Out of the countless realms in existence, few people had visited a realm as odd and wondrous as the Nanite Realm. It was a relatively small realm, consisting of only twenty-eight mountains, but what made it so different was that these mountains hovered in the air like solidified clouds, suspended by the dense streams of spirit essence that flowed with and around them.
Every mountain was unique; some were covered by strange plants, others by fire or ice. If one stood on the central mountain, the other twenty-seven colossal stones formed something of a sphere of color that slowly turned around you. It was a very peaceful and profound view, but one shouldn’t be fooled by the tranquility that the gliding mountains portrayed; any haphazard attempts to move directly between the rocks would always end in the same way: certain death.
This strange place had very few natural inhabitants, at least of the humanoid kind, but the central mountain was nonetheless bustling with activity. Here, millions would gather, milling around on the streets of Nanite’s only city.
Despite the odd nature of this realm, none of those millions of people were there for the view. They were there for one thing, and one thing only; the biennial tournament that brought young talent from all other realms, the Myriad Tournament.
At the moment, the start of the next tournament was only days away, so the streets were growing more crowded by the minute as spiritualists of different realms arrived to take part in the event. None of those who arrived were weaklings – almost all of them being peak Champions or higher – and the amount of tension in the air was almost palpable.
Suddenly, a booming voice drowned out all other noises on a minor road leading towards the main street; “Make way! Make way for the representatives of Kratosia.”
As the voice called out, seven exceedingly tall people – each reaching at least three meters – paraded out on the road, followed by an entourage of normal-sized humans. Based on the seven’s heights alone, few would have decided to remain in their path, but when people heard what realm they were representing, everyone hurried to scurry out of their way as fast as possible.
Kratosia was a warrior’s realm, formed by millennia of endless wars. They were a harsh and bloodthirsty race, honed for battle. For them, reaching the minimum requirement to partake in the Myriad Tournament was a natural thing, yet every time the Kratosians would send only seven to participate.
These seven were considered the best of their generation, but if just one of them didn’t make it into the top fifty of the tournament, none of them would be welcomed back. Considering that there were over ten thousand participants in all, getting to the top fifty was not an easy task, but it had still been over a century since the seven youths weren’t welcomed home.
The road quickly cleared for these warrior giants and the seven youths barely paid any attention to where they were setting their feet as they strode towards the main street. Because of this, the man in the lead was surprised when he felt his leg bump into something soft. He was even more surprised when whatever it was he had kicked wasn’t sent flying by the impact, almost causing him to lose his balance.
“What the . . !?” the giant youth grunted and looked down. His eyes twitched slightly as he saw a small silver-haired child standing by his feet. It wore red clothes with a matching red hat, and was currently busy picking something up from the ground.
Taken aback, the youth said nothing as he watched the small child, and he was quickly joined by his six companions, who also observed in silence. Behind them, however, their entourage reacted very differently.
“What do you think you are doing, street rat? Get out of the way!” The person who had first announced the Kratonians’ arrival was also the first to act. He strode towards the hunched over child with quick steps, but before he reached his destination, a cold voice sent a shiver down his spine.
“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you.”
Instinctively, the man paused and turned towards the source of the warning, but when he saw the pretty girl with long, intricate braids framing her pale face, he relaxed again.
“And who are you to make such demands!?” he snorted, resuming his trek towards the smaller child. “Do you have any idea who it is you are blocking?” He was just about to stretch out and grab the child when a huge hand blocked his path.
“Lord Ajax?” the man looked questioningly on the person who had stopped him, the leader of the giant youths.
“It’s okay, Steward Aloysson – there is plenty of space for both us and the child,” the youth cautioned, his voice sounding unbelievably deep.
“But-. . .” the steward started, but his lord had already taken a step to the side and moved on. His giant friends only gave the girl and child pensive glances before following close behind. Stunned, the steward blanked for a moment before he too hurried after the giant youths, indicating for the rest of the entourage to do the same.
He didn’t turn back to see the slightly disappointed look that flashed by on child’s face as they left.
