John stepped into the arena, storm brewing above him. In the last five or so years, his life had changed dramatically from being a manager of a burger place who had never been in anything close to a real fight. Now he was going into a fight he didn’t literally have to, against someone who would try to kill or cripple him given the chance. He’d expressed his reasons for wanting to fight to his wife, but he still wasn’t sure if he was being stupid. Maybe this was the day his overconfidence would kill him.
But he hoped that whatever crazy part of the cultivation world influenced him into his current decisions would support his actions. He wasn’t going to try to win. Just to do something.
As the beginning of the match was called, John realized what it was his cultivation was unconsciously seeking. A wave of darkness spread out over the field, a blanket of shadow that hid everything but the malice of his opponent. Despite his current path, the core of his cultivation had been darkness. Even now, the Seed of Darkness had grown into a fine sapling, maybe even close to being a proper tree. Everything else revolved around that.
He subconsciously began to pull in the spiritual energy around him. Unlike the spiritual energy throughout the world, this resisted his efforts. It was controlled by Leutwin, after all. An elder of the Society of Midnight, and in the Consolidated Soul Phase to boot. Yet since the beginning of his time as a cultivator, John had been absorbing others’ spiritual energy.
It should still have taken him a great deal of effort, where he would have expected to expend twice as much energy as he brought in. But instead… he found it rather simple. As if the energy was offering itself up.
It was good that he was not forced to concentrate on that aspect of the battle, because even if Leutwin didn’t yet realize what was happening he still wasn’t going to stand around and let John do whatever he pleased. His darkness had enough strength that it actually dimmed John’s vision, but he still managed to spot the flying dagger as it came towards him.
He dodged the flying blade, leaving a wide margin in case it turned to meet him. Large dodges took more energy, but it was better to be a bit wasteful than to get himself injured. The blade doubtless had poison, and even the amount of spiritual energy on it was enough to break his defenses and pierce into a vital organ.
There was no more time to think about why he was in this battle, he had to fight. He countered with one of his own throwing daggers, unfortunately lacking any sort of poison. It was little more than a distraction to force Leutwin to move, and even then he batted it away with a single hand.
Several more throwing daggers were lobbed at him, each having enough energy he couldn’t block it at full power. Two he dodged, and the last he deflected with his sword. The impact made his arms tremble as his spiritual energy was disrupted. Leutwin began to dash forward, and John knew that he wouldn’t last long in a melee.
The next thing he did was reach out towards the elements in the arena. The darkness was all Leutwin’s, though John still found that a significant amount of that was becoming his. The storm clouds, however, were what he was after. It took just a slight encouragement for them to begin pouring rain, an easy task even without a water element totem. At the same time, he reached out with his air element totem, to the lightning he knew was contained up above. It would likely activate on its own soon enough, but he wanted to be in control of it. Or at least aware of it.
Inside of him, deep in his dantian, the tree of darkness greedily absorbed all of the spiritual energy flowing into it. It processed and refined the energy coming into it, making it his. There were some losses, but overall John found that he was only managing to balance out what it took to pull the energy in. If it took great effort he would have had to abandon what he was doing, but it flowed into him easily. As if it were familiar.
Then he got it. It felt just like Ciaritzal. In fact, Leutwin was old enough that he might have been around when the Society of Midnight was still in control of him. During the attack on Ciaritzal, the guardian beast had entered into John. That flood of darkness energy had been overwhelming, something he could only handle thanks to Matayal’s presence and Ciaritzal’s intention to cooperate. The energy flooding into him now was less cooperative… but it also didn’t have the same strength to it.
Time was running short. John almost felt the urge to try to remain and win this fight. However, both his logical mind and emotions immediately rejected that. He’d lasted a few seconds, why would he think he could win? On the other hand, winning didn’t always have to mean the same thing. He just had to adjust his parameters. Causing a Consolidated Soul Phase cultivator any amount of actual trouble could be counted as a win.
A sword flashed at him from the darkness. Ironically the very concealment that made it difficult to observe him also gave away Leutwin’s position, as he had to concentrate more darkness element to hide from John’s gaze. Instincts took over and he parried, the blade approaching uncomfortably close to his neck. It was a good thing it was a sword. That was what he was best against at the moment. Even with nearly twenty ranks of cultivation between them, John would have bet Brage was a better swordsman than Leutwin.
The blade swept back, unblockable power forcing him to duck into a disadvantageous position. Good sense told John to run. If he surrendered now he might get out alive. The slight advantage he had from the water making the ground slick had been the only thing that saved him there. But the part inside him told him there was something he still needed to do. Exchanging one or two blows wasn’t enough.
“You’re a slippery little rat, like the rest of your clan,” Leutwin spoke, a rasping voice that grated on John’s ears. “But that won’t save you for long.”
John would have liked to respond with a snappy comeback of some sort, but he was busy fighting for his life. He honestly should have tuned out the words, but he was busy keeping his extremities from being sliced through. Even if he knew where Leutwin was, the exact position of his sword was hard to keep track of as it came from what seemed like every angle all at once. A little bit of training, instinct, and luck kept him with only a cut on his brow and one on the back of his left wrist. Both were shallow, though the one on his forehead bled profusely.
Leutwin’s next movement took John completely by surprise. It was a tactically unsound attack that nobody in their right mind would have done- if their opponent could punish them for it. But as Leutwin darted close to him and John stabbed his sword into the man’s ribcage, he realized he couldn’t even pierce through his defensive energy, let alone the armor underneath. Then a hand grabbed his left arm, just below the shoulder.
