Great Ring City was a welcome break from constant hiking and dealing with the forest. Despite it being manageable- and the Emerging Bamboo Sect handling the actual dangers- it was still stressful. Specifically, John couldn’t help but constantly worry about Ursel. It was the curse of being a parent, and the triplets having encountered real danger didn’t make it easier. In some ways, worse than the physical danger were Ursel’s other problems. John could always kill anything that came after his family, and the triplets were growing strong themselves. He just hoped that this trip could help resolve Ursel’s feelings to some extent and that it wasn’t something lasting. It seemed weird that fighting someone to the death was easier than dealing with feelings, but maybe the world had always worked like that and on Earth people just did less of one. Though it certainly hadn’t been without conflict. He was just able to ignore it.
For what it was worth, Ursel seemed happy about the trip so far, though she was a bit hesitant to approach anyone from the Emerging Bamboo Sect. That was perfectly reasonable, as they were both new and much older than her. Even a few years would feel insurmountable at that age.
The inside of Great Ring City was surprisingly lacking in plants or soil of any kind. Instead, every road was paved in stone, with even the empty lots covered with a thin layer of something like concrete. Drains carried rainwater away, beneath the walls of the city. It seemed like a lot of work to maintain, but it likely had some reason beyond simply using the space. With the way things grew outside the walls, perhaps it was simply too much trouble to allow anything to grow inside.
John found Renato up on one of the walls, the outer bark of a massive trunk. He hadn’t really been looking for his friend, but his steps had brought them together anyway. “Strange, isn’t it?” John asked. “So much life, but inside the walls it’s reminiscent of home.”
“Humans make of stone what they wish to be permanent,” Renato shrugged, “Even if they know it can’t be.”
“People try, though. What do you believe about the path to immortality? Some say the peak of cultivation leads to that.”
“I would say… that it’s a pointless pursuit.”
“Really?” John raised an eyebrow. “You’re one of those most devoted to cultivation.”
“But not for the sake of immortality,” Renato said. “The path itself is what I want. If I wanted something else, I would pursue that instead. Besides, the two of us know that life will come to an end eventually regardless.”
“Do we?” John asked. “Because it might be exactly the opposite.”
Renato shrugged, “Perhaps we are strange exceptions. Or… something about the world at this time. But the fact that we are not flooded with others like us means that it doesn’t happen every time.”
“It’s a real pain to fit into a new life,” John admitted. “But uh… you were born, right?”
Renato nodded. “That is correct. I do believe I was quite troublesome for my parents to deal with. I was too independent.”
“That could be. My kids…” John sighed. “They’re amazing. But it’s not easy. And Ursel is quite dissatisfied with her thoughts of the future. I don’t know what to do about that. Or now. I have the urge to follow her around the city and keep her safe. I just don’t think that will make her happy.”
“You can’t really know… but if you’re worried about safety, I would not bother yourself too much. She does have friends among our disciples. They can explore together, and she will keep them safe.”
“Not the other way around?” John asked.
“There are few Consolidated Soul Phase cultivators in this city besides us, and she already survived an attack from one. My best disciple will be fine.”
“I still can’t help but worry,” John sighed.
“I understand,” Renato said. “I’m simply experienced with waiting to see what happens. And if anyone actually does anything we can raze the city to the ground.”
As it turned out, John didn’t need to worry about Ursel. She spent the day exploring the city with two of her friends, finding interesting nooks and crannies as well as meeting some of the locals. It was quite an enjoyable day.
Ursel’s closest friends in the Order were perhaps not the most traditional students. Mala was closer to her father’s age, but everyone seemed so old to Ursel that it didn’t really bother her that much. Besides, the woman treated her well and didn’t seem upset by Ursel’s cultivation, despite Mala herself not being much more advanced. In short, Mala was… rather lacking in talent, at least in terms of cultivation speed. When not training with Renato Ursel had simply found herself more comfortable with the woman than most, and they had become frequent companions.
Virag was another woman, even older. Her hair was already like granite, but she was actually a more recent addition to the Order of the Amber Heart than Mala. Perhaps if she had begun cultivating at a younger age she would have turned into something amazing. Though, Ursel didn’t really care about that part. She was just fun.
“… I wonder what it’s like in the drains,” Ursel mentioned offhandedly as they were walking around, recent rainfall still finding its way beneath the streets.
“Only one way to find out!” Virag said, grinning from ear to ear.
“You can’t be suggesting-” Mala sighed, “Ugh. I hope you can swim, at least.”
Virag shrugged, “Can’t be too hard.”
“Of course I can swim,” Ursel said.
Virag waved her off, “Yeah, yeah, your brother is the heir to some fancy water clan and you spend half the year there. Some of us have to make do with lakes and crap.”
“I’m pretty sure you just admitted you hadn’t even tried,” Mala pointed out.
“Doesn’t matter. Can’t be that deep,” Virag said as she pulled open a grate nearby. “Yeah, that’s not too bad.” She hopped down, looking up at the others as the water rushed against her. “Hmm. Coming?”
