Sometimes arenas wouldn’t match one or both cultivators, and they had to deal with their poor luck. The random choice of arena was watched by enough separate people that it was unlikely anyone could cheat if they wanted to. The current arena was little more than a large pool, which equally suited both Tirto and his opponent. Another cultivator from the Shimmering Islands, the Kekoa clan.
Cahaya Kekoa, to be specific. He was one of the names Tirto had to learn for the sake of the clan, though Tirto would have ranked him towards the bottom of those he knew in importance. Unfortunately, his progress in the Foundation Phase was several ranks higher than Tirto. He was also a significant amount older, nearly twice Tirto’s age. That made him think. Could he win? And if he couldn’t, how could he win while minimizing embarrassment? Sure, losing to someone in their early twenties wasn’t bad, but he was the young master of the Brandle clan.
He didn’t have long to think, however, as the match soon began and both sides stepped into the water. Cahaya carried a longer spear than Tirto’s own, with a long tip and wide blades on the end. It would not be as agile, but it would excel at keeping enemies at bay- and the lack of agility only really applied if someone could get past the point.
Water swirled as the two combatants approached each other. Tirto attempted a push of water to deflect Cahaya’s spear, but he didn’t manage to force it far enough off course. He had to block its return swing with his own spear, catching it below the head- unfortunately, the blade slipped off his weapon as Cahaya retracted it.
Controlling the flow of water in such a battle was important. Because of its greater density, water was more effective than wind at redirecting things, and not just loose weapons but even people’s movements. There were no natural tides to contend with, only Tirto and Cahaya. The waters pushed and pulled, swept and spun. Tirto attempted to build up a continuous swirl, but his efforts were held back. He wished he had his mother’s control, able to instantly freeze or vaporize water… but he was not quite there yet. Certainly, he couldn’t do either in enough quantity to hinder another water cultivator.
The battle at first appeared to be a stalemate, but Cahaya didn’t have just one weapon. His spear was a powerful tool for offense and defense, but the Kekoa clan was also known for using a myriad of blades. Swinging a sword underwater was terribly difficult, and even those who were able to lessen the drag of the water ultimately found it more limiting than using a different sort of weapon. But Cahaya wasn’t swinging around swords, but instead released small, dagger-like blades without any unnecessary features like a hilt or guard.
They were carried by a wave of his energy, swirling together to create a storm of attacks. Tirto counteracted Cahaya’s flow to some extent, but his opponent kept tight control over the weapons themselves. Even if he stopped the impact, the blades were meant to slip around, cutting as they passed rather than chopping with momentum.
Tirto’s main response was to keep his energy defenses solid, but the unfamiliar weapons cut through his defenses repeatedly, the greater power of his opponent overcoming Tirto. At this point, he had read enough into his enemies strength that if they were not in an arena match, he would find his chance to flee. He knew he was going to lose.
He could surrender, but what would he learn then? He could try to learn something or make his loss look good. He watched the dancing blades, like a school of silvery fish reflecting light. Perhaps that was their inspiration for motion. They didn’t move individually, but unfortunately that insight didn’t help him much. He might be able to force his way past them, but then he would have to deal with Cahaya’s spear.
Tirto began to swim, though the motions he made were hardly relevant compared to his control of the water around him. He created his own personal flow, trying to keep just ahead of the school of blades. He created vortices behind him to disturb his own flow so they couldn’t just take his streamlined path. Moving at his top speed, he couldn’t keep it up for long… but he managed to just pull away from the blades. Then he turned inward towards Cahaya.
Charging straight at an opponent with a spear was foolish, but Tirto had noticed one flaw he might be able to exploit. He’d been more or less staying on the same plane as Cahaya, but there was no reason he had to. The water was deep enough he could go over or under, so he chose over. His reason was simple- the sun might blind his opponent for an instant. That was all he could hope for.
Tirto charged in and up, entering Cahaya’s range at an angle. The spear thrust at him, and he parried it with his shorter weapon… then used his other hand to grab onto it. When Cahaya pulled back, Tirto propelled himself forward along it. He shot down at an angle, spear tracing a trail of blood along his opponent’s side. He only managed to pierce through Cahaya’s defenses a small amount.
Then, a massive surge of water pushed the two cultivators apart- and Tirto barely avoided being slammed into the school of blades swimming about. If he’d managed any sort of real injury he might have kept fighting, but as it was now was the time to surrender. He’d fought well enough.
John was proud of each of the triplets, and he let them know that. Though some had more victories than others, ultimately they couldn’t continue beyond the early stages of the tournament. They were only in the Foundation Phase, after all and still quite young.
Tirto he praised for fighting in a situation he knew he was outmatched. Perhaps Matayal’s words were more meaningful to their son, but he still had to make that connection.