That was it. He was dead.
John felt strong darkness energy wrapping around his arm, trying to snap it even as a sword came around to pierce through his side. Even with the awkward angle, all it would take was a strong push and it would go right through him.
Then he felt something. He’d never stopped pulling, absorbing the darkness elemental spiritual energy around him. It hadn’t been long, but it took so little effort he’d put it out of his mind. But as the grip on his arm tightened, he remembered the early days of using that technique.
It was more effective up close. Everything was, really. But Spiritual Energy Absorption was especially potent with physical touch. And he remembered there was one aspect of it he hadn’t delved into, not because it wouldn’t be useful but because it would be awful.
He reached into Leutwin, rushing towards his dantian through his meridians. There was no way he should have been able to intrude so easily, but the man’s defenses broke down.
John had no idea what he was trying to do. He had no time to think. He just followed the call of something. His reach into the man’s dantian felt akin to the Sea of Spiritual Totems. A large place, filled with power. He could spend ages wandering it… but something called to him. Instantly, he found himself in front of it.
In the eternal darkness around him, he felt something- even as the tip of a sword pressed against his ribs. Then he saw a pair of eyes, somehow darker than the blackness around him. Then something rushed into him.
He pulled himself out of the depths as the sword punctured his lung. His left hand had unconsciously caught onto it, stretching across his body to do so, but it would still inevitably pierce through his heart and other lung as well. But as he pulled out of Leutwin and back into his body, the man stopped. His face had previously been covered by unpierceable blackness, but John could suddenly see it, and a wince on his face. There was a slight grunt of pain as well.
John shoved the sword out of his lung, finding the only resistance was Leutwin’s muscle power. He tried not to think about the hole in him, and instead leapt backwards. “I surrender,” John said as loudly as he could with only one working lung.
Without stopping, he continued to pull away. He knew his goal, subconscious as it was, had been well achieved now. He just had to get out of the battle alive.
The official call of surrender was an important part of leaving the arena, but unfortunately his voice seemed to focus Leutwin. The only good thing that John could say was that the man had blood dripping from his eyes. It would have been more comforting if he hadn’t suddenly started gathering energy that felt like it was meant to cut John in half.
Turning around to run would have been a mistake- he could have gone faster, but he wouldn’t be able to react to an attack. As Leutwin charged forward, John followed through with his only remaining idea. If Leutwin committed to a berserk attack, he would die. So John tossed his sword forward, swirling with a mass of darkness.
There was no way it could pierce through Leutwin’s defenses, even if he’d been up close. But the darkness was there to hide something else. He hadn’t had much time to make use of the battlefield’s features, but then again the battle had been going for less than a minute.
All of the air element John could cram into and around his sword called out to the seed he’d planted earlier in the clouds. As Leutwin charged directly towards John, a bolt of lightning arced between him and John’s sword.
It was perhaps something to be proud of that the attack slowed the man, but it was hard to think like that when John was still frantically retreating. Leutwin’s attack as he charged was extremely inelegant. It was just a wide sweep with his sword, meant to bisect John at the waist. It would have, too, if he didn’t both duck and shove the ground beneath his feet away so he had more room. Even then, it cut off the tip of his ear.
The backswing would have taken off his head, if two spears hadn’t intersected the attack to block for him. John felt himself being pulled backwards by strong hands attached to a comforting energy. Then Aydan stepped forward. All four guards were present, which made John feel quite a bit safer.
“If you want to continue fighting,” Aydan said, “We don’t mind killing you. But we’ll give you a chance to walk away.”
John was quite certain that Aydan and the others could kill Leutwin. Unfortunately, that was only because they would be risking their lives. If none of them died in that battle, John would be surprised.
“He stole something from me,” Leutwin pointed with his sword.
Instead of rebutting with words, Aydan and the others stepped forward, forming something like a half circle. They were clearly ready to attack at any moment.
A pleasant voice interrupted before anything more could happen. “Fortkran Tenebach has surrendered. The match goes to Leutwin Odalricsen.” Though the words were rote, the power of the man who spoke them was an important nonverbal component of what was actually being said. While the enforcement of the rules was a bit more lax in this tournament compared to when they were controlled by a specific sect, there were certain limits.
Leutwin turned on his heel, almost daring anyone to attack him from behind. If John were in good condition, he might have actually done it. Though he’d already won, by his standards. He exchanged a few good blows with someone much stronger than him. Serious ones meant to kill him. He survived that… and managed to retrieve something. Now that it was inside him, he recognized it as a small piece of Ciaritzal. Was this how the Society of Midnight had done their empowerment? He wasn’t sure, but he was sure that none of those he’d seen before had such a thing. He must have unconsciously picked up on its presence when he saw the man when investigating if he should even go to the match.
John didn’t have time to think about that. He had a hole in his lung to patch up. It was pretty awful, but one good thing about being in a cultivation world was that, even though medical technique was somewhat weaker, they could do many things that were impossible on Earth. For example, he could easily direct the blood pooling in his lung out of himself, and someone could stitch him up from the inside without cutting him apart.
But he really needed to get that done as soon as possible. He let himself be slightly more than half carried by Aydan as they left the arena floor. At least he hadn’t gotten himself killed… and now he knew that some of that feeling hadn’t just been an overstuffed ego. Though having survived this battle, he would have to watch out for that. He felt invincible, discounting the part where he was actively dying just a little.