There were more encounters with the memory sphere, as Shiro had come to call it. And of all these times, the one constant was Xinjuan—or versions of her. Extrapolating from the scenes witnessed, they gathered that one of the earliest memories of her was when she was—of course—known to be Xinjuan, the elementalist that Shiro was identifying her with. The latest memories were those of Qin, another elementalist, though less adept and experienced. In between were several other identities, consisting of one where she was known as Hanzi, born a peasant girl in the Pongmei region who lived a rather unremarkable life. Then came Yiman, a scholar in one of the libraries commissioned by the Imperial Ministries. There may yet be room for two more life times, given the average longevity of humans and the approximate duration between the two bracketing memories. Eventually, if these appearances of the memory spheres continued, the two were sure they would see them all.
Being constantly bombarded by disconnected streams of thoughts himself, Shiro knew what Xinjuan was bound to run into when presented with these disconnected and oftentimes conflicting accounts of her life—or lives: loss of identity and, occasionally, even her grasp of reality. This experience would be disconcerting even to people with the benefit of a full lifetime of experience and memories to ground their current identify, but for someone who had no such supporting context, Shiro imagined that she would be lost in a maelstrom of conflicting memories from different personas, none of which any more real than the others. And so he made sure she understood the situation, anchoring her to the present whenever she showed signs of wandering off. The two discussed at length of the visions after each occurrence. Had there been any indication of day and night, he imagined that they would have spent three to four days talking about each encounter.
He liked to believe that his hard work paid off. As she was now no longer apprehensive and hesitant but was in fact fascinated by the idea and was excited whenever the memory sphere manifested itself.
Understandable, Shiro thought. How many beings, immortal or otherwise, would get the opportunity to observe memories of their past lives with such clarity and certainty? These were no cryptic tales spun by some blind fortune teller for gold pieces; they were vivid images of authentic memories. And for someone like Xinjuan with no dominating memories of a “current” life, each observed instance was not some escapade from the mundane but was an intimate and legitimate account a life that may just as well be the “real” one. Unrestricted in this way, Xinjuan felt a certain freedom to embrace all the visions and memories and—perhaps most important of all—the unrestrained possibilities they represented. In fact, rather than a handicap, perhaps her state of mind made things easier. At times, he was envious of her situation.
All this got Shiro thinking about his own problems. Instead of fighting off these bombardments of thoughts onto his consciousness, why not try to harness them? So what if most of them were imaginations? What if, like Xinjuan's memories, enough of were not in fact imagined but were actual perspectives from a different time or place or set of circumstances? What if he could adopt any or all of these visions as if it were what truly transpired? At a minimum, he could play along with the scenarios. And of the events that were unfamiliar, perhaps they were forecasts of possible events, giving him the benefit of precognition? Perhaps they were never the curse as he had thought but rather a blessing. A twisted blessing from a twisted deity? Perhaps this was some last wish of Abaddon, to bestow upon Shiro part of himself. Perhaps it was some last attempt at some form of legacy or immortality. If he could not understand anything else of the late Lord Abaddon, he could understand this, because he, too, knew a thing or two about last acts. A bitter laugh rose in his lungs, he may have taught Abaddon that trick when he unleashed the Jade Wind as his last defiant act against the lord's control of his mind, he realized.
And so he began opening up this dam he had built up in his mind to again allow the flow of thought streams that had been continuously coming to him, hoping to catch a thread that would project what could have been had he simply let Abaddon take over his mind and body that fateful day at the Harvest Festival. What if he had allowed Abaddon to take over and reigned over Cantha? Would Abaddon eventually expand its grasp and ruled Tyria as it said it would? How would the world be, and would there be anything of Shiro Tagachi left?
But it was still painful receiving the visions and thoughts at their natural pace. Thousands of voices and sensations and ideas competed for his total attention. As he shifted between the thoughts, it felt like precariously hopping between pieces of driftwood carried along a raging river. Not being able to stay with any one for longer than the time that it would take before he fell under his own weight to betraying him to the violent torrential currents below.
Xinjuan sat across him and watched the sweat beads forming on his face. Instinctively she extended her hand and reached for him. As her fingers picked up the droplets, her hand stayed and caressed his face. She was puzzled by the scars on him. And now that she took a better look at his exposed arms, she noticed that his body was full of similar scars, some deeper and longer than others. She traced the lines and found her fingers running alongside his right arm, along one of the longer scars.
“I remember that one,” Shiro spoke as he opened his eyes to see her fingers linger on that centuries-old scar, his mind now focused back to the present. “Perhaps one of these memory spheres will show it next time,” he lifted his gaze from her hand to meet hers. “It was down in Tingwu province, I believe. One of the earlier battles we fought together.”
She let her hand drop down along his arm to hold his. “I was not very helpful then either?”
“We were both unexperienced at the time, if I remember correctly. And we were outnumbered.” He rather enjoyed holding her hand after all this time. And not to pull her out of harm's way or to move her quickly somewhere. Not to warn her of anything. Just to hold her hand in his.
Her eyes wandered momentarily into the distance as well as if she, too, began searching her thoughts. He took the opportunity to study her face, to see if for once he could read what she may be thinking about.
She no longer had that blank stare of a lost soul; her gaze were now purposeful and deliberate. Her perpetual smiles were no longer as easy to see, replaced by increasingly frequent furrowing of the brows. Part of the price she would pay as she moved along in her recovery, he thought. It was not unlike watching a carefree youngling step into adulthood.
Just then, he felt her hand squeezing his. And her familiar smile greeted him once again.
“Yet as always, we prevailed,” her eyes shone with a brilliance he had not seen before as her held tight onto his hand. “And we will prevail. I will not disappoint you.”