In a distant realm, an endless swamp stretched out as far as the eye could see. The reddish-brown guck that covered the ground of the swamp seemed to almost simmer as bubbles of varying sizes swelled up, only to eventually pop and release a foul-smelling, pitch-black puff of smoke into the air.
Countless cages were spread out throughout the swamp – some as big as houses, others smaller than a human head. Here and there a cage would stand empty, but most of them were not. In these, humanoid figures fought for their lives against a steady stream of vicious beast that crawled out from the swamp beneath their feet. At first glance, the fighting seemed random, but taking a closer look, it would become clear that the attacks came in waves; every three hours, three waves of spirit beast would crawl out of the swamp and charge at the captive.
The beast strengths were paced after the captive’s, starting off slightly weaker during the first wave and ending slightly stronger in the last. Every nine hours, a particularly strong beast would appear, truly threatening the life of the person in the cage, but after that there would be nine hours’ rest – as long as they survived that long, that is.
The metallic smell of blood almost covered up the heinous odor of the black smoke while wails of desperation mingled with the howling of the beasts as the fighting continued without stop; it was not a peaceful place to be.
There was, however, one exception. Smack in the middle of an area of the swamp, where the bubbles where particularly large and frequent, was a small patch of calm.
Seated on a thick layer of ice, a young man meditated. His body was drenched in blood, and more of it kept pouring down on the ice below him, but the youth seemed unfazed by it. Below the ice, muffled bangs rung out every now and then, and beyond the bars of his cage loomed several beasts, pacing back and forth. They howled in anger but didn’t dare approach the cage, their eyes carefully studying the electrical sparks that every now and then jumped between the bars. A soft breeze swirled around the man, and silver flakes flashed white sporadically as they moved with the wind.
The man’s eyes suddenly popped open. A surge of spirit essence instantly cleared away the blood covering his body, revealing the muscular figure beneath. Golden blonde hair cascaded down his bare back and a vicious-looking scar crossed over his chest, passing right above his heart. Judging from the color of the scar tissue, it was clear that the wound was rather fresh, but it was equally clear that no spirit essence had been used to heal it. Without the aid of spirit essence, there was no doubt that the scar would become permanent very soon.
Looking around his cage, the man’s multi-colored eyes indifferently glanced at the pacing beasts before fixing on the ground. Below the ice, the pounding had become louder, causing the ice to noticeably shake at the impact.
“Nine hours are almost up, huh. . . .” the young man muttered. He looked at his own hands, letting a few strands of wind swirl around his fingers, before clenching them into fist. “Wait for me, Raven. I will get out of here.”
With a deafening bang, the ice beneath the man finally shattered, giving way to an enormous hand whose mere pinkie was taller that the still seated youth.
With determination in his eyes, the man sprang into action. “I will regain your trust!”
While the youth fought for his life and Raven’s favor, Raven herself was as if suspended in space. There was nothing around her; no light, no sense of touch, no scents – only the slight sensation of passing time, but even that was hard for Raven to grasp in her current state.
Suddenly, a bright light burned through the nothingness, instantly blinding Raven’s unprepared eyes. Blinking, Raven tried to understand what had just happened, but her memories were hazy. She remembered stepping through the gateway to the second set of trials, but after that. . . .
Raven looked around, and was surprised to find herself sitting in an endless meadow of bell-shaped flowers. Every color of the rainbow could be found among the flowers that were otherwise identical. A faint glow came from within the centers of the flowers, giving the field a truly ethereal feeling.
“Have I died again?” Raven muttered absentmindedly.
“Haha, not this time, child,” said a faint voice behind her.
Not expecting an answer, Raven’s head snapped around. Sitting cross-legged only two meters from her was an ancient-looking man. Despite his closeness, Raven could sense nothing of the elder’s existence. All of him was completely devoid of color, making him stand out like a sore thumb against the dazzling brilliance of the surrounding flowers. Startled, Raven wanted to move away, but her legs wouldn’t budge.
“No need to be so nervous. I mean you no harm.” The old man smiled at her. “Besides, I’m spread too thin right now to be able to do very much.” At his words, light flashed in his colorless eyes, but it quickly faded, making him seem even older than before.
Raven frowned. “Is this part of the trials?”
The man chuckled, but didn’t answer right away. He stared intently at Raven for a long while, and Raven couldn’t help but feel like the man was staring all the way into her soul.
“Interesting,” the man muttered eventually. “Do you know of the Spirit Star?” he asked then, stopping Raven from asking what was so interesting.
“Spirit Star?” Raven blinked and pointed at the emblem on her robes. “You mean this?” The man nodded. “Isn’t it just the symbol of the spiritualists on the Trinity continent?”
“Is it?” the old man asked back mysteriously and waved his hand, causing his joints to crack as if they were about to break apart. At his gesture, all of the flowers in the field chimed softly and their inner lights started to pulsate. Suddenly, some of the light floated up into the air, joining together to form several small, planet-like and glowing orbs.
Raven looked on in shock. Intellectually, she understood that spirit essence must be involved to produce such an effect, but she could sense nothing of it.
“Do you recognize this?”
Pushing down her confusion, Raven took a closer look at the orbs. There were twenty-eight of them in total, and the twenty-seven smaller ones rotated slowly around the biggest orb at the center. Each of the twenty-seven orbs had a different color, although there seemed to be a pattern to it that Raven couldn’t quite pin-point.
