While the others went out to resolve their business, I followed the memories that guy left me and headed up through Yggdrasil. There, at the highest branches, I saw it. A cozy house formed from the branches of the World Tree.
Saphira said that she would take Xinxin there in the meanwhile during the meeting with the other leaders, so I decided to head there since it was over.
It was… strangely nostalgic. But I set those feelings aside and stepped inside. And the moment I did-
“You are not me!”
“I agree. A naïve and innocent woman like yourself could never be me. Honestly, it is the same as looking through a twisted mirror…”
Two, almost identical voices. Titania’s.
I stepped inside the house in time to see Titania and… Titania? Standing apart from each other.
The one I knew was clear to see. Not only was she wearing a uniform bearing the Heaven-Seizing Dragon Sect insignia, but her expression was also sharp, disapproving.
The other Titania was dressed in a lacy black blouse with a red ribbon and light gray pants. Probably influenced by that guy’s fashion sense.
Saphira was standing in the middle of the two, unsure of how to respond.
The other Titania looked at Saphira and said, “Why did you let them in here, Fi?! And where is Lord Nazin?!”
“That is…” Saphira frowned. “Titania-“
“And who is she!?” The other Titania jabbed at Titania… Well, to make things simple, I suppose Nia would make more sense. That was what Xinxin called her anyway…
Nia crossed her arms and said, “Did I not tell you? Or do you just not want to accept that I am who you would have become if events turned out just a ‘bit’ differently?”
I stepped into the room.
Once more, I was the center of attention. Both Titanias turned to look at me, along with Saphira.
Maybe to preempt any further arguments, Saphira spoke up first and said, “Welcome back, Master. Did the discussions turn out well?”
“As well as I could hope for… but-“
“You!” Titania… Well, the other Titania. She rounded on me and said, “Where is he?! Where is Lord Nazin?!”
Nia sighed, placing a hand on her forehead. “Goddess, do I fall for men that easily…?”
The other Titania narrowed her eyes.
I sighed and said, “He’s gone. As for when he’ll be back… I’m not sure.”
“He’s… gone?” The other Titania’s eyes widened and she shook her head. “No. That’s… That’s a lie! Lord Nazin… He wouldn’t… He promised! He said that he’d-!”
I let out a deeper sigh. “I know. He told me as such.”
Well, I could ‘remember’ as much from the memories that guy gave me.
The other Titania’s voice hitched. Her eyes welled up and she covered her mouth.
Seeing that brought a pang of guilt in my heart. Not my emotions, but that guy’s.
I frowned and then said, “Well… Don’t worry too much. I didn’t kill him if that’s what you’re thinking.”
The other Titania froze. “You… didn’t?” A hopeful voice, fragile and clinging to anything that could serve as a lifeline.
I shook my head. “I’m just… Mm. Borrowing him for a little while.”
“Borrowing?” The other Titania looked confused. Even so, she seemed calmer.
Nia let out a deep sigh.
Seeing that, and wanting to forestall any arguments, I turned to her and said, “How’s Xinxin?”
“Master Xinxin is-“
“I’m right here, Sifu.” Xinxin walked over, using the wall to support her.
I quickly moved over to her. “You shouldn’t be up yet!”
Before I could grab her, she smiled and pushed me a step back. “I’m fine. Just a bit tired, Sifu. Besides.” She turned to look at the two Titanias and said, “I couldn’t sleep with those two arguing.”
Nia bowed her head in apology.
I shook my head. “Even so, don’t strain yourself, Xinxin.”
She looked at me and said, “I should be telling you that, Sifu. After all, you’ll have to fix this mess we’re in- Hm?” Xinxin blinked and looked around the room. “Where’s Aria?”
“Aria?” I frowned and looked around. “That’s right. Where is Aria?”
Nia frowned. “My younger sister said she was going to check on you.”
Titania nodded. “Ari said the same to me… Ah. My Ari.”
