After sending Erik and his girls away to get refreshments for both herself and their guest, Xinxin led Mister ‘Dark Knight’ and Titania through the grounds of the sect towards a more private location.
A pagoda within a courtyard of flowers, violet silk drapes hanging from each side. It was a recreation of Xinxin’s keepsake from her mother. While Wang Tian’s domain had vanished, it seemed like the places he built for Xinxin remained. Whether that was out of his will or whether he had them physically constructed beforehand, Xinxin didn’t know.
Night had fallen, a full moon hanging in the starry sky. While it was bright because of that, a few orange paper lanterns were hanging around the pagoda, giving a soft ambience in addition to the moonlight.
Xinxin walked up to the pagoda and then sat down at a chair in front of the table inside. Titania followed after her and took a position standing behind Xinxin.
After sitting down, for a brief moment Xinxin stared at the vacant chair opposite the table. Being in the pagoda again… it reminded her of the times she spent at her true pagoda, both with her Sifu and with Wang Tian.
Xinxin she shook her head, clearing it of the wistful memories, and turned her attention back to her guest.
Mister ‘Dark Knight’, the gray-haired demon from the Dark Tournament, stood at the edge of the pagoda, hesitating to cross the threshold.
Xinxin sighed and beckoned him in. “Come and sit. Your story isn’t a short one, is it? We might as well be comfortable in the meanwhile.” She paused and then glanced at Titania. “You too. Sit down and relax for a while.”
Titania shook her head. “I am fine like this.”
The ‘Dark Knight’ finally gathered the courage to advance and then took a seat opposite from Xinxin.
Xinxin smiled and said, “What happened to the confident Dark Knight that dared stand me up in the tournament?”
The gray-haired demon coughed. “That was before I knew you were the one in charge of the Heaven-Seizing Dragon Sect. Had I known, I wouldn’t have acted so disrespectfully.”
Xinxin nodded. “I see… and I’m guessing that’s why you left before the last match?”
The gray-haired demon scratched the back of his head and said, “That was actually because I finished making what I came to the tournament for.”
“Hm…” Xinxin stared at the demon across from her.
He caught her gaze but quickly averted his eyes.
It seemed like her words had stuck with him since the last time they met.
He’s not Sifu.
Skilled with darkness, fighting with a sword, stealing dantians… all of those things were similar to how her Sifu would act… to how Nowun would act. But after getting a good look at the man before her, Xinxin was sure of it. That person wasn’t Nowun.
Even so, there was something familiar about the guy. A faint tugging at her saying that he was important… or at least someone she should keep an eye on.
For a brief moment, Xinxin thought it might have been because he had a fragment of Nowun’s soul or something. After all, her Sifu had done the stupid thing of shattering his own soul to break the Goddess’s hold on him. But that wasn’t it either.
Before Xinxin could finish that thought, footsteps echoed, as well as the soft clink of porcelain.
Mary walked over to the pagoda, dressed in a long azure robe. Her long blue hair drifted behind her, and she held a tray with a pot of tea and some cups. But those weren’t the only things on the tray. Along with a small pile of plates, there was a small wicker basket, opened to reveal a pile of fluffy steam buns.
She stopped at the edge of the table and placed down the tray. “Here you are, Great Heaven Seizer. It’s not much, but I hope it doesn’t offend you.”
Xinxin tilted her head. “What happened to Erik and the other girl?”
Mary shook her head and said, “Erik is preoccupied sending out various messages and familiarizing himself with his new position as the Heavenly King. While he was able to put it off a bit with your presence… it has to be done eventually. And since I am the only one who can cook among us three, the duty of refreshments fell upon myself.” She bowed and said, “I hope it is to your liking.”
The gray-haired demon frowned and said, “The ‘new’ Heavenly King? Did something happen to the old one?”
Mary straightened and then sighed. “My master recently entered his final closed door cultivation.” She glanced briefly at Xinxin, a complicated look on her face, before shaking her head. “As a result, my fellow disciple, Erik, has inherited the title and responsibilities.”
The gray-haired demon shook his head. “In that case… I’m sorry for intruding during such a time.” He looked at Xinxin and said, “Are you sure I should be-“
“It’s fine.” Xinxin reached out to pour herself a cup of tea.
“Ah! Allow me, Great Heaven Seizer!” Mary grabbed the pot before Xinxin could and prepared a cup, placing it down on the table.
