Going off of nothing but a particular region of the Viridia Wildlands, finding Ursel wasn’t going to be easy. It would be the same as searching for a single individual in a small country where everything was trying to kill him. Though John knew that wouldn’t be quite true, it also wasn’t an incorrect way to look at things. Anything that was willing to approach was probably a danger, and everything that wasn’t had the instincts to stay away from those with cultivation, be they beast or man.
With all of that said, most of the time he wasn’t actually engaging in combat. So John had a lot of time to think. Crystin continued to escort him, and he was glad to have loyalty even if he hadn’t done much to deserve it recently. He knew that a single conversation with her or anyone else wouldn’t make up for the last few years, but he didn’t have much else to say at the moment. So his thoughts drifted ahead, to Ursel, and also back to Tirto.
With the limited information about Ursel, it was difficult to say how she was doing. It was a strange situation to find himself in, where his daughter running off into the wilderness to fight beasts endlessly wasn’t automatically a warning sign. But that was this world, and also Ursel. But John found it quite unlikely that all would be well. Hopefully she would be uninjured, or at least maintaining her overall health. The fact that she hadn’t returned to visit her siblings in some time was where it began to be a cause of concern. She wasn’t old enough yet that years in isolation was normal. The triplets were only in their early twenties, with most cultivators only a short way into their cultivation journey and just becoming adults. John might have expected a few years of intense isolation training from a cultivator of fifty trying to break through to the next Phase, but she was neither so old nor near such a threshold.
Or at least, she hadn’t been when she headed off. It was entirely possible in the time he had lost track of her that she had grown to the peak of the Soul Expansion Phase. But usually a cultivator was at such a threshold before beginning intense training- unless there was a critical event coming up. But the major threats had all passed before that time, a fact for which John was eternally grateful.
“What do you think we’ll find Ursel doing?” John asked Crystin.
“Probably standing atop a mountain of corpses. Or fighting the biggest thing in the region.”
John nodded. Not that they could really say much else. She wasn’t going to be gardening… probably. He supposed she did have a plant totem, at least. He also was unwilling to entertain the idea that they wouldn’t find her.
As for John’s reflections on Tirto, he still believed things couldn’t have ended up much better given the situation he found things in. Even though it wasn’t fully resolved at the moment, and there was emotional pain and heartbreak for at least a couple of those involved if not all three, he still stuck by his advice. With that, Tirto had made his choice. John hoped he hadn’t pushed him towards the difficult and risky choice by accident, but the fact that it was even an option meant something.
John had to admit that Verusha definitely had things that Emilia didn’t. Hopefully, her fiery attitude would be just what Tirto needed. Though he was only assuming a favorable resolution. Perhaps the sisters would drift apart from each other or Tirto. It would be an unfortunate loss of friendship and perhaps several different sorts of love, but it would be better than entering into a marriage that would be unfulfilling. At least, that was John’s hope.
“I can barely believe it was Tirto that ended up like that,” John said. “Though if he had personally engineered the situation, that would have been what was truly unbelievable.”
“If he was a playboy,” Crystin said. “I think we would have found more than just the sisters around. I imagine his future will be interesting if Verusha and him get together.”
“It might be what he needs,” John shrugged. “Not all support is the way I might imagine. I can see some pitfalls with her, but hopefully Nik and Melanthina can provide them some advice about a conflictive relationship. A shame that things ended up for Emilia how they did. Hopefully, her life can develop in a better direction for her.” The thing about the situation is that nobody was really at fault. No one set out to hurt anyone, but some amount of pain was inevitable in relationships over the course of time. Hopefully he could help things mend on the way back. Maybe with Ursel in toe, depending on whether she actually had a purpose to being out here.
A spear glinted in the sunlight as Crystin danced between several great cats, swiping at her with their claws, snapping with their jaws, and trying to direct her towards members waiting to pounce.
“Why do they-” Crystin thrust her spear into the side of one of them. “Always choose to-” she spun around, ducking under a sudden leap. “Attack me? I’m a full darkness cultivator concealing my presence!”
“Because,” John explained simply. “I am little more than a rock or shrub. When they pick you out, you are something hiding. When they see me, they wonder at an oddly shaped piece of the landscape.”
John ducked as one of them roared and swiped at him, undermining his point slightly. Though he would stick by it, and he would simply argue that once they could get a good sniff of him they would realize he was still made of meat.
His sword slashed, cutting at the paws of one cat and the snout of another. He still found his power to be within the Spiritual Collection Phase, but his ability to augment his elements in a cycle meant that he gained momentum in combat, and was able to take advantage of any elemental weakness. The Viridia Wildlands was earth dominant, with a strong influx of water as well. These cats were mainly filled with the earth element, giving them sturdy bodies that made them more willing to engage in direct combat instead of strictly relying on ambushes- or only going after weak prey.
