Days passed, and soon it had been an entire week since Raven fell unconscious. In the cave, Hoatzin and Lyka sat vigil by Raven’s side, closely monitoring her condition. It had been a pressing time; while Raven was unconscious, the group was very vulnerable to attack and the constant risk of being found by someone – or something – was mentally taxing. Something that wasn’t made easier by their concern for Raven’s recovery. At the same time, Hoatzin had to share whatever spirit essence he could from the cold essence both with Lyka and with the flames that kept Raven warm.
“Eri-. . . -ou. . .”
Soft mumbles drifted out from within the bundle of fur that was Raven. This had become an increasingly common occurrence as Raven’s spirit core grew more stable, but Hoatzin still flew to his sister’s side, diligently checking her vital signs.
Satisfied that nothing had worsened, he gently brushed some hairs out of Raven’s face with his wing, revealing her young face. Despite the sickly pale tone of her skin, Raven’s beauty was still undeniable. Normally, her cold expression would make her seem like an unreachable ice queen that ruled over anything she saw, but now, as she was sleeping, her appearance was softer. Cute, even.
‘Some killing machine you are,’ Hoatzin murmured to himself and gently sent some nurturing spirit essence through her body.
“She can’t absorb that, you know. . . .” Lyka commented as she observed Hoatzin’s actions.
Hoatzin glanced up at Lyka, not stopping the flow of spirit essence. “Her spirit core might not absorb it, but at least it helps her stay healthy.”
“Javelin’s spirit essence is already doing that; this just drains you too.”
Even as a bird, Hoatzin managed to raise an eyebrow in surprise. “If I did not know better, I would assume that you are concerned for me, Lyka.”
“You wish, Birdy!” Lyka snorted and rolled her eyes. “If you want to split your share of the spirit essence with someone who doesn’t need it, fine by me – just don’t go lessening my daily dose because of it.”
It was Hoatzin’s turn to snort, but he gave no further retorts, letting the cave return to its quiet state. Once confident that his sister was fine, Hoatzin soundlessly returned to his spot near the cave entrance.
Had she been conscious, Raven would no doubt have been slightly shocked by the interaction between the two of them. As it was, her consciousness was too far away to even notice, but suddenly . . .
The unexpected scream shocked both Lyka and Hoatzin into action; within fractions of a second, they were on their feet – Lyka facing the cave entrance with her scythe drawn while Hoatzin covered her back, his bare, human arms instantly ablaze with flames. As far as they were concerned, they would defend this cave against whatever threat might fall upon it, no matter where it came from.
Fighting simply to catch her breath, Raven barely noticed the two’s actions as she forced herself to breathe in and out at paced intervals, quickly regaining her calm.
“Sister!” Hoatzin called as he finally laid eyes on Raven. Without hesitation, he rushed to her side. “You are finally awake!”
Raven, however, did not answer him immediately, her thoughts still too mixed up. Glancing around the cave, Raven’s mind settled a bit as the past and the present started to sort themselves out. She was partaking in the Myriad Tournament’s first trial and had passed out after defending Hoatzin from the Snow Devil King’s attack. This was the present reality; what she had seen earlier . . . was the past.
With somewhat distant eyes, Raven looked at Hoatzin, and finally her expression cleared; it would seem that her attempt to save him had been successful, at least. This was all that mattered at the moment.
Comforted, Raven’s gaze traveled from her brother to Lyka and then back again.
“I see you’ve become more . . . liberal while I was unconscious.”
The comment was directed at Hoatzin, but for a moment he didn’t seem to understand what Raven was hinting at. However, realization quickly dawned on him. Hoatzin coughed and pulled on the cloak he had borrowed from Raven, muttering; “It is more a question of priorities; I would rather protect my family than my dignity.”
Raven’s smile became more honest. It was a good answer; Hoatzin was maturing well.
“How do you feel, Raven?” Lyka suddenly asked, swiftly shifting the attention away from herself and Hoatzin.
“Tired,” Raven replied honestly, letting her brother’s matters go . . . for now, at least.
She leaned back into the pelt she had been wrapped in, seemingly oblivious to the foul odor it gave off. Looking within herself, Raven found her soul prism and spirit connections intact, but her spirit core was almost as good as empty, its edges still a bit blurred. It would take a while longer before it was restored completely, but at least her spirit essence reserve was starting to fill up again.
