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…”
32 – Heartfelt Sentiments
Xinxin stared at the old man in front of her. Those words of his… she couldn’t understand them. No, she understood the meaning of them. Individually and as a sentence they made sense. But the reason the old man was saying that- no, the fact that he knew those words and that information at all… Xinxin couldn’t understand.
Erik looked between Xinxin and the elderly man standing in front of her. He frowned and then turned towards the old man. “Heavenly King,” he said. “Do you know who she is?”
The elderly man slowly nodded and said, “She is an old acquaintance of mine, young Erik.” He paused and then shook his head. “No. In truth, our whole sect can be said to have been established solely for her sake.”
Erik’s eyes widened and he said, “Then… Heavenly King.” He glanced at Xinxin and said, “She is the Heaven Seizer?”
The elderly man nodded. “That is right, young Erik.”
Erik immediately dropped in a kowtow and knocked his head against the ground. “We beg forgiveness, Great Heaven Seizer! We had eyes, but could not see the great immortal standing before us!”
The two young women behind Erik were slower to react. However, it seemed that they quickly realized what was going on and kowtowed as well.
“Forgive us, Great Heaven Seizer!”
“Y-Yeah! Sorry for our rude actions and everything, Great Heaven Seizer!”
Xinxin blinked, still lost as to what was going on. Seeing the three brats kneeling before her, she frowned and said, “I suppose it could not be helped. None of you knew what you were doing.” She sighed. “I will let this time pass. But there will not be a second. As for you…” She turned to the elderly man. “Who are you?”
The Heavenly King laughed, a low chuckle. “That is a long story, Xinxin.” He turned around and looked at the three kneeling against the ground. “You three are dismissed. There will no longer be any need to protect these grounds.”
Erik rose to his feet and nodded. “Yes, Heavenly King!” He turned to his companions and grabbed their arms, pulling them to their feet. “Mary, Sarah. Let’s go!”
The tomboyish young woman with brown hair frowned. “Now, Erik? But we haven’t-“
“Sarah!” Erik shook his head and looked back at the Heavenly King and then Xinxin. He forced her to bow her head and said, “Pardon her rudeness, Great Heaven Seizer! We will leave immediately!” After that, he gestured towards the other young woman with blue hair and whispered, “Grab Sarah, Mary!”
Mary nodded and grabbed Sarah’s right arm. Erik grabbed her other, and then the three left.
Xinxin watched the three leave and then turned back to the elderly man. “So those three are your disciples, huh?”
The Heavenly King smiled. “The latest in a long line of succession… but yes. They are a bit… unorthodox, but they mean well.”
Xinxin thought that they were more than just unorthodox, but there were more important things on her mind than three foreigners being accepted as disciples. She stared at the elderly man and said, “You never answered my question. Who are you?” At the same time, she slowly gathered qi around the stick in her right hand. While she had an inkling about who that Heavenly King was, she didn’t dare to drop her guard. Even if she was right, with what had happened…
The Heavenly King sighed. “After all this time, you still… No, I suppose it is natural.” He shook his head, causing his head of white hair to shift like flowing clouds, and he said, “Shall we move somewhere else?”
A pagoda within a courtyard of flowers. Violet silk drapes hung from each side, elegant and serene.
When Xinxin saw it, she froze. “This place…?”
The Heavenly King walked inside of the pagoda. There, a table was placed in the center. The elderly man pulled out a chair from it and sat down. When he did, he turned back to look at Xinxin.
She ignored him for the moment. Instead, Xinxin walked over to the pagoda and ran her hand along its railing.
…Different. It was similar to the place she remembered, the keepsake her mother left behind. Similar, but different. The wood was foreign, new. The color was slightly off, a sharp red instead of the aged crimson she remembered.
“I apologize, Xinxin.” An old voice echoed in the courtyard, followed by a deep sigh. “I tried to recreate it as much as I could, but…”
“But you could not.” She looked up, finally staring at the Heavenly King. Finally accepting the reality of the situation.
The Heavenly King nodded. “The world is too different. Even I could only accomplish this much.”
Xinxin walked over to the table and sat down across from the old man. She stared at him, trying to match his features with the haughty young man in her memories.
The Heavenly King laughed. “What? Am I too hard to recognize in my old age?”
The old man nodded and said, “Indeed. It has been a very, very long time since we last met, Xinxin. Very long indeed.”
Xinxin shook her head. “I don’t understand. How are you alive?”
A smile crossed Wang Tian’s face. For a brief moment, his age seemed to fade away, showing that confident young master in Xinxin’s memories. “You underestimate me, Xinxin. It would take more than a mere spatial crack to kill me.”
“But your arm…” Xinxin stared at the empty sleeve on Wang Tian’s left side.
“This?” Wang Tian shook his shoulder and laughed. “A small price to pay. Think of it as a bit of compensation for the grief I’ve caused you over the years.”
Xinxin bit her lip. Even if she disliked him, she never wished for Wang Tian to cripple himself. Furthermore, the reason why it happened…
“Do not blame yourself, Xinxin.” Wang Tian shook his head and said, “The blame lies with me for my selfishness.” His eyes took on a distant gaze and said, “I have spent many years pondering over that moment. Pondering whether you were still alive. Whether I should have remained to fight with you instead of fleeing.”
Xinxin shook her head. “No. That is-“
“The truth. It is the truth.” Wang Tian shook his head. “Had I remained… perhaps things could have been different. Fighting alongside one as strong as your Sifu, we could have challenged her. Challenged her and won.”
Xinxin frowned. “Her?”
She felt a headache. A surge of emotions racing through her heart. Gratitude, rage, betrayal, regret.
Xinxin winced and placed her hand on her forehead.
Wang Tian sighed. “So you did not escape unscathed after all. I had hoped that your Sifu would have protected you… but I see now that you are here only at Her whim.”
Xinxin remembered now. The indescribable beauty that her Sifu sought to kill. The one that he failed to kill.
Xinxin clenched her hand. “That vile woman…!”
Wang Tian laughed, but the mirth didn’t reach his eyes. Instead, those blue eyes narrowed, shining with a cold light. “Yes. A vile woman indeed. However, it will do us no good to sit around and curse her name.” He waved his right hand, causing a tea pot and a pair of cups to appear on the table. “Would you like some tea, Xinxin?”
Hearing Wang Tian’s composed words, Xinxin took a breath to calm herself and nodded. “Yes. Some tea would be nice.” She paused and then narrowed her eyes at Wang Tian. “There had better be nothing strange about it.”
“I am hurt, Xinxin. This much time has passed and you still distrust me… Men my age have died from less heartbreak.” Wang Tian poured a cup of tea and slid it over.
Xinxin rolled her eyes and took the cup of tea. “As if you would die so easily.”
Wang Tian shrugged and then started pouring himself a cup of tea.
Seeing that, Xinxin frowned and said, “How long do you intend to keep that appearance? Do you enjoy playing the role of an elder that much? No, do you fantasize about wooing young maidens with that face? I knew you were a deviant before, but this is a new low.”
Wang Tian laughed. “Your tongue is as sharp as ever, Xinxin. However… this is not an illusion.”
Xinxin froze. After hearing Wang Tian’s words, she narrowed her eyes and looked at him. Not just with her eyes, but with her spiritual sense.
When she did, she froze. Not because of what she saw, but because of what she didn’t see.
“You…” She shook her head, not believing what she saw. Yet, it didn’t change even after she looked again, so she had to accept it. “Wang Tian… you became a mortal?”
Wang Tian sighed. “It is a long story to tell.” He picked up his cup of tea and took a sip. “Have you noticed it yet?”
Xinxin shook her head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Hm.” Wang Tian put down his cup and said, “Perhaps that is another gift from your Sifu. No, perhaps it is a result of who your Sifu is…”
“Wang Tian.” Xinxin frowned. “You aren’t making sense.”
“Very well. Then, allow me to say it clearly. Xinxin… Our world is gone.”
Xinxin froze. “That is…”
She wanted to say it was impossible. That Wang Tian was telling a lie, trying to distract her. And yet, that was irrational of her. She knew it. She could feel it. In Wang Tian’s words, and in seeing the world itself.
