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Well, there was no backing down now.

They were in the main outdoor terrace in the middle of the Sect’s grounds, that Sylar had passed through when Wu Guanzhong had been leading them. Jin, Qiyu, and Wenchai were standing off beyond the borders of the terrace, looking down at them from their slightly raised positions. A few of the Sect’s disciples had gathered, likely curious about the oddity that was an outsider battling against one of their own.

“Beat his ass, Sylar! Show them the power of Suo Wenchai!” Wenchai cheered loudly, ignoring the odd looks thrown his way by the gathered cultivators.

“I hope to learn from your own skills, Sylar Spellsight,” Guanzhong said, from where he stood on the other end of the square, his voice carrying across the respectful silence his fellow cultivators showed.

He held his sword in his hand, falling into a ready stance, blade parallel to the ground. As before, he was still performing that bizarre exercise of feeding his Order-Primal Essence pairs into Soulburn.

“Just remember that I’ll probably die in one good hit. I’m serious.”

“Rest assured, I will not dishonour the name of my Sect. Restraint is one of our key tenets.”

Elder Yang stood as referee to the impromptu spar. “Master Sylar, Disciple Wu, are both of you ready to begin?”

Opposite him, Guanzhong nodded. Sylar did likewise, tense. From what he knew about cultivators through Wenchai’s blabbering and his battle against Zhu the night before, he knew the most important spell to kickstart the duel.

Form, Spirit, and Earth Essences in place, he was ready.

“Begin.”

Guanzhong rushed as a blur, dashing not directly at Sylar, but in a diagonal line. A probing attack, or a cautionary approach? Sylar didn’t know – but his spell was loosed. A glyph appeared by his hands, and then a second series that continually rotated around Guanzhong’s body.

Slow.

A Fourth Level Transmutation-Enchantment hybrid, it was among the few spells that weren’t based on Divination that Sylar could comfortably use. Immediately, Guanzhong’s form became perceptible – but even then, it was still ridiculously fast.

The crowd watched, visibly reacting with surprise, but were too disciplined to interrupt.

Well – except for Wenchai.

“Yeah! Take that, you ugly face! Beat him up, Sylar!”

He needed to level the playing field a bit more with its sister spell.

Haste!

Form, Spirit, and Fire Essences churned, depleting his remaining Form. He only had a bit of Spirit remaining. As far as he could tell, this was his only strategy to even begin to level the playing field. A second set of glyphs imbued themselves onto his body, and he could feel himself practically vibrating with energy.

Even then, it was a temporary measure, and only made Sylar just slightly slower than Guanzhong. It did nothing to change his inhuman strength.

Guanzhong narrowed his eyes, perhaps seeing Sylar’s competence in spellcasting as a sign to re-evaluate his strength. Maybe that was a mistake.

“Apologies, Sylar,” he said, abruptly standing still. Essence was drawn into his soul, and Sylar hurried to track and identify the matrix. “It seems I have disrespected you by underestimating your skill.”

Spirit-Form, Spirit-Earth as the main constituents, with minor contributions by other pairs. A Fourth Level spell.

“I will show you the Pecking Blades Technique!”

Animate Objects.

Sylar caught some of the disciples murmuring, but forced himself to focus on the battle. Truth be told, Animate Object was not particularly threatening. It was fast, though – Guanzhong kept his distance, sending his blade outward in a series of complex manoeuvres, while Sylar dodged with his spell-enhanced speed.

Disabling it would be easy, and he had many options available. Earthen Shell, a Metal to Earth transmutation, Lightning Lash to send his sword back toward him and follow-up…

They were efficient and viable, but they weren’t the Diviner’s way of fighting.

He eyed the battlefield. The first step ahead was clear. All he needed was a way to chain it up. Most of the training square was entirely clear, made of neat tiles, but there by the tree on the corner –

Gravel?

He could use that.

Sylar pivoted, running in that direction, while the blade continued chasing him. Guanzhong was likewise cutting a diagonal, attempting to intercept from the other end.

Too late for him.

Fate Essence locked into position, paired up with the remains of Spirit.

Denouement!”

Like Identify, Denouement was a spell that grew in complexity when cast at different spell levels. It was an odd spell – Sylar likened it to peering into the pages of the Endless Book, made manifest through Fate Essence, and bringing about an abrupt end to temporary Enchantments which were fated to be finite by nature. It did nothing to permanent Enchantments.

It had its drawbacks – Denouement had to be cast at least one level higher than the spell it was attempting to override. It, however, allowed the benefit of swinging the tide of battle, through the generation of an Essence Field, at the cost of accruing a chunk of Soulburn.