Xinxin took it, giving a grateful nod towards Mary. But then she realized what Mary had said and frowned. “You know, it’s fine to call me by something else. Hearing ‘Great Heaven Seizer’ this and ‘Great Heaven Seizer’ that gets a bit annoying.”
Mary’s eyes lit up and she said, “That… are you certain? I do not mean to be impolite…”
Xinxin nodded and started drink from her cup of tea.
“Then… can I call you Grandma?”
Xinxin carefully swallowed her tea and set her cup down. After making sure she wouldn’t spray the Dark Knight with tea, she narrowed her eyes and turned towards Mary. “Do I look that old?”
“A-Ah. But Grandpa said you were only a little younger than him, so I just assumed…“ Mary trailed off and lowered her head.
“That guy!” Xinxin huffed and crossed her arms. “I am only-!” She paused, suddenly remembering the countless loops she had gone through with Nowun, as well as the long time spent waiting in the dark gray mist. After recalling that, she sighed and said, “…Never mind. But Grandma is too much.”
Titania stifled a laugh.
Xinxin decided to ignore her for now. There’d be time to get back at her dear servant soon enough.
Mary nodded. “Then… can I call you Aunt-”
Heavy pressure filled the pagoda.
Mary quickly amended her words and said, “I mean Sister. Can I call you Big Sister?”
Xinxin smiled and released the pressure. “Of course. And tell that to the others as well, would you?”
Mary sighed and then smiled. “Of course, Great- I mean, Big Sister.”
Xinxin nodded and went back to drinking her tea. After that, she looked at the demon and said, “As I was saying before, it’s fine for you to be here. Even if you were planning to take advantage of the transition period, I’m here, so it’d be fruitless.”
“…I can see that.” The demon shook his head and said, “But still, to think I went through all of that to make a pill and ask for a favor, only for the Heavenly King to have perished…”
“A pill?” Xinxin frowned. “What for?”
The demon straightened and said, “I had heard that the Heavenly King was nearing the end of his life a few steps away from true immortality. Seeing an opportunity, I combed through ancient records to find a way for him to breakthrough. In the end, I managed to devise a pill that should help, but…”
“So that’s what you were stealing dantians for.” Xinxin nodded.
It made sense now. While unconventional, it was indeed possible to forcibly breakthrough by taking the cultivation bases of others. If she had to guess, that was probably what her Sifu did to get so strong… well, that and looping time in on itself to increase his cultivation at an exponential rate.
Mary froze. “Stealing dantians?” She looked at the demon with wide eyes and instinctively took a step back.
Xinxin waved her hand. “Relax. He won’t harm anyone while I’m here.” She paused and then said, “Now why don’t you head back now to your lover and spend the night with him? I’m sure he’d appreciate it with the stress.”
Mary blushed. “E-Erik is not my lover!”
Xinxin smiled. “Whatever you say, Little Mary.”
The blue-haired young woman huffed and then quickly left the pagoda.
Like that, it was just Xinxin, Titania, and the demon who still had not given his name.
Xinxin stared at him and said, “So… who are you?”
“Hm?” He tilted his head. “I’m…” He paused and then groaned and ran his hand through his hair. “I did it again. If Eris found out, she’d tear me a new one…”
Xinxin blinked. “Eris?”
The name was vaguely familiar to Xinxin. Like something she’d heard once and promptly forgotten.
The demon shook his head and then stood up. After that, he bowed and said, “I apologize for my rudeness. I am Nero Asmoday, son of Demon Lord Krozma.” He straightened and said, “How should I address you?”
“…Faith is fine.”
Heaven Seizer was too over the top and Xinxin… of the people who knew her by that name, only one remained. Having others add to that number… didn’t feel right.
Nero nodded. “Understood. Miss Faith then.” He stared at Xinxin and frowned. “Is it true that you are the one in charge of this sect? From my understanding, it should have been the Heavenly King… not that I’m doubting you or anything.”
Xinxin poured a cup of tea for Nero and placed it on the table. “I am. The Heavenly King was a…”
Friend? Acquaintance? Lover?
“…Person who knew me very well. Since it would take a while until I arrived here, he created the sect for the day I did.”
Nero’s eyes widened. “Then are you…” He stared at Xinxin and said, “Are you an immortal? They call you the Heaven Seizer, so are you an immortal that stole power from the heavens… from the Goddess herself?”