Ursel hopped in after her, finding the water significantly higher on herself. “This is a big pipe,” she commented.
“Fine, but don’t make me regret this,” Mala shook her head and jumped in. “… I regret it.”
“Why?” Virag asked.
“… I’m pretty sure this is combined with the sewers. Can’t you smell that?”
“Ah, it’s not that bad.”
Ursel was busy keeping her head above water so she didn’t say much. Then, she let herself be pulled by the current. “Onwards!” It was actually quite difficult for water to push her along, with her muscle and the stone club Master Renato gave her, but it only took a little bit of nudging with earth element to keep herself from touching the bottom of the channel they were in, and she propelled herself forward a little with that.
Virag and Mala were right behind her, though one of them was significantly less happy than the other. Then they ran into the roots. The first indication of their presence was a sudden increase in the water level. The second was actually running into them… and then they began to attempt to crush them.
As a root wrapped around her neck, Ursel called upon her practice the day before. The root really didn’t want to listen to her, so she nudged harder and harder until it snapped apart with a huge crack. She planted her feet beneath her, even if that meant she was momentarily underwater. Her club swung down against the roots attacking the other two, but there wasn’t really enough room to build up momentum, and the water made it a bit difficult too. The others found the same issues, but they were able to wrestle with the roots and tear them apart, leaving large hunks to slowly retreat through the walls of the tunnel.
Water quickly began to drain, lowering below Ursel’s head again. “Ugh, it’s worse when you’re head’s under.” She tapped on the walls, taking note of the chunks of brick beneath her. “Should we fix this? More roots might get in.”
“If you want to,” Mala shrugged. “We’re already here, I guess.”
It wasn’t too hard to move everything in place, and a bit of earth energy fused everything together and added the missing bits that had probably washed away. Working directly with stone or similar materials was much more familiar to the group than dealing with plants, so it was easy enough.
Then they continued on, floating along in the water. Mala pointed to an upcoming grate. “This might be one of the last ones before the walls. We don’t want to get carried outside the city.”
Having already satisfied their curiosity, the other two went along with her and climbed out of the grate. They were all soaking wet, and that was the pleasant part.
A loud snort came from nearby. “Well, look what just crawled out of the sewers.” The individual speaking was one of several girls, all in their late teenage years. “Tell me, little girl, do they not have sewers where you come from?”
“We do,” Ursel said, not really sure what to make of the situation. She was looking down at her dripping clothes, wishing she could control the water element- even a small part.
“So you enjoy being covered in crap, then?”
“Not really,” Ursel admitted. She could at least deal with that part. With a flick of effort, her boots were cleaned off. Of course, what she had removed had to go somewhere, and that place happened to be the group of people in front of her. “Oh, oops,” Ursel said as she saw the gunk dripping off of the girls’ faces.
The one doing all the talking narrowed her eyes. “What was that, huh? Wanna fight?” She lowered herself into a wide stance, her fists clenched in front of her. Around her wrists were wooden bracers with thorns protruding from them.
“… Alright,” Ursel said, “Sounds good.” With that, she propelled herself forward, punching her fist straight into the older girl’s stomach, the flashing image of a tree breaking her momentum. Ursel also took a strike to the jaw, but it only made her sway backwards. More uncomfortable was her own hand, which had small rivulets of blood running down it. Ursel had felt the older girl’s energy shifting, but she hadn’t expected it to be so sharp. And she also hadn’t expected her opponent to just take the hit without even staggering back.
“Never gone up against someone from the Indestructible Kapok Grove, huh? Figures.”
“What’s a kapok?” Ursel asked Virag, who was standing ready at an angle behind her, just like the others behind the one Ursel was fighting.
“It’s one of those big spiky trees.”
“Oh, the spiky trees,” Ursel nodded. “Makes sense.” Ursel looked down at her fist. If she hadn’t trained Diamond Defense, she might have really hurt her hands. As it was, it was just a few small pricks. She looked up at the other girl, unslinging her club. “I hope you don’t mind, it kinda hurts to punch you.”
“Hah, can you even swing that thing?”
“Of course I can,” Ursel said. With that, she stepped forward once more. Her opponent seemed content to let her act first, so she took full advantage of that, swinging wide. The pavement beneath Ursel’s feet buckled in a wave as she moved, pushing off of the stone with her energy.
Once more the image of a tree appeared, wider than the girl herself and perhaps twice as tall. Ursel could see the thorns on it, and felt the strength of her opponent’s stance. Her bracers moved together to block the blow, and the study tree collided with Ursel’s landslide. There was a moment where it seemed that nothing was happening, then another cracking sound- the image of the tree as well as the bracer’s around the older girl’s wrists both shattering as she was knocked flying down the street. The others girls exchanged looks, then went running off after her.
“Well, that was fun,” Ursel said. She looked down at the pavement below, tiled stone that was now torn up and strewn in all directions. “I don’t have to fix that, right? That was where she was standing.”
“I’m sure they have a system to handle things like this…” Mala said. “But we might as well toss things back into place.”