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The battlefield laid out between and around John and Renato wasn’t just a slab of stone or field of dirt. In the later rounds the field itself was one of the challenges, and the particular one they were facing seemed to be equally disadvantageous for both. The ground was dark stone, cracked and twisted from nearby pools of lava. There was some sort of constant power source, maintaining the level of heat and containing it to their portion of the arena.
Though John would have liked to have a straightforward battle with Renato where he didn’t use any tricks, that was an easy way to guarantee that he would lose. Technically John was closer to Renato in terms of actual power this time, with his own totems having increased in rank. Third tier spiritual totems were a much better match for fourth and fifth tier totems compared to a totem hovering at the border of the second tier.
John and Renato had sparred many times since then, but nothing had been quite as serious as their first battle. Yet John barely felt like he had won, with Renato forfeiting not because he didn’t think he could achieve victory but instead because John would leave him too weakened. He was ultimately right about that choice, but that didn’t make it feel more like a proper win.
Now there was once again something at stake. More than the pride of victory, but also the chance of advancing further in the tournament and the rewards from it. It would make the fight a little bit more real, which gave John the proper motivation to win.
Renato’s first attack was simple and straightforward, yet if John had failed to dodge it the downwards swing could have completely ended the battle in a single blow. He didn’t forget to move further than seemed necessary, because Renato’s attacks could rebound off of the ground with the same force as the initial attack. And that was just what he could do before- he would certainly have more techniques to make use of now.
The battlefield would have to come into play. The first battle, John had the advantage of navigation in the darkness of the Crystal Caverns, but also the disadvantage of the area being saturated with earth that supported Renato. He still thought it had been somewhat in his favor, but what was important was not how things had been, but how they were now.
Renato was still purely earth, but John had one earth totem as well. He wouldn’t be as weak to the heat as Renato, but John also didn’t have any particular resistance to it. The best he could do was make use of his air energy to cool himself down. Using the ground as a heat sink only worked in the Green Sands because the air was hotter than the ground- it wasn’t the same on Zolvolj or anything else resembling a volcano like their current battlefield. The field only went a few meters deep, but that still strained John’s ability to dissipate any heat through the ground.
He continued to think about strategy as he fought and dodged, countering with his sword where convenient even if he only struck the coating of solid stone around Renato. He was trying to get Renato to display new techniques, but he hadn’t pushed him far enough yet. Both of their basic maneuvers were much more refined with experience, but basic skills only won the match where one side was far superior.
It went without saying that John was making use of Spiritual Energy Absorption. Any amount of earth elemental spiritual energy he could take away from Renato was an advantage, though he quickly used any excess for parrying or boosting his movements. That was just the undertone of the battle, and would only matter if he could snag an advantage with his use of other elements.
Air was weak to earth. That didn’t mean it was hopeless to use it to combat Renato, but it simply meant it would lose any sort of direct clash. A whirlwind of air would not do much to deflect a heavy stone club, and it couldn’t break through earthen defenses either. It could still enhance John’s own speed, and he had other ideas of how to make it useful.
John’s darkness was suffusing throughout the battlefield, limiting his opponent’s senses. It would never be enough to fully blind Renato, but it would make John’s dodges and subtle attacks more effective.
Bite of the Gorgon was completely taken off the table. Even if John was willing to risk some sort of permanent damage to his friend, the technique would likely be wasted regardless. He had to first injure Renato through a layer of defensive stone and then hope that a pure earth element cultivator couldn’t counter his own earth element ability efficiently. It would just be a waste of energy, probably not even viable as a distraction.
John did make use of another earth element technique, one that was quite basic but widely used because it was just good. It was much more difficult to use Quicksand without loose soil, but that was where the heat actually provided an advantage. Even if the stone away from the lava pools was still quite solid, it was also easier to manipulate. John was able to sink Renato somewhat, throwing off his footing as he attacked.
A broken stance allowed John to counter with an attack of his own, which he used to test for weaknesses in Renato’s stone armor. There was no way to guarantee that it would be the same as a normal suit of armor, as he might have denser yet flexible stone in some places. After all, it was simply a construct of spiritual energy and not a physical object he wore- though he did have some real armor underneath.
If all the bulk slowed Renato down, John couldn’t feel it. Renato was well muscled, clearly having trained his body more than just the minimum for a cultivator. With the right earth element totems, he likely barely felt the extra weight. That also included his weapon, which he swung as if it were made out of styrofoam instead of rock- though the impact on the ground made it clear there was real mass behind it.
