“Life debt?” Raven stared at the man, confused.
“Yes. Do you recall releasing a small, white Spirit Beast a while back?” Raven nodded slowly and Fenris continued; “well, that was my grandson.”
“Senior’s grandson? But you . . .”
“Have human form, indeed. He might too, eventually.”
For the second time that evening, Raven’s mind spun. She had read legends of extremely powerful Spirit Beasts that managed to take human form – the great raven that had caused the death of Weebill the Great was rumored to have been one of them – but that was in legends only. Besides, those creatures supposedly had no problem defeating Spirit Masters, doing so with but a thought; such a thing should be impossible.
Before Raven had a chance to compose herself, Fenris continued talking.
“By doing so, you saved his life. According to the laws laid down by our ancestors that means that my grandson owes you a life debt. That being the case, he must follow you as a servant until the debt is repaid – until he has saved your life.”
Raven’s mind calmed down and she focused on what Fenris was telling her.
“However, my grandson is still very weak and it is unsuitable for him to follow you – most likely he would do you more harm than good by doing so. That being the case, I chose to follow you in his place. I had intended to keep doing so in silence, until he was strong enough to do so himself, but curiosity got the better of me when I heard you singing and observing you create a new Divine Skill.”
As Raven listened she realized something.
“Senior, may I be as bold as to ask if you perhaps did something to bandits who entered the Great Valley Woodlands after I left?”
“Ah. Yes, I felt a little bit of punishment was called for.” Fenris smiled a sinister smile.
‘That explains the fear the bandits have for the place. . . .’
“Then, when did Senior Fenris catch up to us – three days ago, perhaps?” Raven continued her investigation with as much respect as she could muster.
“No,” Fenris answered, and appeared to be counting backwards in his mind. “It was twelve days ago. How so?”
‘Hmm, so the silent forest is not because of him… Was the low Spirit Champion enough for the wildlife to quiet down?’
Raven shook her head. “Never mind. So, what is Senior’s proposal exactly? Senior helps me restore my brother, by a method he would approve of, and I cancel the life debt of Senior’s grandson?”
“Not quite,” Fenris explained, shaking his head. “Since your brother’s life isn’t in direct peril at the moment, the two acts don’t cancel each other out completely, and also, a life debt must ultimately be repaid by the one in debt. No, I will help you restore your brother’s body and, in turn, you will cancel my grandchild’s servitude – he will still have to save your life someday, but the two of you will be considered equals from now on.”
“Senior Fenris, do not take offense, but how do I know you are not tricking us with all this? Senior might not even be related to that little Spirit Beast at all.” Raven very much wanted to agree to his proposal, but she was never one to trust easily.
Fenris didn’t take offense, though; he just smiled and flicked his wrist. A loud *thud* was heard as the spiked cage that Raven had rescued the small Spirit Beast from landed by his feet.
“You recognize this, right? Besides, no doubt your instincts are telling you that if I wanted to harm you, I would not have needed to make a deal with you first, she-human.”
Raven definitely knew this in her heart, but nonetheless, there were other ways one might harm others apart from using physical strength. The cage, however, together with the man’s body language indicated that he was telling the truth. It wasn’t fool-proof of course, but it was good enough.
“Very well, I agree to Senior’s proposition.”
Raven didn’t hesitate any longer. What was there for Raven to think about? She was in no need of a servant.
Fenris started laughing. “Haha, I like your decisiveness. We have an agreement.” He flicked his sleeve and a small clump of grey clay appeared in his hand.
“If you want to restore your brother’s body, you will have to let me remove a small shard from you soul prism and embed it, together with the ring, into this.” He motioned to the lump in his hand. “I would use a shard from my own soul prism, but it is better to use the prism of someone your brother is related to. Don’t worry about it, though – you practically won’t miss the shard and it will restore itself with time anyway.”
“The shard and the ring will merge within, and create a spirit body for your brother,” Fenris continued.
Raven’s eyes lit up; it sounded like such a simple solution!
