The hours passed quickly, and it wasn’t long before Raven, Lyka and Hoatzin had to return to the floating area and once more meet with the colorless little boy. Offering no deeper explanations than last time, he just waved his hand and opened a new gateway for them before disappearing in a puff of smoke.
When the trio stepped through the gateway, they were shocked, to say the least, to find themselves free-falling towards an endless sea, thousands of meters below them. Well, only Raven was truly falling; Hoatzin was a bird, after all, and Lyka’s cultivation was high enough to at least achieve a controlled descent, although she seemed to be struggling with it more than usual.
Still, even though it was a long way down, Raven wasn’t too worried about the rapidly approaching landing; there wasn’t much difference between a three thousand meter fall and a five hundred meter one in terms of impact speed, and she had long since passed the point where such a fall would kill her. Instead, she used her falling seconds to observe their surroundings. There wasn’t much to take in; endless waters below and equally endless dark clouds above.
When there was less than ten meters left to the water surface, Raven intended to slow her fall slightly by sending an explosive attack downwards, but, just as Raven was about activate her spirit essence, a prickly feeling suddenly covered her skin. In the next instant – perfectly timed with Raven’s own attack – it was as if the entire world exploded; violent thunder cascaded between the ocean and the clouds, instantly whipping up winds and turning the water wild.
Much like a bullet, Raven plummeted deep under the surface, and the prickly sensation quickly grew even more intense, to the point of being painful even by Raven’s standards.
‘The whole bloody ocean had been electrically charged!’ Raven hissed in her mind and quickly got a not-so-pleasant premonition. Pushing back the pain, she calmed herself and focused her mind on absorbing the spirit essence around her. Crippling pain seared through her head before it uncontrollably spread to every part of her body. ‘Damn it, not again!’
Two months later, Raven, Lyka, Hoatzin and Headmaster Swan sat gathered around the dinner table in their private room. The first three Trials were over and – albeit with slimmer margins than Raven was satisfied with – they had passed all of them. It didn’t look like it now, with Raven and Lyka both newly groomed and in new clothes, but there hadn’t been many opportunities to just relax and recuperate until now. The current dinner was a nice break from it all.
“Have you analyzed your performance these past months?” Headmaster Swan eventually asked, breaking the unspoken rule of leaving tournament business until after they’d finished eating.
Raven glanced up from her plate, but before she could finish chewing the food already in her mouth, Lyka spoke up. “Analyze? What is there to analyze? We participated and we passed.”
The corner of Swan’s eyes twitched slightly as he held back his criticism, while Hoatzin just blatantly rolled his eyes.
“The first two trials were survival challenges,” Raven offered, not dignifying Lyka’s statement with a direct response. “Both of them seemingly focused on testing how well we could adapt to different spirit essences. The third one could be seen as a combination of the first two, sending us into a large maze of ice, where lightning hunted anything warmer than sub-zero. The task to arrive at the center before the month was up was…tricky.” She paused and looked at her brother.
“Tzin actually had it the easiest, as he managed to assimilate both the cold and the thunder essence, allowing him to navigate the maze and resist most of the lightning.”
“Impressive for a spirit beast, but I’m more interested in why you failed the assimilation. I’ve been given additional information about the first three trials you participated in, and while it’s understandable that miss Lyka couldn’t do it, you on the other hand…”
The headmaster’s voice trailed off, but Raven knew what he was getting at. That did, however, not mean that she had an answer for him. In the first trial, something about the encounter with the Snow Devil King had changed her connection to cold spirit essence; even now, she couldn’t feel anything cold at all, not even the chill of an ice cube traced over her skin.
During the second trial, however, no such dramatic things had happened. They had learned from their past mistakes and were more cautious, attempting the assimilation one at the time. Hoatzin had gone first. He had contorted in pain for nearly two days before he finally managed it, but his cultivation had improved quite a bit because of it. Not to the point of shifting him to a higher level, but he’d earned himself a year’s worth of cultivation, at least.
When it became Raven’s turn to try, however, things did not go as smoothly. For well over a week, Raven endured the torturing pain of drawing the thunder essence into her body, but no matter how much she absorbed, that final shift never came. It was as if every time she came close, a valve opened and released the pressure she had painstakingly built up, thus interrupting her process.
Raven suspected it had something to do with the second soul prism that resided within her, meaning that it had become both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, the constant flow of pure spirit essence from Javelin made sure that she never truly ran out of a spirit essence source, but on the other hand, it prevented her from gaining the edge she needed to swiftly pass the Trials. So far, she had managed to compensate for it, but that didn’t mean that such would always be the case.
“I don’t get why you’re so surprised,” Lyka jumped in, shaking her head. “Raven’s soul bound – what do you expect? That her soul will react to these trials like everyone else’s?”
“You knew this would happen?” Swan asked just as Hoatzin dashed from his perching spot, barking almost the same question mentally.
“Of course not,” Lyka replied a bit too quickly. “I’m just not surprised, that’s all.”
Raven’s eyes narrowed slightly, but soon she shook her head, her brief look of suspicion gone. “Doesn’t matter, really; I’ll manage.”
“I know you will,” the headmaster snorted uncharacteristically. “I’m just… I don’t want you to miss such a good opportunity to grow stronger.”
A faint smile formed on Raven’s lips, yet without it quite reaching her eyes. “Thank you, Headmaster Swan.”
In a dimly lit room not too far away, a nondescript man sank down on one knee. “My Lord,” he greeted respectfully.
In front of him, seated in an unimpressive armchair, a yellow-eyed man glanced down at his subordinate. “She made it through the first three trials?”
