If the two groups of darkness cultivators had been willing to work together, driving off a pair of fire element cultivators would have been easy. Yet neither group was willing to give up taking the prize all to themselves, so whenever the other showed an opening, they would take it. With their forces already weakened from fighting each other, the addition of fire element over a large area caused by the very thing they were fighting over brought them down another peg.
At the moment, the entire valley was on fire. Some of it happened to be a black, smoky fire that mixed darkness and fire elements- but that didn’t prevent it from burning the darkness cultivators. It just meant that it was also problematic for Steve and Yustina.
However, the directly damaging effects of the heat were winning out over everything else as Yustina intentionally spread the fire around the valley, heating up the whole battle significantly. The darkness cultivators didn’t have a lifetime of constantly dealing with heat, so the effects compounded quickly along with their injuries and fatigue from the battle up to that point.
Steve knocked away a few attackers, setting them all on fire as he did so. Between the Black Scarf Clan and the Dark Shadow Cult, they only had a dozen members left standing, and none who could personally match Steve in the Soul Expansion phase, and while their numbers might have made up for that difference if they were all fresh and working together, he was still in a better state than the rest of them.
“You’ll regret this, interlopers!” one of the members of the group Steve had dubbed the Dark Shadow Cult yelled down from the edge of the cliff up above. Then he ducked and ran as Steve lobbed a fireball at him.
Steve didn’t happen to be particularly effective at range, but nobody was interested in getting caught on fire to test it out. A similar threat was made from the other side as both groups began to retreat, taking those who could still move or had already disengaged along with them.
That left Steve and Yustina alone in a burning valley. “Well,” Steve said, looking around at the fiery vines crawling everywhere, “How are we going to carry this?”
With an entire month reserved for the tournament, participants didn’t have to fight every day. In fact, even if there had been fifty thousand participants every match could have had a day of rest in between. Since it was a single elimination tournament, however, the tournament itself wasn’t having any days off in the early parts. The arena in Lunson could accommodate many simultaneous matches, but they still had to keep things moving to get through the initial tens of thousands in a reasonable time frame.
John wasn’t particularly tired after his first match, but he would still have to spend some time replenishing the spiritual energy he used. When he returned back to the inn where they were staying, he found Matayal was already there, slowly drawing in water element from where she could get it.
As he entered the room, Matayal came out of her meditation. “Welcome back.”
“Thank you,” John said. “How did your first match go?”
“I lost,” Matayal said without any hint of concern in her voice.
“Really?” John was quite surprised. He’d thought it a mere formality that she would win at least a few matches. “Did you get matched up with one of the top contenders?” His senses drifted over her, checking for wounds but finding none.
“No. I withdrew,” Matayal said simply.
“Why? I thought the prizes seemed different. Was it a weird mismatch?” John couldn’t think of someone who could force her out so easily. She was even trained to resist the primary weakness of water element cultivators- so it shouldn’t have been an elemental disadvantage either. And she could have fought for the sake of learning regardless. Something was strange, but she didn’t seem concerned. Even if she didn’t easily display her emotions, John was close enough to her that he could read her fairly well. She even seemed almost… happy? “What is it?”
She turned to him with a slight smile, “Our efforts paid off.”
He went over her once again with his senses. Her cultivation felt practically the same. Her totems were basically unchanged, her rank hadn’t gone up… and she’d chosen to surrender a fight. But as his energy gently probed for what she was mentioning, he finally found it. “Ah.”
He didn’t know what to say. He had thought about what people often said in the same situation, but none of them sounded right. In the end, he managed a somewhat pathetic, “How long?”
“A couple weeks, maybe,” Matayal shrugged, “They’re very small.”
That made sense. Without the option to look things up on the internet, John’s knowledge of how much a child developed was kind of limited. He knew the whole thing took nine months, approximately, and of course starting from a single cell meant any child would be quite small for a long time. This might even be earlier than most machines could detect a pregnancy, but for something inside a cultivator it made sense for the woman to pick it up quickly.
And it would be too early to tell if it was a boy or girl. Right?
“How safe is it to check?” John asked.
“Here,” Matayal pat the floor next to her cushion, “I’ll guide you.”
Somehow, despite the fact that when they dual cultivated and his energy went into her dantian, the core of her power and her most vulnerable location, something about what they were doing made John feel nervous. But as Matayal pulled him along with her into her womb, he knew they wouldn’t cause any harm. They both had better control than that.
John found him brought to just the tiniest thing he had ever seen or felt. Well, perhaps that wasn’t quite true. But it was certainly the tiniest human, to the point he couldn’t even really make out any features. If he didn’t know better, he might have thought it was some sort of imperfection in Matayal’s body, a little thing plastered up against the wall. It was smaller than an ant, and didn’t even have the beginning of form yet.
Even so, John felt a connection and wanted to look at it- so he was surprised when Matayal pulled him away. He was even more surprised when he encountered another very similar form. Yet he was only able to linger there for a handful of moments as well. When he came into contact with the third, he was just flabbergasted.
He slowly withdrew and looked at Matayal questioningly. His question was quite obvious, and Matayal answered it easily. “Yes, there are three. Though according to what I learned, at this very early stage it is quite possible for something to go wrong. We shouldn’t count on anything yet… but I didn’t think it was a good idea to risk combat, either.”
John didn’t have much sensible to say after that. Not even the following day.
There was something very different to be said about attempting to be a father and knowing he would be a father. John’s mind was full of stupid thoughts that he couldn’t act on in any way for a long time, up to who would take over which clan and whether they would do a good job running things. But of course, neither he nor Matayal had yet taken over, so being replaced was a long time off.
