Standing in the knee-deep water of the fountain’s pool, Raven and Javelin had only been back a few heartbeats when the former smiled slightly. For a moment, she considered moving but in the end decided against it. In the next second a full-grown and white-haired man appeared by her side, throwing his arms around her as so that the light-grey fabrics of his robe wrapped themselves tightly around Raven.
Waves of nourishing spirit essence welled over her and, although the healing wasn’t as effective as Javelin’s had been, Raven could still feel the few last remnants of her injuries disappearing.
“Protector Aves. . . .” Javelin probed, standing to the side and looking oddly at the unusually clingy elder. “Are you . . . crying?” Raven smiled coyly as the man hugging her shuddered slightly. Aves had indeed been shedding a few tears, but his face was hidden from view and there was no loud sobbing to give him away; clearly Javelin’s new connections had improved his hearing substantially.
“Of course not,” Aves replied, using his spirit essence to stealthily dry his tears before glaring at Javelin. “I am just checking to see that everything is well with Student Nightingale, something I wouldn’t have to do if not for your blasted obsession with this damned graduation tournament!”
“Huh?” Javelin looked genuinely confused and Raven suppressed a chuckle. Moments later, Hoatzin came flying over, seating himself squarely on Raven’s still damp shoulders.
“Sister asked me to leave a note to Aves, explaining your departure,” he broadcasted mentally to both Javelin and Raven, giving the former a somewhat smug look. “I wrote that you pressured Raven into forcing her way to the hidden chamber, so that you could gain some last-minute improvements to your cultivation. Needless to say, Aves was not pleased – in fact, he has been keeping vigil here ever since.”
“Wha-. . . why would you . . .” Javelin started protesting, but, noticing Hoatzin’s meaningful look at the previously wounded Raven, he quickly quieted down.
“What of the bodies?” Raven asked Hoatzin, ignoring the fierce flood of reprimands that Aves had decided to launch at Javelin, all accusing him of rash and thoughtless behavior.
“It was as you suspected,” Hoatzin replied. “By the time I arrived, someone had already collected them. No news about their deaths or the attack itself has surfaced since then either.”
Raven nodded. “And the Tanuki offspring?”
“Canis made an attempt to enter the sealed chamber a few nights after the two of you made it through, but naturally failed. She has not returned to the academy since last week. I followed her to the capital island but refrained from trailing her further, per your instructions.”
“Well done, brother,” Raven commended.
She wasn’t very surprised by anything he reported. The sealed cultivation chamber deep underneath the water fountain was practically an academy legend and she had guessed that several students would put one and two together when the fountain suddenly stopped flowing at the wrong time.
As for the bodies, Raven had easily detected the hidden observer who had not-so-stealthily been overseeing the attack on her and Javelin. Raven had let said observer witness some of his comrades’ sudden and inexplicable deaths before knocking him unconscious. Once he awoke, he would naturally have rushed back to his master, but with no vital information about what had happened. At that point, it would have surprised Raven more if the bodies weren’t reclaimed – how would they otherwise have any hopes of finding out what had actually gone wrong?
Thinking up to here, Raven’s expression soured somewhat. A new group of people were approaching and this time Raven really wanted to leave, but she knew it would do her no good in the end – better get it out of the way fast, like ripping off a band-aid.
“Javy!” Remora’s voice sounded even more high-pitched and unrefined than Raven remembered it as the young woman, not surprisingly, called out to her brother the moment she saw him. Mere heartbeats later, the golden-blonde beauty had wrapped her arms around Javelin, pouring nurturing spirit essence into him – much like Aves had done with Raven just a minute earlier.
“Oh, thank the seas; you are okay!” the girl cried as she hugged her brother tightly. “I thought that she-devil had lured you to your death!”
“That what!?” Aves exclaimed, enraged, before anyone else had a chance to react. “How dare you refer to an honorable Prefecture Lord of our Sky Empire like that? I have been patient with you, young lady, but that is taking it too far!”
The dense spirit essence of a near peak Champion surged to Aves’ right hand. He took a step forward and almost instantly appeared behind Remora – his hand descended.
The crisp sound that followed was almost ear-deafening, and a sorry figure instantly plowed several meters through the knee-deep water in the fountain before finally coming to a stop at the other end.
Still standing in her original spot, Raven raised her midnight-purple eyebrows slightly. Surprisingly, it wasn’t Remora who had been sent flying, but Javelin! Just as Aves had been about to hit his sister, Javelin had managed to twist their bodies around so that he took her place. Aves had naturally been holding back, but even a lighter hit from a peak spirit champion could threaten a low champion’s life; that slap would definitely leave a mark.
“Br-brother!” Remora practically shrieked and was about to rush over to her brother’s side, but, as Javelin struggled to his feet, he held up his hand to stop her. Half of his face had already swollen beyond recognition, but the other half looked intently at Remora, actually causing her to falter in her steps.
Javelin then turned his attention to Aves and gave a deep bow. “I apologize for my sister’s remarks. They were uncalled for and entirely inappropriate. She is, however, my sister and I ask that I may take the punishment in her stead.”
Aves blinked, seemingly a bit shocked by what had just happened. He perhaps wasn’t aware of it himself, but Aves absentmindedly nodded while his spirit essence calmed down.
“Don’t let me hear such words again,” he eventually managed to squeeze out, his face still revealing a bit of his confusion.
“I won’t, Protector Aves,” Javelin replied, only now straightening from his bow. Without paying Aves any more attention, Javelin walked towards his sister.
“Javy. . . .” she breathed, still a bit perplexed by what was going on. It looked like she was about to ask something when suddenly the sound of a second slap rang out. It was nowhere as loud as the first one, and this time the recipient barely budged under the impact, but judging by the look in Remora’s eyes, it had hurt her all the more.
