33 – Coldhearted Resolve
Xinxin woke with a start. Her memories were jumbled together, and she couldn’t tell dream from reality. The bed she lay in, the walls she saw, the ceiling above her… all of it was unfamiliar, making it hard for her to determine where she was.
“What… was that?” She placed her hand on her chest, heart still pounding.
Betrayal, heartbreak, apathy, and then hope and admiration. Despite the dream’s end and its hazy nature, she could clearly recall those emotions.
Xinxin shook her head and sat up. When she did, she realized that she laid in a silk bed, adorned with luxurious violet threads.
She frowned and got out of it, shaking her head to get rid of the last dredges from her dream.
“Perhaps a bath will help clear my mind.”
She glanced around the room and saw a wooden tub. Remembering that there was a pond on the outside of the bamboo cottage, she grabbed it to draw up a bath for herself.
The air outside was crisp and fresh, filled with nature’s aura. Yet, it was different. The ‘law’ contained within the air had changed from what she remembered.
Xinxin sighed and shook her head. There was no use dwelling on what she couldn’t change. Moreover… while different, her cultivation wasn’t affected. She had yet to try, but she had faith in her Sifu’s method that allowed her to draw in all sorts of energy.
Thinking about that reminded Xinxin of her teacher. Just where was he now, and what was he doing? No… was he still alive?
“Hah… what am I thinking?” She blamed the sentiments left behind by Wang Tian in those items. Those lingering emotions were affecting her in more ways than she expected…
Xinxin placed the tub at the pond’s edge and leaned over to draw water. While she didn’t have a bucket, she was also not a mortal. Lifting water would be a trifling matter. Yet, as she stared at the water’s surface, she noticed her reflection.
A pure, young girl. Pristine skin, as if carved from the finest jade. Violet eyes that shone like amethysts, carrying a profound light. Soft, dark hair like wisps of the night sky… it was a beautiful face, one that could captivate demons and gods alike.
“You’re weak, you’re young, and you’re extraordinarily beautiful. Each is a problem on its own, but could be compensated for in one way or another.”
Words echoed in her head. But who said those words again?
“Weak, young, and extraordinarily beautiful…” Xinxin muttered, trying to recall where she heard them.
Beautiful… Xinxin could not argue with that. Young… to one like her Sifu, she must have seemed that way. And weak… no. She hadn’t been weak. Not like **** had been.
Another headache. At the same time, Xinxin felt a surge of… something inside her.
She frowned and hurried up in drawing the water before carrying the filled tub back into the cottage.
The moment she crossed the threshold, she felt the sensation of space cutting off, something she missed the first time. A completely isolated realm- no, a domain. One prepared by Wang Tian to prevent even the Goddess from gazing upon Xinxin.
While grateful… she still couldn’t forgive him in her heart. And that dream hadn’t helped either.
Xinxin placed the wooden tub in the center of her room, locking her door, and then slowly eased into it, slipping off her robes onto the floor. While a bit cold against her skin, it was comforting.
Leaning back against the edge of the tub, Xinxin stared at the bamboo tiled ceiling.
“How long has it been since I have taken a bath?” She muttered.
When was the last time she had taken a proper bath and not just a pragmatic shower or spiritual energy cleansing? Was it back in the Zhan Clan?
“No. I remember. It was back when Sifu was training me, right?”
A smile crossed her face at the memory of that. Her shameless Sifu had attacked her even when she was bathing. Still, even while shameless in actions, he wasn’t shameless in his behavior. While attacking, he had completely covered his eyes so as to give her some semblance of privacy.
“I was angry at the time, but now…”
A warm and nostalgic memory. A time that wouldn’t return.
Xinxin lowered herself into the tub, letting the water level reach her chin.
Sifu… her Sifu. He had always been stern and cold towards her. In spite of that, he had cared. While he showed it in harsh ways, he always acted in her best interests.
Even at the very end.
Xinxin glanced at her wrist. At the place where the invisible bonds of karma connecting her to her Sifu should have been. Yet… there was nothing there. To prevent her being caught up in the Goddess’s attack, her Sifu had severed all bonds between them.
