Very few beasts were known for their long term running endurance, and in fact if there was anything that was famous for it back on Earth it would be humans. So while it was likely true that the multi story rhino would tire before him, that didn’t matter if it simply caught up to him before that point. While its steps seemed slow and ponderous, they were large enough to cover vast amounts of ground with each.
To slow it down, John used every trick he could think of. Sinking in the Mire created a meter deep pit that it stepped into- but unfortunately that barely covered its toes. Using earth techniques to lash its other legs with vines did little good as it either snapped the vines or tore them out of the ground. But John wasn’t alone in his efforts.
Ursel formed projections of various plants and trees. Giant bamboo, a tree covered in spines, some sort of barrel cactus. All looked quite sturdy to John’s eyes, but they were crushed almost instantly. Crystin’s attempts were perhaps a bit more effective, as distracting the creature with false trails of spiritual energy caused it to rush onwards several steps in one direction while they turned. It took several steps for the beast to round on them once more, giving them some space.
John looked at the rhinoceros’ eyes and wished he had the only element not at his disposal. A nice beam of light would do wonders to hinder the creature’s already poor eyesight. Though considering what he’d seen from his other daughter, he supposed darkness could work almost as well, though from a different angle.
A bit of earth ignited fire to grow, the fire wrapping around darkness to pierce through the creature’s energy defenses. If it were a human cultivator, John had no doubt it would shift its spiritual energy to block his attack. Some beasts grew more intelligent with power, but he was hoping that this one hadn’t, or at least not to the same degree.
From certain perspectives, it might not look like John’s attack was anything at all. Ethereal flames wrapping around darkness itself, though even the latter was but a quick flash. Flames burned through the creature’s earth element defenses, puncturing a hole to the creature’s eye. Given the creature’s size, even such a vulnerable spot would likely be durable- and the spiritual energy hole he had punctured immediately filled up.
But the darkness lingered, covering the eye in a thin film. It wasn’t as good as a burst of light causing damage to the retina and throwing off the brain’s processing, because the spiritual energy would wear out especially without a sustained connection, but it should do something.
And what it did was make the beast grunt and charge forward with even greater intensity, putting on a frightening burst of speed. If he was watching a movie, he would tell the characters to just run to the side instead of away from the oncoming threat. And to that what he had to say was it was a lot harder to accomplish practically, especially when the thing chasing you was particularly wide.
Even so, the three cultivators split to the sides while maintaining a forward angle as they felt the burst of spiritual energy from the creature. Ursel and John went to one side, and Crystin to the other. Tearing away from the creature’s midline was the longest six meters John ever ran, even though it only took a fraction of a second. Of course, the rhino wasn’t locked into a direct charge, or more specifically it was able to sweep its horn down as they ducked out of the way, sending a huge shower of dirt and rock spraying towards himself and Ursel.
But the two of them withstood the assault, despite the impact of the soil combined with the earth element propulsion. It was a clumsy technique to extend beyond the reach of the horn when it couldn’t quite reach with the devastating spike. Ursel took the hit directly, but John had to use her for cover and deflect the spray with an extended bubble of water and wind.
Before John could decide on how to react next, Ursel charged forward towards the approaching rear leg of the rhino. John followed just behind, and as the house sized foot stomped down next to them Ursel leapt onto the craggy surface. John followed behind.
If the rhino had not been a living creature, it would have been one of the easiest climbs John ever experienced. Wide ledges that he could place his entire foot upon, jutting bits and pieces sticking out everywhere. But it was alive, so it was not only moving and trembling about but also trying to push them away with its spiritual energy.
It was clear the thing wasn’t proficient in the latter as it clumsily tried to extend the earthen barrier around it to shove them away. But it did manage to at least reduce the ease with which they could actually reach the uneven folds of the creature’s skin.
Ursel climbed with one free hand, her bone weapon tightly gripped in the other. Her fingers squeezed tight, forcing whatever she held onto to fit her grip. Then she would occasionally throw herself higher, gaining a meter or two each time.
John wasn’t weighed down by so much mass, both personal and armor based. He also wasn’t restricted only to the earth element. He couldn’t fly, but the air element did allow him to lighten himself further, requiring only a slight pull to raise himself higher. He had sheathed his sword in anticipation of the climb, so he had two hands free to briefly catch onto the shifting edges of the rhino’s spiritual energy defenses, his legs propelling himself upward. Even if he accidentally pushed himself away, the winds could carry him back to the creature.
But soon enough he was on top of the creature’s hindquarters. For a moment he thought he would be safe, until he felt the gathering of spiritual energy on the rhino’s tail. It wasn’t particularly long in proportion to the creature’s body, but it was long enough as it whipped around towards him. He threw himself deeper onto the creature’s back as there was a thunderous impact of the tail. Hopefully it clashed with its own defenses to tire it out slightly.
