Raven kept observing the group of people in the small valley for quite a while. She watched the sluggish spirit essence spin slowly around the youths, partially shrouding them in a sense of ice and snow, but it didn’t take long before it became clear that their method for absorbing that essence was nothing out of the ordinary. Raven even recognized the technique they were using and could perform it herself if she wanted to. However, when she tried, the spirit essence she absorbed was just as unyielding as before.
‘There must be some trick to this,’ Raven mused privately, but no matter how long she observed, she couldn’t figure it out. Taking a closer look at the actual people in the valley, Raven sighed. “Just our luck; they are on the list. . . .”
Lyka hadn’t been listening, but Hoatzin joined in on the sighing. “Indeed,” he agreed. “One of Lyka’s earliest victims.”
“I doubt they will explain what they are doing if we simply ask. . . .”
“That is unlikely.”
“Should we try anyway?”
“It might be worth a shot. . . .”
“Oi,” Lyka called mentally, but she was ignored. She had been sitting silently next to Raven and Hoatzin as the pair discussed the group in the valley – her face slowly twisting up in a small frown. “Oi!” she repeated for the fourth time and it was only thanks to Raven aptly covering her mouth that Lyka didn’t shout it out loud as well.
“Don’t ignore me!” Lyka demanded.
Hoatzin and Raven glanced at each other, a moment of understanding flashing through their eyes.
“Okay,” Hoatzin conceded, but just as Lyka relaxed and was about to start talking, she found herself being hoisted into the air by her collar. In the next moment she was sent soaring through the air, heading straight for the center of the small valley.
“Raven!” Lyka called, her voice resounding with the betrayal she felt. “How could you pull a sneak attack on me while I’ve got no spirit essence left to defend myself with? You traitor!”
Raven smiled softly while Hoatzin roared with laughter. “Haha, serves you right, minx! You teased them, so it is only fair that you should check if they still carry a grudge.”
If Lyka still felt betrayed, she didn’t have the time to complain anymore; with a muffled bang, she crashed into the powdery snow in the valley. The eleven people, who had been cultivating in silence, jumped up from their positions with a start.
Once on their feet, their short but sturdy statures became blatantly obvious; the tallest among them was only a few centimeters taller than Raven, but what they lacked in height, they made up for in muscles and vigilance.
Instantly, their guards were up and cold yet strong spirit essence surged within them. Still crouching on the mountainside above, Raven’s expression turned serious.
“Who’s there!?” one of the youths shouted. He was perhaps the shortest among them – easily a head shorter than Raven – but his light-blue hair was like a silky cape behind him as it brushed against the snowy ground.
“Hehe, it’s just little me; no need to get so defensive.” The cloud of snow that had surrounded Lyka churned, revealing her cloaked figure.
“Idiot,” Hoatzin murmured. “She has practically no spirit essence left and she uses it for theatrics?”
The corner of Raven’s lips curled upwards. “Don’t underestimate a good entrance.”
Down in the valley, the eleven youths had already recovered from their shock.
“It’s that brat!” one of them exclaimed and pointed angrily at Lyka. “She caused us to lose more than ten Nanite crystals!”
“Only ten?” Lyka seemed genuinely surprised; “I must have had a slow day. . . .”
The angry youth was about to rush forward when their blue-haired leader held up a hand to stop him.
“What do you want?” he asked, clearly having learned caution from his earlier encounter with Lyka.
Lyka shrugged. “I just saw you sitting here and got curious about what you were doing.”
The eleven youths looked at each other in confusion for a moment before the angry pointer started to laugh mockingly. “We’re obviously cultivating, you idiot.”
Lyka shot the boy a cold glare, but it was so brief that only Raven noticed it before the former’s look turned back into that of a harmless child.
“Oh? With this unruly spirit essence? I don’t believe you,” Lyka teased.
At her comment, it was the blue-haired shorty’s turn to change his expression, going from cautiously respectful to a mockingly insolent. Lyka might have missed it – or simply chosen to ignore it – but Raven tensed, a red light seeping into her eyes.
