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One match after another passed, and the latter parts of the Spirit Building tournament ground away at the remaining participants until only two remained. Hoyt was one of the two. He wasn’t quite at peak Spirit Building, but he was only one star away. That one star still made any hope of victory more difficult, but he wasn’t going to give up without doing his best. He might not want to be his grandfather, but he didn’t want to disappoint him or anyone else either.
His opponent was a formation specialist from Heavy Mountain Gate. She was a sturdy built woman, older by more than a few years but still well within the age requirement, and at the very peak of Spirit Building. The age difference meant more experience, and unfortunately ‘cultivation talent’ wouldn’t necessarily make Hoyt overcome any difference in practical training.
What would help him, though, was advice from someone on how to defeat her specific brand of using formations in battle. Elder Rana would be the one most qualified to give him that sort of advice, but Hoyt wasn’t interested in getting advice from someone much stronger than himself. He would understand Catarina’s advice better anyway.
“You have to win,” she said. “Because Eira beat the person who defeated me, if you defeat her with my advice, it shows I’m better at formations.”
Hoyt wasn’t sure if he followed the logic there, but he understood that Catarina’s confidence lay in her skill in formations, and it wasn’t undeserved. “What do I need to do?”
“The best thing you could do would be to reverse the formation to restrict her,” Catarina said, “But that’s not something easy to do without knowing exactly how her formation… flags… will be arranged.”
Hoyt nodded. “So then…?”
“You could flip one over,” she noted. “They’re sturdy and not easy to move, but in the arena they won’t be defended with a barrier so it’s more feasible.”
Hoyt nodded. Since formations required precision, most of them devoted part of their energy to ensuring their solidity to some extent. Either that meant a large barrier with the flags on the opposite side from the target, either trapping them inside or keeping them out, or individual barriers on each flag. The flags didn’t need to be so well defended as to resist any form of attack, just well enough defended that attacking them would leave an opening for the formation specialist to exploit.
“You won’t have to worry about her carving runes into the surface of the arena,” Catarina noted, “Because not only is it disallowed in the rules… it just wouldn’t work. So you only have to deal with flags. She might have other types of formations she hasn’t demonstrated, but the biggest one is the pressure formation. You should be able to handle that pretty well…” Catarina stroked her chin, “She’ll probably use that one, and if you disrupt it in the right way it can prevent her from setting up anything else. You’ll just have to deal with it while also fighting her.”
Hoyt didn’t feel entirely prepared even after Catarina’s explanations, but he’d worked with her on formation related topics before. While he’d rather have her there to handle that part, it unfortunately wasn’t a group tournament. To be fair, Eira would certainly be stronger in the context of a group battle as well, but just having to deal with fighting and leaving the majority of formation matters to Catarina would make his life so much easier. But since that was the way things were in this particular tournament, he had to get all the advice he could before the match started.
Seeing her up close, Eira was even broader in the shoulder than Hoyt had thought as he watched her previous match. The build of a cultivator didn’t always match with their actual level of bodily strength, but Eira’s at least indicated that she didn’t neglect cultivating her body. The more important thing was the large quiver she had on her back, out of which stuck several spearheads.
Hoyt readied himself, considering whether he should immediately attempt to disrupt her formation to stop it from being formed, or whether to spend that time in combat with her, trying to find an opening as she was distracted setting it up. He knew she wouldn’t be exactly vulnerable during that time or she wouldn’t have made it to the finals, but at the very least her hands would be occupied for a few moments at a time with something besides just engaging in melee with him. Catarina had laid out the pros and cons of each option, but ultimately the choice rested on him.
When the start of the match was called, he chose to move forward for a direct confrontation. He did prefer straightforward combat tactics, but in this case it was actually somewhat of a deception. If he didn’t show any intent to deal with the formation, Eira would be surprised when he actually did it.
Though Hoyt started off with a movement technique, augmenting his legs with fire and rushing forward, Eira still had a few moments where she was undisturbed. That was when she drew the spears from the quiver behind her, one at a time. She didn’t throw them at Hoyt, but instead the arena around them.
Formation flags were usually rather small things. Even in a storage bag, it was inconvenient to carry a pile of large objects. But a waist height flag had certain limitations on its structural durability and even the way it stabilized itself. The spears stabbed into the sand that made up the majority of the surface where they were having their final match, anchoring themselves deep. The flags hanging from them unfurled, revealing something akin to large battle standards. Several of them were in place before Hoyt reached Eira, but they weren’t enough to create any actual effects immediately.
Hoyt understood that being stubborn about being too similar to certain people would limit his options in combat, so he didn’t just run towards his opponent. In one hand he carried his battle axe, but his other hand remained available for ranged options. As spears landed in an emerging formation around him, he quickly tossed two small throwing axes, wreathed in flame. Eira deftly avoided them, but at least she had to divert some of her focus for a moment.