The rhino was wheeling around, not just to try to throw John and Ursel off but also to charge towards the one individual remaining on the ground- Crystin. But as a Consolidated Soul Phase cultivator John was confident in her ability to simply run ahead of it. He was more concerned about himself and Ursel… but mostly himself, given his current state of cultivation.
He dodged and weaved his way forward along the creature’s back to escape the reach of its tail, but he didn’t stop there. He kept his speed for a bit more, and wasn’t disappointed when the creature slammed its tail towards him, a great mass of earth element extending beyond the tip of its tail, causing the creature’s back to tremble even more.
Ursel had reached the top and was still in its range, but instead of trying to escape the tail she ran towards it, swinging her heavy bone club at the base of its tail while sidestepping the incoming attacks. It seemed crazy at first, but the rhinoceros’ tail wasn’t quite agile enough to perfectly bend over itself, so the glancing blows it achieved were dulled. It was still crazy, though.
John continued to make his way forward towards the head, as he couldn’t imagine breaking through its hide anywhere with his current level of power, cycle of elements or not. But he might be able to do something around its head.
The rhino came to a sudden halt as he was nearing its neck, almost throwing him off- but he caught himself behind the horn. He was surprised, but looking down he saw it had stepped into a watering hole, sinking its legs deep into the mud there due to its massive weight. As the creature slowly extricated its limbs, Crystin attacked from below having led the creature into the mire. A straightforward attack where she tossed her spear towards the thing’s eye. It twisted its neck, John recalling his training on the stormy islands to keep his balance, and the darkness charged weapon merely scraped against its cheek before twisting around to return to Crystin.
The creature’s head stopped whipping back and forth for a moment and John readied himself to attack its eye, but he suddenly found himself being raised up and tossed into the air. It was an unexpected maneuver, but as he took in the situation he realized it wasn’t really targeted at him. The rhino had simply lowered its rear end to try to stop the harassment of Ursel.
John maneuvered his short fall to land on top of one of the eyes- or rather, the ridge around the eye as they were set into the side. He drew his sword as he fell, twirling it as he gathered as much spiritual energy as he could. He drove the weapon as deep as he could into the creature. A half meter of blade might not have even made it through the thing’s hide, let alone punctured the eye- but it did its job. When the rhino shook its head again, the sword allowed him to hold himself in place.
The creature was shaking itself back and forth, but John sensed the fatigue. It had been running for quite a while, and it used spiritual energy to increase its speed as well. Now it had been defending against their attacks, and using its energy in ways that damaged itself. So even though John wasn’t able to hurt it at the moment, the fact that he was making it waste more of its spiritual energy and stamina still meant he was doing fine.
Somehow during all of that Ursel managed to run up the creature’s spine, its sitting tacting not being sufficient to crush her. She roared as she reached its head and swung her heavy club down on the one place John absolutely wouldn’t have bothered attacking, the very middle of its skull. It was doubtless extremely sturdy there, but the rhino couldn’t shake that position very far so she was able to maintain her footing. And with each strike, John felt something make its way into the rhino.
Tiny, almost indiscernible roots grew there way into it, through its spiritual energy, its thick hide, and the small pores in its skull. There was more than a few meters of that before it reached the brain, but even as the roots reached there it didn’t seem to show any ill effects. Until Ursel slammed down once more and the roots began to expand in width and not length. Soon enough John heard the cracking of bone, and the rhino made an awful noise… but the roots continued to expand, and the small brain was quickly torn apart.
Then the thing collapsed, nearly sending John off the edge from the unexpected angle of falling. As he dangled off the side of the rhino’s head, he resolved to break past his current cultivation roadblock sooner rather than later. He was little more than a distraction, and while that could be a valuable part of any battle he wanted to represent a more real threat.
“Wow,” Ursel said as she looked at the rhino. “This thing is going to take forever to eat. We’re going to have to get started as soon as possible.”
“I guess I’ll get a fire going,” John said. “Also I know you’re a big eater but… I honestly don’t know if you can accomplish this task.”
“It’s faster if you crush up the bone into a powder and then pulverize it with your spiritual energy,” she explained. “I’ll show you the technique! Also uh… what are you doing here? What happened to you? Why do you feel all weird?”
“Well you see-”
“Did something happen to Melanthina? What about Tirto? Are they alright? Do they need me?”
“Calm down,” John waved her off. “Of course your siblings would love to see you. You’ve been gone for quite a while and they miss you. But they’re… as good as they can be for the moment. We can catch up over… dinner…” John said, looking at the massive creature beneath them.