“However, there are three things I must warn you about. First off, this merger won’t be stable for more than two years, unless you manage to get him to a Spirit Hall during the Day of Light within that time frame. Secondly, the spirit body will not take human form initially; rather, it will adopt an animal form that your soul feels linked to. Thirdly, if your brother wishes to take human form again, he must cultivate to the level of a peak Spirit Champion – only then will he be able to permanently retain a truly human form.”
Raven silently considered what Fenris had told her. The last two aspects weren’t that bad – it wasn’t impossible to become a peak Champion and even if her brother failed, it was surely better for him to have some sort of body, human or not, than to be stuck within a ring.
However, getting access to a Spirit Hall was another thing. There were definitely a few Spirit Halls between Rock Wren Gate and Sky City, but she would never be given entrance to them, especially not on the Day of Light.
Yet again, as if Fenris had read her mind, he said: “I’ve heard that students of the advanced classes at Sky Academy get access to private Spirit Halls. . . .”
That changed things. Raven knew of these advanced classes at Sky Academy; they were extremely hard to get into and were reserved for the geniuses among geniuses. Even her brother, who was considered a one in a thousand talent, had yet to manage earning a spot.
‘By the time I reach Sky City, I will be six years old and I am already a Spirit Adept. Even if I hide my spirit connections and some of my cultivation, I should be able to earn a spot in the advanced class, but . . . I will not be able to enter the school quite as inconspicuously as I had intended. However restoring my brother’s body takes precedence.’
“I do not see any reason for my brother to reject this option, but I need to ask him.”
“Of course.” Fenris removed the seal around the Life Link and, after spending some time calming her brother down, Raven explained the method Fenris had suggested.
As Raven spoke, she could feel a sense of growing excitement from her brother – clearly the thought of getting out of the ring, even in animal form, was very appealing to him.
“You said Sister wouldn’t be hindered by the loss of the shard, is that really true?” Hoatzin asked skeptically once the explanation was done.
“I didn’t say she wouldn’t be hindered, I said she wouldn’t miss it. By giving the shard to you she will lose roughly ten spirit connections permanently. Unlike whatever happened to her that made her soul let go of its connections in the past, these will not return simply by waiting – she will have to earn them back the hard way.” Fenris’ gaze seemed to grow distant for a second before he continued. “But what are ten connections for a girl with hundreds of them?”
“It is worth it, big Brother,” Raven prompted her brother while, secretly, wondering if Fenris perhaps could tell how many connections she ought to have.
“And I’ll become human again if I become a peak Spirit Champion?” Despite his excitement, Hoatzin was still a bit hesitant.
“Indeed.” A very brief moment of mischief flashed in Fenris’ eyes; Hoatzin didn’t notice, but Raven did.
“Senior Fenris, is there something you have yet to tell us?” Raven’s voice was very polite but her eyes were sharp as knives as she observed the creature in front of her.
“Perceptive, aren’t we?” Fenris seemed pleasantly surprised. “I have spoken no lies, but I admit that cultivation for a spirit body is a bit different from normal cultivation.”
“How so?” Raven pressed.
“Cultivating, for a spirit body, is very dependent on the strengthening effect of the spirit essence which is produced in Spirit Halls during the Day of Light. During all other times of the year, cultivation will be extremely slow. . . .” His sentence trailed off as he gave Raven an urging glance.
‘Then I must maximize the essence he receives each year.’ Raven had understood what Fenris meant right away. For her brother to make any progress, she would have to let him use a Spirit Hall, alone, every year. As a consequence, Raven herself was unlikely to enjoy the benefits of the Day of Light for a very long time; she would make sure to get accepted into the advanced classes but that would only give her access to one Spirit Hall.
“Then that is fine, slow is better than not at all.” Raven nodded. “What do you say, big Brother?”
While Raven had understood the consequences concerning the use of Spirit Halls right away, her brother had yet to catch on. She feared he might back down if he knew it would have a negative effect on her cultivation, so Raven wanted to make her brother agree as soon as possible. She would figure out how to force him into the Spirit Hall alone when the time came.
Hoatzin only hesitated for a moment. He was, after all, only ten years old and the thought of being able to move around again made him very excited.
“Good!” Fenris smiled an almost wolfish smile. “Then let us get this over with.”
