The quality of individuals John felt gathering in Astrein was significantly greater than the previous time. More than a decade could bring such change, though that was still considered rapid by cultivator standards. The last time John had been in Lunson, the capital, his cultivation had been far lower and they didn’t even know Matayal was pregnant when they arrived. It was also where he had first discovered the shards of Ciaritzal that members of the Society of Midnight carried.
Quite a lot had happened all at once there, John almost dying, him and Matayal worrying about the developing triplets, and a cascade of consequences. If the Society of Midnight hadn’t had other things to deal with, perhaps they would have managed to take back Ciaritzal as things escalated. But that was the way of the world- there was rarely just one thing that had to be dealt with at a time, though and priorities had to be chosen. From the Society of Midnight’s perspective, their sect head being on the brink of reaching the Ascending Soul Phase had been more important than recapturing Ciaritzal. They simply couldn’t have predicted that the Tenebach clan would grow so quickly, along with their allies.
John wasn’t able to make note of everyone relevant before the tournament began, but he did notice two factions with Consolidated Soul Phase cultivators coming up from the Stone Conglomerate. One was Heavy Gold Mountain, centrally located within the country. They were as ostentatious as their name- and they used real gold in their weapons and armor- but nobody could say they were not effective. Contrary to them was an unexpected up-and-coming group: the Quartz clan. No, not the Quartz clan whose young master got in a feud with Steve. Also not the Quartz clan with the pleasant fellow Raghu, in the northeast. Another one of the many, located in the western region of the Stone Conglomerate.
The Tenebach clan had little interaction with either of those factions, but there were some John did recognize. They ranged from generally friendly- the Calamitous Swarm from the Darklands- to mere passersby like the Ebon Crest from the same region. John also recognized the Twisting Terror Clan from the Wuthering Steppes, part of a previous squabble not directly related to either clan. They weren’t long term bitter enemies, but they would likely be pleased to have an opportunity to defeat someone from the Tenebach clan.
Speaking of which, there were several special participants who would be involved in the earlier stages of the competition, with those of the lowest cultivation. That was, of course, the triplets. Strictly speaking they were not all part of the Tenebach clan. Tirto officially carried the name of the Brandle clan, though he was certainly able to use either name. The two girls officially were members of the Tenebach clan, Melanthina because she was the heir and Ursel because the Stone Conglomerate was more comfortable for her.
They were much younger than most of the participants, but with their cultivation they should be as safe as reasonably possible, since the defensive formations that kept people safe from more serious injuries were most effective when considering those with weaker cultivations. And while their parents would be nervous every moment, they couldn’t just forbid them to fight when they had the power to do so. That would only stifle their growth.
John wondered how his own family here had felt… after he was no longer the version of himself they might prefer to die.
With the rest of the Tenebach clan staying together, John found no reason to stay apart. He just made minimal use of the energy gathering formation. His cultivation favored darkness, but splitting apart the various elements for his own use was good practice. That was the thing about Astrein… it wasn’t actually without spiritual energy, it was simply an even mix that wasn’t much good for most purposes. John rather liked it, as he even had fire and light to… very inexpertly mess around with.
Deep inside he could feel his cultivation growing. He couldn’t exactly say it was rapid at any point over the last years, but it was consistently pushing forward. His cultivation fed his totems- a great tree of darkness, humble earth composted from fallen leaves, the atmosphere with all its impurities, and the sea around it delving to its very depths. In turn, the growth of his totems facilitated the gathering and conversion of spiritual energy, feeding the power inside of him and attuning him to its so he could sustain control over greater quantities.
His advancement to the Mid Consolidated Soul Phase and the thirty-first rank of cultivation was smooth, not the product of any major events but an accumulation of everything that came before it. It wasn’t training upon the slopes of Zolvolj or the Crystal Caverns or the journey into the depths of the sea and contemplation on the sea god. Training on Cyclone Island and within Ciaritzal’s cave hadn’t provided any specific need. Instead, all of that put together, the time, effort, and balance as well as admittedly significant expenditures of wealth had brought him to this point. Sometimes, advancement was a struggle or a desperate fight, but sometimes… it was just how things had to be.
John wished all of his future advancement could be like this, but even if reaching the late Consolidated Soul Phase worked out for him, adding a fire element totem would be a significant hurdle. Following that up with light… well, it had been a wild ambition to begin with. He hadn’t seen anyone beyond Faramund in even the Ascending Soul Phase, and even that was just barely reached.
Tirto found himself facing off against a cultivator named Orazio from Heavy Gold Mountain, a massive lad probably five to seven years his senior. It was difficult to tell, because not only was his build bulkier than Tirto, the heavy armor he wore inflated his size. His weapon was a warhammer with a golden head, and Tirto knew the momentum it carried would be significant. Such a weapon should be extremely difficult to accelerate as well, but Tirto imagined the man’s cultivation technique would account for that somehow. Otherwise, it wouldn’t matter how much damage it could do- he would simply dodge it.
Their initial appraisal of each other came while the field was still setting itself up. At first it appeared to simply have regular pillars throughout that would block vision, but as darkness settled around Tirto he also noticed wind rushing above. This was a field that advantaged neither of them, with the darkness being equally compatible with both earth and water. Perhaps if it came to fighting atop the pillars this Orazio might have some advantage, but it was mostly up to how they might use their surroundings.
