I gasped and choked, then fell to my hands and knees. The... what? Where? How?
I was... I was in water? A pool? And underneath my fingers were... pebbles. Hundreds... thousands...? No, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of little round black beads... and I was kneeling in them, in a dim, shallow pool. I looked up through long, black, dripping hair, seeing small pinpricks of blue light illuminating a cave. Where in the world?
Slowly I became aware of the sound of laughter. Snickering, and snorting, etc. I fell backwards and turned around, looking towards the sound. There was a whole crowd of people? A bunch of little kids? No, there were adults here too. What was with the weird clothing, though? Were those robes?
Why were they all laughing? I glanced around, looking for whatever was so funny, but found nothing. They were laughing... at me?
Had I done something funny? Was that why I was in the water?
I felt hot tears begin to trickle down my face. Wait, tears? Why was I crying? When was the last time I’d even managed to cry?
Was I supposed to be ashamed? Was I supposed to be upset? I fell onto my bottom in the cool water and hid behind my hands.
I was so confused.
Eventually, the laughter began to die down. I wasn’t sure how long it had been when I heard a splashing coming near me. Looking up from my hands, and wiping the tears which, oddly, were still streaking my cheeks, I saw that it was one of the adults — his robe was a brilliant jade, his face wrinkled, his hair white and scraggly, a wispy moustache and beard hanging far past the bottom of his chin. This guy was... familiar...?
Watching as the old guy tripped, and only just caught himself after a bit of pinwheeling, I couldn’t help but giggle a bit through the mysterious tears, almost choking. I couldn’t quite tell in the dim light, but I was pretty sure his face turned red, too. At that, a name suddenly popped into my head — Elder Golden Flame. Wait, what? How the heck did I know this random old guy?
Once he reached me, he offered his hand. Taking a deep breath, and wiping my eyes a second time, I took it, and he pulled me up.
“It’s okay, son,” he assured, and my stomach churned in protest at being called ‘son.’ He patted my shoulder with a smile. “Not everybody’s got an amazing aptitude!”
As he guided me back to the shore, he murmured. “It is a pity, though — you can cultivate, but in all my years I’ve never heard of such a small aptitude. From the Rain family, too...” he chuckled. Using his other hand to stroke his wispy beard, he hesitated, as if in deep thought.
“Hey, at least you’re unique!” he patted my back, now. Not gonna lie, I did not want him to be touching me like that.
“Yeah,” he continued. “It’s a bit of a unique situation, but we’ll offer you the same as the other F-grades,” he finally stated, right as we arrived at the edge of the shallow pool. “Don’t get your hopes up too much, though!”
After stepping up onto the cave floor with the rest of the crowd, and Elder Flame letting go of my shoulder, I began to walk away towards the other kids. Kids? Why... what? I was the same height as all of them... I was a kid?
“Wait,” he stopped me, and I turned around to see him fish something out of his pocket and press his thumb against it. A sharp white light shined on it for a moment... A sharp white light from his thumb? How...?
I didn’t have time to think about what I’d seen, though, because then he held it out to me. Not knowing any better, I took it, and he patted my head. “You’ll be okay, son.”
I was so, so confused. Was this a dream? No, it couldn’t be, this was way too realistic. What kind of dream has you walking around with wet robes because you just left a pool? That only left one other option...
Was I... reincarnated?
I knew that sounded crazy, but... well, the last thing I remembered was... dying. I’d been hit by a car, if I remembered right. After I’d jumped out to escape my mum yelling at me for... reasons. But I wasn’t trying to die! I was just going to run away! I just couldn’t handle that stuff from my mum, not anymore...
And then I realised that when I thought of my mum... it wasn’t just one image that flashed in my head...
No, it was two! Who was the second...?
Well, on the other hand, that cleared up one thing... I must have been reincarnated. Why else would I have two sets of memories? Even if one was less clear than the other. It was actually kind of weird — like the nineteen years of my previous life that had just rushed into my head had overwhelmed all of the memories I’d gained in this life.
That made me wonder... Why would the memories from my past life suddenly rush into my head like that? Had my previous life been... I don’t know, like, sealed until now, or something? Somehow?
Shaking my head, I filed that away for later. Right now, I had more pressing issues. Where was I? The name quickly came to me; this was the Spirit Cave. Why was I in the Spirit Cave? Well, as per tradition, all ten-year-olds underwent something called their “Spirit Walk” — part of a huge, annual ceremony in the village. This year, because I’d turned ten years old — oh lord I was only ten years old — it was my turn to participate.
