At just the right moment, John finished his meditations and stood up. There was no actual cultivating involved at that moment, since he knew he only had a short time. Instead, he was just clearing his mind so he could be at the top of his form. The pleasant scenery along the way helped him to maintain his peace as he walked to a little private beach controlled by the Brandle clan, just for this purpose.
It was a properly set up sparring arena with formations to keep the participants from seriously injuring each other. Nobody was fond of having juniors spar against each other if one of them wasn’t going to walk away. Even if there was no intention for serious harm, in the heat of battle accidents could happen, even more so if the participants were closely matched.
There were many observers present. Setiawan Wibawa, Luctus, Netanel, Matayal, Kusuma, and various members of each clan. Then there was Anwar. “You’re late! I was wondering if you would ever show up.”
“I am exactly on time,” John said calmly. “Now, shall we begin?” He looked towards Netanel. He would be officiating the duel, because he was the closest to a neutral party among the group.
Netanel nodded. “Today, Fortkran Tenebach and Anwar Wibawa have arranged to duel for honor! Traditional rules will be enforced.” Netanel took the situation seriously enough to speak formally- though that might also have been the presence of non-allied parties. “No attacks meant to kill or maim. The battle will continue until one side admits defeat or I judge they can no longer continue fighting. The duel will begin on the count of three. One! Two! Three!”
As expected, a spear immediately thrust towards John’s chest. If he had been taken off guard by the attack he would have deserved to lose, but his training was better than that. As Anwar attacked water rose up behind him, and likewise John seeded the area around him with darkness. There was no clashing of their spiritual energy, but instead the water was allowed to do as it pleased while the darkness infiltrated the area.
Subsequent attacks by Anwar were all coupled with waves crashing over John. It was a significant expenditure of energy, but Anwar had the power to do so. It was nearly impossible to avoid the waves, and with each attack a wave would stagger John, keeping him from optimal footing. In turn the darkness more subtly restricted Anwar.
John was unable to get within range to attack with his sword, but in between waves he was able to attack with throwing daggers. Clinging Affliction and Spiritual Energy Absorption combined to be a constant drain on Anwar until he was able to remove the offending energy.
The terrain made it extremely simple to use half of Sinking in the Mire. Wet sand with water all around was just perfect to liquidate, but solidifying it afterwards was conversely more difficult. Thus, John could only use the technique to throw off his opponent slightly rather than create large openings.
He carefully observed the attacks, thrusting stabs with a spear accompanied by waves meant to destabilize him for the next attack. Spears were easy to redirect, so if he dodged too early he wouldn’t completely avoid an attack. There were no particular weaknesses to the attack except that the waves were consistent in height. Just about as tall as a man- which for a cultivator meant they were easy to leap over.
When the timing was just right, John vaulted- striking down with his sword to batter away the incoming spear as well as giving him greater height. He came down behind Anwar who managed to dodge his downward slash- until it rebounded off the sand. If he were to say it himself, it was an excellently executed technique. Unfortunately, Anwar wouldn’t be defeated so easily. He had a constant barrier of water surrounding him in addition to his normal spiritual energy defenses and his armor, so John only managed a shallow yet long cut. He had to quickly pull away to avoid waves crashing down on him, but at least he got first blood.
That wasn’t even close to the end of things, though. Though Anwar’s waves used large amounts of spiritual energy, as long as John had to dodge them instead of dispersing them he was able to maintain them with minimal fatigue. With two fifth tier totems of the water element, he was able to maintain the ability with ease. Meanwhile, John was relying being more efficient and conserving his spiritual energy. At least some of his tactics had worked- Anwar was impatient. Or maybe he would have been anyway.
When the next opening arose, John once more flipped over Anwar’s head. He knew that he would be expecting it and was prepared for a counterattack. He was instead surprised when the waves rose up to meet him. It wasn’t just improvised control over the water, but instead John felt one of Anwar’s totems powering the action. The waves slowed him as he moved through the air, and a spear thrust up to meet him from below. He had to activate the energy he’s left in the ground to sink Anwar’s feet while he parried the spear with both hands. Even then, he got a slash along his shin. It wasn’t much, but he couldn’t afford to take damage.
He already was feeling how hard it was for a little sapling and some dirt to fight against the waves and tide. He could only hope that his skills would eat away at Anwar’s energy quickly enough. He began to whittle away at Anwar’s energy by using Spiritual Energy Absorption while slashing his sword directly through the waves. Any energy he wrested control of was directly used to disperse the waves, at least as much as he could. His skill against water was still not as good as he would like it to be, but with neither an elemental advantage nor disadvantage he found himself holding his own well enough.