As Raven watched, she was surprised to find that the spirit essence that was gathering in her core became significantly stronger than before; the vortex spun faster and its orange hue was considerably brighter, even with a light tint of yellow to it.
“How is it?” Hoatzin asked, not satisfied by Raven’s initial response.
“It would seem that I’ve broken through to a peak Champion,” Raven replied, but her voice was not sounding too pleased about it.
Her brother naturally didn’t miss her odd mood; “Is something wrong?” he asked.
“. . . well, I can no longer absorb any cold essence.”
Both Hoatzin and Lyka drew in a sharp breath of air; it was one thing to not be able to control the cold essence, but to not be able to absorb it at all? That was preposterous. Although a bit different from normal spirit essence in its characteristics, cold essence was still – at its core – spirit essence. Some of it should flow in through Raven’s spirit connections, whether she wanted it to or not.
“How about norm-. . .”
“Of course she can still absorb regular spirit essence!” Hoatzin didn’t get to finish his question before Lyka snapped, cutting him off with a tone of voice that sounded less certain than her words would imply. “If not, how could she get spirit essence from Fish Boy’s soul prism?”
“But those are not actually her spirit connections! What if . . .”
It was Raven’s turn to interrupt; “Don’t worry, brother,” she reassured. “I just feel . . . cut off from the cold essence, that is all. The snow and ice, even the freezing temperature in the air, none of it feels as cold to me anymore.” Raven paused, trying to put words to how the world looked to her now. “I can still sense that it’s there, but it feels less alive now – less . . . related to me.”
Hoatzin gasped in shock while pity filled Lyka’s eyes as they realized what Raven was implying: with the cold essence gone, her senses had been cut off from anything cold. At first glance, the notion might not seem too bad, but both youths knew better than that.
Lyka’s spirit connections were partially sealed, so she knew better than most the consequence of only sensing some parts of the world. As for Hoatzin, after his soul had gained over fifty spirit connections, Hoatzin’s mind had been opened to the wonders of sensing the world through his mind.
Every detail within his detection range was so vivid and alive that it could even be a bit overwhelming at times, but even if it became overwhelming all the time, Hoatzin wouldn’t give up his sharper senses for the world. They made him feel connected, to the point where everything he sensed became a mere extension of his body. The notion of losing part of that felt equivalent to losing his own arm.
Raven noticed their reactions but just shrugged. She would make do either way.
“But how!?” Hoatzin pushed when he saw his sister’s indifference.
Raven shrugged again.
“I think it has something to do with my Divine Skill Retribution. I was attempting to use it against the Snow Devil King, but the difference in strength was too great for me to handle.” Raven didn’t elaborate further, partially because she herself wasn’t entirely sure what had happened but also because she didn’t want to worry her brother. “Don’t worry, brother. With the cold essence blocked off, I can actually sense the life outside better than I did before; it’s no longer shrouded by all that ice.”
Raven patted Hoatzin on his shoulder, giving it a comforting squeeze, but she could tell from his expression that he wasn’t convinced. Before he could voice his opinions, Raven sat up, her hands cupping Hoatzin’s face.
“Shh. . . .” Raven hushed, turning her brother’s face left and right. A warm smile formed on her lips. “You really look a lot like father.”
Raven’s comment caught the words Hoatzin had intended to say in his throat. Moisture filled his deep, brown eyes that were heavy with both love and loss.
“You really think so?”
Raven chuckled and tracked Hoatzin’s brow with her thumb. “If you disregard the feathers, that is.”
Hoatzin blinked before the two of them burst out laughing. Their laughter continued for quite a while before Hoatzin suddenly stopped and instead embraced Raven in a tight hug.
“Ten years ago, I made an oath to you and our parents, and I intend to keep it. Don’t ever do that again! Okay, Little Raven?”
Feeling her brother’s strong arms around her as he berated her with a soft whisper, Raven momentarily blanked. Hoatzin didn’t need to be more specific for her to understand what he meant. Hesitating slightly, Raven returned her brother’s hug. She said nothing, but both understood her silence.
A few steps away, Lyka watched the hugging siblings with a complicated look in her eyes. However, shaking her head, Lyka’s gaze quickly regained its usual, mischievous light.
“Five . . . four . . . three . . .” Quietly, Lyka started counting backwards and, as she reached zero, a bright light suddenly enveloped Hoatzin, quickly returning him to his feathered form.
