For a moment Hoatzin didn’t say anything. Raven could almost feel her brother’s shock and disappointment in his silence and couldn’t help but smile wryly.
“Not willing?” she asked, already knowing the answer.
“No! Definitely not!”
“Not even if I tell you that an unknown number of low to mid Spirit Champions want to catch and kill you before Javelin starts his final match?”
“. . .what do you want me to do?”
“I told you, leave. Cross the fighting stage, at roughly ten meters height, and then continue north.”
“Would that not just bring attention to me leaving?” Hoatzin asked, sounding confused.
“Exactly.” A hungry glint flashed by Raven’s eyes. “Don’t worry, brother; they won’t get the opportunity to reach you.”
“. . . Okay!”
Raven suppressed a warm smile; her brother and Javelin were actually quite similar – both anxious to help, consequences be damned.
“Good. Just wait a moment longer; Tetra is here.”
Raven had moved closer to the stage and could clearly sense madam Hake’s clear and brightly orange presence, hurriedly rushing out to her son. Not bothering to move him, she crouched down next to Javelin as incredibly pure spirit essence poured out of her hands, forming a complex diagram in the air above him.
Tetra pushed the diagram into her son and, almost like wiping a dirty window with a wet cloth, both blood and grime was swept away from Javelin’s body as it passed. All the wounds he had started to fade at an astounding rate. Even his spirit essence was steadily purified, removing the taint from Raven’s killing intent.
Raven could only marvel at the woman’s skill with healing and concluded that her title, Saint Major, was truly well deserved. Less than a minute later, Raven could already feel Javelin’s consciousness returning to him.
“Javelin?” Raven probed, getting a slightly jumbled reply. “. . . You did well, Jav – thank you,” she commended after a moment’s hesitation.
It might have just been good timing but the compliment seemed to flush Javelin back to clarity. He suddenly sat up straight, gulping in a mouthful of air as he brushed away his mother’s healing hand. Even through the several layers of rock walls, Raven could tell that Tetra instantly started fussing over her son, yelling in fear-fueled anger.
Javelin focused more on Raven. “What happened with you?”
“It’s a long story, but right now I need your help – can you move?”
Raven could feel Javelin trying to get up on his feet, but Tetra pushed him down again. Javelin grunted. “. . .I can, once I convince my mother that I’m fine. What do you need?”
“Range,” Raven replied, “Canis is planing to capture Hoatzin and use a stand-in bird to poison you before your next fight.”
“What!? Is-. . .”
“Hoatzin is fine. In fact he is going to help me lure out Canis’ people, but I need you to move a bit north so I can reach them all.”
“. . . You’re going to use your brother as bait?”
“In crass terms, yes.”
“What if something happens to him?”
“You know me better than that, Javelin.”
“I do, but . . . do you? Your killing intent earlier. . . .”
“Is well enough under control. He is my brother, Javelin, and you are . . . my friend; I will protect you both.”
A silent shudder ran through Javelin’s soul prism but it passed so quickly Raven almost thought she had imagined it. She frowned but Javelin spoke first, his tone as if nothing had happened.
“Fine,” he muttered. “Wait a moment; I’ll have mother move me to the sick bay by the northern entrance.”
Javelin finally gave his consent and, since even Tetra had come to the conclusion that he shouldn’t remain on the stage any longer, convincing her to pick the right destination wasn’t hard. Just as Javelin walked off the stage, Raven sent a mental command to her brother.
“Go now, brother.”
From the weak link their souls shared, Raven could feel Hoatzin take off from the imperial viewing section across the stage and quickly his presence flew into her normal range of detection. He was heading straight for her and it didn’t take long before he was joined by a handful of strong people who had suddenly started shifting their position towards the north; six of them to be exact – Setter included – but perhaps there were still more of them outside of her range.
Raven snickered. At least these people had learned their lesson. Sending four low Champions, a mid Champion and a peak Adept, to deal with what they believed was an ordinary bird, could definitely be considered overkill; clearly, they were worried about the supposedly hidden expert who they thought was lurking in the darkness, helping Raven and Javelin.
