In the sky above the arena, the two lion-tailed youths were frowning deeply.
“Did you feel that?” the one called Azmer asked.
Cozimo shook his head in denial. “It’s not possible. . . .”
“I think it’s time we took a closer look.”
Without waiting for a reply, Azmer’s body shimmered and warped. Moments later, his originally majestic appearance had turned quite ordinary; his copper-colored armor was replaced by simple robes, his two lances were nowhere to be seen, nor was his tail, and he looked more like an overgrown school boy than a beast turned man. Like a silent comet, Azemer dove straight down, aiming for the sea around the arena. He moved so swiftly that ordinary people would be hard-pressed to see more than an indistinct blur falling from the sky.
Down below, Raven suddenly raised her head, looking towards the south even though her eyes saw nothing but the stone walls of the narrow corridor she was in. She frowned.
“Something wrong?” asked Hoatzin. Raven had called him back right after capturing Canis’ aide and he had been watching her stuff the latter’s now naked body into a small cage – no larger than what a mid-sized dog could fit in – when she had abruptly stopped.
“I’m not sure,” Raven replied, resuming her forceful tugging at Setter’s body. “I’ve been sensing a couple . . . weird things today, but it’s always gone as quickly as it comes.”
With a final heave, Setter finally slipped into the small cage. With a heavy clank, the lock fell into place and, instantly, lines of spirit essence swirled around the cage’s bars, making them incredibly sturdy. The man in the cage groaned, his consciousness returning to him. At first his eyes were unfocused, but when he caught sight of Raven – looming over him and wearing his black robes – they widened in shock.
Raven smiled coldly at him, sending uninvited shivers down his spine.
“How. . .?” he started, but Raven smirked and pointed to her ears, indicating she couldn’t hear him. It was a lie, of course, but for normal people who relied simply on their ears, hearing what went on in the cage would indeed be impossible. It was a special cage, designed especially to deal with savage spirit beasts that were captured for spiritualist battles in the arena above. Since some spirit attacks could be transferred through sound, the cages kept both sound and spirit essence alike inside, preventing them from permeating outside the cage. There were hundreds of these cages in the room Raven was in, but there was a thick layer of dust over them, indicating they hadn’t been used for a while.
Realizing where he was, the man in the cage paled. He gathered spirit essence into his legs and kicked as hard as he could against the cage’s hatch, hoping to break it open. It barely vibrated.
Satisfied that Setter wasn’t going anywhere, Raven turned to leave; the seventh grade representatives would be done with their semifinal fight shortly, and Raven still had things she wanted to do before it was Javelin’s turn. It wasn’t until she was walking away, with Hoatzin on her shoulder, that Setter finally noticed the small bird-cage that she was swinging back and forward childishly at her side. It was the same cage Setter had tucked within his robe to carry Hoatzin’s replacement. Only, now its content was nothing more than a mutilated mess of blood and red feathers.
Just as Raven was about to disappear out of Setter’s view, she suddenly turned and held up a small crystal bottle for him to see. She gave him a playful wink that was somehow still overflowing with killing intent. A dreadful premonition nestled its way into the man’s heart, cold sweat quickly covering his brow.
With a giggle that he couldn’t hear, Raven left.
“What do you have planned next, sister?” Hoatzin asked as he curiously watched Raven retrieving a second bottle from within her spacial ring.
“I have a little gift I want you to deliver.” Using spirit essence to control the two bottles, Raven first almost entirely emptied the first one and then carefully poured the content of the second bottle over its surface. “Take this, brother. Your talons will be fine holding it.” Raven moved the crystal bottle to hover in front of Haotzin. “Take this to Canis, and make sure that she takes it with her own hands.”
“What was it you poured over it?” Hoatzin asked and a vicious smile spread on Raven’s face as she pulled up the black hood of the stolen robe over her head.
Canis impatiently thrummed the armrest of her chair as she ignored the four teenagers fighting in front of her. Both battles had dragged out longer than expected, because even with Canis secretly handing out Queen Ghost Pills, she could do nothing about who fought whom; both battles were youths fighting their own classmates, so no pills would be used during these fights.
“Where is Setter’s signal?” Canis muttered, one of her perfectly shaped nails leaving yet another mark in the wooden armrest. It wouldn’t be long until the finalists were decided and talk was that Javelin had already been healed back to top condition, curtsy of his oh-so-talented mother.
She glanced over to her left, stealing a look of the section where the Sky Empire’s future emperor was seated next to the Sea Empire’s only female heiress to the throne. The pair was watching the battles while laughing merrily about something. Canis snorted, unimpressed by their lax attitude to each other.
Suddenly, Canis felt the hair on the back of her neck stand on end and she snapped her head around to look diagonally across the stage. There, standing half hidden behind a pillar was a lean figure in black. At first, Canis hesitated about who it was – because why did she feel so exposed under his gaze – but when she saw the golden glimmer of the small birdcage in his hand, Canis relaxed. Setter’s figure stepped back into the shadows and, moments later a blazing red bird flapped out from the darkness.
Canis smirked while she watched the bird, flying low as it headed back towards the seat where the real pet had previously perched. As it passed over her, a crystal glint reflected the light of the already setting sun – Canis instinctively reached out her hand and caught the small bottle that the bird had dropped.
