To say that Raven’s performance had left the audience in utter shock would be a gross understatement. Like silent statues, they sat in their seats, neither cheering nor booing. They had somehow been able to ignore the absurdity of a nine-year-old mid Champion, but for her to then be able beat someone with the strength of a low Spirit Master was more than they could handle.
Raven did, after all, not look even close to her young age – people could assume she was older and simply lying about her age – her swift victory was, on the other hand, irrefutable. They had barely had the chance to panic over Councillor Tanuki’s sudden rise in strength before he was defeated for the second time – his loss even more miserable than the first.
Now the man lay in a burnt and bloody pile on the stage, barely recognizable, and the crowd didn’t really know how to react anymore. Should they cheer? It was perhaps the natural reaction, but what kind of little monster could defeat a low Master at the age of nine? The thought scared them terribly, and Raven’s nonchalant and cold attitude didn’t make things any better.
While the people in the arena were trying to decide if they were mostly impressed or afraid, Councillor Tanuki’s previously motionless body suddenly shifted. He was struggling just to move, so most ignored his actions, but a cold light flashed by in Raven’s eyes, her lips curling upwards ever so slightly.
In the next instant, there was a muffled bang behind her, as raging grey spirit essence gushed out of old man Tanuki. Within seconds, his already depleting cultivation rushed back up into the low Spirit Master realm, but it didn’t stop there. Raven paused her steps and turned to look at the center of the stage, where the Councillor had popped not one but ten Ghost Queen Pills into his mouth.
The man’s veins bulged and his muscles twitched as his body was trying to handle the sudden surge in raw strength. The wound on his back healed in an instant, but dark blood started to slowly seep from his nose, eyes and ears. Clearly, old man Tanuki was losing the battle with the power he had gained, but he didn’t seem to care.
With the spirit medicine pushing him to the strongest cultivation Raven had ever come across within a Trinity native, Councillor Tanuki sprang forward. It looked like he was headed towards Raven, but, within the blink of an eye, he had already reached her side and actually continued past her.
As if suddenly realizing something, Raven swirled around on the spot and shouted at the top of her lungs: “Protect the Emperor!”
Her call was, however, too late; Councillor Tanuki was already by Emperor Hamlet’s side, his now mid Master spirit essence rushing straight for the Emperor’s neck. The peak Champion guards who had been standing by the Emperor’s side had no time to react at all; they had been expecting the Councillor to finish off Raven, not to dash out of the recently impenetrable barrier and attack the Emperor of all people.
Those in the crowd strong enough to even follow what was going on shrieked in terror, believing they would see their ruler decapitated, but the expected burst of blood never came. With a bang, a maelstrom of water appeared around the Emperor. In the same instant, two elderly men appeared behind Councillor Tanuki, each grabbing a shoulder of the rampaging man. With herculean strength, the two of them yanked the Councillor backwards, tossing him back onto the fighting stage.
Raven’s eyes twitched slightly. ‘So my senses weren’t lying; the Sea Emperor has at least two mid Spirit Master bodyguards. . . . Impressive.’
“What is the meaning of this!?” bellowed Emperor Hamlet, his body having risen up above the maelstrom. “Dragon guards, this man has attacked your Emperor; detain him at once!”
With speed even Raven had to concentrate to follow, two more mid Masters appeared by the Emperor’s side. As one, the four elderly-looking men dashed forward. Together they launched an attack against Councillor Tanuki. The latter’s strength amazingly enough continued to grow, but, against four genuine mid Masters, there was still little he could do.
Within seconds, the fight was over and the Councillor had turned into an even bloodier mess than before; his face was no longer recognizable and severe wounds covered his body. The worst damage had been done to his abdomen, where a clear strike had blasted straight through old man Tanuki’s spirit core. With damage like that, only one thing was sure; he would never cultivate again.
“Throw him in the Dragon Spirit Prison!” the Emperor commanded. “This Emperor wishes to learn why this preposterous man has acted so outrageously today! Bring his daughter, too!”
On the stage, Raven smiled slightly. She bowed towards the Emperor before speaking in her calm voice. “Sea Emperor Hamlet, if this little one may be so bold as to speak freely, I believe that the bird on which the Earth Councillor arrived on today may bring some insight.”