Well, at least the lurking-in-the-darkness part was right. . . .
Soundlessly, Raven slipped into the shadows and made her way towards her first target – an unfortunate mid Champion who happened to be closest to her. In her hands, two daggers appeared, practically dripping with a blue, pungent substance. As she walked, Raven started softly humming the familiar tune of the Twilight Lullaby, its melancholic and bittersweet melody echoing down the nearly empty hall.
With all the fighting going on at the arena stage, neither the noise nor the extra spirit essence in the air alerted anyone. The few people present instantly seemed to slow down, their eyes growing dazed.
No one noticed as Raven passed them, not even the friendly-looking arena official who, moments earlier, had given his coworkers a fairly plausible excuse, explaining why he suddenly needed to make a check of the northern docks. It wasn’t until Raven was long gone that the man found it surprisingly hard to breathe.
Horrified, he looked down at his sea-green robes only to find two slim cuts – one on his chest, one in his gut – both gushing out blood. He tried to summon his spirit essence to heal himself, but it wasn’t only blood that was escaping from his abdomen, it was spirit essence too, so nothing happened. He raised his head to call for help, but found himself in a dim and deserted storage room, rather than the scarcely crowded hallway he had been in just moments earlier.
Desperate, he tried to call for help anyway, but his voice failed him – in fact, everything failed him as he collapsed, helpless, to the damp floor. Even as the last breaths of life left him, the friendly-looking official couldn’t understand what had happened; it had all happened too fast to even fathom. Was he, a low Spirit Champion who had been on a covert mission in the Sea Empire for nearly five years, going to die – just like that?
No fighting, no shouting, only death.
Meanwhile, Raven’s secret journey through the arena passageways continued. Hoatzin might have flown straight over the top of the arena, but to follow him, one had to take the inner passages or risk drawing way too much attention. This fit Raven perfectly.
Like an old dungeon, the arena complex was riddled with hidden paths – long forgotten. Raven’s senses picked up on them all and she used these to move swiftly from one doomed attacker to the next.
Oh masters mine, where are you roaming….
A head toppled to the ground, a look of surprise forever stuck on its bloodied face.
Oh come and hear, your true love’s calling….
An unheard shriek echoed down an empty hall as a Healer found her lower body inconveniently detached from her upper torso.
That can sing both high and low…
Two brothers slumped in a corner, purple bruises forming on the skin of their broken necks.
That can sing both high and low…
One after another, Canis’ people met their untimely ends, all unaware of their mutual demise. They died and their bodies practically vanished; tucked into inconspicuous places where no one ever looked or placed so much in plain sight that they seemed more alive than their still breathing fellows.
It didn’t take long before only one of the original six henchmen remained.
By the time Setter’s darkrobed figure had made it to the northern dock, Hoatzin’s bright red body was already disappearing off towards the horizon. He glanced around the dock and frowned. He had been the furthest away from this dock; he shouldn’t have been the first to arrive, so where were the others?
“Looking for some one?” a sweet yet bone-chillingly cold voice asked.
Setter swirled around – a black dagger in hand – but when he faced the owner of that voice, Setter could have sworn that the creature was none other than the devil incarnate; a monstrous beast with blood-thirsty eyes, here to claim his life and all he held dear. The vision only lasted for a moment, but the fear it caused him was enough for Raven to act.
With thunder-covered fingers, Raven jabbed at Setter’s temple with one hand and his lower abdomen with the other. Electric sparks flowed into the unguarded man, instantly zapping him unconscious and momentarily paralysing the essence in his spirit core. As Setter’s twitching body fell to the ground, Raven closed her eyes and steadied her breathing. She had used most of her core’s remaining spirit essence reserve to subdue Setter without a fuss – he was after all also a mid Champion and even further along in his cultivation than Raven was. If she wanted to kill him, that wouldn’t be too much of a challenge, but to take him alive was different and was only possible because she caught him off guard with her Ode of Woe.
Raven urged her spirit connections to quickly absorb more spirit essence. After a few deep breaths, Raven hoisted Setter’s listless body unceremoniously over her slender shoulders and returned to the shadows, her eerie humming once more filling the air around her.