Raven watched the youths below in silence; she was waiting for the right moment. Minutes trickled by and she could see Isskul’s annoyance growing as the appointed meeting time grew further and further away. He started pacing more between his comrades, urging them to work faster – they could take their frustration out on the others once they returned.
“The blocks they’re digging out are really heavy with cold essence,” Hoatzin suddenly commented, his voice laced with excitement. “If I can get my hands on some of them, I might be able to advance my cultivation!”
Raven’s eyes narrowed slightly. Looking at the icy cubes the youths were collecting, she felt no spirit essence from them at all. Just as Raven was about to speak, the shift she had been waiting for happened. In the valley, the two remaining low Spirit Masters – not counting Isskul – finally moved into a position where they were within an arm’s reach of each other. Further off, one of the high Champions had become isolated, while Isskul was right in the middle of a larger group of Spirit Champions. Isskul’s position wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t likely they’d get a better opportunity than this.
“Brother, the loner is yours. Lyka, can you handle the two low Spirit Masters?”
Lyka snorted. “Do you even have to ask?”
Raven rolled her eyes; the wolf-eared girl had after all been practically drained of spirit essence not too long ago – she’d barely been able to walk on her own at that point.
“I’ll take care of the group around the leader – join me once your tasks are done.”
With her companions’ confirmation, Raven didn’t wait any longer; “Go!”
Up in the air, Hoatzin saw a faint layer of spirit essence enveloping his sister and Lyka before the two of them started to move forward with silent yet unbelievable speed; not even the spirit essence they used to run faster leaked out from the thin shield surrounding the two of them.
‘Void Tracker,’ Hoatzin thought, easily recognizing the Divine Skill his sister had employed – it hid them perfectly. Well, almost. Hoatzin didn’t have time to be idle. He shifted his wings and, like a falling star, his small body plummeted towards the ground. In an instant, his feathers where covered with embers, making his already brightly red body glow even stronger.
Contrary to Lyka and Raven’s approach, Hoatzin’s charge was not in the least discreet. As expected, all of the youths in the valley looked up from what they were doing, instantly spotting Hoatzin’s flaming descent, but when they realized it was just a small bird with strength equivalent to a low Champion, all of them relaxed. Only the lone youth who was Hoatzin’s target bothered to remain somewhat vigilant. He stood up and brought out a sword from within his spacial ring, clearly preparing to swat away the pestering spirit beast that didn’t seem to know its own strength.
Adrenaline was pounding in Hoatzin’s ears. Within less than a second he had gone over his attack plan several times in his mind.
100 meters. . .
50 meters. . .
10 meters. . .
When he was just over three meters from the youth, Hoatzin’s body exploded with light. Momentarily blinded, the youth had yet to recover when Hoatzin’s flame-covered palm smashed into the former’s temple. The youth was taken completely by surprise, but Hoatzin’s attack didn’t end there; a thumb-thick icicle materialized in his hand and, utilizing the fact that the youth was more focused on his lost balance, Hoatzin pushed the icicle up through the soft area underneath the jaw of his opponent.
Instantly, the light faded from the youth’s eyes. He was dead, and Hoatzin could feel the warm blood running over his hands.
For a moment, the world seemed to stop around Hoatzin. He didn’t notice the surprised and angry shouts from the fallen boy’s companions, nor did he notice how their raging counterattack was forced to a stop when Raven and Lyka appeared, their blades claiming lives as easily as if they were cutting flowers.
He had killed a man. By his own hands, he had killed a man.
“. . .”
Lyka’s voice rang out next to Hoatzin’s ear, snapping his consciousness back to reality. He blinked and looked around in confusion. Five people had already lost their lives and, of the remaining two, Isskul was bleeding badly as he stood between Raven and his last remaining companion.
“. . .” Hoatzin didn’t know what to say. He looked down at his right hand; it was soaked in blood that had already started to turn brown due to the heat radiating from Hoatzin’s still smoldering skin.
“Your first?” Lyka asked privately, a rare tone of compassion and understanding in her voice.
Hoatzin nodded, still absentminded. He had seen plenty of death in his life – he had even wished it upon others with great fervor – but he had never been the one to do the deed. It felt . . . unnatural.
