“Well done, brother!” Raven praised, the fatigue she was feeling lessening slightly by his success, but Hoatzin himself seemed to be in a daze; he simply stared into space as cold essence flowed into him a lot faster than spirit essence normally would. Without warning, there was a slight shift in the air around him and Hoatzin’s body started shaking violently.
Initially, Raven was alarmed, but Lyka was quick to assure her that everything was fine; “I know what’s going on,” she said with a trace of excitement in her voice. “Just wait.”
Although still skeptical, Raven had little choice but to wait; there was nothing she could do to help without knowing what was wrong, anyway.
Quickly, Hoatzin’s shaking became more intense, and soon it looked as if his body was being disfigured rather than shaking. Suddenly, he screamed – the wail more human than beast and filled with intense pain.
Raven drew in a sharp breath.
Her brother’s obvious pain made her unable to sit idly by anymore, but before she could act, Hoatzin’s body exploded in a ball of light.
“Brother!” Raven shouted in terror.
Mustering up whatever spirit essence she could still control, Raven got to her feet and rushed forward, but found Lyka suddenly blocking her path. “Move!” Raven demanded with red eyes, but Lyka shook her head.
“Calm down, Raven,” she urged sternly; “use your senses. Feel what is happening.”
Raven blinked, finally paying attention to what her spirit connections were telling her; Hoatzin’s body wasn’t disintegrating, but rather . . . reforming.
“This . . .” Raven hesitated, but, as quickly as the light had come, it disappeared again and in its place stood a familiar, yet unfamiliar, young man.
Nearly two heads taller than Raven, the young man had a sturdy build without being bulky. His long, black hair seemed glossier than natural and, as the wind blew, Raven could see the hair-tips transforming into red and orange feathers that swayed behind his back. Feathers also adorned the man’s eyebrows, giving his otherwise manly face a rather feminine touch. The man was taller than Raven remembered; he was sturdier than Raven remembered; but even with the feathers morphing his appearance, there was no doubt who those deep brown eyes belonged to.
“Big brother. . . .”
No longer blocked by Lyka, Raven tentatively took a few steps. When Hoatzin’s eyes met hers, he smiled warmly and Raven could not help but throw herself forward. The two siblings caught each other in a heartfelt embrace, tears running down both their cheeks.
How long had they not waited for this moment? Even Lyka had a moist sparkle in her eyes as she watched the two’s silent reunion.
It wasn’t until an unusually strong wind blew past the embracing pair, causing Hoatzin to shudder slightly, that the latter broke the silence. “Umm, little sister, I’m . . .”
“Is something wrong?” Raven quickly pulled back, carefully inspecting her brother. “Is your body hurting anywhere?”
“No, no!” Hoatzin shook his head, his feather-tipped hair rustling behind him. “I, eh . . . am naked?”
Saying as much, Hoatzin’s face flushed red. It had been so long since he’d worn clothes that the concept had slipped his mind. The cold wind had reminded him, however, and Raven caught him glancing nervously at Lyka.
A slight smirk formed on Raven’s lips, but she made no comment about it. Instead, she started unbuttoning her cloak, aiming to wrap it around Hoatzin. Raven’s hands were weak and trembling from the cold as she battled the buttons, but she had no more spares in her spacial ring, and while the weather was harsh on her, the main reason for her current state was the abundance of cold essence within her, not the climate.
Hoatzin wanted to protest, but a meaningful look from Raven caused him to close his mouth. Pleased, Raven helped place the cloak around her brother’s shoulders and noticed a patch of feathers running down the latter’s back in the process.
“How pretty,” she commented absentmindedly.
“Raven!” Hoatzin retorted, sounding both embarrassed and annoyed; “that’s not what a man wants to hear. . . .”
Raven didn’t dignify her brother’s vanity with a comment. “We will have to get you some clothes,” she said instead. “I don’t have anything in your size.”
