The tournament’s second day did indeed progress with fewer unexpected developments than the first. A handful of students tried using spirit medicines to win their matches – and not only the Queen Ghost Pill this time either – but the Sea Academy students were better prepared for it today, and at least a third of them still prevailed against their opponents, without outer aid.
What was more unexpected, however, was the commotion going on in the imperial viewing section. Thanks to the protective spirit essence membrane around the area, no one on the outside of it could hear what was going on within, but they could see it.
On numerous occasions, the reputed cold beauty from the Earth Empire, Canis Tanuki, sprung to her feet and started yelling! At first towards Javelin Hake and his companion, but after a while, it wasn’t clear if she was even yelling at anyone in particular. Oddly enough, none of the other five currently in the imperial section seemed to be bothered by it and simply ignored the young woman’s outbursts. It was as if they were used to her volatile behavior.
The entire thing culminated about two-thirds into the second day’s battles when a sudden explosion of wooden splinters drew the attention of the majority of the audience. At the center of the fray of splinters was, not shockingly, Canis Tanuki; the chair she had been seated on was obliterated and she was sweating heavily. This time, her outburst couldn’t be ignored, and the middle-aged nobleman – who only a few recognized as Lord Pelecus – had moved to cover Lady Arowana while Javelin Hake had stepped between Lady Tanuki and his female companion.
Guards instantly rushed forward to seize the Tanuki woman, but the girl who Hake had been protecting stepped forward, blocking their path. She whispered something into the closest guard’s ears and, after a moment’s pause, the guard motioned for his colleagues to back down. There was even a look of pity in his eyes.
Canis Tanuki had stormed off soon after that, quickly joined by the woman who was clearly a Healer, but who had been granted entrance into the imperial section. At once, a storm of murmurs filled the arena. Suddenly, someone recalled that the younger brother, Jack Tanuki, had supposedly gone mad in an accident, losing his mind entirely. This piece of information spread like a wildfire and many started to wonder if there had actually been any accident. . . .
Eventually, after over six hours of fighting, the final matches were held, and in the end, it was two advanced students from Sea Academy who won the finals for the eighth and ninth grade respectively. With this, the Academy’s lost reputation from the day before was all but restored, whereas the other academies got accused for trying to cheapen the tournament with underhanded tricks. One could almost feel the shame and anger that the various Elders from these Academies were feeling towards the situation, but what could they do? Their students had practically cheated but still lost. . . .
As the thousands of people who had come to watch the day’s battles started filing out of the arena, two teenage boys tarried behind. They watched the crowds leave with golden eyes that seemed to focus on something far away.
“There is no mistaking it,” one said to the other. “It was toned down today, but the little girl is definitely the source of the killing intent we felt before.”
The other nodded. “But, Azmer, how is that even possible? She can’t be more than fifteen years old and her cultivation level is not even in the Champion realm!”
“And yet, all day long, she seeped killing intent into that other girl. With such impeccable control too! Most likely the girl only felt uneasy and afraid but couldn’t pinpoint why. . . .”
“Let’s confront her – if we can learn her trick, we will be greatly rewarded when we return home.” A hungry glimmer flashed by the youth’s eyes.
“That’s against the rules, Cozimo, and you know it,” Azmer reminded his friend begrudgingly; he too really wanted to know how the little girl had accumulated such rich killing intent.
Cozimo swore. Both of them crossed their arms and leaned against the aisle’s wall. For a long while, the pair said nothing.
“Then again . . .” Azmer suddenly continued, “it is practically impossible for such a young girl to have killed the amount of people required for her killing intent to reach such levels on this continent. I mean, even with some special skill, how many lost souls would have had to latch on to her when they died? A hundred thousand? A million? There is just no way such a killing spree would have gone unnoticed.”
“Well, if she didn’t kill them here – where did she kill them?”
Cozimo’s eyes first widened with realization and then narrowed as he snarled – clearly pleased.
The night was almost in its darkest hour when a black figure shimmered into existence in the open courtyard of Raven and Javelin’s small house within the Sea Academy Dome.
“That took you longer than I had expected.”
A cold voice called out from the shadows and the dark figure twitched slightly before turning to face the hidden speaker. Faint lantern-light caused the figure’s grayish hair to shimmer slightly as he moved.
“Tsk, Singer, your perception is as insane as ever.”
“I wish I could say the same about your stealth,” Raven was smirking as she stepped out from the shadows. “I noticed you coming fifteen minutes ago.”
“I know better than to sneak up on you while you’re sleeping, Singer,” Limpkin joked, but Raven didn’t laugh; her look was serious.
“Why are you here, Limpkin – or should I say Lord Pelecus?”
“Does a man need to explain why he visits a beautiful woman in the middle of the night?” Limpkin raised his hands and smiled flirtatiously, ignoring Raven’s jab at his hidden identity.
Limpkin twitched, looking a bit squeamish. “I still can’t wrap my head around that one. . . .”
