The Wavecutter once again lived up to its reputation, bringing John and Aydan to Pualani in record time. Well, technically John had made the journey more swiftly once in the other direction, but Kusuma was an anomaly in that regard. This was the quickest he could expect to reasonably travel.
Without others in the clan there wasn’t much fanfare- not that it had lasted long even when his grandfather was around. Soon after arrival he was meeting privately with Netanel and Matayal.
Two sources of energy flowed over him, inspecting him. He might have considered it rude, but he was also intentionally hiding his cultivation, despite trusting the two of them. In short, it was a test for them and for himself.
“Hmm, I see,” Netanel smiled. “Very good.”
Matayal had a harder time piercing the veil of darkness John had around his cultivation. She was no longer ahead of him in rank, though he felt she was somewhat more advanced in the nineteenth rank than he was. Finally, she nodded. “It seems you continue to execute your plan successfully.”
“That’s praise, by the way,” Netanel commented.
“…Yes,” Mayatal confirmed. “Completing the latter half of Foundation Phase in this past year is a proper feat.”
“Thank you,” John put on a warm smile, “It seems your cultivation has also been going well. I hope there haven’t been too many… distractions.”
“I was able to handle them,” Matayal flatly stated.
“That punk kid’s been coming by every couple of months to challenge her to a duel,” Netanel rolled his eyes. “Of course, she whupped him every time. I have to say, the persistence of the Wibawa clan is a point in their favor. The arrogance… not so much. But I’m happy to let the younger generation settle this. On that note, what are your chances of beating Anwar now?”
“One hundred percent,” John stated confidently.
Netanel grinned widely, “Is that so? He’s made his own improvements.”
“Did he suddenly become a pure fire cultivator?” John asked. “Because if not, I’ll destroy him.” He flexed his totems, channeling energy through them. “My totems are stronger and I nearly matched him without an elemental advantage. Besides, I’d never hear the end of it from Matriarch Kusuma if I lost.”
“That’s right,” Netanel said. “She dragged you off for a couple months of training.”
“Nine months,” John declared. “Nine months on that stupid rock.”
Netanel whistled, “Wow, really? I heard she was occupied for that long, I hadn’t thought she stuck to training you for all of that.”
John sighed, “Yeah…”
Netanel looked to Aydan, “You were there as well, I believe?”
“… Kusuma went easy on me,” Aydan commented. “Though I did learn quite a bit about defending against storms still.”
Netanel nodded seriously. “Well then, the two of you are of course welcome to stay here as long as you like. Though our training facilities won’t be the most useful to you.”
“Actually,” John said, “I should benefit from them more now than before. Water supports air and is aligned with earth and darkness.” It would likely not be as good as home, though. For one thing, his personal training room was being modified to support his changing needs for different types of energy. Gathering air energy was hard in an earth kingdom, but a decent amount had been managed with the inclusion of some treasures. In terms of air energy, he should be better where he was. Currently, he was focusing on that aspect… both because it was new, and because it would be most effective against Anwar.
“Glad to hear it,” Netanel said. “Just let us know if there’s anything you need.”
Most of the Brandle clan was open space with pleasant gardens and wide courtyards. It was very nice… but not particularly private. Accomplishing a truly private spar took quite a bit of work. With Netanel and Aydan working together, they were able to prevent anyone from sensing anything on accident- and the clan members shouldn’t be close enough for anything but an accident. Keeping what was happening a secret was possible, but of course letting people know there was a secret was mandatory. While there might be a few curious folk, they knew better than to ignore their Patriarch’s orders for their own curiosity, especially when it was said that it would be revealed soon enough.
Matayal and John faced each other, their swords drawn. John’s was a standard sort of arming sword, one handed and designed for either cutting or thrusting. Matayal’s was lighter and thinner, more focused on thrusting- and less restrained by water. While she was able to control the flow of water to some extent, it was better not to fight against it in the first place.
Elements swirled around the two cultivators. Pure water flowed around Matayal in a bubble that stretched to arm’s length around her. The quantity of individual elements around John were less, but together they matched the scale. Darkness was diffuse throughout the area around him- technically a larger area than the water, but much less dense. Earth was less prominently displayed, hugging close to his body and especially around his feet and the ground below. A gentle breeze expanded through the area, with small sparks of electricity mixed throughout the area and obscured by the darkness.
John was confident in defeating Anwar, but that didn’t mean he was going to accept things as they were. According to Kusuma he didn’t appear to have any significant training in resisting air, which should make the battle easy. But assuming he couldn’t resist was foolish. Kusuma had worked with Matayal in the past, and thus she was at least properly trained to counteract her weaknesses. In turn, that meant sparring against her would familiarize John with how someone would resist. It was an endless cycle, training struggling to keep up with elemental advantage.
The spar began with little fanfare. Both combatants moved forward, crossing swords. Though he knew it wouldn’t work, John injected a portion of electricity into his sword as they clashed. Matayal routed it around her through her water energy, though John could tell she was at least slightly affected still.
As they continued to clash the shape of the water around Matayal thinned. It had first appeared like flowing waves, but soon it became individual droplets and then a diffuse mist. At first John thought he was weakening it, but he still felt the power throughout. He tried to blow it away with gusts of wind, to some success- but Matayal twisted the energy around, transitioning into something like a vortex. When he continued to attack with lightning, it was diverted into the mist… no, that wasn’t quite right. It was more of a stormcloud. As he continued to attack, the lightning was entrapped. Control wasn’t entirely wrested from him, but neither could he focus it to attack Matayal.