I froze, suddenly remembering what happened last time in Alvheim. I turned to move, but the moment I did-
A scream. Not a physical one, but a mental screech, the sound of a young girl desperately calling out.
Both Titania and the other one flinched.
Xinxin’s eyes widened. “Sifu, this presence is-?!”
“Dammit…!” I should have realized it sooner. Everything that had happened was a bait. A distraction.
A divine aura erupted. But it wasn’t Serena’s. Instead, this one was more sinister, sly.
I immediately tried to warp to the Heart of Yggdrasil, but was stopped in my place. An active repulsion that made space refuse to bend to my will. At least to that area.
I clicked my tongue and focused on the person who could get me there the fastest. “Saphira, take care of everyone! And Xinxin, don’t do anything stupid!”
She called out, but I left.
Space rippled and I reemerged in front of someone else. An elf with white hair and a crown. Aultry.
He looked irritated to see my face, but also expectant. “You noticed as well?” Aultry was already armed, a pair of swords sheathed at his side and armor on his body.
“We need to go. Now.”
The King of Alvheim nodded, waving his hand. At once, the ground opened up, revealing a path deep into the heart of the World Tree.
I moved, but he was a step faster, already running down the path.
Seeing that, I followed after him.
It didn’t take long. Whether because he was using magic to get there faster or because he was already most of the way there when I got to him, we arrived at the Heart of Yggdrasil in less than a minute.
And when we did… It was just as I expected.
‘Aria’ stood in front of a withered Yggdrasil’s heart. The guardian of Yggdrasil, Hraesvelg, lay dead at her feet, his head kicked to the corner of the room. And, most importantly, the Sword of Mana was in her right hand.
Hearing us enter, she turned around and smiled. A seemingly innocent expression, but one paired with glimmering green eyes that seemed to flicker with silver stars.
Aultry was shocked. His eyes flicked from Hraesvelg’s corpse to the withered Heart of Yggdrasil, and then to Aria. “My… precious baby girl? Ari?” He stepped forward. “What are you-?”
A flash of light.
I pulled him back and swept out my right hand. A sword formed in an instant, swirling with light and darkness, and broke the attack.
“Tch.” The woman clicked her tongue.
I raised my weapon and said, “That’s not your daughter, Aultry. She’s…” I looked at her and said, “Celeste, right? The fallen goddess- No, the original goddess whose power Serena now wields. Or rather, the divinity that she assimilated into her own.”
She laughed. “A pity.” She smiled and placed her left index finger on her chin. “I thought you would take a little longer to notice.”
“Where is Aria? And how did you get past Serena?” I tightened my grip on the sword. As I did, it responded with my memories, turning into a familiar form. The Sword of Mana that I had taken in that ruined future.
Her smile widened. “Isn’t it obvious, Mister No One?” She held out her hands and said, “You’re looking at them… Well.” She tilted her head and said, “I suppose that isn’t completely true. I guess you could say I used those two to bring ‘me’ back? I was inspired from your own actions, actually.” Her eyes sparkled and she said, “Using the fact that the splintered part drew from the same source and reuniting it with an incomplete avatar… what a marvelous idea.”
I didn’t respond. But someone else did.
The sound of drawn blades from behind me. And then Aultry staggered forward, his eyes narrowed. “I don’t completely know what’s going on… but give me back my baby girl!” Roaring that, he ran forward, swinging his swords at the Goddess.
“Wait, Aul-“ I held out my hand to grab him. But before I could, the king was sent flying back through the room and smacked into the wall, tearing through the branches.
A low groan showed that the king wasn’t dead, but from the impact, he didn’t get off lightly either.
“Tch.” Celeste lowered her arm and muttered, “That should have killed. It seems that this vessel’s personality is still fighting back…”
I wracked my mind for a solution.
…Did I just have to kill her? But I could sense it. I wasn’t sure how she did it, but Serena’s divinity was mixed in there as well, along with Aria’s soul.