At first, she thought it was just her senses changing from whatever the Goddess had done, but…
Wang Tian sighed and took another sip from his cup. “It has been many, many years since I ended up here in this world. Thousands upon thousands of years. During that time, I have wandered this land, roamed every inch of its surface, sky, earth, and sea. Despite that, I have found no traces of the Xia Dynasty. None, that is, except for the faintest traces of law in one particular area.”
“And that area is here?”
He nodded. “Yes. Here, what the foreigners call the land of the east. The Sun Kingdom that I founded.”
“Hmph. So your arrogance came back then. Do not think that I missed how your disciples called you the Heavenly King.”
Wang Tian shrugged. “The young and the ignorant cling to names of power, regardless of one’s wishes.”
“Perhaps… but you have yet to explain it, Wang Tian. Why are you a mortal?”
“Patience, Xinxin. I am getting there.” Wang Tian took a long drink from his tea and said, “…This world is different. As a result, so too are its laws. Its ‘Order’.”
Xinxin nodded. “I saw that in your disciples… but you shouldn’t have been weakened this much.”
“This is true. Originally, I was as strong as I was in the Xia Dynasty. While I had lost my arm, none of my other abilities were hampered. Even when facing the strange abilities of the natives, I was able to hold my own.”
Xinxin frowned. “What happened?”
“…I met those who kidnapped your mother.”
Xinxin’s eyes widened and she stood up from her seat. “What? Who? Where?”
Wang Tian shook his head. “They are strong, Xinxin. Strong and possessing illogical powers that defy the laws themselves. Even were I to tell you of them, you would be incapable of doing anything.”
Xinxin narrowed her eyes. “You do not know that.”
“I do. And the reason I do is simple: they bear the protection of that Goddess. Not her blessing, as some foreigners possess, but her direct protection. A private and undying army with inexhaustible strength.”
Wang Tian nodded, a bitter smile on his face. “What a joke. Cultivation is the act of seeking immortality by carving one’s path into the world. Yet, those foreign devils attained it by a mere whim of the goddess.”
Xinxin slowly sat down. That… if they were protected by the Goddess, that vile woman that even her Sifu could not defeat, then- Wait! She looked to Wang Tian and said, “Have you seen any signs of my Sifu, Wang Tian?”
“Hm?” He looked confused. “You should know better than I, should you not, Xinxin?”
She shook her head. “In that battle, my Sifu…” She trailed off, remembering what happened to him. Facing against that goddess, despite his powers, he lost. Her Sifu, he-
Needs me. If I was still there, then that Goddess would never have been able to stop him!
A headache. Xinxin frowned and shook her head.
Wang Tian frowned. “So even your Sifu failed. But even if he failed, he should not-“ His eyes widened. “I see.” Wang Tian looked at Xinxin and said, “Perhaps I do know of some signs of your Sifu, Xinxin. However… you may not be able to meet him for a while.”
“Wang Tian.” Xinxin’s frown deepened. “You-“
“It’s not because I wish to stop you or anything along those lines. Merely, it will be impossible for you to meet him for now… and because I require time to gather materials. If you wish to follow after your Sifu, there are certain measures that I must prepare.”
“…You’re not lying?”
Wang Tian laughed. “There are many things that I have done in the past, Xinxin. There are also many times that I have let you down… but this time most of all, I will not. But for now… why don’t you relax for a bit? I’ve founded this entire sect and prepared this area in the off chance that you arrived, so I would greatly appreciate it if you did.”
“…Thank you, Wang Tian.”
“These are your bedchambers, Great Heaven Seizer.” Erik stopped in front of a building and then bowed towards Xinxin. “We disciples have continually maintained it for your arrival.”
Xinxin glanced around the room, slightly shocked. “This is…”
A sleek building with emerald bamboo. It was intricate and delicately carved, with a small pond and flowerbed of white lotuses. A tiny cottage seemingly tucked away into the wilderness.
She didn’t recognize it. Xinxin had never seen anything like it before in her life. Yet, when her eyes traced over its form, when she saw the way the light caught on the flowers and heard the light rattling of the bamboo, she felt something stir within her. Nostalgia, like a far off memory, and then bitterness.
“Great Heaven Seizer?”
Xinxin glanced at the black-haired young man and nodded. “I will take it from here.”
“Understood.” Erik bowed and said, “If you need anything, merely call out to any of us disciples. The Heavenly King has already informed us all of your presence, so there should no longer be a misunderstanding like before.”
Xinxin nodded and then walked into the building.
She glanced around, complex emotions welling inside of her. A golden dragon, a painted mountain, a poem written in a beautiful longhand… trivial keepsakes were placed all around the place. But that didn’t concern her. Instead, her attention was drawn to the aura that each keepsake carried, the traces of spiritual energy remaining.
Wang Tian said that he had lost his powers because of fighting against the foreigners. He said that his injuries had caused him to lose strength. But from the spiritual energy imbued in those keepsakes, it was clear that he lied.
Each and every item inside the building was filled with his power, carrying the sharp aura of a blade. His ‘Truth’ was etched deep inside everything, even the building itself. As a result, it was a perfect enclosure, sealed off from the world. Even that Goddess would not be able to peer within it unless she physically descended upon the world.
Xinxin picked up a delicately folded paper crane and muttered, “Does he care about me that much?”
Faint wisps of emotion. Longing, yearning, guilt, sorrow, regret. Everywhere she turned, she could detect traces of it in the items in the building.
But it didn’t make sense. Wang Tian… to him, she was just an accessory. And yet… he cared this much?
Xinxin sighed and placed the paper crane back on the table where she found it.
“Even if that’s the case…”
It was too late now. Perhaps, once upon a time… perhaps there could have been a chance that they would have ended up together. Perhaps if she had never found her Sifu, perhaps if she had merely accepted her Fate, things could have been different. Perhaps, like Xiaomei said, she could have been happy to accept the marriage and become his wife.
Perhaps. But it was too late now.
Now, the only one she had left, the only thing she had left was her Sifu.
Was it the emotions embedded in the items around her, or something else? For a moment, Xinxin felt a stab of pain in her chest, a pang of longing and yearning.
She sighed and then decided to sleep. It had been a long day, and one filled with countless changes. Perhaps after some rest, she would be able to decide what to do, be able to focus on her next moves.
But until then…
Xinxin yawned and then went to sleep.
A dream. In it, she saw the story of a pitiful girl.
Young, naïve… and beautiful enough to garner the envy of the heavens. Perhaps that was why she faced such misfortune.
The moment she turned of age, she was wed to a young master. A genius who was destined to reach beyond the heavens and tread upon lands she could not dare envision, let alone follow.
Even so, she had faith. She believed in their bond, their marriage, and dutifully fulfilled her role as a wife. She devoted her very being to him, gave him all of her heart.
From the beginning, their paths were destined to not cross. This was a fact that the young master made clear to her from the start. She would only be a footnote in his tale to defy the heavens.
But she was fine with that. Even if she was just a minor note, so long as she had a part in his tale, she was happy.
The young master, at least, had some measure of responsibility. With his prestige and strength, he created an elegant bamboo cottage for her to live. Though he could not give her the strength to walk beside him, he gave her everything that a mortal might wish to have. Everything, that was, except for his love.
Still, she accepted it. While beautiful, she understood her role in his tale. Even as he surrounded herself with countless beauties, even as talented fairies from all over the land flocked to his side, so long as she held one tiny corner of his heart, she was happy.
…Ridiculous. Pining after someone like that was bound to end in heartbreak.
Even so, she endured. She waited for the rare occasions he returned to spend a meal with her, the short times where she could show him the paintings she made, the poems she wrote. The brief smiles he gave her was enough.
But the heavens were cruel. Such pure devotion did not go rewarded, but instead were punished.
One day, a pair of the beauties that usually surrounded the young master appeared at the cottage. A distant cousin from her own clan with a wood physique, as well as a fiery-haired beauty.
The naïve girl believed their tale of the young master finding a use for her at last. Of finding a means for her to aid him along his path to tread across the heavens.
The beauties led her to an altar, far from the cottage. Far from any civilization or person at all.
There, she met her end.
The naïve girl’s heart was ripped out by the cousin she trusted, with her last sight being that of scornful eyes, and the last sounds she heard being that of malicious laughter.
