Still wrapped within his sister’s cloak, Hoatzin could only feel three sudden bursts of cold essence, quickly followed by the hard impact of Raven’s body pushing him to the ground as she collapsed on top of him.
Although back in his beast form, Hoatzin still had the strength of a low Champion; it didn’t even take a second for him to struggle free from the cloak, but what he saw truly shocked him.
Raven was unconscious, her body already covered in a thin layer of ice, but even worse off was the huge spirit beast that had attacked them. Currently, the beast’s lifeless body lay in a pool of its own, quickly freezing blood. Meanwhile, its head had been pierced by so many icicles that it had been torn right off and was now pinned to the mountain wall on the other side of the valley, looking very much like an oversized and bloody porcupine.
“How is she!?” Lyka called while still running towards them, her somewhat panicked voice snapping Hoatzin back to the matter at hand.
Wasting no more time, Hoatzin channeled spirit essence into Raven, probing her internal condition, and his face couldn’t help but pale; there wasn’t even an ounce of spirit essence left within her and, as far as he could tell, her body was making no attempts at absorbing the cold essence, either.
Briefly, old memories flashed by in Hoatzin’s mind; images from when he found himself locked in the Life Link Ring, unable to do anything while his sister and parents had both their spirit essence and connections drained out of them. At that time, Hoatzin could only watch as the life left his loved ones. . . .
But a faint heartbeat separated the past from the present.
“She lives,” Hoatzin breathed in relief. As he spoke, faint embers danced over his feathers, providing heat for his sister. “She is, however, completely drained of spirit essence; it will take a while before she wakes up. . . .”
“We need to move to a safer location.”
Even without looking up, Hoatzin could tell that Lyka had finally reached their side – the connection through Raven told him as much – but he was a bit surprised to hear how heavy her panting was. Subconsciously, he glanced up from Raven, but his gaze paused on Lyka’s pale and sweat-covered face. Only now did it dawn on him that she too couldn’t have much spirit essence left at this point.
“Did you hear me?” Lyka asked, between labored breaths, no longer bothering to speak mentally.
“I-is not this place good enough? If I remember correctly Snow Devil Kings are very territorial, so there shouldn’t be any more of them close by, and we’re in a safe zone from the ice attacks here.”
Lyka shook her head. “This is too out in the open. If those kids from before come by, they will see us at once. Also, until Raven wakes up, we will need to keep her warm. . . .” Still breathing heavily, Lyka paused, clearly going over their options in her mind. Suddenly, her gaze shifted towards the downed spirit beast and a sly smile formed on her pale lips.
“I have an idea.”
“Achoo!” A loud sneeze echoed down a clinically clean corridor that smelled of chloride.
“Getting a cold?” Eric asked, but I just rolled my eyes, intending to ignore him. Something cold touched my head, and instantly I jumped back, pushing off from the stool I was sitting on. I was already up by the time I realized that it had been Eric’s hand on my forehead.
He touched me?
The notion came as quite a shock to me; I had never been easy to sneak up on, and yet here I was, bested by a dork in miss-matched socks and a worn blazer.
I really must be getting a cold. . . .
Somewhere on the Nanite continent, cold winds howled over the snow-covered mountain where some youths were doing their best to survive the first trial of the Myriad Tournament. It was night and, as all nights before, the lack of stars and moon made it hard to see even an arm’s reach away, forcing most to spend the night on high alert for sudden attacks, cloaked by the darkness.
Almost no one dared to light a fire since it was a sure bet to invite trouble – be it from the mysterious ice attacks or from unwanted guests – but there was, however, a small speck of light, seeping out from a well-hidden cave on the mountainside. Inside, a bird and little girl huddled by a miniature bonfire, their eyes looking intently at a bundle of bluish-white fur that lay on the other side of the flames.
“Do you think she’ll be okay?” Hoatzin asked as he used his wing to send out a small ball of fire, feeding it into to the bigger one in front of him.
Lyka didn’t answer him at once.
“She used up all the spirit essence she had left – cold and normal – and she isn’t absorbing any cold essence at the moment. However, it seems that Javelin’s soul prism is still giving her some spirit essence; as long as we keep her warm and safe from harm, she should be fine. As for when she’ll wake up . . . I can’t say.”
