Frowning, Raven looked up at the sky. She could have sworn that she heard thunder – and not from the fighting taking place on stage – however, nothing above her indicated anything like a lightning storm. Apart from a few fluffy, cotton-candy-like clouds, the sky was clear. Nonetheless, Raven’s instincts told her that there was something there, but no matter how hard she tried, her senses couldn’t pick up on anything.
“Even higher up?” she muttered to herself.
“Hmm, did you say something?” asked Aves, who was trailing closely behind her.
Raven glanced over her shoulder. “No, nothing.”
The two of them were slowly walking back to the imperial viewing section of the arena, but they were still quite far off from their destination.
“Don’t you want to watch Student Hake’s fight? It will begin any minute now. . . .” Aves himself was rather interested in Javelin’s next fight; the youth had impressed him during his last round.
“I am watching, look,” Raven replied and pointed down an aisle of chairs. Aves followed her gesture with his eyes, only realizing his error when a soft giggle rang out in his ears. “Sorry, friend.”
Aves’ head snapped back towards Raven, but she was already gone – leaving only a faint haze of her spirit essence behind.
“Dammit!” he swore. His body flashed as he started running towards a hallway that lead to the inner arena complex.
Right bellow where Aves had been standing – in what Raven assumed was originally some sort of maintenance tunnel – crouched Raven’s small figure, a crooked smile hidden in the darkness. Considering how proficient she had gotten at using the Spacial Dash together with the Void Tracker Divine Skill, Aves didn’t stand a chance at keeping up with her.
Her easy attitude didn’t last long though.
Raven rolled her head sideways, softening the muscles in her neck. “Time to go hunting,” she almost purred, a red glint flashing by in her eyes.
On the fighting stage, Javelin held his metal staff loosely in one hand as he gazed out over the other seven students who shared the stage with him. Only half of those who remained were from the Sea Academy – an anomaly in itself since the quarterfinals of the graduation tournament usually never had any outsiders left at all. Javelin couldn’t help but wonder how many pills Canis had gotten her hands on; their effect didn’t last more than five minutes, so every battle would need a new set of pills.
An even more interesting question was how long it would take for Headmaster Hammer – or some other high-level spiritualist – to notice that something fishy was going on. Power bursts within the same level were one thing, but when high Adepts started taking the pills, they would be pushed into a new realm – even a Novice would notice that, if close enough.
Then again, maybe they had already noticed. Because what could they do about it even if they knew? Technically, no rules were being broken – although few would actually chose to exploit this fact usually. The whole point of the graduation tournament was after all to test what you had learned over the years, not the depths of your pockets. Besides, such practices would only benefit the Sea Academy in the end since their resources where incomparable to the other schools’.
“Where are you looking, genius!?” Javelin’s opponent suddenly shouted and swung his head-sized hammer towards Javelin’s ribs, a distinct smell of earth filling the air as it approached. It was a heavy attack, by a heavier weapon; no doubt it would hurt if it hit home, and badly so.
Neither surprised or fearful of the incoming danger, Javelin grabbed his staff with both hands and thrust it into the stage-surface behind. As soon as it made contact, vast amounts of his spirit essence flowed through the staff, locking it firmly to the ground and, in the same movement, Javelin sprung up, pivoting around his grounded staff. Like a whirlwind, he both swiftly evaded the hammer-strike to his ribs and landed a hard kick to his opponent’s side.
Like a cannon ball, the boy was sent flying while Javelin landed softly on his feet. ‘It’s not like I have to look at you. . . . Not with you screaming at me like that,’ he mused, but kept his opinion to himself.
After scraping along the ground for several meters, the other student’s body ground to a halt, shrouded in dust. He was a Sea Academy student like Javelin, although a regular one.
‘Rohu, was it?’
Javelin kind of recognized him from the Advanced Student Trials that had taken place just a few days after he and Raven had arrived at the academy. The kid had shown promise, but ultimately failed and had been spouting nonsense about both Javelin and Raven ever since. Not that Javelin couldn’t understand where his anger was coming from; they had after all been given Advanced Student positions without participating in the trials.
“He just took the pill,” Raven suddenly warned, her voice bringing strong killing intent with it; Javelin could only assume that she must be fighting too.
However, even with her attention split, Raven had been right on the mark; it took less than a second for Javelin to also notice the growing fluctuations of spirit essence within Rohu. In a matter of heartbeats, the boy was forcefully advanced from a high Adept into the realm of a low Champion.
“You’ve been holding back on me,” Javelin called out sarcastically to the Rohu. The latter had been busy with getting to his feet at an unreasonably slow pace – clearly hoping for a dramatic effect – but the mocking tone in Javelin’s remark caused him to falter slightly.
“I-it’s not like it’s against the rules!” Rohu hissed, now easily waving his heavy hammer in front of him with only one hand.
“I didn’t say it was,” Javelin replied calmly, broadening his stance. “Make your attack.”
Rohu sneered; he assumed that Javelin was overestimating himself.
“Fake confidence won’t help in front of true strength, Hake! Prepare to lose!”
Still yelling, Rohu charged, his forced low Champion spirit essence pushing down on Javelin like an oppressive mountain. However, the latter silently bore the pressure and, just as Rohu was in the most vital stage of gathering his power, Javelin raised his eyebrows slightly and spoke out just loud enough for the closest crowds to hear him. “True strength?”