As the darkness blinded him to his opponent, Tirto felt the size of himself and his spear to be inadequate. Reach was important to cultivators, and while a significant portion of that relied on cultivation mastery, he was still at the point where his physical body was a problem. A stroke against him, but battles were about who could find a path to victory among every factor.
At least he was used to fighting in the dark. Melanthina could completely suffuse a room with darkness, so when she got to choose the battlefield she generally chose confined quarters. All he had to do was pick out his opponent. Perhaps he would listen for Orazio’s breathing, or his heartbeat.
*Thud* *Thud* *Thud*
Or maybe he would follow the booming sound of his footprints. At least that was handled. Tirto padded his own feet with water, skating across the ground rather than stepping. The darkness surrounding them was static rather than actively controlled so it wouldn’t completely conceal his use of energy, but he could leverage what he had available.
Both he and his opponent should favor melee combat, so Tirto approached while doing his best to slip around behind Orazio. He gathered energy on his spear, striking forward. He pierced the defensive energy on his opponent, but barely damaged the armor beneath. Tirto slipped back, two thuds indicating feet changing their orientation. Surprisingly, the swing of the weapon he knew was coming had no sound at all. It did have a significant weight of energy attached to it, but it was lumbering and slow.
He could dodge that without stepping back. So Tirto decided to duck in, aiming for where he sensed a shoulder. It was fuzzy, but if he could hit a gap in the armor it would save him a lot of energy compared to trying to punch through it. As he stabbed, Orazio clamped his arm to his side- clearly sensing the trajectory of Tirto’s attack. The heavy hammer swung back towards Tirto, slightly awkward for multiple reasons. Tirto simply slid under it, aiming for the waist. He thought he hit flesh but he couldn’t follow through with the hammer coming back towards him.
He slipped under Orazio’s legs, becoming more confident with his movements. His weapon continued to seek unarmored joints with quick thrusts as Orazio spun around to follow his movements. Duck, dodge, weave. It was simple enough, with the weapon being so slow. And that was when it hit him in the side.
For a moment, Tirto was flying- though instead of rising into the air, he remained parallel to the ground. Then he slammed into a pillar… and through it. His momentum was lost there as he thudded across the ground, rolling. As the pillar collapsed, he could see a vortex of wind drawn down into the area taking its place. It might not last, but then again the battle probably wouldn’t be that long.
Tirto tried to get up, clutching his side. Something was definitely broken. Orazio’s attacks were certainly powerful, and Tirto hadn’t anticipated the acceleration as he swung continuously. A blunder that led to him taking a blow. Seriously, Orazio hit as hard as Ursel did! Which meant with her watching, he couldn’t afford to go down after just one blow.
He swapped his spear to his left hand, since that side’s ribs were more intact. *Thud* *Thud* *Thud* Heavy boots slammed into the ground as Orazio charged, hefting his hammer in an overhand swing. Knowing how earth element techniques worked, Tirto was going to be nowhere near that when it came down. A wave pushed him to the side before circling around, allowing him to jab into the general area of Orazio’s waist where he’d landed the most hits. Most people would stagger back even if they weren’t seriously injured, but Orazio was like an unmovable boulder. Tirto wasn’t sure he could really damage the man if he simply held still for a few seconds.
This time, Tirto was expecting the swings to accelerate- not only in individual speeds, but between swipes. Earth element carried the warhammer one way before jerking the momentum back in the other direction and adding more to it. Orazio was expending some energy for each of those jerks, but it was made up for by keeping the majority of his power from each swing unless he were going to actually hit.
Once he was tracking that increase in speed Tirto was ready to dodge swifter attacks, but eventually it would reach a speed he couldn’t handle. But it was a matter of who reached their limits first. Tirto ducked under the hammer, then vaulted over it at the handle, bubbles of water attached to his feet and spinning him over. High or low, he could avoid predictable attacks.
He was even ready when instead of swinging back Orazio continued his momentum with a spin. Tirto took advantage of that moment to stab the small of his back, but the attack was angling towards him as Orazio spun. Then Tirto leapt forward, sliding between the beefy arms of his opponent and flipping over his head. No doubt Orazio was ready to catch him rolling between his legs again, but that was an unexpected trajectory.
He did an impressive attempt at shifting the momentum of his hammer but… committed to it a bit too hard. Instead of continuing the spin, his arms twisted… and twisted… and then there was a snap. Tirto was surprised- not that Orazio managed to break his own arms, but that he managed to only break them. That amount of power would have taken Tirto’s arms clean off.
Orazio kicked out at Tirto, cussing, but it was clear he hadn’t practiced any actual unarmed combat. Tirto still had control of his weapon, and after getting a few stabs to the backs and sides of his knees Orazio was forced to surrender.
“Which makes me a worse parent?” John asked, clutching his fist hard enough to dig his nails into his palm. “Threatening to break a teen’s legs for daring to hurt my boy, or not doing that?”
Matayal snorted. “Just come congratulate our son.”
“Right, yeah. That’s more logical,” John nodded. He was only perhaps a tenth serious with his inquiry, but it was interesting what thoughts slipped into his head. It almost excused clan heads getting involved in their scion’s battles. At least there was a core of something good there. At least when it was love that made them do that and not a distorted pride. But also, they should really be able to control themselves better when not under threat of community violence.