Perched on the back of a lavish velvet armchair, Hoatzin stared off into the distance, drowning in boredom. For the past three months, he had been forced to do nothing but pretend to be a thoughtless spirit beast as he kept headmaster Swan company in their appointed room. Hoatzin had thought that he would be able to join the others in the trials, but when Raven and Lyka stepped through the gate, Hoatzin had been pushed off Raven’s shoulder as if he had walked into a wall. Apparently, tamed spirit beasts were not allowed in this section of the trials.
Hoatzin glanced down on the windowsill not far from his chair. The view beyond it was fake – a beautiful landscape that constantly changed, powered by complicated spirit formations – but the small seeds lined up on the sill were annoyingly real.
“Eighty-eight, huh…” Hoatzin sighed. With soundless wing beats, Hoatzin took to the air and moved yet another seed from his food bowl to the windowsill. “And then they were eighty-nine.”
Counting down, it would be another two days before the second set of trials was over, and that was not a day too soon in Hoatzin’s book. He wasn’t an impatient person by nature – he had been trapped in a bird’s body for years without feeling too rushed about regaining his human form – but all this sitting around was driving him crazy. If headmaster Swan at least left the room once in a while, Hoatzin could either have joined him or used the opportunity to cultivate, but the old man had grown cautious after his last encounter with Gadwall and had therefore opted to stay out of the latter’s sight, instead spending his time nose-deep in books.
Undoubtedly a wise choice, but an aggravating one nonetheless.
Just as Hoatzin was about to fly back to his previous spot, the door leading to the trial area shimmered into existence. Hoatzin had barely reacted to the sudden appearance when the door was pushed open and a very ragged Lyka staggered out.
Headmaster Swan swiftly got to his feet, finally leaving the books behind, but Hoatzin had already reached Lyka’s side, his tiny body effortlessly supporting the slumped girl by her shoulders.
“Hi Birdy,” Lyka whispered as she meekly raised a hand to pet Hoatzin on the head. Her skin was deathly pale and her gaze dazed, both seeing him and not seeing him at the same time. “I’m so sorry…”
“Sorry?” Hoatzin frowned. “Lyka, what is wrong?”
“I had no choice…” Lyka continued to mumble, but her consciousness was fading quickly. By the time Headmaster Swan had reached them, Lyka had already fainted and hung motionless under Hoatzin’s small talons.
Not bothering with Hoatzin, Swan scooped up Lyka in his arms. Hoatzin could feel the man’s spirit essence stirring, clearly to check Lyka’s condition.
“Is she alright?” Hoatzin asked, momentarily forgetting that the headmaster couldn’t hear him.
“Just exhausted,” Swan muttered anyway and sighed in relief. Only now did he take notice of Hoatzin who was hovering worriedly in front of Lyka. “Don’t worry Tzin, your master’s friend will be fine.”
With that, Swan turned and carried the unconscious Lyka to the bed that had been prepared for her. Hoatzin couldn’t help but glance back at the once again fading door to the trials. If Lyka, a late Spirit Master, was in such a bad state after the trials, how would his sister fare?
The next four days passed excruciatingly slowly for Hoatzin. Lyka had woken after roughly twelve hours of rest, but she insisted that she remembered nothing of the trials that had put her in such a miserable state.
Not entirely believing her, Hoatzin wanted to bombard her with questions, but something in Lyka’s eyes stopped him. Somehow the usually mischievous little vixen suddenly seemed smaller, weaker. He wanted to know why, but he wasn’t sure he dared hear the answer.
Everything was made worse by the fact that Raven didn’t emerge from the trials. Not even on the last day of the three-month period had the door to the trials reappeared. Two more days had passed after that and today the duels were about start, but still no Raven.
Hoatzin frowned as he watched Headmaster Swan pace nervously back and forth in the room. “Where is that little brat,” he swore, pushing the blame on Raven for the fear he was feeling. Hoatzin couldn’t help but partially share the man’s sentiments.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Swan, Raven will be fine,” Lyka commented from the side. “We would have been notified if she failed the trials.” Lyka sounded confident, but her eyes betrayed her somewhat.
“But where is she? The duels are about to-…”
As if prompted by the headmaster’s words, the room’s large window shimmered and revealed the huge arena beyond.
“Congratulations young spiritualists!” A familiar voice boomed out as a young man appeared on an upraised stage. He was looking older than he had before, but there was no doubt that this man was related to the younger children who had been administering the trials so far. His features were more mature but otherwise identical to before, and who else would be so devoid of color?
“Two sets of trials have been completed,” he continued. “Most of those who first came have already failed, but you still remain.” His gaze shifted, and although there were countless rooms lining the arena, every participant that was still in the tournament felt as if he were staring straight at them.
“However, you must not become complacent, as only an eighth of you will continue to the last set of trials. Contestants, make your way to the coliseum gates.”
Swan collapsed into a chair while Lyka and Hoatzin exchanged worried looks.
“No point in dwelling on it now,” Lyka eventually said with a shrug and left for her duels. Hoatzin followed her departing back with his eyes. He could feel Lyka’s worry, even though she did her best to hide it.
“Oh sister, where are you?”
Suspended in a sea of dense and pure spirit essence, streams of bloodlust-tainted spirit essence swirled around Raven, forming a pulsating, red and black cocoon around her small body. Inside, Raven sat cross-legged in the air, her eyes closed, her breathing steady.
Despite the abundance of spirit essence, Raven didn’t feel uncomfortable at all. All her senses embraced the essence, pulling it in like water in a desert. Within her, just above her navel, Raven’s spirit core stirred, rotating at an ever-increasing pace.
Seemingly boundless spirit essence flowed in and out through her spirit connections, strengthening her body and core with each pass. Raven felt like she was standing at the edge of a precipice; one more step and everything would change.