Just before the animated sword would have caught him, he turned, arresting its movement with the spell as a white sigil manifested in the air. It pulsed a single time, and then the sword fell to the ground, a mere mundane object.

“What?”

Sylar wasted no time. His own spent Fate and Spirit Essences joined Guanzhong’s Spirit, Form, and Earth. He tumbled, hands outstretched, greedily drawing in the Essence within the field.

Mine now.

Soulburn was building up. He had already cast two Fourth Level spells, and a single Fifth Level spell. 405 Pyrans, not including what was being vented as the fight progressed, out of his capacity of 1600 or so.

Still, he had now regained Spirit Essence from his opponent’s spell – and he could have some fun.

“I will show you the Pecking Blades Technique!” he echoed in return, a little bit of cheeky showmanship too tempting to resist.

Animate Objects raised twelve chunks of gravel in the air, spinning and twirling in the air around him. It was a spell that worked on size – for a sizeable object like a sword, it was limited to a single target, but for mere stones, it had greater capacity for enchantment.

“Im- impossible!”

He sent the stones flying outward, harrying and surrounding the slowed Guanzhong. He swung out with his fists, occasionally missing, unused to his reduced speed – but a good three of them were each crushed into lifeless fragments by a single strike.

How was that even possible? Enchantment magic tapped on the dormant potential within all of Creation, raising it past physical limits. The stones were made to be more durable than they normally were, and he was still breaking them with mere punches?

Monks, who could cast spells. That was what cultivators were. Crazy monks who did crazy things like waste good Essence through improper casting into Soulburn.

But wait, now that he thought about it, there was something odd there…

No time to think! Guanzhong ignored the remaining animated stones, instead leaping toward Sylar. He hesitated for a moment – two choices on his mind – before opting for the more economical one. Better that he test his defensive spells now, than regret later when Guanzhong got used to the fight.

Earthen Shell erected around his skin. Guanzhong slammed down onto the ground, his impact lighter than it should be, throwing a fist forward in a slowed punch.

Well, slowed, but it was still faster than anything Sylar could pull off.

He reacted by pure reflex, shifting over, causing the attack to catch on his Earthen Shell-protected skin in a glancing strike. That alone completely sheared off the thick earthen armour.

One thing was clear: in terms of physical strength, he exceeded even the cultivator Sylar had fought the night before.

In that instant, Sylar noticed that oddity in terms of Guanzhong's Soulburn exercises again.

And then, suddenly, Guanzhong became blindingly fast, and all considerations of the anomaly slipped from his mind.

Sylar yelped, throwing his hands out, a reflexive spell on his mind. Slow had dissipated, finally thrown off by his opponent. Haste would be soon to follow. Just before Guanzhong came into attacking range, his hastily-cast Lightning Lash sent Guanzhong flying toward his discarded sword.

In mid-air, he caught the blade by the side, deflecting it. Even though his clothes were singed by electrical energy, the flesh beneath was barely injured.

Another Fourth Level spell. Not good.

He would need to gamble if he even wanted a chance to win this. The moment Guanzhong made contact with him, it would be over. He would need a potent spell here, but he couldn’t reliably bait his enemy to kindly donate some Order Essence as Zhu had the night before.

If so, the best option is…

He cast two spells in quick succession – Future Strike, a Fourth Level Divination spell, and the ever-reliable Fireball.

“Take this!”

Two glyphs appeared in the air – and then, disappeared completely.

Guanzhong hesitated in his charge, leaping back to disengage. It was the common reaction to this particular trick of Diviners, if their opponents weren’t mages who recognised the casting.

Then, Sylar ran, sprinting to the right. He cast Softening on the ground in front of Guanzhong, hoping to buy some additional time, but the cultivator somehow stepped on mud as though it were nothing.

Crap! Now or never!

It was time for his last hurrah. He had been drawing Essence during the entire fight, but his expenditure was exceeding his intake. Beyond that, he was at almost half his maximum Soulburn, and that was not being shed quickly enough. If what he had planned next didn’t work, this would be his final spell of anything above Third Level.

Cloudburst charged the air around him with electrical energy, stinging and pelting at Guanzhong. Through the dense cloud of energy, Guanzhong was momentarily stunned in the aftermath of the condensed storm. It had been enough to take out the Spirit Wolves, but clearly, the title of Senior Disciple wasn’t just for show.

Elemental Barrage!”