Beyond that… there was darkness. She met her end, but she did not die.
An eternal fog, and a form where she could not scream, could not move, could not cry.
At first, she had hope. Her husband, that genius young master would surely save her. As the greatest in the world and her lawful husband, she would not let such a thing pass.
But time passed. An immeasurable amount.
The naïve girl’s hope shattered. Her heart broke, and the devoted love twisted into hate, changed into resentment… and eventually faded into apathy.
What heaven-sent child? What gifted prodigy?
She cursed her naïve self, rued the pure and devoted love she selflessly gave to the one who did not appreciate it.
But even those emotions faded. In their place, only despair and resignation remained.
A dark and unchanging mist.
She believed that her existence would continue that way forever.
But one day, something changed.
In the dark mist of her existence, there was a slight difference. Nothing so dramatic as a ray of light, but instead a lighter shade of black.
Someone reached out to her.
A dreadful roar filled the air.
That girl was terrified. She was weak, both of heart and body. And yet, she felt it. The clumsy hand holding onto her was weaker than even she was.
Even so, he was determined. He knew he was weak, but he sought to rebel against the heavens that decreed such a thing. To seize fortune from the jaws of death.
Countless times he perished.
Countless times, she returned to the dark and unchanging mist.
Yet, he continued to fight against his fate. Against the ‘law’ that decreed he could not defeat the monstrosity before him.
And each time, he chose her.
His ‘faithful companion’.
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?”
3:29 – Faithful Companion
A silver spear with blinding radiance emerged within Serena’s hands and then flew towards Nowun’s chest.
The Nameless One swung his sword to deflect the attack. However, the moment his dark blade made contact, the spear blurred and slipped past Nowun’s sword.
His eyes widened and he immediately sidestepped.
The spear flew past Nowun, missing by a hair’s margin. However, that fact didn’t seem to bother Serena at all. The Goddess grinned and said, “Do you think it’s that easy to evade my Gungnir?”
Nowun’s eyes widened and he immediately activated Information Concealment before giving his all to a rapid retreat by sending a surge of darkness to launch him backwards.
It was the right decision. An instant after he did that, the space where Nowun was floating shattered, erupting in silver light as Gungnir cycled through every possibility to strike at its target. But that light didn’t last long, and the spear returned to Serena’s hands.
“Hoh? That’s an interesting power.” Serena stared at the fractured space for a moment before waving her hand to restore it. After that, she turned directly towards where Nowun was standing and smiled. “It doesn’t work too well when the other person knows you’re there though.”
Serena spun her spear around and then thrust towards where Nowun was floating. An invisible ripple of energy spread out and then he felt his Information Concealment get forcibly cancelled.
“Tch. I was hoping it would be that easy.”
Drop out of combat and sneak in for a back stab. That would have neatly resolved their little clash. But Information Concealment wasn’t Information ‘Erasure’. Maybe if he had more time to refine it, he could make the skill reach that level, but it seemed that Nowun’s control wasn’t enough to disengage from combat against someone on that Goddess’s level yet.
“You wouldn’t be the first to think that.” Serena raised her spear and said, “It’s your turn now. Go ahead! I’ve got time.”
Nowun’s left eye twitched, but he ignored it. The Goddess could be flippant now, but it wouldn’t stay that way for long.
The Nameless One let out a sigh and then said, “As the beginning has an end, so too does the end have a beginning.”
An invisible current rippled out from Nowun, and something in the world changed. At the same time, his sword blurred, becoming something that looked more like a stick than a sword.
“From chaos springs creation, and yet from creation emerges chaos. Time flows eternally, but determination diverts its path.”
Serena tilted her head, an amused smile on her face. “Speaking to the world to try and change it? No, more like trying to convince your ‘self’ that it is the ‘world’?”
The invisible current that spread from Nowun suddenly stopped. When it did, so too did everything else.
Nowun raised his sword- no, his Faithful Companion. The constant that could anchor his strongest attack.
The Observer and the World. What existed and what was experienced. By inverting the two and replacing ‘memory’ with the world’s ‘record’-
-He could erase anything from existence by striking it from his memory.
A sure-strike kill. Something that could only work because of the Absolute Memory granted by that omnipotent Creator of Earth.
Believing in the conclusion that he had arrived after thousands of trials, Nowun’s Faithful Companion cut through the air and…
She landed on a rooftop after spinning through the air. Xinxin scowled and immediately turned her attention back to her Sifu.
It wasn’t long. At most, it would have been a few second. Yet, in those few seconds, the impossible had occurred.
Her Sifu stood there in the middle of the street. His shadowy sword was lowered, as if he had just finished an attack. The follow-through of a slash.
That much was fine. To that extent, Xinxin could accept. But she couldn’t accept what else was there.
That woman, the one that her Sifu called a ‘Goddess’. She was standing directly in front of him. With a silver spear in one hand and the other around Sifu’s back, she held him like one would a lover. Except that the spear’s tip was piercing through Sifu’s back, its brilliant silver tarnished by crimson.
Silence. It was as if the entire world had frozen over, as if time had stopped.
Xinxin could only stare at the sight with horror.
Sifu. Her violent, mysterious, unstoppable Sifu. Facing off against that indescribable beauty, he… lost?
The Goddess sighed. “That was close… but not enough. You did well this time, my fated opponent, but you were too hasty.”
The nameless man didn’t say a word. His black robes billowed, but the man himself remained frozen, as if a statue. And then, suddenly, dark shadows spread throughout his entire body, wreathing it in black flames.
That broke Xinxin from her daze and she jumped down from the roof. “Sifu!”
She could tell at a glance. Those weren’t ordinary flames. They were like the dark core in her dantian, an existence that would devour any and everything to grow.
The Goddess shifted her gaze towards Xinxin and then sighed. “…I guess I was a bit too hasty as well. To think I would make such a rookie mistake…”
Xinxin couldn’t understand the Goddess’s sentiment, but she didn’t care to. All of her focus was on her Sifu and trying to stop the flames.
“Sifu!” She grabbed his arm and tried to divert the flames to herself. “You can’t die here! There’s too many things you haven’t told me yet! Too many questions you haven’t answered!”
“It’s useless, little Xinxin. That guy did a crazy thing to get here and did another crazy thing to try and kill me. What’s happening now is the consequences of his recklessness. Karma, you could say?”
“Shut up!” Xinxin glared at the Goddess for a moment before turning her attention back to Sifu. “This… I can fix this. Sifu… he can’t die. He’s stronger than this. No, he gave me something like this, so I can fix it. Right, this must be a test. The reason he chose me to be his disciple.”
She was rambling. Xinxin didn’t even know what she was saying anymore, but the words let her avoid the immediate fact of her Sifu’s fading body and instead focus on a way to try and fix it.
Xinxin rotated her cultivation base and tried to draw the flames in using the attractive force of her dark core. Considering the similar natures, it should have worked. Only-
The moment she tried to do that, the flames fled from her grasp. However, in the process, they amplified in intensity. As a result, where Xinxin had just been holding her Sifu’s arm, only air remained.
“No! Sifu, you can’t- this can’t-!”
Xinxin shook her head and forcibly calmed herself. After that, she reached out to her Sifu again. The first time was a fluke. If she tried again-
Before she got the chance to, the flames, along with the sillhouete of her Sifu, vanished. They didn’t fade, die down, or scatter. One moment they were right there and the next, they were gone. Gone, along with her Sifu and any hopes of answers she might have for her questions.
“…Well, this is anticlimactic.”
The sudden words made Xinxin turn to look at the Goddess.
The indescribable beauty sighed and dissolved her spear. “To think he hated me that much. A brilliant plan… if he had reached the level of a god. But as a mortal… Just what did I do to piss him off so much, that he’d resort to that ?”
“You!” Xinxin rounded on the Goddess and formed a qi blade. “This is your fault!”
The Goddess took a step back and held up her hands. “Hey now! You can’t blame me for this, little Xinxin! Your Sifu’s the one who had the crazy idea to-”
Fire, water, earth, wind, metal… even that mysterious energy from those foreigners. Xinxin poured everything she had into her sword and lunged at the Goddess.
