Spears had the advantage of reach over swords, which meant that it was quite important to get inside their optimal range when possible. A properly skilled spear wielder knew this and prevented that from happening as much as possible. It was never possible to have a perfect defense and the addition of spiritual energy could negate some of the difference between weapons, but John still found himself in a difficult situation.
He was lower in cultivation and Crystin had no obligation to go easy on him. He didn’t really mind in general because he learned a lot, but he’d prefer to win more. Crystin had the skill to beat him consistently, but unlike life or death battles it was inevitable that John would take the advantage eventually. It just didn’t appear to be the current match.
Short jabs with her spear kept John on his toes, forced to constantly move. He could parry her spear to create an opening to move in, but Crystin was usually able to withdraw her spear as quickly as he could step forward- and combined with her own movements away from him, it presented quite a challenge. He could force her to dodge or block if he used throwing daggers with his free left hand, but if he didn’t win the subsequent exchange he usually lost out on spiritual energy expenditure. A thrown weapon required all of the energy to penetrate enemy defenses up front, and it was difficult to recover any of it afterwards.
Attacks with melee weapons still expended energy used to propel them but the portion used to increase their cutting edge was not expended unless there was a collision. Maintaining two types of spiritual energy allowed John to store slightly more compared to someone of the same cultivation rank, but ultimately he had to be more efficient than his higher rank opponent. That meant decisive moves, and sometimes those ended up with him on the losing end.
John thrust his sword forward, but Crystin countered with her spear aimed right at his torso. The attack was aimed so that he could either dodge and give up on his attack, or take the attack and get nothing in return for his efforts. But there was always another option. His sword was too far to parry the attack, but he did have a free hand. More importantly, he had a shiny new gauntlet covering his wrist. Even before the spear touched him Crystin’s energy was cutting through his own, but the gauntlet protected his wrist and arm, allowing him to deflect the attack. Crystin had committed hard enough to her counter that she wasn’t able to pull back in time, and his sword stabbed into her stomach. Or it would have, but they were limiting the total amount of energy they used. It merely stopped as it pressed against her armor, but they both knew how things would have gone.
Having a full shield would have been more defensively useful, but John liked the option to have his hand free for throwing daggers and grabs. A bare hand also wasn’t something that could be ignored in the world of cultivation, though without the force multiplier of a proper weapon true unarmed combat was inferior to using weapons in most cases.
“Good. You’re both doing well,” Luctus praised them. “I am filled with confidence for the future of the Tenebach clan.”
John and Crystin bowed to each other, and to Luctus. Luctus was John’s grandfather, but to Crystin he was technically a great-uncle of some sort. The fine details didn’t matter, since he was a powerful member of the clan and the former head. Currently Gerben was clan head, and he likely would be for at least a decade. Even if John surpassed him before then, having someone experienced with administrative functions in charge was better. Both Gerben and Caelia were young enough that there was no rush for John to take over.
In addition to sparring with Crystin, training with group formations continued. Everyone was getting better at their positions and contributions, though focus was mostly on John and others who would eventually be tasked with leading larger formations in battle. Just not in real circumstances for another few years.
Travel though the Stone Conglomerate was leisurely, disregarding the efforts spent on training. They were in no rush, traveling a reasonable distance every day and attending to various duties. Among those duties was visiting prominent clans and sects. They only briefly stopped at the Order of the Amber Heart, and there were a handful of other allies and potential allies on the way.
Their current stop was at the Marble Mountain Sect. They had impressive lands under their control, towering gateways leading up to their core, and overall rivalled the Tenebach clan in power. John didn’t have anything he needed to do but observe and keep relations cordial. Typical fare. Crystin was in the same boat, but her position was somewhat more awkward. John was engaged to be married which was an easy way to get out of many situations. Crystin, meanwhile, was not yet engaged. The particular purpose of their visit wasn’t to arrange anything involving her, but the fact that it was an option brought many suitors.
Marble Mountain fit its namesake by its disciples looking like they were chiseled out of marble. Most cultivators were conventionally attractive- cultivating always had at least some measure of improvement to the body- but there were different types of results that were had. The cultivators of Marble Mountain weren’t shy about showing off their results- toned bodies ranging from trim and fit to large and burly generally came with as little clothing as required to preserve modesty.
Honing the body was not particularly rare among earth element cultivators, but Marble Mountain was one of the best. They produced some of the strongest cultivators and also some of the least reserved.
John stood in a pleasant garden, not far from a statue that honestly could have been one of the disciples of Marble Mountain if not for the complete lack of color. The one area they differed from marble was their skin tone, though there were a few who ended up nearly white for one reason or another. John was talking to a particularly burly specimen. He had to weigh at least three times what John did, and John wasn’t small or light. However, when compared to a seven foot tall giant with biceps bigger than his head, John looked quite small. “… I haven’t seen her in a bit,” John explained.
“I understand,” the man said in a voice that was surprisingly not all that deep. He didn’t sound quite so much like he ate gravel as some of the others, either. “Crystin is a beautiful sparkling night flower. I regret that I missed the opportunity to talk to her earlier. So if you see her, tell her Grag wished to speak with her.”
“I’ll be sure to pass your message along.” John grinned, wiggling some of the fingers in a hand behind his back. The natural gloom made by the large hedges provided shadows to hide in, and the Tenebach clan was able to take advantage of them. After Grag stepped away, John turned. “You heard what he said, night flower.”
“Uugh,” her voice slipped out of the darkness, “When do you think we’ll be leaving?”
“Can’t come soon enough,” Crystin said. “There are too many. Even if I liked any of them, there’s not really much choice on my part.”
“There might be some, though,” John said. “If you were just talented or from a powerful clan, you’d still get many suitors. Being both of those and attractive is all sorts of danger. But my fiancee was chosen before I was born.”
“Hmph,” Crystin said, “I bet you could get out of it if you really wanted.”
“If anyone was getting replaced in that arrangement, it would have been me.”
“How’s that any different?” she said.
John shrugged, “She would have still been betrothed to the heir. It just wouldn’t have been me.”
“The heir is always the firstborn of the main line,” Crystin said. “You couldn’t be replaced.”
“Are you sure about that?” John said. “Because it’s happened before. The main line usually only has a single child, but there are occasions where they have a second. Like if the heir dies. My parents are still young enough.”
“The Tenebach clan doesn’t let heirs die so easily.”
“Not from outside threats, true, but it’s not too hard to make a mistake in cultivation and…” John dragged a finger across his throat. “That’s the end. Almost happened to me.” Technically, Fortkran did die from his failures in cultivation. “It was then I realized that I needed to think more about the clan.” Or think about the clan at all, instead of stupid selfish stuff. Honestly, if Fortkran had been sensible he would have known he could have gotten more of life’s pleasures if he just waited instead of being stupid about it. But he wasn’t patient, and that had almost cost him his life in two separate ways.
“Is that what it was?” Crystin asked. “Everyone noticed you changed after that. Some people said you intentionally reset your cultivation, with how quickly you recovered.”
“I wish,” John said. “But it wasn’t quite so easy. Now then, I think we should be able to sneak back to our own chambers. The shadows are deep enough for you, and I can keep you covered. As long as you avoid sparkling.”
Crystin grumbled at his teasing, but it was the good kind. They were actually growing somewhat closer, instead of just being acquaintances who happened to be related.