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“Why didn’t the formations work?” Alva asked. “They didn’t stop my attack…”
“They did work,” Catarina pointed out. “If they hadn’t been in place, your arrow would have gone through the back of the vein, the arteries, maybe the spine at that angle. Instead you only punctured the front side of the vein, not completely severing it.”
Alva made a disgusted face. “I don’t want to think about that.”
The best part about being an archer was she didn’t have to look at what she did up close. There were some people who deserved whatever happened to them, but that didn’t mean she wanted to see it. She’d already seen enough dead people to last several lifetimes.
Alva’s next match wouldn’t be for at least a day, since they wanted everyone to have the chance to rest, but she wanted to know who her opponent was ahead of time. Her match had been more towards the end of the first round, so her opponent should be listed soon.
It didn’t take her long to find it… but when she did she just stared at it in shock. It was… some kind of weird mistake, right? But nothing changed no matter how she looked at it. She had to go find out. Maybe there was another person from the same sect with that name. That would make sense.
The atmosphere chilled as she approached the Frostmirror Sect. She understood the cold was their whole cultivation method, but did they have to make it so… unpleasant? A nice cool breeze was one thing, but it was unpleasant just to approach. Especially without any expressions on anyone’s faces. Fortunately, Diana recognized her as she approached. “I assume you are here to see Annelie?” Before Alva even answered, she waved her forward.
It was hard to not run up and hug her cousin, but beyond the fact that it would be incredibly cold, it would also be frowned on by the sect members around her. She didn’t want to make things more difficult for Annelie. But at least she was allowed to smile. The Frostmirror Sect could say whatever they wanted to their own members, but they couldn’t force others to throw away their emotions. “Good to see you again. Have you heard…?”
Annelie nodded. “Yes. We are matched against each other tomorrow.”
“What are you going to do?” Alva bit her lip.
“I’m going to fight. And you should as well. It’s a proper tournament, after all. Someone must come out the victor in each match.”
It was difficult to look at the face of her cousin and see only blankness. Even with her Insight being trained, if she didn’t know better she would have thought Annelie really had no emotions at all. There had only been a brief time they really got to reconnect in the secret realm, but she knew Annelie was still herself inside there. A slight modification to the core cultivation technique and she was able to simply turn off her emotions when it suited her, instead of expunging them entirely. It still hurt, though. “Right. Only one can win. I know you are still ahead of me in cultivation, but don’t think it will be easy.”
“I would expect nothing less from a member of the Order.”
Alva smiled a fake smile as she extracted herself from the area. She hoped that members of the Frostmirror Sect didn’t have the expertise to read her true emotions underneath. But even if they could, would they care? As long as it didn’t negatively impact a favored disciple, an outsider’s feelings didn’t matter. But it still hurt to not even be referenced as Annelie’s cousin, but just the disciple of a sect.
By the time the match came, Alva had transitioned from depressed to angry. Annelie could have been a lot more welcoming, considering she went all that way to talk to her. Even if the Frostmirror Sect didn’t place that much importance on family, she could have still factually referred to her as a cousin. They were even allowed to say niceties like ‘it’s good to see you again’, but she got none of that from Annelie!
She even acted like she didn’t care that they would be fighting each other. While Alva had to admit that it really wasn’t such a big deal, since people who were close- sect mates or friends or even family- met each other all the time in tournaments it still deserved some acknowledgement that it wasn’t just another match. Maybe something about how whichever one of them won would go on to win the whole tournament! Though Alva knew she was too weak for that. The difference between her cultivation and someone at the peak of Spirit Building was more or less double her power, which meant someone could fully defend against all of her attacks and still have enough energy left to attack her as if they were going all out. While she could be more skilled or efficient, it would hardly ever overcome such a big gap.
Annelie had no chance either, since the few steps of cultivation between them weren’t enough to make her unsuited to fight Alva. And even if both of them were top geniuses, there would still be others at a higher rank than them. Catarina was participating, after all, and the rest of her grandfather’s group were equally strong. Alva thought she might be a decent match for them if her cultivation was the same, but some of them were only barely short of peak Spirit Building. They would be the worst opponents to face, people with practical experience and a significant power advantage. Her familiarity with their fighting style would be balanced out with their understanding of hers, and overcome by her lesser experience. With less than four years of training, the fact that they’d started more than a year ahead of her was a huge gap to overcome.
When she got to the arena, Alva sighed. They ended up on a battlefield advantageous to Annelie, even. How unfair. Though she knew it was chosen randomly. The Frostmirror Sect was too proud to try to influence things like that.
The further one went in the tournament, the more varied the battlefield. This one happened to have a dozen or so pools of water scattered about, with trees that could be used for cover. The arts of the Frostmirror Sect gained an advantage from having a related element nearby, and an open battlefield was better for archers.
Her grandfather had taught Alva not to fight when angry. It tended to result in wasting energy through excessive attacks that were easily predictable. But how was she supposed to not be angry when she was so upset?