“According to the released records, she passed the Ice Mountain, the Thunder Ocean and the Charged Maze trials.”
“No surprise there. My . . .” the man paused, his face revealing nothing of what he was thinking. “Never mind. What are the Trivians up to?”
“The Trivian ambassador has continued provoking the Trinity main teacher several times but without causing any further reactions since his first success – the Trinity viewing room has been tightly shut.”
“It seems like we should give them a little hand, again… Who else has made it through in Trinity’s section?”
“This one has prepared a list.” The still kneeling subordinate held up a small scroll over his head. It quickly slipped out of his hand and flew over to the man in charge, who started to examine the rows upon rows of names within without any trace of emotion on his face. For a while, the room fell silent, but eventually the servant couldn’t keep his curiosity in check anymore. “My Lord,” he started, not getting any reaction whatsoever. “May I ask: Why the sudden interest in this Trinity continent’s Nightingale girl?”
The reply offered no deeper explanation than that, but when the servant glanced up at his master and was met by those yellow eyes staring back at him, a shiver ran down his spine. Right away, the servant kowtowed, slamming his head into the stone floor. A small crack appeared, both in the marble and in the man’s forehead, blood spilling from one to the other.
“Please, I…” the man didn’t get a chance to finish his sentence before his body collapsed on the floor, limp and lifeless.
“Here, my Lord.” A second servant appeared from within the shadows.
“Congratulations, you are now number one. Don’t disappoint me.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
The promoted man didn’t even glance at his fallen comrade.
The break between the first three trials and the first round of duels wasn’t a very long one, and two days later, Raven and Lyka stood at the rim of the huge coliseum meant for the fights in question. Spirit pets were not allowed in the duels, so Hoatzin had stayed with headmaster Swan in their room.
Frowning slightly, Raven gazed at the arena floor. Much like on the square that had first served as their entrance to the Myriad Tournament, the sheer number of people present made Raven’s head hum with a dull pain, her senses overloaded. It wasn’t as bad as the first time, though, since there was actually considerably more space here. In fact, the spirit formation here seemed to have the opposite effect of the one outside; there, everyone was packed together, but looked far away; here, they were spread apart, but looked close.
“I applaud you for getting this far,” boomed a young man who looked like a slightly older version of the colorless child who had been “taking care” of them so far. “You have all faced your potential and gotten the better of it. Now you must face each other, and only one out of eight will continue to the next set of trials.”
A slight murmur spread throughout the arena. Everyone was aware of the rules of the duels by now, but hearing it said so straightforwardly made it feel more real.
“Contestants, once you place your hand on the placard in front of you, you will be transported to your allotted fighting area. The duels will begin as soon as you arrive. Killing your opponent is nor prohibited, but let me remind you that continuing to strike after your opponent had admitted defeat is.”
“As if they’ll get the chance,” Lyka whispered in Raven’s ear, ignoring the key point of keeping her voice down for it to actually count as a whisper. Quite a few in their vicinity turned to glare at them, but both Lyka and Raven ignored them.
“The time limit for entering the arena is ten seconds, starting now.”
The voice of the colorless overseer caused the glaring youths to shift their attention; almost immediately they stretched their hands forwards, afraid of getting disqualified if they were a beat slow.
“Blow their minds or stay low?” Lyka asked.
Raven shrugged. “I doubt it will make a difference in the end…Let’s not overexert ourselves.” She sounded indifferent when she spoke, but the light in her eyes betrayed Raven’s excitement; she was itching for a good fight.
“Blow their minds, it is!” Lyka replied with a playful wink as she touched the placard in front of her, her body disappearing instantly.
“Something like that,” Raven muttered and followed suit. The world around her momentarily darkened, but as light started to return, Raven had to control herself not to burst out laughing.
“Well, well, well,” a familiar voice greeted her before Raven’s eyes had the chance to readjust to the light. “Fate is on the side of justice.”
“Hello, Isskul,” Raven greeted back as the short, blue-haired youth came into view. He had already pulled his weapon – a nasty-looking mace – and was smacking its provokingly against the ground. “How is the lone wolf life treating you?”
It was perhaps an unnecessary comment, but the apparent rage it stirred within Isskul tugged a slight smile from Raven’s lips.
“Laugh while you can, bitch! There is no one to save you here!”
Spirit essence that was brightly yellow in Raven’s eyes gushed out of Isskul, causing her to frown slightly.
“Ha, it’s too late to regret now!” laughed the youth. “Do you finally realize the real difference between a Master and a lowly Champion? Embrace your death!” Isskul started running towards Raven, hoping to reach her before she bailed out of the fight, but how could he know that he had totally misunderstood the situation.
Raven was frowning, yes, but it was not because she acknowledged the immense gap between high Champions and mid Masters. She frowned because, while Isskul’s spirit essence was colored like a mid Master’s, the pressure she could feel from it was nowhere near as high as it should have been.
As Isskul charged forward, spirit essence gushed into his mace, forming a visible layer of ice over its surface.
Initially, Raven had intended to dodge the blow, but curiosity changed her mind. Instead, she let the mace crash down towards her head. In the last second Raven smacked the side of the descending mace, deflecting the blow just enough for it to miss her head and instead strike against her upper arm. The blow was heavy, no doubt about it, but it was not what she had expected from a mid Spirit Master.
Clearly, Isskul found the result equally unexpected. However, after a heartbeat’s shock, he snorted and jumped back a bit, only to jump in again for another attack. “I don’t believe you can do that more than once!”
Unfortunately for him, she could.