3:24 – Karma – IV
“Claimed?” Xinxin blinked. “What are you talking about?”
Mu Tian let out a wry smile. “It seems that you are not the only one who disdains the thought of being with me.”
Xinxin glared at Mu Tian. “Stop speaking like some old master and tell me, Wang Tian! What do you mean I’ve been claimed?”
“…It is complicated.” Mu Tian sighed. “In this world, karma governs the fates of men, women, and beasts alike. Even the fabled immortals are bound by it.”
“And? You still haven’t answered me.”
Mu Tian gestured towards Xinxin’s wrist. “Normally, living beings are connected to each other through karma, threads born through interaction. These threads, minuscule as they might be, reflect the relations of all living creatures. It is an invisible web that not only ensnares, but guides. A means to lead one to their destiny.”
Xinxin felt a surge of anger. “I don’t need the theory, Wang Tian! Tell me what you mean!”
Mu Tian stared at Xinxin. “Very well. To say it briefly… your karma has been stolen. Sealed away. Taken. The relations that you should have, the interactions you were fated, your future, your past, your present… all of it has been torn away. The supportive web that should bind you has been severed. In its place, an unbreakable bond has been forged, connecting you to another. And that is why I ask, Xinxin. Who is the last person to grab your wrist?”
Xinxin froze. Mu Tian’s words echoed in her mind.
Her karma… stolen? Her relations, her past, present, and future torn away?
“…Y-You must be mistaken.”
She recalled who it was. The only person who had grabbed her wrist was Sifu. Her Sifu. But he wouldn’t do that to her… would he? No, he would. He said as much. But then… but then…?
Xinxin grabbed her wrist and took a step back. “That can’t be. A-and what makes you so certain, anyway?”
Mu Tian stared at Xinxin with a steady gaze. “…It is a complicated answer, but I possess the ability to sense karma.”
“S-So? Shouldn’t you have realized it before now then? How do you know you’re not seeing things?”
“…That is because your karma had not changed until this point. No.” Mu Tian shook his head. “It had changed, but remained essentially intact. Yet now…” Mu Tian stared at Xinxin. “…Was it your Sifu? Is this the price to pay for your strength, Xinxin?”
Xinxin couldn’t answer. However, those words… ‘price’. A cost. The strength she possessed now, the words her Sifu had given her… was this what he warned about?
Severed from all of her karma and bound only to him. That was-
“A karmic anomaly.” The words echoed fell unbidden from her lips.
Mu Tian nodded. “Yes. The one who could do this to you… that person could only be called as such. Interfering with the order of nature could not be done by anyone else.”
A headache. Xinxin felt something in her mind crack at that realization. At the same time, she felt… odd. Her cultivation base became unsettled, the black core in her dantian sending out waves of frantic energy. With that, her knees became weak, and Xinxin staggered back.
“Xinxin!” Mu Tian reached out to grab her. “Let me-“
“Don’t touch me!”
Mu Tian froze in his tracks. “Xinxin-“
She shook her head and took a deep breath. “I… I’m fine. It’s… probably just a side-effect from finding out what happened in this village.”
“Hm? You know what happened?”
Xinxin nodded. It was a forced change of topic, but she felt that dwelling on her Sifu and her karma would lead her down a path of no return, so she chose to avoid it for the moment. “Yes,” Xinxin said. “The negative energy and resentful memories had been hidden within the natural surroundings. If you absorb some, you should be able to figure it out as well.”
Mu Tian frowned but did as Xinxin suggested. Whether because he was more adept as a Saint, or because he possessed a stronger will than Xinxin, Mu Tian was unscathed by the flood of resentful memories.
He remained silent for a moment before saying, “What did you learn, Xinxin?”
The heaven-defying beauty frowned and tried to piece together the fragmented memories. “…There was a black-robed man. He… failed at something. Trying to reach someone… a woman? And I think there was something about an… Immortal Door?”
Mu Tian’s expression darkened. “So it is the same, then.”
“Do you know something?”
“…Possibly. But if that is true…”
Xinxin frowned. “Wang Tian. Tell me.”
“It is Mu Tian, Lady Xian. And in any case… if your Sifu is pursuing the one that I am thinking of, the entire Xia Dynasty will soon be overturned.”
Mu Tian shook his head. “There are only two ways to reach ‘that person’. One is through the Immortal Door and obtaining a ‘path’. The other is slaying the four divine beasts to forcibly engrave a path onto the world.”
“Four divine beasts…” Xinxin muttered. “Do you mean the four guardians?”
