John felt foolish after the blade reformed and sliced into him, avoiding his own attempt to block it. At least he’d kept his defenses firm, not focusing everything on the failed attempt. Otherwise he would have been seriously injured. But upon seeing the attack, it was obvious that was how things would go. Instantly forming and unforming the blade as it suited her would make it almost impossible to block or parry.
More than that, he couldn’t be certain that the blade would always keep the same length. There was a good chance she could extend it further, though he expected it would be weaker. That was why people didn’t just sweep twenty meter long blades made from spiritual energy across the battlefield. But a weakened attack could still cause some damage.
John took stock of his options as he fought. Continuing the fight as they were would certainly result in his loss. His attacks mostly revolved around striking a small blow and allowing it to grow, but he doubted this old woman would so easily fall for a tactic like that. She took every attack seriously and had the skill to block anything he could throw at her.
The only thing keeping John in the fight were her totems. They weren’t terrible, but he felt she had a second tier totem along with two third tier totems. Her cultivation talent, given her age, was actually rather poor. But she’d clearly taken the time to hone her technique to the limit. Since John wasn’t going to suddenly increase in rank in the middle of the match, his ‘talent’ wasn’t much good. He had to make good use of the amount and types of energy he had available.
John began to refocus his air elemental spiritual energy, infusing it into his earth energy. It wasn’t quite as efficient as he might like, as the optimal reinforcing pattern between air and earth was probably something like oxygen and a plant based totem, but he could use it as a propellant force to speed him up. If he were just one Phase further, he felt he could make great use of a minor cycle of allied elements and even incorporate air, but as it was he had to make use of what he had. Earth and darkness combined, not for his usual techniques of Clinging Affliction or Bite of the Gorgon, but in a more straightforward manner.
Of course, more straightforward didn’t indicate there were no tricks to be had. He had to find the right opening as he dodged the attacks and potential attacks of the old woman Monika Zeman. Each sweep of her short staff could turn into a glaive, and John was certain that applied to the lower end as well, despite her not having done it as of yet. But the way her grip was balanced, he would bet she planned to make use of it in a critical moment.
He just had to make sure to avoid it or get his attack in first. He swung his sword, aiming for her center of mass. She easily blocked his attack with the center of her staff, the energy of the attack negated. A sweep of the end forced John back, though a blade didn’t even briefly flicker into being. Being forced to dodge every attack as if it were serious while she didn’t have to expend any significant amount of energy would wear John down before her, much the same tactics as he often used.
They exchanged a few more blows back and forth, neither managing a solid hit, before John maneuvered to just the right position. He slipped a throwing knife into his left hand, shrouding it in darkness energy. His blade was still coated in each type of energy he possessed, augmenting each other to the best of his abilities. With one hand he thrust his sword, then as Monika moved to parry he flicked the dagger forward, aiming towards her head and neck.
With a tilt of her staff she extended the blade to block the dagger while still continuing through with the parry, but it threw her off slightly. That was enough, given John’s real intent. As her weapon clashed into his sword, intending to push it off track, he continued to thrust forward. Darkness and light clashed, tearing each other apart in a single moment.
The force of Monika’s movements came from spiritual energy more than muscle, as was true of nearly every cultivator. Even if John only disrupted one section of her energy, it weakened her parry enough for his attack to continue forward- and it still had his air and earth energy that had been purposefully understated.
She was not so careless as to leave her chest without energy defenses, but his successful head-on strike pierced through it and her armor. His sword slipped between two ribs… and stopped. The two cultivators locked eyes, then Monika grinned. “I surrender.”
John nodded and withdrew his blade. They had no previous quarrel, so seriously injuring her would have been unsportsmanlike. Not when he had the capability to avoid it, anyway. The muscles on her ribs would certainly require some healing, but there was a large difference between recovering that damage and the heart or lungs. If she hadn’t surrendered, she would have had to bet that she could retreat safely or defeat him before he pushed forward- but fortunately she didn’t do anything drastic.
Though he knew that not every light element cultivator would use the exact same techniques, he had kind of hoped she would make use of some sort of flash, just so he could determine if his particular defensive efforts would have helped. Asking her to help him test his defenses after he defeated her might be considered rude, but he thought about it. Perhaps if she stayed around for a few days, instead of immediately after the match.
John and Matayal sat together, hands and energy overlapping. While there were limits to what she could do with cultivation at the moment, training her control and stabilizing her foundation would always be useful. Pushing through to the next rank would be risky, but her cultivation didn’t need to completely stagnate.
In addition, she was still able to help John with his cultivation. Between the two of them they had the minor cycle allied with darkness, and could complete a circuit looping from water to air and then earth and back. It wasn’t as efficient as it would be if they had fire element involved, but trying to control any sufficient amount without a proper totem wasn’t something John wanted to try.
