81 – Distorted Present – II
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Ahem. So it turns out I greatly underestimated my workload... More on that later.

A beautiful woman with pure white hair and skin just as pristine. Delicate, ethereal features that were too enchanting to be human. Crimson lips and clear blue eyes, glittering like sapphires. She wore a form fitting black dress that shifted with each step she took, barely concealing her figure beneath.

I knew her. Of course. It would be impossible for me not to after the countless number of times I died to her before finally overcoming her.

Saphira, the former Wrathful Sin Dragon… and the one who did not exist in this timeline. At least, not yet.

I had planned to bring her back after everything was settled in Alvheim. Unlike with Aria, the process would be simple considering that the bond between us was that of master and servant rather than simply ill-fate.  

But there she stood, alive and well.

I blinked, wracking my mind for an explanation. It couldn’t be a result of my recovery… Then was this a trick from that Goddess? But everything I could sense told me that the one in front of me was truly Saphira and not a copy or fake.

Saphira tilted her head and then opened her mouth to speak. Yet, while her lips moved, no words came out. As if they were stolen away, only silence remained.

I frowned and glanced backwards. Maybe Titania or Aria would have some insight into this situation? “Do either of you-?” I cut off my words.

They were gone. At the same time, they weren’t. Physically, they were missing, leaving only the empty misty forest. But their presence remained.

My frown deepened and I shifted my attention back to Saphira. At least, that was my intention.

The mist grew thick and then the surroundings rippled. At the same time, space distorted, revealing the familiar forest clearing of the Lost Woods. With it, a roar echoed, slightly distorted.

“Tch.” I narrowed my eyes and swept out with my right hand.

Darkness flooded the rippling space. At the same time, the shifting forest began to solidify, rejecting the change in the surroundings to the Lost Woods.

I focused, ignoring the strange phenomenon and recalling the space that I was just in with Titania and Aria, drawing back that memory…

And then there was a faint ‘snap’.

For a brief moment, I thought I saw a few thin golden threads float in the air. But before I could focus on them, I saw that Aria and Titania were standing in front of me… and that they were different.

Aria had changed into a black form-fitting dress, with darkness clinging to her body. That in itself was odd, but then there was the way she carried herself.

The Aria with me was meek and somewhat naïve. While she had been making efforts to get past that, she still subconsciously sought someone to depend on.

But the Aria there… She was confident. Self-assured. Moreover, while she wasn’t on the level of Xinxin or myself, the way she carried herself spoke of someone who had years of experience in combat.

Like the Aria that I left behind in that far flung future.

As if to compensate for Aria’s change, Titania had changed as well. Almost as if the sisters had changed roles, the Titania there seemed hesitant and meek.

I blinked, caught off-guard at the change. But then I realized what was happening.

Aria turned around to look at me, tilting her head. It seemed like she was going to say something, but before she could, the surroundings distorted again.

This time, when everything settled down, I was standing back where I had been before the strange distortion occurred.

“Sifu?” A soft voice echoed from nearby, followed by faint footsteps.

Glancing over, I saw my dear disciple step through the mist, her robes and hair drifting behind her. At the same time, I realized that Aria was holding onto my right hand and Titania was standing off to my left, giving me a strange look.

Xinxin walked over, her eyes narrowing slightly on seeing Aria before shifting towards me. “I’m relieved. For a brief moment, I thought that you had gone somewhere else.”

I shook my head and then gently shook off Aria’s grasp. “You two worry too much. It’ll take a lot more than a trick like that to keep me away.”

Xinxin nodded, but her gaze seemed unusually concerned.

I frowned and said, “Is something wrong?”

“…No.” Xinxin shook her head and said, “Only-“ She cut herself off and then said, “It’s nothing.”

My frown deepened, but it didn’t seem like I would be getting anything else out of her, so I nodded.

Xinxin shifted her gaze and looked at the surroundings. “In any case, Sifu… Do you have an idea of what happened?”

“I do. But as for the reason…”

It was complicated. From the fact that I saw Saphira and both Aria and Titania, but different, it was clear that time was being distorted to an extent.

As always, my first instinct was to jump to that Goddess’s intervention. But for some reason, this time seemed different. Rather than that person’s presence… there was nothing at all. No, that was wrong. Instead, it seemed that it was a natural reaction to our presence.

