Xinxin emerged in a familiar place. However, it was familiar in that it was similar to the place she had just left. Tree roots formed the walls, smooth wood formed the floors… It seemed like she was still in the World Tree. No, considering the architecture, it was Alvheim, the city of the elves and Aria’s home.
But unlike the time she had just left, Alvheim here was thriving. While Xinxin didn’t use her spiritual sense for fear of alerting the Goddess and causing her to interfere, she could clearly sense other people somewhere in the nearby area. Not only that, but there was a certain liveliness in the air, one that had been missing when she followed her Sifu earlier.
Xinxin frowned and then took a better look at her surroundings.
She seemed to be in an entrance hall of some sort. There was an elaborate set of double doors in front of her, woven through with ivy and branches, formed directly from the tree itself. Though Xinxin didn’t know exactly who awaited on the other side, from the grandeur of the doors, it was clear that person was probably important.
The main question, however, was why the frayed thread of karma led her here.
She didn’t remember arriving in this place with her Sifu as his Faithful Companion. So why-
Footsteps echoed from behind her.
Xinxin turned around.
It was a young man. Dark hair, an average face, dark eyes… Nowun.
Xinxin noticed that he was similar to her Sifu, but he was also different. Something about the air around him, his demeanor…
Nowun’s eyes flashed with recognition.
Xinxin’s heart fluttered when she saw that. Did she finally find him? Her Sifu?
She was hopeful, happy… and then she saw the faint glimmer of golden threads piercing throughout his body. Not only that, but she saw that the thread of karma she held didn’t lead to him.
Her expression darkened.
Nowun stared at Xinxin for a moment and then said, “You-“
Xinxin shook her head. “You’re not him.”
He looked the same, but he was different. He was Nowun… but he wasn’t the nameless young man that became her Sifu. He wasn’t the one who gave her the strength and drive to seek out her own path.
Moreover… The Nowun standing before her was an empty shell. A puppet bound by the Goddess’s threads of Destiny, moving directly in line with her will.
Before Nowun could say anything else, Xinxin concealed herself and then bent space, quickly taking her leave.
She reemerged at the top of the World Tree, standing atop the tallest branch. After making sure her footing was stable, Xinxin picked up the thread she followed to arrive in Alvheim and then looked around. “Where are you, Sifu…?”
Clouds drifted past Xinxin, and the blue sky surrounded her. The warm sun cast its rays, creating a peaceful atmosphere.
Despite that, Xinxin didn’t relax. Instead, she heightened her focus and stared off into the horizons.
From her vantage point, she could see the land in every direction, the very world itself.
To the north was Emperor Elio’s domain, frosty at the northernmost edge with green plains beneath it, dotted here and there with villages, cities, and fortresses.
To the east was the Sun Kingdom, sprawling out by the sea beyond a desert wasteland. A dot of green and life amid a vast land of death, the result of Wang Tian’s efforts.
And… he would be alive in this time, wouldn’t he? Since he never created her sword, he should still be teaching those brats and acting like an old man…
Xinxin shook her head and kept looking.
To the south, she could see a land covered in darkness. Four towers surrounded a vast Castletown that looked to be made of pure obsidian. The Demon Realm, where Nero’s father was no doubt preparing for war.
And then, to the west, Xinxin saw a vast mountain range, with a peak stretching even higher than her current place at the top of the World Tree. The place where the Goddess’s Apostles and the ones responsible for her mother’s disappearance rested.
Four powers, four domains. But the faint thread attached to her wrist led to none of them. Instead, as she traced it out, she saw that it frayed even further, breaking into three thin lines.
Two of those led to somewhere in the Ancient Forest below while the last… It seemed to lead further north, but it also kept shifting, making it impossible to trace.
Xinxin frowned and then decided to check on the two threads she could immediately determine first. While she doubted that it was her Sifu… she was curious as to what… or who they connected to.
Once again, Xinxin bent space, targeting the ends of the two threads in the Ancient Forest. When she reemerged, she arrived in a forest clearing.
Xinxin blinked, confused for a moment when she saw no one around. And then a silver and gold blur crashed into the ground.
A beauty with silver hair and azure eyes brushed off her white dress and then said, “Hmph. You will never be of any use to him like this, Girl.”
That ‘Girl’ was another beauty, one with long golden hair and emerald eyes. Like the first beauty, she brushed off her dress, a violet one that clung to her figure. After that, she glared at the silver-haired beauty and said, “Like you’re any better, old hag!”
Xinxin recognized the two. Saphira and Aria. Her Sifu’s dragon and the elf that he saved.
But what were they doing here?
“You…!” Saphira narrowed her eyes and then charged at Aria, sending out a wave of white lightning.