Energy coursed through him, the fire element feeding off of earth as it wrapped around his sword. Those with keen spiritual energy senses would immediately recognize the power of the fire element, but the only visual indication of the Ethereal Flames were the heat waves emanating from the weapon into the air. The first great cat to be struck was quite surprised when his blade bit into its side, and even more so when it caught alight. The areas of formerly durable hide around the burn were quickly weakened, and John stabbed his blade through the creature.
After the conclusion of the battle, John quelled the smoldering flames. The area was wet enough that a wildfire likely wouldn’t spread too far, but it was best not to cause unnecessary damage or draw attention they didn’t want. Beasts were a significant danger, but John also had some reservations about people. While there were sects in the Viridia Wildlands with which he had a good relationship, they weren’t close to this area. Some might not be so friendly, and those from outside of the region might also wish to take advantage of a pair of lone cultivators.
John wondered what he was missing, to regain the rest of his power. In theory he should be an Ascending Soul Phase cultivator with his five totems, but his spiritual energy simply didn’t build up as it should. Did he merely need to wait for the world inside his dantian to recover? His meridians had suffered damage as well, but he couldn’t quite determine if letting them rest or making gentle use of them would be better.
His brief stints to the sea of spiritual totems were uncomfortable, which was not unexpected as he had been looking at light element totems. He couldn’t dive into the deeper layers at the moment, but the experience also revealed to him that his soul wasn’t ready to accept another totem for quite some time. Not that he expected that to be possible. He didn’t want to have to replace the totems he had with something else, and if it was possible to gain another set… well, that would result in the most powerful cultivator the world had ever seen, most likely.
For the moment, John simply accepted that his cultivation was where it was, as waiting almost certainly wouldn’t hurt, but pushing himself too far too quickly could have major consequences. He had to at least resolve some things with his children before engaging in any more risky behavior.
A month of wandering around, and only in the last week had they seen consistent signs of other people. Even then, it was difficult to say it might be Ursel. No, the intentionally dismantled bodies could be nearly any cultivator hunting beasts. Whoever it was seemed to be mainly interested in the bones of the largest creatures. Rhinos, hippos, and the occasional elephant depending on the exact location.
John was concerned about the size of everything, because while the creatures were all large and with great destructive potential back on Earth, most were larger and had the advantage of spiritual energy here. Though of the three, at least elephants tended to not be too aggressive. It was still best to stay out of their territory just in case.
Seeing the leftover remains of the creatures, John could say he was at least glad that whoever it was didn’t simply have the intention of collecting ivory and horns. Much more of them was made use of, and there was actual practical value to both instead of mere ornamentation or easily disproven medicinal properties. Though there was also some chance that in this world with spiritual energy that rhino horn could in fact improve people’s health.
Whoever killed them didn’t leave behind a large amount of spiritual energy. Still, over the course of a few days John and Crystin were slowly catching up to whoever it was, finding fresher remains every time.
Then John felt it. Most prominent was the aura of a gigantic creature, perhaps larger than the great lizard the clan had defeated in the Southeastern Stone Forest through the combined might of several Soul Expansion Phase cultivators and many others. The exact power of this creature in relation wasn’t so easy to determine, but John wasn’t focused on it anyway. He was more interested in the smaller and more familiar presence he felt running ahead of the beast.
John and Crystin moved to intercept, where they did indeed find Ursel scurrying along. John would recognize her aura anywhere, and he also recognized what remained of her armor. Renato had made it out of Mountain Steel, but the entire set was bent and scratched. The helmet was so twisted John wondered if Ursel could see out of it.
“Hey you probably want to run!” she called towards them and waved. “This thing will get tired eventually but I’m not really planning to fight it like this!” She continued running towards them before she actually recognized them. “Crystin?” she tilted her head as she was just about to pass them. Then her eyes widened, and she tripped over her own feet, tumbling over and over until she came to a stop. She just stared at John.
“I do believe you were the one who gave us the advice to keep running,” John said, scurrying over and attempting to pull her to her upright. Fortunately she worked with him, because he couldn’t have managed it with his current strength. She was even heavier than before- and that was without counting her club into the mix, which seemed to be made from some massive bone.
As the several story tall rhinoceros came into better view, crushing the surrounding plants and trees underfoot, John worked with Crystin to create a fake trail of spiritual energy. Hopefully that would distract the thing for a few moments while they got up to speed at a slightly different angle.
Meanwhile, Ursel’s body moved, but only automatically. She kept staring. “… Dad?” she asked hesitantly.
“Did you think I wouldn’t come see you? I’ll admit I’ve been a little bit slow about everything lately… but it’s not like I… was actually gone.” Even if it was possibly worse. “We’ll have to have this conversation later.” John took stock of his spiritual energy. At least he could manage a consistent output for a while, enough to keep himself away from the rhino. And while they could split up, if it went after him and he was a bit too slow, it would be highly inconvenient for his future plans- all of which involved remaining three dimensional.