31 – Double Take
Xinxin opened her eyes. Emerald bamboo stalks stretched towards a clear blue sky. The bubbling sound of a running stream sounded from nearby, and a cool mist drifted along the ground.
The scene that stretched out before her eyes was one that Xinxin remembered. Familiar.
Xinxin frowned and moved her hand to push herself up. Yet, as she moved her right hand, she noticed that she was holding something.
It was a stick. For a split second, Xinxin thought it was the bamboo stick that Sifu had given her before. Yet, on a closer look, it was different. Not bamboo, but a twig with brown bark.
Xinxin furrowed her brow. She didn’t remember ever seeing a stick like that, yet it felt… nostalgic? Something about the stick caused Xinxin’s heart to stir, like seeing a long lost friend. No, like finding a long lost belonging.
A breeze blew past, causing the bamboo stalks to clatter together.
Hearing that reminded Xinxin of where she was. She pushed herself off the ground and got to her feet. When she did, Xinxin noticed that her vision was slightly lower than before. At the same time, her body felt lighter.
Confused, Xinxin looked down to examine her body… and then froze. “Eh?”
A lacy black dress hugged her body, leaving almost nothing to the imagination. Violet highlights emphasized the hems of her sleeves and her skirt. Because of that, Xinxin immediately noticed the difference.
The past few years had led Xinxin’s body to develop to a young woman’s. However, at that moment, her body had returned to what it was when she first met her Sifu.
“Why would… ah.”
She remembered. Waking up in such a familiar setting had made her forget, but before she opened her eyes she had been somewhere else. Heavenspan, the capital of the Bai Clan.
“That woman… did she… send me back in time?”
Xinxin looked around. With her current body and the surroundings, it was exactly the same as when she first found Sifu. The only difference was her dress. Even so…
“I can meet him again.”
A chance to see him in peaceful times again. A chance to learn why her father and her clan were wiped out.
“A chance to be by his side once more.”
“Huh? That was…?” Xinxin looked around. “Is someone there?”
“He’s being reckless again. Without me to protect him, Nowun is going to strain himself.”
“Hello? No one? What are you talking about?”
A female voice was speaking. Soft and filled with concern.
“How much longer do I have to wait…?”
Xinxin called out. However, after that, the voice was quiet. After a few moments, Xinxin realized it wasn’t going to speak up again. She shook her head. “The strain must be getting to me…”
Xinxin sighed and turned her attention to her surroundings. There was a path nearby, exactly where she remembered it to be.
A breeze drifted past, dispersing the mist.
“Is Sifu nearby?”
She didn’t see him around, so was it possible that he had woken up before she did? Or was it that she was too early?
Either way, standing around wouldn’t help her.
Xinxin decided to head back towards the clan grounds. Maybe she could find a hint there. Someone could tell her what day it was, and from then she could figure out what to do next.
“Ah. But there was this…” Xinxin lifted the stick and examined it. Should she leave it behind?
Her cultivation base seemed to be intact- no, it seemed to have even increased a bit. The dark core had changed, compressed into a single point. From that, Xinxin could feel an incredible amount of energy. Yet, due to the compression, there were no energy fluctuations.
A quick test showed that she could still make qi blades and manipulate elements. From that, even to defend herself against profound beasts, a stick wasn’t needed. Yet, for some reason, Xinxin couldn’t bear to part with it.
“…Well, it’s not like anyone will be upset if I bring back a stick.”
Xinxin swung the stick through the air a few times, satisfied with how easily it handled in her right hand, and then started walking down the path.
Birds chirped, flying between the bamboo trees high above. A gentle breeze caused the bamboo stalks to rattle, swaying back and forth.
Walking down the path on the mountain caused mixed feelings to pass through Xinxin’s heart. Years had passed since she had walked in such a place, and she didn’t think she would have the chance to ever do so again. Yet, there she was, walking down a path that she thought she would never see again. Head towards a place that would have never existed again. Meet people who she thought she would never meet again.
Lost in recollection and reminiscence, Xinxin didn’t notice where she was walking, allowing her memories to guide her back along a path she had walked countless times in the past.
And then a voice called out to her. “Halt!”
“Hm?” Xinxin focused and noticed that a group of people were barring her path. She had yet to leave the forest, but there were three people standing on the path in front of her. “Bandits?”
They were dressed in a similar manner, wearing black robes with a dragon emblazoned on it in gold embroidery. One young man and two young women. They didn’t look much older than Xinxin. Teenagers.
Xinxin tilted her head. “Is there a problem?”
The young man, armed with a sword and short black hair, stepped forward and brandished a sword at Xinxin. “This is a forbidden ground. Why is a young girl like you wandering around here?”
“…Do you not know who I am?”
It was strange. Xinxin didn’t recognize any of them, nor did she recognize the dragon insignia. But that shouldn’t be the case. The area… it should have been part of the Zhan Clan’s territory. Even if it was forbidden, it shouldn’t be forbidden from her.
