Taking no further notice of either Canis or the curious gazes from the surrounding people, Raven made her way down one of the wider aisles in the arena, her Limiters once more restricting her cultivation down to a high Adept – since she chose not to wear her spirit stone, only Canis had been given the chance to notice her true cultivation. At the moment, Raven was finally heading back towards the imperial section, where Arowana should still be saving her a seat.
Meanwhile, Javelin continued fighting against his opponent on stage, but the longer he fought, the more obvious their differences in skill and strength became. Raven had to give it to the other kid though; for a student from a second-rate academy, he handled his Divine Skills remarkably well. However, while Javelin mostly employed level five martial art Divine Skills, his opponent had level three skills at best. Without the additional aid from the Queen Ghost Pill there was just no way he could match up to Javelin who, even with his cultivation level restricted to a high Adept, was a step ahead strength-wise and was far from a push-over at using his own skills.
Raven glanced over at Javelin as she walked and couldn’t help but chuckle. There had been several opportunities for him to strike a finishing blow against his opponent, but Javelin kept drawing out the fight, only attacking at the less obvious openings and never with full force. Raven could feel his irritation and well-suppressed anger through their soul bond and she had no trouble understanding what Javelin was up to. He was purposefully extending the fight to make it blatantly apparent that the only reason the boy and his fellow students had made it this far was because of outer aid.
Roughly halfway back to her destination, Raven’s body suddenly twitched and her step faltered unnoticeably. Acting as if nothing had happened, Raven continued her casual walk down the aisle, but as she passed two seemingly normal teenagers, she shot them a secretive glance. Just like everybody else, the two boys were watching the unfolding battle on the stage with enthusiastic amusement – laughing and cheering loudly in their ordinary brown robes – but Raven’s senses painted a slightly different picture.
When she looked at the boys and felt their presence, Raven could quite clearly tell that the two of them not only were noticeably older than they looked, they also had fang-like teeth and long tails, akin to a lion’s, that swayed rhythmically behind them.
‘Outer realmers!’ Raven hissed to herself as she continued past them, outwardly indifferent. ‘What a worthless treaty!’
As far as she knew, there was at least a month or so left before the tournament representatives could be expected to make their brief appearance. Moreover, apart from the slightly eccentric Fenris, what other outer realmer would consider coming to Trinity continent without having something malicious in mind.
‘And they’re so strong!’ Somehow, the two teens had managed to hide their cultivation level quite well, but once Raven got close enough, their spirit essence’s glaringly green glow could no longer be obscured from her. There was even a tinge of blue to it that Raven hadn’t seen before. She could only assume that they were at the peak of whatever cultivation level came after Spirit Masters, putting them on an even higher level than Gadwall had been.
Silently, Raven sent her consciousness into her spacial ring, making sure that the talisman that Fenris had given her was still there. At least he would be able to deal with the two men if they decided to do something nefarious. Slightly reassured, Raven kept her casual pace down the aisle without ever relaxing her hold of the talisman.
Realizing that the two tailed men made no attempt to follow her, Raven relaxed slightly; at least they weren’t necessarily here for her specifically.
It wasn’t until Raven had long disappeared from their view that the two ordinary-looking teenagers looked away from the fighting stage, giving each other questioning looks. It was a brief exchange and once it had passed, the two of them resumed their happy cheering.
Suppressing a frown, Raven finally approached her seat by Lady Arowana’s side. When she arrived, Raven realized that Arowana had moved to the seat which she herself had previously sat in – next to Crown Prince Argus. The two of them seemed to be enjoying each other’s company quite a lot.
Raven donned an amused smile as she soundlessly slipped into Arowana’s old seat; it actually took a while before either of them realized that she had returned.
“Lady Nightingale, you’re back,” Argus eventually remarked, causing Arowana to spin around.
“Raven!” she exclaimed, managing to look both pleased and annoyed at the same time. “Where have you been!? You’ve been gone for hours!”