Raven bit her lower lip, fighting back a smile. Lyka, however, made no such attempts, and instantly roared with laughter as she pointed a shaking finger at Hoatzin. After struggling out from within the cloak that he had been wearing in his human form, Hoatzin appeared with his feathers ruffled beyond recognition; he looked like nothing short of a levitating ball of feathers!
“Very funny,” Hoatzin muttered as he used his spirit essence to swiftly straighten out all his feathers in one go. He sounded annoyed, but his eyes revealed the relief he was feeling in his heart.
“You’ve improved,” Raven noted; “You kept your human form longer than before.”
“Not by much. I have just gotten a bit more used to it; only when my spirit core becomes stronger will I be able to truly lengthen the time I can stay human.” Hoatzin explained and, seeing Raven’s raised eyebrows, he quickly added: “or so Lyka says, anyway.”
Raven turned her attention to Lyka, who quickly stifled her laughter. She gave Raven a nod. “The Beastmen are well versed in the requirements of human transformation. I’ve been teaching Birdy here-. . .”
“Ho-a-tzin,” Hoatzin interrupted, but Lyka just rolled her eyes.
“As I was saying, I have been teaching Birdy here a few tricks while we waited for you to regain consciousness.”
“How long was I out?” Raven asked.
“Just over a week,” Hoatzin replied.
Surprise flashed by in Raven’s eyes, but she quickly brushed it off; in the end, it didn’t really matter how long she had been out of it, since they were all more or less okay and the trial was still going on. Raven glanced around the cave.
“We are in the Snow Devil King’s lair,” she concluded without needing any confirmation. “Did you have any trouble?”
“You mean apart from dragging you here and listening to your dreamy moaning for a week?” Lyka teased and quickly ducked from a flaming ball of fire that was sent flying towards her head.
“Be silent, you minx!” Hoatzin roared at Lyka before turning to his sister. “We had no trouble, sister. This cave is naturally hidden from view and seems to be yet another safe spot; the random ice attacks don’t happen here. Besides, I’ve been feeding that ungrateful little minx spirit essence; even if something would have happened, she would have been able to deal with it.”
“Oi, I’m a Celestial Valkyrie Wolf, not some lame mink!” Lyka snapped back, but both Raven and Hoatzin ignored her.
“You’ve truly mastered the cold essence?” Raven asked instead and Hoatzin nodded his head.
“It’s really not that hard. While we were meditating before, I suddenly realized that this cold essence is very much like the spirit essence we get in Spirit Halls on the Day of Light. The only difference is that instead of simply wanting to revitalize and improve everything, the cold essence wants to freeze it as well.”
Hoatzin landed on Raven’s lap and rubbed his beak with his wing.
“I took a gamble at that point and totally stopped resisting the cold, and before I knew it, the cold essence gave in, allowing me to control it. It is hard to explain, really. . . . Now, every time I circle the cold essence through my spirit core, it partially purifies, becoming more like regular spirit essence.”
Raven listen carefully to her brother’s explanation, but could only nod her head at his achievement. Even if she had been starting to grasp what Hoatzin was explaining, the cold essence would no longer peacefully enter her body, so that type of cultivation was impossible for her at the moment.
“So what now?” The sudden question came from Lyka, who had wandered over and now squatted a few feet from Raven. She no longer seemed upset about the whole minx thing and instead watched Raven with intense eyes. “I bet those kids earlier knew about that Snow Devil King. They didn’t seem too upset about telling us about this place. Should we . . .”
Raven’s gaze darkened; she agreed with Lyka. Earlier, Raven had heard the leader youth, Isskul, bark at his subordinate as they left, but had not had the energy to focus on what was said. Fact was that even if she had heard them talk about the beast, she would still have braved the higher parts of the mountain for the chance of learning to control the cold essence, but she would have gone about it differently.
“No need to rush. If they had planned for this, I’m sure they will come to us before the trial ends. If not, we will still have time to . . . thank them later on.” A red glint flashed by in Raven’s eyes before they were restored to their calm and cold state. “Besides, at the moment, I need to focus on regaining my strength, and as for you . . .”
Raven looked down on her brother with a wide smile on her lips. For some reason, a shudder ran down Hoatzin’s spine, his body suddenly stiff with apprehension.
“I was observing you closely while you fought with the Snow Devil King, and the two of us have some training to do.”
Raven’s smile widened, but Hoatzin only felt more afraid. Suddenly, he wondered how he could ever have considered his little sister cute.