The three youths were less than three meters away from the entrance to the Snow Devil King’s cave when the hair on the backs of their necks suddenly stood on end. For a moment, the world seemed to slow down around them as an acute sense of crisis washed over them.
Faintly, they could hear the soft chiming of bells in the distance, but before they could react, two petite figures had already emerged from within the cave.
The first one was small – barely over a meter tall – but was overshadowed by the ominous scythe that appeared in her hand. A white mist wrapped itself around the scythe’s blade, forming the illusion of a light halo appearing around her as she swung the weapon towards the neck of the youth closest to her. The low Spirit Master tried to defend himself, but the girl’s appearance and movements had been too quick; his head fell to the ground, staining the snow red with blood.
The two men who were still standing were frozen with fear. For a brief moment, they felt relief – relief that they hadn’t rushed ahead of their friend – but when they tried to turn and run away, they realized that their bodies wouldn’t obey them.
Only now did they register the soft sound of bells chiming in their ears. Unable to move, the two youths glanced to the side, their eyes falling on the black-cloaked person standing less than a meter away. Midnight-purple hair framed the young girl’s stoic face, as she stared at them with a cold smile on her lips. She held one short-sword in each hand and drops of blood bloomed like red flowers in the snow beneath her.
It was a macabre yet mesmerizing sight.
As they stared at her in fearful awe, the light in the eyes of the two youths slowly faded. By the time they finally died, they had yet to realize what had happened, their bodies still standing upright.
Flicking the blood away from her swords, Raven eyed Lyka’s large scythe. “Your handling of that thing is impressive.”
“This?” Lyka spun her weapon over her head, skillfully disposing of the blood that had gathered on its blade.
Raven nodded. She had practiced with all manner of weapons in her past life, but scythes had never really caught her attention. Not only were they practically obsolete in her world, the few that existed were cumbersome and not really fit for battle. The one in Lyka’s hands was different, however. It was double-edged and had a heavy, mace-like spike at the far end of the shaft that helped balance it. Clearly, it was a weapon designed to kill and, as far as Raven could tell, it was also made entirely from soul ore – an extremely expensive feat and nigh impossible in a realm like Trinity.
“It’s a family heirloom,” Lyka explained with a faint smile, the mirth not quite reaching her eyes.
Raven could tell that there was more to the story than Lyka was letting on, but she didn’t really care; as long the weapon worked in combat, what did the origin matter? Instead, Raven turned her attention to the deceased youths.
The battle had been done with faster than she had expected, and Raven couldn’t help but wonder if these three had had abnormally weak minds; she had used neither the Ode of Woe nor Redemption this time around, for fear of draining too much of her spirit essence, but they had still been too afraid to defend themselves properly. She had instead relied on two different levels of the Sonic Swords – Dance of Bells as she moved in for the kill and a double Silent Pierce for the actual killing strikes. Considering the discrepancy in cultivation levels, Raven had expected at least some level of resistance, and yet. . . .
Raven sighed. ‘What a waste of spirit essence.’
Had she known they would be so easily dealt with, she wouldn’t have utilized the small sonic burst of the Dance of Bells that allowed her blade movement to become more erratic and unpredictable.
“Let’s collect their valuables and clothes.” No longer dwelling on the matter, Raven started instructing Lyka. “Then we bury all traces of this.”
“Yes ma’am!” Lyka replied with playful sarcasm, rolling her eyes, but she nonetheless quickly got to work.
Once more inside the cave, Raven inspected her brother. He was already in deep meditation, a frosty shimmer filling the air around him.
“Look what I found!” Lyka chimed happily as she, too, entered the cave.
“Shh,” Raven hissed; “don’t disturb him.” She nodded in Hoatzin’s direction.
“Yeah, yeah,” Lyka muttered, “but look at this.”
With the flick of her thumb, a small ring flew out towards Raven, which the latter easily caught.
“A spacial ring?” Raven frowned.
Being prompted, Raven sent a strand of her spirit essence into the ring and was not surprised to find a storage area that was significantly larger than that of her own spacial ring – the Trinity Continent was, after all, way behind when it came to forging spirit artifacts. Something that did surprise her, though, was that the large space was virtually empty, except for one scroll.
