“Eternal Burning Tree?”
Shin scratched his chin as he tried to recall the unfamiliar term. The more he thought about it, the more ludicrous the word seemed. How could a tree, which was so weak to fire, be burning for eternity?
“I’m sorry, I’ve never heard of it before…”
Giving up, Shin just shook his head and stared at the abashed little girl sitting next to him.
“Hah… Then I’ll just tell you… A long time ago, during the early ages of mankind, the first scholars wanted to figure out the beginnings of everything. What is life? What are Spirits? What happens after you die?”
Shin’s ears perked up in curiosity after hearing Ariel’s words. These were all questions that many people had no real answer to.
“One day, one of the scholars proposed a test. They would all hang themselves with a rope from a tree and bring themselves to a near death state. When they were about to die, the other scholars would immediately cut the rope and resuscitate the person who was undergoing the experiment. Once they regained consciousness, the scholars would each recount their experiences, in hopes to figure out what truly lies after death.”
“The first scholar who was revived said: ‘I saw it! I saw a burning tree!’ The revelation puzzled the other scholars. After all, what did a tree have to do with life after death? Unsure of whether the first scholar was lying, they proceeded with the next person. Repeating the process, the second scholar was hung from the exact same tree. When he was near death, the other scholars cut the rope and resurrected the second scholar.”
“‘The first scholar wasn’t lying! There really was a burning tree!’ The second scholar claimed. Convinced that they were on to something, they repeated the process multiple times and in the end, out of all the scholars who participated in the experiment, over half of them claimed to have seen a burning tree.”
At this point, Ariel’s eyes glistened as her body trembled. Taking a deep breath in, she continued to tell the story.
“Then, the scholars remembered an old folktale. Of how all of life began from a tree of beginnings, the tree of life, Yggdrasil. Suddenly, it all made sense to the scholars. If the tree of life was where everything began, why couldn’t it be where everything ended?”
“With that findings, the scholars sent word to every living soul in the land that they have found out what happens after a person dies. Naturally, it created a big commotion as everyone wanted to know if their findings were accurate. So many other people followed in their footsteps. They hung themselves in hopes to catch a glimpse of life after death. They wanted to see the Eternal Burning Tree for themselves…”
“However, no one else had managed to see the Eternal Burning Tree, and in the process, many humans died attempting to reach Yggdrasil for themselves. The kings and emperors of old saw that the discovery of the Eternal Burning Tree had caused much more harm than it did good and denounced the hypothesis as ramblings of a bunch of madmen that were seeking fame. Thus, the discovery was buried in the annals of history as the scholars who participated in the experiment were all executed. In fact, the phrase ‘Chasing Yggdrasil but finding death,’ refers to the stupidity that the scholars had put the general public through.”
Tucking her knees into her chest, Ariel raised her head to gaze at the night sky. The infinite number of stars in the night sky brought a certain comfort to her petite body as her eyes started to get misty.
“Why are you telling me this story?”
Being with Ariel for such a long time, Shin was extremely familiar with all of her habits and standard behaviours. However, the current Ariel was someone entirely foreign to him. It was as if she had become another person.
“Shin, do you know why I prefer hanging out with the orphans than people from the main bloodline?”
Ariel answered Shin’s question with another question.
“It’s because I am an orphan too.”
“Well, I still have grandpa, so I am not completely alone, but like all of you, I never knew my father and mother…”
Shin started to get a bitter taste in his mouth as Ariel opened up her thoughts. All the orphans, including Shin, knew that Ariel lacked a father and a mother. Due to the devastating war that the Frie Clan fought, many of their top fighters had perished including the First Elder’s son and daughter-in-law, Ariel’s biological parents. Hence, Ariel had always been under the care of the First Elder, not knowing how an average family would be like.
“But then something mystical happened on that day when we were attacked. As I was enveloped by Lady Seph’s healing light, I felt the warm embrace of a woman. That woman was rough on the edges, slightly too muscular and possibly the coarsest lady I have ever met, but when she embraced me, I had never felt so comfortable…”
Clenching her fists, Ariel let the tears drip from her face as she thought back at that encounter that was so hard to forget. Shin’s eyes widened as his jaw dropped. Never in the many years that they had been together, had Shin seen Ariel cry.
“The moment lasted for an instant, but I felt the boundless love that the woman had for me. It was something that my grandpa would never be able to recreate. I had never met her in my entire life, but I instinctively knew who that woman was.”
Rubbing her forearms, Ariel sniffled to prevent the snot from dripping down her nose. Violently jerking her body, her voice started to get muffled as she choked on her tears.
“Shin, if the Eternal Burning Tree is the place where all souls return to, don’t you think that my mother’s soul is resting there too?”
“You wish to hang yourself to find the Eternal Burning Tree?!”
Shin shouted out, worried that his training partner was about to do something irrational in a time of weakness.