“It’s true,” the leader youth confirmed, an amicable smile now hiding his short-lived viciousness. “Are you having trouble controlling the cold essence?” he probed, sounding concerned.
“Cold essence?” Lyka was genuinely confused. “What is that?”
That answer was all the young man needed to throw his last remaining caution out the window; instantly, his smile morphed into a jeering sneer.
“I was warned not to mess with someone who had managed to enter the Myriad Tournament so young – who knows what kind of backing she has, they said – but if you don’t even know what to expect during the Trials, then what kind of background can you possibly have? Men, beat her up and find her spacial ring. She must have robbed quite a lot of people with her little tricks; I bet her purse is too heavy for such a young girl, so let’s relieve her of the burden. If she won’t give it freely, kill her.”
With greed and a lust for revenge in their eyes, the ten youths whom the blue-haired man commanded prepared to pounce on Lyka, but they had barely taken one step forward when a terrifying feeling of dread overwhelmed them.
Instantly, they were covered in cold sweat. In their minds, the previously white snowscape around them had been dyed red with blood, the tangy smell of iron and decay stinging their noses. The few who had managed two steps forward were even worse off, and their bodies shook with uncontrollable fear at the brutal scenes of carnage they were witnessing.
Lyka observed the approaching youths who had all been stopped in their tracks, a mysterious smile forming on her lips. Raven might have tossed her into the wolves’ den, but Lyka knew she wouldn’t abandon her there, at least not without the means to defend herself.
“You think that my ignorance means I have no protection?” Lyka laughed and even sat down casually in the snow. “Step forward if you dare; it’s been a while since I saw my protector in action.”
The familiar red bag filled with berries appeared in Lyka’s hands and she eagerly started eating without a care in the world. Raven’s killing intent almost wavered for a moment; the sight was too much like a person preparing to watch a good show.
“Isskul. . .” The previously loudmouthed youth looked tentatively at the group’s leader. There was not even a thread of aggressiveness in his voice this time.
The blue-haired leader, Isskul, hesitated. He hadn’t moved from his initial spot, so he had not received the same attack as his friends had, but from their expressions he could tell what was going on; a powerful expert was somehow warning them to back off, or deal with the consequences.
Isskul bit his lip. He was the strongest in his group and had even started to approach the mid Spirit Master realm since he started cultivating in this place. As such, while his strength was undoubtedly still far from comparable to the perverted geniuses who were bound to appear in the tournament finals, he was nevertheless among the top ten percent cultivation-wise. Would someone stronger than him really join the tournament merely as someone’s bodyguard? It was unlikely.
Strong spirit essence stirred within Isskul, quickly wrapping him in a cold cocoon-like embrace. Steadying himself, he stepped forward, fully intending to test this super-bodyguard.
The instant his foot touched ground, Isskul felt an insane killing intent locking in on him, causing him to shudder involuntarily. However, while his companions had been overwhelmed by the horror, Isskul only needed a moment before he managed to resist the oppression. The killing intent was undeniably strong – stronger than he had ever felt before – but his peak low Master cultivation could fight it somewhat. This realization caused Isskul to relax slightly and he was about to continue forward when he felt a cold sensation at his neck.
“Don’t push me,” Raven warned, her voice filled with bloodlust.
At some point, she had moved in behind Isskul, the dark fabric of her cloak fluttering soundlessly around her and what was undoubtedly her prey. Raven’s features were obscured by her coat, but the pale hand that held a dagger to Isskul’s throat was impossible to miss.
The young man’s eyes widened in shock. He hadn’t been able to react at all before Raven suddenly appeared at his back. Even now, he couldn’t figure out how she had gotten there so quickly and without being hindered by his protective barrier. He hadn’t even sensed any spirit essence being used by Raven as she moved.
“The young miss had a question,” Raven reminded him, her tone cold and unforgiving. “Answer it.”