“About that thing we were talking about earlier,” John said, “I can’t stop thinking about it.”
“It’s dangerous,” Matayal commented. “If it doesn’t work, you might ruin your cultivation.”
John nodded seriously. He didn’t want to be flippant about the topic, but he also had a ready response. “The same could be said for attempting to form a cycle of elements in the first place. It was more likely to result in my ruin than success.”
‘That is true,” she conceded, “But that might be exactly the reason you should continue it properly.”
“I just feel…” John shook his head. “I have no idea if I could ever surpass the Consolidated Soul Phase. If I try it, it could mean a significant increase in effectiveness. For the both of us. But it also places undue pressure on you.”
“That part does not concern me,” Matayal stated clearly. “I appreciate your trust in my abilities, but… skipping a step in the cycle seems like it could lead to dangerous imbalances if we were apart.”
John leaned close, his head down. “I’m not sure about that. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Uncertainty.” He closed his eyes for a few moments, breathing deeply. “If I forgo attuning to a water element totem and instead seek out one of fire, I still have the air-earth-fire cycle on my own. The problem would be the darkness pulling that towards an imbalance. Potentially.”
“I would think that potential would be enough,” Matayal shifted slightly. “While I would be quite happy to remain with you at all times, I don’t believe that will be possible given the distance separating our clans. At some point we will be called upon to deal with clan matters during the same period of time, and that will only become more likely with time. Even if this move allows you to train with great rapidity, we should expect for you to remain in the Consolidated Soul Phase for decades, as the number of ranks within it increases.”
John nodded slowly, “Five years to reach twenty-three stars, maybe another to reach twenty-seven. I should expect the subsequent eighteen to take several times that.”
“If you’re lucky,” Matayal commented.
“But that very time is why it might be necessary to take that chance,” John continued. “Yo- our cultivation would be best supported by the addition of another element in the cycle, instead of treading well covered territory.”
Matayal grabbed John’s chin and pulled it up, looking into his eyes. “Is that what this is about? Me?”
“It’s not fair that you are the only one to support me. Dual cultivating is still of some benefit to you, but it would be better if I had an element that directly supported you instead of more of the same.”
Matayal leaned back as she seriously considered John’s words. “It almost makes me wish I had started down a different path from the beginning.”
“Don’t even think about it,” John said. “There’s no bet you could reset your cultivation properly anyway. I died and even then I don’t know if that’s why I was able to choose a new totem.”
“Oh, I’m going to think about it,” Matayal said. “I’m not going to try it though. It’s far too crazy. Much more than your current plan, which I will give the consideration that it is due. Just promise me.you won’t make the decision without me.”
“That’s why I’m telling you about it now, isn’t it?” John smiled. “I promise. This directly involves you now, so I won’t make that choice alone.”
That wouldn’t stop him from browsing through fire element totems, however. Besides, he’d already spend so much time on the water element ones feeling unsatisfied that he was sick of them. It had just taken him some time to realize why.
John’s next opponent in the tournament didn’t require any research. At least, he already knew everything he was going to find out. That was because his opponent was someone familiar. Renato Arriola, from the Order of the Amber Heart.
They were friends, though the awkward sort that only saw each other every once in a while. After surviving the death zone in the Crystal Caverns together, they had met up several times- sometimes by coincidence and other times by plan.
Renato had been at John and Matayal’s wedding as well as the battle afterwards, coming to his aid when trouble came knocking. So far John hadn’t encountered Renato in need beyond their initial encounter, but he would gladly stick his neck out for a steadfast friend.
But now they were fighting in an arena match. John grinned as he faced his opponent, sword held at the ready. “It’s been a while, huh?”
“I do believe we have not had a serious match since the peak of Spiritual Collection Phase,” Renato responded. His own weapon, a stone club resembling a stalagmite in shape, was clenched tightly in his hand with the wide head to the ground. “Tell me, what do you think led us together for this match today?”
“You’re going to say fate,” John quipped, “But just this time I’m going to call you out on it. This is nothing more than coincidence.”
“I will concede that it was likely we would both arrive to participate in this tournament,” Renato nodded seriously. “However, there were many chances for either of us to have been defeated, and likewise many other opponents we could now be facing. But fate or not,” he hefted the club onto his shoulder, and John didn’t fail to miss the heavy momentum behind the movement, “We must both do our best. I do believe this battle should be much more satisfying than the first.”
“I agree to that,” John adjusted his stance.
Though the referee had given them a few extra moments because they were talking, they still had a tournament to keep on schedule. “Match, start!”
John smiled as he once more heard Renato’s rumbling steps heading towards him. He imagined the man was incomparable to how he had once been, but that was the same for John as well. And whichever one of them lost… that meant the other would be advancing. Not a bad result overall.