When Raven’s fight ended, so did the first set of trials and duels. Less than a third of the tournament had passed and yet barely two percent of the original contestants remained. Despite this, there were still thousands upon thousands of youths left in the tournament, showing not only how vast the competition was, but also the enormity that was the combined realms.
One need only consider the fact that of those eliminated who knew how many had lost their lives? Most likely it was more than half, and yet the effected realms still wouldn’t even flinch before sending the next batch of youths in two years time. Only through countless near death experiences could a spiritualist hope to master the control over their spirit essence and if it took thousands of lives to let one youngster advance, so be it. The consequences for a realm whose fighting power fell short of its ranking was simply too dire.
While the heads of the various realms were focusing on the advancement of their over-all fighting strength, the remaining tournament youths themselves were focused on recuperating their strength. They only had one day’s rest before they were expected to go back in the trials and if they had underestimated the deadliness of the tournament before, they were keenly aware of it now.
Still, the solemnity in their hearts didn’t stop them from gossiping whenever they got the chance. Or studying your competition, as they justified it.
“Can you believe that Eleosen made it through this year? What has it been, five tournaments since last time?”
“Shocking, I know! And the Isskape – all dead! That too hasn’t happened in years.”
“Yeah, slaughtered by the newcomers. The continent of Trinity was it? Impressive.”
A snort. “What’s so impressive about it? That purple-haired girl might have insane fighting abilities but she is still not even a peak Champion – she’ll never win in the end. I bet the drifter is behind most of their success.”
“Yeah, the super strong toddler in red. She’s clearly from one of the realm-less super races. Master thinks she’s one of the ancient beastmen.”
“Wow! How lucky for Trinity, to have snagged such a gem! They might win it all with her on their side.”
Another snort. “Strength isn’t everything during the trials, besides one high Master is not enough. . . .”
“I heard the Trivians have been doing well this year; all six of their contestants made it through the first round, all of them at least borderline high Masters. They will be hard to defeat.”
Discussions like this popped up all over the Nanite realm, some times between contestants, other times between people who were simply there to watch. Either way, Raven and Lyka’s appearance had managed to make quite an impression to even be noticed among so many participants, but few – especially among those in the younger generation – felt that they had the ability to change the course of the tournament by any greater degree.
There were of course a few exceptions to this. While the youngsters might underplay Raven’s achievement, some among the older generations had been thoroughly shocked by her fighting prowess and her ability to defeat someone not one but two cultivation levels stronger than herself – in a drawn out match at that.
Of course, age didn’t always bring wisdom. Seated in a lavish room with more servants lining the walls than clients filling the seats, Gadwall and the students he was responsible for were silent as they watched re-runs of the previous duels on a large screen.
“She is more skilled than I thought she’d be,” one of the youths admitted a bit nonchalantly as Raven’s last battle faded from view. “But her strength is low; her death is only a matter of time, Lord Master Wutu.”
Gadwall clicked his tongue, oozing resentment. “You speak the truth, but remember your teachings: don’t underestimate your enemy until they lie dead beneath your feet.”
“Yes, Lord Master!” all the youths echoed, not pointing out that this was exactly what Gadwall himself had done before on Trinity. Perhaps they didn’t know.
However, the young girl sitting next to him frowned. “Uncle, what about the drifter? Do we know her background yet?”
At her comment, Gadwall’s increasingly sinister smile stiffened. He had been trying desperately to figure out who the little white-haired midget had behind her – someone so young was bound to have powerful backing – but to no avail. He had a nagging feeling that he’d seen the kid before but he couldn’t quite figure out where.
“Just ignore the kid. Drifters need to pick a realm if they want to participate so I doubt they are that close anyway,” Gadwall concluded, his smile relaxing again. “You are in the same fraction as them for the next set of trials and duels. You might not run in to them during the trials but, Nyoka, remember my words from before the tournament started. If that drifter stands in the way, kill her too if you must.”
“Of course, Uncle!” the girl replied but Gadwall’s command earned him determined nods of understanding from all the youths in the room.
“Good,” Gadwall chuckled. “Let’s teach that brat the consequences of standing in the way of Trivian interests!”
Hearing him laugh, the youths enthusiastically joined in, but Gadwall still laughed the hardest of them all. He had wanted Raven dead for a long time, but even since the start of the tournament, he had gotten yet another reason to send the girl to an early grave. Gadwall couldn’t help but shudder slightly as he remembered those cold yellow eyes staring at him from the darkness and the commanding voice that seemed to breathe death itself. He wasn’t entirely sure if his body’s reaction was out of fear or excitement – perhaps both – but he was sure that he would enjoy fulfilling that being’s command, and reaping the benefits afterwards.
The next day, Raven and her companions yet again found themselves standing on an invisible floor over nothing but air. The same colorless youth as before, who now seemed to be in his late-teens, had a disconnected look in his eyes – his gaze pausing only slightly on Lyka and Raven before staring of into empty space.
“The second set of trials is about to begin. Contrary to last time, no breaks will be given between the trials, so bear this in mind.”
The two girls nodded to show their understanding.
“Well then, when you are ready.” The young man gestured to the side and a new door appeared, this one looking slightly more ancient than those before. “Bear in mind though, not all dangers come from without.”
A moment’s silence.
“Let’s go,” Raven urged and walked forward, pushing the door open without further hesitation. In the next heartbeat, the world darkened around her.
The first thing Raven noticed was the scent of freshly baked bread, fighting against the stuffier smells of an overcrowded city. Second was the hard yet smooth sensation against her cheek and the stiffness of her own neck. Opening her eyes, Raven found herself staring at a pile of flour lying only inches from her nose, sharing the bench Raven was currently using as a pillow.
