Raven met a dozen strikes practically head-on, her eyes only focusing on whatever Isskul used to attack her, be it his mace or his body. She couldn’t help but be surprised by how little force there was behind the man’s attacks, and yet it didn’t take long for her to notice a pattern to them; before impact, there would always be a thin layer of frost covering his chosen weapon, but it would be gone afterwards. With Raven’s scrutinizing eyes, she could tell that the small ice crystals were flowing into her every time, but while some of them remained visible on her clothes, they left no traces within her.
After roughly twenty strikes, Isskul finally jumped back. The shock in his eyes was impossible to miss, but there was also a deeper, growing fear. He could not comprehend the way Raven fought! Clearly, he was stronger than her – he could feel it whenever she activated her spirit essence – and yet she was always able to deflect his blows at the last second, disrupting his fighting style greatly.
Ignoring his instincts, Isskul pushed back his fear. “I don’t know what kind of divine skill you’ve been practicing to survive until now, but your luck is running out.”
“Huh?” Raven looked at the suddenly smug youth in front of her, not understanding his burst of confidence.
“Can’t you feel it?” Isskul laughed. “Look at you, so focused on surviving that you don’t even realize that your own body is turning into an ice statue.”
Raven glanced down on her robes. The previously dark grey fabric had turned silvery white, small specks of frost and ice falling off whenever she moved. It was quite a pretty sight actually.
The effect stopped at her clothes, however, because Raven could tell that none of the organs or even cells within her were acting strange.
“Confused?” laughed Isskul manically. “It’s understandable. Not many outside of Isskape have heard of this technique. It’s too late to feel regret now, though. I’d recommend forfeiting … too bad, I bet you can’t even move your facial muscles by now.”
Raven’s mouth twitched. She leaned forward, as if she really was a statue about to topple over, but suddenly an almost hungry smile bloomed on her lips. “Would you bet your life on that?”
Black lines wiggled like snakes at the corner of Raven’s eyes as she pushed Retribution to its max, letting the natural spirit essence flow through her like a conduit of nature. As the spirit essence came, so did anger and resentment. It almost overwhelmed her, threatening to take over Raven’s control of herself, but she kept it in check. Barely.
Not waiting for Isskul to realize what was going on, Raven dashed forward, a sword raised in her hand. You have to give the boy credit, though, because as Raven moved, Isskul reacted on instinct, shifting his mace to block her strike. However, just as the two weapons were about to touch, the soft sound of bells chimed out and Raven’s body shifted yet again, her sword quickly retreating only to advance again at a slightly different angle.
Isskul could do nothing. Raven’s blade bypassed his defenses and, to Isskul’s shocked horror, it met almost no resistance as it pierced his chest. Like a hot knife through butter, the blade sunk in all the way to his heart before it continued out through his back.
“Wha-” Isskul stuttered, not comprehending what had happened. He was a mid spirit master, yet he was about to lose his life to someone who had barely touched the border between mid and high Champion? Impossible! And what about his protective armor, why hadn’t it activated? Isskul spat out a mouthful of blood, the red liquid covering Raven’s face. Resentment and unanswered questions swirled through his mind but when he searched for answers in Raven’s eyes, his mind blanked.
The whites in Raven’s eyes had gone entirely black, threatening to swallow the green that still remained in her irises. An angry hunger welled up inside her, strengthened by the smell of fresh blood.
Raven closed her eyes and took a deep breath. The metallic tang in the air was distracting, but she still managed to slowly calm her mind. Once she opened her eyes again, the darkness in them was gone.
She pulled out her sword and flicked off the blood while Isskul collapsed lifeless to the ground.
“It’s nothing personal, kid,” Raven murmured with a shrug before turning to walk away. Isskul might have plotted to kill her, and she had no regrets returning the favor, but compared to her vendetta against Gadwall, killing Isskul felt more like a business transaction to her.