The Spirit Walk was relatively simple, at least... It wasn’t some ceremony where you had to endure pain or something. The kids would just step down into the huge, shallow pool — alone, mind you, that’s important — and then walk towards the bright, blue light in the deepest part of the cave.
Vague, cloudy memories appeared in my mind, watching other kids before me undergo their Walk. I’d seen them nervously step into the water, take a few steps, and finally gain a rhythm, specks of that blue light sparkling in the water around their legs on each footfall. Eventually, each of them — every last one — had collapsed... potentially under... some kind of strain?
The kids that didn’t make it within 100 metres of the light were mortals, now and forever. Anyone who made it further, though... They were a vi master, possessing something called an ‘aperture’ — a mystical space within their body that would be forcibly unsealed in their Spirit Walk. At the end of their Walk, they would collapse, unable to move any further, and the distance they walked would match the might of their aperture.
I suddenly was distracted by a thought. Was that where my memories had been? Locked away in my aperture? So then when I’d undergone my own Spirit Walk, my aperture being unsealed had caused my memories to be unsealed?
There probably wasn’t any way for me to know, but considering the timing, it felt likely. I’d go with that assumption for now.
Shaking my head, I continued sorting my jumbled mess of a memory: 100 metres was a vi master... right. Knew that. 100 metres didn’t necessarily mean their aperture was any good, though. That was new.
Okay, so, it seemed that at 100 metres, a vi master had 0% aptitude, and with every additional metre closer, there was a 1% increase in aptitude. Higher aptitudes increased both stamina and cultivation speed — both because their apertures could contain a greater amount of essence. What did this mean? I didn’t know that yet. I guess I’d figure that out later? It sounded important, though.
And where had I collapsed? I recalled my own Walk... I remembered looking down and seeing that sparkling blue light around my legs, I remembered getting to the 100 metre mark... and then my memory went blank.
No, that wasn’t quite true. That’s where I’d collapsed, wasn’t it? Not even a metre past the 100 metre mark.
That meant I had little to no aptitude, didn’t it? I was basically entirely useless.
Well, that would explain why the rest of the kids were snickering at me, at least. One question answered... woo!
Having wandered over by the other new vi masters, I’d already long since slumped down against the cave wall. There was nothing else for me to do... I’d already had my Walk, and my aperture had already been unsealed. I was a vi master, now, with a pitiful aptitude. In my future, what did I see...? The village academy, I realised. Considering it, for a moment, I finally held up the dull, worn copper badge I’d been handed by Elder Flame. Embossed on the front and engraved on the back were letters I didn’t recognise...
No, I lied, I did recognise them, but only in the second of my lives. It took my brain a minute to adjust, but then I managed to read it. Embossed by the badge’s mold was the name of the academy — “Sweeping Rain Academy.” I turned the badge around. At the top, in small, white, faintly glowing characters, it read: “Midnight Rain.”
Wait! That was my name! Though... That made sense, didn’t it? I felt a little sheepish about getting so excited about such a commonplace thing. Maybe because the name didn’t hurt to hear, like my name in the other world had. In this one it was just like any other name, after all.
I finally looked back down, and read the second line. “Tier Zero Lower Stage.” That was my cultivation level, I soon realised. That all would go higher and higher as I cultivated... hopefully. I’d learn more at the academy, though, probably?
The last line on the badge stated: “F-grade: 1%.”
I sighed at the text... it was rather depressing to see such a poor result, after all. Just like anyone, I couldn’t help but want to see myself doing well, even if I didn’t really understand what doing well at this entailed quite yet. God, I was in so far over my head. I’d have to spend so long just working through what I remembered.
I looked back up from the badge just in time to see another kid collapse in the water. A nearby Elder — was that... because of her long, green hair, I was pretty sure that was a vi master named Elder Swan? She sighed as well. “E-grade... only 52%. Are we even going to get any above C-grade this year?”
I felt a bit better seeing others getting sighed at, but it didn’t last long, because... Well, as far as I’d seen, no one else had even gotten lower than E-grade, so F-grade was already uncommon... But I hadn’t just gotten F-grade, I’d gotten 1%. I hadn’t just come in at the tail end of the pack. I’d come in far, far, far behind where it was even reasonable.
In other words, if getting a high grade was like winning a 100-metre dash, with my grade it was as if I’d finished the dash a week after it began!
“Morning Rain!” Elder Flame called, and my attention was immediately pulled back up to the pool and the crowd of ten-year-olds that hadn’t yet had their Walk.
