Looking around at the rest of the village, her eyes were empty. The walls of the homes and shops had long since crumbled. In their place stood thick beams of wood, blackened and charred from where the flames had burned them.
The ruins were still smoking and she could see the faintest glow of embers as she shifted around the creaking threshold of buildings. Black dust hung in the air and invaded her lungs as she walked around the old path. Nothing had escaped the fire.
Rin's eyes swept to the bloodied bodies sprawled around.
Hearts that used to beat were still. Minds that felt so many emotions were blank. They were all dead now.
Rin's eyes lowered without a hint of emotion and she stepped forward to the familiar mountain pathway. The closer she moved to the house, the more her heart felt it was about to break. She had even been unaware that her entire body was trembling as she made her way to the front of the house.
The three bandits still lay in the snow while the house's front door was wide open. Rin quietly stepped forward and felt her heart stop. Under the wintry morning light, the girl was utterly still.
The girl on the floor was lifeless. Lifeless.
At that moment, all pretense of quiet coping was lost and Rin sank onto the wet floor, not caring about the dark, cold blood that quickly soaked into her clothing.
Rin's pale, slender fingers stretched forward.
"At the very least, you passed with him by your side." Rin's voice was soft as she stroked her fingers across the cold cheek.
"But what about me?"
Who will she pass alongside?
The grief surged with every expelled breath, and tears began to spill from her helpless eyes and onto the floor.
"Why won't you let me join alongside any of you?"
Her mother, Governor Tao, Madam Tao, the Guando soldiers, and Jia. All had died from her inability to protect them.
Why won't fate allow her to die alongside them? Was the Rin she was now, not worthy enough?
The emptiness in her heart, the numbness pounding her brain, the sheer nothingness that now took hold of her soul threatened to engulf her entirely. At that moment, Rin pulled out a shimmering object from her pocket, her dull eyes never leaving Jia's body.
"The one who has always protected me from harm. The one who has always shielded me from evil. The one who has always loved me for who I am. The one who has always held me safely. I thank you, and one day will meet you again, Rin."
She raised the stainless steel blade to her neck and closed her eyes.
Aiguo sat alone in the fiery night, bright colors dancing, tattooing then changing before his eyes. He observed the flames leap and hiss, always reaching feverishly out for him, trying desperately to grab and hold onto his fleeting shadow.
"Are you warm enough?" Mister Qiu walked over with a cup of warm tea.
Aiguo silently nodded and took the cup of tea into his small hands. The room was silent except for the crackling sound of the burning fire. The old monk sat uncomfortably in his chair as he shifted his gaze to the silent boy.
He cleared his throat. "Your sister...she was a kind girl. Lively, but still a good kid. I know she wanted the best for you. That's why she wouldn't want to see you looking so glum right now."
Aiguo was silent. His swollen red eyes looking deeply into the flames.
"I don't want to smile when she's not here. I just…I want her back. I want her to come back." Aiguo whimpered in a weak, pitiful tone as he lowered his head into his knees.
Mister Qiu stared at the grieving boy and sighed heavily. He didn't know how to deal with children. Depressed children at that. Before he had the chance to speak again, the front door opened. Upon seeing the figure in front of the doorway, Aiguo and Mister Qiu's eyes widened.
"Oi, girl, is that you?" He scratched his head. "What happened to your hair?"
Standing in front of them was none other than Rin. However, what had shocked them the most was that the girl's usually long, silky hair was now cut to the edge of her ears. While she still looked like a beauty, her appearance was more of a feminine looking boy.
Rin ignored the old man's comments and for the first time, a bright, genuine smile bloomed on her face.
"I have decided to leave."
Not just Aiguo, but Mister Qiu was stunned.
"What?" Aiguo suddenly stood up from the ground, his brows furrowed. "Where are you going?"
Rin looked down and smiled faintly. "Before I arrived here, I had made a promise to someone to help them find their fate. Now, I'll need that person to help complete my own. That's why I'm leaving to return to them."
As Aiguo slowly processed her words, his expression grew more and more unpleasant.
"You mean because you no longer have a purpose here, you're just going to leave us?!" His face flushed red with anger.
In response to his anger, Rin was calm, but her brows couldn't help but furrow.
"Aiguo, that's not what I meant."
The boy shook his head, tears brimming the corners of his eyes.
"Lies! It's all lies! You just don't want to deal with me anymore! Just like her, you're—"
Before he could finish his sentence a gust of fragrant wind hit him, a pair of warm arms wrapping around him.
"I'm not lying to you nor am I leaving you," Rin said seriously. "I failed to protect her, but I'm not going to make that same mistake again. Aiguo, I want you to come with me."
Wrapped in her embrace, Aiguo's eyes widened.
Rin laughed softly and pulled away to look at his flushed little face.
"I want to take you in and help you grow."
Aiguo was confused. "Why?"
The corners of Rin's lips curled. "That's a secret."
The boy was dumbfounded. He oddly felt the Rin before him was livelier. However, for some reason, she still possessed a sharp, clever aura.
"Of course, this is all up to you." She looked into Aiguo's eyes. "Are you willing to follow alongside me?"
He looked up into her clear eyes and found himself lost in a sense of comfort and trust. Although her hair was cut short, she was still beautiful. But none of her other features compared to her emerald eyes that were as deep and bright as a flowing river.
"I…" His fists by his side clenched. "I want to follow you."
Rin's expression softened and she patted the boy on the head.
"Then we should prepare to leave."
At the bottom of the mountain, the faintest gust of wind passed through the trees, traces of ash and snow dancing in the sky.
"Girl, may I speak to you for a moment?" The old monk walked to stand beside the girl.
"Hmm." Rin nodded as her gaze remained fixed on the boy kneeling by the mound in the ground.
"What is your purpose in taking him in?"
Rin could not help but let out a chuckle when she saw the old monk's suspicious eyes.
"Do you believe I have some ulterior motive in helping him?"
The old monk grunted. "That depends on what your heart and path require from him."
Rin's glanced at the old monk, her eyes sharp. Suddenly, her lips curled up and a smile blossomed on her face as she looked at him with determination.
"I want to create my own force. While he is still young, I am certain I can train him to aid alongside me."
The old monk was silent as he stared at the girl's seemingly cunning expression. His brows furrowed.
"Who are you?"
Rin looked at him and smiled but did not respond. When she turned her head back to the boy, he was already walking in their direction.
"Are you ready?" She asked.
Aiguo hesitated as he glanced back at an area in the ground. Jia was buried beneath there, surrounded by a pile of chrysanthemum flowers. His eyes reddened, but he quickly suppressed the tears threatening to break and nodded his head.
"Then let's go." Rin adjusted the crossbow on her back and walked forward.
When they reached the end of the village, Aiguo paused in his footsteps, a glint of hesitation flashing across his eyes before he quickly concealed it.
He looked up ahead. He had never gone past these woods. For the first time, he was about to walk outside of his village and into the unknown world.
His fists by his side clenched.
"Don't look back." A soft, calm voice suddenly sounded beside him.
Aiguo glanced up and was met with a pair of calm, emerald eyes. He was stunned for at least three seconds before he regained his senses and nodded his head with resolute eyes. Rin sounded a slight hum and continued forward with Aiguo following close behind.
As the old monk watched their figures disappear in the distance, he softly let out a sigh and looked back at Jia's grave.
Another faint wind brushed against the agile petals of the chrysanthemum flowers, a petal landing gently on the forever buried mound in the ground.
The night slowly passed and the sun, climbing toward midmorning, stretched Rin's shadow. Before the sun rose that morning, while everyone slept, Rin snuck out and walked down the mountain to the village.