The indescribable beauty sighed. “That won’t work. I’m the one who made all of this world’s Laws. The enforcer of Order.” She shook her head and reached out to grab Xinxin’s sword with her right hand. “Something like this, while powerful in terms of this world’s residents, is just-“
“-a light show?”
The Goddess’s eyes widened and she took a step back, clutching her hand. There, golden blood flowed, dripping onto the ground.
Xinxin smirked. “You were saying, ‘Goddess’?”
The Goddess’s eyes narrowed and she stared at Xinxin as if piercing into her soul. After a moment of silence, she laughed. “How hilarious! So I slipped up there too! If it’s like that, no wonder you can hurt me.”
The Goddess shook her head and then smiled. “Tell me. How badly do you want to see Nowun again?”
“You’d better tell me how to get back to him right now, stupid Goddess, or I’ll- huh?”
Xinxin froze and covered her mouth. “What just…?”
The Goddess laughed. “It looks like both of us messed up this round. Who would have thought that a tiny wish could have this much strength? Though, I guess that’s the effect of karma…”
Xinxin couldn’t understand. No. That wasn’t true. She understood, but Xinxin didn’t. And yet she was Xinxin. And Xinxin was… her?
A splitting headache. The world around her looked like it was falling apart. Distorting, twisting, breaking… No. It didn’t just look like it was falling apart. It actually was falling apart.
“Hm… It seems like I’ve been here too long. I guess I’ll need to plant that tree after all to give this world a bit more structure. But as for you, the girl who stuck to her heartfelt feelings across both lives, I might as well give you a reward.”
The Goddess smiled and waved. “See you in a few thousand years! Ah, and try to find Wang Tian. I’m sure he’ll be happy to help you find your Master again. I’m rooting for you! …No pun intended.”
Before Xinxin could ask the Goddess what she meant, there was an explosion. A massive surge of energy, the result of the world’s order collapsing…
And then Xinxin’s consciousness faded away and she knew nothing else.
Serena stared at the board. Her eyes, flickering with all the colors of the rainbow also flicked back and forth between the chess pieces and her opponent.
“This… what the heck?”
The Goddess blinked and rubbed her eyes. Yet, what she saw didn’t change at all.
“Shocked.” Serena shook her head and stared at the Nameless One. “Were you planning this from the start?”
“…You could say that.”
Serena turned her gaze back at the chess board. The pieces were all the same. None had been added or removed from play since the last round. And yet… “How did you get them to change sides?”
That was the difference. All of a sudden, half of her pieces had changed control back to her opponent. Her knights, her bishops, half of her pawns, and one rook. Not only that, but the pawn that her opponent moved last round had become another queen.
The Nameless One smiled. “Have you ever heard of a Xanatos Gambit?”
“Let’s just say that every outcome from that point on was favorable for me. And now…”
The Nameless One picked up his new queen and moved it to the king’s side. “From this point on, it’s the end game.”
3:28 – Recollection
Space and time was locked down. Not only that, but a domineering presence that was both divine and cruel descended upon the world.
Nowun noticed it first, mainly because his ability to return failed. The only times that happened were when an overwhelming force had appeared. But considering his current abilities, the only one capable of that…
“Damn. That Goddess noticed, huh?”
A deceptively kind and nonchalant voice echoed through the land. At the same time, the Immortal Door appeared in the sky. As if a scene from rapture or the end of days, a pair of pearly gates descended from the heavens, stopping above Heavenspan.
Nowun could sense the astonishment from the mortals and experts in the city below. He even saw a few foolish ones race towards the door, as if thinking they could leap to the heavens in one go and become Immortals.
Iridescent lightning scattered, bolts of energy that contained every color imaginable. Not only tribulation lightning, but lightning that carried energies and laws of other elements as well. Paradox granted form on pure whimsy of an omnipotent goddess.
The foolish ones that tried to reach the door were vaporized in an instant, with not even their soul remaining.
Fortunately, it seemed like he wasn’t the one to cause that goddess to arrive. If it was, the door would have appeared directly above him. In other words, in the center of the city. But for some reason, the door had descended near the entrance… where he had left those experimental memory copies?
Nowun narrowed his eyes and focused his awareness to see what was happening. However, a few moments later, he didn’t need to.
To think that time travel could bunch up karma so chaotically like this! Not only that, but for you, pretty girl, to not only escape my grasp this time but become so strong… It’s fun!
A female voice that echoed like a choir. Not one, but many. And those words resounded not in the air, but in the souls of every being present.
Nowun grit his teeth.
The Goddess that sent him to the new world with vague circumstances. The one who branded his soul without his notice and pretended to be his ally. The one who he should have been wary of, was wary of, but then was fooled into complacency.
“…It’s still a bit early.”
He could sense it now. Was it because she had been holding back in the past out of courtesy, or because he had grown stronger that he could tell? The being hiding behind those doors, the Goddess of the world, her power was almost limitless.
The only reason that he was ‘free’ at the moment was because she was unaware. Because he had done the unthinkable, both to himself and her.
Nowun glared at the pearly gates, the Immortal Door that had stopped above Heavenspan’s entrance, and then decided to head off. While he didn’t know what exactly had caused her to notice, it seemed like it didn’t involve him. Now, all he had to do was-
Something was off.
A connection? A slight tugging on his wrist. No, his right hand. Like an invisible tether.
Confused, Nowun turned towards the source only to see his disciple standing at the other end. That girl who was too beautiful for her own good, to the extent where her misfortune was great enough that it wasn’t an exaggeration to say she garnered heaven’s envy.
Xinxin stood beneath the Immortal Door with blank eyes. Was it because of the energy emitted from beyond that door? For some reason, his disciple had reverted a bit in physical appearance. If she had appeared to be a young woman when he saw her last, now she had returned to her original appearance of a young girl on the cusp of adulthood.
But that wasn’t what caught Nowun’s gaze or attention. Instead, it was the sensation emanating from her, a familiar mix of chaos and darkness that shouldn’t exist.
“…Damned disciple. Always causing me trouble…”
First her clan, then her fiance, and now her… if he wasn’t certain that he had removed himself from the grand scheme of Fate, Nowun might have been upset. Instead, he was annoyed.
The Immortal Door opened, and an indescribable beauty descended.
At the same time, Nowun moved.
Someone was standing in front of her. A bewitching beauty with golden hair and sparkling eyes- no, a delicate beauty with silky hair the color of the night sky and dark eyes glittering like stars… No. Even that was wrong. An arrogant beauty with crimson hair, an ordinary beauty with dark brown hair, a delicate young princess, a mature older sister…
A woman beyond description descended from the sky and stood before Xinxin. The moment she appeared, the guards vanished into black smoke, as if phantoms upon sunlight. As for the others, the men, women, children and elderly that were attempting to flee, all of them stood as if frozen in time. Their gazes were drawn to the woman, their expressions blank as if their souls were whisked away.
Xinxin was no exception. Staring at the indescribable beauty slowly approaching her, Xinxin couldn’t do a thing. However, it wasn’t because she was spellbound by that beauty. Instead, it was because of what she could remember.
That person, that approaching woman… it wasn’t the first time Xinxin had seen her. Or was it? Whatever the case, that divinity about her, that aura… Xinxin could definitely remember that. A light so bright that it burned, something that could etch itself deep into the soul and never leave.
“Hm… though quite younger and with a trained body, your beauty is still one to praise, Zhan Xinxin 1 . While your mother was pure in soul, it seems you are quite pure in your beauty.”
Words spoken as if a song. They lulled, they bewitched… but somehow, Xinxin managed to maintain her consciousness. The reason…
The indescribable beauty giggled. “Oh yes! I was looking for someone to turn into an angel, but couldn’t find anybody with a pure enough soul in the present, so I thought I’d take a look back in the past. I didn’t think that would change things up so much though! It was a pleasant surprise to find someone that managed to reach me through that old backdoor. Though, the way he did it was kind of boring.”
Xinxin’s frozen mind began to stir. Memories that she didn’t have, shouldn’t have slowly returned. Like a fractured jade, pieces drawn back beyond time.
A sheltered life foolishly chasing after a brilliant young man. Trials, tribulations, and a path rewarded with nothing but regrets.