Aria swept her hand, sending out a gust of dark wind, and then charged at Saphira as well.
The two elements canceled each other out, but it didn’t stop the beauties from charging at each other.
Aria grabbed Saphira and sent the divine dragon crashing to the forest floor.
Saphira scowled and quickly flipped her over, pressing her to the ground. “You fight dirty, Girl!”
“I like to call it effective!”
Watching the two being so immature, Xinxin sighed and shook her head. It seemed like they were the ones that the threads she saw connected to. Likely a result of the accumulated karma between them and her Sifu-
A faint glimmer of gold.
Xinxin’s eyes widened and she glanced back at the threads connecting to the two beauties. When she did, she saw that there was something wrapping around those threads, around the connections they held to her Sifu, and in turn, to herself.
A thin golden thread, as delicate as a spider’s silk, wrapped around the lines connecting to Aria and Saphira. Not only that, but it seemed to eat into the karma binding the two to her Sifu, to Nowun.
That… was something that shouldn’t be happening. Even if that Goddess was trying to force the two to abide by her Destiny, it wasn’t that easy to subvert the bonds formed by her Sifu and his Absolute Memory. Yet, the evidence of that was clear before her eyes.
Xinxin frowned and followed the golden line back to see who or what it connected to. As she did, she saw that they led towards the hall that she had just left.
Seeing that, she realized why such an event was occurring.
Aria and Saphira… At least the ones in this time. They truly believed that fake Xinxin met was the real Nowun.
How could they be so blind?! Were they idiots? No. Despite acting so immature, she knew better. At least they weren’t foolish enough to be tricked so easily. Yet… they were still being tricked. As for why… Staring at the golden threads, Xinxin saw that there was a faint trace of crimson there as well.
Love and affection. Only… Those two were directing it to the wrong person.
The two… Aria and Saphira seemed to yearn for Nowun so much that they were willing to take the side of the fake who seemed to care for them. Enough that they were willingly blinding themselves to the truth.
Xinxin let out a deep breath and then deliberately turned around, walking into the forest.
After what she saw, she had a feeling she would lash out if she didn’t leave. And a brief walk would let her calm down a bit.
Leaves rustled around her as a gentle breeze passed through the forest.
It was somewhat nostalgic. Being in the Ancient Forest again after all this time… No, it would be the ‘first’ time in this life. At least, if she didn’t count the mad dash just previously when she was following her Sifu.
In any case, the scenery reminded Xinxin of the past when it was just her and her Sifu. Her and Nowun.
Hearing the leaves rustling reminded her of the first time she met her Sifu as well… or rather, their first night together.
Xinxin sighed and then glanced back at the thread connecting to her wrist. There was still that last thread that she had yet to check on. Since the others were Saphira and Aria, by process of elimination, the last one had to lead to her Sifu.
The problem was that she couldn’t really sense where it ended. If she could, she would have used her powers to arrive there in a heartbeat, but she couldn’t.
“…I suppose I’ll have to solve this like an ordinary mortal then.”
Xinxin shook her head and then started walking, slowly winding up the tread around her wrist as she followed it.
The path she took in pursuit of that line was winding and convoluted.
She saw another forest clearing, one stained in darkness and blood. She walked along the edge of the Ancient Forest itself, moving from the northern border to the Empire’s territory and back. She even returned for a moment back to Alvheim, before walking back out towards the Ancient Forest again.
And then the line went slack.
Xinxin froze and glanced at her surroundings.
It was a small trail beneath dense tree branches. The sunlight barely managed to reach the ground, leaving obscured in shadows.
But that wasn’t a problem for Xinxin. Even though it was dark, she could still clearly see and follow the thread of karma wrapped around her wrist. Except… it came to an end.
Xinxin glanced at her wrist, and then she glanced at where the line of karma ended.
“This… Sifu? Are you here?” She called out, just in case.
Xinxin frowned and lightly tugged at the thread wrapped around her wrist. When she did, it dragged along the ground, moving towards her. Yet, the length of it didn’t change. If anything, it grew longer when she pulled it.
That… Shouldn’t happen? The connection still existed, so that meant her Sifu was around. But for it to go slack like that as well as the end to seemingly lead nowhere…
Xinxin sighed. “What exactly did you do, Sifu?”
She didn’t know much about how karma worked, but what she had gleaned from Wang Tian’s gift to her as well as her own intuition told her that it should work like that. Karma… if the bonds connecting people were severed, the threads should be spinning around the person, as if spider silk drifting in the wind.
Like the bonds she had seen on Titania in her time.
Yet… The connection between Xinxin and her Sifu was slack, but still connected. That could be seen from how she could still pull some more thread despite the other end leading nowhere.
