There were sharp whistles as several densely packed spheres of snow and ice rushed through the air towards Raven. With her nose still stinging from the first encounter, she knew better than to treat these projectiles as the harmless snowballs they looked like.
Holding Hoatzin to her side with one arm, Raven dove down, half-somersaulting through the snow as she moved out of harm’s way. Once on her feet, Raven focused her senses on finding the source of the attacks, but was shocked to find the surrounding area, with a radius of at least 400 meters, was totally devoid of any living thing.
“What the . . .” Raven barely had the time to be surprised before she felt a minor shift in the natural spirit essence to her right. In the very next instant, another frozen sphere shot out from the snow pile next to her feet.
The distance was short, and the sphere blindingly fast, giving little room for Raven to dodge – at least if she wished to protect Hoatzin at the same time. Faint flames covered Raven’s free hand as she cut down through the air, aiming to slice the incoming snow projectile in two. Her movements were quick and effective, but as the two lumps of now melting snow fell to the ground, Raven held up her hand, inspecting its skin.
Judging by the amount of spirit essence in the sphere, they could be counted as low Champion attacks at best, but it had stung Raven’s hand quite badly. Looking at it now, a thin layer of frost had formed along the side of her hand, covering half of her palm and totally enveloping her pinky. Only after stimulating quite a bit of spirit essence did the frost melt away.
“What are you spacing out for?” Lyka suddenly called. She appeared next to Raven with two dark red sun fans in her hands, easily swatting away three snow spheres that had been heading towards Raven. Her movements where fluid and elegant, making it look more like she was dancing than fighting.
Raven didn’t say anything, but her wrist flicked, causing a dagger to fly straight at Lyka’s head.
“Whoa!” Lyka just barely dodged the dagger. “No need to get aggressive!”
“Before blaming my sister, take a look behind you. . . .” Hoatzin jeered before Raven could say anything.
Lyka grunted in annoyance but still turned, only to find yet another sphere – this one made of clear ice – lying on the ground a few meters back, with Raven’s dagger running it through. Lyka’s eyes widened; she clearly hadn’t sensed that attack coming.
“Be careful,” Raven cautioned as another batch of snow and ice spheres whistled towards them. “There is more force behind them than their spirit essence would imply, and they seem to have a freezing effect upon contact.”
Raven side-stepped a sphere of ice and used one of her black short-swords to slice through two others.
“Let’s move. We should search for a shelter from these things.”
Flurries of snow that felt unreasonably cold to the touch scraped along the desolate surface of the snow-covered mountain that was otherwise shrouded in clouds. A few protruding rocks fought against the devouring blanket of ice that threatened to swallow the entire mountain, but it was a losing struggle. Taking cover behind these rocks, two dark figures huddled together, doing their best to stay warm.
“Darn it; it’s cold!” Lyka swore through chattering teeth.
“Quiet,” Raven hissed back, but it was too late; seemingly harmless balls of snow and ice had already started flying towards their location from every direction. “Terrific . . .”
A silvery staff appeared in Raven’s hand and was quickly covered in a layer of faintly glowing spirit essence.
“This way!” she shouted and rushed forward, using as minimal movements and spirit essence as possible to swat away the incoming snow projectiles. At every impact between the staff and the ice, Raven’s arms would shake slightly as she braced against the hidden strength within the spheres.
The pair ran as fast as they could – without using any Divine Skills to boost their progress – and it took well over two hours before the snow sphere attacks stopped. Raven and Lyka threw themselves into the snow, panting heavily.
“Argh, I hate this place!” Lyka exclaimed. “What’s the point of not letting us fill up our spirit essence!?”
Raven said nothing, but Hoatzin poked out his feathered head from under Raven’s coat.
“You brought it on yourself, blabbermouth,” he teased. “See it from the bright side: At least you are warm now.”
“Why you-. . .”
Raven stretched out a hand to cover Lyka’s mouth; she didn’t care that the pair bickered – constantly – but she did not feel like another dash through the harsh winter landscape. Especially not while being attacked by invisible enemies.
They had been on this mountain for barely a week by now. Initially, the notion of surviving a month on the mountain had felt like a walk in the park – annoying, perhaps, given all the constant bombardment, but not difficult. It had, however, not taken long before they realized that the spirit essence they absorbed to replenish what they used was a bit odd. It was more sluggish than normal and would not be easily swayed by their commands. In fact, it was as if the new spirit essence was as frozen as the ice and snow on the mountain they had been dumped on.
Realizing their predicament, Raven and Lyka started rationing their spirit essence, but because of this, the minimal threat from the odd snow attacks became quite prominent. The icy projectiles would come shooting out, without warning, from the denser packs of snow, and seemed to be attracted to both noise and heat. Raven had tried to find their source, in hopes of destroying it, but it seemed like some fairly strong spirit formation was the culprit, so there was nothing she could do. Unable to destroy the formation, the past week had become somewhat of a game of cat and mouse between them and the sneaky snow attacks – a very tiring ordeal when refraining from using spirit essence.
However, while they could just barely get by without relying on spirit essence when it came to fending of the snowballs, the harsh climate made it impossible to avoid using spirit essence all together. Due to the lack of food and shelter, they had to use it both to keep warm and well nourished; otherwise, there would be nothing left of them but deep-frozen bags of bones once the month was up.
“This won’t work in the long run,” Raven sent mentally to her companions. “It hasn’t been a full week yet, but we are running out of spirit essence.”
Lyka glanced at Raven. “You mean I’m going to run out of spirit essence.”