Just as Hoatzin was about to sink back into his confused state, Lyka snorted and burst out in laughter.
“What!?” Hoatzin snapped, not at all amused by her reaction.
“N-nothing,” Lyka forced out between laughs, “it’s just . . . your coat!”
Hoatzin looked down. The coat was on backwards.
“Ha ha, it’s like you’re wearing a giant bib!” Lyka laughed even harder and Hoatzin’s face turned red with embarrassment. He had been practicing using Raven’s old spacial ring to put on his cloak while he transformed, sparing him the awkwardness of always appearing naked, but the heat of the moment had caused him to pay less attention to his clothes.
“Lyka, a hand.” Raven’s cold voice cut through Lyka’s laughter, causing the latter to shudder and force an apologetic smile on her face.
“Coming!” she chimed, and Hoatzin sighed in relief as the young girl bounced over to his sister’s side. He quickly rearranged his robes, before he, too, turned his attention back to Raven and Isskul – the dead youth at his side at least temporarily forgotten.
Raven and Isskul were staring at one another – Isskul’s eyes filled with anger and shock, Raven’s cold and indifferent as usual. Even now, he seemed to be having a hard time wrapping his head around what had happened.
“You, you killed all my people!”
“Not yet, no,” Raven replied matter-of-factly, glancing at the shivering youth behind Isskul.
“Why?” Lyka laughed. “Did you not mean for us to be killed by the Snow Devil King? We are simply returning the favor. Without relying on someone else for the dirty work, of course.”
Lyka released some of her spirit essence, the overbearing pressure of a peak Spirit Master indisputable. Isskul’s face paled.
“Yep,” Lyka replied without waiting for the question. “I was a bit drained the last time we met, but now. . . .” She looked over at Raven. “Want me to finish him off? You’ll have to use a lot of spirit essence to do it here.”
Despite his fear, Isskul snorted. “A mere Champion? Don’t insult my strength!”
“Oh?” Lyka glanced at Isskul’s bleeding arm. Noticing her gaze, the youth moved his hand to cover the wound.
“I was taken by surprise, that’s all.”
Raven sighed, and Hoatzin could guess that his sister had grown bored of the youth. Surely enough, it only took a heartbeat before Raven spoke; “Get it over with.”
The oversized scythe reappeared in Lyka’s hands. With a slight sneer on her face, Lyka raised her weapon and dashed forwards. However, just as the huge blade was about to descend, an odd expression flashed across the girl’s face.
“Turn back into a bird!” she shouted in Hoatzin’s head, and in the next instant a strange, suctioning force enveloped them. With a flash, the snowy white landscape distorted and disappeared, returning the surroundings to that odd, floating space they had been in just before the first trial started.
Not bothering to halt her swing, Lyka’s scythe cut through the empty air. Hoatzin caught her glancing his way – no doubt confirming that he had managed to return to his feathered form – before she snorted in dissatisfaction.
“Tch, he got away.”
A few meters away, a familiar small figure shimmered into existence.
“Congratulations, Trinity representatives, you have passed the first trial,” the colorless youth said with just as little emotion as he had presented before. “Your adaptions to the environment was perhaps not . . . conventional,” the youth paused and gave the three of them meaningful stares; “but you survived nonetheless.”
The small boy waved his hand and a large door appeared in the air, much in the same way the gateway for the first trial had.
“Your teacher is on the other side. You have twenty-seven hours before the next trial starts; use your time well.” Having said what was needed, the small boy snapped his fingers and disappeared with a puff of smoke.
“So much theatrics,” Lyka murmured, rolling her eyes. She turned to Hoatzin. “Make sure not to switch to your human form when we’re not in a trial, Birdy; our hosts might notice that it’s your true form and remove your spirit pet title.”
Hoatzin nodded frantically to indicate that he understood. He wanted to stay with his sister at all costs.
“Shall we?” Lyka gestured towards the hovering door.
Raven didn’t answer, simply heading for the exit, with Hoatzin joining her on her shoulder. Behind them, Lyka shrugged before following after them.