“Of course not… There is a second part to that legend…”
Ariel’s heart warmed when she saw the black-haired boy’s concerned face. In this life, there were few people that she actually cared about, and one of them was precisely this young boy in front of her.
“Legend has it that one of the Spirit Immortals in human history, ascended to the Immortal Realm just so that she could chase Yggdrasil. Her husband had died in a terrible war, and she had loathed the fact that she was unable to do anything for him. Wishing to see him once more, she convinced herself that the Eternal Burning Tree existed in the realm above and cultivated until she was strong enough to break through that final barrier…”
Finally understanding what Ariel was trying to say, Shin’s face turned sombre as he stared at the floor.
“Shin, I wish to chase Yggdrasil… I want to see my mother! I want to see my parents!”
Proudly shouting out her dreams at the top of her lungs, Ariel stood up from the bamboo mat and declared her intentions to the heavens. At that very same moment, a hooded figure, who was standing on a nearby building used his wrinkled fingers to support the bridge of his nose. Ever since he had seen Ariel in a weird state, the First Elder had been worried sick that his granddaughter had undergone something drastic during her battle with the Watkin Murderer. Hence, like a crazed stalker, the elderly man had monitored Ariel’s every movement.
Other than her private moments, such as her toilet and shower time, the First Elder had followed Ariel to find out what exactly was the cause for her change in mental state. However, no matter how much he eavesdropped on her conversations or stalked her around town, he could not figure out why Ariel had changed; but after her conversation with Shin, he finally understood why.
‘Arthur, Brenda… Can you see this from the heavens? How much your daughter misses you?’
Letting a single tear drip down his creased, aged face, the First Elder stared at the stars as he thought of his son and daughter-in-law. He only had one son and that child of his sadly only managed to father one daughter before his untimely departure from the world. Hence, the First Elder had sent as much care as he could to the parentless child; but no matter how much he loved her, Ariel was still ostracised when she was younger due to her innate talent and fiery temper.
Thankfully, she met Shin and the other orphans, who had essentially became her first and closest friends.
‘Seems like bringing her here was the right choice after all…’
After the Watkin Murderer attacked Shin and Ariel, the First Elder had been having regrets on bringing his granddaughter to Chilyoja Waypoint. Especially when Ariel entered her despondent state without telling him the reason why she was depressed. However, now that he had heard her goal, the First Elder felt an invisible boulder being lifted from his heart. With her new goal, Ariel must strive to become a Spirit Immortal, something that was much harder to do as compared to a mere clan master role that the Frie Clan was grooming her to become. Hence, there was no need to question her drive for improvements as she had made her conviction to chase Yggdrasil.
With a gratified smile, the elderly man disappeared from the building, without anyone noticing that he was there all the while.
“You wish to reach Rank 100?!”
“Yeah! That’s the only way that I can chase Yggdrasil and potentially resurrect my parents!”
“Shin, why don’t you chase Yggdrasil with me? We should both aim to become Spirit Immortals and enter the realm above!”
Raising her hands to the heavens, Ariel suggested that the black-haired youth follow in her footsteps and achieve her goal with her.
“I’ll consider it…”
Hesitant to make such a bold promise, Shin apprehensively dodged giving Ariel a straight answer. However, his aversion was quickly picked up by the little girl.
“As expected, you don’t believe me right?”
“Well, it is a hard story to digest…”
“But I believe in it! I believe that the Eternal Burning Tree is real, and I’ll prove it! Once I reach the Spirit Immortal realm, I will definitely revive my parents! The only fear I have is…”
The agitated scarlet-haired girl quickly calmed down and returned to the seat right next to Shin. Unsure of whether she could continue down that line of thinking, Ariel’s body began to shiver in fear.
“What is it?”
“Do you think that my parents would want to see me? What if I would only be a bother?”
Shin turned speechless at Ariel’s words. He could see that the girl was starting to become more gloomy and realised that he should do something. Remembering something that he had read in a book once about comforting a sad person, Shin breathed out a large mouthful of air as he steeled his nerves.
Squealing in surprise, with a tinge of delight, Ariel opened her eyes wide as she felt a warm hand embracing her trembling shoulders. Bringing her closer to himself, Shin allowed Ariel to lean her entire body inwards. A milky shampoo fragrance filled his nostrils as he got a good whiff of the little girl’s scalp. Trying to quell his beating heart, Shin started to console the girl who was in a melancholy mood.
“I’m sure your parents would be delighted to see you…”
“A hundred per cent…”
Ariel had been battling this issue in her heart over the past few days. No matter how much she tried to suppress her uneasiness, it would always bounce back and send a new wave of anxiety down her path. However, for some reason, just by hearing Shin’s words, she felt all of her worries melt away like they didn’t exist in the first place.
In a state of complete comfort, the little girl nestled snugly in the arms of the black-haired boy as they enjoyed each other’s company under the radiant starlight of the beautiful night sky.