The training setup that had been arranged was a little bit awkward, with mostly incongruous elements for those inhabiting them. Livna and Yonit, the two water element bodyguards, were placed in a fire element room. While it wasn’t comfortable, it was good for their training. Water dominated fire, and fire augmented water.
What that meant in practical terms was that fire element helped propel transitions between states, ice to water to steam. And while that part was obvious, as long as the fire wasn’t directly used to heat up the area it worked for the reverse as well. It was like an extra boost to allow for state changes. In general, it made the water element flow faster and stronger- though it could be hard on the cultivators in question. But neither Livna nor Yonit had to deal with it constantly. They were only intended to be in the room for a short time each day, besides sleeping, and they could turn off the fire element gathering formation.
That was the only thing that made the light element room tolerable for Aydan and Crystin. It was quite good training to fight against a directly opposing element, but it also wore them out rather quickly. Turning it off was important for them to get any sort of rest.
The only room that actually matched appropriately was John’s, and it was technically problematic for Matayal. That said, she’d long ago learned how to properly resist the air element, and when dual cultivating with John her water element enhanced the air, which enhanced his earth… and both water and earth were allied elements with his darkness. Thus, it was actually a decent training area- though a bit unbalanced.
John actually wanted to spend some time in the other rooms when the chance arose, but though they were capable of gathering elements for training, the main reason for their existence was to provide a place to stay while waiting for the tournament, and that started rather quickly- just a few days after their arrival.
Though very few people made the long journey to the middle of Astrein just to watch the tournament, the streets were crowded with a press of people that was more than just those participating in the first rounds of the tournament. After all, while they might not go a country over to watch, anyone participating in the tournament would generally watch as much as they could- to check out their opponents, if nothing else.
The chances of actually learning anything about an early opponent was slim, as the matches were kept secret until both participants had fought in their previous match. So the first few rounds would simply be watching as many battles as could feasibly be done- or just picking an interesting one to focus on and not worry about knowing specific weaknesses.
John was definitely in the latter camp, and with good reason. He was strong enough to not be concerned about the first matches, even if he would be facing Soul Expansion Phase cultivators. The first few rounds of the tournament matched people against those at least in the same Phase, and generally closer in rank if they could. That was as fair as they could get. After three rounds, those remaining could theoretically face anyone. There were prizes for best rankings in each phase, but the overall prizes of the tournament would of course simply go to the strongest.
While everyone liked the idea of being the young upstart cultivator that could defeat people an entire Phase ahead and won the tournament in Foundation Phase or Soul Expansion Phase, the reality of the situation was different. While some participants just might be able to fight some opponents an entire Phase ahead of them, everyone participating in the tournament had some confidence in their own skills. When facing other talented individuals, surmounting a cultivation gap became more difficult.
John’s first opponent was an old man who cultivated the air element. That meant that instead of considering how he would win, John considered how he would win without revealing too much of his abilities. John could feel the man had a third tier totem, and the other two he would place between second and third. Since he had previously fought against opponents who surpassed him in terms of totem tier, John was used to making up for that- being slightly ahead was a huge advantage.
Though his most recent totem more or less matched the man- ignoring the fact that his was had been growing steadily and was now closer to the fourth tier- they were both air element, and neither particularly dominated. John’s darkness element wasn’t at much of an advantage or disadvantage in the battle either. But his second totem had been earth, and that was a conquering element with respect to air. John would certainly be making heavy use of that, the only question was whether or not he would reveal his own skills with air.
He walked around with darkness openly displayed, and being from the Tenebach clan anyone who did any amount of research into him would rightfully assume he had darkness element. It was just that he was currently in the most awkward step of a cycle of elements. He was very glad for Matayal, as she was making his training much, much easier. They still had some decisions to make before they reached the Consolidated Soul Phase, but even that was several years off by optimal projections.
Ultimately he decided he would just have to do whatever he needed. He likely wouldn’t be using air element for offense, so anything he did there would likely blend into the scenery. John might have wanted to use something as a surprise, but it was easier to keep a technique or two hidden than a whole third of his cultivation.
When the match began, John expected his opponent to go on the offensive. That was generally a trait of air element cultivators, though it depended somewhat on whether they cultivated lightning or wind. But John didn’t mind being the first to attack either. He strode forward at a measured pace with his sword drawn… and flicked a few throwing daggers as he flourished with his sword to distract his opponent.
Of course, no Spirit Building cultivator would be defeated so easily. With a sweep of his hand the old man brushed aside the throwing daggers, the energy augmenting the attacks being insufficient to keep their trajectory. The old man began to back off, and John followed after him.
In another section of the arena, beyond walls that provided at least some form of separation between individual matches, Matayal faced off against a light element cultivator of similar age. The man was dressed in flowing white robes that sparkled in the sun, which was an annoyance even before the match began. Once they started to fight, it went from being an annoyance to a real problem.
Instead of going for a single blinding flash like some light element cultivators, Matayal’s opponent seemed more interested in the repeated glints of light that would reflect into her eyes. She thought she might avoid it by changing their positions relative to the sun, but the glints of light weren’t just caused by that. Matayal could see the man himself softly glowing, amplified through the flowing robes he wore as he adjusted his stance.
