Aria’s body appeared on the ground.
She was the same as I remembered her. Young, innocent… it was the Aria from before I went back after dying at the capital. The one who still had yet to recall all of her memories.
The one that I killed in cold blood.
Xinxin stared at me and said, “Sifu? Are you… alright?”
“Hm?” I glanced at her and said, “I’m fine. Why, do I not look alright?”
She shook her head. “You… You’re a bit pale. It’s odd, so I thought I’d ask.”
Pale, huh? I glanced back at my reflection in the pond to check.
My dark brown eyes glimmered crimson from the path I took. Long and wispy black hair, trailing like dark smoke. And my skin… it had already been pale before, but now it was almost the color of snow.
My lips twisted into a wry smile and I shook my head. “Guess I can’t shake the influence she has on me even now, huh?”
The forced bond was gone, but the memories I had still remained. Saving her, abandoning her, killing her, betraying her...
I turned my gaze back to Aria’s body.
It was unblemished, almost like she was sleeping instead of dead. The only sign that she wasn’t was her still chest and the slight tear in her dress over her heart. While her body was without a wound, that mark showed that it hadn’t been unscathed.
I walked over and knelt beside her, beside Aria, and stared at her face.
Peaceful- No. Her eyebrows were furrowed and her lips pursed. An expression of worry, concern. Was that how she had looked as she was dying? How she felt? Filled not with fear for herself, but for me?
“Sifu?” Xinxin’s voice echoed again, concerned.
I sighed and muttered, “I’m stalling.”
A single moment. That was all it would take. With her body here, all I had to do was bring back everything else. Her soul, her memories, her powers… I had them all after I fell into being a Preta.
Even so, I was hesitating.
That wasn’t like me. After everything I’d gone through, I was hesitating now? I’d killed millions… no, likely more than that. All in cold blood, just to get the slightest bit stronger. I’d faced desperate pleas, wrathful accusations, vehement curses… yet at the thought of Aria scolding me, I hesitated?
I narrowed my eyes and shook my head.
…Maybe it was because my powers were low. My heart that should have been unmoving was being shaken. But even so, I could remember it. The steely resolve to follow things through, the cold disconnection as I watched and committed those acts.
Xinxin nodded and then stepped back, keeping a close eye on me.
I inwardly thanked her for the space and then stretched out my left hand, placing it over Aria’s heart. The moment I did-
Nowun. In this life and the next…
I’m too weak. I can’t… help him, can I?
If I can be of any use, any…!
Ah. If… If this is what you choose, then…
I jerked my hand back, my eyes wide.
“Sifu!” Xinxin stepped forward.
I held up my hand and shook my head. “It’s fine. It’s… fine.” I took a slow breath and turned to look back at Aria.
She looked the same, but…
“Why do I keep meeting people like you two?”
Helpless people who felt gratitude towards a harsh and callous person like myself.
I stared at Aria and sighed. “You… cared that much, huh?”
That brief contact had shown me her feelings, her thoughts. Whether they were her own or influenced by that Goddess, the fact remained that she… genuinely cared about me.
Just like Xinxin, she was another stupidly naïve young girl. Another one that the goddess cursed to a cruel fate. A helpless soul that had been happy to have someone reach out to help her in her time of need.
And I killed her. In the most cruel manner possible.
Not only that, but even now I… didn’t regret it. I felt guilt, but I didn’t regret it.
I placed my left hand against her cheek and said, “You stupid girl.”
She should have lived quietly away from others in the first life instead of trying to pay me back or protect her people.
It wasn’t your fault.
You just wanted to be free.
I did. And I killed you to do it.
Then… it was fine.
How is that fine? I…
I froze. I thought it was just in my head, but…
Light laughter echoed in my head, and then a soft voice whispered.
Did you forget about me already?
…Hmph. So you were here the whole time then?
Not always. But long enough. There was a pause and then she said, “…Did you not want me here?”
I sighed and placed my hand back over her body.
Xinxin tilted her head. “Sifu? Is something wrong?”
I shook my head and focused. Under my breath, I muttered, “You stupid elf. Just… get out here already.”
I focused on the memories from the past. From her soul. From her power… the shape of her body and everything I knew and remembered.
Darkness surged, wrapping around her body. But at the same time, something emerged within it. A glimmer of light from within the chaos.
Xinxin gasped. “That’s…”
A young elven maiden who was thought to be Alvheim’s light.
A young elven maiden who the goddess thought to torture and curse to death.
A young elven maiden who swore to pay back the one who saved her so long ago…
The air grew heavy. I couldn’t sense it, but my intuition told me something was looking back at me, peering down at what I had planned.
“Hmph.” Xinxin let out a cold snort and turned her hand.
Suddenly, light spilled forth from her cottage, expanding around the surroundings. Space and time seemed to shift, moving slightly out of phase.
At once, that strange sensation vanished.
Xinxin shook her head and said, “Continue onwards, Sifu. That goddess won’t interfere while I’m here.”
Aria Sylvania. The first person I met in this world. The first person I saved, done out of selfish intent. The first person I abandoned, done out of cowardice and rationale. The first person I betrayed, done out of rage and wrath.
“…You still want to be my ally, huh?”
A faint smile. The pale face that should have held no life gained a slight flush. Her closed eyes fluttered open. The emerald orbs looked around and then locked on me, smiling. “No…wun…?” Her eyes locked on Xinxin and then she frowned. “Who is…?”
I shook my head. “Just sleep, you dumb elf. Who told you to cling onto me so long? If I didn’t know better, I would have thought you were a vengeful spirit.”
