. Hundreds of torches and fire pits created dancing shadows throughout a few acres of a mountain forest, barely a week’s march from Sky Capital. This was where the largest part of Anhinga’s bandit army was camping for the night. There were nearly a thousand people in the area, but they were not a united bunch so they sat in smaller groups with plenty of space in between.
On a normal night, these campsites would be lively places, filled with laughter and burly discourse, but tonight the bandits felt anything but spirited. Instead they talked in hushed voices, as if nervous that someone might hear them and take offense.
A cold breeze moved through the forest, causing the flames to flicker erratically in the wind. Carried with the wind came a soft, hummed tune – sweet and melancholic. No one noticed it at first, but as the melody reached more ears, the faint conversations started dying down. Even then, the bandits didn’t really realize what they were listening to.
Somewhere, someone suddenly screamed. It was a horrifying wail and all those who had yet to hear the bittersweet humming, winced in shock and fear before nervously looking around the, peering into the black forest. Those closest to the source of the scream, however, didn’t react at all. They were too busy contemplating that odd and alluring tune.
At the edge of the bandit encampments a dark figure moved through the undergrowth with silent steps. Still wearing the plain black under-dress of the Indigo Cloud Palace maids, and with the masterfully forged Nightingale’s Blessing in her hand, Raven didn’t bother hiding herself as she walked forward at a casual pace. Far above her Hoatzin was circling, observing.
Raven hummed as she walked and barely noticeable strands of spirit essence stretched out from her like a spiderweb, reaching everyone close enough to hear her. Fifty meters in front of her sat a dazed group of seven bandits around an fire-pit. A cold smile flashed across her face.
‘The nightmare begins,’ she mused to herself and finally opened her mouth, giving words to the melody she had been humming.
Oh dearest mine, where are you roaming?
Immediately, the full force of the Twilight Lullaby came into effect, completely transfixing everyone within a few hundred meters. Raven was a lot stronger now – both in body and soul – than she had been the last time she used this Divine Skill to kill off bandits in the wilderness; this time around only peak Spirit Champions would be unaffected, while high Champions should be able to put up some resistance – if they realized what was going on in time. Judging by Raven’s senses, this meant that out of the hundreds of people present, only eight would be able to resist her mental assault – one of which was her aunt.
With an indifferent smile and still singing, Raven’s sword flashed as she passed by the group of mesmerized bandits. Six out of the seven had their heads severed in one fell swoop, instantly dyeing the small campsite red with blood. The last remaining bandit showed no signs of reacting though, not until Raven eventually moved out of the man’s hearing range. His muddled eyes then cleared, but as he caught sight of the headless bodies around him, he couldn’t help but scream in shocked terror.
Deeper in the forest, Raven’s smile twisted into a pleased grin. A more compassionate person might feel conflicted about the lives and mental state of these hired men who were simply following the money, but Raven did not. She wanted them to scream – because every time they did, Anhinga would hear it.
That can sing both high and low.
Raven’s singing and killing continued. At a steady pace Raven made her way through the roughly three acres worth of forest were Anhinga’s bandit army was camping, slowly moving closer and closer to her aunt.
She made no attempts at killing every bandit Anhinga had gathered, but when morning eventually comes, there would nevertheless be a lot less bandits in Sky Empire.
Under the observation of a certain unnoticed red bird, Anhinga was pacing back and forth by her crumbled table in the forest. Uneasy cold sweat ran down her back but at the same time she kept clenching and underclenching her hands in anger. For over two hours, she had heard occasional shouts in the forest and by now she was starting to wonder if not the rumor about this place being haunted was true after all.
Anhinga had initially assumed that someone, an enemy from the court perhaps, had found them and were fighting the way through the encampments, but the shouts were always alone and short – definitely not typical for an out-drawn battle. Naturally, she had sent people to investigate what was going on, but when no one from the first batch returned, Anhinga’s suspicions and discomfort grew. Eventually she had instead been forced to rely on the six bandit leaders to gather information.