Suddenly, after weeks of cultivating in this odd space, Raven’s spirit core shivered slightly. It was a sign that the core was about to grind to a halt and switch rotational direction, marking the point of a breakthrough to the next cultivation level.
However, just as the shift was about to happen, the voice of the old man she had met earlier reverberated inside Raven’s head. “I am afraid I misjudged how quickly you would reach this point, child, but I’m afraid I have to let you out now.” The previously abundant flow of spirit essence came to an abrupt halt, causing Raven’s spirit core to shake again, violently this time. “If I wait any longer, you will forfeit your first duel.”
The sea of spirit essence churned and the ominous cocoon around Raven popped like a balloon, sending a stabbing pain through both her body and mind. Raven fought against the pain, but even with her level of tolerance, it was simply too much. Her vision blurred, and to regain some level of control, Raven screamed with all her might.
“Haha, what is this?” The unfamiliar voice seemed distant at first but quickly grew stronger in Raven’s ears. “I haven’t even touched you yet and you’re already in pain? This will be easier than I thought.”
Suppressing the pain, Raven tried to focus her gaze but was instantly blinded by the light that flooded her. Next came the spirit essence of thousands of people, crashing into her mercilessly. Contrary to the pure spirit essence where she had previously been, this spirit essence was chaotic and jumbled, numbing her already strained senses. Even in her current daze, Raven realized that she had been ejected straight into a duel.
Purely on instinct, Raven withdrew the Nightingale’s Blessing from within her spacial ring and braced it in front of herself. However, with her spirit core still in disarray, Raven couldn’t muster any spirit essence at all. Her opponent’s attack slammed heavily into her sword, instantly sending her flying backwards. Raven didn’t resist, but rather allowed the blow to send her all the way to the edge of the stage she was on, gaining her some distance and well-needed time to readjust.
Of course, if her opponent pursued her relentlessly, they would be at her side within a heartbeat, but fortunately whoever she was up against seemed more preoccupied with laughing.
“Would you look at this? The little bitch is like a rag doll!”
At last, Raven’s senses calmed down enough for her to focus on her opponent, and even without having to look, the man’s gray and dead presence gave away his origins: Trivian.
At this moment, there was a dull explosion in one of the rooms around the coliseum. An armchair had turned to powder as the yellow-eyed man sitting on it stepped forward, his hands gripping the windowsill, instantly leaving deep marks.
“My Lord?” the man’s attendant asked tentatively, fear obvious in his eyes.
The yellow-eyed man ignored him, however, his gaze instead focused intently on the battle in front of him.
“Get up…” he murmured, his voice tinged with both loathing and concern.
The attendant followed his master’s gaze, seeing the young girl he had been ordered to pay extra attention to on a fighting stage. The last time he had seen the girl, her fighting prowess had been truly impressive, given her cultivation level, but at the moment she seemed frail, with no traces of spirit essence in her movement.
Glancing back at his master, the attendant felt confused – didn’t his master hate that girl? – but he dared not show it on his face. He knew better than to question his lord.
Up on the stage, Raven remained slumped at the side of the stage. Her opponent was still laughing as he walked towards her, the young man’s dull spirit essence revealing his strength as a low Spirit Master. She tried to get her own spirit essence under control, but her core was still shaking violently, and any attempt she made at drawing any spirit essence from it only resulted in intense pain.
‘I need more spirit essence!’ Raven swore to herself. She had been on a brink of a breakthrough, but now she lacked the last drop to push her over the edge. Without it, Raven wouldn’t be able to regain control over her spirit essence.
“Not even getting up?” her opponent jeered. “I thought you were supposed to be tough.”
Raven ignored the man’s taunt and focused instead on his movements. Without spirit essence, her only hope was that he would underestimate her enough to let down his guard completely and give her an opening.
“Please…” she pleaded, sounding weak and desperate. “I…I must…must win.”
“What’s that?” The Trivian stood right in front of her now. “Are you still delusional enough to think you can do anything but die?”
The youth bent down and hoisted Raven to her feet. He used his spirit essence to lock her arms and legs as he brought Raven in close – no doubt to whisper something even more vicious in her ear – but just as he opened his mouth, Raven took a deep breath and shouted the loudest, most high-pitched screech she could muster. There was no spirit essence involved, but it was still loud enough to overshadow the noise of the closest battle stages. Those who had focused their screens on Raven’s battle instinctively clutched their ears in pain.
As for the poor Trivian, whose ear had only been a centimeter away from Raven’s mouth, his body grew limp as he tethered on the brink of unconsciousness. Before he had the chance to collect himself, Raven used her now free hands to smack the man’s head, chomping down on both his ears simultaneously. The young man fainted right away, a steady trickle of blood seeping from the ear that had been closest to Raven; his eardrum had been popped.
Raven staggered forward a few steps, regaining her balance. Her body still ached and her spirit core was in disarray, but she ignored it. She walked over to her sword, the Nightingale’s Blessing, that had fallen to the ground when Raven flew across the stage earlier. With her sword back in her hand, Raven returned to the unconscious man. Her movements where neither slow nor fast as she raised her blade above her head and, without hesitation, stabbed downwards.
“Victor: Raven Nightingale of Trinity,” the colorless man’s voice boomed out and Raven’s sword immediately stopped, the tip of the blade a hair’s breadth into the Trivian youth’s neck.
Raven looked up at the speaker, her face devoid of emotion but her eyes red with killing intent. For a moment, her body remained motionless, her thoughts unclear perhaps even to herself, but eventually she closed her eyes and pulled back her sword, releasing a single drop of blood from the Trivian’s neck. Without giving either the opponent or anyone else a second glance, Raven left the stage.