“But it has been more than two days! Last time she was drained of spirit essence, she was only out for little over a day, and that was with only thirteen spirit connections to provide her with new spirit essence! My sister might not be able to absorb the cold essence, but what she has received from Javelin these past two days is way more spirit essence than back then. . . .”
“. . . I don’t know, Hoatzin,” Lyka said with genuine concern. “Raven’s spirit core has yet to stabilize, perhaps that’s why.”
Hoatzin didn’t answer, and thus there was silence in the cave again, leaving only the whining of the wind outside.
A distant voice called my name, but I couldn’t seem to find the strength to open my eyes, even though every inch of my body was screaming at me that it was dangerous to rest – to lose my focus.
“Raven, listen to me! You can’t sleep here – you have to wake up!”
Sudden warmth touched my cheek, and somehow my eyes started to flutter open. A blurry face was leaning over me, and although I couldn’t really see who it was, the panic and desperation in their eyes was undeniable.
I found myself reaching for those eyes. How nice wouldn’t it be if someone looked at me with such eyes – with such love.
But my hand stopped.
Who am I kidding. I’m an assassin.
In the cave, a small moan from Raven caused Hoatzin to rush to his sister’s side. Without thinking about it, he had already transformed into his human form, and carefully, he unfolded some of the large fur that was keeping his sister warm. The smell inside wasn’t nice – Lyka had been too rushed when she skinned the Snow Devil King, so the pelt had yet to be properly cleaned – but it was at least warm and dry inside.
Checking her vital signs, Hoatzin sighed; Raven was still unconscious and her spirit core was still in a mess, the spinning vortex of spirit essence distorted and jumbled up. He could, however, see considerable signs of improvement compared to two days earlier, and the steady flow of spirit essence that came in through Raven’s soul bound soul prisms seemed eager to heal her from within.
The mixture of relief and disappointment caused Hoatzin to slump down on the cave floor. Just as his ass touched the ground, a small cough came from Lyka, and instantly Hoatzin’s face was flushed red; he was naked again.
“Sorry,” Hoatzin whispered to his sister as he quickly stretched for the cloak that had been functioning as Raven’s pillow and used it to cover his lower body. A burst of giggles from Lyka caused him to look up, only to find the small girl rolling on the ground in mirth.
“Ha ha, very funny,” Hoatzin muttered. He pulled on the cloak, careful to not reveal anything improper as he put it on.
“Oh, but it is,” Lyka wheezed between laughs, “your face is so red I can’t even see the feathers over your eyes anymore!”
Hoatzin felt his face heat up further but pretended not to notice. “You seem lively, little minx, I guess there is no need to keep feeding you spirit essence every day.”
Lyka stopped laughing at once. She had been on the verge of collapse after finding and carrying Raven to this cave two days ago. Thankfully, Hoatzin had learnt how to manipulate and refine the cold essence, and by giving her some of his spirit essence, she had slowly started to regain her strength. They had tried to do the same for Raven, but her spirit core was unable to handle the foreign spirit essence in its current state.
“Forgive me, Hoatzin Spirit Campion, for my insolence!” Lyka was quick to fawn, but a slight glint in her eyes caused Hoatzin to feel caution.
“Ne-. . . never mind.”
Hoatzin hoped he was wrong, but Lyka was already on her feet and walking towards him with steady steps.
“Lyka only wishes for Bir-. . . I mean, Master Hoatzin to feel comfortable. So, how about this?” A faint light enveloped Lyka when she was only a step away, and by the time her foot settled, the figure standing in front of Hoatzin was no longer a little girl but a boy.
Hoatzin blinked. He was still sitting down, so his eyes were at the same level as the boy’s big, silvery eyes. They were large and round, framed by silver eyelashes and filled with innocence. Over all, the boy couldn’t have looked more like an angel even if he’d had wings and a halo.
“What do you think, Master Hoatzin; is this Lyka better?” The boy’s eyes blinked sweetly as he spoke in a voice very similar to Lyka’s yet not quite the same.
Hoatzin’s face paled and he scurried backwards until his head hit the ice-covered stone wall of the cave. “No!” he spat, using his arms to block the sight of the kid. “No, no, no, no! Change back!”