Isskul swallowed, the action causing the unmoving blade at his throat to slightly prick his skin.
“W-we were telling the truth,” he blurted out. “We are only cultivating. The cold essence here is different from normal spirit essence, but if you have an aptitude for it, and if you cleanse out your old spirit essence reserves, then you can make it your own. It’s just . . .”
Isskul paused, seemingly hesitant.
“Say it,” Raven urged.
“Well, if you haven’t felt any change in your spirit core by now, you probably . . . don’t have the aptitude for it.”
Having said this much, Isskul tensed up, afraid that his comment would annoy or perhaps even enrage his captor, but Raven didn’t react in either way. It was instead Lyka who spoke first.
“So there is no way to deal with the cold essence if you don’t have the right constitution?”
“I-I don’t know. Before coming here, our seniors told us that the Trials are meant to nurture us just as much as they are meant to test us. There should be no Trials that aren’t beneficial in some way. Perhaps . . . perhaps you just have to be somewhere where the cold essence is more intense?”
Lyka frowned. “More intense? Are you insane?”
If one traveled up the mountain they were on, rather than around it, the cold essence would indeed intensify – the temperature quickly dropping and the spontaneous snow-attacks intensifying tenfold – however, staying there wasn’t anything short of suicide.
Isskul shook his head as violently as he dared, but the small cut on his throat still grew because of it. “No, no, no, I’m serious! There are some safe havens – like this valley – up there too; places where the mountain won’t attack you! To use the cold essence, you have to feel it; if you don’t do it here, you’re either inapt or . . .” Isskul clamped his mouth shut, seemingly not daring to say anything more.
“Hmm, you think so . . .” Lyka glanced at Raven, her eyes twitching slightly. “Well, thanks for the info, we’ll be on our way now.”
“Eh?” By the time Isskul had realized what happened, Lyka was already climbing back up the mountain side. Raven remained at his back until Lyka had disappeared out of sight, only then releasing the pressure on the blade at Isskul’s neck.
“Mind your own business and we won’t interfere with yours,” Raven warned before her body shimmered slightly. In the next instant, she was gone – her departure just as soundless and mysterious as her arrival.
Left behind, Isskul instinctively felt his neck while he couldn’t help but feel wronged. He had been minding his own business – both times he interacted with Lyka – yet they had bothered him anyway. What was to say they wouldn’t do so again in the future, no matter what he did?
There was silence for quite a while before one of the youths moved closer to their leader.
“Isskul, shouldn’t you have warned them about th-. . .”
“Shut it!” Isskul snapped. “I answered everything they asked truthfully, and that’s all.”
Barely a kilometer away, Raven and Lyka had taken cover in an indent in the mountain wall that was barely large enough to fit the two of them. Hoatzin had rejoined them as well and was looking intently at his sister.
“Are you okay?” Lyka asked Raven with a hushed voice, her concern actually genuine this time.
“. . . I’m fine,” Raven breathed after a moment’s pause – her pale face and slightly shaking legs exposing her lie.
“Sister, why did you use the Spacial Dash? It uses too much spirit essence!”
Raven smiled faintly. “Don’t underestimate a good entrance, remember?” She leaned back against the cave wall. “Their cultivation might not be that impressive, but, with access to boundless spirit essence that they can use freely, it’s hard to say who would have won in the end. Just give me a minute; I’ll be fine.”
“You said you already were fine!” Hoatzin’s outburst earned him a weak chuckle from his sister, but Raven gave no further comment.
“Darn it, minx, it is your fault that this happened!” Hoatzin hissed, turning his anger on Lyka. “If you had just refrained from pissing everybody off, we could have asked for help like normal, decent people!”
Completely out of character, Lyka didn’t give a retort this time and simply glanced at Hoatzin and Raven before starting to her feet.
“You’re being unfair, brother,” Raven pointed out softly. “This is a tournament, after all; they might have chosen to attack us anyway.”