Out of the six that were sent out, only four returned. With pale faces unfitting for thick-skinned bandits, the four of them talked about the over a hundred bloody campsites they had found, empty and abandoned. Shocked, Anhinga had quickly ordered the bandit leaders to gather their men and prepare for an immediate relocation – no matter what was going on, she couldn’t afford loosing anymore of her fighters.
“What’s taking them so long?” hissed Anhinga. It had been nearly an hour since she gave the order but none of the bandits leaders had returned with their men.
“Having problems?” a soft yet bone-chillingly cold voice broke the silence.
Anhinga spun around in fight but there was no one but her present – not even the servant who should have been there. However, Anhinga knew that just because she couldn’t see them, it didn’t mean they weren’t there. She readied herself for battle, carefully scanning her surroundings, but no attack came.
After fifteen minutes, Anhinga frowned. ‘Did I imagine it?’ For a heart-beat, Anhinga lowered her guard. It was only a millisecond of distraction, but that was enough for her to miss the flash of silver shooting towards her from the left.
Searing pain turned Anhinga’s attention to her thigh, where a small dagger had been lodged deep into her flesh. She reached down to pull it out, but before she had the chance, a second silvery flash headed towards her – this time aiming at her chest.
Spirit essence surged within her as Anhinga held out her hand, managing to catch the incoming dagger, mid-flight and only centimeters from her own chest; a split second slower and the blade would have pierced her heart.
“Who dares sneak-attack me!?” she howled in rage, shouting aimlessly at the darkness between the trees. “Show yourself! Or are you not man enough to fight me face-to-face!”
“What does my gender have to do with my bravery?” The cold voice spoke again, but this time it came from just behind Anhinga’s back. Shocked, Anhinga twisted around on the spot; she could not understand how anyone could have gotten so close without her noticing it. However, this initial shock was quickly overpowered by the sheer horror Anhinga felt when she saw who the voice belonged to – it was the palace maid, the one claiming to be Raven Nightingale.
Anhinga jumped back, the movement causing the wound in her leg to ache, but she ignored it. Instead she observed the pale little girl in front of her more closely, carefully taking in everything from the girl’s familiar hair and facial features to the numerous spatters of blood that covered her like raindrops after a storm. A stray ray of moonlight hit the beautiful sword in the girl’s hand, drawing Anhinga’s attention. Surprisingly, she noticed that the blade was the only thing not covered with blood-spatter.
“It . . . it really is you,” Anhinga breathed, still unwilling to accept the truth.
Over the last three days, Anhinga had managed to talk herself into believing that the maid was nothing but an imposter who had spun a web of lies in order to turn the Councilors in favor of the Nightingales. This, in addition to the reports she had been given – which all stated that everyone who had been present in the audience hall had perished – had caused Anhinga to write off Raven’s supposed survival.
So now Anhinga was doubly shocked because, one, there was no denying that the girl in front of her was the off-spring off her dead brother and, two, the girl was very much still alive.
“What is it, aunt? You don’t look very happy to see me. . . .”
Raven fiddled with a third dagger as she spoke, handling it with such casual grace that it seemed like a mere extension of her fingers.
Anhinga was momentarily dazed; ‘how can a child handle a dagger like that?’ She swallowed nervously, half forgetting that she was the one with the higher cultivation level.
What was this foreboding feeling trying to tell her?
Raven watched with glee as Anhinga’s facial expressions danced back and forth between confusion, sadness and anger. Looking closely, it seemed as if her aunt’s face had grown older than before and more hollow; clearly she had neither been eating nor sleeping well lately.
Eventually the woman overcame her initial shock. “How did you survive?” she asked with narrowed eyes, as if hoping to intimidate an answer out of Raven.
‘Wouldn’t you like to know,’ thought Raven but out loud she instead replied; “three days or five years ago?”