“Oh?” The Emperor turned his stormy eyes towards Raven. Had she spoken like that to him earlier, he would no doubt have become enraged with her, but Raven’s display of strength had changed all that. What graduation tournament? This nine-year-old could take on most of his own battle hardened generals with ease! “Do elaborate.”
“Well, a few years ago, Sky Empress Nene was falsely accused of trying to sell the secret methods of taming spirit birds to a foreign diplomat. The ones believed responsible for framing the Empress were caught, but the stolen scrolls – containing the taming imprints – were never found. . . .”
Raven didn’t believe she needed to elaborate further for Emperor Hamlet to make the conclusion she wanted him to, and, judging by his expression, she was right.
“Catch that bird!” he quickly commanded, pointing to the Everest Hawk that was still circulating above them. “Make sure not to kill it!”
While the guards sprang into action, retrieving all kinds of hooks and nets to help them, Hoatzin’s red feathers flashed by as he landed on his sister’s shoulders.
“How did you manage to turn Jack’s father insane so quickly?” he asked. “I barely sensed you using the Ode of Woe at all. . . .”
Raven smiled coldly, her gaze following the two spirit Masters who were currently hauling away the Councillor’s unconscious body.
“I didn’t. The grief of losing a child can make even the most rational man act irrationally. Actually, as it is, he might still be able to talk his way out of the situation – if he has calmed down enough when he regains consciousness.”
Hoatzin didn’t say anything more, only giving his sister a curious look.
Catching an Everest Hawk was usually not an easy thing, but, since it had been tamed and Councillor Tanuki hadn’t given it any further instructions after telling it to circle above the arena, the capture was fairly simple this time. Once the bird had been caught and dragged away, Emperor Hamlet surveyed the destroyed fighting stage and the still slightly dazed crowd in the arena. He sighed.
“Today, plenty of things have happened that we did not expect,” the Emperor spoke in a loud voice, for all to hear. “Raven Nightingale, you have done the Sea Empire a great service today and will be rewarded accordingly. As for the graduation tournament . . . I believe no one will disagree with this Emperor when I proclaim Javelin Hake the final winner.” Emperor Hamlet paused slightly, looking over at the section where the other finalists were sitting. “Or does any of the other champions wish to challenge him?”
The three remaining contestants quickly shook their heads, shooting Raven scared glances. Who had not realized that Raven had fought to protect Javelin? What if they managed to offend her by their challenge?”
“Very well,” Emperor Hamlet finally smiled, looking very pleased by this development. “Javelin Hake, step forward.”
Javelin stood up and swiftly made his way across the warzone-like fighting stage, stopping roughly a meter from Raven’s side.
“Present, Your Imperial Majesty,” he said with a bow.
“As the final victor, you have the right to choose any position within the Sea Empire which isn’t reserved for the Imperial bloodline. It is a big decision and, since you still have some time before graduation, you should think about it carefully. You may tell this Emperor your decision whenever you are ready.”
“This little one requests the permission to speak freely, Your Imperial Majesty,” Javelin requested boldly.
“Haha! Naturally, my boy, naturally.”
“With all due respect, this little one humbly requests to have the engagement agreement between myself and young Lady Arowana annulled.”
There was a collective gasp from the audience. Many had heard the rumors about the romantic relationship between Raven Nightingale and Javelin Hake, but few had ever imagined that he would actually try to get the marriage canceled.
The Emperor blanked for a moment. At first it seemed like he was going to get mad – on reflex more than anything – but with a small nudge in the back from his daughter, Emperor Hamlet’s steely expression turned into a half-forced smile.
“Naturally, forcing two children to marry against their will is out of the question. This Emperor hereby annuls the proposed marriage between Arowana Pelecus and Javelin Hake.”
“Hear, hear!” shouted an attendant by his side, marking the Emperor’s words as an Imperial decree.
“However,” Emperor Hamlet continued, “since this is a matter of reason, it can hardly count as your reward. Think of something else.”
Not giving Javelin any further reason to object, the Emperor declared the day’s tournament over and left, his wide robes fluttering behind him.