Hoatzin was quick to agree. He was about to speak when Lyka interrupted him with a matter-of-factually tone; “no need.”
“What?” Hoatzin replied, his ears turning red. Lyka’s lips twitched slightly.
“Don’t get any funny ideas, Birdy. I’d prefer you covered up any day.” Lyka stuck out her tongue teasingly, and before Hoatzin could counter she continued; “All I’m saying is that it isn’t worth the effort to search for clothes at the moment; he’s not yet at the border between Spirit Champion and Spirit Master and, without that, his human form will be unstable. At best, he can keep it for five, perhaps ten minutes.”
Raven glanced at Hoatzin, and the look in his eyes told her that he knew that Lyka’s words were true.
“Sorry, little sister. . . .” he muttered, but Raven didn’t think there was anything to be sorry about.
She smacked him on his shoulder. “Don’t worry about it, Hoatzin. You’ll get there eventually, and this is better than no-. . .”
Raven’s already pale face stiffened. She had practically no normal spirit essence left within her, but the little she had she quickly channelled through her body and into her hands. With a loud bang, her two palms collided with Hoatzin’s chest, propelling both of them several meters in opposite directions.
In the same instant, the space they had been standing in erupted in a cloud of snow and ice.
“Look out!” she shouted to Lyka, who quickly used her own spirit essence to jump back. No sooner had she moved when a large, club-like arm swung out from within the obscuring snow, clobbering down on Lyka’s previous position.
The impact caused another flurry of ice and snow to fill the air, accompanied by a menacing shout from within the snow and an impressive wave of cold essence. Raven covered her face with an arm, and by the time she lowered it again, the obscuring snow clouds were gone, revealing a three-and-a-half-meter-tall spirit beast in its wake.
The beast looked somewhat akin to a giant ape, only it stood firmly on its two hind legs and had two pairs of arms instead of one. Nasty-looking tusks protruded out from the beast’s mouth and its glaringly red eyes each had two sets of pupils.
“Snow Devil King,” Lyka breathed as she looks upon the creature in shock. “This is bad.”
“If Hoatzin carries me, can we outrun it?” Raven asked. She had no knowledge of this creature, and while the color of its presence was slightly dulled by the cold essence, it was still irrefutably strong. Under normal circumstances, the beast would perhaps not pose much of a threat to the three of them, but now . . .
“No.” Lyka shook her head. “It might not be agile when fighting, but long distance running is one of its strongest abilities. We must at least wound its legs before we can flee.”
Raven frowned. She tried to circulate the cold essence within her body, but it still moved sluggishly; it would be near impossible for her to fight. While Raven was considering their options, Hoatzin spoke up.
“I will distract it,” he said with determination. “I am no match for it head on, but since I can use cold essence now, I will have some stamina at least. Once its focus is elsewhere, Lyka can move in and wound it.”
“Good plan, Birdy! Get going!” Lyka agreed before Raven could object. “Just avoid getting hit, cause it will kill ya.”
Raven wanted to argue against the plan, but without waiting for her confirmation, Hoatzin had already sprung into action. His arms burst into flames as he dashed towards the giant beast’s back. His movements were quick and nimble; he landed three punches before the Snow Devil King realized what was going on, and then moved out of the way again once the beast’s huge arms swung around to hit him.
Standing a few meters away from Raven, Lyka quietly observed the fight, her hands repeatedly clenching and unclenching at her sides. Raven knew that the girl was waiting for the right time to attack, but still couldn’t help but feel a bit nervous as she watched Hoatzin fighting on his own. It felt odd to her – being nervous, that is.
Just as she was about to berate Lyka for not doing anything, an opening arrived. Like lightning, Lyka’s petite body moved forward. Just as she arrived behind the spirit beast, a disproportionately large double-edged scythe appeared in her hands. Lyka swung her weapon towards one of the beast’s legs, and instantly the air was filled with the rancid smell of decay. If Lyka could have used her full strength, the scythe would likely have removed the leg completely, but she had no choice but to conserve her strength. Consequently, the strike only cut through the outer layer of skin, barely penetrating the muscles underneath.
