Raven cursed. With Hog pursuing the bandit she wouldn’t be able to act without drawing attention to herself.
The man carrying the chest had entered the forest not far from Raven and Hog soon rushed by her as well. Raven considered her options for a moment but after a quick glance back at the battle taking place in the campsite, she made up her mind and swiftly descended from the tree. Silently, she started running after Hog and the escaping bandit. Even without any Divine Skill, Raven barely made any sounds as she rushed through the forest; her feet pattered lightly against the forest floor and her breathing was quite slow, despite pushing her muscles to their limits.
‘The distance is growing…’ Raven frowned.
She had hoped that she would be able to keep up by relying on her physique alone, but clearly that wasn’t the case. At the moment there was roughly a hundred meters between her and Hog – and an additional seventy meters or so to the bandit – but the distance was slowly growing. She could feel the spirit essence that Hog in front of her had activated; most likely both of them were using agility type Martial Skills to increase their speed, just that the bandit was using his odd movement skill from before and therefore couldn’t be sensed.
‘Well, they shouldn’t notice my spirit essence at this distance.’
Raven’s red spirit core stirred and strong spirit essence flowed to her legs and feet. Milliseconds later, Raven’s figure grew hazy as she dashed forward with sudden speed. Shadow Walk might not be a skill made for long-distance running, but it was enough for Raven to catch up a bit and keep herself at an average distance of just over sixty meters from Hog.
The chase continued for another twenty minutes before the bandit suddenly came to a stop. Raven noticed his abrupt halt before Hog did and immediately slowed down, but instead of following behind Hog, she started to move slowly towards the bandit’s left flank.
‘Why stop now?’ wondered Raven as she moved to the left.
Either the bandit had grown tired of running and decided to make a stance or there was another reason for him to stop running at this time and place. She used all of her senses to try and figure out why the bandit had stopped here of all places, but nothing was out of the ordinary; the area was just like any other part of this mountain forest – a sloping land covered with densely packed trees. However, the bandit didn’t seem very tired, which forced Raven to suspect the latter option nevertheless.
While Raven silently moved to the side, Hog had already caught up with the bandit and they were now standing less than ten meters apart.
“Well then, it was a good strategy but ultimately you were caught,” said Hog with a steady voice that was seemingly unfazed by the intense chase that had just ended. “Hand me the chest and I will let you leave unharmed.”
The bandit sneered. “I think you’ve got it the wrong way around, sir mercenary. Leave now and I won’t kill you.”
Hog raised an eyebrow in surprise before he shook his head. The bandit in front of him looked fairly vicious, with a long scar running down his right cheek, but he was clearly not older than, at most, thirty. Considering the bandit’s occupation and age, it was doubtful that he had a higher cultivation than Hog himself. Hog was considered fairly skilled in this area; he had after all managed to become a peak Adept despite only attending a low level spirit academy, he even could have joined the imperial army as a soldier if he had wanted to.
“I warned you,” Hog said as his spirit essence surged into his sword.
Off to the side, Raven smiled ruefully as she felt the pressure of Hog’s spirit essence flow over her. ‘There really is a big difference between low Adepts and peak high Adepts… his essence is so much denser than mine. He would be a very tough opponent for me.’
The temperature in the area dropped several degrees and a layer of frost covered Hog’s arm and sword. He dashed forward and swung his sword at the bandit’s neck.
‘Frozen blade? A level four skill… Impressive.’
Raven watched as Hog’s sword approached its target and Raven couldn’t help but frown; the man seemed totally unfazed by the approaching sword and still wore the same sneer from before. Suddenly, the bandit raised his hand and immense spirit essence flowed to his palm.
‘Impossible!’ Raven almost shouted out load.
The man easily stopped Hog’s attack with his bare hand, and as the pressure from his spirit essence reached Raven it made it hard for her to breathe. Without hesitating for a second, Raven turned around and fled.
“Where are you going?” Hoatzin shouted in her head.
Raven didn’t answer, she just kept running.
“Turn around, Sister! Hog will need your help.”
“Are you kidding?” Raven finally hissed back. “That man is a low Spirit Champion! He can swat me like a fly!”
“But Hog will die if you don’t help him!” Hoatzin pleaded.
“No doubt, but that is not on me. Besides, he is a mercenary; he knew the risks when he signed up for the job.” Raven didn’t slow down at all. An important aspect of being a good assassin was to know your own limits – do not go for the kill unless you know you can win.
“Sister! Why not help him when you might make a difference?”
“Because I value our lives higher than his…” Raven’s voice was calm, but inside she felt great apprehension; she could tell where her brother was going with this, and if her brother truly asked her for something she wouldn’t want to deny him – even before he lost his body, Raven would have gone to great lengths for her brother, and now she felt she owed him everything.