A naïve trust shattered again and again as a man with average looks and cold eyes used her in countless experiments, each ending in her death.
Pain, agony, despair, resentment…
But there was something else that resonated beyond the dark emotions. Something that stirred from within the chaotic swirl of darkness.
“Now… I’m really curious how you ended up like this, so I’m going to be taking that body of yours. Don’t worry! You won’t feel a thing! Well… not like it would matter anyway?”
The woman stepped forward. Though her appearance shifted, the gleam in her eyes, the expression of a predator that found a new prey to toy with, didn’t. She reached out towards Xinxin’s face, as if to brush her cheeks in assurance.
But before that woman could-
“Sorry to disappoint, Goddess, but she won’t be going anywhere with you.”
-A man in black robes pulled Xinxin away.
“S-Sifu?” Xinxin hesitantly called out. After a moment, she shook her head. “No. You’re-“
“Quiet, girl. No matter how many times I repeat this, you always seem to be the cause of all my troubles… Did you save my life or something in the past? That’s the only way to explain this mess…”
Nowun couldn’t remember anything beyond his arrival in the world and fragments of general knowledge. It was… possible that they had karma from before then. But even if that was the case…
“Leave. This will be the last thing I do for you and our debt is cleared.”
“From this day forth, you are no longer my disciple. Now, begone!”
A surge of darkness wrapped Xinxin and then tossed her through the air at high speeds. To a normal person, it was fatal. But she would be fine. After all that he gave her, if she still managed to die from that, it was her fate.
But more importantly than all of that…
Nowun turned back to the Goddess and said, “That’s odd. I would have thought you would object.”
“Why would I stop such an amusing act?”
“Amusing, huh?” Nowun nodded and then focused his energy into his right hand. “Yeah, that sounds like you. This entire world’s just a play, isn’t it?”
Serena tapped her chin. “Hm… well, if it isn’t a play then what is it? Everything here is just a stage I setup and the pieces just dolls for me to play with. Although…” She narrowed her eyes. “You’re different. I don’t know you.”
Nowun’s eyes widened for a fraction, but he managed to conceal it. “You don’t… but I know you, Serena. And you… you have a lot to answer for.” He clenched his right hand, causing a black sword to form. The blade he had carefully crafted to clash against her divinity.
Though, facing her like that… he had some doubts.
Serena’s eyes flitted towards the blade, and then back to Nowun. “I don’t remember earning the ire of someone like you… or even meeting you. But now that I’m seeing you face to face… I have to ask. Are you a time traveler?”
Black light cut through space, tearing it apart as it surged towards Serena. But, before it could reach her, an invisible barrier emerged. Standing unharmed beneath it, Serena smiled. “No need to answer. I can tell from that attack.” She smiled, an expression of pure joy. “You did well to erase it, but I can still feel traces of my power within your own. You’re it, aren’t you? The one who I’m meant to face? My ‘fated’ opponent!”
Nowun didn’t respond. Instead, he carefully gathered his strength and watched Serena.
The Goddess laughed and held out her hands. “Come on then! Scorn me and try to kill me if you can, my unnamed foe!” With those words said, Serena charged towards Nowun, manic glee in her eyes.
3:27 – Karma – VII
Mu Tian’s severed arm stained the ground crimson as blood continued to leak from its wound.
Xinxin stifled her scream, but couldn’t help scrambling back. Her emotions were flurried, shifting between guilt, disgust, and fear. Guilt because she had likely caused Mu Tian’s death. Disgust because the arm was still moving somewhat. And fear because she didn’t know what to do.
The streets of Heavenspan were becoming noisy. Whether because of Xinxin’s scream or the ensuing chaos, the people of the city were finally waking up and stepping outside to see what was happening. And when they did, screams and shouts continued where Xinxin left off.
The din helped Xinxin focus. She jumped to her feet and brushed off her dress before spurring her mind to figure out what to do next.
The lightning storm over the central palace continued to crackle. If anything, it was getting larger. Perhaps because of that, the powerful experts that had been heading away from it ignored Xinxin, even after the fight that had just occurred.
That meant she had some time. She didn’t have to worry about fighting at that moment.
Then… if Mu Tian was gone and she was alone, what should she do? Run? Where to? She didn’t have any major plans- No. She did. Xinxin had just forgotten for a bit since Mu Tian distracted her.
“Sifu.” Xinxin turned to face the central palace. “This is because of you, isn’t it?”
Her Sifu. The one who saved her, taught her, abandoned her… complicated emotions churned in her heart as she thought about him. However, those emotions all led to the same decision.
“I need to find him.”
Find him and hear the truth from his own words. Why he killed her clan. Why he helped her. Why he abandoned her. Why he left behind that manual and letter… and why he was chasing after that mysterious woman.
Xinxin nodded, her path now clear… mentally. Physically, the streets had become flooded with people running away. Despite how the sun had just risen not long ago, the chaos in the city had caused the people to panic. Men and women, young and old, ran down the street towards Xinxin and the checkout.
She quickly moved to the side to avoid them, and then started making her way deeper into the city.
And then the scent of blood filled the air.
Xinxin’s eyes widened and she spun around to see what was going on.
At the entryway to the checkpoint, an elderly woman lay slumped on the ground, a pool of blood spreading beneath her. Standing in front of that woman was the same guard that had led Xinxin and Mu Tian inside Heavenspan. His spear was held at his side, the tip gleaming with freshly spilled blood.
“M-Monster! What are you doing?!”
A man shouted and pointed at the guard.
The guard’s response was to spin his spear and toss it. Lightning crackled, along with white light, and the man who called out was turned into a pile of ash.
Gasps and screams filled the streets.
The guard straightened himself after throwing his spear and then said, “Orders. No one is to leave the city unobserved.”
Another man stepped forward. He seemed to be from a martial sect, wearing a black robe with a crest embroidering it and a sheathed sword at his side. The man drew his blade and then flared his cultivation base. From the energy, he seemed to be at the Core Formation Stage. “A mere guard dares to prevent us from leaving?”
“Orders. No one is to leave the city undisturbed.” The guard repeated his words. But then there was an echo. At least there seemed to be. But then the guard was joined by others, each armed with weapons flaring with light and crackling with energy. The entire force that had been stationed at the checkpoint began emerging.
The man’s eyes grew wide and he took a step back. “H-Hold on a minute-“
“ORDERS. NO ONE IS TO LEAVE THE CITY UNDISTURBED.”
A chorus of voices joined as one. When those words were said, guards stepped forward to attack. With all of the martial techniques and energy being emitted, the crowd of people would be turned to dust in an instant.
That was their fate. The misfortune for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“Argh! Sifu better not leave while I’m doing this!”
…Xinxin couldn’t help but run out to stop it.
Chaos. Bloodshed. Massacre.
The nameless man closed his eyes and sorted through the memories of the Saints that he had slain. Especially that Bai Wei. As the oldest and most powerful among the Bai experts, his memories were the most useful in answering his questions.
“…So the White Tiger was dying, huh? Not only that, but the other beasts as well. The pillars maintaining this realm are on the verge of death… That would explain why that bird folded so easily when I saw it last.”
It was interesting information, although it made him curious as to whether it was because of his presence, or if it was bound to happen regardless.
The nameless man… Nowun opened his eyes.
White lightning crackled around him, its intense light bright enough to rival the sun. At the same time, the White Tiger’s aura flared, giving the impression that it was going to descend from the heavens.
Nowun was floating in the sky above the central palace. Using the White Tiger Roar had blown it apart, leaving behind the swarm of lightning that still shrouded him. Below, Nowun could see the Bai Clan running around in a panic. Yet, the guards he had left behind were doing as he instructed, slaughtering anyone that tried to leave.
“Hm…” Nowun cast his gaze across the horizon. “A few managed to escape, but they aren’t too important.”
Around three or so of the Bai Clan’s Saints had managed to evade the White Tiger Roar, but they were among the weaker Saints. It would be a trifling matter to end them… but Nowun got what he wanted.
Flexing his right hand caused the white lightning to pulse in time with it. A single thought allowed Nowun to direct it where he wished, like a tame kitten eager to please.
“It was inevitable, huh?”