A few bursts of laughter echoed from the stands and, for the second time, Rohu’s motion faltered under Javelin’s well-aimed comments. It wasn’t by much, but that opening was all the latter needed. Javelin stepped in with his staff, jabbing it hard against Rohu’s chest as streams of water gushed forth, forcing the boy to lose his balance. Once again, the change wasn’t large, but it was enough. Javelin spun around, bringing the powerful water streams with him, and swept Rohu off his feet. The water slammed into the boy as he was falling, forcing him into a violent backwards roll.
The water was relentless and when Rohu finally managed to regain control and get to his feet, he was soaked to the bone. He looked much like a wet puppy – inspiring another batch of giggles – but was otherwise fairly unharmed. Ignoring the audience, Rohu snorted and was about to berate Javelin’s weakness when he notice the latter pointing at his feet.
Looking down, Rohu’s eyes widened – he was outside their fighting section!
“Javelin Hake of Sea Academy wins in section 4!” called an arena official and the quarter of the crowd that was closest to the fighting section in question cheered – some more heartfelt than others.
In her seat, Canis clutched the armrests so hard that cracks appeared in the sturdy wooden frame.
“Lady Tanuki . . ?” a fellow Sea Academy graduate probed, noticing the sound of splintering wood next to him.
Instantly, Canis relaxed her grip. “Nevermind that,” she replied curtly and stood up. “I’m leaving.”
True to her words, Canis left without further ado. She quickly disappeared into the less crowded corridors behind and below the arena benches, heading towards a staircase that led downwards, but Canis had only taken a few steps when a soft and feminine voice called out to her, sending an inexplicable shudder down her spine.
“My, if it isn´t Graduate Tanuki – fancy meeting you here.”
Canis spun around, her black eyes locking on to the little Nightingale girl. The latter had been leaning casually against a supportive pillar, partially hiding her from Canis’ view when she passed.
“Junior Nightingale, what are you doing here?” Canis asked, her eyes darting around at the few passing people in the corridor – scarce as they might be, there were still too many of them. “Shouldn’t you be watching your friend’s fight?”
“Javelin? Oh, I have faith that he can handle it,” Raven smiled; “otherworldly pills and all.”
Canis’ eyes twitched, narrowing in on Raven. She took a step forward – spirit essence covering her lank fingers – but sudden and happy laughter spilled out into the corridor, forcing her to halt her actions.
Raven gave her an infuriatingly amused look. “There really is no need to become too open about all this, right? I mean, what would daddy say if you got banned from the tournament, perhaps even the nation, due to some . . . indecent behavior?”
It was fortunate that Canis was no longer holding anything in her hands, because she clenched her firsts with boiling rage, blood dyeing her hidden fingertips red. “What nonsense are you talking about!?” she forced out through grinding teeth, a murderous glint deep in her eyes.
Most would find Canis attitude rather intimidating, but the girl in front of her now just laughed. “Did I hit a nerve? I would practice my innocent-look a bit more if I were you; you’re way too obvious.”
Before Canis had the chance to retaliate, Raven herself stepped forward, closing the space between them. “Careful,” the girl warned just as Canis was about to use the opportunity to strike her – moments later ten youths and a Sea Academy Elder walked into the corridor, vividly discussing the now finished quarterfinals.
Leaning even closer, Raven whispered into Canis’ ear.
“Let me give you some advice, Tanuki: drowning is a lonely and quiet death. Keep pushing it and you might find yourself . . . in over your head.”
Raven winked playfully and then slipped away, leaving a clearly shaken Canis behind. When the girl was speaking to her, Canis could have sworn that she felt a cold snare, warping itself around her neck and blocking her breathing. Only, her hands had found nothing there.
Snorting, Canis pushed away the unease she had felt, her mind picking the most likely explanation.
‘What an odd illusionary Divine Skill. . . .’ Canis mused, her cold haughtiness returning to he gaze once more. ‘But empty tricks are pointless! Whoever’s helping you clearly doesn’t want to do so openly; Hake’s on his own on the fighting stage. . . .’
With renewed confidence, Canis headed down the nearby staircase. Below, fewer people were moving around and she slipped into a dark and seemingly unoccupied room.
Canis whistled softly and moments later a black figure seemingly emerged out of the darkness.
“My Lady,” said the figure with a husky voice. He knelt down on the floor in front of Canis so smoothly he almost seemed to be levitating.
“Did you get it?”
From within his robed, the figure stretched out two pale and scarred hands. Cupped within them was a small fiery red bird, seemingly sleeping. Canis’ eyes narrowed with smug approval.
“Well done, Setter. It looks just like the pet bird that’s always hovering around those two brats. The poison?”
“All is prepared, my Lady,” the man replied.
“Good. Get someone to watch out for the real one; if it approaches, kill it,” she ordered and got a firm “yes, my Lady,” in reply.
“Hake’s abilities are higher than I expected – I doubt those weaklings will stop him from reaching today’s finals. Setter, you will wait until just before the last match starts and then execute the plan. Dismissed.”
The figure bowed before disappearing back into the darkness. Alone in the room, Canis smiled viciously. If her enemies thought they were the only ones who knew how to play with poisons, she would prove how deadly wrong they were.