The ten Styxans sat in a daze, their eyes staring blankly at Raven’s outstretched hand. It was clamped together like a rock, perfectly countering the ‘scissors’ she was facing off against.
“How . . . how is this possible?” the Styxan competing with Raven muttered with disbelief.
It was the sixteenth time in a row that he had lost.
The first couple of times, the man had assumed that his inability to read and influence Raven’s choices was just beginner’s luck, while his friends had chided him for not trying hard enough. Fourteen tries later, however, the results hadn’t improved and the young Styxan could no longer understand what was going on.
While most races who could cultivate spirit essence could, in theory, learn any Divine Skill, they were often still predisposed to a certain type of skills. The Styxans were masters of illusion and could use spirit essence to weave alternate realities which became so strong that their enemies might even unknowingly kill themselves. The youth competing against Raven had not gotten that far in his mastery, but it should still be sufficient to deal with a little unknown kid who didn’t even use spirit essence to compete.
“Again,” Raven demanded and raised her hand to the starting position.
“H-hold on, isn’t this enough?” the Styxan asked. “You’ve already won enough Nanite crystals to keep you going until the tournament begins.”
Because of the exorbitant price, most people would only eat a bowl of spirit tonic once every other day or so. For a group of four, sixteen crystals should be enough for a week at least and the tournament would have begun by then.
Raven, however, didn’t seem to agree. “There’s four of us,” she replied and dropped the matter, as if that explained everything. “You made an oath, so get ready.”
“But I’m running out of crystals!” the Styxan protested, giving his companions a shock. Despite intellectually knowing better, they still subconsciously thought that their friend was putting on a scene. The desperate tone in his voice was, however, unavoidable.
“Not my problem.” Raven’s voice remained as cold as ever, but a slight smile crept into her lips. “Surely, a formidable person such as yourself has equally formidable friends who can help you out.”
The Styxan hesitated. While it was true that his companions had more crystals, he had already lost the confidence that he could win. If he used his friends’ money as well, wouldn’t he end up losing it all?
“What’s going on here?” a vile-sounding voice interrupted the youth’s internal struggles, and he looked up at the newcomer with both relief and shame.
“Little brother,” he greeted hurriedly. He was about to stand up, too, but the soul oath glowed bright on his forehead, forcing him back down.
“A soul oath?” A heavy pressure welled out over the area, threatening to crush anyone too weak to resist. “What is the meaning of this?”
Raven glanced up from her spot on the ground to look at the man who had just arrived. He, too, had pale green skin and flaming red hair, but while he looked to be the youngest of the Styxans present, the spirit essence leaking from his body was in a class of its own.
‘A peak low Spirit Master, huh?’ Raven concluded, while her expression remained unchanged. ‘Quite the accomplishment.’
“Little brother Atol, don’t be mad,” Raven’s opponent hurried to explain. “I just thought I’d win us a new servant for m-. . . your collection. Who would have guessed that this little vixen was such a good cheater and that I’d lose sixteen times in a row, allowing her to steal as many Nanite crystals from us. . . .”
Raven’s eyebrow twitched slightly as her opponent continued to explain the details of their bet. Could the man have added any more fuel to the flames when he chose his words?
The Styxan named Atol turned his gaze towards Raven, and suddenly the world around her seemed to turn into a bloody battlefield, filled with death, and with Atol lording over all of it as the King of Hell. Raven’s lips twitched. After her encounters with the other Styxan, Raven had gotten a fairly good idea of how their illusion skill worked. It was an impressive Divine Skill that had the potential to truly alter how your mind perceived the world. Unfortunately for the first young Styxan, Raven’s senses were extremely keen and his illusions had not been strong enough to fool her in the slightest.
Atol, however, was much more proficient, and he even successfully merged a considerable amount of killing intent into his illusion. However, a teenage boy competing with Raven by use of killing intent? What a joke.
Raven just smiled coldly, doing nothing to dispel the world Atol had built for her; it actually felt rather soothing to her. Her gaze calmly locked unto the fake ‘King of Hell’, causing the latter’s eyes to widen slightly.
“The soul oath has been made,” she said curtly. “If you wish to take your older brother’s place, then that is fine by me, but I still wish to play and our oath binds him to it.”
“. . .” For a moment, Atol said nothing and just stared at Raven. Eventually, though, he burst out laughing, sounding manic. “You’ve got spunk, little lady – I’ll give you that – but don’t think that shrugging off a little parlor trick or two means you stand a chance against me!”
A heavy scent of blood suddenly filled Raven’s nostrils. She assumed that it was meant to scare her, but there was something about it that made it seem . . . hollow, and fake.
“I’ll take over the oath, alright,” Atol the Styaxn snorted, “but all this back and forth is useless. How about we change the terms a bit?”
“Why in the Sky would I do that?” Raven asked, her eyes narrowing.
An evil glint flashed by Atol’s eyes and the illusion he was weaving grew stronger. “The oath binds my brother to play as long as one of you still wants to. It doesn’t, however, stop me from killing you off before it gets that far.”
Raven laughed. This youth’s threats were so poorly thought out that it was almost painful; what point was there in threatening her life in this city, where simply causing a fight would get you into serious trouble, much more killing somebody.
Seeing her laugh, Atol was about to bark at Raven when she cut him off. “Changing the wager is fine; I don’t have the time to hang around here all day either. What do you suggest?”