Maybe since the White Tiger had been left behind by that goddess to watch over the ‘realm’ they were in, it had contained a spark of divinity, the same as what the goddess had burned into his soul in the first place to grant him his ‘skills’. And with that spark, processed with the ‘cultivation techniques’ that Nowun had learned… he was ready.
But… “A little extra preparation never hurt.”
There were three divine beasts left, as well as the Yellow Emperor.
Things would get troublesome if he stayed in the current time, so he decided to start back at the beginning. He couldn’t bridge the gap quite yet between waking up in Xia Dynasty and Asifant, but a few years time was plenty.
Like that, Nowun closed his eyes, preparing to time leap back to when that disciple of his first found him. Only now he would leave her behind, severing the karma between them for good. That One Tin guy seemed capable enough, despite his disciple’s misgivings.
As a favor though, he might as well resolve the issue about her mother and the Zhan Clan’s plan to rally against the heavens to get her back. Any chance he got to ruin that Goddess’s script was one he wouldn’t miss.
Just as Nowun gathered up his memories to recall the past… reality suddenly shuddered.
A myriad of lights and attacks surged across the checkpoint’s doorway and out to the crowd of people standing in the middle of the street.
In the brief moment before the crowd was wiped out, Xinxin jumped out in front of it. Since she moved on impulse, she didn’t have a plan or a weapon to defend herself. However, she trusted in the capabilities of the foundation her Sifu had laid in her dantian, the powerful black core that devoured any energy she came into contact with. Not only that, but the fact that the sword that Bai Yuyan stabbed her with didn’t pierce her clothes, let alone her skin, gave Xinxin the confidence that she would survive.
Blinding light filled Xinxin’s vision as she stood before the crowd. Behind her, she could hear gasps of surprise and horror. However, she didn’t pay attention to that. She couldn’t afford to.
A wall of light, filled with spears, swords, and countless other weapons. If any of those got past her, people would die. Therefore, before that could happen, she had to direct them all to herself. Focus all the attacks upon her body, and then somehow disassemble and neutralize the force behind them.
She could do it.
Xinxin activated her spiritual sense and locked on to every attack moving her way. At the same time, she rotated her cultivation base and allowed the dark core in her dantian to go wild, releasing its attractive force.
Intense focus and determination caused the attacks to converge on her, just like Xinxin wanted. However, she had underestimated the deluge of power behind the attacks.
She lost her breath. Every blood vessel in her body expanded as her meridians desperately tried to channel the energy towards her dantian. Fortunately, the dark core didn’t seem to have a limit on how much it could absorb. However, the experience reminded Xinxin of the time that her Sifu forced her to eat that pill.
Her body felt like it was burning, indescribable pain welling up in every pore of her body down to her bones. Yet, a comforting was spreading as well, numbing the pain and quenching the flames.
After what seemed like an eternity to Xinxin, it was done. Or so she believed. Just as the last drop of energy entered the dark core, something else did as well. A hint of indiscernible power. Like a drop of clear poison in a glass of water, it was absorbed by the dark core…
And then everything went black.
A forest with gray mist obscuring the skies. Chaotic darkness devouring anything and everything to refine itself. Karma spun on itself over and over again as time continuously returned to the origin. A powerless soul that slowly gained strength through facing a beast that could end civilization overnight.
A barrage of scenes, images, sensations.
Xinxin saw a beautiful young woman with golden hair and pointed ears. She saw a dragon of pure darkness, driven mad with grief. She saw a world in ruins, an ancient forest burned to the ground. She saw a woman with honey-colored hair and jaded green eyes. She saw that same woman, but with a calmer gaze and hidden feelings.
She felt the apathy of a nameless man. She felt an all-powerful force slowly creep into his soul and try to claim it. She felt how he resolved that by fragmenting his very soul.
She remembered the fury he felt as he realized the truth. She remembered the resolve he had to kill the gentle young woman with golden hair that he originally saved.
She remembered the anguish he felt as he obtained the power to govern the world, only to give up his longest companion in exchange.
And then she heard a voice.
Now isn’t this an interesting development? I knew that it was a good idea to send that Wang Tian back another time.
3:26 – Karma – VI
“Tch. I knew it wouldn’t be that easy.”
The nameless man pulled his sword out from the White Tiger’s heart and frowned. The black blade thrummed with energy, having drained the essence of the White Tiger, but continued to emit an attractive force, as if still unsatisfied.
But before the nameless man could think about it more, a dozen powerful energy signatures flared. Saint-level auras swiftly approached, each stronger than the last. The Bai Clan’s finest didn’t intend to take the White Tiger’s death lying down, it seemed.
The air rippled and suddenly became denser. An intangible change in the nature of space itself. A quick probe revealed that the chamber had been locked down, preventing spatial transfer. A powerful formation empowered by those same approaching experts.
It would take a few moments for even him to break it and escape… not that he intended to.
Instead of dwelling on the approaching experts, the nameless man took a look around.
In front of him, the White Tiger’s corpse lay slouched upon a pristine cushion the color of freshly fallen snow. Yet, like the tiger’s own pelt, that cushion was slowly turning crimson, dyed a deep red from the blood spilling from the tiger’s fatal wound.
Besides that, there were eight pillars in the chamber, arranged in a circle around the tiger. The nameless man believed that they were originally meant to protect the White Tiger by serving as the foundation for a defensive formation. Unfortunately, to him who could hide from the world itself, it was meaningless.
…Well, not entirely.
The eight pillars suddenly flared, revealing complex patterns and symbols that resonated with each other to form a barrier on top of the one locking down space. At the same time, whatever formation it powered had hidden the pair of doors that the nameless man had used to enter the White Tiger’s inner sanctum.
“Those guys were really prepared, huh?”
The nameless man admired the caution. With the double-layered defense, it would have been impossible for anyone to escape before the Bai Clan’s forces arrived. The spatial lock made it impossible for anyone below the level of a Saint to move, and even if one had that power, they would be suppressed quite a bit. Then, to escape, they would have to break the eight pillars to reveal the exit, or shatter the barrier itself. Yet, from the aura emanating off the pillars, that would require overpowering the layered strength from twelve different Saint-level experts.
In short, barring someone that had broken through the Door of Immortality, no one could escape.
Fortunately for him, he was exactly that ‘no one’.
“Hm… I might as well experiment with what that One Tin showed me.”
A realm separate from the physical world and yet interacted with it all the same. A place where ‘karma’ overlapped and entangled with ‘fate’. The nameless man dismissed his sword and then focused on that peculiar sensation from when he met ‘One Tin’. The moment he did, countless threads and colorful lines filled his field of vision.
Curiously, none of them interacted with him. The few that did twisted and fell apart the moment they drew near.
It was odd, but that could be saved for later. At the moment, he couldn’t maintain the realm for very long since his familiarity with it was still low. Only a few breaths time… maybe a minute, tops.
The nameless man turned his attention to the White Tiger and held out his left hand. “If my hypothesis is correct, then…”
The myriad lines of karma surrounding the White Tiger’s corpse frayed. In their place, dark threads swiftly formed, wrapping up the corpse like a spider did its prey. The moment that the White Tiger was completely covered, the nameless man clenched his left hand.
The dark threads condensed, and then the White Tiger vanished into oblivion. At the same time, the nameless man felt a peculiar aura form in the depths of his being, ferocious and crackling with energy.
He was surprised, but didn’t have the time to dwell on that. The moment the aura formed, he slipped back into the normal world and faced the suppression of the barrier and spatial lock again.
When he reemerged in reality, a powerful aura surged. The strongest of the Saint-level experts approaching him.
Before the nameless man could react, space ripped open and someone emerged in front of him.
It was a heroic man wearing silver robes. Long black hair tied in a ponytail fluttered behind him, shifting along with his robes in an unseen wind. His sharp gray eyes narrowed like swords and he swept his gaze across the chamber before settling on the nameless man standing before the White Tiger’s cushion.
“You,” the heroic man said. “What did you do with the White Tiger?”
The nameless man smirked. He used his Absolute Memory and pulled out the useful information from the White Tiger’s remains. “Isn’t it obvious, Bai Wei?”
The heroic man, Bai Wei, frowned. “This…”
The nameless man stepped forward and swept out his arms. “I am the White Tiger.”