Boy Lyka blinked again, this time out of surprise rather than mischievous flirting. She hadn’t expected Hoatzin’s reaction to be so strong. Suppressing another bout of laughter, Lyka considered teasing Hoatzin further, but, glancing over at Raven, she decided against it in the end.
Between his fingers, Hoatzin could see the cave momentarily brightening before turning back again. Hesitating slightly, he lowered his hand and found the regular Lyka smiling back at him.
“Better?” she asked, her voice back to normal, and Hoatzin quickly nodded his reply.
“Do not do that again,” he demanded. He got to his feet and started brushing of dirt and ice from his borrowed cloak. The cloak was a bit short for him, but it was better than nothing.
“Why not? Is the male me too cute for you to handle?” Lyka couldn’t resist teasing him just a little bit more, after all.
Hoatzin snorted and was about to answer sardonically when the words suddenly got stuck in his throat.
“. . . It is not you,” he blurted out instead, his voice barely a murmur.
Lyka’s eyes widened slightly, a rare genuine smile forming on her lips.
She quickly turned her head away, but Hoatzin could have sworn he heard a faint “Thanks” coming from her direction.
For a long while, the two of them stood in awkward silence, neither of them speaking, or even sitting down. Hoatzin’s eyes wandered around the cave with a sudden urge to look at anything but Lyka.
As he looked around, he saw several bones littered around the place, all with deep bite marks in them, and large tufts of fur had gathered in the corners, identical to that of the pelt currently wrapped around his sister. There was no doubt that this cave had once been the home of the spirit beast that had attacked them earlier, but, thinking about it now, Hoatzin couldn’t help but be a bit confused.
The cave had been surprisingly close to the area where he and Raven had been trying to understand how cold essence worked. It was still far enough away that Raven shouldn’t have been able to sense its existence, but how come she had reacted so late to the beast’s arrival? Surely, she should have sensed him coming shortly after he left the cave. And Lyka, too; her senses were perhaps not as strong as Raven’s, but she was still a Spirit Master.
He had to ask.
Lyka twitched slightly at his voice but, hearing his question, she stilled again. She shook her head. “The Snow Devil King is a spirit beast that lives of ice and snow; its presence is very similar to that of the mountain itself. Raven was focused on trying to understand the cold essence, so most likely that distracted her. As for me . . .” Lyka paused, clearly uncomfortable to say more.
Briefly, Hoatzin struggled with whether or not he should let Lyka off the hook, but since it concerned his sister’s safety he remained silent.
Eventually, Lyka sighed.
“I may be a Spirit Master, but the seal put on my race makes my perception of the world a bit different from others’. Just like with my cultivation level, what I can perceive through my spirit connections is also unlocked in batches. At the moment, I have excellent sight and sense of touch. A fellow Beastman would have to be miles away if they wanted to hide from me, but if their bloodline isn’t pure enough, then I can only rely on what I can see. Unfortunately, the Snow Devil King’s lineage doesn’t qualify, despite its strength. Grandpa would have sensed it, but not me. . . . Sorry.”
Hoatzin had not expected Lyka to apologize for anything, so his gaze finally returned to the little girl. Her head was lowered as she stared into the slowly dimming flames in front of her. She seemed so lonely and small where she stood that Hoatzin couldn’t help but feel for her. She was, after all, only a kid, separated from both her parents and her grandfather, and with most of her strength sealed away since birth. Hoatzin could relate to all of that, one way or the other.
“Don’t worry about it,” he comforted as he walked up to the bonfire. He even gave Lyka’s head a gentle rub as he passed. “My sister will be fine and we will help you with your remaining seals. I am sure of it.”
Hoatzin tended to the flames, and with his back turned to Lyka, he missed both the warm smile that spread on her face and the complicated expression that quickly replaced it. By the time he turned around, Lyka was back to her mischievous self; she snorted and rolled her eyes.
“Well aren’t you being all big-brotherly, now that you’ve got a human body and all. Shouldn’t you manage to keep that form for more than five minutes before talking about undoing my seals, Birdy?”
“Why you . . .” Hoatzin started, but before he could finish, his eyes widened slightly as his body started to glow. Moments later, Raven’s cloak fell to the ground, leaving a grumpy Hoatzin in the air, flapping his returned wings with irritation.
‘Just you wait!’ he muttered to himself, giving Lyka a resolute glare.