“Ha! Good, good,” Atol commended, sounding viciously smug. “Why don’t we just settle it with one last bout of rock-paper-scissors? If I win, you are my slave for life. If you win, I’ll give you twenty Nanite crystals – more than twice of what you’ve already . . . earned.”
“All of it.”
“Give me all the Nanite crystals you are currently carrying and I will agree,” Raven explained, and when she saw that Atol was about to object, she calmly added: “I am betting with my life, after all, but you can always earn more crystals.”
“. . . Brother,” the young Styxan who Raven had been competing with before gave his younger brother a concerned look. He had intentionally underplayed Raven’s prowess to push over blame on her for ‘cheating’ against him, but he knew all too well that this wasn’t what she was doing. He just didn’t want to get the blame. However, he couldn’t explain what was actually going on even if he wanted to. He had the highest confidence in his brother, but it was after all all of his Nanite crystals that were on the line; it would be a huge loss for them if Raven won.
“Silence,” Atol ordered, ignoring his brother’s warning and instead focusing in on Raven. “I accept.”
A red flash passed by, unnoticed, in Raven’s eyes as the new oaths were sworn.
“Don’t resent me for this once you become my servant, girl,” Atol gloated once the oaths were done. “Only resent yourself for your decision just now, giving me such an easy win.” As he spoke, the brutality within the fake world around Raven intensified multifold, bringing life to hideous creatures that viciously tore each other limb from limb.
Raven glanced around at her morphing surroundings, momentarily pausing at a particularly gruesome sight of a young girl – looking very much like herself – being eaten alive by something that was similar to a huge python.
“Fascinating,” she breathed absentmindedly.
“What did you say?” Atol asked, frowning deeply at Raven’s increasingly obvious indifference to his illusions.
“Hmm?” Raven looked over at the greenish man, her eyes pensive. “You are right,” she sighed, ignoring his question. “It is too easy a win. . . . How about this; I promise you that I will play the paper, no matter what you pick. That way you will at least stand a chance.”
“What!?” Atol retorted, looking utterly offended. “Do you take me for a fool!?”
“Yes. . . .” Hoatzin commented to Raven alone, causing a slight smile to spread on her lips.
“I mean it,” she said to Atol, whose green skin was almost turning white with rage. “I will play paper.”
Raven held out her hand, palm up, not even bothering with the traditional ready-stance. “Ready?” she asked, but didn’t wait for Atol, who was too stunned to give his reply. Instead, she used her other hand to start the count down.
“. . . Rock . . .”
Raven flicked out a thumb and Atol instantly snapped out of his daze. He looked at Raven with intense hatred; never before had he been so ridiculed, so overlooked, and by a little girl at that!
Like a flood, killing intent poured into his illusion, making it all the more real and terrifying. If Raven had planned to fool him by switching into a rock in the last second, Atol would make sure she was too scared to even move.
Raven, however, was entirely unaffected. She just kept smiling at him and effortlessly added yet another finger to her countdown.
“. . . Paper . . .”
Atol blanked. He looked at Raven, sitting on the bloody battlefield that only the two of them could see, and suddenly felt very out-of-place. He started to feel that, compared to the small and beautiful child sitting in front of him, he was the person less suited for the world he himself had created. As the thought hit him, the vicious beasts that had been busy fighting each other paused their battles and looked over at Atol.
As if time itself had stopped, the beasts slowly turned and started walking towards him, with raw hunger burning in their eyes. He looked again at Raven, whom the beasts actively kept their distance from as they approached him, and was struck by the regal and ruthless air that surrounded her. In that moment, there was no doubt in Atol’s mind that Raven was the Queen of this place and her words were law.
‘She really is going to use paper. . . .’ he realized, but the realization did him no good. His outstretched hand felt like a thousand-ton boulder, unmoving and unyielding. He tried to use his spirit essence to fight of the sensation, but it only made matters worse.
Steadily, the beasts kept advancing on him, and a second realization caused Atol’s skin to turn so darkly green that it was almost black. ‘I’ll die. Switch to scissors and I die!’
“. . . Scissors . . .”
Raven flicked out her third finger, and as her hand descended to mark the end of the allotted time, Atol was still struggling with his choice, not even noticing what was happening.
It wasn’t until Raven’s now sugary-sweet voice called out to him that he realized that he was standing, solid like a statue, with his outstretched hand clenched into a fist.
“Senior Atol, you let me win,” Raven said with a radiant smile. “My Nanite crystals, please.”
“What!?” The other Styxans all erupted in angry shouts. “The two of you just stood there! It doesn’t-. . .”
Sudden silence filled the street as Atol produced a small ring and held it out to Raven without as much as a word.
“Thank you, Senior Atol; this will keep us covered until the tournament. I hope to see you there.”
Giving the other stunned Styxans a slight nod, Raven walked back to her group, seemingly oblivious to everyone’s stares.
“Should we get a second lunch?” she asked, loud enough for all to hear. If her odd victory had surprised the crowd, this statement left them at a loss of words.
Behind her, Raven’s original opponent gave his younger brother a worried look. “Brother . . .”
“Not here,” Atol hissed and only gave Raven one last glance before leading away his group.
“You have made them mad,” Hoatzin comment as he watched the Styxans leaving.
“They had it coming,” said Lyka. “If they know what’s good for them, they will take their loss and leave us alone.”
“And if not?”
Lyka smiled but said nothing.