As if waiting to be acknowledged, when the nameless man spoke those words, a divine aura emerged. The White Tiger’s own spiritual essence filled the room, causing sparks of white lightning to form and crackle.
Bai Wei’s eyes widened just a fraction before narrowing again. “No. You are not.” The strongest of the Bai Clan’s Saints turned his body, shifting into a combat stance, and held out a fist. “I know not what manner of devil you are to have usurped the Divine Beast’s powers, but you will fall here!”
Bai Wei charged. A towering silhouette formed behind him, mirroring his movements, and pulled back its fist.
At the same time, the nameless man felt the rest of the Bai Clan experts arrive, as well as a surge of energy as countless techniques were focused on him.
The nameless man sighed. “Well, I tried.”
Bai Wei arrived in front of the nameless man and thrust out his fist. The towering figure behind him did so as well, sending forth a blow that seemed to twist time and space itself as it moved.
In the face of that attack, as well as the impending damage from the others, the nameless man didn’t move. Instead, he simply smiled.
Bai Wei’s expression flickered. Did he sense something?
Even if he did-
“It’s too late! White Tiger Roar!”
The nameless man’s smile turned into a grin and then there was an explosion of divine lightning.
Xinxin stumbled as a powerful aura swept through the air. Just as she was about to fall to the ground, Mu Tian reached out and grabbed her arm, holding her steady. Ordinarily, Xinxin would have scolded him for that, but instead she turned towards the center of the city.
White lightning crackled above the central palace, as if divine tribulation had descended upon Heavenspan as a whole. From that place, five men and six women flew through the air, rapidly making an escape. Yet, they couldn’t escape the bolts of energy pursuing them.
The men and women closest to the central palace were struck down in a flash of light, evaporating in an instant. The ones further away were more fortunate, but were still struck by lightning. While not fatal, their skin was charred black, their robes burnt, and their hair frazzled.
That was startling in itself, enough to catch the eye. But more than that, Xinxin could sense that those fleeing men and women were the ones that had locked onto her earlier. And only half of them remained. Just what could-
“Let us go, Lady Xian.”
Mu Tian tugged onto her arm and started walking back towards the checkpoint. “We can return after the situation has calmed down.”
Xinxin didn’t move. Not because she was stunned by the events happening, but because she felt something else.
Beyond the auras of the experts she felt earlier, there was something else. An intangible presence that clung in the air, something that tugged at her heart. A familiarity that had been etched onto her very being.
“Sifu?” Xinxin muttered that word and took a step forward.
“Wait!” Mu Tian tightened his grip around Xinxin’s arm and pulled her back. “What are you thinking, Lady Xian?”
The act broke Xinxin out of her daze. She blinked and then realized that Mu Tian was holding her back. She yanked her arm, trying to get Mu Tian to let go. “Release me!”
“No!” Mu Tian shook his head. “Did you forget where we are? If you cause trouble here, we will be facing twelve Saints! At once!”
Xinxin managed to wrench her arm away and said, “So what? Do you think any of them will be in fighting form after that?” Xinxin pointed towards the central palace.
“What did you call me, Mu Tian!?” Xinxin’s energy flared, releasing a bit of her cultivation base.
“I called you a fool! No, not just a fool, a foolish young girl! Just because there is a crisis does not mean that the Bai Clan’s twelve Saints are incapable! And what do you think will happen if you, a Saint-level expert, suddenly-“
Mu Tian’s eyes widened.
Before Xinxin could react, Mu Tian charged towards her and shoved her aside. At the same time, he drew his blade and slashed through the air.
A crisp note resounded before turning into a shrill screech as Mu Tian’s sword clashed with another. Shortly after, a calm female voice called out. “So there are others involved! You concealed yourselves well, but do not think that the Bai Clan will let you leave unscathed for harming the White Tiger!”
Mu Tian grit his teeth and shoved his attacked away before pivoting back towards Xinxin’s side. He glanced at her in the corner of his eyes and said, “See why I call you a fool!?”
Xinxin coughed, and then began forming a blade from her qi. “S-So what? All we have to do is fight!” With that said, she turned to look at their latest opponent.
It was a woman. Like Xinxin, she was beautiful. However, Xinxin felt that there was something off about that beauty. Pure, jade-like skin and profound blue eyes. Silky raven hair fashioned in a bun and held in place by a butterfly pin. The woman wore silver robes and wielded a pure white blade in her left hand, the one that she had used to attack earlier.
Powerful energy fluctuations emanating from her and the disturbance in the air revealed that the woman wasn’t a simple opponent either. She raised her sword and prepared to strike…
And then Xinxin realized what was off about the woman’s beauty. When she did, Xinxin laughed.
The woman’s blue eyes narrowed. “You dare laugh at I, Bai Yuyan?”
Xinxin shook her head and said, “Who wouldn’t at an old hag who hides her wrinkles with a transformation technique?”
“Xinxin!” Mu Tian called out a warning.
The moment that Xinxin’s words finished, Bai Yuyan charged. Her sword flashed a pure white and cut through the air like lightning- no, faster than that.
Xinxin couldn’t react.
Mu Tian moved to intercept, but he was a beat too slow, the result of Xinxin’s absurd declaration.
As a result, Bai Yuyan’s sword pierced Xinxin’s chest.
At least, it should have. Yet, instead of stabbing Xinxin’s heart and causing a spray of blood, the white sword halted a finger’s width before Xinxin’s chest, and with it, so too did Bai Yuyan.
Everyone froze, staring at where the sword tip halted. Mu Tian, Bai Yuyan, even Xinxin. The sudden attack and the unexpected defense made everyone unable to react. Not only was the sword and its wielder stopped in place, but, starting where the sword came in contact with Xinxin’s robes, it was slowly being ground away, turning into white dust.
Xinxin recovered from the shock first and then stabbed her blade through the woman’s chest. Unlike Xinxin, Bai Yuyan didn’t have any sort of protection. Blood sprayed from the wound and the Saintess staggered back, clutching at her chest.
Xinxin stepped forward to finish the job. However, before she could, Mu Tian swung his sword and split Bai Yuyan in half. Unlike Xinxin’s slash, no blood scattered with his attack. Instead, the air seemed to distort and then Bai Yuyan’s body crumbled into ash.
Xinxin dismissed her blade and rounded on Mu Tian. “I had it under control! What do you think- Hey!”
Mu Tian grabbed Xinxin’s right wrist with his left arm. “We leave, now!” With his free hand, Mu Tian cut through the air. Space, which had been weakened from his earlier slash, completely tore open.
Mu Tian didn’t respond. Instead, he turned towards the spatial crack and jumped into it.
He must have been expecting Xinxin to follow him. Whether because he thought she would realize his intentions, or because he thought she trusted him enough to just go with whatever he did, Mu Tian moved without another thought.
He shouldn’t have.
As Mu Tian’s body entered the spatial crack, Xinxin pulled back. It caused Mu Tian to spin around to face her, most of his body inside the spatial crack except for his left arm, and for him to lose his grip.
Spatial cracks were fundamentally unstable. While they could be used for traveling and quick escape, it took concentration to both open one and control it enough to direct its destination.
The sudden jolt from Xinxin wrenching back distracted Mu Tian, and he lost control over the spatial crack.
All Xinxin had the time to see was Mu Tian’s face distort in shock before the crack vanished, sewn shut as the world’s natural laws closed the torn seam in space.
Xinxin stumbled back, suddenly losing the resistance from Mu Tian pulling her. She collapsed on the ground, causing dirt to cover her violet dress.
And then something flopped onto the ground next to her. Mu Tian’s arm, cleanly severed at the shoulder and still reaching out towards her.
3:25 – Karma – V
The nameless man clutched his head. “Tch. I’ll need to work on that soon.”
He managed to hide the traces of that One Tin guy stepping into another realm and using a conceptual attack beyond the world’s limit, but the backlash of it gave him a headache. Even at that moment, it felt like a dagger was piercing his eye, digging into his frontal lobe.
The nameless man sighed and glanced at his surroundings.
Although he had arrived late at night, he managed to find a room in an inn within Heavenspan. While it was in a seedy location, a few alleyways deep into the slums, a show of force was more than enough to stave off trouble.
