Moments after Javelin had left the private viewing section, Hoatzin’s familiar, red feathers flashed by in front of Javelin as the former swooped down and landed on his shoulders.
“Are you ready?” Hoatzin asked.
“It is not these fights I’m worried about,” Javelin replied, carefully picking what paths he used as he moved through the arena towards the entrance of the stage. If he took a wrong turn, the distance between him and Raven might grow too long and while he could backtrack, it would definitely look odd if he started pacing up and down the arena’s hallways for no reason.
“I know, but do not forget that you are wearing Limiters today; you’re a high Adept at the moment, just like the other two advanced students from your grade at Sea Academy.” Hoatzin unnecessarily reminded him.
“I know, but if I can’t win as I am today, I will have no chance to become the champion the day after tomorrow. . . .”
“That is true,” Hoatzin agreed before almost spitefully changing the subject, “so, what did you think of my nation’s crown prince?”
Javelin’s stride faltered slightly, but he quickly recovered. “He wouldn’t be able to handle her,” he said promptly, causing Hoatzin to blink twice and then burst out laughing.
“And you can?” he wheezed after laughing for quite a while, but Javelin was ignoring him.
He had reached the final passage that led out towards the arena. Here waited roughly forty students; half representing the sixth graders, the other half the seventh graders. Two officials from the arena were instructing the students where to stand while they waited and when they would be expected to go out on stage.
Javelin walked up to the closest official and gave a customary bow as greeting. “Javelin Hake, Sea Academy,” he reported.
“Ah, Student Hake – one of the seeded participants. . . .” The official surveyed Javelin from head to toe, as if expecting to find something noticeably different about a Sea Academy genius. He didn’t. “You’re in the first batch, Junior Student Hake,” he said, clearly disappointed. “Section 3.”
With that, the official moved on, leaving Javelin to fend for himself.
“What a ray of sunshine,” scoffed Hoatzin from his position on Javelin’s shoulder. “I bet he is the type to fawn over those stronger than him but disregard those weaker.”
“It’s not a rare type,” commented Javelin as he sat down cross-legged, ignoring the looks he was receiving from both Sea Academy students and outsider students alike. Closing his eyes, Javelin calmed his breathing and slowly started circulating spirit essence through his body, warming and softening his muscles from within.
“True, but that does not mean that I have to like them.”
While Javelin and Hoatzin waited in silence, the mood in the passageway grew increasingly tense. Everyone knew that it was now that the real fights started – the elite students were entering the fray and if the others wanted a chance at winning they would have to double their efforts.
“It is time; group one, you’re up!” The call caused the people in the passageway to instantly quiet down, but what was lost in sound-level was quickly gained in oppressive pressure as the sixteen teenagers stepped forward, marching out on the fighting stage with determined gazes.
Javelin was no exception.
He headed straight for his section – section three – which happened to be the one furthest away from where Raven and the nobles were seated. A second student approached, making a provocative gesture with his fist as he stopped across from Javelin.
“The brute from Belt Whale Academy?” Hoatzin snorted. “Well, I could wish you good luck, but losing to this one would be an embarrassment for my sister who has been training you.” With a swift flap of his blazing red wings, Hoatzin propelled himself high into the air. “Win, Javelin.”
Javelin only nodded, not moving his gaze from his opponent; the kid was muscular – perhaps twice as heavy as Javelin – and metal encased his knuckles, turning his fists into lethal weapons. The hefty teenager watched Javelin with a hungry look that seemed to say: “I’ll eat you alive, wonder-boy.”
A gong rang out, marking the start of the battles. At once, a dozen Divine Skills were activated across the entire stage and the kid facing off against Javelin contributed to the fray. Without hesitating, he rushed forward, screaming as he pounced at Javelin. The spirit essence of a mid Adept spun madly around the boy’s fists, forming raging blades of wind that threatened to shred Javelin to pieces.
Contrary to his opponent, Javelin barely moved. He stretched out his hand, almost leisurely materializing a silvery staff from within his spacial ring. He then waited, his restricted spirit essence quietly surging through his body, to his torso and into his staff.
The second the brute stepped within his reach, Javelin took a step to the side, swatting away the brute’s descending fist with his staff. He then used the momentum of his staff to spin it around, took another step forward and locked the staff behind one of the brute’s knees. Powered by spirit essence, Javelin swept his weapon back and up, taking the brute’s leg with him as he moved. A heartbeat later, the hefty student lay on his back, with Javelin’s glowing staff brushing against his neck as it continued deep into the stage beside him.
It was over. Just like that.
Javelin gave the stunned teenager a slighting smile, before retrieving his staff. He turned to leave, knowing that he had won, but suddenly a powerful surge of spirit essence exploded out behind him.
“Careful!” Raven’s voice called out in his mind.
Suddenly, Argus felt a cold shiver run down his spine and the hairs on the back of his neck stood on edge. Instinctively, his hand moved to summon his sword, but the oppressing feeling disappeared almost as quickly as it had arrived.
Disbelieving, he looked over at the little girl sitting two seats away, not trusting his gut; had it really come from her? Currently, Raven Nightingale was staring intently at the far end of the stage where Javelin was fighting and while Argus couldn’t see the girl’s face directly, the warrior within him could feel the cold chill emanating from her.
“La-. . .” Argus started, but shocked yelling from the crowd drowned out the rest. Confounded, the young prince turned his attention back to the stage and was stunned to find a burning rift running across a large part of it, originating from the fighting section furthest away from him.
Just barely missing the line of flames stood Javelin – panting heavily over the unconscious youth he had been fighting. His silvery staff was pressed down on his opponent’s back and a clear liquid was circling around both staff and boy, seemingly locking them in place. Sweat covered Javelin’s brow and the back of his robe was both charred and shredded, revealing a bloodied shoulder underneath.