Xinxin pulled her legs up to her chest and frowned. “Sifu… where are you?”
There was no answer. Of course, she wasn’t expecting one.
Xinxin sighed and set about cleansing herself properly instead of just soaking in the water. When she was finished, she stood up, evaporating the water from her skin with a surge of spiritual energy. She sent another wave through her dress, cleansing it as well before putting it on.
When she was done, she glanced at her reflection upon the water remaining in the tub.
There, a young, heaven-defying beauty stared back. Ruby lips, amethyst eyes, and hair like black silk spun from the night sky. Yet, unlike before, there were no traces of the naivety from youth.
Xinxin cast her heart into ice.
Her clan, her family, her home… there was nothing left for her now. Nothing except to find her Sifu and demand answers.
With that, she recalled her Sifu’s final lesson to her.
“…Trust only yourself.”
Wang Tian seemed sincere in his desires to help her. However, even if she felt like believing in him, she had to verify it with her own eyes, her own experiences.
This world… was it truly different? And was this place truly as he described it?
She didn’t know for certain. Thus… she had to find out.
Xinxin exited the cottage and wrapped herself in the natural energies, using her spiritual sense to seamlessly blend in. Like that, she left to explore just exactly what place she had ended up in.
After a brief trek around her immediate surroundings, Xinxin determined three things.
One, the only familiar areas to her were the bamboo forest and the pagoda. There, faint remnants of law drifted in the air, broken, but still present.
Two, her cottage was in the center of the bamboo forest, coincidently not far from where she had found her Sifu the first time.
And three… while she could freely roam around the area and wasn’t under any sort of supervision from disciples or other practitioners, there was a vast restrictive field obscuring everything beyond a ten kilometer area.
Still, something like that was trivial to one of Xinxin’s level and she easily slipped past that. When she had…
“So this is the sect- no, the kingdom that Wang Tian established?”
Xinxin frowned and flew towards the top of a nearby building to take a better look at her surroundings. While it would have been better to use her spiritual sense, it was possible that Wang Tian, let alone the Goddess, had ways of detecting it. Considering the state of the world’s laws, it would immediately give her away.
Thus, she had to rely on her own eyes.
The first thing she noticed was that the kingdom was circular, stemming out from the area she had just left. It seemed like Wang Tian was serious about creating the sect and kingdom for her sake. In the event of an invasion, a person would have to head all the way to the center of the sprawling kingdom to even reach the restricted area, let alone breach it.
The next thing Xinxin noticed was the architecture and language of the kingdom. All around, Xinxin could see familiar buildings. While the materials were different, she saw nostalgic bamboo shingles, the elegant sloping roofs and wooden buildings. And, while distant, she could hear the familiar words of the Xia language bubbling forth.
It was… odd seeing foreigners walking around and speaking her home’s language so fluently, but it showed Wang Tian’s efforts.
As her gaze scanned across the kingdom, she saw various sights.
Merchants calling out their wares. Wandering swordsmen and practitioners, men and women alike, seeking out new weapons. Children playing freely among the streets.
Taverns and dining halls dotted every corner, open for travelers to relax and trade information.
Xinxin had to admit, Wang Tian did a good job. While it was odd seeing foreign-styled faces among the people, the kingdom itself reminded her a lot of home.
“Still… I should see it for myself.” A bird’s eye view like she had gave her a good idea of the overall picture, but things would only become clear from personally walking throughout the city as a traveler. That was what she had learned from her years seeking out information about her Sifu after ending up at the Wang Clan.
Xinxin closed her eyes and focused.
While the ‘Order’ of the world was different from what she was used to, the laws stricter and resistant to influence, she felt that she could still use her techniques. It was a bit more difficult, but they should work.
Xinxin exhaled and called upon the technique she had become accustomed to while wandering the land in pursuit of her Sifu. The technique Wang Tian lent her to give her the freedom to roam.
