Solus was over it. She didn’t care about being an immortal anymore.
What use was an average immortal?
Who cared if she was average…?
An average, useless, nobody.
A girl without a mother or father.
A girl who, even if she got lucky, would only ever make it into the golden core realm.
A girl who… A sharp smack rang out and Solus was sent reeling.
When her vision finally stopped spinning, she looked up to see Mary standing over her. The old woman’s presence seemed to have grown infinitely as she towered over Solus despite her small stature.
Solus felt like she was back at the pillars, staring up at a great height she could never reach, only admire.
“Grow up,” Mary said coldly, or to be more accurate, commanded. This was not a request.
“But I…” Another Sharp smack split the air and Solus’ cheek stung sharply once again.
“Don’t give me excuses, just do it,” Mary said coldly.
Solus shrank back from the old woman. She had never seen her get like this no matter how much Solus wound her up.
But now, as Mary loomed over her and Solus’ cheeks stung, she felt an emotion she had never once felt towards Mary before.
When Solus thought about it, Mary was scary. She was a peak level Foundation Establishment cultivator. If she wanted, Mary could kill her with a wave of her wrinkled hand.
Mary. Could. Kill. Her.
Deep in her heart, Solus knew that Mary would not kill her. But that didn’t change the fact that Mary could do it.
Once, Solus realised that there was no going back. Mary knew this and that was the true reason she had never struck Solus before.
Building Trust is like making a house out of cards. One wrong move and everything collapses.
“Solus,” Mary said quietly.
“Yes,” the cowering girl replied weakly.
Mary stepped back from the fallen girl but made no effort to help her get up. Instead, she spun on her heels and with a hitherto unseen speed, she strode out of the study and into the hall.
“Hurry up,” She called out to Solus who was still unsteadily getting to her feet.
This time, when Solus walked past the portraits of her famous ancestors that hung in the hall, she felt no pride or admiration. Just a deep stinging shame… or was that her cheek?
Solus found Mary standing with the door ajar and a face of stone. The elderly woman didn’t say a word and just watched as the girl meekly walked past her and out the door.
Out on the street, nothing had changed. An endless stream of cultivators hurrying to and fro, coloured in their rich satins and silks. Shops with bejewelled blades and golden armour. Strange performers at the street corner doing routines that would be impossible for normal humans.
Solus watched all of this but felt as though she wasn’t part of it. Mary and Solus were isolated in their own little bubble of tension and anxiety.
Wordlessly, Mary strode past Solus and headed in the opposite direction of where they had measured Solus’ talent.
They made their way through the luxurious streets of Tera in tense silence. One of them was too nervous to speak and the other… well, Solus didn’t know what Mary was thinking right now.
Eventually, Solus noticed something. The wall was getting bigger, or they were getting closer to it.
“Um, why are we…?” Solus began to ask before getting cut off again.
“Shush, you’ll see when we get there,” Mary replied tartly.
Hundreds of thoughts swirled around in a chaotic maelstrom in Solus’ head. Self-doubt, anxiety, fear, anger, frustration.
She could feel her temper rising and her feet were beginning to hurt from all the walking, but every time she thought about that slap, that stinging pain in her cheek, those eyes that looked at her with such disappointment, Solus thought better of speaking.
Tera is a big city. So big that, it took the better part of an entire day for Solus and Mary to reach its walls.
By the time they finally stood Infront of the monstrously large walls, Solus was painfully aware of two things.
One, her feet, which were very sore and had begun to throb angrily.
Two, you never truly knew how big something was until you stood beside it.
These walls were a testament to this second part. Even when she craned her neck back and stared straight up, Solus couldn’t see the top of the wall. The top was obscured by the glare of the sun. Perhaps the city walls were even bigger than the pillars at the plateau.
The walls themselves were the embodiment of the idea, colossal. Occasionally, a person would walk underneath them and be so utterly dwarfed that it was almost comedic.
When you considered these walls, it was no surprise that Tera had never fallen to invaders or demons. What manner of creature could pierce a defence like this?
Mary snapped her fingers sharply, snatching Solus out of her stupor. “Follow me,” Mary commanded.
Solus followed behind Mary glumly as they made their way along the outskirts of the wall. Despite having reached the walls themselves, the number of houses had not decreased in the slightest. On the contrary, the number of people living here and travelling the streets had drastically increased.
The houses here were far smaller and almost seemed to be piled on top of each other, fighting desperately for space that wasn’t there.
As she followed Mary through the crowded streets, Solus looked back up at the wall and felt a sense of pride grow in her. Tera truly was a mighty city.
Once again, they came to a stop in front of a step that jutted out from the side of the wall. Solus looked past the step and saw a winding staircase that snaked up and along the side of the wall. The staircase was so long that she couldn’t even see the final step from the bottom.