Raven made no comments on this and instead waited for Limpkin to give his true reasons for coming.
“Are you sure he can win?” he asked after a while, looking genuinely concerned.
Raven raised her eyebrows. “Why the sudden interest?”
Limpkin shrugged. “You saved my life, remember? I’ve been helping you ever since, so how could I miss your . . . um, the boy’s feelings for you. Winning the tournament is likely the only way my brother would agree to release him from my father’s proposed marriage.”
Raven sneered. “This still doesn’t explain why you care.”
Limpkin blinked a few times and then laughed. “Who would want such a cute little niece as Arowana to marry someone who loves another?”
“Really? And here I thought it was because the two of you have had your eyes set on a higher target for quite a while. . . .” Raven paused, giving Limpkin a knowing look. “Actually, I always figured your choice to woo the head assassin’s wife was a bit too stupid, even for you. I now assume it was also part of the bigger picture, no? Perhaps you wouldn’t even have bothered to help me guard the Griffin twins if it hadn’t been beneficial to you. . . .”
Limpkin coughed, feeling slightly smothered under Raven’s penetrating stare.
Years ago, Limpkin’s Casanova ways had gotten him into quite a fix when his fleeting affections turned towards the Assassin Guild’s head assassin’s wife. The situation had turned bloody really quickly and, through sheer luck of timing, Raven was given the opportunity to remove the assassin in question and save Limpkin, which she did. He had been in her debt ever since, or at least he acted as if he were.
Eventually Raven shrugged, her gaze softening. “Do what you will, but the Nightingale Prefecture must remain, and if you hurt Empress Nene or Emperor Mallard in any way, I won’t stand idly by,” Raven warned.
Brief shock flashed across Limpkin’s face before he laughed loudly. “I should have expected you to have a pragmatic approach to this. Don’t worry, we come in peace.”
‘I don’t think the Earth Empire will agree,’ thought Raven as she rolled her eyes, but she gave no further comment on the matter.
“So,” Limpkin pulled out a dagger and started fiddling with it; “will Javelin win tomorrow? I can get rid of the competition for him, if you ask nicely.”
Raven laughed. “His worst threat is miss Tanuki, and that threat won’t last much longer. As for the others . . . nothing is certain, but I believe he will do fine – he has improved a lot.”
“He might have improved, but, Singer, the top graduates are mid champions – Javelin isn’t eve-. . .” Limpkin dropped his sentence, looking down at Raven’s ankles. “He’s not only a High Adept, is he?”
Raven just smiled faintly.
“. . . Even then, he can’t have broken through very long ago. To fight against mid Champions. . . .”
Limpkin gave Raven an odd look, but after being silent for a while, he nodded slowly. “I don’t see whatever it is you see in him, but if you say that the kid won’t need help then I believe you.”
Raven giggled. “I wouldn’t go quite that far. . . . Aves!” she suddenly called out and, in the next instant, the white-haired man entered the courtyard, a listless body slumped over his shoulders.
“I’m supposed to be your bodyguard, not an errand boy,” Aves grumbled as he shifted the weight on his shoulders.
“Don’t be silly, Aves. This is protecting me. Well . . . my interests, at least.” Raven winked at him. “Besides, it’s better that you help me and keep an eye on me, rather than I sneak off on my own again, no?”
Aves snorted, but he didn’t refute her. Instead, he walked over to Javelin’s door and knocked on it harshly. “Let’s go!” he called.
“Where are we going?” Limpkin asked, looking curiously at Aves’ unconscious prisoner.
“There is no we,” Javelin corrected him as he stepped out from his room seconds later. He gave Limpkin an angry glare. “And I’m no kid!”
Without waiting for any reply, Javelin marched out of the courtyard and, while Limpkin was still watching the former’s retreating back, Raven appeared by his side.
“We’re just going to return a lost puppy to its owner – nothing big.” She was smiling at Limpkin, but a shiver ran down his back nonetheless. After holding his gaze for a moment, Raven turned and walked after Javelin. “I would stay away from the Earth Empire’s Ambassador Mansion tonight if I were you, Lord Pelecus,” she called over her shoulder just before disappearing into the dark street outside.
At the Earth Empire’s embassy, the first half of the night had passed more quietly than it had the night before. After Canis returned to the mansion – fuming with rage, and before even the day’s tournament fights had ended – everyone present realized that something had gone wrong. They were shocked when Canis’ Healer chose to actually sedate her, without Canis’ knowledge. Only then did the servants learn of their Lady’s behavior at the arena and were so shocked that they most likely wouldn’t even have believed it if the information hadn’t come from the Healer herself.
The woman had checked Canis’ condition, but found nothing wrong with her, except perhaps that her soul prism seemed a bit duller than it should. Regardless, there was nothing the Healer could do but hope that a good night’s rest would help Canis return to her senses.
