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Every move on his part- thrusts, slashes, parries, ripostes, dodges, and each varied technique- reminded John he was missing one step in a cycle of power. He felt the momentum build as he cycled from water to air to earth, each supporting the other. Then there was an awkward hitch as he cycled back through darkness and water instead of continuing onto fire. He didn’t exactly lose momentum with that step, his acceleration just stopped momentarily.
At the current moment battling against three Consolidated Soul Phase individuals, he needed every last bit of power he could squeeze out. John had to make the best use of his elemental advantages. Air to overcome water, water to overcome fire, and darkness to destroy light.
He parried an incoming spear thrust from Asgeirr of the Righteous Flame League as the two others from the Molten Sea tried to surround him with fire. His actual clashes with the Molten Sea before this point had been limited, and John had to remind himself of their actual elements. Fire and water. They melted rock into a liquid to control it, rather than controlling superheated earth itself. Of course, they could still counter his earth based techniques as each of his opponents was a fire cultivator, the dominating element in that pair.
Asgeirr stepped forward as John stepped back, only for the man to immediately find himself half buried in the ground. Sinking in the Mire was one of John’s oldest techniques, and augmented with water its effectiveness was actually much greater. As he performed that technique, John had another brilliant idea… but one that was completely unpracticed. Too risky to use here, but a combination of air and earth that produced unexpected results.
With a moment of separation from the light cultivator, John was able to focus on the two from the Molten Sea. Their attacks had a consistent flow to them, and though fire seemed to be their main offense, they were also able to create instant explosions of steam to impair vision and scorch the body. In addition to that, much of the time their defenses were dominated by water elemental spiritual energy.
John charged a throwing dagger with lightning, and his arm with earth element. His target dodged his attack, stepping in to attack with a palm strike. John protected his chest with a bubble of water, charged with electricity. There, lightning struck- not just the augmented palm of the man, but also from behind him as the charge was pulled towards the earth element in John’s hand, taking it on a path through the man’s back.
The palm strike sent John staggering back, but the relatively unprotected back of the man had left an opening, jolting his muscles and preventing him from following up. As the third opponent immediately followed up, John drew heavily on the ambient spiritual energy, his one advantage, shoving at the third man with a blast of water. It was meant to knock the man off his feet, but as a water cultivator he simply redirected it around him. It still forced him to stand still for a moment, and ended the tempo of enemy attacks with a slight victory for John.
He didn’t have much spare attention to pay to Crystin and the others, but he got the impression that they were suppressing the Consolidated Soul Phase cultivator. If they could take out that single combatant, the battle would significantly shift in their favor.
Until that point, John had to stay light on his feet. Fighting against mostly fire cultivators, all of his earth element techniques had to be augmented with water, making them slightly disadvantaged against the Molten Sea cultivators but at least neutral against Asgeirr. It was a shame, really. He would have liked to use Bite of the Gorgon to cripple one of them, but petrification wouldn’t do much unless he got a lucky hit- and if he was betting on that, he might as well bet on it with something that would do fine in normal circumstances.
Each step he took, John propelled himself further by shifting the earth beneath him. He floated slightly, wisps of air making his body light. His movements flowed like water. Finally, darkness concealed his exact intent, allowing him to catch them off guard time after time. Even a slight delay in reactions could be enough.
But he was still constantly beset by waves of flame and flashes of light as Asgeirr stabbed with his spear. Focusing on fighting two styles at once was exhausting, and though he was better able to replenish himself the total stores of energy within his opponents was significantly greater, with Asgeirr nearly matching him and the other two mid Consolidated Soul Phase cultivators providing the advantage.
Even with fifth tier totems he was barely hanging on, but John was able to keep his distance and his opponents didn’t seem too concerned about stopping him immediately. LIkely they thought that he would wear out soon, and if they believed the standard lines that Astrein was a desert of spiritual energy then that thought was justified. It was likely they had never tried to carefully unweave their two elements from the background of the area, and thus would only recover a small amount of their energy.
John looked at Asgeirr, darkness swirling around a throwing dagger in his left hand, a core of sharpened ice inside. The repeated combatant looked back, his stance showing he was ready for anything John could do. Which was why the throwing dagger was never intended for him. Instead, it sailed straight over his head, to arc down towards the fourth Consolidated Soul Phase cultivator, piercing into his shoulder and throwing off his attack. That left an opening for Crystin to drive her own spear through his heart.
The sudden death gave the three remaining Consolidated Soul Phase cultivators pause, though it was only for a fraction of a second. As Crystin turned to take out the Soul Expansion Phase cultivators to free up the rest of the Tenebach clan forces- and the rescued Suraj, who was contributing admirably to the battle- the three charged towards John simultaneously.
