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A small room. Quiet, except for the slow breath of two individuals. One lay in bed, asleep. The other sat nearby, vigilant. Anton knew that Alva wasn’t in any particular danger for her health, but he still couldn’t just leave her alone. And physical well being wasn’t always the most important thing.
Eventually Alva began to stir, stretching. She looked around and spotted Anton. “Good morning, Grandpa. I… what happened?”
“Do you really not remember?” Anton asked, “Or do you just not want to talk about it?”
“Mmmn…” Alva frowned. “How long was I out?”
“Thirty hours,” Anton declared.
“What? Wait, did I miss my next match?”
“You did. Though even if not, could you really have done anything?” Her energy was clearly still exhausted, more the burning embers of a campfire than proper stars. Anton hadn’t sensed any permanent damage there, but draining too much could take time to recover from. “Especially without your bow.”
“… Right…” Alva hung her head. “Still, I won the fight.”
“Did you?” Anton raised an eyebrow.
“Didn’t I? You said I had another match. So I must have.”
“You won the match,” he admitted. “But tell me, why were you having a fight with your cousin?”
“… she wouldn’t even admit to being my cousin,” Alva turned away.
“I understand,” Anton said. He took some time to let his words settle before continuing, “You wanted her to acknowledge you. But you know what she would have been like if the two of you were alone.”
“I don’t want to be her family just when we’re alone!” Alva buried her face in her pillow. “I just want us to be back to how we were before.”
“I wish the same,” Anton admitted. Even if the future where the two of them had no changes in their relationship wouldn’t have him in it, and would be founded only on blissful ignorance… he wished that could have been the world they were in. “But it’s not possible. She has to keep up appearances, you know.”
Alva breathed out heavily. “But I don’t care about any of that. It hurts.”
“Have you told her that?” Anton asked. “Not everyone is skilled at reading others’ hearts. You hide things just like her. Maybe even better, since she wouldn’t expect you to.”
“…” Alva remained silent, and Anton just waited. When she finally spoke, she changed the topic. “My bow is ruined, isn’t it?”
“That’s right,” Anton said. “Both string and shaft are ruined. You’ll have to get a new one.”
“I guess… that technique doesn’t work,” Alva frowned. “That’s too bad. I wanted to have something that was my own.”
“What part of it didn’t work?” Anton asked.
“Well, I destroyed my bow, didn’t I?” Alva said. “I can’t just get a new bow every battle!”
“I don’t think that’s the fault of the technique, is it? You were just careless.” Sometimes, it was less merciful to beat around the bush. “If you actually practiced that technique, I’m sure you could make it work. If you weren’t angry while you used it.” That was one of the problems with teenagers learning cultivation. Hormones and emotions were especially volatile during that time, so in addition to possible unforeseen disruptions to their physical growth, it was easy to misuse their energy cultivation. The fact that Alva didn’t burn herself was actually a testament to her skill.
“… I won’t do it again,” Alva said.
“Do what again?” Anton asked. “Get angry at your cousin? Overreact and use an unfinished technique and destroy your own bow? Which one of those?”
Alva squirmed in her bed, fully covering herself in her blankets. “I don’t know! Any of them, all of them!”
“Good,” Anton said. “Because you know you’d be feeling just this bad if I weren’t here, and for longer. I’m sure as you work to earn a replacement for your bow, you’ll have plenty of time to practice your technique.” If they were in danger, Anton would absolutely provide Alva with a bow. But since she was capable of earning the merits on her own, it would be better for her to do so. She’d done the same with her first bow, but she probably hadn’t thought she’d ever have to buy a new one, unless she were going for a big upgrade at a higher cultivation level.
Eventually Anton left Alva to herself. She would be fine, ultimately. It was just the sort of things that happened with every teen, just amplified somewhat by her power. Hopefully she could learn from the incident, instead of it causing her issues in the future.
The Courageous Heart Clan was a small clan from eastern Facraona. Small in number and small in stature, but not small in power. They were a clan instead of a sect, and their technique literally could not be practiced without the bloodline they shared. The full details of it were kept secret, but there were some obvious things about it.
First, it made them very small. About half the height of a normal human, though maintaining similar proportions. Among other things, their smaller size weakened their capacity for body tempering. Thus, they focused more on the energy aspects of cultivation, and on their minds. Specifically, they focused on mental attacks and trying to draw people into a battle of wills.
Academically, Catarina understood what that meant. Practically, she was uncertain. After all, it was a new sort of technique for her to be facing. Mental attacks were rare, since they require energy to infiltrate an enemy cultivator- if that could be done, then directly damaging techniques were often thought to be better. But of course, it all depended on what a cultivator was prepared for. Here in the tournament, Catarina was not afraid of any permanent damage being caused, so it was an excellent time to experience what they had. Though she prefer to win, if she could.
Having cultivated the Ninety-Nine Stars into Spirit Building, specifically Mental Liberation and Voice, Catarina knew she should at least have some resistance to mental attacks. But though those parts of her were trained, imagining she would perfectly resist an attack when first experiencing it was foolish. After all, if she went through all of Body Tempering before getting in a fight, she couldn’t expect to be an expert. This was the same.
Catarina’s opponent was also a woman, with the expected mid tone skin and dark hair of the Courageous Heart Clan. Her name was Naja, and she was just under a meter tall. It was strange, as her eyes told her the woman was much further away than her energy senses. Yet that part wasn’t even a real mental trick, but just the strangeness of perspective.