Aria let out a weak laugh and then nodded. “I always knew, you would…”
After that, she fell asleep.
A wave of fatigue swept through my body. “Tch.”
“Sifu!” Xinxin moved to grab me, but I shook my head.
“Take her.” I gestured towards Aria and said, “It’s better to get her safe first.”
Xinxin hesitated and then nodded. She waved her hand and sent Aria towards her.
Space and time shimmered again, returning to normal.
After that, Xinxin looked at me and said, “Should I take her inside?”
“…Let’s all go inside. I think I need some proper rest.” I sighed and walked over.
…A dream. It was odd. The first time that I dreamed since I arrived in the world.
Rather, could it be said the first time I had slept at all?
It was hazy, a dream that was more like a far flung memory.
A familiar place and a familiar scene splayed out before me.
Yggdrasil, the World Tree. And at it, a house woven from the branches itself, seamlessly fitting into the surroundings.
Night. There, I stood outside the house, gazing into the starry sky.
No, that wasn’t ‘me’, but rather…
“You’re out there still, aren’t you?”
A voice echoed, one similar to mine and yet different.
I didn’t respond, but that person turned to look at me. To others, it would have seemed like he was looking into the open space, but both he and I knew otherwise.
“…My ‘true’ self.”
Silence, and then he shook his head. “Well, I guess it doesn’t matter much. But know this…” He narrowed his eyes and said, “I won’t give them up. Not like you.”
A voice echoed from inside the house. One I had heard not long ago.
“Nowun?” Aria stepped outside, rubbing her eyes. “Is something wrong?”
He stared at me for a moment longer and then shook his head, a bright smile on his face. “Nothing, Ari.”
She laughed. “Don’t tell me you’re tired of us already? Or are you not man enough to deal with three women?”
I had enough, cutting off the connection.
At once, the surroundings changed. Rather than the hazy vision of Yggdrasil… I was in a slightly unfamiliar room. Only slightly, because I recognized it after my abrupt awakening the first time.
But more importantly than that, there was someone staring at me, only inches apart from my face.
I sighed and said, “Girl. Do you have a habit of waking people up in rude ways, or are you just that uncouth?”
Xinxin huffed and took a step back. “You’re one to talk. Weren’t you the person who jumped out of bed the moment you saw me?”
I decided to ignore her for a bit and instead looked around.
Once again, I was in Xinxin’s bedroom. Unlike the last time though, I wasn’t sleeping in her bed. Instead, it seemed like I fell asleep sitting on a chair.
From the sunlight filtering in through the window, it looked like morning had arrived. Did I really sleep that long?
I shook my head and then I noticed who was sleeping on the bed.
Aria lay tucked in the bed, her eyes closed and her body still.
For a brief second, I was worried that it hadn’t worked. That instead it was just a temporary measure, one that vanished the moment I lost strength.
But then I saw the slow but sure manner her chest slightly rose and fell and realized that she was fine.
Xinxin followed my gaze and sighed. “I suppose I can’t blame you for being concerned about Aria… but could you not show me a bit of concern as well? I am your disciple!”
I shook my head. “Now you want attention? I thought you said you were fine with reviving Aria.”
“Just because I am fine with it does not mean that I won’t be a bit jealous. And I even let her sleep in my comfortable bed! Tell me that doesn’t deserve something!”
I sighed and patted her head. “There. Satisfied?”
Xinxin froze, caught off guard by the sudden contact. But then she flushed and gave me a satisfied smile.
I shook my head. That girl was pleased by the smallest things… And also far too clingy still. Not that I minded since it was my fault she turned out that way, but…
I remembered something and looked around.
“Did you need something, Sifu?” Xinxin frowned.
I nodded and said, “Where’s Titania?”
“Ah, Nia?” Xinxin paused and said, “I thought it might be a bit… difficult to have a reunion so soon so I sent her off to get some breakfast for you.”
Some food sounded nice. After what I did yesterday, I felt a bit drained… apparently enough to try and tap into other timelines judging from my dream.
Xinxin nodded. “Mmhm. I think she decided to head to that restaurant she took you to last time. I’ve heard they have decent food… well, according to Erik’s girls.”
“Right…” I glanced at Xinxin and then frowned. “And do you not have more important matters to attend to?”
“You are important, Sifu!”
I rolled my eyes and poked her forehead. “Stop acting like a child. You are the master of this Sect. Act like it. Moreover, there is that conference happening in a few months, is there not? Go sort it out so that nothing unexpected occurs.”
Xinxin rubbed her forehead. “But Sifu-“
“Again, stop acting like a child.”
Xinxin stared at me for a while longer and then let out a long sigh. “Fine. I will do as you say. Sifu knows best, after all…”
“Better than you, it seems. People would think that you never had a proper teacher growing up…”
“And who’s fault is- No, never mind.” Xinxin shook her head and then stepped off. “I’ll be going then. You… go spend time with that Aria or whatever. I’ll see you again later.”
Before I could get a word in, Xinxin had already vanished, leaving in a ripple of space.
I stared after her for a while and then shook my head. “Even after all these years, she’s still inexperienced, huh?”
Letting her emotions rule her… Well. Again, I was the one to blame for that. Probably the main reason that she hadn’t completely reached the next level was my presence.
Most people had a heart demon in their souls, one that would emerge whenever they tried to breakthrough.
Xinxin had never experienced it… mostly because I had taken on that role. Ripping out her concerns and karma, replacing it with my presence. It was a path to easy power, but the consequence of it…
“…Maybe I shouldn’t experiment so much with things I don’t understand.”