“Turn around! You were able to use the Twilight Lullaby on our guards back home, you should be able to do the same with this low Champion. Sister, at least try to help him!”
Hoatzin’s voice had grown pleading and Raven finally stopped running. Closing her eyes tightly, a pained expression filled her face.
‘You are too softhearted, Brother… One day it will be the end of both of us.’ Regardless of her inner thoughts, Raven turned around and rushed back towards Hog and the Champion bandit.
She had been able to hear the fighting all along, but the moment she came within two hundred meters of the two, a shock wave of spirit essence slammed against her mind. Raven’s face paled slightly under the pressure and she had to work hard to keep her breathing steady. Even though she had lived with several low Spirit Champions for the past four years, she had never seen any of them fighting all out; during training, they usually never used their full force, and when they did they had always asked Raven and Hoatzin to leave in fear of them getting indirectly hurt. The physical pressure generated by high levels of spirit essence was harmful to others, regardless of whether they could sense the spirit essence behind it or not.
Raven pushed on, but she couldn’t help but be shocked by the scene in front of her once she reached her previous location. Most of the trees in a hundred meter radius had been utterly destroyed; some lay on the ground in shattered pieces, encased in ice, while others had been reduced to piles of charred ash. The ground was a tattered mess of ice and smoldering embers. At the center of this area, two blurry figures were charging at each other, one with a sword turned white by frost that caused the ground under it to freeze as it flew over, the other with a sword encased in bright red flames that burnt anything it came even close to touching.
Whenever they clashed, Hog’s lean body would be pushed back several steps while the small bandit seemed unaffected. Yet, Hog was faring better than Raven expected in the fight – his body was covered in burns and deep, bleeding gashes, and his face was filled with fatigue, but he was still alive.
Raven didn’t bother retrieving the Nightingale’s Blessing from her spacial ring; if she needed to use it, she would die instantly anyway. Instead she remained at the outskirts of the ruined area as she stimulated her spirit core and readied her spirit essence.
At that moment, Hog, who had just been pushed back yet again, paused his assault to observe his opponent. The bandit was still sneering at him with a hint of amusement, as if he was merely playing around. Hog couldn’t believe his bad luck. How could there be a low Spirit Champion among a group of bandits? Contrary to what Raven’s upbringing might suggest, the number of people within the Sky Empire that had managed to break through to the Spirit Champion realm, even as low Champions, was in fact quite low, only totaling perhaps 3,000 spiritualists. Basically, every Champion was given a high position in the Imperial Army, if they wanted it, and their salary there would far surpass what this bandit could possibly hope to earn as a bandit here.
“…Okay…” Hog panted. “Take the chest… let’s stop fighting.”
Hog wasn’t stupid; he knew he had little to no chance of winning. He would have stopped fighting earlier if the bandit had given him the opportunity.
“Stop?” the bandit chuckled. “I believe I gave you a chance to leave before. Now that you know my strength, I’m afraid I can’t let you leave.”
Hog frowned; he understood the bandit’s reasoning – if the neighboring prefectures found out that a low Champion was robbing people in the passage between the Gate Towns, they would definitely send a horde of spiritualists to get rid of the problem.
“I suspect that promising to keep this to myself won’t help?” Hog tried.
Resignation filled Hog’s eyes.
“Well then. Let’s get this over with.” Hog straightened his stance and the sword in his hand was covered by an even thicker layer of ice. With a loud shout he rushed towards the bandit.
The bandit raised his own sword to intercept Hog, but just as he was about to activate his own Divine Skill, an odd tune filled his ears.
The distraction didn’t even last for an entire second, but by the time the bandit’s mind had cleared, blood was flowing profusely down his left arm. Hog’s sword had stabbed straight through the bandit’s left shoulder.
The bandit wasn’t the only one who was surprised. Hog had never thought that his attack would actually reach its mark. For a moment he stared at his sword, which was still lodged in the bandit’s shoulder. He tried to figure out what had happened, but Hog had been too focused on his own attack to notice anything else.
Raven, on the other hand, was panting heavily. She had used much of her spirit essence to launch the strongest attack she had ever attempted with the Twilight Lullaby. She had only whistled the tune for a second – she could feel the bandit shaking off her influence at that point, so she had stopped – but she had nonetheless used up nearly a third of her spirit essence. Raven had hoped that Hog would manage to give the bandit a lethal blow during that brief moment, but judging by the position of Hog’s sword it was unlikely. Raven knew that her own attacks would do little harm to the low Spirit Champion – his body’s defenses would simply be too strong for her to break through. If the bandit was to be defeated, then Hog needed to attack the man again.
“Bloody old man, don’t just stand there – attack!” Raven roared.