It was the right move, of course. If they took him out, the battle was won. Which was why John responded with what he also perceived to be the optimal tactic, turning on his heel and running. No longer was he facing them, carefully avoiding incoming attacks while looking for openings. Instead he sprinted along propelling himself forward with the Emerging Bamboo Sect’s methods, projections of bamboo stalks shooting him at an angle to leap great distances. While in the air Asgeirr targeted John with beams of light, but as he felt the power building John dodged to the side. Cultivators of the air element were not without movement options in the sky, though John found himself somewhat lacking in proper techniques. That was something he would have to fix.
The chase lasted no longer than thirty seconds before John circled back around to his allies, standing firm next to a somewhat battered but still combat viable Crystin, as well as the rest of his guards. John took a stance, with the others following and contributing their energy to the battle formation.
The cultivators of the Molten Sea charged forward, and at first it looked like Asgeirr was coming with them. Until he suddenly turned at the last moment towards his abandoned mount, leaping onto the creature as four Consolidated Soul Phase cultivators clashed.
John didn’t want to let him go… but he was rather occupied. His cultivation outmatched both opponents, but he was also worn down from the constant bombardment of attacks. It was far too risky to do anything but fight them straightforwardly. The first one fell quickly enough, as they now lacked numbers. His bravery was commendable, though perhaps he was too confident.
Asgeirr was already nearing the horizon. It would be simple to finish off the last enemy. John had a better idea. “Capture him! He’ll be a valuable hostage.”
Fanatic cultivators were capable of detonating their own cultivations to avoid capture. But no matter how much stated devotion an individual had to a cause, very few were actually fanatics, especially higher up the chain. Clearly assessing his situation, the man held up his hands in surrender. “I’ll be worth more if I am healthy,” the man said unapologetically.
“Quite true,” John admitted. “It’s too bad your ally ran off all on his own like that, isn’t it? You had a decent chance of winning.” That was actually closer to the truth than John would have liked to admit. Though he was confident in his survival once they’d taken out the first opponent, Crystin might have had to be sacrificed. That wasn’t something he was willing to do, so he much preferred this situation.
“A terrible coward,” the man grunted as they began to bind him with cultivation restricting manacles.
“What is your name, by the way?” John asked.
“Roshan,” the man said somewhat reluctantly. “What do you intend to do with me?”
“You’ll be a hostage. We’ll trade you for cultivation resources, or perhaps Asgeirr’s head.”
“… I vote for the second one,” the man looked over his shoulder.
“You can write a paper to endorse that option, then,” John said, smiling only internally. Driving a wedge between the Righteous Flame League and the sects of the Molten Sea could only be beneficial. Winning the battle instead of just surviving was also of great value. The Molten Sea might have replacements for their lost Consolidated Soul Phase cultivator, but the Righteous Flame League had only a few, counting their sect head and Asgeirr. A significant blow for a long time rival, and perhaps the first step in a bigger move.
Even so, the potential risks made John ponder whether his choices were appropriate. A bit too hasty, perhaps, even if he could justify it with the ultimate results. Then again, they still had to make it to safe territory. There was no guarantee there wouldn’t be more after them. Roshan didn’t look terribly enthusiastic about sharing those details, either. Well, as long as he was otherwise cooperative with the hostage process that was sufficient.
Though the next few days weren’t very restful, they crossed the border into the Stone Conglomerate with no further issues. Of course, there was some suspicion about bringing around captive Consolidated Soul Phase cultivators, but the Tenebach clan was well known even outside of Marble County. At worse, people were indifferent or curious, as the Molten Sea didn’t have a foothold in the country.
They continued straight southward until they were deep in the Stone Conglomerate’s territory before circling east towards Marble County. There, Roshan would be imprisoned and eventually ransomed off, unless the Molten Sea was truly uncooperative. They might be, but even if they had more Consolidated Soul Phase cultivators people like Roshan didn’t exactly grow on trees. If the price was reasonable, they might accept the results- though John still expected retaliation at some point.
That would resolve itself later. First, he had a technique to attempt. A combination of air and earth. He was immediately glad he hadn’t made the attempt in combat, because it turned out seeing a video one time years prior was insufficient for him to immediately replicate an effect.
The intent was to force air into the earth, ultimately creating something referred to as ‘liquid sand’. The name itself showed some initial problems with it. It wasn’t functional on any old soil- at best, John managed to blow a bunch of dirt in his face. What he really needed was for the air to rise from the bottom, though that wasn’t the only issue. The size of the soil particles was also a factor, even if he could sneak air element through the ground with his own earth energy.
He wasn’t willing to consider it a failed technique yet. Another step in the cycle would be to add some water, which was quite sensible as what he was doing was really just an extension of sinking in the mire. But if he could find a way to augment what he was doing with the air element, it could only become more efficient. Water, air, and earth working together might even be the best. And if ultimately the air didn’t help, he would still learn from his failures.