But how and why was that-
Xinxin’s eyes widened and she quickly glanced back at the thread connecting her to her Sifu. “No… No. This can’t…”
She carefully pulled at it. Maybe she had just been imagining things?
The thread flew towards her, drifting in the wind. Severed.
Xinxin threw caution to the wind and used her Spiritual Sense.
He was here. He had to have been here. That was the only reason why the thread could exist in this time. The fact that it just snapped meant that he should still be around. And if he was around, Xinxin should be able to sense him.
The forest. The monsters roaming in the forest. Imperial soldiers. Aria and Saphira. Elves, the guardian spirit in the heart of the World Tree, Yggdrasil…
As Xinxin spread out her awareness, she saw and felt everything in the Ancient Forest and Alvheim. Despite that, she didn’t see the one she wanted to see.
Where are you, Sifu?
She focused. Xinxin didn’t believe that she couldn’t find him. Not when the bonds between them were so strong. Not when she cared so much for him.
Trees, monsters, more trees, elves, demon scouts, imperial scouts.
But no sign of her Sifu.
Xinxin felt her stomach drop.
The bond between her and her Sifu… It couldn’t be severed so easily. Not like that. Even Wang Tian was unable to do so, despite his understanding and mastery of karma. And that Goddess was meddlesome, but from their clash, Xinxin knew that her powers aligned mostly with combat.
Thus, for the line to snap like that… It could only mean one thing.
Either the person on the other end was dead, something impossible considering who her Sifu was. Or… their very existence had vanished.
Xinxin’s heart raced and she shook her head. “No. That… That’s impossible.”
She had followed the karma here, and it had led here, so it clearly existed. Her Sifu’s existence remained. If not, then she wouldn’t have been able to follow it.
Yet, despite her attempts to calm herself down, Xinxin felt a growing panic. A seed of fear, forming in her heart. That her Sifu… that Nowun. That the person she cared for above everything else… that he was-!
A surge of power welled up in the distance.
That broke Xinxin out of her thoughts.
She shook her head and said, “Focus, Xinxin. Sifu… he wouldn’t vanish so easily.”
Right. That guy was too stubborn to die and too skilled to disappear.
“So focus. Find out what’s happening here and then go from there.”
Muttering those words to herself, Xinxin forced herself to look at the source of that disturbance and analyze it. Anything to distract her from those doubts creeping into her mind.
The power… it wasn’t mana. It also wasn’t any kind of spiritual or natural energy. Despite that, Xinxin was familiar with it. That sensation… It was divinity. A fragment of Order from that Goddess.
But… Why was it here? No, she knew why it was here. After all, that was the reason for the World Tree. But why would it flare like that, and now of all times?
Before Xinxin could dwell too much on it, another surge of power erupted. Almost as if to challenge the Light of Order, a Chaotic Darkness welled up.
But it was faint. An energy not quite divine, not quite mana, and not quite natural or spiritual. Despite that, Xinxin recognized it as well.
At once, her despair and fears vanished.
Xinxin quickly spooled up the remains of the thread connecting her to her Sifu and then leapt into the air, flying towards the source of that Chaotic Darkness.
The moment she broke through the treetops, she could see it.
Up in the sky, hovering amidst a broken tree branch of the World Tree, there was a figure wreathed in shadows.
While she couldn’t make out his features from her current distance, Xinxin could tell with a single glance.
That figure… The one wreathed in shadows. It was her Sifu. Not just Nowun, but her Nowun. The one who fell against the Goddess.
His current state had to be the aftermath of that battle. His powers were flaring out of control and he was acting on instinct.
Xinxin shook her head before starting to fly towards him… And then she noticed that there were a few other floating not far from her Sifu. Familiar faces at that.
Aria, Saphira, and Titania. The elves were flying with wind magic, while Saphira was keeping herself afloat due to her powers as a Divine Dragon.
And they were standing directly opposed to her Sifu instead of at his side.
“Those blind fools!”
Titania she could forgive. In this time, Xinxin didn’t think that the eldest elf princess had much of a connection to Nowun, or any reason to aid him.
But the others…
While Xinxin was cursing the beauties out in her mind, they moved.
Aria and Saphira flew through the air, moving towards the shadowy figure. White lightning crackled around Saphira’s right hand while dark wind spiraled around Aria’s left hand.
The moment they did that, there was a ripple in the thread of karma Xinxin held. The splintered edges connecting her to Aria and Saphira, the shared connection they had… The moment that the two charged at Nowun, it vanished.
The silk-like golden thread absorbed the karma connecting them all and subverted it, binding Aria and Saphira to that fake. At the same time, bright red lines emerged, spiraling around the golden threads and forming a thick cable. A bond that wouldn’t be broken easily, even using the sword Wang Tian left Xinxin.
Seeing that, the irritation Xinxin felt at Aria and Saphira turned to fury.