“Hm.” She stared at me and frowned. “... I would have thought that you would have tried to cut me down again."
I didn’t respond.
There wasn’t a need to. After all, I could see it for myself.
Overlapping egos, a reinforced divinity, and souls tangled up together so much that breaking any tie would tear it apart completely.
Last time, it was like oil in water, letting me separate it apart by splitting the karma. But this time, it was like she mixed coffee and milk, turning it into a complete whole. A bit of Aria, a bit of Serena. Aria’s incomplete soul was filled with Serena’s divinity, making a seamless whole. But that divinity was also tainted- Or rather, restored to be solely that of Celeste.
An irreversible process… at least, not without tearing everything down to the base components. But that would inevitably result in loss. Even with Absolute Memory…
“Sifu!” Space rippled and then Xinxin emerged beside me.
I narrowed my eyes and quickly stood in front of her. “Stupid girl! Who told you to come?!”
She forcibly moved to my side and said, “I had a bad feeling, and I felt a powerful being that went beyond the boundaries of the world- Hm?” She stared at Celeste and then pointed her finger. “You!”
Celeste tilted her head in thought and then smiled. “Ah, I remember now. I hope you don’t mind if I changed to contents of our deal a bit… After all, the result is the same, right? Like this, the only one left for your beloved teacher is you.”
I blinked and then narrowed my eyes. “Deal, Xinxin?”
She flinched. “It’s… complicated. I’ll explain later. But more importantly!” She swept her hand out, pointing a crystal blade at Celeste. “I heard from that Emperor. You’re the one who caused all of this, aren’t you?”
Celeste let out a coy smile and placed a finger on her chin. “Perhaps?”
Xinxin narrowed her eyes and stepped forward. At the same time, the world stilled, shifting into the karmic realm. An attack meant to sever karma and erase Celeste completely…
I grabbed her before she could move.
“S-Sifu?!” She turned to looked at me. “Why? Isn’t she your enemy?”
I shook my head. “She is! But she has Aria as a hostage!”
“What?” Xinxin turned back to look at Celeste.
The goddess laughed. “Your beloved teacher is correct, little girl. The moment that ‘I’ die, you can say goodbye to this lovely elf princess. Ah, but not me, of course.” She narrowed her eyes and said, “It won’t be that easy this time around.”
Xinxin stiffened, hesitating. From the way she pursed her lips, she seriously seemed to be weighing the option of whether or not to attack.
She looked back at me and then sighed, seemingly giving something up. “I know, Sifu.” Like that, she lowered her sword. “But…” She looked back at Celeste and said, “Then what do we do?”
I didn’t respond and instead thought about it, scanning through my memories for anything that could be useful…
Pieces of information. Memories seemingly disconnected and trivial.
And then I remembered it.
Can you hear me, Goddess?
...Hm. It seems that you cannot. Using Information Concealment like this, I can sense neither your obnoxious gaze nor your meddling divine powers.
Should I thank her for confirming my hypothesis or ridicule her for thinking that increasing her presence and direct intervention would leave me no room to act?
She can enjoy the worthless story I'm unfolding on that timeline as long as she wants. In the meantime... I have more pressing concerns to handle.
As for 'you' who is recalling this message. For now, continue what you've started. Our paths will intersect soon enough...
My eyes widened.
“Well.” Celeste smiled and mimed looking at a watch on her wrist. “It’s been fun, but I have things to do, places to be… like recovering the rest of my strength from that girl.” She waved at Xinxin and said, “Enjoy your prize, darling! And don’t feel too upset, ‘Hero’.” She looked at me and said, “That’s just how this story ends.”
“Wait!” Xinxin reached out. “This isn’t-!”
But Celeste was gone.
Xinxin bit her lips and then turned around to face me. “Sifu, I-“
“It’s fine.” I smiled. “I know what to do.”
I patted her head and said, “It’s time to play the gambit that ‘I’ had in mind a while back.”