Xinxin frowned and added more tea to her cup. She also grabbed a steam bun, putting it on a plate in front of her. “Immortal… I suppose that’d be the closest thing to it.”
The only true immortals in the world were her Sifu and that Goddess, but as Xinxin was now… she could be considered close to one at least.
Her Sifu couldn’t die because of his ability, a providence that went beyond even that Goddess’s power. As for that Goddess… well, it was obvious why she was immortal.
Xinxin’s immortality… or rather, inability to perish, came from her bond with her Sifu. Still, considering who her Sifu was, the effect was the same.
Well, now that she and ‘Faith’ had become one, at least. Or was it now that she remembered her past… future? Time was always confusing when it came to her Sifu’s actions…
The sound of a chair being shoved out of the way echoed, shortly followed by the sound of a head knocking against wood.
Xinxin’s eyes widened and she stood up. “What are you doing?”
Nero had jumped to the floor, knocking his head against the pagoda in a kowtow. “Please! I need your help! You… only someone like you can help me!”
Xinxin walked over and pulled him up. “Don’t be so ridiculous! Sit down and drink some tea first!”
“A-Ah.” Nero shook his head and took a seat. “I guess I screwed up the order again… I should have listened more to Eris in my etiquette lessons…”
Xinxin shook her head and then poured another cup of tea. She turned around and offered it to Titania. “Did you want some?”
Titania shook her head. “I am fine, Master.”
Xinxin frowned. “…Let me rephrase that. Drink it.” She paused, remembering Titania’s condition, and then placed a few steam buns on a plate before handing that over as well. “And eat.”
Titania looked confused, but then she nodded and took the cup and plate from Xinxin. “Understood.”
Xinxin sighed. Was this how her Sifu felt about that dragon? It was really a headache making sure your followers thought about their well-being first…
Nero took a long drink from his tea and then set the cup down.
Xinxin turned back to him and said, “Calm now?”
“Alright. So… you’re the son of the Demon Lord and came here to get some help… with what exactly? Taking down the Northern Empire? Conquering the continent?”
Nero shook his head. “Nothing like that. Though, I can see why you might think so with how my father’s been acting…” He sighed. “It’s a long story… Ah, but before then.” He stared at Titania and said, “Are you Miss Titania? The eldest princess of Alvheim?”
Titania gave a bitter laugh. “What princess? Alvheim was razed to the ground.” She narrowed her eyes and then said, “…Because of your people and your father. The Human Empire thought we had joined hands with you and were defying the Goddess. Because of you… Because of that, I-!”
Xinxin sighed. “Must we do this every time, Titania?”
The elf froze and then let out a long sigh. “…My apologies, Master. It will not happen again.” She shook her head and then ignored Nero, focusing instead on her tea and food.
Xinxin glanced at Nero and said, “Was there a reason you brought that up? Or is it just that your rudeness knows no bounds? Because if it’s the latter, I think we’re done here.”
“No!” Nero shook his head. “I’m sorry, it’s just…” He frowned. “I didn’t know. Ever since I left- no. I should probably start at the beginning.” He sighed and then looked into his tea cup, no doubt sifting through his memories.
Xinxin decided to take a bite from her steam bun while she waited. It was… pretty good, actually. It seemed that Little Mary was a fairly skilled cook along with being a skilled magician. Though it was odd that she knew how to prepare steam buns considering that she was a foreigner… especially considering they were made so well.
Maybe Mary learned because of Wang Tian?
If Xinxin remembered right, he always liked it when she made him steam buns the rare times he returned.
…And now she felt weird again remembering those memories.
Damned Wang Tian.
What resolved karma? What settled debt? At this rate, she’d be the one who owed him too much…
Nero raised his gaze, ready to talk.
Xinxin placed down her steam bun.
“It began three months ago,” Nero said. “My sister was going to go through her rite of passage to inherit the role of the Demon Lord and-“
“Wait.” Xinxin held up her hand and said, “You’re the eldest son, right?” She frowned. “Why is your sister inheriting the role of the Demon Lord? Shouldn’t it be you?”
Nero smiled. “While I’m happy that you think I’d be a good fit… it’s impossible for me.” He sighed and then raised his hand. Darkness gathered, flickering at his finger tips.
Xinxin stared at it and then frowned. That was darkness, similar to her own… but it was weak. No, not just weak. Forced. Now that Xinxin saw it up close, she realized that there was something missing in that darkness of his, but she couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was.
