The deep gouge along which Ursel was dragging the horn painted a clear path for anyone or anything that wanted to follow behind. But it also provided a reason not to do so. Even simply dragging the horn was a massive feat of strength, powered by both muscle and spiritual energy.
John did his best to help, mostly amounting to making her path easier. Though he felt his biggest aid was not when they were actually moving, but when they were taking their rests. There had been a brief time when he thought Ursel had learned to cook, but instead she had simply learned to make horrifying but effective concoctions. John wasn’t a five star chef, but he did know how to make things more edible. For example, the copious amounts of rhino meat they had were rather tough and benefited greatly from being ground up. At that point he almost wanted to make them into burgers, but he didn’t have buns or anything appropriate to serve them on. So he flavored the ground meat with what spices he’d brought along, which helped to cut through the strong flavor of the beast.
Looking at his diet lately, John saw he was consuming inhuman amounts of protein, and while his body was able to process it with the help of his spiritual energy he felt he was wasting much of the potential. Part of it was that he could only absorb so much while his energy was effectively in the Spiritual Collection Phase. He was trying to take the step beyond, to where he was more reminiscent of the Foundation Phase. He had the totems, but his dantian would only hold so much spiritual energy. By this point, John had realized it wasn’t simply a problem of waiting, but that something else was required. He just didn’t know what.
The group dealt with attacks by beasts as they traveled, but with Crystin they were never in any real danger. Ursel was capable of handling all of the threats herself, though maybe less so when she was fatigued from dragging the horn about. As for John, he wasn’t weak given his ability to use his cycle of elements to enhance anything he wished to do, but he was still far below what he was used to.
Along the way, there were a few incidents with other cultivators. Though John couldn’t really say they were noteworthy encounters, based on how they tended to go. First, a group would show up- clearly eyeing the rhino’s horn and perhaps their storage bags. Then, they would take a better look at Ursel, and then they would run away without saying anything. It seemed she had a bit of a reputation in the area.
“You seem to be quite famous,” John commented. “Did you run into a lot of trouble?”
Ursel shook her head. “Only a few times. Then one guy got away.”
“Just one, huh?” John grinned. Well, they all deserved whatever came to them. It was an unfortunate reality that cultivators as a whole tended to do whatever they thought they could get away with outside of ‘civilized’ areas. Even if the majority of individuals didn’t act like bandits, conflicts could also arise out of valid reasons. And it was always simplest to use strength as a determining factor.
There might not have been much conversation between them as they traveled, but personally John thought that suited Ursel just fine. She did show enthusiasm about cultivation in the past, but he’d already seen all of the new things she was up to. Besides, things being a bit awkward after several years apart wasn’t unexpected. He actually thought things were going rather well with repairing broken relationships.
Ursel dragged the horn back with them all the way to Great Ring City, which was built inside and now around the hollowed out trunk of an impossibly large tree. Then she continued to drag it into town, only able to fit down the main road and still causing quite a disturbance.
“Do you know what you want to get for that?” John asked. “It’s best to already have some figure in mind.”
“Yeah,” Ursel said, continuing her single minded purpose.
John was somewhat curious as to what she intended to get. They were approaching the market, but they took a turn before they reached the main area, squeezing down a crossing boulevard.
Ursel knocked on the door of a building labeled Gerebor Trading Company. A slight figure poked her head out the door. “Yes? What is it?”
“I want the black diamond.”
“Master Gerebor has already said that it is not for sale.”
Ursel took a step to the side, dragging another meter length of the horn into easy view. “He’ll want this,” Ursel said.
The woman opened the door wider, taking in the full view of the prize. “I’ll go speak to him.”
A minute or two later, a rotund man flung open the door and stomped outside. “-don’t know why you are so insistent that I see-” he caught sight of Ursel, then followed the many ropes wrapped around her to the bundled horn. “Oh.”
“I didn’t think I could explain it properly without showing you,” the woman said as she followed him out.
“Hmm. Yes,” he nodded, his mouth hanging open slightly. He looked to Ursel, and to the woman. “What did you say she wanted again?”
“The black diamond,” Ursel said.
For a moment, the man seemed like he was going to haggle. Instead, he took his time walking along the length of the horn, squeezing around it at the base.
“Very well,” the man said. “We will make the exchange here.” He clapped his hands, and the handful of Soul Expansion Phase cultivators John had sensed lingering inside the door filed out. “Keep this secure.”
He went back inside the building without further comment, finally coming out with a fist sized hunk of rock. It was unpolished, without any real form. John could feel the spiritual energy contained in it, strongly condensed earth element. It certainly felt special, but it looked like a lump of coal. Though there was some level of overlap between coal and diamonds, so perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise.
“I am impressed,” the man said as he held it out. “You really meant it when you said you’d find something I couldn’t refuse. Ursa, was it?”
“It’s Ursel,” she said as he dropped the diamond into her hand. From there, it went into her storage bag. Then she began to untie all the ropes from around her. The man- presumably Gerebor- was already focused on the horn once more. “Good luck transporting that.”