Renato wouldn’t be easy to manipulate next to one of the pools of lava, and even if John got him there he doubted he could knock him in. Even manipulating the ground beneath his feet would be too slow to do anything. Yet John had to make use of it somehow. He began with something simple. The entire area was hot, but John had the air around him carry it away. He didn’t just intend to disperse it, but instead concentrated it around Renato.
His opponent was constantly on the move so he wouldn’t get an advantage with just one simple technique, but each bit would lean the battle in John’s favor.
Another powerful swing crashed into the ground, sending splashes of liquid rock into the air from a nearby pool of lava. They were completely undirected and mostly fell directly back into the pool, but John felt he could do better than Renato’s unintentional move.
Any time John wanted to attack Renato he had to first dodge the swinging club. If he didn’t he would find himself in a world of pain- because Renato would certainly win if they traded blows. Even so, Renato wouldn’t just stand there and take a hit when John forced an opening. At least, not every time. If John’s attack was powerful enough, he stepped aside with expertly trained movements in an attempt to have John waste his energy.
John’s sword instructor was an earth element cultivator, and he’d taught John a similar rebounding attack to what Renato used. Renato knew that, and John knew that he knew that- so it was no surprise when Renato sidestepped his two-handed vertical strike with more vigor than seemed immediately necessary. John’s blade struck the ground and instead of reversing the energy sent it deeper. A shockwave moved into a nearby pool of lava which spurted molten rock into the air. Unfortunately, it wasn’t particularly well directed- it seemed John would have to take a more direct approach.
He wasn’t going to try to just manipulate the lava directly. Even thinking about it hurt, as his spiritual energy wasn’t the right type for that. He technically had a small amount of fire elemental spiritual energy, but that was simply part of the ecosystem he was creating inside himself. It wasn’t enough to control a significant portion of lava, especially without the guiding factor of a totem.
As the battle stood, even with John pushing heat onto Renato and doing his best to steal spiritual energy, he would likely lose due to his overall capacity being somewhat lower. So he felt he had to make something work, but couldn’t quite figure it out.
Air was no good. He could blow a soothing breeze across the surface of the lava, but even catching a small bead of floating lava was a difficult task. Even a fist sized chunk would likely do little to faze Renato. He would need something more, especially since Renato had to be guessing what he was doing by now.
He had one more good idea, but if it failed he could either hurt himself or possibly lead to his defeat more directly. John maneuvered himself until there was a pool of lava at his right. It limited his dodging options but it was what he needed at the moment. When Renato stepped forward with a wide swing, John was already sweeping down his sword towards the lava.
Darkness and earth combined. Gravity Blade was a technique that was primarily ‘sticky’ darkness element, but combined with earth it exerted a strong pull as he swept his sword through the viscous lava. His energy and muscles strained to keep his movement as the first twenty centimeters of his sword flicked into the pool next to him, pulling as large of a lump as he could manage along with it.
His arm swung towards Renato as his upper body leaned backwards, making use of every bit of his flexibility and a bit of air to stabilize himself, propping up his upper body. As he ducked under the swinging club a large globule of lava was flung towards Renato as he released the darkness portion of his technique and used his earth to propel the attack forward.
John turned his backward lean into a roll that brought him further from Renato and back to his feet.
The lava struck Renato directly in the chest. It was only a single moment before it was dislodged, but to do so Renato broke chunks out of his earthen armor which fell to the ground with the rapidly cooling lava. He reformed his armor a moment later, but the maneuver cost him a significant amount of spiritual energy.
Following up with another attack would have been optimal, but John simply couldn’t. He could feel the heat traveling up his sword, a heat he was doing his best to dissipate. Another maneuver like that and he might permanently damage his weapon. It would be one thing if it would lead to his victory, but the follow up attack would have been slightly too slow regardless. And he needed his weapon intact for the next round if he won.
John trailed the tip of his sword along the ground as he retreated, forcing heat out of it into the ground. Just a few moments of contact had been enough. John felt he had a pretty good control of fire element for someone without a totem, but that was hardly inspiring since it still put him below a proper Spiritual Collection Phase cultivator in that regard.
Consecutive attacks might not work, but he could potentially do one larger attack. There would still be some risk to his sword, but as long as he kept the contact with the lava as brief as possible his weapon should sustain minimal damage.
There was only the question of whether or not he could actually follow through on that, since Renato had yet to display any fancy new techniques. Then again, perhaps he didn’t need them since his standard set of moves were sufficiently well put together. What more did anyone need than offense, defense, and movement that all worked together in a coordinated manner?
Still, John would have bet there was something he wasn’t expecting, something easy to overlook but obvious once it occurred. He was just planning to make it past that point without sustaining serious injuries.