Raven didn’t even see when Fenris started moving before he appeared next to her with one hand placed on her forehead and the other, the one holding the lump of clay, clasped around Raven’s right hand and the Life Link ring she wore there.
Raven barely had time to register how cold his hands were before foreign spirit essence flooded her mind and encased her soul prism. Sharp pain filled her head as that spirit essence started to cut into the green crystal of her soul. Instinctively, Raven rallied her own spirit essence to fight back, but her efforts were like a light summer breeze trying to push away a mountain; she could do nothing against it.
“Shhh, she-human,” Fenris’ voice that had grown deeper whispered in her ear. “Struggle, and it will only be more painful.”
Against her instincts, Raven closed her eyes and forced herself to draw back her spirit essence, and instantly the sharp pain lessened somewhat. However, shaving of a peace of your soul was not something that could be done hastily.
Fenris’ face was filled with concentration, and if any of the members of the caravan had been free from their trance, they would no doubt have noticed how Fenris’ features had grown more angular, his nose and mouth more elongated; he looked more like a wolf than a man now.
After nearly an hour had passed, Raven heard and felt a little *click* within her, and for a moment, a blinding light filled both Raven’s mind and the clearing she was in. As the light faded, the cutting pain she had been feeling was reduced to a prominent throbbing and as she observed the darkness within her mind, she found a small crystal shard, no bigger than the fingernail of a little finger, floated next to her soul prism.
At first it had been sea green as the rest of Raven’s soul, but it quickly faded to a dull gray. The shard only floated there for a split second before Fenris’ spirit essence surged into Raven’s mind again and grabbed a hold of the shard. Instantly, the shard shifted color to a vibrant dark blue.
Fenris slowly pulled the shard towards his hand. Without breaking contact with Raven, he moved his hand from her forehead down her neck, shoulder and arm; only letting it rest once his hand reached Raven’s own right hand. During this time, the shard followed the movement of Fenris’ hand, never leaving Raven’s body, until it reached the Life Link on her right hand; it seemed to lock in place as it tried to pass through the center of the Life Link ring on Raven’s finger.
The light within the shard stretched out and latched onto the ring, creating a disk of light with the ring as its rim. Slowly the light began to rotate around the prism, creating a miniature vortex, quite similar to a spirit core.
“Move into the prism shard, human.”
Raven felt her brother’s presence stir and, after hesitating for a moment, carefully moving towards the shard. The moment his soul reached it, streaks of white light intermingled with the dark blue light in the vortex. First the streaks were few, but slowly they grew larger and more numerous, eventually replacing the dark blue light entirely, even causing the initially purple ring to turn white as snow.
All this time, the Life Link had yet to leave Raven’s finger, but once the ring had shifted color, Fenris molded the clay around both ring and finger before gently pulling off the ring. The moment the Life Link left Raven’s finger, the substance, which had already surrounded it completely, started to contract and glow.
Raven, who had kept her eyes shut all this time, now opened them to observe what was happening, and, after a brief moment of shock over Fenris’ more canine appearance, focused her attention on the glowing globe in his hand.
Dense spirit essence swirled around it in beautifull, complicated patterns. Every once in a while, a strand of spirit essence would flow through the globe, causing the white light to gain a momentary tint of blue as it grew in size.
Slowly but surely, the globe grew larger and brighter until it eventually outshone the funeral pyre that was still burning in the campsite. By now, it was almost painful for Raven to look directly at it, but she refused to avert her gaze – for her brother’s sake, she wanted to watch until the very end.
Suddenly, the light intensified drastically and the surface of the globe started to move erratically, almost as if it was boiling water; it bulged and caved in alternately, constantly morphing. The spirit essence also started to move faster and faster in its patterns.
Eventually the light grew too strong and Raven had no choice but to raise a hand to cover her eyes. For what seemed like minutes, the light forced its way through Raven’s fingers, showing no signs of dissipating but, finally, with a last roaring surge of spirit essence, the light disappeared as if it had never existed.
“Sister,” Raven heard her brother’s slightly hesitant voice in her head. “What do you think of my new body?”