Mu Tian nodded. “Yes. And if that is true…” The former Wang Scion turned to look in the distance. “There is no doubt to his location.”
Xinxin followed Mu Tian’s gaze. While far in the distance, she could still make out the city’s towering outer walls. “Heavenspan?”
“Well, what are we waiting for?” Xinxin turned around, flicking her sleeve as she did, and said, “Let’s go.”
Mu Tian smiled. “And what happened to resting in a proper bed?”
“Hmph. Rest can come when we reach the capital. The longer we’re away from it, the higher the chances are of arriving in the middle of a massacre.”
Mu Tian’s smile faded. Staring at Xinxin’s departing back, he muttered, “You know that to be true and still pursue your Sifu?”
Xinxin glanced back. “Did you say something, Mu Tian?”
“It is nothing, Lady Xian.”
“Then hurry up!”
“…Remember to suppress your cultivation, Lady Xian. The Bai Clan will not take kindly to foreign Saints suddenly appearing in the middle of their city.”
“Whatever you say, Mu Tian…”
Staring at Xinxin’s energetic march, Mu Tian couldn’t help but frown. Despite the long night and vast distance they had walked, she remained unfazed. That fatigue she had shown earlier was gone, as if just an illusion. Did the thought of reuniting with her Sifu motivate her that much? No, was the bond that Sifu forged so strong?
Mu Tian gazed at Xinxin’s wrist.
It was invisible to her. Even if she possessed the combat prowess of a Saint and enough energy to be considered one, she was still naïve and lacked comprehension. Although, in fairness, most other Saints would not be able to see it as well, only feel it.
Mu Tian… as Wang Tian in the past who had forced his way beyond that Immortal Door as well as slain the four beasts, was the exception. In confronting that ‘Goddess’ in the higher realm, he gained a deeper understanding of the world’s truth, of the ‘Order’ she established.
With that understanding, he gained the ability to perceive karma and sever it. However, for Mu Tian, breaking even a single thread would result in a year of recuperation to restore his cultivation. To sever every single thread connected to Xinxin… Wang Tian couldn’t even begin to imagine the comprehension, strength, and energy needed to do so.
And then there was that remaining thread to consider, wrapped around Xinxin’s right wrist.
Karma came in various colors. Gold for good fortune. Red for affection. Yellow for friendship… there were as many colors and shades as there were the types of interactions between living beings. Yet, in all of Wang Tian’s studies and travels, he had never seen a clear thread.
The one around Xinxin’s wrist was nearly invisible if not for the chaotic fluctuations emanating from the thread and revealing its silhouette. Not only that, but unlike a tidy loop, that thread was knotted in a haphazard way, making it impossible to tell where the end and the beginning started or stopped.
Was this ‘her’ involvement? The one responsible for Wang Tian’s death in his first life, the one that enticed his comrades with the promise of ‘ascension’…
“That Goddess… did she do something?” He muttered.
He recalled that person who greeted him upon carving his path, his Dao onto the world.
An indescribable beauty with cold apathy in her eyes. A Goddess who saw him as a curiosity rather than a person, who observed with the eyes a child might have for an insect before crushing it out of boredom.
Mu Tian glanced at Xinxin’s back, the one who had changed so much from his memories, and recalled the words of that Goddess.
Ooh! I didn’t think anyone could reach me without my help! Congrats for being the first, but your story is kind of boring so… try again.
He muttered those last words to himself.
Try again. That was what the Goddess told him before she turned his comrades against him and caused his death.
Was this situation his second Heavenly Tribulation? Or was everything an illusion, a heart devil that kept him trapped while he remained kneeling before the Goddess?
…No. With how his Dao had been accepted by the starry skies as well as the Goddess, that couldn’t be the case.
Initially, Mu Tian believed it to be the result of his accumulated karma from returning to the start, but now he saw that it was something else entirely. No, some one else.
Xinxin was still walking in front of him. At the same time, she was unaware of the heavy chains upon her wrist, of the insidious coil that tightly bound her being to another. Unaware of how that bond was slowly corrupting her mind, her body, her spirit.
Mu Tian let out a slow breath and made a decision.
If he failed, not only would Xinxin’s Sifu realize it, but the attention of the Goddess would be drawn to him as well. Mu Tian’s ‘Path’ had yet to be accepted in this time. It would be like using the pathway of nobles while being a commoner. Possible, but with dire consequences when caught.
However… Mu Tian couldn’t accept the fact that Xinxin would become an accessory. That her entire existence would only be to serve someone else.