Matayal thrust out with her spear, which the man parried with his bracers. His eyes kept careful track of her movements, allowing him to dodge or parry as necessary. His movements were sharp and refined, as they would have to be when fighting opponents with longer reach. Yet though the man’s only weapons being a pair of gauntlets was a disadvantage if Matayal could keep him at bay, he was very adept at making openings. So far she’d still managed to defend herself with a bubble of water around her slowing his attacks, and she quickly forced him to back off after each attack.
Matayal circled about, flicking her spear downwards and with it forming a small pool of water she immediately froze. Her opponent dodged out of it before she could complete the action, but Matayal didn’t intend to let him just rest. She kept him on his toes, even as she was constantly disturbed by the flashes of light. Matayal shook her head. They shouldn’t have been such a bother, but she wasn’t quite feeling in top form. Closing her eyes would do nothing good for her, as she had no way to limit her opponent’s senses as well. But she continued circling around, seemingly intent on freezing the man’s feet to the floor.
The pair danced around, neither landing any blow of significance on the other. Matayal stabbed, swiped, and twisted her spear trying to catch the man but he expertly avoided her attacks. Then the moment came. Matayal overextended on a thrust, and as she pulled back he charged forward. A small part of Matayal’s defenses solidified as the man rushed forward.
Light glinted, flashing into the eyes of the man. Matayal’s spear was held to catch him on his forward trajectory, but as soon as the sheet of ice reflected light into his eyes he retreated. Matayal clicked her tongue. She wasn’t going to get such a good angle again, she could bet on that.
Around her opponent the light began to dim. The man himself brightened, but beyond himself the sunny day turned to cloudy. If it had been an attempt to blind Matayal it would have been quite pathetic, but instead it empowered the man. And in a way, it was hard to see him. Instead of seeing his full figure, she only could make out the outlines of his body, with everything else indistinguishable.
The man charged forward, but Matayal was already reaching deep into her dantian and drawing on her power. She frowned as she felt an anomaly, but raised her spear in defense and surrounded herself in a sphere of water. She couldn’t clearly make out the charging form of her enemy, but she anticipated how he would move.
He actually managed to slip past her thrust, a punch she couldn’t even see coming directly for her torso. Yet she was also prepared for that, her spear sweeping to the side and catching the man as they struck each other simultaneously. The man was sent flying with cracked ribs, while Matayal directly absorbed the impact of his blow with the sphere of water around her, though her ribs ached even under her flexible armor.
Matayal turned towards the man who was just gaining his feet, flicked her spear, and spoke. “I surrender.”
Her opponent was gathering power, dancing back and forth on his feet. “I won’t give up so ea- what?”
“I surrender,” Matayal repeated as she turned around. “This match is your victory.”
The man clutched his side, staring at his unharmed opponent in confusion. Though he’d done well early in the match, he’d bet too much on a single blow that hadn’t been perfectly executed. Now he was on the back foot, but his opponent surrendered. He wasn’t going to complain about it though. And stopping early meant he’d not be so exhausted for the next match.
John’s opponent held a rapier in his hand, but he seemed disinclined to use it. Instead, the old man seemed to want John to chase him around forever. If John was expending more energy than he was that way, John might have thought it a viable strategy, but the old man was clearly pushing himself to maintain a certain speed and safety. Chasing after him was actually easier, since the man had to watch his back or move backwards, both of which took more effort than moving straight forward.
At first John thought the man would be ready with a counter, maybe some lightning, but he simply maintained his distance, expending significant quantities of air element spiritual energy to move. Too much, in fact. John only recognized what he was doing because he was sensitive to the air around him. Or lack of it, as had been the case for a while.
Slowly, very slowly, he was running out of air. His lungs were in good shape, and he should have been able to run around for hours, but his head was beginning to fog. That would explain the excess air energy swirling around the man as well. He was rendering the air unbreathable. John wasn’t quite sure what he was changing about it, but it didn’t really matter. All he had to do was provide his own air. He had plenty of practice with that in the depths of the ocean, and doing so where there wasn’t immense pressure trying to squeeze the air from his lungs was trivial.
Even so, John pretended to slow down. He started breathing heavily on purpose, taking deep breaths even though the same air that went out of his lungs was pulled back in. What was actually happening inside him was concealed with a bit of help from the darkness element, which was also just generally present around John.
To amplify the effect, John allowed the old man to get a few glancing blows on him as he chased him, the rapier scraping along his forearm once and his cheek and shoulder in quick succession. Then he staggered a bit, showing a clear opening.
The old man was waiting for it, and thrust forward rapidly. He clearly hadn’t expected his rapier would slide along John’s ribs, fortified with earth element energy- and the gaps in between as well. His confident thrust brought him close, far too close. John’s free left hand caught his right, and his sword slashed towards the man.
The old man managed to rally enough defenses that he only received a trail of blood across his chest, but he couldn’t escape John’s grip. “I surrender,” the old man inclined his head.
John smiled and bowed his head back, no longer pretending to breathe particularly hard, though he didn’t cover up that he had at least some fatigue.
The old man shook his head as he saw John breathe out a swirl of air that had John’s own air element mixed in. “Hah. And I thought I had you there. Should have known I wouldn’t be the only one with tricks up my sleeve. And a darkness cultivator too.” The old man nodded, “An odd path, but if you could, win at least a couple matches to make me look good.”
“Don’t worry,” John said. “I intend to make a good showing.”