“. . . Yes.”
Out of the three of them, Lyka was definitely the one who was worst off. Hoatzin might be the weakest, but he was small enough to hide under Raven’s coat, where he remained both safe and warm. He only needed to use spirit essence to avoid starvation. Raven, on the other hand, was the one who used spirit essence most profusely – even using some to fend off the ice and snow projectiles – but that was only possible because she was Soul Bound to Javelin. The extra spirit essence she gained from him was significantly smaller than it had once been, but at least she could use it freely without being restrained by the weirdness of the spirit essence in this place.
This left Lyka. Even with Raven now doing all the heavy lifting and her superior cultivation, Lyka’s spirit essence reserve was almost empty. She had used too much in the beginning and now the weather demanded more than she had to give.
Raven propped herself up on her elbows and looked out over the snowy landscape. That they were on a mountain – or perhaps mountain range – was without question, but determining the size of said mountain was another thing. They had been traveling in roughly the same direction during the past week, yet they had seen no sights of any other participants, nor had they circled back to their starting point.
“It’s odd. . . .” Raven muttered, frowning.
“. . . .” Raven remained silent. It wasn’t until Hoatzin repeated Lyka’s question that she responded with a question of her own: “Lyka, how likely is it that someone with a higher cultivation than yours would partake in this tournament?”
“Hmm, fairly low I’d say – there would be perhaps one in a thousand of them.”
“And people who are Soul Bound?”
“Hehe, you’re kidding right? Finding someone who you can be Soul Bound to is already deemed as practically impossible – even if you have several centuries or millennia to search. I can with almost absolute certainty say that you and Javelin are the first – and likely last – people to be Soul Bound before the age of twenty.”
Raven fell silent again, her gaze once more scanning her surroundings intensely. Peeking out from under her coat, Hoatzin had a pensive look in his eyes as he too studied the frozen mountain.
“What?” Lyka asked, confused. “What!?”
“Oh be quiet, minx!” Hoatzin snapped. “Use that head of yours! If even my sister and you are having trouble surviving this trial, who else could even stand a sliver of a chance? Unless there is some sort of trick to this place, there would be no survivors from it at all. . . .”
Lyka blinked, momentarily stunned, but then snorted once. “And who said anything about there being survivors? How naive.”
“You . . .” Hoatzin faltered, his eyes widening. Raven glanced down at her brother before looking over at Lyka, who was still sprawled out in the snow. She could tell that the latter had said what she said mainly to annoy Hoatzin, but Raven had to admit that the girl did have a point, and yet . . . .
‘What are we missing?’
For a moment, the snow-white landscape before Raven seemed to shift, and she saw a frustrated man, scrambling around a metallic, antenna-looking structure. The view was partially obscured by heavy snowfall, but she still kept a close eye on the man. It had been Erik, who was, almost desperately, trying to mend some piece of equipment that had broken down earlier.
Raven had watched him work, in silence, for well over an hour, saying nothing about either the freezing temperature or the futility of his struggles with the weather and all. And yet, an hour later, Raven half-led, half-carried a foolishly smiling Erik back into the warmth of the research center. He passed out, so Raven had to undress him herself before wrapping him in thermal blankets – she even forced a warm, anti-hypothermic liquid down his throat. When he eventually woke, Erik had taken a single one look at Raven’s face and instantly started laughing.
“Haha, you think I’m mad,” he stated more than asked.
Raven had just lifted an eyebrow, but Erik didn’t need more confirmation than that. He continued to laugh, his body now shaking from more than just being cold. “If I don’t look for the problem, it will never be fixed. Waiting might only make it worse.”
“. . . .”
Looking up at the clear sky above her now, Raven found herself smiling at the memory of it all; Erik’s determination when it came to science had been no less than hers as an assassin. No, perhaps it had been even stronger.
Raven’s smile slowly faded.
‘Things were easier then. . . .’ Raven breathed out heavily, her gaze focusing in the distance. ‘But the principle holds.’
She got on her feet, still crouching low to the snow.
“Do we have to?” Lyka asked, her unwillingness clear. “We will just end up getting shot at again.”
“Movement helps generate heat from within, and it’s only a matter of time before we are found here, anyway.”
Raven picked a direction and started moving.
“Don’t forget to use spirit essence to evaporate your sweat, Lyka. I don’t want you getting hypothermia.”
“Hypo-what?” Lyka asked as she jogged up to Raven’s side, her posture still low.
Raven rolled her eyes. “Just do it.”
Moving in silence, Raven and her team continued their journey across the mountainside. They kept walking for another three days without the scenery having any significant changes – just snow, ice, rock and clouds as long as the eye could see. Along the way, the group had been attacked by the mysterious spheres more times than they cared to count, and Lyka’s spirit essence reserves kept dwindling at a steady pace.
It wasn’t until the fourth day that something changed. It was midday when Raven suddenly stopped, her hand blocking Lyka from moving past her. Keeping a low profile, Raven slowly moved forward towards a larger scar in the mountainside. There were plenty of formations to hide behind here, so she and Lyka easily took cover.
Carefully leaning out from their hiding spot, Raven’s eyes confirmed what her other senses had already told her: there, seated in a sort of local valley on the other side of the mountain scar, was a group of eleven people. They sat there in silence, with their arms folded in their laps and their eyes closed. Sluggish streams of spirit essence moved in and out between these people and, contrary to her own approach, these people seemed more than happy to absorb that spirit essence.
Raven’s eyes brightened. ‘Finally some change!’