The night before the rematch, Anton didn’t have a miraculous breakthrough. In fact, he barely slept. When he tried to sleep, his mind told him he should be cultivating. When he tried to cultivate… he could only think about how much he needed to win. That was motivation… but not usable. He needed a clear and focused mind, not scattered near-panic.
For her own part, upon her arrival Tonina didn’t look entirely fresh either. She clearly hadn’t had a leisurely month of pleasant cultivation. Her eyes were filled with determination. Anton might have congratulated her change in demeanor if circumstances had been different. However, she was still going to fight him for possession over his grandson. Even if she didn’t know the relation… it was still someone’s life. And of course, they would not be having another match to begin with were she not a spoiled brat throwing around her family’s influence.
As soon as the match started Anton fired and shot arrows, the twang of his bow crystal clear in the arena nearly devoid of life. Anton no longer had the inclination to be gentle. The previous battle he had simply pieced through her energy defenses to weaken her joints one at a time until she could not fight. Now, if he found the opportunity, he would not mind filling her with holes. While there was merely one level of difference between them still, Anton had merely reached the peak of Body Tempering and she’d fully stepped into Spirit Building. He couldn’t hold back, even if it meant future trouble. It was already far too late to consider additional consequences. He merely had to win.
Tonina Potenza was from a wealthy family quite interested in her survival, so it was no surprise that her armor was top tier. Though it was durable, it also appeared light enough for her to move easily. No more than the standard weight of steel plate, at least. Her movements were swift and her attacks sharp, while her defenses couldn’t be underestimated.
Even with his energy concentrated to a fine point, her energy at early Spirit Building was a large step more durable than it had been during the last battle. While Anton was confident he could have pierced through her armor as well as her energy in the previous battle, now he was having trouble causing more superficial wounds.
Her sword brushed past his face. It wasn’t supposed to be so close. When they last fought he let her attacks brush close to him because it required less effort to avoid by a narrow margin, and he was confident in his ability to judge her attacks- but now it was all he could manage. However, he wasn’t willing to give up. There was too much on the line… and he knew he could do more.
It physically hurt Anton to parry her sword with his bow, despite him being aware that his energy and the nightwood could withstand some level of damage. But if he didn’t do it, he would die.
He pulled out all his techniques. Thousand Arrows allowed him to fire at an unreasonably quick rate, but he simply couldn’t break through her defenses consistently enough. Tonina wasn’t just letting him hit her, either. Whenever he gathered more energy, she took the opportunity to attack or divert her defenses to withstand his improved attacks.
Swan Steps kept his head on his neck, and he found his body was indeed faster than it had been… but he needed more. Reading her movements with One Step Ahead was more difficult as her speed was more than before, and the change in quality of energy as she stepped into Spirit Building exemplified that. As with all weapons, the speed of her sword also directly translated into deadliness. It cut through his own energy, leaving trails of blood even where Anton’s armor protected him. So far it was merely surface level, but the difference between a trivial wound and a deadly one wasn’t even a full centimeter.
It wasn’t enough. He needed to know where she would move before she started, maybe even before she knew. Her sword might slice up at a certain angle, or thrust at him just so. If he twisted his body just right he could avoid the attacks. In a way he was successful. At least he got away with his life. Anton was extremely grateful for the diamondsilk woven into the armor on his chest. Its strength had saved him from some deep cuts that might have decided the battle.
Had he underestimated Spirit Building? Overestimated himself? Should he just give up? He might not be able to save Devon, but he could save others. But giving up… simply wasn’t possible. Win or lose, he couldn’t do anything but give his very best.
The stars inside Anton flared as he pushed his energy to its limits, moving his body as quick as he could, shooting arrows made purely of energy that would pierce ever so slightly deeper, leaving blood dripping from several places on Tonina. But it wasn’t enough yet. He needed to find an opening. To see her movements.
And… he did. One battle and half of another weren’t enough time to get to know an opponent fully, but Anton almost saw her moving ahead of where she was. In fact, he did see it, just not with his eyes. He just knew. The stars danced around inside him, one pair, one trio, and the final group of five. They offered up energy to their limits and even more. There was a veritable whirlpool around Anton, his lungs pulling in every strand of energy in the atmosphere he could and immediately putting it to use.