Needless to say, Headmaster Swan breathed a big sigh of relief when he saw Raven and her group walking into the room reserved for Trinity continent participants and their followers. He quickly started interrogating them about their experiences in the first trial, and Lyka held nothing back as she vividly replayed what they had gone through.
Watching her, Raven couldn’t help but think back to her younger childhood days, when Hoatzin would put up one-man plays for her, teaching her every legend he knew. A small smile spread on her lips from the memory.
Thinking up to here, Raven took a closer look at Headmaster Swan. She frowned slightly, and before the old teacher had a chance to react, Raven had taken a hold of his wrist, pushing her spirit essence into his body.
The headmaster finally realized what was going on and pulled back, but it was too late.
“Explain,” Raven insisted.
“It’s nothing,” the man assured her, waving his hand dismissively.
“Nothing? There are traces of the dark spirit essence in you.” Her insight caused the headmaster to twitch slightly. “You’ve been in contact with Gadwall, haven’t you?” Raven pushed, a red glow flashing in her eyes.
Swan sighed. “It is really nothing. . . We made a bet and I lost, that’s all.”
Raven crossed her arms, clearly not accepting such an understated explanation. Giving in to his fate, the headmaster had no choice but to retell everything that had happened.
Apparently, all guests of the competitors had spent the past month in the same place; a viewing platform of sorts. It was a huge coliseum-like structure that could house millions of people, giving everyone a separate room with substantial area to live and observe the stage at the center. This early on in the tournament, the trials were not broadcast, but later on, everyone would be able to freely pick which participant they wanted to follow.
Just like with the entrances to the trial grounds, the living areas of the different realms were sorted by alphabetical order, so the Trinity area and the Trivian area had ended up fairly close to each other. Seeing as Trinity was such an insignificant and weak realm – and with a representative who had made many enemies to boot – Headmaster Swan had decided to just remain in his designated room, not venturing about with the risk of stirring up further problems.
Gadwall, however, had other plans.
It had only taken a day before there was a light knock on the door. Before the headmaster had a chance to register who it was, Gadwall had already made his way into the room. The headmaster wasn’t keen on going into details about what had been said, but, in his rage, Swan had somehow agreed to a perseverance challenge. The loser would have to receive two slaps from the other. Swan had lost.
At this point, Raven was force to ask: “A perseverance challenge? What is that?”
“An age-old tradition among the top realms,” Lyka replied before the headmaster had a chance to, her eyes holding a tint of mockery. “When they decided to put together a governing council, the perseverance challenge was their way to allow weaker races to still be able to get their voices heard. During such a challenge, all spirit essence is sealed up and the strength of your physical body exhausted. After that, both participants are put under mountain-like pressure until one of them either gives up or loses consciousness.”
“There is such a thing?” Hoatzin sounded amazed. “It actually sounds like a fairly fair way to settle a disagreement.”
Lyka snorted. “You think? You are way too naive, Birdy. There is more than just spirit essence and physical strength to the top realms’ inhabitants. Almost all of them have some form of innate ability, allowing them to bear the pressure much more easily. The Trivians are no exception.” She looked over at Headmaster Swan. “You’ve been played, old man.”
Swan sighed again. “I know. I knew it the moment I saw that bastard’s smug smile when I agreed to the challenge, but I’d rather lose with dignity than step back in this case. Either way, I received the slaps and that was that.”
Raven raised her eyebrows.
“Well,” the headmaster scratched his long, white beard and chuckled awkwardly. “I have been fighting the dark spirit essence he used in his palm ever since, but it’s practically gone now. Even Gadwall wouldn’t dare kill me in a place like this.”
A shimmer of red surfaced in Raven’s eyes, threatening to cover them completely. She had sent her spirit essence into Swan earlier and knew that his body’s situation wasn’t as simple as the old headmaster wanted them to believe. Quite a substantial amount of his spirit core was missing, pushing him back years in his cultivation. Clearly, there had been more to Gadwall’s slaps than just plain humiliation.
‘Enjoy it while you can, Gadwall. . . .’ Raven’s soul prism almost hummed as her killing intent was raised. It would only be a matter of time before she was strong enough to deal with him herself.