Records about strange details of pregnancy were indeed sparse, and the only thing Kusuma could do was reassure Matayal and John that everything would be alright. The absorption of water element was not harmful, and might even be beneficial- though she encouraged them to continue monitoring it and keeping things stable. Since the other two embryos seemed unharmed, there was no point in worrying about them.
Being told not to worry obviously didn’t stop either prospective parent’s concerns, but it still helped. The same could be said about her various advice regarding pregnancies. It was possible for a cultivator to have a much easier time bearing a child than a normal human. With the ability to control their own body to some extent, they were able to reposition things and regulate their body in such a way as to avoid most of the troubles they might otherwise experience.
It was unfortunately clear that Matayal’s pregnancy wouldn’t be one of the easy ones, but if the worst they had to deal with was one of the children drawing in a stable stream of energy things wouldn’t be so bad. John avoided saying that so as to not call upon future trouble, though he expected that there would be complications anyway.
After all, they were having triplets. Every once in a while, from once a minute to once every few days, that thought hit him. They’d been trying to have a child, but three children was something quite different. It wasn’t impossible to deal with, but it was filling them with several times as much worry.
“That’s something that all of the sensible parents go through,” Kusuma explained. “While, yes, they are fragile little things that should be protected… normal activities won’t cause them any trouble. That includes gentle cultivation, and it might even be beneficial. Moving around is fine, if potentially uncomfortable, though I imagine you can handle that part. You were correct to withdraw from battle as quickly as possible, however. A stray blow or an intentional attack could certainly harm them. But I’m sure you can avoid battle for nine months. I’d suggest remaining with your clans as much as possible.”
Both of them nodded. They pretty much knew all of that, but as Kusuma explained all the things Matayal could do, their tension eased slightly. A moderate amount of exercise was still good, something John technically knew but didn’t know how to quantify. Kusuma had actual examples though, and he felt her definition of ‘moderate’ was more than a normal person’s. But it was clear Matayal wouldn’t be participating in Kusuma’s training anytime soon.
John had never expected to visit Kusuma and get out unscathed. He knew what sort of person she was, and given the circumstances subjecting himself to intense training to be the best he could be made sense. With a hole in his lung still healing his actual activities were limited… but Kusuma found things that could be done.
Though traditionally they had trained on Cyclone Island, which could have just been a random rock in the middle of a particularly stormy part of the ocean. With Matayal’s state, Kusuma wasn’t going to separate her from John. Though Matayal didn’t need John, Kusuma didn’t want to cause ‘pointless worrying’.
“Since we can’t do any special training,” Kusuma said, “I’ll have you go through the standard course here, and contribute a bit of excitement when it’s necessary.”
Excitement sounded bad, but while Kusuma’s training was designed to push people… so far she hadn’t actually pushed John past what he could actually do. The training was intimidating, but also something he would cite for some of his current successes. Actually, if he’d done anything less he might have gotten himself killed in the fight with the Society of Midnight elder.
Standard training, for the Mulyani clan, apparently consisted of standing up on various spiky stone peaks at the top of the mountain during storms. It was like Cyclone Island, but with less standing room and generally weaker storms. Not that they were weak, but in mid Soul Expansion Phase John found himself easily able to deal with the weather. Cold rains were irrelevant. Wind buffeted him but could not move him, and lightning was made to flow around him, except for whatever portions he chose to absorb.
The sudden gusts of wind were a bigger problem. Not the natural ones, but the ones Kusuma was fond of conjuring. She was able to break his connection to the earth below him and send him up into the air, where he tumbled around until he could orient himself. He knew she wouldn’t actually let him crash headfirst into the rocks as he landed, but it certainly felt like it was about to happen several times. He thought he could probably treat the ground like jelly to draw out his impact, but he really didn’t want to test that with his spine on the line.
John considered how he was supposed to react to air that just wanted to toss him up into the sky. The response that used the least energy was to allow it to lift him and reorient himself later. That would work unless someone targeted him with another attack while he was tumbling through the air. Fortunately his own air element allowed him to maneuver in the air somewhat, so he was never just a sitting duck. John found that if he did it right, he could use Kusuma’s own air flows to move how he wished, conserving his own energy.