Nero shook his head and then dismissed the darkness. “I said it to you, didn’t I? You use darkness like a Demon Lord might. For them, it has to be intuitive. As simple as breathing. My control over darkness was trained and honed through combat… but it’s still lacking. Mostly because of this.” He pointed to his hair.
Xinxin blinked. “Because you have hair?” She subconsciously grabbed her own hair, running her hands through it. Was her control over darkness so great because she had long black hair? No, her Sifu’s hair was shorter but his control was greater. Then-
Nero laughed. “No, no. It’s because I’m a Lunar Demon. The silver hair is the tell-tale sign of one. In exchange for lacking complete control over darkness, we have better combat intuition and potential. Mm… to put it in this kingdom’s terms, it would be the difference of an external cultivator versus an internal cultivator.”
Xinxin nodded. “In short… you’re handicapped.”
Nero froze and then scratched the back of his head. “When you put it like that…” He shook his head. “Anyway, unlike me, my sister was born with an innate affinity towards darkness. Even more than my father’s. That’s why she was chosen to be the next Demon Lord and why we were going to perform the ceremony on her sixteenth birthday.”
Xinxin took a sip from her tea and then said, “Go on.”
“As I was saying, I, along with a few others, escorted my sister to perform the rite of passage. We took her to the inner halls of Tartarus to undergo the Stygian rebirth and awaken her full potential. But…” His eyes narrowed. “There were humans lying in wait for us. An ambush.”
“Humans, huh? They wouldn’t happen to be a group of four, led by an arrogant man with golden hair would they?”
Nero blinked and looked up. “How did you know?”
Xinxin sighed. “…Maybe I should have kept them alive.” Unlike her Sifu, she couldn’t steal their memories, only their powers. If she had known that they were involved in the whole mess, Xinxin would have kept them half alive instead.
“Wait. You killed them? But they were Apostles of- Oh. Right. Immortal.”
Xinxin nodded. “Yes. Now, go on? What happened after they attacked?”
Nero sighed. “…We were wiped out and my sister was kidnapped. Not only that, the Apostle made it seem like she was killed. Apparently, the plan was to leave no witnesses and cause a riot, but I managed to live because my sister begged them to spare my life.” He clenched his hands. “That… I will never forget the sight of-“
Xinxin waved her hand. “Humiliation, swearing revenge… I get the gist of it. I’ve been there and done that.”
Well, partially. She never did beat Wang Tian in a fair fight… but she was alive while he was dead, so it kind of counted?
Xinxin shook her head and said, “Why do you need my help?”
“Sorry.” Nero nodded. “I didn’t mean to waste your time. In short, I need you to help me sneak into the imperial palace of Ars Nova and rescue my sister. If not… I’m afraid that the entire continent will become embroiled in war. With the Demon Realm believing their beloved princess was assassinated, and with the Goddess helping the humans behind the scenes, it’s only a matter of time before the world comes to an end.” He bowed his head and said, “Please, Miss Faith! Help me save my sister! Help me save this world!”
Xinxin blinked. “That’s… quite a lot to take in. But… if the Goddess is involved…”
Now that she thought about it, the entire mess seemed exactly like something that Goddess would find amusing. She probably orchestrated the entire event as well.
And then, in the middle of that giant mess, the Goddess had dropped her Sifu. Had dropped Nowun… and tried to place the Fate of being a hero on his shoulders.
“What a selfish bitc- Wait.” Xinxin paused and then looked at Nero. “You said the imperial palace of Ars Nova? The capital of the Northern Empire?”
Nero nodded. “That’s right. I don’t know exactly where, but the Apostles gloated about the Emperor keeping my sister in a dungeon deep below the palace.”
Suddenly, it clicked.
Why Nero seemed familiar, why she recognized the name ‘Eris’.
Xinxin turned to look at Titania.
The elf stared back at her, in the middle of eating a steam bun. She swallowed, suppressing a brief look of delight on her face from eating the steam bun, and then said, “Did you need something, Master?”
Xinxin paused in thought and then turned to look at Nero. “By any chance, have you been working on countermeasures against mana?”
Nero’s eyes widened. “How did you know? I haven’t talked to anyone about Anti-Magic yet!”
Xinxin laughed. “So that’s how it is!”
She understood now. Why Wang Tian left behind that blade, what he meant by clearing her Sifu’s karma.
It seemed like she’d be meeting her Sifu again sooner than she had thought...