Raven pulled it out of the ring and inspected it more closely; even before opening it, she could tell that the scroll contained a Divine Skill, and a fairly high-level one at that – at least level 6, judging by the intensity of the spirit essence ripple it gave off. Shockingly enough, the scroll also had a purple glow to it, something Raven had yet to see before. On the side it read, Frost Beast Fortification.
“Have you heard of this?” Raven asked Lyka as she started unrolling the scroll.
“I haven’t,” Lyka replied, shaking her head; “but take a look at it – won’t it fit Birdy there perfectly?”
Raven glanced up from the scroll. It had been less than a minute since Lyka came into the room, and yet she had already urged Raven three times to ‘look’ at the scroll; the girl was unusually enthusiastic about this Divine Skill.
With the corner of her lips curled into a barely noticeable smile, Raven started reading the context of the scroll and quite quickly came to agree that Lyka had a valid point. Frost Beast Fortification was a rare defense type Martial Divine Skill that allowed the practitioner to condense cold essence into the very cells of their body, strengthening it noticeably. The skill had both passive and active benefits, since it not only hardened the body’s tissue in general but could also be enhanced further for brief periods, then forming a protective layer of ice, effectively shielding from penetrative strikes.
For Hoatzin, however, its biggest benefit was that this Divine Skill wasn’t affected by what body the practitioner had; it could be a spiritualist, a spirit beast, or possibly even some other life form – as long as they could control cold essence, they could use it to strengthen their body.
Raven raised an eyebrow and gave Lyka a quizzical look. The latter seemed to understand her suspicion; “Hey, don’t look at me like that – I found it in the spacial ring!” When Raven still didn’t give up her stare, Lyka scratched her cheek guiltily. “Well, there might have been some other things in the ring at the time . . . but I’m just collecting everything in one place. You don’t mind, right?”
“. . . Right.”
Raven really didn’t mind, but was there really such a coincidence? Hoatzin had always been lacking Skills he could use in his bird form, and now that his major issue was getting enough time to practice his human ones, a Divine Skill he could utilize in both forms showed up. Not to mention that the people who delivered it to them didn’t seem to have practiced any type of defense skill at all.
However, regardless of how the Divine Skill had ended up in their hands, they had it now and it would indeed be perfect for Hoatzin to learn it. Raven tossed the scroll back to Lyka and kept the spacial ring for herself.
“Give it to him once he’s done recuperating. I’ll keep watch.”
Without further ado, Raven walked over to the cave entrance and sat down on the cold stone with closed eyes. In her mind, the vast expanse of the mountain spread out in front of her. For her senses, there was no snow or biting cold, but, within a kilometer from the cave entrance, not even a sigh could escape her attention.
Time went on and, before long, noon – the appointed time for the dead youths’ return to their camp – came and went. Hoatzin had just stopped his recuperation when Raven called out from her position at the cave entrance.
“Two more people are approaching.” She clicked her tongue in disappointment. “Both are low spirit masters.”
Out of the eleven youths they had seen before, only five had broken through to the Spirit Master realm, but already three of them had turned up here.
“No training for me, then?” Hoatzin asked, not really believing his luck.
Raven glanced over her shoulder, her eyes telling him that he was indeed in no such luck.
“These may be out of your reach, but the fact that they are here means that the remaining six will pose less of a challenge. Lyka, let’s repeat our previous exercise and then go looking for the others.”
“We’ll kill them all?” Lyka asked, her tone sounding more chipper than the subject at hand warranted.
“Kill?” Hoatzin frowned, and looked from his sister to Lyka and back again, noting their mutual agreement to Lyka’s question. “You killed the other three?”
Both ladies turned to look at Hoatzin; one had cold eyes, the other a more mischievous glint, but both seemed to ask why he had asked such an obvious question.
“Did you really need to kill them? Would it not have been enough to knock them out?”
“And let the weather do the job?” Lyka countered. “They wouldn’t have survived more than a few minutes.”
“But in the cave . . .”