As the combined attack approached the shadowy figure, the shadows surrounding him parted for a moment. Only an instant. But that brief window was enough for Xinxin to see the man beneath.
Pale skin, long dark hair and black robes. Dark eyes that seemed more crimson than brown.
There was no mistaking it. That was the real Nowun… No. The nameless man who became Xinxin’s Sifu. The one who gave her everything and severed their karma to protect her from the Goddess in that last fight.
And attacking him were the two that he had saved, the ones who should have been his greatest allies other than herself.
Xinxin scowled and swept her hand through the air. Space ripped and she emerged beside her Sifu. At the same time, she glared at the incoming attack and formed a barrier from her powers, the absolute Chaotic Darkness that diametrically opposed the Goddess’s Order of Light.
The lightning and wind spiral vanished, completely erased.
Aria and Saphira froze, hovering in mid-air.
Xinxin ignored them and then reached out to hug her Sifu.
Did he instinctively sense who she was? The shadowy figure turned to look at her and muttered two syllables. “Xin…xin…?”
Hearing that, Xinxin’s heart warmed and she gave him a tender smile. Then she turned to look at Aria and Saphira, her face icy with wrath.
They stared back in shock, unable to speak.
Xinxin… she didn’t know what to say. She was so furious that words couldn’t even come to her mind.
They dared to attack her Sifu. The one who was not only their greatest benefactor, but the one who freed them from the cruel Destiny that sadistic goddess placed on them.
Aria was saved from the fate of the other elves.
Saphira’s mind and consciousness was restored after being forced into madness from having the Goddess’s Brave seduce and then abandon her daughter.
Both were acts that should have given them an eternity of gratitude towards her Sifu.
Yet, they went against him. Not only were they tricked, but they even pledged their allegiance to the fake puppet that Goddess set up to take her Sifu’s place.
Xinxin wanted nothing more than to cut both of them down. Even if this timeline was temporary, one that she would never have to return to, the fact that it existed at all…
In the end, Xinxin decided to leave them be with a single word, filling it with as much venom as she could. “Traitors.”
After that, she pulled Nowun close to her and then drew her sword, tearing through time and space and using its connection to bring her back to her timeline, to the one where her Sect, Titania, and the others were waiting.
The void between time and space, the special dimension where karma guided the way… Xinxin returned to that and then used it to trace her way back.
They remerged in a flash of violet light.
Xinxin glanced around to see that they arrived in her bedroom, the private chambers that Wang Tian had prepared for her where even the Goddess couldn’t easily see through.
Realizing that, Xinxin let out a sigh and turned around to look at her Sifu, a bright smile on her face.
And then he lashed out, grabbing her throat with his left hand. “You… are strong.” The shadows surrounding him had faded, revealing his true form. But even so, he wasn’t quite himself. Madness flickered in his dark crimson eyes and his voice came out in a rasp. “Your power… I will take it.”
Darkness flared along his arm, racing towards Xinxin and trying to devour her.
Xinxin flinched… But nothing happened.
She frowned and then realized why.
Her Sifu had been wounded from fighting against the Goddess. His final attack was something that even the Goddess called crazy, so the aftermath of it must be severe. As a result, Xinxin who was even stronger than when they had last met, was stronger than her Sifu.
But knowing that didn’t bring her any happiness. Instead, her eyes blurred as she stared at her Sifu’s face.
He… Wasn’t entirely human any more. Having risked everything in the fight against the Goddess, what was left… The one holding onto her was just a hungry ghost. A preta that was trying to fill in the missing pieces with whatever it could.
Tears ran down Xinxin’s face and she shook her head. “My Sifu…”
Her Sifu’s gaze flickered and he winced, clutching at his head with his right hand. “You… Argh.”
Xinxin’s eyes widened.
That… He recognized her. Despite losing his human form… Despite turning into a Preta, a hungry ghost… He was still there. Somewhere, a lingering sentiment remained.
Was it because of his Absolute Memory? Was it their karma?
Xinxin didn’t know… But she knew there was a chance. A chance that she could get her Sifu back.
And to do that…
Xinxin took a deep breath and then stared into her Sifu’s eyes. She smiled and said, “Do as you wish, Sifu. If this will help you return to normal, then I…”
She remembered the past. The memories accumulated across two lifetimes and countless time loops.
Being taken out of the Lost Woods.
Being scolded and reluctantly taught.
Being saved, saving him…
“…I’ll accept whatever you decide to do.”
Her Sifu stared at her, his eyes uncertain. Recognition, regret, guilt, madness…
And then he tightened the grip in his left hand and pinned Xinxin to the ground.
Darkness flared, and then Xinxin’s soft voice echoed in the room, twisted in pain and agony.