“I have,” Raven agreed, not elaborating further.
“How could you just leave me alone like that, Raven? We’re supposed to be friends!” Arowana pouted and Raven leaned to the side, glancing quizzically at her nation’s future emperor. Noticing her look, Arowana swatted dismissively in the air. “The Sky Prince doesn’t count and you know it. No offense intended, Argus.”
“None taken,” the young man replied with a chuckle. “You really did miss quite a lot though, Lady Nightingale. There are only two fights left, and young Hake’s fight is almost over.”
Arowana snorted, somehow making the dismissive gesture seem cuter than a sneezing kitten. “So many of the students have resorted to outer aid today . . . it’s shameful! Only the Sea Academy students have relied on their own strength entirely and they have suffered greatly for it; Javelin almost lost in the semifinals.”
Raven didn’t reply. She glanced back at the two sturdy guards who were standing motionlessly behind Arowana and Argus, then seemingly focused her attention on the ongoing fight on stage. While her eyes were looking forward, Raven’s ears sorted through the various comments that the audience within the nearest couple of hundred meters discussed. Though many were confused as to why Javelin’s opponent – who had been so impressive in his previous fights – could do nothing against Javelin, others had overheard the stronger spiritualists talking about the odd burst of strength that some of the students had managed and were now muttering about cheating. It seemed as though even the spiritualists had first assumed that the other academies had simply been hiding their true strengths, but Javelin’s current performance was changing their opinion.
Raven wasn’t surprised that so few had made the connection to some sort of outer aid sooner; with so much spirit essence bursting forth on stage, it was really quite hard to tell where all of it came from. Actually, without senses stemming from spirit connections running along the lines of at least Hoatzin’s fifty-plus connections or Javelin’s hundred-plus connections, the distinction would be practically impossible until the realm shifts started happening.
There was also the fact that a pill with effects like that of the Queen Ghost Pill was not something that normally existed on Trinity continent, so why would anyone assume that some impossible pill was involved? Raven guessed that the only reason Arowana was so sure that some sort of outside influences were at play was because of those two guards standing behind her, both rather elderly and with high enough cultivation levels to back it up.
They were both peak Champions – a very impressive feat on the Trinity continent, but Raven couldn’t help but think back on the two men she had noticed earlier. She had been fortunate enough that Gadwall never really took her seriously, but if she had to guess, then a single swipe from those two would kill off every single person in this arena.
‘Perhaps I should contact Fenris before it’s too late.’ Raven mused, and the small stone-like talisman appeared in her hand.
“My, aren’t you smitten,” Arowana suddenly giggled next to Raven, causing the latter to shift her gaze.
“Smitten,” Arowana repeated, nodding playfully in Javelin’s direction. “You have done nothing but stare at him since you returned, and there’s even some tension here.” The girl tapped her elegant finger between Raven’s brows. “You’re worried for him, aren’t you?”
Raven blinked a few times before laughing dryly. She was worried, all right, but Javelin’s fight had nothing to do with it.
“What’s there to worry about?” she asked, meeting Arowana’s impish gaze with her indifferent one. “He has already won.”
“The fight might be in his hands right now, but you nev-. . .” Arowana started, but an unexpected commotion on the stage caused her to swallow the rest of her sentence.
“I concede!” Javelin’s opponent had shouted all of a sudden, throwing his weapon down in rage. “You’ve clearly just been toying with me the last fifteen minutes! Are you so conceited that you have to humiliate me before defeating me!?”
They young boy spat at Javelin as he yelled, his voice definitely loud enough for the entire arena to hear him, but Javelin just looked at his opponent calmly, halting his attacks. The boy’s actions had, however, caused the arena to quickly quiet down.
“It’s because I have respect for the elders who taught you how to fight so well that I have let you continue fighting for this long,” Javelin eventually replied, his voice strong but with apparent distaste for the boy. “The only thing shameful here is your choice to disregard their training in favor of a quick fix.”