As he became more confident in the visions Anton pierced into a weak point in her armor at her shoulder joint several times in a row. When she gathered her energy to defend, he simply targeted her lower torso, slowly piercing through the armor at a particular point. He even gathered an especially large spirit arrow to shoot into her thigh as he dodged an attack by a hair, using every ounce of the skill and energy he had available.
Then he saw it. A sweep of her sword, swift and nearly undodgeable. But he could do it. He could… but his body couldn’t. His energy was nearly dried up, and blood was flowing out of numerous wounds. A trail of blood was sliced along his ribs, into some of them, sending him flying onto his back. Even as he lay there, his eyes locked on her. If he could just take aim… but his arms refused to move.
He could still breathe. Energy flowed into his lungs, but to move he would have to prop himself up entirely with it. Then he wouldn’t be able to attack. How could he…?
Anton didn’t even hear the announcement of his loss, though he couldn’t debate it. He had lain still on the ground for far too long. Energy rushed into him like the crashing emotions he had inside. He had lost. Even though he had given it his all. It was much worse than simply not being present. He’d had the chance to redeem one family member, but on his first opportunity he fell short. He couldn’t say if it was because of his earlier choices- those might have led to his death, or they might not have. He didn’t have the clarity of thought to process any of that, or the emotional fortitude to get even a modicum of solace from the fact that he had broken through to Spirit Building.
The match was private. Only the participants, the master of the arena, and a few others were there to watch. Devon watched as two young cultivators rushed out to where Anton lay bleeding on the ground. He wished he could go there… but he couldn’t. Even if he could, he wasn’t sure if his grandfather would find solace in his comfort.
Anton was… the pillar of the family. He had been what held everything together over the generations. The farm had only grown because of his determination, a determination he passed on to others. Then there had been devastation.
Devon had been there. He was young enough. Healthy. And incapable of even scratching the attacking bandits. He wasn’t able to keep track of everything happening in the confusion. They were led away in chains at the fastest speed they could maintain. Faster, even. Some people were thrown away along the way, never even making it to Veron to be sold. They’d all been split up. Many of the strong young men went to farms or the mines, but he’d been sold to the arena.
He’d been given a simple cultivation technique, along with an ultimatum. Win, or die. While it wasn’t quite so black and white, if he didn’t take care of himself he wouldn’t survive in the arena. So he had practiced with a weapon and trained the cultivation technique… and won. For no particular reason than he had nothing better to do. He knew he didn’t want to die, but he didn’t remember why. He kept winning… and then there were no more fights. Weeks of that, then another month with talks of him being purchased.
Then Anton had shown up. It was supposed to be a nice surprise, but instead it was sort of a bitter apology. As if he’d known he would lose. But… it helped Devon remember something. That was why he hadn’t given up. Grandpa Anton wouldn’t. Even as he lay bleeding on the floor of the arena, Devon felt his energy clawing at the air, trying to do anything. Not just any energy. Strong energy. The energy of a Spirit Building cultivator.
That was… crazy. Devon was not well versed in cultivation, but he had reached mid Body Tempering. He wasn’t the youngest man in the world, though certainly not old. Even so, he’d felt his age. Anton, his grandfather… had far surpassed him. It wasn’t just possessing a good technique. That could never do so much. Instead, it was the undying determination he possessed. Something Devon had thought gone from the world. But now he saw it.
Would he have preferred to be saved? To no longer be subject to slavery fighting in an arena? Of course. If only he had been just a bit stronger… but Devon couldn’t say that anyone else could have done better. For his own case, however, Devon had merely been going through the motions of survival because that was what he was expected to do. Yet his grandfather Anton had thrown himself into danger, just for a chance to save him. He’d almost done it, too.
It was a distant hope to think he would survive long enough for Anton to manage to free him now. If it was just about money, he could have been bought away already without the sacrifice. What would be required to force a sale? Devon wasn’t sure, but as he felt the Spirit Building energy flickering from his prone grandfather as he was pulled away, he knew he had to survive to find out. How could he give up on himself when someone like that was still looking out for him?