“Don’t put your weight on your back foot only; spread it evenly!”
“Your spirit essence is off by half a second; release it earlier!”
“Do that again! This time, engage your hips – a shriveled up shrew would move smoother!”
The commands being shouted within the dead Snow Devil King’s cave were relentless. For nearly two weeks, this stream of barked orders would return every other hour and remain for five to ten minutes before silence returned to the area around the cave.
“No more!” Hoatzin wheezed and collapsed on the floor after eight intense minutes.
“Giving up already?” Raven asked with faked surprise. “You should have at least a minute left before you turn back into a bird. . . .”
Hoatzin somehow managed to find the strength to roll over into a haphazard kowtow. “Benevolent sister, please . . . sp-spare me this once!”
“. . . Fine.”
Raven ignored the fake fawning in Hoatzin’s voice and withdrew the sword in her hand. She noted how Hoatzin breathed out in relief but she just smiled softly. However, as she returned to the slowly dancing flames in the fire pit, Raven started scratching her head pensively.
“Hmm . . . I’m a bit surprised that you still have the energy to beg, though . . .” she said after a while. “Looks like I’ll need to increase the difficulty next time.”
In the corner of her eye, Raven could see Hoatzin drastically paling, and, over by the fire, Lyka started laughing.
“Haha, good for you, Birdy!” she beamed. “The Snow Devil King may be dead, but the Devil Queen is paying close attention to your training! What an honor!”
Raven glanced over at Lyka, a malevolent glint in her eyes.
“Actually, I’ll need an assistant for this next bit. . . .”
Just that one sentence caused Lyka to instantly stop laughing while Hoatzin grunted mockingly. “Serves you right,” he muttered, earning him an evil glare from Lyka.
He couldn’t be bothered, though; with a flash of light, Hoatzin’s body disappeared and, still exhausted, his bird form soon crawled out from within his borrowed cloak.
“Get some rest while you can; we start again in two hours,” Raven warned before she closed her eyes and focused on her own breathing.
Ever since she regained consciousness, this had been Raven’s routine. For the periods Hoatzin was able to maintain his human form, Raven would help him improve his understanding of the Divine Skills he had previously been imprinted with. The time available for Hoatzin to train was short, so not a second was wasted.
Lyka tried to be more passive, doing her best to simply store the refined spirit essence Hoatzin gave her every day, but that didn’t stop Raven from engaging her in Hoatzin’s training every now and then. During these so-called training sessions, Lyka was forced to rely solely on her physical strength to spar with Hoatzin. Additionally, Raven also insisted that she wear the heaviest Limiters they had with them, weighing roughly 50 kg each. Under normal circumstances, such a weight was practically nothing for a Peak Spirit Master, but, since she wasn’t allowed to use her spirit essence, it still made fighting quite cumbersome. Thus, despite the difference in their cultivation and physical strength, the sparring still left Lyka gasping for breath, every muscle in her body sore.
The end result? Lyka disapproved of Raven’s training program even more than Hoatzin – after all, her cultivation was locked in place by her seals, so she couldn’t help but feel that her participation was pointless. However, while she protested, Lyka always ended up doing as Raven told her – much to Hoatzin’s amusement.
Once the time was up and Hoatzin reverted back to his bird form, he and Raven focused on their cultivation; Hoatzin would temporarily leave the cave to absorb the stronger cold essence outside while Raven used the spirit essence coming through Javelin’s soul prism to stabilize her spirit core and store the spirit essence.
The process was slow, and it was only thanks to Hoatzin keeping a fire burning in the cave that Raven could improve her situation at all. Still, compared to the last time Raven had her spirit core forcefully stripped of all its spirit essence, her recovery rate couldn’t be considered bad. In fact, Raven’s spirit essence reserves were almost back to normal by now, but, due to a few remaining instabilities in her spirit core and the low amount of spirit essence she had at her disposal, reaching her prime would still take quite some time.
Raven knew that she could increase the flow of spirit essence from Javelin if she opened up herself more to the bond between them, but she was reluctant to do so. Ever since she regained her consciousness, Raven’s sleep had been plagued with dreams – dreams of times long gone – and while not all of those dreams were unpleasant, Raven still wished that they would stop. She hoped the dreams would go away on their own, but was afraid that, since through gaining more spirit essence from Javelin would also mean that she would feel more of his emotions, relying too heavily on their bound souls would instead strengthen the dreams.
Had the situation been dire, Raven would have ignored this risk and absorbed all the spirit essence she could get, but the Snow Devil King’s cave was well-hidden and safe from surprise attacks. There was no danger to their lives here. Besides, the first trial had been going on for quite a while now and there couldn’t be more than a couple of days before it would all be over.
Within the cave, a few minutes had passed when Hoatzin finally managed to calm his breathing and control his heart rate. He was just about to spread his wings and fly out of the cave for his cultivation when Raven raised her hand, motioning for him to wait.
“What’s wrong?” Hoatzin asked.
“We’ve got visitors,” Raven replied. “Three of them, roughly four hundred meters below the cave entrance.”