Anhinga’s face turned slightly blue and Raven almost laughed at the change but she suppressed it into an evil sneer. Treating her own question as a rhetorical one, Raven continued without waiting for a reply. “How I survived a few days ago isn’t really relevant, and how I survived five years ago is none of your business.”
“Insolent brat!” shouted Anhinga. “Answer my question or I’ll beat it out of you – there is no one here to protect you this time!”
“Protect?” the dagger in Raven’s hand paused for a moment. ‘Is my aunt really that stupid? If I needed protecting, how could I even have made it here on my own?’ She didn’t hold back her laughter this time. “Why would I need protection from you?” Raven released her spirit essence, letting Anhinga feel the full force of her mid Champion cultivation.
As expected, Anhinga only snorted. “Such an ignorant child. You might be a genius, but it doesn’t matter how impressive you are – the strong rule supreme!” As she spoke, Anhinga’s own spirit essence surged, putting Raven under the blunt pressure of a genuine high Champion. It was a lot of force to bear, but Raven didn’t flinch; how could this possibly compare to what she had felt when she faced Gadwall?
Anhinga, on the other hand, misinterpreted Raven’s lack of reaction and laughed disdainfully. “Haha, see! You truly are your father’s daughter; only now do you realize you’re too stupid to know what’s best for you!”
Intense blood-lust flashed by Raven’s eyes, but Anhinga missed it. “S-sorry, aunt.” Raven said with down-cast eyes, only half trying to sound scared. “I’ll tell you everything I’ve done, okay? It’s just . . .”
She let the sentence trail off.
After a moment’s silence Raven lifted gaze, her eyes meeting with Anhinga’s. Instantly the smug-look on her aunt’s face froze, shaken by the intense blood-lust in Raven’s stare. “It’s just,” she said, her voice stabbing like a knife; “that I don’t know if I should start by listing all the Talon clan-members whom I’ve killed over the years, or the in-depth description of how I flayed your whimpering son alive. . . . Which would you prefer?”
Raven could almost hear something snapping within her aunt’s mind.
“Oh, what a look. . . .”
For the first time in many hours Hoatzin spoke and Raven had to agree with him; the expression on Anhinga’s face was a masterpiece. In a matter of seconds she went from confusion to despair – via disbelief and rage – as she realized what Raven was implying. Her son had not only been skinned, he had been skinned alive.
Suddenly, Anhinga screamed in anguish and pounced at Raven, chilling frost quickly covering the former’s hands as she used all her might to make a grab for Raven’s neck. Unfortunately, her niece’s body flickered and disappeared without a trace – leaving only the Raven’s dagger behind, right where her neck had been. Anhinga’s hand clenched down on the dagger before she could react to what had happened, effectively stabbing through her own palm.
Blood and frost spurted everywhere, but Anhinga didn’t seem to notice.
“Why so violent, aunt? I thought you wanted answers. . . .” Raven taunted from her new position a few meters away. Immediately, Anhinga swirled around and charged at her again, but the result was the same – this time a smaller dagger had been left on the ground for her to step on.
“It’s a bit ironic though,” commented Raven from the top of a nearby tree; “you kill my family to gain power for you and your son, then I kill your son – and soon you – to get justice for my family.” Raven jumped from the tree, which was quickly being encased in a thick layer of ice. “I guess this is what they mean with ‘what goes around, comes around’, isn’t is?”
“You little bitch!” screamed Anhinga, her voice hysterical and her eyes bloodshot with torment. “I’ll kill you! I swear, I’ll kill!”
At this point Anhinga’s cultivation surged – adding that familiar black spirit essence to the mix and pushing her all the way to the very peak of the Champion realm. Under normal circumstances this might have posed somewhat of a challenge for Raven – at least if she didn’t manage to enter that enraged state she had when facing Gadwall – but Anhinga’s mind was in disarray. She she started attacking blindly, ice spears and blizzards shooting out from her in every direction.
