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Without even having time to process the words Duncan had spoken, John’s attention was abruptly distracted by a grunting yell to his right, one which he knew to be to be synonymous with injury, and when he glanced over, what he saw stunned and horrified him.

Before his very eyes, John saw the independent cultivator; the one who had supposedly survived his group’s encounter with Duncan, with his sword plunged into one of the two hired hands of the Fischer clansman. Not only that, he had already begun withdraw his sword and John could clearly see the turquoise coloured glow covering it from his qi art.

Seeing this scene, the blood spurting from the man’s wound as he began to fall to the ground and the turquoise clad blade that was becoming more and more visible as it was pulled from the body, the pieces of the puzzle began to fit together in John’s mind as he processed what was happening. Unfortunately however, he was left with little time to think as his attention was abruptly pulled away once again as he heard a screeching sound to his left.

Looking back over in shock, more in reaction to the noise than in realisation that this was Duncan performing his sword arts, John missed the rogue cultivator pull his sword all the way out of his victim and in a swing towards the other hired hand of the Fischer clansman who was standing nearby. Had he continued watching, he would have seen the hired hand’s look of relief at seeing that even without the back step he managed to take, the rogue cultivator’s swing wouldn’t reach, before said looked turned into one of fear and horror as a sword shadow of turquoise qi shot from the edge of the blade towards his neck at a speed he couldn’t react to. Instead of this scene however, John instead witnessed the sword art of Duncan as two distinct sword lights shot towards Finley and the other Flowing Water Sect disciple.

[SHIT!] thought John in self admonishment and shock, seeing that in the mere second he had looked away, a look that was no more than a mere glance, Duncan had launched an attack towards the two in front of him and worrying that they, like him, had been distracted by what was happening to the side and were unprepared for the assault they were about to face.

The answer to John’s worried thought came just a moment later when he witnessed Finley raise his arms, throwing them forward in one quick motion as two streams of aqua qi forcefully erupted out of them and collided with the two sword lights in a bid to protect both himself and his fellow apprentice brother who had yet to react.

A flush of relief went through John’s mind seeing that Finley had been in time to protect both himself and his fellow disciple, however, this relief of his quickly passed, or rather was forced out of his mind, as he saw that even before the swords lights and streams of aqua qi collided, Duncan had already turned and, briefly putting both feet back on the ground, shot towards John and his partner.

[So fast!] thought John, shocked once more at the speed and agility Duncan had just shown, though thankful that he and his training partner had both been standing slightly further back than the others and so had more time to react to Duncan’s sudden manoeuvre.

Nevertheless, even as he activated his Iron Body defensive art, John’s confidence was sapping.

Attention now focused solely on Duncan, John couldn’t see the outcome of the sword light and aqua qi colliding, however, he knew that without the help of another, preferably Finley or the Fischer clansman, he and his training partner, at the most, would only be able to supress Duncan, keeping him busy while the others sorted things out on their end. If it came to actually killing or crippling him, that was another matter entirely.

John had long since assessed, whist looking at him before the fighting kicked off, that were he and his training partner to go against Duncan alone, they would be outclassed. This wasn’t only because Duncan was a higher cultivation level than them, being a late level qi expansionist while they were only in the mid-levels of qi expansion; rather it was because of a combination of factors.

In addition to Duncan’s higher cultivation level and the gap that existed between the mid and late levels of qi expansion, there were several other factors to consider. After all, if it were merely a consideration of cultivation levels, John would still have some confidence as the defensive arts of the Iron Fist Sect were widely regarded as some of the best in the kingdom whilst simultaneously not actually being that qi intensive, a consequence of which meant that he would be able to continue fighting and defending without much risk of being exhausted, especially in the short term. However, cultivation level wasn’t the only thing that had to be considered.