But holding his own wouldn’t let him win, and while he didn’t care about winning in general, he also didn’t want Anwar to win. He considered using Bite of the Gorgon… but in the current context it wasn’t appropriate. He’d also have to guarantee a solid injury for it to take effect and not just be wasted. He didn’t mind being a little bit rough with Spiritual Energy Absorption though.
Despite all of his efforts, he continuously found himself on the back foot. His spiritual energy poured through him, constantly flowing into the sapling. He had as much of each element as he could control supporting the sapling’s growth, and he found himself pushing closer to the next rank. Not nearly quickly enough to succeed during the current battle, but at least he had that to look forward to.
Spear and sword clashed repeatedly, water and sand flowing around each other as the two combatants moved. The constant layer of darkness was nearly forgotten by Anwar, but it distorted his vision just enough that his accuracy was diminished and his thoughts slowed.
John’s efforts were going well, but it was clear Anwar wanted things to be over. With a sweep of his spear he forced John to step back, and the waves surrounding him rose to at least five meters high. They roiled and swirled, even larger volumes of water being drawn from the nearby ocean.
Then the waves came crashing down at surprising speed. John was just able to fortify his defenses with earth and darkness twisted together and use Rolling Down the Hill to protect himself, but he was still blown backwards with great velocity. Even crashing into the relatively soft sand was little comfort, because once it compacted to its full amount it was just as hard as everything else. He hit the ground and half slid half rolled.
He didn’t know how far he went, but he found himself staring up at the sky. His sword lay by his feet. Had he lost? He felt his own defenses had fallen apart, but Anwar was still full of vigor and approaching rapidly. With little time to think, he wrapped himself in a cocoon of sand and pulled himself below the surface. He wasn’t ready to give up just yet. He concealed the actions of his earth energy as much as he could with his remaining darkness.
Anwar approached and stabbed his spear down into the sand at an angle, right where John had been laying. But that was a moment before. He hadn’t been able to shift himself far, but he was a body width to the side. The spear found nothing but sand that wrapped around it in an iron grip. At the same time, John’s sword swung upward from its position, controlled by John’s energy and the sand. It sliced into Anwar’s inner thigh as he pulled away. There was an instant of struggle as he decided between his spear and his lower body, and the latter won out.
John rose up out of the sand, taking Anwar’s spear in hand and stabbing towards the other young man. Of course, just because he had been disarmed didn’t mean he was defenseless. Even with much of Anwar’s spiritual energy spent, he was able to form a spear purely from water.
The two young men faced off against each other, the finely crafted weapon in John’s hands making up for the difference in spear training between them. There were a few quick exchanges- thrusts, sweeps, parries, and footwork. Both had little energy left to defend, and several wounds appeared along their arms where their armor was weakest.
At the critical moment, John used his last vestiges of his earth energy to spin the hopefully forgotten sword to slice at Anwar’s knee from behind. His attack was marginally successful, but the little energy he had to augment the spear in his hand wasn’t sufficient to resist one final swipe of Anwar’s spear, a crashing wave that swept away the last of his ability to fight. There was a quick thrust into his abdomen, piercing over a centimeter into him. John was satisfied that the attack was merely able to injure him- not through Anwar’s mercy, but his fatigue. It wasn’t enough for the defensive formations to trigger and save him. He at least had that.
“I surrender,” he called out as he stepped back. “You win.” Another step back, then he drew himself to his full height. “This time.”
He didn’t turn his back until he was certain Anwar understood the match was over and had settled down slightly. “That’s right!” Anwar said. “I’ve won!”
At that point John stopped listening. He wanted to walk somewhere he could collapse with dignity. He popped a medicinal pill in his mouth and swallowed it, slowly gathering energy and circulating it to promote the effects of the pill.
He managed a grin as Matayal came to walk with him… and helped support him once they were past the nearby layer of buildings. Even though the duel wasn’t an agreement for anything he knew his loss would end up causing her some trouble, but she stuck with him anyway. Even if she did it to show Anwar that she didn’t care about him in the slightest, John didn’t care.
He’d intended to make it back to the Brandle clan and his room, but darkness overtook him and he passed out shortly after he felt Matayal’s arm slip under his shoulder.