“Awake yet?” A soft voice shocked Raven into taking a deep breath – an action she quickly regretted as the air she breathed in seemed filled with more flour than oxygen. She coughed, sending even more flour into the air.
“Ha ha, you’re so silly Raven,” the soft voice rang out again and through all the dust, Raven felt a small hand reach out and grip her shoulder. “Close your eyes, silly.”
Without thinking, Raven complied. Soon a cool and damp sensation touched her forehead; her face was gently being wiped clean.
Raven felt a sudden burst of discomfort. Why was she getting her face wiped? Was that what she should be doing right now? In the back of her mind, vague images of far-away places flashed by, but Raven couldn’t grab on to them long enough to see what they were.
“Something wrong?” That soft voice again. “You’re kind of hurting me.”
Raven’s elusive images popped. Only now did she realize that she had grabbed the hand that was cleaning her face, her grip firm and unyielding. “Sorry, I-” the apology got stuck in Raven’s throat. She had finally opened her eyes again, only to be met by the concerned gaze of a young girl – definitely no older than eighteen. The girl’s skin was white as snow, her hair golden blond and her eyes were like two blue lakes, clear and wide.
“Inga. . .” Raven breathed, not understanding why her gaze suddenly turned hazy.
The girl blinked in surprise and then smiled warmly. “Would you look at you? You look like you’ve found a long-lost friend or something.” The cloth in the girl’s hand once again started cleaning Raven’s face and wiping away her tears. “Come on, I’ve finished your chores. Let’s eat while the bread is still warm.”
Raven blinked and looked over at the small stove. It was an old model that still ran on gas but it did its job well; the bread Inga baked in it was always more delicious than what the high-end bakeries achieved with theirs.
“I’ve burdened you again,” Raven smiled stiffly but Inga’s smile only widened.
‘How can she be so natural at that? Smiling. . . .’ Raven wondered silently. For her, their childhood memories weighed too heavily on her mind. It had been years since the two of them got away from their bloody fate, but the nightmares were still very real.
‘Childhood memories? Nightmares?’ Raven frowned, once more feeling as if something wasn’t quite right. Before she could figure out what though, Inga pulled Raven to the kitchen table and placed a steaming loaf of bread, covered with melting butter in front of her. The sweet aroma of hot chocolate mingled with that from the bread and suddenly Raven felt ravished. She didn’t hold back a second longer before staying to gulp down the bread.
“Calm down, Raven; the bread isn’t going anywhere,” Inga laughed. “Well, except down your stomach.”
“You mean down your stomach,” Raven retorted between bites. “You eat for more than two of me with ease.”
“I do not!” The apple Inga had been about to bite down on was flung at Raven, but the latter caught it with ease. “I eat for three of you, at least.”
The two girls paused, glaring at one another intensely, before suddenly bursting out in heartfelt laughter. They continued eating with merry spirit.
A new day had begun; it didn’t take long for Raven and Inga to finish their meal and soon the two of them stood in the hallway of their cramped two-room apparent. Inga had put on some light facial powder and blush, making her already angelic looks even more divine. She wore her favorite light-pink dress. Raven on the other hand wore a loose-fitting black pantsuit, her hair in a high pigtail and her face clear of any make-up.
“Good luck at work today,” Inga chimed with her ever-present smile as they left the apartment building.
With that, the girls parted ways. Inga headed for the small flower shop around the corner where she had worked for quite a while now, while Raven jumped on a bus that would take her to a film studio just outside of the city. She worked as a stunt double – she was fairly new, so it still didn’t pay very well, but considering her martial skills, it would only be a matter of time before that improved.
In fact, that day Raven preformed even better than usual, earning her much praise from her boss. “I’ve never seen you this agile, Raven! We’ll have to get you a more advanced assignment after this!” he’d said. For Raven though, the day had felt odd. She kept having the nagging feeling that she had forgotten something or that she was doing something she shouldn’t. The feeling had been even more intense during the fighting scenes they were filming; Raven had always had quite a different approach to the fights compared to her colleagues, being a former child-assassin and all, but today the fight reenactments seemed outright childish. Almost as if Raven was an adult challenging a bunch of toddlers to a death match. . . . Raven had been so wrapped up in her own thoughts that she missed her bus stop and had to walk back the last bit. Somehow the bright city lights and humming cars only made Raven more confused.
“You’re late,” Inga greeted with a pout as Raven entered their apartment.
Raven glanced at the clock pin the wall. Quarter-to-ten. She was indeed late.
“Sorry. Work was intense, I feel asleep on the bus.” Raven somehow didn’t feel like explaining more in detail.
Inga smiled. “Now you’re being silly again; you shouldn’t apologize for working hard! Who knows, soon we might be able to buy a bigger apartment with what you earn.”
Raven rolled her eyes. Apartments in town were expensive. The only reason they had been able to afford one in the first place had been thanks to the compensation money they had been given when the police had managed to save them from a life as assassins.
Thinking about it, Raven’s eyes grew distant again, confusion growing in her heart, but just as some clarity was about to dawn on her, Raven found herself enveloped in a warm embrace.
“Raven,” Inga whispered. “We have the life we always dreamed of then, we shouldn’t allow those bastards to ruin it even after they’re gone.” Silent tears ran down Inga’s pale cheeks, quickly soaking Raven’s collar. “We have to leave the past behind us. It doesn’t matter how we got to where we are now, only that we are safe and can continue our lives together in peace.”
Raven’s mind calmed down, soothed by the comfort of her friend’s loving arms.
“Yes, Inga, you’re right,” she said softly, finally returning the embrace. “Let’s focus on what we have. Let’s focus on tomorrow.”