“They could have woken up and stabbed us in the back, Birdy. Why so reluctant? They did try to kill us.”
“Yes, well. . . .” Hoatzin was unsure how to respond. Lyka did have a point, and he had long since learned that being lenient to your enemies only meant punishing yourself further down the road, but were these youths really their enemies? It didn’t feel like it.
He looked towards Raven, hoping for some guidance.
“If you wish to spare them, I can abide by it – just be sure not to regret it later.”
Hoatzin hesitated for a moment before he shook his head. “They tried to kill us; no need to hold back.”
Lyka’s mouth curled into a satisfied smile while Raven’s expression remained unchanged. Hoatzin met his sister’s gaze and couldn’t help but wonder what she was thinking, but the latter just maintained eye contact for a moment before turning away.
“Then it’s time to go. Remember the fighting tactics we discussed before, Hoatzin.”
Raven slipped out of the cave, closely followed by Lyka. Hoatzin only paused for a moment longer before he, too, left the cave. As he passed by his makeshift bonfire, he swooped down to pick up a spacial ring with his talons; he would need the ring’s contents soon enough, but had yet to figure out a practical way to carry it around that didn’t break when he transformed.
Once outside, Hoatzin soared into the sky. The weather was harsher there, and it was only thanks to his adaptation to cold essence that he could bear being there at all. The heavy snowfall also made it harder for him to see anything, but he was currently not relying on his own eyes to see; Raven was utilizing the connection between them to send her view of the world to Hoatzin and Lyka. With this benefit, Hoatzin could use the snow and clouds as cover, giving him the perfect vantage point for a surprise attack.
It didn’t take long for Raven and Lyka to cover the distance that separated them from the two approaching youths. Even when they were hundreds of meters away, Raven could share their conversation with Hoatzin, allowing him to hear the two’s persistent whining over being sent to fetch their friends and how they comforted themselves with all the riches they were likely to be able to pilfer from Lyka’s beast-eaten body. In fact, their greatest concern quickly turned into whether or not the Snow Devil King was likely to have swallowed Lyka’s spacial ring as it chewed down her tender flesh.
Hearing their conversation, what little resistance Hoatzin had against taking these people’s lives vanished. The thought of the pair’s smug faces as they talked about Lyka’s demise caused Hoatzin’s eyes to distort with anger, and he only felt relieved when the girls below finally sprang into action.
Just like before, the kills where swift and almost effortless; one of the youths managed to sense that something was wrong and actually pulled his weapon just in time to block Lyka’s swing with her deadly scythe. Unfortunately for him, Lyka simply twisted the handle of her enormous weapon, and pressed on. As a consequence, the youth’s sword only managed to strike against the staff part of the scythe while the curved blade continued forward, easily decapitating the man.
Raven, on the other hand, wasn’t noticed until it was too late, and her target never got the chance to muster up any form of defense. A muffled boom rang out as Raven’s sword effortlessly stabbed through the youth’s throat, causing the falling snowflakes around her to pulsate visibly.
After the deed was done, Raven and Lyka only lingered long enough to collect the pair’s spacial rings before they continued to descend the mountain. With every step they took, the attacks from the mountain itself grew less intense, but, since Hoatzin’s breakthrough had let both Lyka and Raven restore quite a lot of their spirit essence, it didn’t really matter to them either way.
“We’re almost there,” Raven eventually warned. They were approaching the first safe-zone, and judging by Raven’s senses, all six of the remaining youths were present. They did, however, seem to be working on something, because they were in constant movement.
“Hurry! We must gather as many Ice Cores as possible before we leave.” It was the now familiar voice of Isskul, shouting out orders to his followers. “Dammit, where are Snoflak and the rest? Don’t they know we’re running out of time?”
Unbeknownst to the toiling youths in the valley, Hoatzin watched from above as Raven and Lyka crept closer to the edge of the mountain, their movements completely soundless. Like two lionesses eyeing their prey, both girls observed the six people bellow.
“Brother, are you ready to try those new battle tactics we’ve been working on?” Raven asked without looking away from the valley.
Hoatzin swallowed, but his gaze quickly filled with determination.