Even before they had caught up to him, even while he still believed or perhaps hoped that Duncan wasn’t the culprit who had been committing so many wrongs these past months, John found the prospect of having to fight him to be a daunting task. Duncan’s reputation as a young genius wasn’t earned without reason and it wasn’t solely because of his cultivation speed or background, no, it was also because of his fighting ability and most specifically, his sword arts, which were said to grant him great offensive power, such that he was able to defeat long time cultivators of higher cultivation levels than him. There were even some who praised him as being a sword master in the making.

Nevertheless, even with this, John still had a degree of confidence that he and his training partner working together would be able to take him. He had pride in the defensive arts of the Iron Fist sect that he practiced and although he couldn’t profess to be a master of them and was sure that he would incur some injury, he didn’t believe Duncan could break through them that easily.

The final nail in the coffin however came when he and the others finally caught up to Duncan and he had gotten a good look at him, as well as the equipment he currently wore, equipment which was far in advance of his own and which posed a troubling problem to John and the others.

Throughout the kingdom, armour, for several reasons, was something that had currently fallen out of popularity with the masses and in the North West in particular, the quality of armours had deteriorated over the years, such that aside from the stationary guards of the towns and cities, many independent cultivators would forgo armour altogether rather than fork out the cash to get a good set made.

This was a problem in the Iron Fist Sect too as even those disciples who weren’t too prideful as to wear armour in addition to their defensive body arts tended to only use the cheap, low quality pig iron that the Sect had been mining in vast quantities for the past two-three decades. It had even gotten the nickname disposable armour by the Sect disciples because sold as is, in such an unrefined state, it was generally only good for one or two battles before whole sections of it needed to be removed and replaced. There were even instances of it being used in training fights and competitions within the Sect and essentially being shed mid battle like the shaking off of dead skin.

This was why, amongst their group, none of them were particularly well armoured, John himself only wearing some of the low quality disposable armour that was so cheap for a disciple of the Sect to get.

However, standing in front of them, clad from the legs to the neck in a deep and dark blue, they had found Duncan sporting what was considered one of the best armours on the market, even before the deterioration in quality that armours of the North West had suffered in recent years. That was why, upon seeing the premium made, highly refined chitinous armour of a Blue Devil Beetle covering his body, everyone had the same thought, thinking it’d be a tough nut to crack and that even with their numerical advantage, it would serve to increase the difficulty of the fight and extend it longer than they desired.

It was for this reason, in addition to the others, that John knew that he and his training partner alone would not be able to take on Duncan to the point of actually defeating him, for as confidant as he was in his own skills and his ability to work in concert with his partner, it would still be very difficult for either of them to break through his armour or score lucky hits against the unprotected areas. John even lacked the confidence that the blunt force trauma of his fist arts would be able to do any significant damage to Duncan.

All of these were reasons for John to feel trepidation towards the Duncan now approaching him. Nevertheless, he steeled himself, almost literally due to the nature of his defensive art and prepared to engage in combat, hoping that the others would soon come to assist him and his partner in supressing and killing Duncan.

As Duncan approached with a speed that was outside of John’s expectation, he swung his sword, flicking it up so fast that was hard to see and releasing a marvellous blue sword light towards John, a light which was accompanied by a screeching sound that seemed to tear at the very air around it as though forcing its way through anything and everything that resisted its path.

However, as this attack came towards him, filling up his vision with brilliant blue as he quickly raised his arms to cover his face, John was able to witness two golden brown, brass coloured swords of qi shoot across from the left, indicating that his partner had been just as fast, if not faster than himself and launched his own attack towards Duncan in return.

Unfortunately for John, he was not able to witness the result of his friend’s attack because before those qi swords of his reached Duncan, Duncan’s own sword light which was travelling at a much greater speed had already reached in front of John.

Holding his arms in front of his face with his Iron Body defensive art active he was fully prepared to take this blow of Duncan’s, however, as it actually landed, John was shocked senseless once more.

“Argh!” yelled John in pain, feeling the sword light of Duncan’s biting deep into his flesh.

[WHAT!] he thought in shock when the last of the sword light had finally abated in its assault against his arms and body.

[SO DEEP!!! IMPOSSIBLE!]