As the meaning behind his words dawned on the people in the crowd, the budding rumors blossomed into full-grown accusations. Instantly, a deafening murmur filled the arena as everyone started discussing the day’s events in a new light.
“So there really was such a reason for the Sea Academy students to lose. . . . How despicable!”
“What’s despicable? It’s not against the rules.”
“Yeah, it’s about time those Sea Academy elitists learned that they’re not undefeatable!”
“Fool, do you really think that they couldn’t take an even better medicine if they wanted to?”
“True. A tournament like this one should be down to personal skills alone.”
Several arguments floated around the arena, but the general opinion was quickly pushed in favor of Sea Academy; although few seemed to actually like the academy in question, they still had faith in its strength. Those who had previously cheered for the underdog academies’ sudden rise to prowess, now had sour expressions on their faces; clearly the legal cheating had left a bad taste in their mouths.
“Let’s go,” Arowana suddenly said, pulling both Raven and Argus to their feet.
Raven could guess what the girl intended, but asked anyway; “Where to?”
“To greet our champion, of course!” Leaning in closer to Raven, Arowana quietly added; “If Javelin can’t win two days from now, it’s best to let people know where our hearts lie.”
Raven rolled her eyes, but said nothing as she allowed herself to be pulled away by the silvery ray of sunshine that was Lady Arowana.
“Brother,” Raven called as she walked, quickly getting an affirmative response from Hoatzin. “I have a couple of tasks for you.”
That night, Canis couldn’t sleep. She sat wide-eyed on her bed, fidgeting nervously with the silky fabrics of her robe. After the tournament, Canis had searched high and low for Setter and the other members of her personal guard, but had found no trace of them. Of the more than a dozen people whom she had first brought with her, only one woman remained and since she was a healer, she hadn’t really left the ambassador’s manor since she arrived.
Canis glanced down on the bed covers, looking at the elegantly written note that rested on her pillow. “Sweet Dreams,” it said, in the same cursive letters that Raven Nightingale had presented her with earlier that day. Her first reaction had been to snatch it up and burn it with her spirit essence, but Canis had stayed her hand just inches from the paper.
Suddenly, she had realized that touching the card might not be such a good idea; after all, the poison bottle had been returned empty and its contents must have gone somewhere. It wasn’t like simple skin contact would be enough to kill her, but what if she got a paper cut?
“Where could that little minx be keeping Setter?” Canis wondered. “It’s not like there were plenty of places to hide a body in the arena and if he’s alive, even less so – he’s a mid Champion, after all. Unless . . .” Canis’ body suddenly twitched and jumped off her bed, putting good distance between herself and the note on the pillow. “Unless he isn’t captured! What if he was Nightingale’s spy all along!?”
If Setter was a traitor, it would explain how Hake and Nightingale had managed to stay ahead of her all this time, and how Raven had managed to ‘subdue’ him without anyone noticing in the arena; he never put up a fight.
Feeling very exposed all of a sudden, Canis’ eyes darted from one shadow to the next. Was he here now? Suddenly, Canis saw the darkness in one corner shift and, without hesitating, she pulled her sword and stabbed it into the shadow with all her might. Spirit essence gushed forward and a loud bang rang out in the night as the white stone wall of the ambassador’s mansion exploded outwards.
Within seconds, tens of powerful guards had swarmed to the source of the sound, but only found Canis – panting heavily with her sword drawn.
“Lady Tanuki?” they probed carefully, well aware of her icy temper.
Canis blinked, an odd haze receding from her eyes. She looked at the guards in front of her and, after a moment’s silence, started yelling; “Imbeciles! Someone was in my room this evening without any of you mongrels noticing! Double the guards right away and prepare an instant message to my father!”
Ignoring the confused and scared expressions of the gathered people, Canis stormed off, locking herself inside the next-door room that was usually reserved for her father.
“Trust no one,” she muttered as she sank down in a large armchair which had a clear view of the entire room. Her sword never left her hand.