The room he found himself in was cramped. Rickety wooden paneling, a cracked window, and a moldy mattress. Completely unsanitary for mortals and only barely hospitable for cultivators. Of course, he didn’t have any intentions to sleep, so the quality of the room didn’t bother him too much.
The nameless man shifted his black robe and then walked over to the broken window to peer outside. A brick wall and dark alleyway greeted him. The room he had was on the second floor, so there was a bit of a drop before the ground. Perfect for people with dubious intentions, or those trying to be discreet.
It was still dark, so the alleyway was hidden in shadows. However, the first rays of light weren’t too far away. If he acted now, it would be a mess.
“…Well, let’s try it anyway.”
If his suspicions about what he learned from that One Tin guy was right, as well as the true nature of the girl he took in as a disciple, then a plan C had just popped up, one better than trying to fight his way through the world’s most powerful beings just to open a door.
“I might as well get everything I can out of this run.”
The nameless man opened his window and jumped out onto the ground below. He controlled his descent with black qi, making him look every bit a villain. Paired with his pale skin and cold eyes, any onlooker would have screamed in terror.
But even if they looked his way, that scene would have never occurred, all traces of his being hidden away from the world itself.
The nameless man focused on the powerful auras emanating in the air. To the citizens of Heavenspan, it was a reassurance. To visitors, it was a warning. But to him, it served as a clear road map to his destination.
“That way.” Muttering those words to himself, the nameless man began walking while going over his objectives. “Kill a few Saints, send those guards on a rampage to disrupt city order, then do a speedrun on the beasts. If I mess up then it’s time for plan C.”
The nameless man tilted his head, cracking his neck, and said, “Might as well go all out then.” A pitch black sword formed in his right hand, laced with pulsing crimson lines. In the next instant, a dark blur shot through the air towards the central palace.
Night was slowly turning into day as the sun’s bright disk began sneaking over the horizon and shining its warm rays. But in spite of that comfortable light, Xinxin put on frosty expression and pointedly ignored Mu Tian as she walked towards Heavenspan’s checkpoint.
“Lady Xian. You must believe me! It was not my intent to do anything untoward!” Mu Tian called out from behind Xinxin. “You are in great danger, and I was acting to protect you!”
Xinxin scoffed, but didn’t react in any other way.
Great danger? Protect? Sure. That could be true. She would place it at about… 70%. However, despite the fact that Mu Tian was acting half-decent now and even went so far as to forsake his name, Xinxin still didn’t like him.
…It was irrational and petty, but that was what she felt.
Xinxin slightly turned her head and gave a sidelong glance towards Mu Tian. Perhaps because he had suppressed his cultivation base again, and because Xinxin had reflexively slapped him with all her might, Mu Tian’s face had a bright red hand print on his cheek.
Despite keeping her glance subtle, Mu Tian noticed. He sped up and tried to walk alongside Xinxin. “You have to listen to me, Lady Xian-“
Xinxin didn’t want to hear him so she picked up her pace. Since they were near the gate, she didn’t do anything unladylike as run, but she took wide enough strides to make her point known.
Mu Tian sighed. “Very well, Lady Xian. But at least slow down your pace so that we can enter together. Even a petulant lady like yourself knows better than to rush off without her guard, right?”
“Well, I would have thought a ‘guard’ would have known better than to act so intimate with his charge, but heaven has given us both plenty of surprises today, hasn’t it?”
Mu Tian sighed again and muttered, “You have no idea.”
“What?” Xinxin rounded on the former Wang scion. “Keeping more secrets from me?”
“But I just- haah. It is nothing, Lady Xian.”
“…It better be.”
The rest of the journey towards Heavenspan’s checkpoint went on in an uncomfortable silence. Xinxin refused to say anything else since she was still irritated at Mu Tian. What was wrong with him anyway? It was two steps forward and three steps back with the guy. Maybe she should just leave him behind after all?
…No. Even if she didn’t like Mu Tian, he was still useful and seemed… somewhat sincere. Not only that, but he was a powerful expert who placed her interests above his own to an irritating degree.
Even if her Sifu could be heartless and leave her behind, she couldn’t quite find it in herself to do the same to Mu Tian.
“Tch.” What was the benefit of having her karma stolen if she couldn’t even sever ties with the one she had disdained for years now?
The pair finally arrived at the doors to Heavenspan’s checkpoint. A single guard stood at the ready. Bamboo armor covered his body while he held a spear at his side.
Was it because he had been out for too long? The guard simply stared at Xinxin and Mu Tian with blank eyes as they approached.
Xinxin smiled and waved her hand. “Hello there! You wouldn’t mind letting us into the city, would you?”
Mu Tian nudged Xinxin’s back and whispered, “Haughty lady, remember?”
Xinxin was startled, but managed to turn that into an impatient glare. “What? Do you dare stand in my, Lady Xian’s way?”
Maybe it was her current appearance, crimson hair and sharp phoenix eyes, or maybe it was her natural disposition, buried beneath the years of being meek and obedient. Either way, Xinxin’s words came out exactly like a haughty lady would speak.
Even so, the guard didn’t react. No, he did react. It was slight, but his gaze focused a bit and he turned to look at Xinxin.
At that time, Mu Tian stepped forward and held out a pair of jade slips. “Here you go.”
The guard took the jade slips and observed them for a bit before handing them back. “Very well. Lady Xian and Mu Tian, envoys from the Eastern Plains.” With those lines said, the guard stepped aside. The moment he did, the doors behind him swung open to reveal a place that looked like a barrack.
Cots lined the walls and various guards stood around on standby. However, the moment the doors opened, all the eyes were trained on Xinxin and Mu Tian.
Despite being used to attention, the intense gaze of those guards made Xinxin take a step back.
The sound of a sword being partially drawn caused the guards to look away.
Xinxin glanced back to see Mu Tian with his hand placed over his sword.
The former Wang scion caught Xinxin’s gaze and smiled. Probably to reassure her.
Xinxin scoffed and turned her head away. Still, she appreciated the effort. Not that she would let him have the satisfaction of knowing that.
The guard who let the pair in didn’t react to the exchange. However, he did wait. When the rest of the guards went back to what they were doing and Mu Tian sheathed his sword, the guard said, “Follow me. I will lead the way.”
Without any other warning, not caring whether the two followed him or not, the guard began walking through the room, as well as his peers that were mostly just standing around.
Xinxin quickly walked after the guard. Mu Tian did as well, although he remained behind Xinxin as a man of his assumed station usually would.
The rest of the affair went smoothly. The guard led Xinxin and Mu Tian into the city while the other guards gave them no more attention.
It made Xinxin wonder what was on the jade slips Mu Tian presented, but she decided to let that bit of curiosity be since it wasn’t too important. More likely than not, Mu Tian probably just prepared it with his deep connections in the past. Probably for philandering…
The guard eventually led the pair to another set of doors. After opening it, the guard said, “Enjoy your stay in Heavenspan.” With that said, the guard walked past Xinxin and Mu Tian, returning to his post.
Xinxin frowned at the callous treatment. “Do guards always act like this, Mu Tian?”
“Would they dare to act any other way in front of a noble when they are mere guardsmen?”
“True…” Thinking back to her own clan, the guards usually acted like that when any young master or lady showed up with their entourage. “But didn’t they seem a bit strange to you?”
Xinxin frowned, trying to figure out what was wrong. After a moment though, she decided it didn’t matter. “Never mind that. First of all, let’s find a proper place to stay for the night… or what’s left of it.”
She stepped forward to cross the doorway onto the main street.
“Ah, wait Lady Xian-“
Xinxin’s foot touched down onto the white marble stone used to pave Heavenspan’s streets. The moment it did, a dozen Saint-level auras pressed down on her.
She gasped and fell to her knees. However, the auras vanished as soon as they came, but not without leaving a faint trace in the air behind as a warning.
Xinxin spun around to glare at Mu Tian.
The currently average-looking swordsman shrugged. “I tried to warn you. The Bai Clan is a bit… domineering.”
“You don’t say?”
Mu Tian walked forward and held out a hand towards Xinxin.
She stared at it for a moment before sighing and grabbing it.
And then a thunderous tiger roar erupted in the air, along with a flash of pure white light.
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.