Morning Rain was my sister... and more than that, she was my twin. I felt a pang in my gut at that — why? What hurt so much...?
But then I saw her walk out of the crowd, nervously, wringing her hands, and more memories fell into place like puzzle pieces.
“Midnight!” the much-younger Morning Rain had giggled. “You’re not supposed to wear a skirt!”
“Why not?” I remembered asking, very confused.
“Well... umm.” She’d thought for a moment. “I don’t know? Mama and Papa said those were for girls, though.”
“Okay, I’ll be a girl then!” I’d grinned.
Morning Rain had grinned back. “Okay! Let’s go play!”
Back in the present, I murmured idly to myself. “We were close once, like that...”
Another memory fell into place.
“Midnight, son, what do you think is the most important duty of the village chief?” a huge, hulking, bearded figure had asked down to me.
Overwhelmed, I’d shifted uncomfortably. “I... I don’t know, father.”
“Isn’t it protecting our people?” a high-pitched voice had suggested from the other side of the room.
“Morning, I’ve told you this time and time again,” the mountain of a man had growled. “Do not interrupt Midnight’s lessons. He’s next in line as chief, after all.”
Morning Rain had kicked the wall, annoyed, then stormed off.
“Hey!” an older Morning Rain had shouted, standing in front of me as I covered my face in my hands in embarrassment. “What did you call my brother?”
“Uhhh,” a bigger boy had said, dumbly. “He told me to call him that...”
“I don’t believe it for a second!” she’d said, kicking him right between the legs.
“Oof!” the boy had cried out, his pitch just a little bit higher than normal.
As the memories faded, the puzzle complete, I understood multiple things.
Morning Rain, for years, had been in a strange position in our family. Where I’d spent most of my days in the spotlight, praised for who I was and who I would be by our family, Morning Rain had been almost... systematically ignored. And the worst part was, I didn’t want any of it. If I could have traded our positions at any time... I would’ve without another thought.
Becoming a vi master didn’t matter to me... Being strong? Protecting people? I just wasn’t cut out for it. That was what Morning was good at, she’d always been there to protect me, even if she could barely stand me anymore. I was the one in the position she wanted and I wasn’t even capable of it. Of course she’d be jaded.
Whenever she’d been treated as... well, second-class by our mother or father, I’d always made sure to apologise for it. Numerous times I’d tried to get my parents to allow her to be next-in-line in my place — she was better at everything, after all — but they’d laughed it off.
As my sister stepped into the water, Elder Swan muttered again. “Is this Rain going to be any better than the first?”
I shrunk down in my position in embarrassment, but crossed my fingers. I sure hoped she had a better aperture than I did.
As Morning Rain walked, the dim blue sparkling lights appeared around her maroon robes. Where she’d begun nervously, she quickly regained her confidence, and she strode into the pool with a vigor I definitely hadn’t shown. She passed the 100 metre mark, the spot I collapsed at, and didn’t even hesitate or look back. No, Morning Rain was better than that, far better.
90 metres... 80... 70...
The closest anyone had gotten so far was 29 metres, placing them in the bottom of C-grade. She wasn’t even halfway there, but everyone could tell that her goal was far past that. She wasn’t shooting for an average grade, she was shooting for the top.
If I was incapable, she would need to make up for it. And she’d long known that I was. Today was her biggest chance in life, each additional metre she was capable of walking was an additional boon.
40 metres... 30... and already she was the farthest of everyone so far.
The Spirit Cave was completely quiet now, the only sound was the splashing of her robe as she strode across the pool, completely and totally unhindered. No one seemed capable of interrupting what we were witnessing. Not the Elder near me, nor any of the children.
The light around her legs was brighter now, as if the sparkling lights had followed her all the way to the end. She continued to move forward, practically racing now, but still careful not to trip and fall.
Where she was was so bright, now. Was she going to reach the end of the pool, just like that? What would that even mean? 100% aptitude? How could I be entirely useless and she be the exact oppos—
And then, as if running into a wall, she bounced back and collapsed into the water with a loud splash.
It was completely silent and still for a few moments, and then the whispering started. “A-grade...” a few people said. “She must have gotten at least 95%,” Elder Swan murmured in an excited tone.
I let out a breath I didn’t realise I’d been holding in. Dang. That... that was incredible. Morning... she’d gotten so far... my brain couldn’t even wrap around it. Over half of the kids had already had their Spirit Walk, and then she has hers and blows all of their results out of the water... especially mine, considering just how low my aptitude was.
This would have to convince our father, right? He’d finally lay off of me? And Morning Rain could be the next Chief? And then maybe she’d like me again?