Then the match began. Catarina was especially sensitive to the flow of energy around her, and perhaps her opponent knew that. Either way, her energy creeped out in all directions, so Catarina couldn’t tell where an attack might come from.
Despite her curiosity with relation to mental attacks, Catarina wasn’t simply going to wait for her opponent to attack. She moved forward, weapon at the ready as she pulled several formation flags and threw them about the arena. Her abilities to alter the flow of energy in the arena on a large scale were limited by the battlefield itself, and she had no intent to try to bypass the safety measures, but she could still do some things to help herself. For the moment, the flags were a precaution.
Naja wielded a spear, thin in diameter but more than making up for the reach she lacked from having shorter arms. Her defensive stance held Catarina at bay as Catarina moved to attack, trying to find an opening. A familiar form of combat feinting, attacking, parrying, and dodging began to play out. Catarina was almost drawn into a trance by the normality of all of it. But she pushed through, finding the right direction to leverage her higher strength and disarm her opponent. Though the difference between male and female cultivators in terms of physical prowess was narrowed, Catarina didn’t focus on that aspect as much and thus rarely got to win purely on the basis of strength. It was satisfying to see someone unable to respond to her attacks. Her sword pointed towards Naja’s chest, having pierced through her defenses.
It was nice to just win. Too nice. Something was off. She was certain she had exchanged blows with her opponent. She could still sense traces of where they clashed, and if her sense of the fine details of the energy around her was so far off then she had already lost. Catarina pulled back, uncertain about what her opponent was doing… or even if she was fully moving her body.
As they’d fought, Catarina’s sense of everything but the exchange of blows had faded away, and now she found herself almost nowhere with just herself and Naja. She felt another attack coming from her side, and moved to parry it. She had to respond to it as if it were real, whether or not that was the case. As she clashed, she briefly saw the image of Naja there with her spear. Yes, she hadn’t been defeated quite yet, but Naja’s illusions weren’t perfect.
The sense that there was nothing else around her was fake. Catarina knew that, but she couldn’t get rid of it entirely. However, she reached down inside of herself and tried to separate out what she was really feeling from what she was being told to feel. An attack pierced into her leg. Was that real, or an illusion? It didn’t matter, it was too late to stop it regardless. Naja didn’t commit to the attack, so when Catarina reached out to grab the spear it was already gone, her leg bloodied.
“I thought the Courageous Heart Clan liked battles of the wills, not illusions,” Catarina said to the world around her. Truth be told, the distinction between the two was pretty arbitrary. Part of it was that she couldn’t attack in kind. But she had her flags ready still. She reached out for them, feeling their presence and how they affected the flow of energy around them. They couldn’t do much directly… but by changing the flow around her, she should disrupt Naja’s illusions. At least somewhat.
She felt a ripple, and lunged out to attack. Naja was certainly somewhere nearby, and if Catarina could sense her before they clashed she knew that, even though her victory had been an illusion, Catarina could overpower her. A smaller body had weaker muscles that could only move a spear so quickly, unless more energy was applied. If that was the case, the illusion would be weakened as she had to split her focus.
As Catarina was able to more quickly pick out Naja’s location again and again, she realized something. This wasn’t quite the first illusory technique she’d come into contact with. That honor belonged to Velvet. While her practical hiding skills were good, against a cultivator that could sense the physical location of everything around them there was no amount of skill that would be sufficient to hide. It took a technique that cut off the sense of surroundings, and that was what was happening here.
Suddenly Catarina’s senses of everything around her came back- and more. She saw Naja in front of her, but also sensed her to the rear flanks. It was up to Catarina to determine which one was real at any moment, protecting herself while trying to counterattack. This time it was the rear left, something she realized too late to fully avoid the incoming attack.
Once she had a lock on her Catarina could have ignored the other figures, but all of the versions of Naja faded away. Catarina wasn’t even fully certain she’d just taken a real injury, but she had practice fighting with dulled senses. Beneath the tower in the Secret Realm, she’d been forced to push her senses to the limit. This was the same, except now there was extraneous information. False tidbits. She sent her energy out, activating the formation flags at key moments to try to disrupt the flow of energy and weaken the illusion.
Overall, she thought she was doing quite well. Catarina was aware some of the wounds she thought she’d taken ended up to be ephemeral, but she also felt several wounds she hadn’t noticed happening. But she kept quick on her feet, and she thought she was wearing down her opponent as well. Maintaining this illusion couldn’t be easy, and she was forcing Naja to constantly shift it.
Her opportunity came when there was an attack directly from behind. If she was wrong about it being real, she would likely move straight into an attack, but she trusted her judgment. She dodged to the side while sending her cloak flipping backwards. It was something she had rarely used since obtaining it, but crackles of lightning arced from the scales as they impacted Naja. Using it on anyone not directly behind her was difficult as it was attached to her, but she kept it just in case.
The unexpected attack disrupted Naja long enough for Catarina to wrap her hand around the spear, yanking it out of her grip. Then she pointed both the spear and her own sword at Naja, who held up her hands. “I surrender.”
She wondered if that, too, were an illusion- but then the feeling around her faded away. Outside of Naja’s influence, everything that had been unreal felt almost obviously fake, as if looking on a dream from beyond it. At least she wouldn’t have to worry about never knowing if she had truly escaped an illusion, but it also motivated her to potentially put in extra training in that area. If it were someone with malicious intent outside of a tournament, things might not go so well.