Mary gestured for Solus to take the lead and Solus gingerly stepped onto the first of many steps.
“Don’t worry,” Mary’s cold voice came from behind her, “If you fall, I will catch you.”
Solus steeled herself and began climbing the staircase. The staircase, if it could even be called that, was a series of stone pillars that had been jammed horizontally into the wall.
While she walked up these stone pillars, a thought crossed Solus’ mind, ‘Who managed to pierce this wall in order to put these pillars in it?’ she wondered.
Solus watched in awe as they climbed and the houses that had looked so big to her before becoming little more than dollhouses and then they became even less than that, shrinking into insignificance as she climbed higher.
Far beneath her, the hordes of cultivators had become little more than ants, crawling along the ground like the insects they were. Not her though, she was up here, in the sky, in the clouds, she was truly mighty.
Unfortunately, Mary pulled Solus out of her delusions when they reached the top of the wall. “C’mon Solus,” Mary commanded, and Solus obeyed.
Mary strode directly across the wall to the other side without a hint of hesitation or delay.
When they were about halfway across the width of the wall, a sharp cough halted the pair in their tracks.
“Ma’am, can you tell me what exactly you are… Oh, I see,” After being stopped by one of the guards he seemed to have realised something when he caught sight of Solus.
“Bit young to be doing this isn’t it Ma’am?” The guard commented.
“She has to learn the truth,” Mary said with her face set in grim determination.
The guard shrugged and turned his back on the pair, “Ah well, it’s none of my business how you raise her, just make sure she doesn’t fall off or we’ll both be in trouble,” he said gruffly.
Mary nodded stiffly and continued walking towards the edge of the wall.
But this was the limit for Solus. “How come even the stupid guard knows what’s going on but I don’t? Why are you being so weird right now? And why did you… why did you… hit me…?” Solus cried out in frustration.
Nearby, the guard winced slightly at being insulted by a child but chose to be the bigger person, whistling while he walked off to another section of the wall.
Mary sighed after Solus’ outburst and with that sigh, the scary atmosphere that had surrounded her evaporated. Leaving nothing but a frail old woman behind. “Solus, just come and look down at the other side of the wall,” Mary asked in an exhausted voice.
Solus froze after seeing Mary’s abrupt and drastic transformation. Then, she gathered herself and strode towards the edge of the wall.
“I don’t know what you expect me to see. I know the outside of the wall is worse but…” Solus never finished speaking, as she had neared the edge of the wall, she had smelt it.
Her first interaction with the slums was the smell that wafted up the side of the wall. It was a vile, rotten stench that assailed her nostrils and wormed its way into the back of her throat.
Solus gasped and tried to back away but Mary grabbed her by the arm and dragged her to the edge of the wall so that the girl could see everything.
Beneath them, In the shadow of the wall, was a mess of mismatched huts and shacks sprawled out in every conceivable direction with no rhyme or reason. Every square inch of it was covered in mud and filth.
Within the filth, tens of thousands of insects crawled in an insane dance that made Solus wretch. A deep horror welled up inside her, for she knew that those weren’t insects but people. People who lived in filth. People who were truly helpless, truly unfortunate.
“This is where we get out food. They grow our crops and dispose of our waste. In return, we allow them to live in peace… if you can call it that.” Mary muttered, just loud enough for Solus to hear.
“But this… this isn’t right!” Solus shouted in horror.
“I thought you wanted to be an immortal!” Mary snapped at Solus.
“I do but…”
“But what? For people to win, others must lose. Just think back to when you had your talent evaluated. Other than you and the blonde girl, what do you think became of the other three?” Mary shouted.
“I don’t know,” Solus replied glumly.
“Neither do I. Why? Because they don’t matter enough for me to care,” Mary replied viciously. “They are nobody, the people below you are nothing. The difference between them and you right now, is luck. You were born lucky. That. Is. it. And one day, you will end up just like them,”
“…” Solus had no reply. She fought back tears and tried to turn away from the horrible sight below her.
Mary grabbed the back of Solus’ head and they both stared out at what was below them. “Do you want to end up like them?” The old woman asked.
“No,” Solus replied in a voice so quiet it was barely a whisper.
“Then what are you going to do about it?” Mary asked while still pressing the girl's head towards the wretched slums beneath them.
“I don’t… I don’t know… I-I'll Train, I'll fight, I don't know,” Solus cried out, desperate to get away from what lay beneath her.
Mary let go of Solus’ head and the girl fled from the edge of the wall, “Good, as long as it’s something. Anything is better than giving up.” Mary muttered as tears streamed down her face.
The old woman seemed to have fixed her gaze on something at the edge of the slums, right at the limits of the wall’s shadow.
After staring for a long moment, she gritted her teeth and turned her back on the slums, hobbling back to the other side of the wall.