Empty halls. A deafening silence filled with the resentment of the dead. Harmony that had been disrupted with chaos, violence, and cruelty. And now, footsteps echoed throughout that silence.
I swept my gaze across the remnants of Yggdrasil... or perhaps more accurately, the remnants of Alvheim.
Was it because of Yggdrasil herself acting, or was it just the natural course of things? Either way, despite everything that had occurred here, there was a distinct lack of bodies. Even so, as I glanced towards Aria, it seemed like that absence was more striking than the bodies would have been.
The youngest elf princess glanced around the area as well. But unlike me, her reaction was much more visceral. Her emerald eyes trembled as they swept across the corroded wood walls. Her delicate face was white with shock and she subconsciously brushed up against my right side, as if seeking support from my presence.
I wasn't cruel enough to brush her off. However, I did turn to her and say, "You should have stayed behind."
Aria tensed and then shook her head. Perhaps realizing her reaction, she deliberately took a step to the side and opened up some space between us. After that, she took a deep breath and softly said, "It's fine."
I came to a stop and stared at her.
Aria stopped as well and met my gaze. Sweat glistened on her forehead, a few drops falling to the ground as I watched.
Seeing that, I frowned and muttered, "Should we head back?"
"No!" Aria quickly shook her head.
My frown deepened. "You protesting so much makes me even more reluctant to advance..." Saying that, I cast my gaze around towards the surroundings again.
For the most part, it was dark. A few places where the corrosion had eaten through to the outside allowed rays of light to filter in, but overall the area was wreathed in shadows.
In short, it was a place where it wouldn't be surprising for the dead to rise up out of nowhere.
Of course, something like that wouldn't happen. The energies in the area, both mana and the ambient natural energy, had been destabilized by the Imperial troops marching through with their chaos-imbued equipment.
Still, paired with the atmosphere, it would be more than enough to cause hallucinations in the weak-willed... Like Aria.
I sighed and then shook my head. "Are you sure you want to come with me? I can guarantee your physical safety, but anything else..."
"It's fine, Mister Nowun. I'll... I can handle it."
I stared at her again, contemplating.
Aria put on a brave face, but her trembling emerald eyes revealed her true emotions. More than that, she kept glancing to the side and flinching, as if seeing something I couldn't. No, as if seeing wandering spirits and recoiling at their appearance.
I was certain that nothing was here. Neither the Goddess's divine intervention nor any other phenomenon was present, and there was no other existence within Yggdrasil save for the heart of the World Tree itself.
That meant that Aria was hallucinating.
Was it nightmares of the present and the faces of those she would never see again? Or were they phantoms of those she no doubt buried in that far-flung future, drawn forth by the distortions in the present?
I didn't know, but whatever the case I couldn't do anything about it.
Well... that wasn't entirely true.
Seeing that she wasn't going to calm down anytime soon and was too stubborn to ask for support, I sighed and walked over towards her.
Aria flinched and opened her mouth to talk. But before she could say anything, I grabbed her left hand with my right and pulled her close.
I shook my head and started walking, pulling her along beside me. As I did, I said, "Just stay close and be quiet. Nothing here can harm you."
And if there was something that tried... Well, I had been feeling a bit stifled from recovery, so that would be even better.
Aria sighed and then shook her head, muttering, "I wanted to help you..."
"And you can do that by keeping me company, since you so adamantly insisted. Foolishly at that, but women were never known to be creatures of logic."
"Don't let Tani hear you say that around her, Mister Nowun. I don't think she would take too kindly to those words."
"Thus proving my point."
Aria smiled and shook her head.
Once again, the disquieting silence in Alvheim returned. However, whether because of my words or my actions, Aria seemed to be in better shape. At the least, she seemed at ease.
For a while, we simply advanced through the depths of Alvheim, moving deeper within Yggdrasil as I retraced the path towards the heart from my memories.
Still, there was a fair distance to go and there was also considerably less light the further we went.
It didn't bother me considering the nature of my powers, but I wasn't alone. That brought about a minor dilemma.
Should I conjure a light source? On the one hand, it might be comforting for Aria to be able to see. On the other hand... considering the occasional withered bones I could see lying around, it might be better to not.
"...Could you tell me a bit about yourself?"
I came to a stop, considering that fact.
Of course, I failed to take Aria into account with my sudden stop so she lurched ahead, almost falling over.