Spiritual energy gathered, wrapping around Xinxin’s body. When it died down, the heaven-defying beauty had vanished, replaced with a cold female swordsman wearing a black robe.
Disguise prepared, Xinxin dropped her concealment and hopped down into a nearby alleyway, walking out into the crowd.
The moment she left the alleyway, a merchant shouted out to her left. “Swords! Iron swords! One hundred Tian each!”
Xinxin smirked when she heard that.
That Wang Tian… While he was humble in front of her, it seemed that his young master tendencies hadn’t completely faded away if he had a currency named after him.
Still, while amused, Xinxin paid careful attention to the trade occurring around her, keeping an eye on the exchanges and the currency used. While she possessed a few spirit stones and jade on her person, considering what Wang Tian had said and the state of the world, she doubted that they were still being used as currency.
And she was right.
From what she saw, trade was being done with coins. Copper, silver, and gold, simply crafted with a square pattern in the center and the character for Heaven, Tian, stamped across it.
“That is a problem…”
Xinxin didn’t have any currency to spend. Considering the places that would give her the information she needed, taverns and dining halls, her decision to venture out would be fruitless unless she could find a means to gather funds.
For a while, Xinxin simply followed the crowd, pondering to herself.
Should she find a despicable thief and do the world a favor by getting rid of him?
No. It was too risky. While that had been accepted in certain places, and in the places it hadn’t, she had been strong enough for it to not matter, this was Wang Tian’s territory and her objective was to gather information without alerting him.
Then… should she rob someone? No, relieve them of their possessions? If she concealed herself with the natural energies, it would be an easy task. Yet… such an act might cause suspicion, which led back to her first issue.
“Come one, come all! The Dark Tournament has started once again! Place your life, your soul, your very being on the line to win exotic prizes!”
“Hm?” Xinxin blinked and looked up.
The surroundings had changed. Before, she was walking along a lively and cheerful crowd, through clean and bustling marketplaces. Yet, the place she found herself in now was completely different.
All around, there were run-down buildings, windows shattered and walls cracked. The men and women wandering through the area were all guarded, taking care to keep a certain distance between each other. Furthermore, their gazes were vigilant, scanning the area for threats.
Did they realize the one that she posed? Despite her absent-minded stroll, none had even come close to her, let alone look at her.
As for the voice she heard… glancing towards the source, she saw that it was a man wearing a strange white mask. While she couldn’t be certain exactly what the mask was, it appeared to be that of a man both crying and laughing, one half smiling with an eye upturned and the other frowning, with a crying eye.
The masked man spun around, twirling before a rickety wooden stall standing before a building with a rotten door. He waved his arm and said, “The entry cost is simple… simply your life! Gamble it all to win it all! Fight until your opponent can no longer resist and take everything they are! Fight to the bitter end and win a valuable female slave from the western lands, along with a million Tian!”
Xinxin smiled. “Perhaps my luck is turning around?”
It was the perfect opportunity. While she didn’t care much for the slave, the grand prize money as well as the chance to earn even more from opponents that she didn’t have to worry about holding back on was just what she needed.
With that in mind, she immediately changed directions and headed towards the rickety wooden stall.
Was it the masked man’s charisma, or the temptation of the prizes from participating? Either way, the dispersed crowd began to gather, heading towards the masked man.
Xinxin walked forward, but before she got too far, she bumped into someone. A burly man with a face that only a mother could love as well as yellowed teeth. He turned around to look at her, leering at her chest before grinning.
“A frail woman like yourself wants to participate in the Dark Tournament? Hah!” He stepped forward. “Let me show you just how-“
“Hm?” The burly man bent over and stuck his pinky finger in his ear, digging out some wax. “What was that?”
Xinxin sighed. “…I do not have the patience for this.”
The strange natural energy in the area coalesced and then crashed on the burly man. “Kuh-!” In an instant, he fell to the ground, bones crackling from the weight of the energy pressing down upon him.
At once, the crowd dispersed, opening a path before Xinxin.
She scoffed and then walked towards the masked man.
“Tell me more about this Dark Tournament…”