“Big Sister, forgive my rudeness, but you were very disrespectful to Raven just now. This despite having promised to treat her as your own blood!” Javelin’s eyes were calm as his gaze drilled into Remora. It was the kind of look that might seem cold and unconcerned on the surface, but underneath a raging fire brewed.
Remora shuddered, and as if the slap hadn’t been shocking enough for her, Javelin gave her one more bombshell before promptly walking off; “If this is your view of family relations, I will have to reconsider which family I belong to.”
Staring at the approaching Javelin, Hoatzin couldn’t help but feel that something was a bit off about his friend. “He seems . . . different,” he commented to Raven.
Raven was also watching Javelin, silently agreeing with her brother; Javelin had changed. As a general’s son, Javelin had already been mature to begin with, but it was different now; his behavior was more substantial, more his own. It was subtle change – very subtle – but Raven could feel his presence slowly evolving into something new, and it wasn’t only from his soul growing stronger.
That said, it wasn’t the old Eric that Javelin was turning into; Eric would never have handled the situation like he just had. No, this Javelin was someone new.
Stopping in front of Raven, Javelin bowed deeply for the second time. “I’m sorry, Raven. She-. . .”
His words stopped, mid-sentence; Raven had stretched out her hand, touching his cheek carefully. A whiff of cooling spirit essence spread from her finger tips, somewhat relieving the still swelling face.
Surprised, Javelin raised his gaze, meeting Raven’s. Silent understanding passed between their eyes before the latter retracted her hand.
Under the watchful eyes of the now rather large crowd, Raven and Javelin left without bothering to give acknowledgements to anyone – not even Cisco or the headmaster who had initially arrived together with Remora.
Dumbfounded, the crowed watched the departing duo and it didn’t take long before silent whispers spread among them. The intimate gesture between Raven and Javelin had only lasted for a second, but it had still left a profound impression on those present. They couldn’t help but feel like that the two youths had some profound secret between them, separating them from the rest of the world.
“I heard that Student Hake wants to break off his engagement with Lady Arowana – I didn’t believe it, but this. . . .”
“Do you think Lady Arowana knows?”
“. . .”
While the crowd discussed the significance of what they had just seen, Remora stood like a statue, absentmindedly covering her cheek as she stared blankly in front of her.
“Little Sister?” Cisco tentatively called out, and at once it was as if the dam broke within Remora. Crocodile tears flowed down her cheeks as she threw herself into her brother’s arms. “Ja-Javy, he . . . hates . . m-. . . .”
“Shh,” Cisco cooed with a soft voice. “Don’t worry, you are his sister – he will always love you.” He patted Remora’s head and then pulled her back a bit so he could look into her wet eyes. “But he loves the Nightingale girl too – surely you see that. Don’t force him to choose.”
Remora swallowed and, after wiping her tears, nodded slowly.
Further away, Raven’s lips twitched into a slight smile.
“They have returned?” Canis looked at the kneeling man before her, her expression icy. She had been waiting for news about that troublesome pair for weeks now.
“Yes, Lady Tanuki. According to witnesses, they were flushed out of the fountain a couple of hours ago.”
“Not from before their return.”
Canis fell silent, absentmindedly scratching at a faint scar on her wrist. She had gained it trying to force her way down the passage underneath fountain. When the other two had entered, the fountain had stopped flowing, but even without the pressure from the gushing water, it had been impossible for Canis to go further than a few tens of meters before the Dragon Claw Sea Tulips made it too dangerous to continue.
Canis didn’t believe that the Hake boy – a mere high Adept – had the strength to pull off what she had failed at, even less the Nightingale girl. . . .
Then there was the matter of the failed kidnapping attempt right before they left. She had sent five low Champions, all skilled at silent extractions and assassinations, yet every one of them had died without making a sound. Not even the observer had seen what happened. After retrieving their corpses and examining their bodies, it was clear that some sort of poison had been used, but Canis had never come across a poison with symptoms like the ones they had presented.
“Someone must be helping them,” Canis muttered, more to herself than to the man in front of her, but the latter responded anyway.
“Perhaps it’s that Sky Academy protector who arrived with them?” he suggested.
Snorting, Canis’ gaze shifted to the kneeling man, her eyes even colder than before. “Leave,” she commanded, and the man was quick to obey.
Left alone, Canis started to slowly pace around her room, her black eyes glistening coldly in the candlelight.
The very next day, tens of thousands of people gathered on a small island roughly two kilometers further out into the sea. The island itself might have been small, but every square meter of it was covered by the structure of a huge arena.
It was time for the yearly graduation tournament for the Sea Empire’s various spiritualist academies. Even under normal circumstances, this tournament was no small matter as the nation’s eight leading academies all sent roughly ten participants each to show off their spiritualist prowess. This year, however, the number of participants had been increased to five times that amount as even the lower grades were allowed to compete.
Consequentially, both the amount of people who came to look and the time required for the tournament had increased substantially.
Today marked the first of three days of battles: first, grades six and seven would determine two champions per grade; tomorrow the same would be done for grades eight and nine; on the third day, the graduates would have theirs. It was also on the third day that younger participants would be allowed to challenge their upper classmates.
“Lady Arowana has requested your presence,” greeted a stout attendant the moment he lay eyes on Raven and Javelin stepping off the boat which had arrived from the Sea Academy. Without waiting for their reply, the attendant turned and left, indicating for them to follow.
Raven and Javelin only glanced at each other before obediently falling in behind the attendant. It was perhaps no surprise that their summons caused a minor storm of whispers to break out behind them.