Hoatzin clicked his tongue but didn’t say anything more. The two of them sat in silence for nearly an hour while they waited for Raven’s complexion to return to normal. Eventually, it was still Hoatzin who broke the silence.
“Do you think they were telling the truth?” he asked, still keeping a close eye on Raven’s condition.
“Only partially, I assume,” Raven replied. “That they could cultivate with this cold essence is without a doubt, but as for whether or not we can do the same . . . who knows?”
“. . . I think you can.”
Both Raven and Hoatzin turned their gaze towards Lyka. Still looking a bit guilty, Lyka used her foot to draw in the snow as she explained. “Well, my grandpa has been teaching me a lot about cultivation and spirit essence in general. I must admit that I didn’t listen very closely – that’s why I forgot it – but he once said. . .” Lyka paused and straightened her back. When she spoke again her voice was deeper, with an uncanny likeness to Fenris.
“Lyka, my boy,” she imitated, “the way you think of spirit essence is too shallow! Spirit essence is the very fabric of the world! Have you never wondered why there are changes of season? Why some realms are made of nothing but fire, while others are covered in ice? The answer is in the spirit essence. Even the races that live in these realms will get different results, even though they cultivate in the same way. Why is that?”
“Let me tell you, spirit essence is . . .” Lyka’s words faltered, her face revealing the uncertainty she felt. “Sorry, I don’t really remember the details, but his point was that different environments would give different results while cultivating. This must be what is going on here.”
Raven’s eyes narrowed while Hoatzin stared blankly at Lyka. Raven could tell that her brother was about to get mad at her again, so she chose speak first.
“That is no guarantee that we can cultivate this way, though. As the Isskul boy pointed out, we might not have the aptitude for it.”
Lyka shook her head. “No, he is right that there should be benefits to every Trial during the tournament, as long as you take the Trials of your own realm. The two of you should be fine. I, on the other hand. . . . Remember the attendant asking if I was serious that I wished to take the Trials with you? Situations like this one were the reason; my cultivation seals restrict me too much in how I cultivate.”
“I think it is worth a shot, at least.” Lyka added after a moment’s pause. “Worst case scenario, we will have to lay low for a while so that Raven can get more spirit essence from Javelin’s spirit prism. Best case scenario, one – or even two – of us will be able to use spirit essence again, significantly improving our situation.”
“. . .”
For a while, no one said anything while both Raven and Hoatzin where letting Lyka’s words sink in. Going up the mountain was no easy task. There was also no way to know for certain if the cultivation would actually work. Eventually, the pair glanced at each other.
“. . . so, we go up the mountain?” Hoatzin asked, already knowing the answer.
“We go up the mountain,” Raven confirmed.
The journey up the mountain was indeed not easy, but, almost a day later, they finally found a spot similar to the valley that the youths had been in, only with significantly harsher weather conditions. Since Lyka already knew she wouldn’t be able to control the cold essence, she stayed near the entrance to the valley so that she could keep a watchful eye while Raven and Hoatzin attempted to merge with the cold essence.
Raven closed her eyes and focused on her breathing. Slowly, cold spirit essence flowed in through her numerous spirit connections. Its movement was sluggish and Raven had to work hard to circulate the cold essence through her body and towards her spirit core. It was a tedious task, and with every minute that passed, Raven felt her body temperature dropping.
Despite having recently used up most of her spirit essence, it had taken almost half a day for Raven to replace just half of the last remaining spirit essence in her core. It was due to the constant trickle of pure spirit essence from Javelin’s soul prism, which slowed the process significantly as it continuously undid her work.
Suddenly, Raven felt a strong ripple from the presence next to her. Raven opened her eyes and looked at her young brother in surprise. His previously glowingly red feathers now had a tint of orange at their tips, the spirit essence swirling around him was cold but had a clear orange tone; Hoatzin had not only managed to merge with the cold essence, he actually broken through to a low Spirit Champion!