“Tche,” Lyka snorted and picked up the last few berries from the ground. “How boring.”
“Not everyone will fall for your petty tricks, con-woman!” Hoatzin chided, swooping down from above and snatching a berry from Lyka’s still open hand.
“Hey! Give that back, birdy!” she protested but made no move to reclaim it herself. “And I’m not conning anyone – I was just picking up what I had lost.”
Standing to the side, Raven wore a slight smile on her lips. Ever since they had arrived at Nanite’s city, Lyka had made it her mission to irk as many other realms as possible into stirring up a fuss with her. Most of the people who arrived here were considered the elites of their respective realms and they tended to be a bit clouded by their own prowess. Once they met a small child that paid them no heed, more often than not, it turned into a powder keg waiting to explode. However, since fighting wasn’t allowed within the city, it would always end up with the other party getting a firm scolding from the city’s protectors, while Lyka was pitied as the bullied victim.
Only on a few occasions had Lyka’s targets had the presence of mind to realize that any child who was able to run around freely in this city was bound to either be a perverse genius or have an unfathomable background. Regardless of which was right, it would be unwise to engage in anything this close to the tournament.
At the call of her name, Raven turned to watch as headmaster Swan approached. He was balancing four bowls of soup and as many jugs of water in his hands, employing a bit of spirit essence to make it work. Only once he arrived by her side did he seem to realize the odd atmosphere that had descended on the road.
“Has Miss Lyka been acting up again?” he asked and handed Raven a bowl and a jug.
Raven smiled and rolled her eyes in acknowledgement, not going into any further details. Swan sighed and went over to the still bickering Lyka and Hoatzin. “Lunch is served.”
“Great!” smiled Lyka and grabbed her share, while Hoatzin waited patiently for the Headmaster to place his on the ground. There were no tables or chairs available for eating, and the soup had come from a food stall, so Raven and the other two simply joined Hoatzin on the ground, all of them ignoring the stares and whispers that were aimed their way. The concept of anyone daring to provoke someone like the Kratonians might be inconceivable for most, but for this group, it had become a daily occurrence.
“So good!” Lyka almost squealed with glee as she slurped up the soup Swan had brought her. While the taste might not have been all that impressive, the soup itself was actually a kind of spirit tonic which helped improve the purity of a spiritualist’s spirit essence – even Hoatzin had started to feel a rise in his cultivation since he started eating this kind of food.
“It has almost been a month,” Swan commented, glancing down at his own bowl. “I still can’t get used to the wonders of this place, though.” The white-haired man sighed deeply before looking at Raven with gratitude in his eyes. “Thank you for giving me the opportunity.”
Raven meet Swan’s gaze and gave him a slight nod. She could understand where his sentiments were coming from, but it wasn’t like Raven had been required to put forth any real effort to get him here. Every person participating in the Myriad Tournament was allowed to bring their master, which, in Raven’s case, technically was Headmaster Swan.
“Ha!” Lyka laughed; “wait a few more days – until the tournament has kicked off – and you will see the truly wondrous stuff. There are a lot of places that you are not allowed to visit unless you, or your disciples, have passed the first stages. Some places you won’t even get to until Raven and I have reached the top hundred, or even higher.”
Headmaster Swan was about to nod in acknowledgement when a loud snicker drew his attention to a nearby group of people. Raven glanced up briefly from her bowl of soup, taking in the ten youths who were also eating on the ground by the road. Although looks might be deceiving when it comes to spiritualists, these ten boys all seemed to be just under twenty. Their hair was bright red while their skin had a slight green tone to it and their earlobes extended all the way down to their shoulders.
“Styxans,” snorted Lyka under her breath, not really paying the group any attention. Raven and the rest resumed their eating, but clearly the green-skinned youngsters were less insightful than their Kratonian counterparts.
“Did you hear that?” one of them said in a mocking voice. “The little toddler is talking about reaching the top hundred in the tournament! How hilarious!”
“I bet she won’t even pass the preliminaries!” another one chimed in.
“Preliminaries? Look at her! I doubt she even has the qualifications to participate in the tournament.”