“What happened!?” Argus asked. “The Hake kid had already won moments ago!”
No one gave an answer to his question, but in the next moment Raven Nightingale suddenly stood up.
“Excuse me,” she said, sounding cold and detached. “I need to stretch my legs a bit before the next fight.”
“Stretch your legs?” Lady Arowana asked, sounding disappointed. “What about Javelin? He almost lost just now!”
Lady Nightingale’s lips twitched and she leaned in to whisper something in Arowana’s ear. Argus couldn’t hear what was being said but the angel-like girl suddenly flushed pink and frantically nodded for her devil counterpart to go. With the permission to leave acquired, Raven gave a respectful curtsy to Argus before silently gliding off into the crowd.
The sky prince frowned, feeling a bit uncomfortable. Had he imagined things or had the girl’s irises been red when she left.
In a dark corridor located underneath the fighting stage, three robed figures stood huddled in the darkest corner. Despite being alone down there, the three of them spoke in hushed voices, clearly very cautious about not being heard.
“How did it go?” asked the shortest one, “Did he take the pill?”
“He did,” answered the tallest, sounding a bit dejected. “Barely four seconds in, the Belt Whale kid had already lost, so he decided to take the pill, but Hake still won in the end.”
“What!?” the short one exclaimed, a little too loudly.
“Hush! He is telling the truth,” confirmed the third – a woman this one. “Hake got away with mere superficial wounds – he will be fully healed before his next round.”
“But how is that even possible? The Queen Ghost Pill should have temporarily raised the Belt Whale kid to a borderline Champion!”
The woman shook her head. “I don’t really know myself. . . . Javelin Hake reacted before the pill had time to be fully activated and did so perfectly. Perhaps Lady Tanuki is right; with some help, Hake could have played a part in young master Tanuki’s fate after all.”
“Perhaps,” admitted the short man who spoke first. “But this isn’t good. Hake’s other opponents can be . . . convinced, but with fewer people on stage, it will be harder to obscure the fact that the Queen Ghost Pill is involved. . . .”
“Ha!” the other man snorted. “At most they would learn that the contestants are eating some strange pill mid-battle, which isn’t against the rules. Do you really think anyone would be able to recognize what pill is being used? Or link it to us, for that matter?” When none of the others refuted him, the man continued. “A more important question is what we should do if the other kids also fail. Lady Tanuki was very specific about wanting Hake to lose before even getting a chance to challenge the older students. To increase the humiliation, and all.”
“Don’t worry, Setter is working on it,” assured the female.
“Ah, then there is indeed no need to worry,” agreed the taller male, the shorter one nodding to show his shared sentiment.
“Oh, I’m not so sure about the no-need-to-worry part. . . .”
The three figures instantly froze.
Slowly, they turned their heads, looking – but not hoping to find – the source of the menacing voice that had just spoken. When they found it, they should have relaxed – after all, it belonged to a rather beautiful young girl – but they didn’t. All three of them where on the border between low and mid Champions, but, when faced with this little girl in her navy-blue, dress-like robe, they felt their very blood freezing up. Perhaps it had something with the two red eyes that glowed like bloody fire-pits in the dark, observing them with quiet hunger.
“Wh-. . . who are you?” the tall man finally managed to ask as he fumbled with both his weapon and spirit essence.
“Hmm, you don’t recognize the closest friend of your target?” Raven clicked her tongue, disapprovingly. “I hate to say it, but I would never hire you. . . .”
Realization, quickly followed by greed, replaced the fearful looks in the trio’s eyes as they suddenly understood who they were dealing with. Whatever they had been promised for bringing Raven in was apparently enough for them to throw instinct and self-preservation out the window, because all three of them suddenly lunged towards Raven like lions over a scrap of meat.
Raven just laughed, enjoying the savage feeling the three attackers brought with them. Even faced with three opponents with cultivation levels not that far below her own Raven didn’t release her limiters. She let herself remain as a peak Adept, not only disregarding her weapons but even closing her eyes. Instead, Raven submerged herself in the violent tides of foreign spirit essence that her attackers pushed towards her.
Her body swayed back and forward like a steady boat on a rough ocean, easily avoiding all attacks aimed at her, when suddenly her blood-red eyes flashed open again.
‘There!’ Raven thought as she stepped forward and to the side. She moved just as the lone woman’s sword was descending and effortlessly slid a hand in between her opponent’s, firmly gripping the hilt of the sword in question. Raven followed the woman’s downward swing and let her own spirit essence latch onto the already initiated Divine Skill, claiming it as her own.
Before the woman knew what was happening, she had lost all control over her attack and was sent flying into the wall. Stunned, she had no time to react before her own blade sank through her spine and pinned her now-dying-body to the damp floor.
‘Success!’ Raven shouted triumphantly in her heart. Finally she had started to make progress with the very tricky Retribution Divine Skill, which allowed her to use her opponent’s strength against them. She had been getting flashes of how the skill worked, but had never managed to fully control it – today was a great improvement.
At that moment, a prickly sensation ran over Raven’s soul prism and looking inwards, Raven noticed that one of the two indistinguishable verses belonging to the Retribution Divine Skill had become a little less unfocused. Thrilled, Raven wanted to see if she could get something out of it, but she also knew that now wasn’t the time.
Outwardly, Raven shifted her stance towards the two men. Less than two seconds had passed since the woman was killed and the two men had yet to completely register what had happened.
“Shall we dance?” Raven asked, playful malice filling her voice as she beckoned them on.
With a click, her Limiters fell off her ankles and the full-blown pressure of her mid Champion cultivation pushed down like a mountain on the two men in the hallway.
“Or will you sing for me anyway?”