“Is it . . .” Raven paused, unsure. “Is it the Nanite Realm?”
“Indeed it is,” the man confirmed. “But look at it now.” He waved his hand again and the flowers moved with it. Slowly, the orbs altered their course, shifting to an overhead perspective of the realm. Raven’s eyes widened. The pattern Raven hadn’t quite been able to figure out was suddenly clear.
“It’s a Spirit Star!” she breathed and, as if prompted by her words, glowing lines started to slowly trace their way between the glowing orbs. Soon, a complete Spirit Star hovered before Raven, and at every point where two lines crossed paths, an orb hovered below it, their colors matching the lines that met above them.
“The spirit star is much more than you think, child,” the old man said with a mysterious smile. “These are the trials you’ve completed so far.” Five of the orbs grew increasingly bright. “The first three tested your soul’s adaptivity to different spirit essences.” Three of the orbs – one indigo and white, one indigo and yellow, one yellow and white – pulsated softly. “Although your particular soul made that a bit . . . well, never mind. As for the second set of trials, they were a test on your character – on your soul’s desires, if put crudely.” The remaining two orbs pulsated – both were red, but one was mixed with purple, the other with green. “You were supposed to take the sixth trial as well,” the man paused, waiting for a purple and green orb to brighten before he spoke again; “but you rejected it.”
“Rejected?” Raven frowned, vague memories starting to surface in her mind.
“Saw through the illusion is perhaps more accurate.” The man sighed. “Don’t worry, it’s on me, really, so I’ll count it as a pass. It’s been a while since anyone managed to eject themselves from my trials. I blame that reincarnated soul of yours – the brat should have warned me.”
Raven almost let her jaw drop in shock. A myriad of questions flooded her head and for a moment she couldn’t make up her mind on which one was most important.
“Ah,” the ancient man interluded and he looked off into the distance, not caring in the slightest about Raven’s silent confusion. “Another one has failed.”
Almost by reflex, Raven turned her head to look at what had drawn the man’s attention, only to see the same colorless young man who had greeted her before the fourth trial come walking towards them.
“The last remaining Pontian was corrupted during the sixth trial,” the young man stated, receiving a nod from the ancient one. Looking at them together, Raven couldn’t help but see the similarities.
‘They’re the same person?’
No sooner had the odd premonition hit her than the younger version glanced down on Raven indifferently. He then stepped forward and his body disappeared effortlessly into the cross-legged old man. The latter breathed deeply as an almost unnoticeable sliver of color returned to his old skin. Only after that did he acknowledge Raven’s staring. He smiled warmly, causing his eyes to almost disappear in the numerous wrinkles on his face. “Every drop makes a difference.” Even his voice sounded slightly stronger than before.
‘Every drop?’ Raven swallowed. If her guess was correct, then the man before her had somehow divided himself into the young attendants who greeted all the participants during the tournament, but how many attendants was that? Hundreds? Thousands? Thousands of thousands? Even if the boys had been pure illusions, the sheer amount of spirit essence needed to create just one corporeal body was way beyond what Raven possessed. Add to that the strength the first attendant boy had displayed – easily outmatching the Spirit Master Headmaster Swan – and Raven simply couldn’t fathom how strong this ancient man had to be to pull it off.
“Haha, shocked?” the man laughed. “There is always someone higher, child. You have only begun your journey.” The floating spirit star changed; the white, red and orange lines suddenly outshining the rest. “And who knows if you will fall before you reach the top.” As the man’s words faded, the other lines slowly started to glow too. First yellow, then green, followed by light blue, indigo and purple. Finally, the black line darkened, seemingly absorbing the light from all the others.
Raven’s eyes narrowed. “There are nine stages of spiritualists?” She had known that there were more than simply up to Spirit Master – if nothing else, Lyka’s grandfather Fenris was referred to as Legend Fenris and had light blue spirit essence – but three more levels above that?
The man nodded and then chuckled. “It’s not really my place to teach you about these things, though; I don’t want the brat to throw a temper tantrum again.”
“Brat?” Raven asked, but the old man pretended he hadn’t heard her.
“Anyway, you are an interesting child, Raven Nightingale. A reincarnated and bound soul with boundless bloodlust and a fated God Skill. . . .” The man chuckled again. “It will be interesting to watch, at least.”
At this point Raven had countless unanswered questions and suspicions in her heart, but the man raised his bony hand and it suddenly felt as if her jaw had turned into stone.
“There is a time for everything, child. If you win the tournament, I can answer one of your questions, but for now you should focus on cultivating. There is one month left before the next round of duels begins. I will send you to a good place; if you are lucky, you might even have a breakthrough.”
Suddenly raising both arms, the little color that had returned to the old man’s skin drained back out as a shockwave passed over the field of flowers, pushing them all to the ground. In the next instant, blindingly bright light gushed out of the flowers and enveloped Raven, who couldn’t help but feel a bit depressed; she hadn’t even gotten the chance to ask for the man’s name.
For a while, the light formed a great big sphere where Raven had been seated, but it didn’t take long before the glow started to fade. With a soft pop, the sphere suddenly broke apart, causing a golden rain of light over the field.
The ancient man lowered his arms. The previous mirth in his eyes was gone and was instead replaced with a deep frown.
“Brat, I know what you hope to achieve, but to use that child. . . .” Above the flower bed, images from Raven’s latest trials appeared, and for the longest time the man said nothing. Eventually he waved away the images and sighed. “Even I find it a bit too cruel.”