Glancing down at the empty bottle, Canis quickly hid the malicious grin of victory that threatened to bloom on her lips. All that remained now was for the fake bird to scratch its poison dipped talons against Javelin’s skin and the boy would get dizzy and lose his sense of balance in less than a minute.
‘There was just no way Javelin Hake will win his next fight!’
As Canis suspected, it didn’t take long before the fierce battles on stage died down, leaving two men standing as the finalists of their grade. No sooner had the two battles ended than a booming voice echoed out, calling for the sixth grade finalists to take the stage. Moments later, Javelin Hake and a tall lanky fellow walked out with determined steps.
Canis glanced over at the substitute pet and frowned. Why hadn’t it moved yet? By the time the two contestants had reached the center of the stage, the young woman had turned purple from lack of air.
‘Go!’ she felt herself wanting to scream and suddenly, as if hearing her prayers, the bird finally took off. Canis couldn’t hide her glee as she watched it land on Javelin’s shoulder, sitting there for a brief moment before the latter suddenly flinched and swatted it away.
“Begin!” commanded the arena official shortly thereafter and the two boys were eager to comply. One with a staff and the other with a spear, Javelin and his opponent started their fierce sparring, sparks and water vapor quickly filling the air around them.
Canis’ lip twitched into a slight sneer as she could her the people around her gossiping about the ongoing battle.
“He fights well,” said one, referring to Javelin’s opponent, “but their difference in cultivation level is too big – the Storm Academy kid isn’t going to last long. . . .”
“I don’t think so,” answered another, “the Sea Academy students have been a real disappointment this year! How come they aren’t as domineering as usual?”
“No doubt the Sea Academy has become too proud of themselves over the last few years and have become lax!” said a third.
“True, true,” the first two agreed. “They say arrogance is a deadly sin – it seems these words are accurate.”
Canis had chosen to sit among the commoners after returning from her meeting with Setter and what she heard them speak of pleased her very much. While their individual worth was negligible, as a group, commoners still had a purpose. Who cared if the spiritualists present could feel the sudden rises in cultivation and thereby guess that some medicine or pill was changing the outcome of these battles?
The commoners could only go by the Soul Stones to judge a spiritualist’s cultivation. For them, all they could see were the famous Sea Academy students failing, miserably, over and over again. By the time someone informed them of what had actually happened, the damage would already be done and the Sea Academy’s reputation wouldn’t be salvageable for a long while!
Canis mirth didn’t last long however, because as time went on, nothing seemed to happen to Javelin. In fact, the more he fought, the more obvious it became how superior he was in front of his opponent.
‘Did the poison not work?’ she grumbled, wondering if perhaps Javelin’s mother had somehow given him a protection against poisons. A murderous glare flashed past her eyes. ‘Damn it!’ Canis cursed, already considering what punishment she should give Setter for failing her.
On stage, the situation for the lanky Storm Academy student quickly worsened and it didn’t take long before Javelin had pushed him into a figurative corner.
“Why isn’t he at least taking his Queen Ghost Pill!?” she hissed, no longer managing to keep her inner dialog entirely to herself.
“You mean this pill?”
The sudden voice, filled with killing intent, caused Canis to jolt in shock. Instinctively she tried to jump out of her seat, but a cold hand gripped her wrist, yanking Canis backwards at just the right moment when her balance was at its worst.
Still in shock, Canis stared at the small yet elegant hand that held her in place, easily feeling the vigorous spirit essence of a mid Champion locking her down. Normally, this wouldn’t be enough to keep Canis from moving, but something about how this spirit essence moved made it a lot more unyielding than usual. Worst of all, however, was that she recognized that hand.
Canis looked up and found herself staring straight at Raven Nightingale’s softly smiling face, elegantly framed by her midnight-purple braids.
“You-. . .” she started, but Raven cut her off, her voice sounding sweeter and smoother than honey.
“I came to return this to you,” she said, presenting Canis with the pitch-black pill in the palm of her jade-white hand. Canis glanced down at the pill and was planning to refute ever seeing it before, but, when she looked up at Raven again, she was met by two blood-red eyes which glared at her with ferocious hunger Canis hadn’t experienced before.
Images of savage beasts, tearing at her flesh and gnawing at her bones flashed by in Canis’ mind, but when she blinked and pulled back in horror the visions disappeared like they were never there. Even Raven’s eyes were as green and lush as ever. There was no joy in them though.
“I did warn you,” the girl said softly, before swiftly standing up with the grace of a fairy queen, now completely ignoring Canis.
“I hope you will enjoy tomorrow’s fights even more than today’s,” Raven added with a louder voice as she smiled warmly at the people who had been talking ill of the Sea Academy students. Then she left.
Instantly, the gossip around Canis shifted its focus from the disapointing Sea Academy students to Raven Nightingale and her demeanor, but Canis herself sat like a stone in the center of it.
‘It’s just an illusion. . . . All of it. . . ,’ she tried to convince herself. Eventually, she looked down at the pill that Raven had forced into her hand before the latter left. Next to it lay a small card with only one sentence written on it with cursive letters: Setter says hello.