A crude Sixth Level spell; four glyphs appeared by the sides of Sylar’s head and torso. They each glowed a radiant red, blue, green, and white; a representation of the Four Primal Essences that made up the entirety of the spell. Dozens of orbs of elemental force manifested from them, striking against Guanzhong.

Alone, they weren’t much, but together, they were a force to be reckoned with. Even then, they disguised the true attack.

A coordinated strike at the most critical moment was the Diviner’s greatest advantage over his peers that specialised in other schools.

He let go of the Future Strike, and a Fireball emerged, aimed precisely where his opponent currently was from when he had casted the spell. While Guanzhong was distracted with attempting to dodge the incoming elemental bolts, being hit numerous times in the process, he was completely unaware of the greater threat that came from diagonally behind him.

The Fireball impacted, a conflagration that singed the terrace floor, and Guanzhong was launched away. He wouldn’t die – Sylar had judged from the effects of Lightning Lash, Cloudburst, and the beginnings of Elemental Barrage that the spells in his repertoire were not potent enough for that. He had no idea how or why, but these cultivators were damned tough.

Besides, if the Senior Disciple was capable of this, there was no way in all the Planes Beyond that Elder Yang couldn’t just instantly kill him from where he stood. If there was any risk of harm, he would intervene.

Sylar stumbled back, exhausted, far more Soulburn raging in him than he had experienced in a long time. It was being rapidly vented away, and he was still drawing in more ambient Essence, but if that didn’t work, there wasn’t much else he could do.

There was silence, as Guanzhong was sent hurtling through the air, bouncing numerous times, before falling still.

Then, he stood up, and Sylar knew it was over.

He was bloodied and bruised, his body covered all over with crystallised ice, flakes of dirt, numerous gashes and lightly-burned patches from Elemental Barrage. At his right flank, Fireball had cleanly burned off part of his clothing, the skin beneath bruised and burned.

But he was still able to fight. He fell into a stance, looking at Sylar with caution, but also with odd respect.

“Yep,” Sylar said, turning to Elder Yang. “I yield.”

Murmurs broke out through the crowd, but Sylar didn’t much care, what with the splitting headache and burning in his abdomen. Soulburn was a bitch, and he was dangerously close to his cap after that last Sixth Level spell.

“The victory goes to Disciple Wu Guanzhong,” Elder Yang said, nodding, as he stepped over. “A most excellent duel.”

Somehow, despite the many injuries covering his body, Guanzhong straightened respectfully, and bowed to him. Sylar didn’t know how he managed it; it took all he had just to remain hunched over, and he had barely taken any direct hits save for a single strike protected by Earthen Shell.

“Your Spiritual Arts were something to behold, Sylar Spellsight,” Guanzhong said. “I will make sure to learn well from this duel. You have my thanks.”

…how was he so polite, after his opponent had essentially spent the entire fight running away like a headless chicken, while throwing spell after spell at him?

Cultivators were weird.

“No problem,” Sylar gasped, wincing at the heat of Soulburn. “Sorry about the – uhh… everything.”

“Injuries to the mortal body are part of the Path.”

Again: Cultivators were weird. Hopefully, it was just limited to this Sect.

“Disciple Tang, Disciple Wen, please escort Senior Disciple Wu to the infirmary to have his injuries tended to,” Elder Yang said. Immediately, a pair of disciples stood up, and rushed to support their senior. “The rest of you, I hope this has been an eye-opening experience. Return to your duties.”

The remaining disciples scattered, and Elder Yang stepped over to Sylar. He waited for the last prying ears to disappear. “Young master Sylar, thank you for that display. You have an astounding command over Spiritual Arts. In terms of their mastery, you rival – no, might even exceed that of my own.”

“Pretty sure it doesn’t matter, if you brain me before I can even react.”

The Elder chuckled. “Perhaps, perhaps. Still, you shocked many of my disciples with your capabilities. Even though they tried to be quiet, it was clear that many of them did not think much of you initially after sensing your lack of honed qi. I’m sure they will know better to judge a book by its cover from now on.”

“I don’t suppose you’ll tell me what qi even means?”

“I’m afraid that encroaches upon our Sect’s secrets. My only hint is that while your mind and spirit are brilliant, your body remains unrefined.” Elder Yang held a hand out, directing him toward the slightly raised platforms outside the sunken terrace for him to sit. “From what I can tell about you, though, I do believe that you will discover it for yourself. I trust you have learned plenty from the duel?”