The trails of fire left behind by the thrown axes limited Eira’s movement, but he had no concerns directly moving through the flames. Earlier in the tournament Alva had caused herself trouble by improperly using the same technique, but when sufficiently practiced and properly executed it wouldn’t harm the user or their equipment. It wasn’t meant to be used by channeling anger anyway. It could, but Hoyt found that was simply bound to tire the user out and have inconsistent results.
The technique had undergone much development during his use of it, but Hoyt preferred flames powered by passionate ambition. The core of it would always be the same energy of the Ninety-Nine Stars, but much of cultivation was about more than just the surface level effects. Fire might seem to be fire, but some burned bright and were fleeting. But the best example was always a star, which burned bright and powerful but lasted. An admiration for the stars was one passion Hoyt got from his grandfather, even though he preferred not to be seen as relying on him in any way.
His axe swept across in front of him, driving Eira back as she fought with a spear in one hand while still using the other to throw her ‘flags’ elsewhere. Wherever he went Hoyt left a trail of flames, allowing him to control the battlefield and his opponent’s positioning. His movements pushed Eira back towards a point that would be outside the formation as it was currently laid out.
She did her best to keep Hoyt at bay, jabbing with her spear while steadily retreating. Several more spears went out, nearly finishing the formation. Hoyt pushed forward, winding up an attack as Eira threw one final spear towards a far corner of the formation. His axe chopped down vertically, but she dodged away to the rear, completely avoiding the powerful attack. But she wasn’t his target anyway.
Instead, his axe chopped down into the sand. Though the top layer was light and fluffy, it became denser the deeper it went- and at the depth the spear-banners pierced to it was quite tough. Sand sprayed out in all directions, digging a half trench next to one formation flag and shattering the barrier protecting it.
Pressure began to weigh down on Hoyt even as he reached to grab the spear, yanking it upwards as the barrier struggled to reform. The small bit of pressure that the formation could create in a moment was nothing compared to what he had experienced before, and Eira had pulled away from his attack. That gave him enough time to flip the spear over, driving the cloth-wrapped portion of it headfirst into the ground. As he did so, he surrounded the spear with flames.
He had no intention to try to destroy the spear. It was enchanted to be durable, and it would be a waste of energy. In fact, it suited his purposes even better if it remained. Catarina had told him which specific flags would cause what effects if he inverted them, but the main thing Hoyt got out of it was that all would be beneficial to himself or detrimental to his opponent, which was the same thing.
The flames weren’t there to damage the flag. They were there to melt the sand around it, turning it into glass. It only took a moment, and then Hoyt pulled the heat out of the area to use for his next attack, solidifying the glass and augmenting the flames surrounding him briefly.
Hoyt’s axe deflected Eira’s spear as it stabbed towards him, lingering flames sticking to the other weapon. A moment later they flickered out, and as many of the rest of his lingering flames also began to fade Hoyt realized he’d gotten the most annoying possible result. A general disruption of energy in the area. It would make it nearly impossible for Eira to set up another formation, but some of his techniques would also be less useful.
Even so, it only minorly disrupted the energy directly in contact with Hoyt himself. He was like a ball of fire moving across the battlefield, leaving puddles of melting sand around him as he moved. He was careful to not directly melt the sand under his feet, since he wanted to have a vaguely stable position, but he took little care for the rest of everything around him.
Though Eira was a formation specialist, her spear techniques weren’t lacking. They were quick and powerful, and would have been quite a pain to deal with if Hoyt was under restriction. As it was he still found that her slightly higher cultivation allowed her to output just a bit more energy than he did. But him unexpectedly disrupting her formation threw her off balance, and even when she dodge Hoyt’s attacks there were slight effects.
He couldn’t hope for a good cut or even a bit of singed skin with every swing of his axe, but Hoyt continued to pressure Eira. She was sweating, from exertion and the extra helping of heat Hoyt was directing towards her with every attack. Though the fire was originating from around him, he was actually able to remain mostly relatively cool.
Hoyt stopped thinking about the battle, though that didn’t mean he lost focus. His body knew what to do. He just had to guide his energy to do what it should. He fully intended to win, even as his shoulder and side were pierced by a spear consecutively. He got his own wounds on Eira as well.
Though sometimes he had been loathe to admit it, his flow of energy was much like his grandfather. He was the best example Hoyt would ever have, the pinnacle of power in the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars. One day Hoyt intended to reach that level of power, or maybe even go beyond it… but for the moment he could look to him as an example of what he could be. Maybe he would even stop being stubborn and take advantage of his presence while he was still around.
His axe swung down, cleaving a section of sand in two as Eira held up her hands in surrender. The fire around him faded. Perhaps he had done enough. Winning a Spirit Building tournament should show he had his individual accomplishments. Even if he didn’t choose to learn anything from his grandfather, he should at least spend time with him in his last days.