His head was so distracted that he didn’t look into his next opponent, and he didn’t even really comprehend them until he was already in the battle. Some time after it started, actually. Fortunately, his body reacted even if his brain didn’t do so consciously.
Growing up, he’d battled with darkness cultivators countless times- and though his own personal style had changed drastically since then, he reacted to some things on instinct. He didn’t even have to truly be aware of the incoming attacks to dodge them or deflect them with his sword… for the most part. However, he was shocked back into his own head when a trickle of blood began flowing down his arm.
“I must confess, I thought you would be stronger,” a voice came from the darkness surrounding him, blending into the black mist that was everywhere. “But perhaps I should expect no less from a band of losers who couldn’t even accomplish a simple retrieval task.”
As he came to his senses, John recognized the particular flavor of darkness he was dealing with. He didn’t recognize the voice, though. Then again, most of those from the Society of Midnight he’d interacted with had died, and the rest he only knew through how they sounded a retreat. This particular voice implied he hadn’t been present, and John was inclined to believe that. He leaned to the side to avoid another slash by a short blade. He was almost impressed that the darkness around his was so hard to penetrate with his sight, but he hadn’t exactly been putting any effort into seeing through it either.
“Too bad that pretty wife of yours dropped out in the first round. I would have liked to take you both out, to show that we shouldn’t be underestimated.”
John slashed his sword towards the voice, but he knew he would miss. He just didn’t want his opponent to know he knew. At first he’d thought that the talking was a foolish mistake, but the direction of the sound was concealed. A clever ploy, but one that didn’t quite work as expected against John. He could feel the way the air moved around him, and even if those senses hadn’t worked he could pick out the focal point of the darkness.
Still, since his opponent was in a talkative mood, John decided to see if he could get him to continue. “Sorry, who are you again?”
That threw his opponent off a step. “Really now, I can’t believe the Tenebach clan is so lacking in information gathering skills to not know the name of Audo, first disciple of the society of midnight.”
“Right, right. Owie. We know all about you.” In fact, John didn’t know anything about him- but he hadn’t been looking into the reports on that topic lately.
Wind lightened his steps as he half dodged, half parried the blade reaching out of the darkness. A quick application of Gravity Blade forced his opponent to linger for a moment longer than they might have wanted to, but he intentionally didn’t capitalize on that opening. He was focusing on something else. Users of the same element would of course have similarities, but the feel of the Society of Midnight was only a couple steps removed from the Tenebach clan.
Of course, that made perfect sense- especially if he were to place Ciaritzal as the step in between them. Both had training methods that made use of the guardian beast, though the Society of Midnight had obviously had to deal without that for at least a generation or two.
John swept his sword to the side, striking nothing.
“Pathetic. I can’t believe how easy it will be to defeat you,” the voice of Audo continued to come from a different location than he actually was. John swept out with his sword, seemingly randomly- and once again striking nothing.
John stepped back, gathering some earth elemental spiritual energy to his blade and mixing it with the darkness. If he couldn’t detect his opponent it would be better to focus on defense, but he made that choice regardless.
Then he wildly spun around with his sword out, drawing a curse from the darkness. “Bah! A lucky hit.”
“It seems like your vision isn’t fully clear in this darkness either,” John commented. Distracting one’s opponent was a common tactic for darkness cultivators. That was its strong point, after all. So he was doing so, and even if Audo noticed one of the thing he was doing, he might not get the other. Though he should feel his shoulder stiffening up soon.
Two quick strikes from the darkness raked into John’s energy, slicing apart the coating of darkness energy but not reaching his body. “I can see just fine. Unlike some, I didn’t split my cultivation three ways, hoping to find an element I was talented with.”
“True,” John replied. “You chose to stick with the first one you had access to.” While John didn’t know if Audo had been raised in the Society of Midnight, he had to at least be from the Darklands. The vast majority of people would choose the dominant element of wherever they were born to cultivate, unless they were in a clan like the Tenebach clan that practiced an element of a differing type.
Two more attacks tried to stab into him from behind, but John was keeping his defenses strong. It was costly to resist so directly, however. If a cultivator just took attacks continuously, they would run out of energy before their opponent in most circumstances. For John, who had approximately a third of his total as darkness, that was even more true.
But that was only if he wasn’t doing something else. Something like slowly absorbing his opponent’s spiritual energy as it suffused throughout the area. It wasn’t all that difficult, either, considering the similar origins. The wild slashes not only served to make Audo think John was unaware of his position, but also distracted him from what was happening with his blanket of darkness. After all, John’s attacks contained plenty of spiritual energy, so when there was a ripple of strangeness through the area he could attribute it to that.
“You should probably surrender now,” John said. “While you can still fix it.” John gathered all three types of spiritual energy he had totems for. The wind wasn’t part of the attack, but simply an augmentation for speed. To his credit, Audo didn’t ask what he was talking about. Maybe because that would give away that he hadn’t noticed his shoulder petrifying, but it was still something.
When Audo attacked once more, John gave up the pretense of not knowing where he was and spun around, slashing his sword across Audo’s chest. His attack only managed to cut through the other man’s defensive energy and was stopped by the armor beneath it, except for one small wound. But that wound, along with the one on Audo’s shoulder, would both continue to grow and also spread petrification from it. Against another opponent, John wouldn’t have done irreversible or at least hard to reverse damage like large scale petrification, but given the Society of Midnight’s issues with the Tenebach clan, if he didn’t at least do something like that he would feel ashamed.