Even so, he considered that he might like to keep his options open. He could handle himself in the air, but he might wish to stay on the ground. He could increase his bond with the earth or force aside the gusts of wind. He could make use of the ‘sticky’ nature of Gravity Blade to bond his feet to the ground, though anything that too firmly attached him to the ground could also make it hard for him to move. There were definitely times he wanted to move, especially when the extra large lightning bolts finished building up and came for him.
John was so glad he could feel the paths building up before the lightning struck. Dodging lightning was impossible, even as a cultivator. John didn’t have knowledge of exactly how fast lightning moved, but even with enhanced cultivator reflexes he could make a reasonable approximation- instantly. There was no discernible difference, even at the Soul Expansion Phase. He could vaguely sense that the leaders that sought out the ground took a different fraction of time, but that could have just been the memory of old high speed videos tricking him. What were those at, a million times slower? It might not have been quite like that, but the point was that he couldn’t react.
But he could feel where lightning was likely to strike naturally, and if a cultivator were intentionally causing the strike they had to gather air elemental spiritual energy for the attack, a process that took time and made obvious their intentions. Though ‘obvious’ could still require some amount of focus to see through. John had the feeling that if Kusuma had been serious then he would have found himself flipping through the air disoriented with bolts of lightning going through him, regardless of whether or not he recovered from his injuries.
Yet he could resist her to some extent. She was in the Consolidated Soul Phase. John realized he wasn’t quite sure if she had always been there or only recently achieved it. It could be either, if he were to compare to contemporary cultivators like his grandfather and Netanel Brandle. If not for the empowerment ceremony his grandfather Luctus would probably currently be a Consolidated Soul Phase cultivator, but then again his early growth would have been slower since it still empowered his generation. Netanel was just at the peak of Soul Expansion Phase, but the responsibilities of running a clan could have slowed him slightly.
Likewise, Kusuma could have simply grown a little bit faster than the others. But either way, she had definitely crossed into the next Phase and was quite solid in her position. That meant John couldn’t beat her… but he wasn’t so far away as he might have thought. Having an earth totem helped, and the overall level of his three totems were approaching the fourth tier. It was enough for John to have a small chance, which was part of the reason he was still alive now.
John felt the tip of his ear. It was ultimately unimportant, except as a reminder that he had nearly died. That part would remain with him as his lung healed. The blade that cut him could have chopped through his skull if he were a little slower. Instead of taking that as a reason to give up, however, John was filled with determination. He was going to keep growing stronger, and while he would not fight someone above his Phase if he could help it… he was going to improve himself to be the best he could just in case it was necessary.
Though John was going to wait for his lung to finish healing before he tried anything like an actual spar with Kusuma. The wound was really slowing him down, and he’d need every bit of his ability if he wanted to actually learn something from the experience. Which was why he was glad Kusuma was keeping things to the level they currently were.
Two weeks passed. The tiny bodies inside Matayal grew slightly, though they were still barely taking up any space. The emotional turmoil had calmed down somewhat as Matayal and John remained somewhere safe. And with focused application of energy and a steady stream of medicine, the hole in John’s lung was healed. At least, as much as it was going to be for the time being. There was some scar tissue that would take some months to deal with, but now was the time.
He stood across from Kusuma. Even for the young master of a friendly clan, Kusuma had already spent a significant amount of time training John. He couldn’t ask her to keep that up forever, but it was time for the final request. A serious spar.
Of course John was going to lose. He didn’t doubt that for a second. But if he could last a few minutes instead of just one, if he could learn anything, if he could cause any damage… he would consider it a success.
There was one detail John considered about their spar. It gave him a small bit of hope, if he had to fight in the future. If this were a real fight, he wouldn’t start it facing off with his opponent. Optimally, his opponent would never know he was there at all. The chances of a darkness cultivator actually assassinating someone of similar rank to themselves was low, and the chance of doing so to someone in the next phase was even lower… but if he were able to make a significant wound it could alter the flow of battle.