I narrowed my eyes and glanced towards Titania. “You said you felt something out of place earlier, Titania. What did you mean?”

“Hm?” Titania blinked at suddenly being addressed and then shook her head. “My apologies. I was just…” She frowned and said, “The light was Yggdrasil. Of that I am certain. However, for the World Tree to act in such a manner is odd.” She looked up and said, “I can understand sending everyone else away, but for her to send myself and Ari as well… It makes no sense.”

So a self-defense mechanism by the World Tree gone wrong? Or so it appeared. However, Titania made a valid point.

The elves were Yggdrasil’s guardians. Furthermore, Titania and Aria were the remaining two members of Alvheim royalty, the ones who should have held the most esteem due to their duty of protecting Yggdrasil’s heart.

But the person they were protecting sent them both away and in the process caused time and space to distort, enough to where even I was affected.

I had already had an ominous feeling about this event, but now I was certain of it.

Something was going to happen here. And that something was going to be centered around us.

I shifted my gaze to Xinxin.

My dear disciple seemed to have picked up on my concern as she frowned as well. “…Should we call this off, Sifu?”

I felt a brief urge to make fun of her for relying on me again, but the gravity of the situation made me decide not to.

“Before that, are the others still here? I would check for myself, but I have an inkling that wouldn’t end well.”

Xinxin frowned and then shifted her gaze. After a few moments, she nodded and said, “The Emperor and his men, as well as the demons and those from our sect are scattered about nearby, but they all seem to be well. At the least, I don’t sense anyone injured or anything odd.”

So then Yggdrasil didn’t harm them. Was it because of a lack of power, or because of something else? It seemed like there were more questions than answers recently.

“Mister Nowun?” Aria’s voice echoed from the side. I turned to see that she was staring at me, her eyes slightly narrowed in concern.

A balance- No. A choice.

Whether due to the Goddess or not, I could tell that something was swiftly approaching. A consequence not set by Destiny or Fate, but the karmic repercussions of my actions.

Continue on in this manner with the meeting or leave and regroup back at the sect.

I clenched my right hand. When I did, a familiar sensation emerged. The form of an ordinary stick that could have been found anywhere. But when I glanced down, it had vanished.

“Sifu?” Xinxin stared at me, waiting expectantly.

“…Let’s finish this meeting and get out of here.”

It was an irrational decision.

I knew that it would be better to abandon everything else. To take Xinxin, Aria, and Titania and then leave. There was just too much that I didn’t know about to risk staying here.

But… At the same time another part of me said that would lead to a situation I would regret. That there was something here I had to face and experience in order to advance.

Before I could hesitate, I looked to Xinxin and said, “Gather everyone again and send us back to Alvheim.”

Xinxin nodded and then held out her hand.

Darkness flickered, space distorted… and then we were once again in front of Yggdrasil’s burned out hollow.

Most of everyone there was disoriented, confused at the sudden change of scenery. The soldiers were wary, the sect members were cautious… But among the others that Xinxin had gathered back, there were three people who weren’t.

One was Erik, Xinxin’s secretary… or rather, the Heavenly King of her sect.

The other was that young girl said to be the Demon Lord’s heir.

And the last…

“I see.”

…Was the Emperor.

Sharp eyes, flitting between Xinxin and myself. With that cutting gaze and a curt nod, Emperor Elio straightened and said, “So you are the one that person was impersonating.”

orz I don't have enough words to apologize for the long delay, but I can at least say what happened. It turns out that, due to the situation with the pandemic, the law school I was accepted to decided to have an accelerated schedule this semester. So that they could avoid a potential surge of cases in the winter months, they front-loaded all of the readings, assignments, and tests to finish up in-person classes before Thanksgiving (November 26th). It had been manageable in the beginning, at least as of the point that I made that author's note. But after that... let's just say the professors decided we got our feet wet enough and threw us into the deep end.

Thankfully, the only things left are finals in all my classes. No major assignments and not much reading... Well, at least a manageable amount now.

It also perfectly lines up with NaNoWriMo!

Anyway, I'll be updating again every day for sure through November. I've been itching to continue the story... though I can't guarantee how it'll turn out since I'll need to get back into the groove. But I guess that's par for the course now, eh?

Thanks so much to you guys for putting up with me... a recurring trend, it seems, and I'll see you tomorrow!