Looking at his arms dripping with blood, John could see that that attack of Duncan’s had actually broken through his skin, biting so deep that it had actually reached the bone. And the wound didn’t stop there either. Even on his chest, which had been covered with a layer iron plate and wasn’t even the primary target of Duncan’s attack just now, now had a line of blood dripping from out of what could only be described as a large gash wrought in the armour.

This was just too shocking for him. He could readily admit that he was not a master of his Sect’s qi arts; however, such an amount of damage should have been impossible. After all, unlike many defensive arts that only provided one external layer of protection, the Iron Body technique was one which, even if it still had most use on the surface, provided protection all the way through the body. It was one of the reasons it was hailed as one of the best defensive arts in the kingdom because although there were certainly people who could break through this defensive art, it was incredibly difficult for assailants to leave deep, life threatening wounds. This was true to such an extent that people even argued that of the four major Sects and three major Academies of the Kingdom, at the qi condensation stage of cultivation, it was precisely practitioners of this martial art that were the most annoying to deal with, being the hardest to defeat because of their unparalleled durability.

Stunned for a moment by this turn of events, John realised he was slow to react to the battle situation going on around him and with a start looked up to put Duncan in his line of sight again and get a clear picture of what was happening, the last thing he had seen being the qi swords his partner had launched Duncan’s way.

John wasn’t sure exactly what to expect when he brought his eyes to the forefront again but hoped that given the offensive power Duncan had shown with his ranged attack just now that his partner’s own attack would have slowed him down somewhat and given them some breathing room to prepare a proper response.

Unfortunately, had John been able to continue watching, he would have seen that after launching his attack towards him, Duncan agilely dodged the ranged attack of his partner and then began to make a beeline towards him instead of going to finish off John.

Now that John had recovered from Duncan’s assault and looked up to see what was happening, he was greeted with the sight of Duncan mere metres away from his friend, a new set of golden brown, brass coloured swords harmlessly shattering against Duncan’s armour as he advanced with sword raised, glowing with the blue light of his qi as he prepared to bring it down across the body of his opponent as soon as he was within range.

Panic gripping him, knowing that if a ranged could do what it did to him, a physical strike from up close would almost certainly be fatal; John hurriedly pivoted his feet, pointing them to his left in the direction of his friend and Duncan.

[One Bound] thought John as he executed a movement art of his Sect, channelling qi into his feet before erupting it out of him at the same time he began pushing off the ground, creating a small bang as well as an indentation in the ground as he shot forwards with explosive speed.

Unfortunately however, he was too late. Just as he began launching himself forward he witnessed in horror and pain as Duncan reached within striking distance of his friend and brought his sword down across his chest, easily slicing through the brass coloured skin and glow of qi being emitted from his body as he cut a deep and bloody line down his chest from shoulder to navel.

Eyes starting to water slightly and clenching his teeth, John felt a flush of anger run through him as he shot towards Duncan.

[YOU BASTARD!!!] thought John in anger as he saw his friend and long-time training partner start to fall back with blood spurting from his body.

Pushing the pain in his arms to the back of his mind John readied his fist with all the strength he could muster. He could no longer save his friend but with that last attack of his, Duncan was now facing away from him and shouldn’t be able to recover in time. All John had to do was smash into his side and unleash the full force of his blow at his temple. Duncan’s armour might have been impressive, however, [I might not be able to break your armour, but when you don’t wear a helmet, you’re leaving yourself open].

Like this, John shot towards Duncan’s side and prepared to unleash what would surely be a killing blow at him, however, showing a level of spatial awareness and agility that was almost unprecedented and once again shocked John, showing him that not only was his reputation as a young genius deserved but even an underestimation of his abilities, Duncan turned on the spot, taking a back step to move out of the way as John began to shoot past him.

Unable to change his trajectory, John was left staring wide eyed wide eyed in shock at Duncan. Shock that he had managed to anticipate his approach and move out of the way so agilely and gracefully and shock at seeing the sword he had raised once more, shining with the blue of his qi as he began to thrust it towards his neck.

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jmj1011995

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