Fenris chuckled when he saw Raven trying to remember if she had heard of a place called Trivia before. “Not familiar with the name? I would be more surprised if you were. . . . A realm’s strength has to do with its cultivation, not its size. Whereas this Trinity continent of yours could barely be considered medium-sized, Trivia is among the smallest – perhaps not even a tenth of a thousandth of the size of Trinity.”
Raven’s eyes twitched slightly. Although scarcely populated, Trinity was several times larger than Raven’s old world, but by Fenris’ words Trivia would be significantly smaller.
“Although small, every single being who is born there has an innate aptitude for cultivating spirit essence that allows them to start forming their spirit core almost after birth,” continued Fenris.
What had been ‘slight surprise’ turned into apparent shock as Raven considered this. ‘That would make them all like me?’
“Normally, such aptitude would put Trivia in the top ten echelons of cultivation realms, but there is one fundamental drawback in a Trivian’s constitution that greatly limits their growth.”
Fenris paused and gave Raven a long stare. Feeling that he wanted Raven to speak, she offered her guess; “The black spirit essence?”
Her answer caused Fenris to smile, seemingly pleased at her deductions. “Partially,” he said and tilted his head to the side. “But the black spirit essence is more like the consequence of the original problem; on their own, Trivians are unable to form spirit connections.”
“What?” Raven couldn’t believe it. “How can they cultivate without spirit connections?”
“I never said they could.”
“But you . . .” Raven’s retort trailed off; Fenris’ words were true. Calming herself, Raven altered her question. “If they can’t cultivate without spirit connections, yet they can’t form them, what do they do?”
“Steal them, generally. Trivians can latch on to other beings’ soul prisms and take over that persons spirit connections and even cultivation, but since the spirit essence isn’t actually theirs it loses its purity – seemingly turning black. The theft isn’t perfect however; the stolen spirit connections don’t provide as strong a link to the natural spirit essence of the universe, substantially reducing their sensitivity to the world around them. This is lucky for you though, little she-human, otherwise this Gadwall would likely have discovered all your secrets long ago.”
‘So that’s it. . . .’ Raven thought back on the scene she had seen in the Spirit Hall Tower and Dunlin’s subsequently paler spirit essence, and suddenly it all made sense; Gadwall had been stealing from the boys. Suddenly Raven frowned.
“But it doesn’t make sense. . . . If Gadwall is stealing spirit connections and cultivation from people in the Talon clan, how come their strengths have been increasing?”
“While Trivians take a spiritualists true cultivation, they can simultaneously give false cultivation back. For their target, the false spirit essence will act and seem just like their own spirit essence, but if the Trivian wills it, it will disappear or even attack the host from within.”
For a long time after that, neither Fenris nor Raven said anything. Raven was considering the information she had been given about Trivians and she had to admit that Gadwall fit the bill. With all likelihood his own realm knew, or at least didn’t object, to him stirring trouble here since Fenris was right; while other realms might not care about their lesser counterparts, for Trivia it would be the perfect harvesting grounds for their cultivation.
On many levels this made Raven even more apprehensive towards Gadwall; not only might he be a rogue actor, his strength could be limitless. Raven had a hard time sensing this dark spirit essence when it was hidden within a body, but considering how many people in the Talon clan that had gotten a sudden boost in strength, Gadwall must have absorbed enormous amounts of spirit essence; who knows how strong he was now?
Still, the notion of the Talon Clan basically having sold off their souls without them even knowing it greatly amused her.
Pushing that thought aside and taking a deep breath Raven fixed her gaze on Fenris. Their eyes met.
“How do I handle him?”
“You can’t, young Raven” said Fenris as his smile turned almost wolfish. “But I could. . . .”
Raven’s body stiffened slightly; how could she not understand what Fenris was implying.
Images of her doting parents flashed by in Raven’s mind. Unyielding determination filled her eyes.
“What does Senior Fenris want?”
“A favor, young Raven – I want a favor.”
Raven frowned. This request seemed a bit odd to her; why would someone so strong as Fenris need to ask her for help with anything at all? However she received the answer right away.
“Sometimes being too strong isn’t a good thing. . . . You and I both know that this realm will not be able to contain you forever. There will come a time when you leave for other realms, and at that time I will ask something of you and you must comply. Naturally, I won’t ask you to harm any of those you hold dear nor will I ask anything beyond your reach.
“I must warn you though; while I indeed can help you handle Gadwall, I cannot kill him – that would have consequences beyond my capacities – I can however stop him from interfering further, even chasing him away from this realm if need be.
“I also remind you that I am forbidden from taking any action against natives of Trinity. If this is still enough, you have a deal.”
“That is adequate.” Raven replied without pause.
She was quick to agree – she could guess that whatever favor it was Fenris wanted of her, it would most likely not be an easy one, but why would she care? With Gadwall out of the way, Raven could finally move in on her ‘dear relatives’. After that, she couldn’t care less what happened to her as long as Hoatzin was safe.
The already wolfish grin on Fenris’ face widened even further, his eyes glistening hungrily and when he spoke is sounded beastlier than ever.