Back in their allocated room, Headmaster Swan was staring at Raven and Lyka with wide eyes. What little monsters they were! He had been watching both their fights, both seemingly competing for the “most shocking” title. Despite having travelled with Lyka for quite a while, he had yet to see her fight. Since she was allowed to participate in the tournament, Swan had known that Lyka was at least a peak Champion – which was impressive enough, considering how young she looked. Imagine his surprise when the girl faced off against her opponent and suddenly activated spirit essence perhaps a hundred times stronger than his own! Even at the significant distance between him and Lyka, the headmaster had still felt its pressure. The little girl was actually not a peak Champion, but rather a peak Master! It was truly unbelievable, and her not-yet-a-spirit-master opponent hadn’t stood a chance.
Raven’s fight had, on the other hand, not seemed so dramatic. Her opponent was a newly minted mid spirit master, but from the looks of it he was going easy on Raven. The pair had sparred back and forth a bit, exchanging blows without either of them looking worse for wear – except perhaps for Raven slowly getting covered in increasing amounts of frost. It wasn’t until he saw Raven’s blade sticking out of the other youth’s back that he realized that their fight had not been as simple as it looked from afar. Her opponent was a mid spirit master, after all; he might go easy on her for a while, but not to the point of allowing Raven to kill him!
The only explanation he could think of was the divine skill Retribution. He knew the old legends and had even seen her use it before – then it had even allowed her to exchange blows with the imposter Gadwall, whose cultivation was on a level Swan couldn’t even understand. However, Raven had also practically turned into a rabid beast at the time, her demeanor far from that of the calm exchange of blows in the arena today.
“I seem to have developed rather a strong immunity to cold essence,” Raven offered up when she noticed the old man’s stare, as if that explained everything.
“The fight just now; I didn’t realize it at first, but Isskul converted most of his spirit essence into cold essence and pushed it into some aboriginal divine skill of his realm. He was too surprised when he realized I wasn’t deep-frozen, so he lost.”
Raven shrugged. “Sure.” It wasn’t, but Swan didn’t need to know the details.
“But wasn’t he the top genius from Isskape? With their wealth, how could he not have any form of life saving treasure?”
Raven shrugged again, not having a reliable explanation, but Lyka spoke up instead. “Considering the realm he was from, it’s not impossible that Isskul had some sort of protection but that it was based on cold essence, somehow. In that case, maybe Raven’s odd situation prevented it from activating.”
Raven watched the headmaster stroke his beard pensively, clearly considering the likelihood of Lyka’s claim. While he was thinking, Hoatzin flew over from where he had been enjoying his nuts-only dinner and landed on Raven’s shoulder.
“Isskul was a mid spirit master, yet you managed to defeat him. Was it only because of how he used his spirit essence or could you do it again?”
Raven considered it for a moment before answering: “That depends on how badly I want to win.” Her victory had been fairly straightforward and Retribution in combination with the sonic sword’s Dance of Bells had been enough to seal the deal, but it had indeed been possible thanks to how Isskul used his spirit essence. If he had acted differently, Raven was still fairly confident that she would be able to win, but it would have required more effort on her part. She had thousands of divine skills that she could utilize if she wanted to, and, push come to shove, combining the Ode of Woe with Retribution should make her practically unbeatable within the younger generation, but that would also bring up the risk of losing control of herself. Either way, revealing too much of her abilities was never a good idea and should be kept for the fights that really mattered.
Gadwall’s sinister face flashed by in Raven’s mind, stirring a red glint in her eyes.
“Only a matter of time,” she murmured, not noticing the slight smile on Lyka’s lips.
The second round of duels started soon thereafter and for Raven it ended quickly. She was paired with a scaled high Champion who clearly had just barely managed to scrape along this far in the tournament – there were even still unattended injuries to the otherwise pearly white scales that covered the youth. Victory was attained within seconds.