It was an hour past midnight when the guards at the back entrance to the Ambassador’s Mansion suddenly found it very hard to concentrate. All they could focus on was a melancholic tune being hummed somewhere in the distance. By the time they regained their senses, the sound was long gone and no trace of its origin could be seen. Shrugging off the eerie sensation, they resumed their guard duties.
Meanwhile, further in, a petite black figure moved like a shadow with impressive speed down the mansion’s corridors, a large lump hanging over its shoulders. The figure’s movements were soundless and always moving from one shadow to the next. There was no hesitation at all as corridors became increasingly confusing – here even the oldest servants could get lost, but the figure was unaffected.
Within a few heartbeats, the shifting shadow came to a halt. Further down the corridor, a fiery red bird sat perched on the arm of a lantern.
A silent exchange passed between the bird and the obscured figure before the bird took off and the robed figure headed for the door closest to the lantern.
Inside, Canis lay on her father’s bed. Even in a drugged sleep, her body twitched nervously every now and then. Sitting in vigil next to the bed was her trusted Healer; the woman had been with Canis for a very long time and the concern on her face was very real. Everyone knew it was.
“What is wrong with you, my Lady. . . .” the Healer muttered to herself when suddenly, the worry in her eyes glazed over, her gaze growing distant. She didn’t notice the slight creak in the door behind her, nor did she feel the cold liquid that was poured down her throat. After a while, even the distant singing seemed to fade. Sleeping, the Healer collapsed on the floor.
Glowing red eyes and a row of perfectly white teeth that gleamed in the dull lantern-light revealed a vicious sneer on the dark figure’s hidden face.
Slowly, strands of spirit essence wrapped themselves around the unconscious Healer and the lump that had been carried into the room. Soon, two people were hovering in front of Canis’ bed, their faces twisted into evil grins.
From the depths of the blood-red eyes, an oppressing, red glint stirred, and in the next instant, spirit essence that had been tainted red with killing intent shot like a spear into Canis’ head. Even with the heavy sedation, there was no way she could sleep through such a mental attack. At once, Canis jumped up from her bed, a sword appearing in one hand, a whip in the other. Her eyes darted between the three people in front of her, as pain and fear formed in her heart.
“Collie, not you too. . . .” She bit her lip, forcing back the tears that threatened to form at the corner of her eyes. “I’ll have you hanged for this, you Nightingale bitch!”
Canis lashed out with her sword, aiming to stab at the smaller black figure, but she only saw her guards stepping in her way, their evil grins widening as Canis hesitated.
“Now, now – why so worked up?” The voice was so cold and otherworldly that Canis almost didn’t recognize it as Raven’s. “Like your brother, I’m just enjoying a little bit of fun before dinner.”
A manic laugh filled Canis’ ears as the red glow in Raven’s eyes increased, the whites of her eyes turning black. Even though Canis instinctively knew that she should guard herself against whatever was coming – that she should look away – she couldn’t. All she could do was stare, shaking with fear.
Before she knew it, the world around her erupted in wails of pain as a sea of blood and gore flooded the room. Panicking, Canis tried to jump away, but found that she couldn’t move her legs no matter how hard she tried. Disfigured hands reached up from the bloody sea, pulling at Canis’ clothes. Screaming, Canis used her sword and whip to swat away the hands, but no matter how many she removed, more arrived. Decomposing faces surfaced among the outstretched arms, their expressions locked in everlasting pain as they wailed at Canis, threatening to devour her whole.
A sudden sigh, cold and bereft of human emotion, sliced through the pained screams.
“Play time’s over.”
Looking up, Canis saw Raven floating above the endless sea of blood. The girl’s eyes were nothing but pits of red and black, her midnight-purple hair had broken free of its jade pin and floating around her pale face way slower than possible; she looked like a vengeful Godess of Death, here to smite whomever she felt unworthy of her presence. Next to her, Canis’ former guards had transformed into two hellish beasts that where snarling at Canis with hungry eyes. Meanwhile, Raven herself was glaring down on her as if she was nothing but an ant, waiting to be squashed.
“Say hello to your brother,” Raven smiled before raising her pearly white hand to point at Canis. “Time to eat.”
As if struck by hot iron, the two beast howled and dashed forward. They mighty jaws opened wide as they pounced on Canis, sinking both teeth and claws into her soft skin. The pain was instant and utterly unbearable.
Panicking, Canis did her best to fight of the two beast, but they didn’t seem to care. They had both been whipped and stabbed over twenty times before Canis couldn’t keep fighting any more. Wailing at the top of her lungs, Canis called for help, for mercy, but nothing changed. The beasts kept chewing at her, even to the point where she could see her own bones, glowing white in the bloody mess.
She didn’t notice the door to her father’s bedroom being slammed open.
She didn’t notice the dozen or so guards who rushed in, expecting to find some intruder attacking their mistress.
She didn’t notice their shock when they found her, covered in her two most trusted servants’ blood, repeatedly stabbing and whipping their long-dead bodies.
She didn’t notice anything.