Sharp crystals dug into John’s palms, threatening to cut into his skin despite the layered energy protecting his hands. He was glad he only had to shuffle a few steps to the side to get past the pit. He really didn’t want to fall into a death area. He still had many plans for his new life. Then he was across and breathed a sigh of relief.
That reminded him of how heavy the air was. It was like it was filled with grit. Earth elemental spiritual energy found its way into his lungs, but fortunately the Seed of Darkness was happy to absorb that and purify his lungs. It just took a little work.
As he approached closer, he was even more certain that the particular concentration of energy he felt was an earthen treasure. John began to notice the walls and floor thinning in crystal density before he eventually stepped into a cavern that was completely bare… except for one small clump of crystals, about the size of two fists put together. At the same time as he saw it, John felt another cultivator with an aura of earth stepping in from a different tunnel. The young man clearly also saw the treasure.
The young man- who radiated the aura of the Amber Heart’s cultivation method- smiled. “It appears that one of us is fated for this treasure. I believe it to be me.” He pointed a stone club he had towards John. “Fortkran Tenebach, are you not? Do you wish to concede it to me, or duel for it?”
Something about such a polite offer of a formal duel in the middle of dangerous caves made John smile in return. From the expression of this disciple, he thought he would be disappointed if John just gave up. “It may be your fate, or it may be mine.” John readied his sword in front of him. “I am indeed Fortkran Tenebach. Your name…?”
“Renato, of the Order of the Amber Heart.” The earthen energy around the man condensed into something akin to a layer of stone. “Then we shall fight. One shall walk away the owner of the treasure… and I hope the other will walk away enlightened from the combat.”
If it was someone not from the Order, John would have not considered the possibility of a ‘fair’ duel. He was still slightly cautious about Renato, but if he conserved enough of his strength to flee he saw no reason why this other young man would attempt to kill him. Staying behind to secure the treasure would be more important. It was just a question of whether he was attempting to catch him off guard and defeat him in a single blow- though it would certainly be odd to suggest the duel in that case.
Renato moved first, his feet crashing into the stone floor of the cavern, their weight obvious. The man himself was not bulky, but he clearly carried the weight of a boulder with him. No… a mountain. John felt the power of a fourth tier spiritual totem from his opponent. They were both at the peak of Spiritual Collection Phase… but that difference might spell his defeat.
The stone club swung with great momentum and unexpected speed. John dodged backwards out of Renato’s reach, but the energy around the weapon clipped against his own defenses, shearing off a portion of his darkness. Renato didn’t hold back, stepping forward and swinging back and down towards John. He stepped to the side… and his experience training with Brage told him to use Hidden Steps to move around to the side of Renato. The stone club rebounded off the ground with even more speed, but John swung his sword straight into Renato’s side. Stone cracked, but he didn’t break through the defenses.
The two continued to exchange attacks, John staying light on his feet and Renato directly attacking and withstanding. It wasn’t a weak fighting style either. He had the defenses to back it up, and his stance allowed his attacks to be swift enough that Fortkran was hard pressed. He found himself constantly pulling in energy from around them… but even if he could refine the earth elemental spiritual energy, Renato could do better as a true earth element cultivator.
With matching cultivation levels and nearly matching skill, the advantage of the environment and a higher tier spiritual totem were quite obvious. However, John wasn’t willing to just give up on the earthen treasure. It was powerful enough that it might be just the right sort of thing to give him the boost he needed to have a powerful breakthrough to Foundation Phase. He was confident in reaching that level without such support, but it wouldn’t be the same.
A plan started to develop in John’s head. He continued to press the attack, striking at Renato to prevent him from being able to freely attack. John felt his reserves of darkness elemental spiritual energy drying up faster than he could replenish them… though he still had earth energy to pull on. John prepared his plan. It was a bit of a risk… but if it failed he would probably just end up with a set of broken ribs.
His sword cut down at an angle, slicing towards Renato. The attack was so obvious that even Renato was comfortable stepping a half step to the side to avoid it. John just hoped he didn’t notice how much earth energy was included. Hopefully those senses would be dimmed by the abundance around them… or Renato might just not believe that John could control it. His sword struck the ground… and the oft used rebound technique propelled it back towards Renato at a slightly different angle.
The attack struck Renato in the side, and John pushed with all the earth energy he could gather to push away Renato’s own energy. Of course, that was only slightly possible… but he at least weakened the strength of the stony barrier around him. Renato was sent flying into the wall… but that didn’t make John confident. Swords were for cutting. Being sent flying meant the momentum was dispersed. He pointed his sword towards Renato, watching carefully.
A moment later, Renato stood up… and then leaned on his long stone club. “Hmmn… I had not expected such control of earth from a darkness element cultivator. I deeply desired this one… but perhaps you might truly make better use of this treasure.” Renato waved. “Go ahead and take it. I’d prefer to conserve my remaining strength for future treasures.”
John kept his eyes on Renato just in case his words weren’t sincere, but he was able to pick up the treasure and store it in a concealing box with no issues. Renato was already walking back out the tunnel he came from… but just as John finished sealing the treasure away, Renato came out of the tunnel again- backing away with his weapon at the ready.
“What’s this then?” A voice John found annoying- though perhaps more because of its owner than any particular quality of the sound- came from the hallway as Kasimir Roldan stepped out from the tunnel. “One of the leading disciples of the Amber Heart, and a Tenebach. Tired out from a skirmish, no less.” Next to Kasimir was another cultivator, close to the peak of Spiritual Collection Phase as well. “We’re going to need you to hand over that treasure you just found, as well as any others. Then we can let you scurry around to find replacements without any further issues.”
A reasonable duel didn’t make for instant friendship… and John was closer to the tunnel he’d entered from. “No chance.” He darted off down the tunnel, making use of what earth energy he could gather to smooth his movements as he came back into an area with irregular footing from extreme crystal growth. He’d hoped that Renato might slow the two cultivators down, but Renato wasn’t far behind. He couldn’t blame him though.
The two of them seemed faster than Kasimir and his ally, though they couldn’t keep running forever. They hadn’t fought to complete exhaustion, but they certainly weren’t at their peaks.
“Ah, damn.” John spotted the pit again. It wouldn’t be a problem to get past it before the others caught up but…
“Why, what a coincidence,” Gastone Boyce was standing on the other side… along with one more peak ninth level cultivator. “I sensed something special down this tunnel, and it came right to me.”
John seriously doubted there were any coincidences involved anywhere. He must have been sensed and they could have figured out where he was going. He looked to Renato who shrugged. Kasimir and the other were only a short distance behind, and they were getting closer. “Tch. Bad luck for you, Tenebach. Now, hand over that treasure.”
John pulled out the box and opened it up. “This one?” Then he tossed it over his shoulder into the pit. “Whoops. I dropped it.”
The first to react was Renato. Instead of moving to break past the other cultivators or anything John might have expected, he dived down the pit after the treasure. His head turned to follow that motion, and that slowed his reaction to Kasimir’s charge enough that he could only block. He had stopped several meters away from the pit for that very reason… but it hadn’t been far enough. He found himself going over the edge… and he slammed into one of the walls on the way down. He felt the crystal shards slicing through his flesh and felt the true cruelty of the world of cultivation. The sense of safety he’d felt from the agreements not to kill others in the Crystal Caverns was, of course, not entirely binding. If he got a third life, John vowed not to be so flippant.