In the third and final round, however, and Raven found herself facing off against the largest youth she had yet to lay her eyes on, both her lives considered. The boy was well over three meters tall even to the point where Raven wondered if he wasn’t closer to four meters. He wore full body armor made of leather and soul ore – a rare sight, considering the material costs – and the mace Isskul had been swinging around seemed like a toothpick in comparison to the sledgehammer wielded by this giant. The only thing that ruined the “youth’s” intimidating appearance was the two pink goat horns that framed his butch face. They might actually have added to his fierceness, if not for the small flowers and ribbons that adorned them in an undeniably frilly manner.
Raven stared at her opponent, not quite sure about what to make of him, and the latter stated back.
“You’re an awfully small one,” the other said.
“You’re an awfully big one,” Raven replied.
“I don’t go easy on little girls.”
“I don’t go easy on giant brutes.”
A wide smile spread on the man’s face, revealing two rows of oddly squared teeth. “Good.” Pale yellow spirit essence, filled with sparks of thunder, rushed to the gigantic sledgehammer in his hands before he took a step forward, his movements surprisingly fast for his size.
Raven’s eyes widened ever so slightly. Without hesitating, she jumped to the side and, as the sledgehammer sped past her, Raven pulled out a dagger that she effortlessly thrust into an opening in the boy’s armor. The blade had only sunk a millimeter past the surface of the surrounding armor plate when Raven felt as if she had hit solid rock. With a deafening clang, the dagger in her hand actually shattered!
Reflexively, Raven jumped backwards, and due to her fast movements it was only then that the thunder-infused sledgehammer smacked down on the ground. Dust and sparks flew everywhere, and it felt like even the arena shook under the heavy impact.
“Good, good!” the horned youth laughed with honest enthusiasm and turned to rush at Raven yet again. Behind him was a significant dent in the arena floor.
Raven’s mouth twisted into a small smile as she dodged out of the sledgehammer’s way and counterattacked yet again, her second weapon – this time a short blade – suffering the same fate as her earlier dagger. “Interesting. . . .”
The man’s enthusiasm to fight and the challenge his high defense presented aroused Raven’s fighting spirit. She dove into the fight, embracing the joy of a tough opponent. He was a low spirit master and as sturdy as a lump of metal, but Raven was fast on her feet and with a hard to beat recovery rate of her spirit essence; the fight was bound to be a long one.
Minutes passed, and soon the fight had been going on for an hour. There was no time limit to the duels, but it was nonetheless rare for a fight to continue beyond even fifteen minutes. By now, only Raven’s and two other duels were still going on, but apart from those who had a more personal investment in the other fights, nearly all eyes were on Raven and her opponent.
Despite clearly being exhausted and on the verge of collapsing, both Raven and the giant youth laughed merrily as they exchanged blows with one another. Sweat fell like glistening pearls off Raven’s forehead while her long hair flowed behind her as she moved, her hairband long gone. Pure joy filled her beautiful face, but the sinister feeling of her darkened eyes gave her a wild and untamable look. Raven had been pretty when she was covered in frost, but she was truly mesmerizing now.
Raven’s opponent did a good job at matching her as he hunted her across the stage, but compared to Raven his movements seemed stiff and a bit forced. Even his exhaustion was more obvious.
Raven was like a goddess of war, and her opponent was the enemy destined to be crushed beneath her.
An eerie silence slowly spread throughout the arena. Raven wasn’t incredibly strong cultivation-wise, but her way of fighting and sheer tenacity were unique, even when she was holding back. It was her presence that drew attention to her, not her strength.
Suddenly, Raven’s opponent stopped. Raven had been about to strike down with a green-covered palm, and for a moment it looked like she wouldn’t pull back. However, she managed to redirect it in the last second, causing a minor explosion behind the giant youth. The joy in Raven’s face was gone, replaced by a look disappointment; the fight was over.
“I concede.” The giant’s voice was still powerful, but quite a lot of its original vigor was gone. “You have my respect, woman.”
Raven stared at her opponent for a moment before nodding and then turning to walk of the stage. Behind her, the giant youth chuckled meekly and wiped away the blood that had surfaced with his laughter. Moments later, he fell backwards, his exhaustion and internal injuries finally claiming his consciousness.