"...The heart of Yggdrasil?" Aria said.
I didn't answer her. Instead, I released her and walked forward alone, slowly taking in the surroundings as I did.
Faint motes of green light flitted in and out of existence, drifting about the area. That was what provided the flickering illumination, emanating from the heart of Yggdrasil.
My right hand twitched and a strange feeling welled up inside me as I advanced. Was it nostalgia? Bitterness? Melancholy?
The last two times that I had been here, I had lost someone. First, Aria due to my own carelessness. Second, my Faithful Companion out of my stubbornness.
"It's beautiful." Aria whispered and walked up as well, standing beside me.
I shifted my gaze towards her and then shook my head. "Beautiful... Perhaps. But it's also dangerous."
Potential dangers. Hidden disasters. So that this wouldn't become a repeat of the last times I was in this place, I carefully surveyed the area to the best of my ability.
It looked the same as the previous time I was here after I lost my mind saving Aria as a nameless spirit.
The room was a small cavern, circular and made of interwoven roots. With the fading motes of light, there was an ethereal atmosphere. As if this was a place that couldn't exist. An illusion.
In the center of it all, and the source of the glowing motes of light, was the Heart of Yggdrasil. On a casual glance, it seemed to just be a floating orb of pure green light, held within roots emanating from beneath it. However, beneath that illumination was a sword.
A simple and elegant blade. A golden hilt and cross guard with an emerald pommel.
...Was it different than the last time I saw it? Or was I just incapable of perceiving its true form? Either way, the Sword of Mana, as that Brave called it in the future, was suspended there within the light.
And that was it.
...That was strange. While I could sense 'Order' emanating from the sword and the World Tree's Authority, that was all. But from what I could remember, there should be the spirit of the World Tree itself present here. That was the resistance I faced the last time I attempted to take the Sword of Mana.
But there was nothing. The power remained, but the mind, the World Tree's ego, was missing.
Was it a result of my actions in that past timeline? Did it already perish as a result of the Imperial invasion?
Or was this a ploy by the Goddess?
I didn't sense her gaze... but then, I hadn't since the time that I brought back Aria. It was almost as if she had forgotten about me.
But I didn't believe it. When considering everything that had occurred since Xinxin brought me back and what I had done since then, there should have been plenty of entertainment for that Goddess.
So her absence and complete lack of communication was... odd.
A half-mumbled sound.
I glanced over to see Aria walking closer to the light.
Her eyes were half-lidded, dazed. Almost as if entranced.
My eyes widened and I quickly intercepted her, intending to pull her away and leave. But before I could, she came to a stop and shook her head.
I still moved in front of her, blocking her view of the light. But seeing that she wasn't completely dazed, I didn't grab her. Instead, I carefully observed Aria's face and said, "Are you alright?"
She looked at me and then said, "Sorry, Mister... Nowun." She winced and then placed a hand over her chest. "I just... remembered a few things."
I blinked and then realized what she was talking about. "Right... I suppose you would have a reaction with this place."
The composite memories of her existence and the tangled karmic threads... They ordinarily wouldn't make much of an impact. But considering that this was where she 'first' met her end, or rather the 'first' of her deaths I experienced, it was undoubtedly more impactful than other instances.
I stared at Aria for a bit and then said, "...Should we head back?"
"Hm?" Aria blinked and then said, "Head back?"
I nodded. "I had planned on taking that." I gestured towards Yggdrasil's heart and said, "But I have a feeling that it wouldn't end well."
Something was off. Not only that, but the urge I had to come here had vanished and that 'resonance' I felt was gone as well.
Aria nodded. "Yes. That... I believe that would be for the best."
"Then let's not waste any more time here." I grabbed Aria's arm and focused, recalling the area where we left Xinxin and that Emperor Elio guy.
But before I warped us back, a thought came to mind. Something I forgot until now.
I turned to Aria and said, "Hey."
She blinked. "Yes, Mister Nowun?"
"Why did you insist on coming here with me? Did you sense something wrong? Was it the effect of your memories wanting you to revisit this place?"
"That..." Aria frowned and shook her head. "No. It wasn't that." She shifted her gaze back to Yggdrasil's heart and said, "I just felt that... something. Something would happen if you arrived here by yourself."
"...And you being here stops that something from happening?"
Aria paused. "No. But at the least you wouldn't-"
My eyes widened and I quickly spun around.
There it was. The 'resonance' I felt. The thing tugging at 'something' inside of me.
The Sword of Mana was suspended in the light... but it was moving. No, it was trying to move. But that light kept it in place, the 'Order' preventing the anchor sustaining it from moving on its own accord.
Staring at it, I frowned and muttered, "Does it remember too?"
The lost future where it cut me down. The severed past where I forced it to acquiesce. It seemed like those memories were being drawn out and etched into the Sword of Mana's accumulated history.
I didn't think that the sword had an ego, but it seemed to have at least a vague sense of awareness-
I blinked and then a thought came to mind.
The distortions occurring in the area. The fact that it was drawing memories out from me...
I stepped forward and held out my right hand, muttering, "Faithful companion?"
It was unlikely. The one that had been at my side the longest was destroyed in letting me obtain the Sword of Mana.
But due to my powers, due to the karma between us, maybe...?
I held out my left hand and revolved my cultivation base. At the same time, I shaped my mana back into the form of Dragon's Grasp and clenched.
In an instant, the light surrounding the sword vanished, forcibly compressed within it. In the same instant, the roots surrounding that light crumbled into dust, leaving only the sword suspended in the air.
As if it had been expecting that, and as if recognizing its master, the Sword of Mana drifted towards my outstretched left hand.
But, just before I could grab it-
"No! You mustn't!"
-Aria jumped in front of me and knocked the sword down.
A surge of emotions. Anger. Fury. What right did she have to keep me from what was rightfully mine?
...Is what first came to mind. But immediately after, my eyes widened and I took a step back.
It was like a fog had lifted- No. Like the background static that had blended into my senses as silence was suddenly shut off, letting me hear things properly again.
I shook my head and then let out a deep sigh. "To think that I could get tricked like that... It seems like I got conceited again."
I would have thought recent events would have kept me in check, but it seemed like I had changed less than I thought.
I sighed again and turned towards Aria. "Thanks for that, Aria. Without you, I don't know what-"
My words stopped in my throat.
Aria was standing there. She was standing there, just a few paces away from me. The same appearance as always... The same way she was just a few seconds ago. The difference was that she was holding the Sword of Mana in her hands, idly gazing at her reflection in the blade and...
"You aren't Aria."
...That something had poured into the gap of her soul.