Then one problem would be solved, at least. I still had another, though... that was the other thing I’d realised from my memories.
See... in my first life, I’d been born into a body that did not match my own gender. I was supposed to be a girl, and I’d known it as a fact.
In this world, though? Well... even if I had long hair and was a bit soft... I still was in a boy’s body. The exact same thing had happened as in my first life, but this time it almost hurt more. Like, would I ever be comfortable in my own skin? Who could even say?
I was jealous of my twin sister, I realised. I wanted to do all the stuff she didn’t care for; I wanted to do all the things our mother had always enlisted her help in... often while our father had been trying to teach me some important lesson about being the next village chief.
It wasn’t just that, though, I wanted to be her. She was already pretty, and I wasn’t. We were only ten, but you could see the differences between us, since I was trapped in a stupid boy body again. I wasn’t that uncomfortable now, since I was only ten years old, but I wasn’t going to be able to avoid puberty forever, and with puberty came body hair and explosive growth and angular features and... everything I didn’t want to be.
When Morning Rain got to the shore, she was grinning widely, kids and Elders all congratulating her. She was definitely basking in it, looking very proud and... well, she was wearing the happiest expression I’d ever seen on her. I couldn’t help but smile a little bit as well, for her.
Then her eyes found me and... something changed. I couldn’t tell what, but my own smile quickly became a grimace and shivers ran down my spine. I wanted to hide, but there was nowhere I could go...
She finally dismissed everyone with a wave of her hand and pushed out of the crowd, leaving the Elders to calm everyone back down. Eek! She was heading towards me!
As I glanced left and right for a way out, Elder Flame called out the next name, “Azure Cloud!”
A girl far to my left stood up. She was expressionless, and so far away from the crowd. She hadn’t cared about Morning Rain?
“M-morning Rain,” I greeted as she got close.
“Midnight Rain,” she said back. “So, you got what, 1%, then?”
“Were you watching, Midnight?”
I nodded again. Oh no, was she going to gloat?
She kneeled down next to me, her grin large and... malicious. “I got 96%, o-great-and-powerful-brother-of-mine. Seems you’ve dropped down a peg, eh?”
“You know I’ve... I’ve never wanted it...” I tried not to cower.
“It doesn’t matter whether you did or not, you’ve been in my way for too long and now you’re not anymore. I can finally get everything I’ve wanted...” she looked up and stared wistfully. “I mean, nobody will get a higher-grade aperture than me, right? Not possible!” She laughed maniacally. “I’ll be the strongest someday. It’ll happen. And then you’ll just be a bad memory...”
Why was she like this? Why was she so... venomous? I’d tried! I’d tried everything I could to get our father to stop treating her like that!
All I’d ever wanted was what she had... didn’t that mean I was in just as bad of a position as she was?
“I’m sorry!” I tried again, for what must have been the ten-thousandth time.
But she just shook her head, a disgusted expression on her face... She only looked up when she realised that, once more, everything had gone quiet.
“Nooo,” Morning whispered.
Yeah, she had a right to be afraid. The girl I’d seen... Azure... something? She was already at... how far was that, 10 metres...?
Wow, two incredibly powerful apertures in a row. That was crazy! And she was still walking, even!
5 metres... 4... and then she passed Morning, easily. 3... 2... 1...
And then, just like that, the girl stopped walking. She hadn’t collapsed. She’d reached whatever was in the middle, and was just standing there.
“Heaven’s blessing,” Elder Swan breathed. “She’s got an exquisite physique.”
“Excuse me,” Morning Rain asked her, sweetly. “What does that mean?”
“It’s...” the Elder murmured. She scratched the top of her head and swallowed. “She’s... a special girl, making it all the way to the end; it means she has something called an ‘exquisite physique.’ Those with exquisite physiques have incredible potential, holding apertures of a much, much higher caliber than anyone else. However...” she said. “The greater the potential, the higher the risk. If she doesn’t cultivate as fast as possible and ascend to the immortal realm, her aperture will explode and she’ll die young.”
Everything was silent for a moment more, my sister and I just processing the Elder’s words. Then I choked. “Wait, immortals are real?” Those were the kinds of people you heard about in fairy tales!
Elder Swan laughed quietly. “Of course they are.”
I heard my sister swear to herself. Yeah, it made sense, she’d been the most exciting person for all of about two minutes. Now there was someone taking her place, a girl who’d apparently burn as bright as a shooting star!
“Do you want a hug?” I asked her.
She glared at me. “No, I don’t want a hug.”