As everyone else slowly started to leave, a second Imperial decree came, practically demanding that all the finalists and their academies would attend a celebration ball three days later. Raven snorted when she heard the decree; she could guess what the Emperor wanted to achieve.
“It looks like they want to scout us,” Raven said to Javelin, giving him a playful wink. The conflicted look she received in return brought her back to reality.
“I thank you for saving me,” said Javelin curtly, “but I know you did it as much for yourself as for me.” He snorted. “At least fate has a sense of humor; in our last life, you faked being my bodyguard – eventually killing me yourself – and now you have no choice but to keep me alive. Ironic, isn’t it?”
Javelin turned and walked away, heading back towards his mother. Raven watched him go, a stabbing pain forming in her chest. Raven frowned, annoyed by just how much his words hurt her.
‘I am stronger than this. . . .’ she told herself as she started to follow behind Javelin.
“What the heck did he say!?” Only now did Hoatzin wake from his daze. “You killed Eric!?”
Raven glanced down at the bright bird on her shoulder.
“. . . In a sense, yes.”
“But I thought he saved your life! How could you otherwise be soul touched by him?”
“He did save me, but I killed him first.” Raven sighed, her eyes growing distant. “Eric was a good man. . . . I bet he simply acted on reflex when he saved me. Perhaps the soul touch wasn’t out of care for me, but rather out of regret.”
Hoatzin eyes twitched; he felt that Raven’s interpretation wasn’t quite right, but he was too confused to even know where to start arguing.
High in the sky, far above where the Everest Hawk had been circling, Cozimo and Azmer stood with their mouths wide open. For a long while, the pair had said nothing. There were countless geniuses in the Realms and even a nine-year-old mid Champion wasn’t unheard of – rare, surely, but not unheard of.
Neither was it impossible to find those who were skilled enough to challenge the barriers between cultivation levels and defeat those of a higher realm. To find both qualities in one person was, however, exceedingly rare.
“Impressive, isn’t she?” the small girl between them giggled, popping yet another frosted berry into her mouth. “If she used all her abilities and I refrained from using grandfather’s gifts, I would no doubt lose to her.”
“Miss. . . !” the two men wanted to object, but the girl raised a hand to stop them.
“The two of you have to be careful, too, or she will soon surpass you both.”
Cozimo snorted, but Azmer said nothing. He looked down on the small figure that was walking off the stage down below with a red bird on her shoulder. “Do you want us to file for an exception? She is still a mid Champion, but she does seem to qualify for it.”
“Hmm. . . .”
The soft, white ears on the girl’s head twitched slightly as she rested her head in her palm.
“Grandfather wishes it, but . . .” her words trailed off as she gazed downwards, her eyes seemingly piercing the walls and ceiling of the arena. “We have another problem to deal with first.”
Late that night, a finely dressed man made his way down the damp and dimly lit corridors of the Sea Empire’s spiritualist prison, Dragon Spirit Prison. When the guards saw him, they hurried to salute the man with heartfelt respect. None of them noticed the dark figure that was following a few meters behind the man.
“Your Highness Bival,” greeted two guards in attention once the man reached them. They were standing guard in front of a particularly sturdy metal door.
“Limpkin, please; it has been too long since someone called me Bival. . . .” Limpkin corrected, waving for them to stand at ease. “I wish to see the prisoner.”
The two guards hesitated slightly. “He is still unconscious, Your Highness. We have orders not to let anyone in until the prisoner is awake and can be interrogated.”
Limpkin’s face turned cold. “Our friend in there tried to kill my imperial brother; I think it’s time he woke from his beauty-sleep. Give me a minute and I’m sure he will be awake and singing like a bird.”
The two guards glanced at each other. They had their orders, but neither of them felt like going against the man in front of them. Besides, their prisoner had tried to kill the Emperor; whatever Limpkin had planned, the man on the other side of the metal doors deserved it.
“Hmm, now that I think about it, I believe the Captain wanted to speak with us,” one of the guards finally said, giving the other a meaningful nod.
“Ah right! Perhaps, Your Highness Limpkin wouldn’t mind keeping an eye on the prisoner while we are gone? It would only take five minutes.”
Limpkin smiled. “It would be my pleasure.”