The instant the match started, Alva unleashed a flurry of arrows. Good luck freezing all of those! But of course, Annelie didn’t need to freeze the half-dozen arrows. She just had to avoid them. Her face remained impassive as she trailed her sword behind her, narrowly avoiding the arrows headed at her. Annelie ran straight across one of the small ponds, ice forming where she stepped and frosty mist circling around her.
Stupid cousin with her stupid elegant technique. Then when she got close she would restrict Alva’s movements and make fighting difficult and unpleasant, without even getting a crooked grin on her face.
Alva grit her teeth as fire formed around her. Her grandpa hadn’t even been willing to show her a secret technique to beat Annelie, even though she was higher in cultivation. How was that fair? It was a good thing she hadn’t just been learning from him. Hoyt’s techniques weren’t really that useful for her, since it required people to be up close… but seeing the Crimson Trail Sect’s archery, she understood there was more than one way to use the same technique.
Only a small core of formless energy made up her next Spirit Arrow, with roiling flames coating the central portion of the arrow. She released quickly, as the flames were beginning to make her uncomfortable despite being under her control. Annelie stepped to the side, avoiding the arrow, but she had to dodge even further to the same side under the next one. Trails of fire lingered where the arrows had been, causing steam to rise from the area around Annelie where frost formed on the ground.
Alva continued to shoot arrows as quickly as she could, forcing her opponent to duck and weave and jump to get around the growing web of flames. She didn’t just stand still herself, but circled around her opponent, leaving a trail of fire where she walked as well. That was the technique she’d originally focused on learning, but it was only useful in specific circumstances. But when neither the ground nor the air were safe, where would anyone go?
Explosions of steam began to pop up as Annelie forced her way through the flaming trails. Alva knew they could be stronger, but it would be difficult to maintain them. Well, who cared about that? This was just a stupid tournament match. It didn’t even matter who won. As long as it was her and not her stupid cousin.
Neither Catarina nor Devon had been willing to give her a secret trick to beat Annelie either. What was family for, if they wouldn’t help you when you needed it? At least she’d trained the stupid fire technique. It was annoying, because if she didn’t control it properly it might catch her hair on fire or singe her bow. She could smell her hair burning now, in fact, but what did that matter? Hair would grow back.
Annelie was still dodging too easily. The trails needed to be bigger. Wooshier. Like a bonfire instead of a torch. For that she had to slow down, but Annelie was having trouble navigating the battlefield anyway. Some of the ponds wouldn’t freeze properly, and she sunk into them briefly. Alva could afford to take fewer, better shots.
The worst part was that even though Alva was sweating buckets, Annelie’s face remained calm and unfazed. Not a drop of sweat on her forehead. Just because she started cultivating a bit earlier, was she going to win? It was dumb. She probably didn’t even shoot a hundred arrows a day, let alone a thousand! Yesterday Alva hadn’t shot nearly so many, so she had almost an extra thousand for today.
If Annelie reached Alva, she would just lose anyway, so she didn’t bother reserving any energy for defenses. Each arrow she shot was like a fluttering bird, if birds caught on fire and had no real shape. But fire spewed out in all directions, lingering behind for at least a few moments and making it hard for Annelie to move.
Then things lined up just perfectly, with Annelie leaping for the center of a large pond. She could certainly land on the surface and make ice, but could she redirect herself in flight? Only one way to find out. Another large bundle of fire shot out at her, the arrow arriving shortly after she landed on the pond, freezing some of it. With nothing else to do, the center of the ice melted- and evaporated almost instantly. A large fire-and-steam ball rose up around Annelie, and then she fell into the pond beneath her as nothing supported the remaining ice.
Ha! Served her right, to get soaked like that! She probably couldn’t even use her stupid frost stuff now, or she’d freeze herself. Annelie was just dragging herself onto shore when Alva took aim once more. She wasn’t even a little bit signed yet, and probably hadn’t broken a sweat either. It was hard to tell with all that water dripping from her hair. When Alva’s next arrow reached her it was hardly an arrow. It was just a ball of fire washing over her. Alva felt Annelie’s defenses straining.
Who said you needed condensed energy to pierce through defenses? Who said you had to conserve your energy for a proper fight? Who said that fighting angry made people do stupid things and overtax themselves? They were all wrong, because Annelie had to surrender before she could even stand up again.
“Yeah!” Alva squeezed her bow and shouted to the sky. She won! And Annelie’s stupid face was dripping wet and covered in soot at the same time!
There was a crack, and Annelie looked at her bow. Then she smelled it. Was that… a campfire? Wasn’t her bow a sort of silvery platinum, and not black? Wasn’t it supposed to be in one piece, not broken down the middle?
Alva reached her other hand towards her abdomen. She just wanted to make sure she was sensing in the right place. She was supposed to have energy in there, wasn’t she? Ah crap. Maybe she’d overdone it. She flopped down onto her face in the dirt without even being able to continue her victory celebration.