Her shout brought the two men back to their senses. Hog hurriedly jumped away from the bandit and prepared to attack once more. Without looking around to find out who had shouted, he rushed at the bandit with his sword held high. He didn’t know what had happened earlier but he couldn’t help but feel like it wasn’t a coincidence, and that therefore it might happen again.
However, Hog wasn’t the only one who reacted to Raven’s shout. Contrary to Hog, the bandit lifted his head and stared directly at Raven. When he had been distracted earlier, he had felt a string of spirit essence invading his mind and the little brat fifty meters away from him was definitely its source. Filled with hate and shame for being wounded because of a mere low Spirit Adept, the bandit ignored the approaching Hog and instead swung his flaming sword towards Raven.
A river of fire burst out of the sword and flowed towards Raven with great speed, but Raven stood her ground. As soon as the fire had left the sword, the bandit turned his attention back to Hog. With an even more sinister sneer on his face than before, he raised his sword towards the mercenary, ready to strike back. However, just as Hog got within his sword’s range, and the fire river was about to reach Raven, that same odd tune filled the air yet again and invaded the bandit’s mind. The alluring force behind it was even stronger this time and even though the bandit had been expecting it, he couldn’t help but pause his movements for half a second. Merely half a second. It sounds like so little time but within that half second, so many things happened. Once it was over, silence filled the forest, leaving only the faint crackling sound of burning wood.
At that moment no one was left standing. During that half second, Hog had used his last strength and spirit essence to duck under the bandit’s outstretched sword and dive, sword first, into the man, resulting in Hog’s sword piercing straight through the bandit’s abdomen and spirit core. The conclusion was that both men now lay unconscious and bleeding on the ground. For that to happen, Raven had been forced to focus all her spirit essence on controlling the Twilight Lullaby to its utmost. No spirit essence had been left for her to evade the approaching fire river, so she had been forced to rely solely on her physical strength to avoid the attack – something easier said than done, considering it had come from an enraged Spirit Champion.
Fortunately, Raven had managed to avoid the worst of it, but both her legs had been badly burnt, and the fabric of her now tattered and burnt pants had merged with her burnt skin. The pain was excruciating, but not enough for her to pass out.
“Sister! Sister, are you okay?” her frantic brother kept yelling in her head.
“What do you think?” muttered Raven so low that not even Hoatzin had heard her.
“Sister! Speak to me – are you okay?”
“I’m alive so quiet down…” Raven’s voice was hoarse but stable.
“Oh thank goodness!” he exclaimed and breathed a sigh of relief.
Rolling onto her back, Raven couldn’t help reflecting back on what had just happened. ‘There really is a big difference in the efficiency of the Twilight Lullaby when it is launched slowly as opposed to straight out. The guards back home were knocked out a lot longer… I should practice using it in combat more.’
Groaning, Raven forced herself to stand up and walk over to the two unconscious men. She carefully sat down on the ground next to them and checked their pulses.
“Are they alive?” asked Hoatzin.
“Yes, but the bandit’s pulse is getting weaker – he will die soon.”
“He should be fine; I don’t have enough spirit essence left to check him thoroughly but his pulse is steady, at least.”
Raven turned her attention back to the bandit.
“Since you are still alive, let’s see if we can’t pry that movement Skill out of you.”
Raven placed her hand on the man’s forehead and used the little spirit essence she had left to invade the man’s mind, aiming for his soul prism. The man shuddered under her touch but didn’t regain consciousness. Once her spirit essence had reached its target, Raven forcefully made a spirit connection with the man’s soul. Usually this would be impossible since, even in an unconscious state, a spiritualist’s spirit core would work to protect the soul prism, but since that very core had been destroyed, nothing prevented Raven from making a temporary spirit connection with the bandit.
Of course, such a spirit connection would still be a two-way-bridge, if the man had been conscious, he would no doubt have been shocked and perhaps even scared by Raven’s extremely strong soul. As it was, the bandit made no signs of life as Raven closely examined the Skill imprints in his soul prism.
To Raven’s surprise, she found that the man actually had the imprints for quite a few high level Divine Skills; high level for a rogue bandit, at least. Apart from the level three fire Skill he had used on her, Flaming River, there was also the level four area attack Meteor Descent, which hadn’t been used in the battle, and the level four elemental strengthening skill Inferno Sword. Although practical, none of these really suited Raven’s fighting style so she didn’t bother transferring the imprints.
What did pique her interest though was a level three breathing technique that would allow her to add 30% to the rate of her spirit essence absorption – it wasn’t an outstanding technique, but it was better than nothing. After transferring the imprint for it, she once more searched the soul prism and finally found what she had been looking for from the start: the mysterious movement Skill.