She glanced at both Hoatzin and Lyka, noticing how they tried to strain their senses, and her lips twitched slightly. The people approaching had clearly understood the concept of cultivating with cold essence because they seemed to blend in with the surrounding landscape, shrouding them in ice and snow. Had this happened before, the sheer amount of cold essence in the air would have made her blind to the approaching threat, but now – when the cold essence seemed to reject her very existence – the presence of these people stood out like a sore thumb.
She could hear the crushing snow under their heavy feet, smell the tangy scent of sweat in the air, and even feel the slight heat their bodies gave off as they moved through the deep snow. Judging by what she could sense from their actual spirit presences, Raven was pretty sure that these three were part of the group of youths they had run into earlier.
“What do you want to do?” Lyka asked with a sly smile on her lips.
Raven shrugged and then glanced at Hoatzin. “Well, brother is in need of a new set of clothes . . . but let’s just wait for now – if they don’t bother us too soon, it might turn into a good opportunity to train.”
For once, Hoatzin’s feathers didn’t stand on edge at the mention of training. Instead, he felt excited. He could guess that Raven wished to give him the opportunity to fight these three approaching youths to test his strength – something Hoatzin was more than eager to do – but it would require him to regain his human form again. However, it would take nearly two hours before it was possible; the likelihood of those three still being around by then was low.
So they waited.
Raven paid close attention to the three youths’ path, which seemed to be oddly target-oriented; they were heading more or less straight towards the Snow Devil King’s cave! Still, their progress wasn’t fast; the winds this far up the mountain were strong, and even though the cold essence cultivation helped them assimilate to the environment, it didn’t hide them from the onslaught of random ice attacks which kept getting more vicious the further up they got.
“Damn it!” one of the youths swore as a moment’s carelessness caused him to lose his footing and slip on a patch of ice for the umpteenth time. A gust of cold air shot out from his palm, preventing him from falling, but instead triggered a cloud of snow to blow up in his face.
“Shh!” another youth hissed; “keep your voice down or we might alert the Snow Devil King!”
The first youth snorted. “So what? That beast only attacks people who are cultivating in its territory – we’re simply passing through.”
“You call searching its lair for a pair of dead girls ‘passing through’?”
“Stop your bickering!” the third youth hissed before the other could offer a reply. “We don’t have a lot of time if we’re gonna be back before noon as Isskul commanded. Let’s just quietly poke our heads into the cave, and if we don’t see what we’re looking for, we’ll head back for now.”
The youth who had spoken first moaned, clearly not thrilled with the prospect of repeating the journey up the mountain if they failed to locate their targets, but didn’t further voice his complains.
Raven, on the other hand, curled her lips into a sneer. ‘So they did know about the Snow Devil King. . . .’ She had suspected as much, since, although Isskul had been genuinely afraid of her, he had still been a bit too quick when he gave up the location of a better cultivation ground so readily. If they knew it existed and was possible to access for low Spirit Masters, why didn’t they train there themselves?
At the time, Raven had decided to ignore this fact – they had, after all, already reached the end of their rope and didn’t have that many other options to go by. However, this didn’t mean that she would forgive such white lies.
‘Noon, huh?’ Raven quietly considered her options. Going by the light outside, there was a little bit over an hour left before the hidden sun would reach its highest point. She glanced at Hoatzin, her crooked smile causing the latter to swallow nervously.
“Do you really think they’re dead?” the most talkative youth asked as they continued to approach the cave. He kept his voice considerably lower now, but Raven still had no problem hearing what he said.
“Of course they’re dead. Isskul said it before: the bitch who threatened him was definitely that other girl who was hanging out with that swindler before. The blood-lust must have been from some artifact; how else could someone under twenty have that kind of killing intent? We were tricked because we were taken off guard, but the Snow Devil King is different. No trick like that will work against it.”
“Be quiet! We are almost there!” the third youth reprimanded yet again. “Stay alert! We will check if their corpses are here and then leave at once; the Snow Devil King is not a spirit beast we can kill on our own.”
Inside the cave, Raven was no longer the only one who could sense the youths’ approach, and both Lyka and Hoatzin were looking at her intently, waiting for her orders.
“One low Spirit Master and two peak Champions,” Raven declared. “Lyka, let us make a quick one out of these three and then wait for the reinforcements. Brother, focus on speeding up your recovery.”
Neither Lyka nor Hoatzin needed more instructions to be able to guess Raven’s intentions. Hoatzin swiftly flew deeper into the cave and soon sat perched on what looked like the withered rib-bone of some large animal. He controlled his breathing and quickly descended into a meditative state. Lyka, on the other hand, moved closer to the cave entrance. Her favored weapon, the ominous-looking double-edged scythe, was too large to fit inside the cave, but, through her posture, Raven could tell that Lyka was ready to withdraw it from her spacial ring with just a heartbeat’s notice.
“You take the low Spirit Master – it’s the one closest to the cave entrance at the moment – I’ll take the other two,” Raven instructed Lyka. “Don’t let them signal for their companions.”
Lyka nodded in response. Just as Raven was about to give the signal to attack, she paused for a moment.
“Oh, and try to not damage their clothes.”