With an indifferent expression, Raven swiftly dodged around or blocked the attacks. With Anhinga attacking so madly, Raven had no problem finding weak points in the woman’s defense.
In the air, however, Hoatzin was forced to back off a bit. A battle between Spirit Champions, at any level of cultivation, was nothing short of a natural disaster. Getting caught in the cross-fire when a peak Champion was involved was a sure way for a Adept-level creature like Hoatzin to get himself killed.
The cat-and-mouse battle between Anhinga and Raven dragged on. As the minutes passed, Anhinga’s body slowly became just as cover in blood as Raven’s, only it was her own. She didn’t seem to notice it herself, but Anhinga’s movements were gradually becoming more laboured, her face distorting with pain with every step she took.
‘The nerve toxin is setting in,’ thought Raven as she calmly observed her aunt who had gone ballistic with rage-filled grief. She had covered her daggers with an old favorite, a natural toxin that heightened nerve sensitivity; soon even a light breeze would be painful for her aunt.
Dodging Anhinga’s attacks quickly became a laughing matter and even Hoatzin dared move in closer again.
‘Is this good enough?’ The thought suddenly appeared in Raven’s mind as she watched her aunt’s maddend attacks. Would the only mother and father she had ever known have felt that this was revenge enough?
She had stopped Anhinga from gaining what she wanted most; she had removed he whom Anhinga loved most from her side, and in the cruelest way possible; she could grant Anhinga an even crueller death, but would it be enough?
“Was it worth it?” Raven found herself asking out loud; “was it worth killing your own flesh and blood for a few years of wealth and power?”
“It should have been, you bitch!” Anhinga roared, launching another blizzard which blasted away several tens of trees in the vicinity. This time Raven didn’t even have to move out of the way – Anhinga missed her anyway. “I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you and use your blood to defile your parents’ grave, you devil spawn!”
“No, you won’t.” No more than a whisper, Raven’s cold voice suddenly rang out behind Anhinga’s ear.
Before the latter had any chance to react, a spark-covered hand grabbed Anhinga by the back of her neck, pulling her diagonally backwards. For a split second, Anhinga felt her entire body go numb as an electric current ran through her and by the time she had mustered her own spirit essence to fight it off, Anhinga was already on the ground, her back and abdomen burning with pain. Looming over her was Raven, staring down at her cold blood-red eyes.
Only now did Anhinga realize that no matter how much she tried to activate her spirit essence, it no longer complied. In fact, it hurt even trying. Glancing down at her own abdomen, Anhinga’s eyes widened in shock. Raven’s sword, the famous Nightingale’s Blessing, was stabbed right through her, piercing both Anhinga’s spirit core and her spinal cord.
Her madness had blocked it out before, but now that she was finally unable to move, mind-boggling pain flooded Anhinga’s body, threatening to knock her unconscious right away. She gasped for breath, but even the air hurt her.
Confused and afraid, Anhinga looked up at Raven but the gaze that met her – completely devoid of any emotion – only plunged her into deeper fear.
“If I got it my way,” Raven said with a voice that matched her eyes; “I would leave you as a mute cripple for life for what you’ve done to my . . . our family. . . . But, there are too many ways to get back what is lost in this world, so I won’t take any chances; I guess it’s your lucky day.”
Anhinga didn’t feel very lucky – she only felt pain.
Raven raised her head, looking up into the sky and her eyes met Hoatzin’s. He gave a slight nod and Raven once more faced Anhinga. She leaned in close enough for only her aunt to hear her; “it’s going to take a while, but say hello to dear Dunlin once you get to Hell. I’ll join you sooner or later, so enjoy it while you can.”
With that, Raven straightened and urged her spirit essence to flow down her sword like a waterfall of electrical sparks. Anhinga managed a moan before her muscles started thrashing around under the strong electrical current that ran through her body. It didn’t take long until the smell of burnt flesh filled the air, but it did take quite a while before the light faded from Anhinga’s eyes.