Of course, he wasn’t only on the attack. He had to defend against waves washing over him, knocking him about and grabbing him. Her sword skills weren’t any worse than his own, and he had to keep up by using Spiritual Energy Absorption. She had higher tier totems, after all. Something like two fifth… and a sixth tier, now.
As he thought he was about to lose, Matayal backed off. “We should call it here. Before someone gets hurt.”
He nodded. That was fine with him. He felt her trying to push his lightning out of the cloud around her, and he found that when he tried to help with that it flowed easily into the ground beneath her- once she wasn’t restricting his control. “A powerful new totem. Is that… a stormcloud?” John nodded approvingly. He wondered if she was that concerned about resisting air. It was a conquering element, after all, so it made sense. Of course, a cultivator couldn’t focus solely on not having weaknesses or they wouldn’t be able to make use of their strengths. One totem that was suited, however, was quite reasonable.
“Yes,” Matayal replied. “It is able to store up air energy within it… to a certain point. Beyond that, it is dangerous.”
John nodded, “Just like fire and earth. I can use earth as a heat sink to absorb fire until a certain point, but it’s more harm than good eventually.”
“I hope it will be useful,” Matayal said.
“It already looks like it is,” John commented. “Along with your training, I could barely get any advantage with a conquering element.”
John would have liked to train against others, but for the moment it was best to keep his new abilities known by only a few. Was it underhanded to hope to get a repeat duel with Anwar and then kick his ass by using his new air totem? Maybe a little bit. But he was from a darkness clan, wasn’t he supposed to do things like that? More importantly, he felt it was worse to try to steal someone’s fiancee and break off a marriage alliance.
He did understand that the cultivation world ultimately respected strength, but that didn’t make the Wibawa clan’s efforts any less terrible. Any alliance from that would probably be unstable and ultimately of little use, but he supposed that was the norm as well. Perhaps it would just be a chance for Anwar to gain another conquest of some sort. And if that conquest was going to be Matayal… he wouldn’t allow it. Though he wasn’t sure if that was quite how things should be.
“Is this what you want?” he asked Matayal. They often spent time together after spars… mostly just sitting without talking much.
“Is what?” she asked.
“Any of this. I guess we’ll start with… are you fine with me being the one to fight for you even though your own strength is sufficient?”
“He is not going to give up from my own efforts. Clearly.”
“Sure,” John said, “But it feels weird to come in to save you when you don’t really… need it?”
“He will only understand when you do it,” Matayal replied. “He thinks women only want the strongest man.”
“I do believe I said it before. If I was unhappy with the arrangement, I would have said.” Matayal smiled slightly, “I am quite happy that you ask what I want.” She tilted her head, “Are you still unsure?”
John sighed, “I’m just from a culture where arranged marriages don’t happen. I know it’s common elsewhere, but I’m not used to the idea. And I don’t want to make mistakes. I don’t know how to be a proper husband.” Sure, he knew some things. But even living arrangements were strange with the geographic separation between their clans. With him roaming about all over… things just seemed difficult.
“… I don’t think anyone knows how, until they try. From what I have heard, those marriages that fail are in many cases because people do not try to make things work. I think you are already doing all you can.” Matayal looked directly into his eyes, then turned away. “I am more worried about my own suitability.”
“That’s fine then,” John said. “We’ll both be equally useless at the start. We’ll just have to figure it out.”
He didn’t get a verbal response from that, but she reached out and squeezed his hand. That was something, at least. Her hand was cool, but still comforting.
When Anwar arrived, there was a whole big procession. It was more than just Anwar, Setiawan, and a couple others. There were other prominent members of the clan as well. It was almost as if they expected a wedding. Perhaps they did. John would be quite happy to send them home with their tails between their legs. He could just imagine the amount of face they would lose. It wasn’t his choice for them to be so excessive about things.
He kept his energy tightly wrapped around him, concealing his new abilities to his fullest extent. Then he stepped out in front of Anwar. The young man started for a moment, then his eyes narrowed. “You again. Are you looking for another beating?”
John wouldn’t have called the duel Anwar barely won a beating. He’d even walked away… partly. “You wish to fight? Pick a day. Don’t make me wait a month again.”
He felt Anwar’s energy probing him. He didn’t mind, though. He might give away that he was in Soul Expansion Phase, but Anwar was the same. Setiawan Wibawa restrained herself, so he wasn’t worried about her finding out. Even if Anwar knew, it wouldn’t negate his advantage. It would just make his victory less impressive, if he was ready.
“Fine then. But… this time it should be for more than honor.” It seemed Anwar had learned something- or more likely been coached on this possibility. “If I win, you shall give up your claim to Matayal’s hand.”
John’s energy seeped into Anwar, probing him. Though he needn’t have bothered- Anwar was fully displaying his rank. As expected, he was also just at the beginning of Soul Expansion Phase. Nothing about his energy changed significantly- it was pure water that still strongly resembled crashing waves. No real changes, except for of course having another totem and more spiritual energy. “Agreed, but in that case you must agree to give up your suit as well, when you lose. Same rules as before.”
“I won’t lose,” Anwar said, “I’ve already beaten you once. I agree to your terms.” He looked at the sky, “Two days from now.”
“Likewise.” John wondered if he had trained to fight against earth and darkness. He might have, or he might have thought he didn’t need to. Either way, his own air element should be a surprise. As for two days… John also looked to the sky. A coming storm, was it? That should prove interesting.