“Again!” she urged Hoatzin as she jumped back, barely avoiding an enraged punch from the beast.
Off to the side, Raven watched the two people taking turns to attack and distract the Snow Devil King; one small with silvery hair and wolf ears, the other tall with black hair and feathers. If it hadn’t been a life and death situation, all of it would have been quite comical. As it was, however, Raven only felt frustrated. She had, purposely even, emptied herself of all the spirit essence she could actually use and now her strength was even lower than a normal person’s – unable even to stand properly!
‘I must either figure out how this cold essence works or try to absorb more spirit essence through Javelin’s soul prism. . . !’
Unfortunately, understanding was not something that came whenever one wanted it, and gathering more spirit essence would take time. Neither Lyka nor Hoatzin could afford to draw out the battle with the Snow Devil King and, less than four sets of attacks later, Lyka finally managed to cut deep enough into the beast’s legs to make it unable to stand.
“Let’s go!” Lyka shouted and turned to flee as the Snow Devil King toppled forward into the snow.
Hoatzin moved to his Raven’s side and was about to scoop her up in his arms when his muscles started shaking violently. In the next instant, his human body disappeared in a flash of light.
“Shit!” both Raven and Lyka swore in unison, but while Lyka turned around to help Raven, the Snow Devil King had already propped himself up on his four arms, his double-pupiled eyes locking on Raven and the bundle of fabric in her arms. Before Lyka even made it halfway to Raven, the beast opened his giant maw and out surged a ferociously cold stream of cold essence.
Raven’s eyes widened. Even under normal circumstances, Raven would have been hard-pressed to survive such an attack. There was no way Hoatzin could.
‘I will not lose him again.’
An eerie calm descended on Raven’s mind as the whites of her eyes turned pitch black. Without thinking, Raven moved her wrapped-up brother behind her back and withdrew the Nightingale’s Blessing from within her spacial ring.
She didn’t have the strength to stand, she barely had the strength to lift her sword, but Raven didn’t care. She stared at the rapidly approaching beam of certain death and a cold smile formed on her lips.
“For that which is given, must be tenfold returned,” she murmured. “Let’s test that, shall we?”
Just as the beam of cold essence was about to touch her sword, Raven shifted her body. She put up no resistance against the powerful strike and instead let her body be pushed back, allowing much of the cold essence to enter her body. Using the little spirit essence she had managed to regain, Raven forced the cold essence to flow through her entire body, even passing her spirit core which was quickly filled to the breaking point.
Raven growled in pain but didn’t stop forcefully absorbing the cold essence. Contrary to the cold essence she got naturally, this essence was a lot more violent, and while it wasn’t as sluggish as her own cold essence, it was even harder to control. It wreaked havoc within her body, but Raven refused to give in; she continued to force the cold essence to move as she wanted to. Slowly, the new, fiercer cold essence started to merge with Raven’s more docile reserves, and as this mixed essence started moving around Raven’s body, a faint black shimmer fluctuated across her soul prism.
Instantly, Raven’s eyes widened – now completely black – and, as if called by something, the older cold essence within her suddenly turned violent. Completely out of Raven’s control, the old and new spirit essence moved through her, searching for an outlet. Once it reached the hand holding her sword, the cold essence rushed forward.
Ice-like thorns shot out from Raven’s sword, aiming for whatever the blade happened to be pointing at. The stream didn’t end until every last drop of cold essence had left Raven’s body.
Weak beyond reason, Raven slumped to the ground. The sight before her eyes was just as black as the eyes themselves, and as her consciousness faded, ancient words echoed in her mind:
When the trust is forsaken,
all bonds shall be maimed.
For that which is taken,
will be fiercely reclaimed.