“Haha! Well said,” the first one laughed again, not paying attention to the mischievous glint that flashed by in Lyka’s eyes. “This ‘Raven’ is most likely no better,” he continued. “Perhaps it’s even that pathetic little spirit beast she played with earlier! She couldn’t even catch it.”
Raven’s eyes narrowed slightly and Lyka, who had been about to get up, shuddered slightly and glanced in her direction. Their eyes met and Lyka quickly sat back down again, a knowing smile on her lips. Meanwhile, Raven got to her feet and gracefully walked over to the ten young males who were are laughing jeeringly.
“Honorable sirs,” she said, her voice like honey; “we bought these bowls of soup with our last Nanite crystals. You seem like well-off men, would y-. . .”
“Oh, look; now they’re begging, too!” one of them interrupted, causing the others to laugh even harder.
“Would you consider making a bet with me?” Raven continued, seemingly unfazed by their comments.
“Make a bet with you?” the youth that seemed the oldest pushed out between laughs. “What bet could you propose that would be even remotely interesting?”
“Have you heard of the game rock-paper-scissors?” Raven replied, causing even more laughs among the youths.
“Have we heard of if!? What kind of realm would you have to crawl out from if you haven’t heard of rock-paper-scissors?”
The comment was a clear stab at Raven, but she took no notice of it. Behind her, Hoatzin shook his little head in sympathy. He knew where this was going.
“Then this will be easy,” smiled Raven. “How about we play a few rounds, and for every round I win you pay me one Nanite crystal and for every round I loose, I will owe you my servitude for the equivalent amount?”
The ten Styxans blanked for a moment. Although one Nanite crystal didn’t sound like much, and wouldn’t be enough to buy even half a bowl of the spirit tonic Raven’s group had been drinking earlier, regular spiritualists should count themselves lucky if they managed to managed to earn 10 such crystals in a life time. Naturally, anyone who managed to arrive at the Nanite Realm also had the means to earn the crystals at a higher rate, but they were still not something one came by easily.
“Kid, are you sure?” asked the seemingly oldest of the Styxans. He was still laughing, but Raven didn’t miss the cold greed that flashed by in his eyes as he slowly inspected every inch of Raven. It would seem like he liked what he saw.
“Of course I am,” she replied, her voice hinting otherwise. “I can even make a soul oath about it, if you do the same.”
“Big sis . . .” Lyka called nervously from her spot, clearly understanding Raven’s goal.
“Shush, we need the crystals if you-. . .” Raven stopped, seemingly catching her own tongue. She returned her attention to the youth. “Will you agree?”
“. . . Sure, why not? It’s your life.”
Both Raven and the youth swore their oaths, even agreeing to play as long as the one was willing, but as soon as it was done, the Styxans all started laughing madly.
“Congratulations, Atol! You got yourself another specimen!” they cheered. “A rather fine one, too.”
As they spoke, spirit essence of a newly broken-through Spirit Master seeped out from the young man who had agreed to Raven’s bet. From the looks the others were giving Raven, it was clear that they expected her to freak out once she realized who she was up against, and it wasn’t without cause.
Rock-paper-scissors was an innocent enough game when ordinary kids where playing it, but add spirit essence into the mix and it became something entirely different. Until the very last second, one was allowed to employ whatever Divine Skills one wanted that could aid in obscuring what sign one intended to pick – as long as no steps were taken and no attempts to harm the other were made.
As such, the game became very much a question of cultivation, Divine Skills and reflexes. Due to the size and low ages of Raven’s party, the Styxans assumed that Raven had neither the cultivation nor the Divine Skill resources she would need to stand a chance.
Unfortunately for the youths, Raven’s expression didn’t change into the terror they had expected. Instead, the slight nervousness she had shown before vanished without a trace and was quickly replaced by a glare so cold that it would send chills down the backs of even the most hardened men.
“Can we just get this over with?” she asked, her tone unyielding. “I don’t have all day.”
Involuntarily, the ten youths gulped, their skin quickly turning a darker shade of green.