That might not help against the Society of Midnight, as he would also have to be concerned about their ambushes, but he also knew he’d be using more extreme methods. If he were a real enemy the same could be said of Kusuma, but John thought Spiritual Energy Absorption was an exceptionally useful ability. He also couldn’t help but wonder if other members of the Society of Midnight had more shards of Ciaritzal, but he’d have to think about that later.
The spar opened with a strong gust of wind straight at John. It was quite reasonable. If he couldn’t even get close to Kusuma, what could he do? He was ready for something like that, however, and let the wind flow around him while he pushed forward low to the ground, attaching to the ground in a way that didn’t prevent him from actually moving. The looser connections did allow him to be moved slightly, but he was capable of redirecting sustained force and the looser connection was ultimately better.
Though John walked directly towards Kusuma, he obviously wasn’t planning to fight head on. He had some thoughts in play already. Lightning was no good, except as a distraction. Kusuma was a pure air element cultivator, so no matter how well he concealed it she would be able to avoid anything he could gather or coerce from the surrounding storm.
There was one part of the storm that John was planning to make use of though. The water element was in neither of their domains, but it was impossible to say either was unfamiliar with it. Kusuma lived in the Shimmering Islands. At the very least she knew how to fight in and around water. John’s actual control of it was a little bit better, though. Even before dual cultivating with Matayal, as an allied element of his first two totems he’d garnered a reasonable deal of control over it.
He didn’t have the power to create a shield of significant power or to freeze Kusuma with the water… but he could do something more insidious. A small amount of darkness energy to hide the extent of what he was doing and a little bit of water slipping along the ground… and Kusuma’s footing would become unsteady. Little things like that could matter in a real battle. Even if John failed to take advantage of it, he had to set it up if he was being serious.
Against another opponent, he might have tried to whip some throwing daggers around to the sides or back, but as Kusuma was controlling the majority of the air flow in the area he couldn’t really make use of such tactics. Any ranged attack would require a significant commitment of energy to break through the winds.
John continued to step forward, watching Kusuma’s moves. She still had plenty of space to maneuver, but he was trying to direct her closer to somewhere she’d have to engage in melee. He imagined she would still defeat him there, but by relying on his earth energy he could at least manage something.
Lightning bolts came for him, but he was already redirecting them before they existed. He even siphoned off a little bit of them, taking the power for himself. It was just efficient enough to be worth his time, as long as he didn’t need to concentrate on anything else at that instant.
The amount of time he’d lasted was reasonable but not exceptional so far. Kusuma wasn’t quite serious yet, though she wasn’t exactly holding back either. She was testing him to see what he would do.
Soon enough he found himself within striking range- more than a few steps away, but some quick footwork would allow him to make an attack. His hand tensed on his sword, half in preparation… and half in deception. The first part of the attack had nothing to do with the weapon at his side, but instead the earth beneath Kusuma’s feet.
When the stone rose up to try to grab her, she instantly leapt up into the air. John had really hoped he might capture her, holding her still for an instant… but he was ready for this as well. The force of the wind pushing to keep John back was constant, and John added to it, reaching out for the air around Kusuma. She fluttered towards him slightly, though she quickly reasserted her control.
John stepped forward, slashing with his sword. He managed to draw a bloody line along her forearm. Then her foot connected with his chin, and he was lying on his back. John just lay there and thought. Though he’d planned to use his familiarity with Kusuma against her, and indeed it had worked to some extent… that went both ways. His partial elemental advantage wasn’t quite enough to overcome the power difference. If he were going to fight someone in the Consolidated Soul Phase, he’d need to know more about them than they knew about him.
But he still smiled as he stood up, wiping blood from his face. Because unless things had gone completely to hell, he would never be fighting someone a Phase above him alone. And the amount of time he’d managed to last would at least allow backup to come. Winning… well, he’d consider that more deeply in a rank or two.