Their group was already at the end of the street by her words sunk in. John thought he saw the man holding out a hand to try to stop them, but the heavyset man dropped it a moment later, looking a bit dejected. But ultimately, he’d find some way to get it wherever he needed it.
“Now we head back to Verdant Landing,” Ursel said. “And get out of here.”
“Others want that, I assume?” John asked.
“Yeah and they’ll make it annoying to consume it,” Ursel said.
John wondered if his daughter was going to directly chew a rock. And he decided he didn’t need to know the answer. She was a cultivator who knew what she could handle and what she couldn’t. And maybe absorbing the spiritual energy bit by bit wouldn’t achieve her goals.
Unburdened by the horn the size of a small house, they quickly made their way out of Great Ring City and were on their way to the harbor. Just in case there was anyone truly dangerous after them, John and Crystin created a veil of darkness to hide their passage, not trying to make themselves invisible but instead unremarkable. This was relevant both when going out of the city and also on the road where they were passed by various carriages and some rushing individuals on foot. It was hard to say if any were looking for them, in particular, but they managed to make their way to the harbor unmolested.
From there, hiring a ship was easy enough. They managed to find one going directly to Pualani, which was easier than making two stops and cheaper than dealing with a special commission.
When they arrived at the Brandle clan, John spotted Verusha talking with Tirto in the back gardens. That was a good start, at least.
“But what am I supposed to do?” Verusha said. “I don’t really get it.”
Tirto shook his head. “You’re not supposed to do anything in particular. The whole point was being who you are. And-” Tirto turned his head. “Ursel! Father! You’ve returned.”
Ursel’s feet thudded against the ground as she scrambled forward, nearly tackling her brother. She lifted him off his feet as she hugged him- though she wasn’t any taller than him. “Wait until you hear about the huge things I fought!” She saw Verusha looking at her, then grinned. Her arm snapped out and dragged Verusha into the hug as well. “I heard some things about my stupid brother as well. Who thought he’d pick you, huh?”
Flames rose up around Verusha as she tried to pull away, but the gap between their cultivations was too great for her to affect Ursel. Ursel did slightly loosen her grip, though, letting the younger woman wriggle away.
Verusha cleared her throat. “Well. Tirto may have expressed his opinion. But I don’t even know if I like him at all.”
She did. That was something John was certain about.
“So we’ll be trying things out,” Tirto said. “Spending time together with just the two of us. Not that I mean to drive you away right now, of course. It’s going to be a longer term thing.”
“I’ll let you catch up,” John said to Ursel and the others. He had sensed Emilia’s presence as well, and wanted to make sure to check up on her. She was still a kind young woman and he didn’t want to see her forgotten. Her face looked peaceful, but it was difficult not to be in such a state out in the gardens. “Good day, Emilia. Just wanted to check in on how you’re doing as well.”
She smiled slightly as she looked over to him. “Not so poorly that I need my dad’s friend to comfort me.”
John shrugged. “There aren’t many others here taking up the call.”
“Well, thanks,” she said. “But we’ve worked things out. Tirto and Verusha and myself, I mean. And Verusha even lets me cry on her shoulder since it’s too embarrassing to do that with Tirto.”
“I doubt it will help you actually feel better to say this, but the pain will fade with time.”
“So I’ve heard,” Emilia sighed. “Time isn’t something I have that much experience with yet.”
“I should probably apologize for my part in this,” John said. “Both pushing Tirto, and before that. I was lucky with my arranged marriage, but I said I’d never force the same upon my children. But perhaps the expectations of your parents and us made things difficult for you.”
“I wouldn’t say so,” Emilia shook her head. “If I didn’t like Tirto, it wouldn’t have come to this, would it? I would have still been with the Milanovic clan.”
“Are you planning to return there now?” John asked.
“Yes, but not immediately. And I’ll still visit here. I do have to keep my sister from screwing up too badly. Even if Tirto likes some of that about her, I’m sure there’s a limit.”
“Probably,” John agreed. What else should he say? “I’m sure you can find someone just as compatible with you, if you keep looking. Not that you have to,” John shrugged. “Because even though she’s still young, the chances of Ursel looking for any sort of romantic partner seem to be nonexistent. And that’s fine, if she doesn’t want it.”
“That might be nice,” Emilia said. “But I don’t think I’m the type.”
“Then I’d ask for your mother’s advice,” John said. “She seems like a wise woman.”
“Sure,” Emilia said. “But she also married dad. So I don’t know if I can trust her to align with my tastes.”
That was quite true. It was hard for Steve and Tirto to be any more different.
“What about you?” The question threw John off guard. “Are you going to be looking for someone new as well? I know that barely being engaged and decades of marriage aren’t the same, but…”
John shook his head. “I won’t be looking for anyone. Matayal was all I could have ever hoped for.” Somehow, just that short exchange made John walk away feeling empty inside. No, he already felt that- he just recognized it again. It was certainly less- just like he said- but he doubted he could ever fully return to normal. Whatever normal was.