At that thought, a wry smile crossed Mu Tian’s face.
Indeed, hindsight truly was divine… but enough of that.
Mu Tian reached out to grab the hilt of a sword that did not exist. When he did, time and space seemed to freeze. However, he knew that was an illusion. It was not that they froze, but that he had stepped into a different realm.
The faint threads of karma that Mu Tian saw turned into searing lines of light. Glancing at himself, he saw his own karma, wrapped around him like a vestament. However, that was not his target. Shifting his focus, those threads vanished. Instead, the wavering invisible cord around Xinxin’s wrist grew opaque. If before it was the illusory wisps from heat, now it appeared like a cord of woven glass emitting intense heat eroding any other thread attempting to draw near Xinxin.
Mu Tian clenched his right hand. With it, a sword emerged. Plain, unadorned. It was a blade (sword) in the purest form, one that could sever anything beneath the heavens.
The former Wang Scion stepped forward. He stopped when he reached Xinxin’s side.
She was frozen in mid-stride, unaware and unmoving while Mu Tian was operating in that sovereign domain.
Mu Tian narrowed his eyes and glared at the cord binding Xinxin’s wrist. At the same time, he raised his sword.
One chance. That was all he had, unlike his second attempt at life. If he failed this… no. He couldn’t fail. He wouldn’t fail.
Mu Tian steeled his heart and focused his entire being into one strike-
-And then a cold voice echoed in the realm where no one should exist.
Mu Tian turned to look at the speaker… or he tried. However, he couldn’t move. Despite that, he could speak.
It was impossible. He had reached the limits of the world. He was also the first person to do so, the only person to do so. The only one who would be able to bind him like that had to be the Goddess. Yet, the voice that spoke was undoubtedly male.
Footsteps echoed even though they shouldn’t have been able to and a figure appeared from the void, standing in front of Xinxin.
A man. However, it was no normal man. Black hair, cold and dark eyes. His skin was pale and transluscent, almost like he was a ghost. Paired with the black robes that billowed around him like wisps of dark smoke, he appeared like a preta who had emerged from the underworld. A hungry ghost that desired only to consume everything around him.
That man looked around for a bit before glancing at his right hand. There, he clutched what looked like a pitch-black stick. Seeing it, a flicker of emotion crossed his face, but it quickly vanished as he turned to look at Mu Tian.
“How interesting, One Tin. I never knew something like this was possible.” The black-robed man smiled, revealing gleaming white teeth. “I knew that sticking around for a bit longer would be worthwhile. I’ll have to remember to thank you if there’s a next time… not that you’ll remember it even if I did.”
-Move. Mu Tian had to move. That man- no, that preta was someone that wouldn’t be satisfied with a small amount of power.
“And to think that you were with my dear disciple. Did she change her mind about the arranged marriage after all?” The man stepped in front of Xinxin and stared into her eyes. “…No. She still hates you quite a bit. Then why- hm?”
He noticed it.
Before, he must not have realized the control he had over Xinxin. However, when Mu Tian saw how that man’s eyes lit up seeing the karma binding Xinxin, Mu Tian knew that he did now. And since that man knew, it would only take a thought for Xinxin to become nothing more than an object to him. A tool.
“HEAVEN CLEAVING!” Mu Tian roared and put everything he had into a single slash. The path, the sword that he forged with his very being cut through the void.
He knew it instinctively. The man standing before him would destroy the world, would become the source of Xinxin’s suffering in the future.
Thus, before all of that occurred, before the man’s boundless growth could continue any further, Mu Tian had to put a stop to it.
“A conceptual attack? Unfortunately for you, One Tin, I’ve dealt with that before.”
-The sword that should have cut apart everything beneath the heavens failed to pierce even the man’s robes.
Despite all of that, despite Mu Tian’s killing intent, the man didn’t show a hint of malice. Instead, he seemed amused by it all. No, more than that… he seemed somewhat approving?
“Well… she should be fine with you around. At least that Goddess should think twice before acting… though you were a bit reckless this time. I’ll hide that for you, so do your best to distract my disciple until I finish my business, alright One Tin?”
The man smiled and waved his hand. With that act, Mu Tian’s sword vanished, time and space returned to normal, and the man disappeared.
At the same time, it meant that Xinxin was moving again. She immediately noticed Mu Tian’s close presence and instinctively lashed out. “You creep!”
“W-Wait, Lady Xian-“
Before he could protest, Xinxin had already lashed out and a loud smack resounded.
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