“Then let us make an oath. . . .”
Javelin habitually stretched and flexed his muscles as he woke up. His body was stiff from lying on the ground and his mind felt muddled. He wasn’t quite sure when he fell asleep but judging by the smell of roasting fish he must have dozed of while Raven cooked the fish he had caught.
Javelin frowned. ‘Did I catch any fish?’
Before he could sort through his memories, Raven’s cold voice called out to him. “If you’re done sleeping, you might as well give me a hand.”
Javelin’s eyes popped open, directly spotting Raven’s lean figure leaning over the fire only a few meters away. In her hands were four sticks of skewered fishes that she somehow managed to rotate slowly above the flames.
“Ah! Sorry. . . .” Javelin scrambled to his feet and took over two of the sticks.
Although Raven had asked for help, the fishes were practically done. They removed them from the fire and then both Javelin and Raven ate in silence. It wasn’t an awkward silence though, far from it.
Javelin’s heart-felt oddly calm as he watched Raven absentmindedly eat her fishes. Clearly her mind was elsewhere but he could tell that her previously foul mood had been replaced by a much merrier one. If he had to guess, Javelin would say that it was like a weight had been lifted off her shoulders.
Secretly, Javelin wished that he was the cause of this sudden change, but his mind told him that it was unlikely. Nonetheless, Raven’s good spirits made him happier too, almost to the point where he didn’t feel the aching pain in his jaw every time he chewed his food. It had been less than half a day since Lark had given him a well deserved punch and the swelling had yet to settle down. Of course, if Javelin wanted to he could use his healing skill to remove it completely but he had no intention of doing so; not only had he promised not to, but Javelin truly felt he deserved it.
‘Not telling them the truth about Raven is one thing, but I should just have admitted my feelings for her when they confronted me about it! Bringing Lark into it . . .’
Javelin’s train of thoughts were interrupted by a sudden movement from Raven; she was on her feet and running towards the ravine’s mountain wall so fast that Javelin almost thought she had vanished in thin air before he realized what was actually going on.
“Don’t follow me unless called for!” shouted Raven over her shoulder as she kicked off from the ground and jumped well over five meters up the mountain wall.
The second she made contact Raven kicked off again, heading for the opposite side. With wide eyes Javelin watched as Raven, like a grasshopper, scaled upwards with immense speed. It didn’t take many seconds before she was out of sight.
Javelin clenched his fists to the point where blood trickled down from his palms. He was no idiot. The only reason Raven would leave in such a hurry was if some danger was approaching. A danger he couldn’t handle.
While Raven had been preoccupied with talking to Fenris about Gadwall, Hoatzin had managed to locate the other three of their group and deliver Raven’s letter.
Aves had not been happy when he read the content – simply telling him that both Raven and Javelin were fine and they would rejoin them at a location a few miles north – but, as Raven had said, there was nothing he could do about it but head for the mentioned meeting point.
Nonetheless Aves had tried to follow Hoatzin as the latter made his way back to Raven but Hoatzin hadn’t been hanging around Raven for nothing. Ever since Hoatzin’s temporary body had stabilized, he had been able to learn Divine Skills again and his sister had naturally picked out a few suitable skills for concealing himself. Long story short, Hoatzin had slipped away from Aves within seconds.
Still, Aves’ trio had flown off in the wrong direction when they first searched for Raven so the round trip was long and it had been quite a way for Hoatzin to fly back to his sister. By the time the ravine opening above Raven and Javelin became visible, the first rays of dawn were making their way over the surrounding mountains.
‘I’m glad he is gone,’ thought Hoatzin as he approached the ravine; even without Raven telling him about it Hoatzin could tell that Fenris had already left.
He had been surprised when his connection with Fenris had let him know that the former had suddenly arrived – after all, moments earlier, Fenris had been so far away that Hoatzin couldn’t even tell exactly how far off he was. Now however, the man-beast was just as gone, so Hoatzin could only marvel at the speed Fenris could travel with.
Just as Hoatzin was about to swoop down into the ravine, Raven’s panicked voice rang out in his head. “DIVE NOW, BROTHER!”
For half a heartbeat, Hoatzin was stunned by the sudden outburst, but he still reacted quickly and dove downwards without hesitation. His body had barely moved an inch when he felt a powerful air current swoosh by above him, literally missing him by the tip of his feathers.
If birds could sweat, Hoatzin would have produced a bucket of it on the spot. ‘So close!’
He didn’t bother turning to look for the source of the attack and instead aimed for the ravine, doing his best to fly erratically and still at his top speed. Unfortunately, his attacker wasn’t alone. Soundless and as swift as lightning, a second projectile came flying towards him but from the side. This time what came soaring through the air was a net, weaved out of soul ore and spirit essence. Once again Raven called out, urging him to dodge but this time Hoatzin reacted too slowly; the net wrapped itself around him, instantly tightening around him as if molded itself after his body. No matter how he struggled, Hoatzin couldn’t move an inch – even his spirit essence was locked down.
“Haha, I got it!” laughed an ever so familiar voice.