I managed to pull her back before she did, steadying her.
Aria placed her left hand against her chest and let out a relieved sigh.
"...Sorry. I forgot."
Aria shook her head. "It's fine, Mister Nowun. I should have been prepared for you to stop after asking something like that."
I paused and then said, "...It is a strange line of questioning to ask. What brought it on?"
Aria leaned against me for a bit and then shook her head. "I'm... not sure. It just feels like I know you... and yet I don't."
"Ah." I'd forgotten about it with everything that had been going on, but Aria's memories were probably still a mess from how I brought her back.
"I 'know' what happened between us. How we met. What happened in the end. And I know a bit about what you're like... But I don't truly know anything about you."
Although it seemed like forever... Aria made a point. She didn't really know anything about me and, conversely, I didn't know anything about her.
Aria nodded. "Funny, isn't it? After all of this and we really only know each other's name." She paused. "Well, you know mine. Mister Nowun... Nowun isn't *really* your name. Is it?"
"Of course not. And we're wasting time." Saying that, I started walking again, pulling Aria along with me.
This time though, she seemed to have expected my response since she quickly matched her stride with my own. After she did, Aria turned to look at me... Well, as best as she could without being able to see in the dark, and said, "Then what is your name, Mister Nowun?"
"It doesn't matter... And stop calling me 'Mister'."
"Then give me a proper name to call you by!" Aria furrowed her brows and said, "Miss Xinxin calls you Sifu... I want to call you something too."
"...We're done talking."
"Ah! Sorry! I didn't mean to offend you. U-Um... How about favorite colors?"
Seeing her try so hard to keep the conversation going, I sighed. "...I'm not offended. It's just that a name is meaningless for me."
Aria blinked. "Why?"
I considered her question.
There was no point in telling her. In fact, there was no point in telling anyone. The past was the past and I had no need of it at this point. And even if I did, it was out of my reach after what happened when I arrived here.
Even so... I suppose it wouldn't hurt to answer her properly.
"Because I don't have one. At least, not one that I can remember."
"You... don't have a name?" Aria frowned. "But that's not right... Everyone has a name."
"Right. Everyone. But I'm 'no one'. In truth..." I held out my left hand, feeling the calm current of dark energy coursing in my veins that filled what I lacked. "...If not for Xinxin, I would be nothing more than a mindless and nameless spirit at the moment."
A debt that I couldn't repay. Karma that wouldn't be broken even if I wanted to break it.
"Well, I guess I have another reason to thank Miss Xinxin then."
I paused and tilted my head towards Aria. "Another reason?"
"That's right. She saved Tani, after all."
"...I don't know if you can call enslaving someone with a soul brand after winning them from an underground tournament 'saving' them."
"W-Well, it's the result that matters, isn't it? Tani's fine and she seems to be enjoying life again."
"I suppose that's one way to look at it."
"...You're too much of a downer, Mister Nowun."
I shook my head. "And you're too optimistic."
Aria was quiet for a bit after that, but then she said, "W-Well are you going to answer my question?"
"What's your favorite color?"
"...Is this really the time for that?"
Aria huffed. "Well, what else am I supposed to do? It's a long walk still to where you're headed, isn't it?"
"I can always send you back."
I sighed. "Fine."
It was true that there was a bit to go by walking.
There was always the option to warp there with my powers, but after the distortion previously, I didn't want to throw too many variables in the mix.
In that case, it wouldn't hurt to answer Aria's questions.
But favorite color, huh?
A faint impression of a warm memory, a beaming smile. I couldn't remember the contents or the context, but I did remember a flash of a color.
"My favorite color is pink."
Aria blinked. "That... Really?"
"Did I stutter?"
"No." Aria shook her head. "It's just... Someone like you... has pink as a favorite color?"
"...Is there something wrong with liking pink?"
"No! That is to say... Not really? But... Why?"
I shrugged. "I can't remember."
Aria sighed. "Now you have to be messing with me. Really, do you find it so amusing to bully me? Last time you ran off and left me alone, and now you aren't even answering my questions properly."
"...Well, it's your problem whether to believe me or not."
The path we took came to an end, turning at a sharp corner to descend deeper underground.
I pulled Aria close to ensure she didn't trip and then walked forward.
Aria huffed and opened her mouth to say something. But, before she could continue, a faint green light shimmered in the distance. Seeing that, she blinked and said, "That's...?"