“I’m not in much of a contemplative mood to reflect right now.” He closed his eyes tightly. Alas, it did nothing to stem the Soulburn. “Damn, I haven’t felt this bad in years.”

He was out of practice. Back in his adventuring days, carrying plenty of Soulburn had been an everyday experience as he braved peril after peril, but during his retirement, he had unfortunately let himself slip.

“Well, I am certain that you will be delightfully enlightened.” Elder Yang glanced at the little entourage that had been supporting Sylar in his duel, and gave a small smile. “You are an interesting one, Sylar Spellsight. I hope that the Righteous Heart Sect and the Penshan Alliance will be able to count on you as our ally.”

With that, he gave a curt nod, and walked back toward the central building where he had been.

“I don’t care what they say, that slimy Senior Disciple cheated,” Wenchai said, as soon as he neared. “You had him completely dominated. I’ll demand a rematch on your behalf.”

“Not sure if you noticed, Wenchai, but I’m kind of different from your local cultivators.” Sylar looked up tiredly at them. “I pretty much cheated to even get equal ground. Once that last salvo failed, well – I’d rather lose than end up pasted.”

“Are you alright, mister Sylar?” Qiyu stepped beside him, only at shoulder height despite him sitting down.

“I’ll survive. If you thought your Soulburn earlier was bad, well – I’m dealing with about fifteen hundred times more units compared to what you had. You wouldn’t want me to use a Share Sense,” he said dryly, then paused. “Huh. Never thought the day would come where I found a way to weaponise that spell.”

“Still, you did extremely well,” Jin said. “Last I heard, the Senior Disciple is one of the Seniors in the running for Sect leadership if anything ever happened to the three Elders. You amazed most of the juniors who were watching.”

“Mmhmm.” He made a non-committal sound. “Mind getting some water for me? I feel like I’ll throw up if I get up now.”

“I’ll do it,” Jin offered. “Qiyu, come along now.”

“Thanks.”

“I’ll need to leave you for a bit as well,” Wenchai said. “It’s time to get payment for my daoshi sorted.”

Sylar waved him aside, and he was finally able to rest alone.

It had been a long time since his last proper battle like that. Losing stung, but it was to be expected, considering the circumstances. His Essence capacity and Soulburn cache had grown, but in terms of raw instincts, he had dulled slightly. That needed to be corrected.

Sylar forced himself to think about the fight. From the start, it was clear that he was outmatched, and it had taken both Slow and Haste to equalise their difference in speed. He had the advantage in spell repertoire, but he had nothing potent enough to do lasting damage. Elemental Barrage had been a versatile spell meant for use against both crowds and single targets during his adventuring days, but it lacked the pure destructive power that certain other Sixth Level spells could muster. He would need to get some practice in with their casting.

And as for the cultivators’ oddities…

It was no mistake. Each time that Wu Guanzhong made a conscious attack, there was a sudden spike in him drawing Essence, and converting it into Soulburn. No spell came out of it, however. Was it because he had a lapse in concentration?

It might be the case, since when he attacked more forcefully – when he had struck against the Earthen Shell for example, compared to the animated stones – the spike had been larger.

But then why perform the exercise at all? Elder Yang seemed to know something, but couldn’t outright say it. If it wasn’t that, and if it indeed had a purpose

“Planes Beyond,” he hissed softly under his breath, eyes widening.

Somehow, these cultivators weaponised Soulburn.

It had always been thought to be a waste product to be vented away, the limiter to a mage’s power as he or she grew in potency. The most skilled of mages were said to be able to increase the rate at which it vented through force of will alone, but it was a skill that was hard to master, and didn’t increase the maximum capacity of the cache. It couldn’t be fed into a spell matrix, to be paired with the Essences. Few, except those with time to spare, ever bothered with the technique.

But no mage – as far as he was aware – had been crazy enough to try and find a way to manipulate it, and use it not to cast a new spell, but to bolster their own bodies. He wasn’t a big fan of punching things, but what looked like an eternally active Haste was something he very much desired.

Scratch that – who even said that was the limit? Were there other potential uses for Soulburn?

Another point on his immediate list of things to do, it seemed. Why hadn’t this come when he had all the time in the world, lazing around in his tower in Nimbria?

He grinned, new excitement sparking inside him. Sure, he might have technically lost the duel – but he felt he gained a far more important and lasting victory.

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A note from Agranulocytosis

Hope that was okay. I'm writing a bit more while off from work this week, but won't write quite as frequently once the holidays draw to a close.


About the author

Agranulocytosis

Bio: A scientist, casually writing about fantasy in my free time.

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