“Well done, Jack! Catching the little beast alive is more fun after all,” chuckled another familiar voice.
The net was pulled back and, dangling from the pale hand of Jack Tanuki, Hoatzin could see him and Dunlin – both mounted on seemingly tame Shadow Blood Raptors – glaring at him with obvious glee.
At this moment a black figure flashed out from within the depths of the ravine. Its cold eyes surveyed the situation and as Hoatzin saw the look in his sister’s eyes he couldn’t help but shudder. Others might not be able to tell, but how could he not? Raven was ragingly mad – more so than ever before.
“Let him go,” demanded Raven as she glared coldly at Dunlin and Jack.
She did of course take in the mounts they were sitting on and could guess that the previous Shadow Blood Raptor attack was most likely their doing; she didn’t know how they had done it though, and frankly she didn’t care. At the moment nothing mattered more than getting Hoatzin away from them.
Both boys laughed. “Why would we?” asked Dunlin jeeringly.
A dangerous glint flashed deep in Raven’s eyes, but it only made the boys laugh even harder.
“Let him go,” she repeated. “Let him go or I will take him back by force.”
Dunlin raised an eyebrow. “Oh, really? You and what army? By some odd fluke you managed to get away yesterday but don’t think Aves will come to your rescue today, he doesn’t have the time.” Dunlin patted a quirky-looking horn that hung at his hip and Raven’s eyes narrowed in recognition.
‘A beast taming horn?’ She had read of them before; they were extremely rare but once activated they could allow their users to control spirit beasts for up to twelve hours. Well, ‘control’ is perhaps a bit of a stretch, more like . . . strongly suggest; the beasts wouldn’t do anything directly against their nature, but convincing violent beasts like Shadow Blood Raptors to hunt a specific prey would be no problem. The only draw back was that it was a one-use item and once the control period was over, any beast left alive would go berserk and attack the controller relentlessly.
When Raven didn’t reply right away, Jack broke out laughing yet again. He dangled the net containing Hoatzin’s helplessly locked up body in front of his face.
“We have simply caught our dinner, no reason for you to get so worked up, Mr. Slave Genius.”
Dunlin joined in the laughter. “Haha, well spoken! I know, since it’s your nasty little pet, why don’t you decide – roasted or boiled?”
Both boys rolled with laughter while their mounts kept looking at Raven with hungry eyes, but what neither Dunlin nor Jack had expected was that a third laughter suddenly joined theirs.
Perplexed the two of them looked down at Raven who was laughing to her heart’s content.
“Scared into stupidity?” suggested Jack mockingly to his friend.
Dunlin was about to agree when Raven, still laughing, wiped a tear from her eyes. “Scared?” she chuckled. “By what? Two idiot corpses riding on overgrown pups? How absurd.”
“What!?” Dunlin’s face turned red with rage but suddenly he noticed how the two Limiters around Raven’s ankles fell to the ground with dull thuds. Instantly an extremely oppressive aura surged towards them.
“M-mid Champion?” Jack stuttered, utterly shocked.
Dunlin was equally shocked but he was quicker to recover. “So what?” he spat. “The two of us might only be low Champions but don’t forget our mounts! There is no way you can defeat us all in a fight!”
“Really now?” Raven gave Dunlin a murderous stare and without knowing why, the latter broke out in cold sweats.
To calm himself, Dunlin laughed, albeit a bit nervously. “Ha! I don’t care how strong you are – kneel down and apologize for insulting me or your bird pest of a pet is dead.”
“Apologize?” The freezing anger in Raven’s eyes turned even colder. “Apologize!? I am not the one who needs to apologize!”
Every word she spoke was emphasized to the point where they cut though the air like knives. Raven had reached her limit; for years she had put up with Dunlin’s existence. Time and time again she had refrained from killing him, never harming as much as a hair on his head, but things were different now – now she had no more reasons to hold back.
With a low growl Raven grabbed a hold of every pent-up emotion she had repressed inside her for the past five years and used them to urge on her anger. For the first time, Raven released all of her killing intent to utilize the Ode of Woe to its fullest extent; like a whirlwind of blood and death, Raven’s killing intent exploded out from within, forming a deep red mist that swirled and twisted around her like a living entity. Her nearly 400 spirit connections latched on to the world and, as if commanded by the gods themselves, the light from the rising sun faded, returning the dawning day to the deepest night.
Powerful winds whipped at Raven’s hair and the midnight purple strands stretched out behind her, growing longer by the second. It didn’t take many heartbeats before her hair was long enough to lash out at the ground beneath her, actually leaving visible marks in the soil as it did.
The sky above her darkened even further and in the distance thunder roared, coming closer at an alarming pace. Never before had the Trinity continent experienced such vicious a killing intent and never before had it been so merged with the spirit essence of this realm.
All around her, every living thing froze in place as if petrified – the grass didn’t dare to sway with the wind in fear of offending; the beasts didn’t dare to howl in fear of offending; the humans didn’t dare to breathe in fear of offending.
A goddess of death had descended and she demanded obedience.
“Silence,” she whispered, and the world obeyed.