Melanthina had already received her praise- fighting against a light element cultivator skilled in ranged attacks was extremely difficult, especially with the arena favoring that cultivator. John wasn’t sure if his words ultimately helped because it just reminder her of the battle and caused her to rant on about how much she hated Nik, but he thought it was ultimately positive.
Ursel was good at fighting, and John was pretty certain she didn’t care. So he focused less on the fact that she had several victories and more on how she made them look good. He tried not to praise her too much to be fair to her siblings, but she needed a little more motivation at the moment. Hopefully, he was doing it right.
The tournament continued on, and eventually it came time where John himself could fight. There was a relatively small collection of Consolidated Soul Phase cultivators, but there were still a few dozen participating from the surrounding countries. And a surprising number of them were younger, hovering around forty like John. And though that might have been middle aged on Earth, cultivation extended lifespans significantly. John could still be considered in his prime.
His first opponent was a man not much older, perhaps a couple years. He was announced as Asgeirr of the Righteous Flame League, which was… annoying. People were allowed to call themselves what they wanted, but from what he knew of this particular group they were a bit overzealous.
“Fortkran Tenebach,” Asgeirr stood in his gleaming armor across the arena sparsely scattered with vegetation, spear clutched tightly in his hand. “Your clan has been a negative influence upon the Sunfields in recent years.”
“I believe I can claim some portion of the Golden Tomb Guardian’s recent growth in strength. If anything, the growth of a faction such as that should only benefit the Sunfields.”
Asgeirr shook his head, leveling his spear towards John. “That cannot be so when they are led astray by darkness cultivators.”
And that was the problem with the Righteous Flame League. It was natural for groups to clash where their ideologies misaligned, but the Righteous Flame League was of the opinion that cultivating darkness was always evil, regardless of anything else. Even though it was just another element. John wasn’t sure what he knew about good and evil in this world, but it certainly wasn’t what element people cultivated. Were many darkness cultivators evil? Certainly, but if he were to apply the same standards to those who cultivated other elements and were the warmongering sort, killing needlessly and excessively, then it could apply to any element.
“So what?” John asked. “You plan to kill me?”
“In the sanctity of an agreed upon neutral zone? By no means. But suffering a defeat should allow the Guardians some perspective.”
At least he wasn’t all bad. John believed his words- though there were far too many people watching for anyone to get away with killing. Especially in the later rounds. Personally, of course, he had to take into consideration how far he would go in case his opponent got any stupid ideas. Some portion of his power would be held in reserve, just in case.
The trees scattered about the arena were no doubt created by a technique similar to the Emerging Bamboo Sect. They were temporary constructions sustained only by the earth element suffusing the arena. That element might have given John an advantage, if not for one obvious thing. The Righteous Flame League, like many in the Sunfields, cultivated both fire and light.
When the battle began, Asgeirr instantly caught on fire the copse of trees around him, waves of flame rolling from him as he charged straightforwardly towards John. John calculated the stabbing trajectory of the spear… and threw into a place a barrier of water just as the man reached him. A flash of light came as the spear stabbed towards John, but the water scattered some of the blinding light, though the transitory water evaporated even as the spear pierced towards John.
Somehow, attempting to blind people with light was more okay than doing so with darkness. Or something like that. John parried the spear, the heat from the fire surrounding it felt even through his coating of water.
Normally he would attempt to suffuse the battlefield with darkness, but that would likely be a waste of energy. It would easily be dispersed… and would be too slow for the pace of battle Asgeirr was setting. Against a light cultivator, John would be relying more on other elements with darkness playing only a supporting role.
Weapons clashed as everything caught on fire. John used his earth to funnel the heat away from himself rather than directly defend with it. Then he formed a bubble of water, thicker than the barrier but less wide for its shape. Even though it would have been simple to go around, Asgeirr didn’t even attempt it. Instead, he stabbed straight through it once more.
Light scattered in all directions, and John kept his eyes continually squinting as he moved towards where Asgeirr had started, with the trees already having burned halfway down. The man charged once more, and John was ready with a bolt of lightning to face him directly. The lightning coursed down the man’s spear, latching onto the few traces of water John had forced not to evaporate in the flames surrounding the man. At the same time, he parried the tip with his sword, sliding his blade along the shaft to squeeze inside the man’s guard. It was hot, but he wasn’t planning to stay long.
His free hand punched forwards, pounding darkness into the man’s chest. There was an instant reaction from the light, tearing apart the light element portion of his defenses. Then John stabbed his sword forward, water swirling around it to pierce through the fire. The light element tried to reform, but sneaky little bits of darkness clung onto the fire in the area, delaying the reforming for a moment.
The sword pierced the man’s armor, and Asgeirr drew back. John let him go, well aware the man could respond with his own violent explosion of energy. Though it seemed John was letting him catch his breath, the blood dripping from his chest would weaken him. On the other hand, John was circulating his energy to replenish himself and keep a good balance of elements. Drawing out the battle would only be to his advantage.