The young man narrowed his eyes. “Don’t think you can fool me! Even if you’re b-beautiful, we won’t let you go as you please!”
One of the young women, fairly attractive with long blue hair tied in a pony-tail, called out. “You tell her, Erik!”
“Er…ik?” Xinxin said. “What a strange name.”
The other young woman, tomboyish with dark brown hair, pointed at Xinxin and said, “What’s strange here is you, girl! Now, spill it!”
“Spill it?” Xinxin frowned.
It was strange. The name of that young man, the phrases of that tomboyish young woman… it was something that shouldn’t be there in members of the Zhan Clan. Not only that, but they didn’t recognize her at all.
Xinxin didn’t respond. Instead, she evaluated the three in front of her using spiritual sense. When she did… there was nothing? No spiritual fluctuations, no disturbance in the natural energies, no remnants of laws…
The young man, Erik, frowned. “What are you-“
“I’ve wasted enough time.”
Xinxin dashed forward and swung her stick. Maybe since it was so familiar, she found herself subconsciously enhancing the stick and using the techniques her Sifu left behind in the past. Emerald light wrapped the stick and cut towards the young man’s neck.
“Erik!” The young woman with the blue hair raised her hands. “Water shield!”
An unknown energy surged, coalescing in front of Erik. With it, a pale blue barrier formed, rippling like waves.
The stick crashed against the barrier… and stopped.
Xinxin’s eyes widened. “What-?”
“You brat!” The young woman with brown hair raised her hand. “Earth spike!”
Once again, that unknown energy surged, gathering at the brown-haired woman’s open palm. An instant later, a stone spike formed from thin air and flew towards Xinxin’s chest.
It was different. Because of that, Xinxin was caught off guard.
The stone spike crashed against Xinxin’s chest, right over her heart. Yet, before it could pierce her skin, or even break through her dress, it stopped at an invisible barrier.
Xinxin stared at the stone spike. It was the same phenomenon that happened in Heavenspan with the Bai Clan expert. At that time, she didn’t understand it, but now…
Hmph. Trying to hurt me with such weak attacks?
A headache. Again, that female voice. “Who-“
Suddenly, Xinxin’s body began moving on its own. Chaotic darkness erupted from her body and wrapped around the stick in her right hand. At the same time, she raised it like it was a sword… no, with the darkness enveloping it, the stick was a sword.
“ You three are in the way. ”
Xinxin’s body stepped forward and the sword of chaos and darkness cleaved through the air.
The trio that dared to stand against it were caught unaware. The attack was too fast, too overwhelming for them to do anything but be annihilated.
Yet, in the moment before the three were erased-
“I apologize, missy, but you’re going to have to pardon my reckless disciples.”
-the attack was stopped.
An elderly man with a head of white hair and a full beard stood between Xinxin and the teenagers. Unlike their black robes, the elder wore a robe of pure white, emblazoned with a black dragon grasping at the sky. He held a walking stick in his right hand, brandishing it like a sword. That was what had stopped Xinxin’s strike.
Xinxin stared at the old man, especially at how their two sticks were locked against each other.
His eyes were almost closed, lidded as a wizened sage’s might be. A pleasant smile was on his face, serene and calm. To an outsider, it might have looked mundane. A grandpa playing swords with his granddaughter. Yet, the truth was anything but.
A swirl of chaotic dark energy continually emerged from Xinxin’s stick, but invisible ripples of power surged from the old man’s walking stick in response, neutralizing Xinxin’s attack.
The absurdity of it caused Xinxin to regain control over her body and she took a few steps back while lowering her stick.
Seeing that, the old man lowered his as well.
“Heavenly King!” Erik bowed his head and instantly knelt to the ground. “Thank you for saving us!”
The two female teens fell to the ground as well. “Thank you for saving us, Heavenly King!”
The old man placed his walking stick back against the ground and said, “Hoho, it’s the responsibility of the elder to take care of the young generation. Thanks aren’t needed.”
Xinxin narrowed her eyes. “If that’s the case then you should discipline those three. Daring to act so brashly in the Zhan Clan territory as well as disrespect me-“
“Wait.” The old man furrowed his brow. “What did you just say?”
Xinxin frowned. “I said that you should discipline-“
“No, not that.” The old man took a step forward. At the same time, his smile vanished. The calm grandfatherly demeanor was dropped and his eyes, previously closed, opened wide to reveal a sharp blue gaze. “You mentioned the Zhan Clan.”
Xinxin froze. Something about that gaze was familiar. She didn’t know why, but when she had that thought, her eyes flitted to the old man’s left side.
She hadn’t noticed before, but the white sleeve there hung loose. Empty.
The old man took another step forward, carefully scrutinizing Xinxin’s face. After a few moments of silence, he broke out in laughter. “Hohoho! Indeed, the heavens make men out to be fools.” He grinned, and said, “Tell me, Xinxin, has time been treating you well?”