The eastern edge of the Ancient Forest, amidst the towering trees and long shadows from the vast canopy.
There, I glanced behind me and said, "Frosty Witch, huh? Who would have thought that the prim and proper Titania had such a fiery past."
Titania sent me a death glare.
Even though she was furious, Titania didn't say anything in response. The reason for that...
"I can't believe it either!" Aria beamed and said, "You sounded so cool, Tani!"
...Was Aria, who enjoyed Titania's past far too much for the eldest elf princess to deny it.
Well, in the end it was Titania's own fault for pretended to stay asleep through the entire ride even while I pointedly asked for more details from the demons.
Aria placed a hand on her hips and mimed drawing a sword. With a stern face... well, as stern a face as Aria could manage, she said, "How dare you dishonor my father! Draw your blade!"
My mouth twitched.
Titania noticed and narrowed her eyes, her expression promising a complete and thorough revenge at a later point.
Of course, I'd been faced with worse back in the Xia Dynasty so it didn't faze me.
Aria clasped her hands together and turned towards Titania. "I knew you were always confident, Tani, but to challenge all of the Demon Lord's subordinates for father's sake... That's incredible!"
Titania coughed, the tips of her ears turning red. "I-It was nothing."
I turned my gaze back to the front, quickly suppressing the smile threatening to emerge on my face.
Despite that, I could feel Titania's eyes burning a hole in my back. Figuratively, of course.
If she could actually do that, I highly doubted events would have turned out this way.
The Ancient Forest was essentially the same as it had always been. Of course, we were still near the outskirts and far from Alvheim, so that was relative.
I wouldn't doubt if things changed when we approached the center.
After arriving, the demons had gone on ahead with Erik and Xinxin and her entourage of disciples to meet with the Emperor.
As for myself, Aria, and Titania... I thought it would be best to delay a while and lagged behind with the excuse of wanting to gather the natural energy in the forest.
It was complete nonsense, of course.
Still, my instincts were warning me about rushing to Alvheim too soon, so I decided to trust them and take my time.
"Why did you try to hide it, Tani?"
I glanced back again to watch the unfolding drama.
Aria frowned and said, "If I knew, I would have chosen to practice swordsmanship instead of archery like our other sisters!"
Titania coughed and glanced to the side. "I-It is a bit embarrassing to bring up. Moreover, it was a long time ago. A legacy of a misspent youth, so to speak."
"But you should be proud of your past!" Aria turned towards me and said, "Isn't that right, Mister Nowun?"
Realizing the life rope she was thrown, Titania turned as well, a vindictive smile on her face. "Yes. Do tell us your thoughts on the matter, Nowun."
It was a clear attempt at schadenfreude.
Even so, it didn't bother me. I shrugged and said, "Regardless of what happened in the past, it's important to acknowledge it. Failing to do so would just be running away and demeaning everything you've trampled upon to this point."
Titania flinched. "T-That..."
Aria sighed. "I thought you wanted to take the scenic route to relax, Mister Nowun. Did you really have to make things so serious?"
"You asked, I answered."
Aria shook her head and then turned back to Titania. "Ignore Mister Nowun, Tani. Now, I heard a lot from Miss Eris during the ride, but there was something I was really curious about that I wanted to ask you."
Titania regained her composure and nodded. "Go ahead and ask, Ari."
"Well..." Aria thought for a bit and said, "I heard that you were harassed a lot when you were walking around in the Demon Realm."
Titania's face dimmed and she narrowed her eyes. "Yes. There were... quite a few men who did not understand the concept of personal space. One in particular-"
"Right! That person!" Aria nodded and said, "I wanted to ask you about that!"
Titania blinked. "Him?"
"Well," Aria said. "Not exactly about him. I just wanted to know what you meant when you said you would rip off his glib tongue and ram it so far down the gates of Almadel even darkness couldn't reach it." She frowned and said, "Isn't the Demon Realm where the Heart of Darkness exists? Do you have a secret sword technique strong enough to defy even that?"
I quietly recited the mantras I repossessed from around the Xia Dynasty to calm my heart.
"T-That..." Titania glanced towards me for help.
I stared back, leaving her to her own devices.
Aria's eyes sparkled, staring at her elder sister with anticipation.
"U-Um... That... Well..." Titania stammered and glanced around, as if searching for an answer in her surroundings.
"Taaaniii! Please? I want to learn it!" Aria's eyes dimmed and she said, "I know I'm not very strong, but if there's anything that I can do so that I can be of use to everyone..."
I nodded and said, "Aria's right, Titania." I put on a grave expression and said, "If you possess such a heaven-defying technique, please, let me know so that I can factor you into future battle plans."
Titania's right eye twitched and she glanced between me and Aria.
Aria laced her hands together and placed them against her chest. "Please, Tani!"
"...W-Well... T-That is to say..." Titania's eyes spun for a bit before she coughed and said, "It is far too dangerous to say it in the open."
I blinked and said, "I can conceal our presence if need be."
Aria nodded. "That's right! Mister Nowun is great at hiding and running away from things. I'm sure that it'll be fine if he keeps an eye out!"
Ouch. Well... at least that confirmed to me whether or not Aria was really that innocent. I guess she still had a bit of a grudge for leaving her alone to explore the sect.
Titania shook her head. "Regardless, it is better to eliminate the possibility entirely than to risk it occurring. Besides." She looked at me and said, "You are still recovering, are you not? I would not wish to betray Master Xinxin's expectations by allowing you to strain yourself for something so trivial."
It was amusing how Titania managed to come up with a plausible excuse on the fly. I was also tempted to get her more flustered and see if I could get her to drop that cold mask of hers... but we had been idling around long enough now.
I nodded and said, "As you say."
Aria turned to me and frowned. "...But you're fine, aren't you, Mister Nowun?"
"Better safe than sorry. Now, let's speed things up. Wouldn't want to cause trouble for my beloved disciple."
Following my words, the three of us charged through the rest of the forest.
And when we arrived at Alvheim...
Aria trembled, quietly grabbing my right hand.
Titania grit her teeth, forcibly holding her hands against her sides so as to not draw her blade.
I narrowed my eyes.
It was the same as the future that I arrived at. Yggdrasil had become a burned husk, and Alvheim had become nothing more than ashes. The only difference was that most of the Ancient Forest remained and the damage seemed to be isolated to the World Tree.
But that was odd. Something like this lined up too closely with my memories. Was this what I was sensing...?
Imperial soldiers in pitch black armor were moving about in the distance, chopping down trees and making temporary shelter. Callous lumberjacking with complete disregard to the surroundings.
I frowned. Considering the situation and their circumstances, I could see how it might be necessary, but-
The crisp sound of a sword being unsheathed rang out from nearby.
I stepped over and grabbed Titania's hand.
She tensed, stuck in the motion of drawing the sword from her waist. Her jaded green eyes glared at me, shining with dangerous light.
Titania closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "...I understand."
Seeing that, I let go of her hand. When I did, it fell limply to her side.
By that time, a few soldiers had noticed our presence.
I pulled Aria closer to me and then concealed our presence, wiping out any trace that might emerge. With that, I glanced at Titania and said, "Let's go."
Titania gave me a long look and then took up a position next to Aria. Perhaps not trusting herself to refrain from doing anything reckless, Titania grabbed Aria's right hand.
Aria stared at her and let out a faint smile.
In the distance, Xinxin's palanquin and the rest of her entourage had already set up camp around the former entrance of Alvheim, that giant hollow in the center of Yggdrasil.
I took a moment to check for any discrepancies, be it the Goddess or otherwise, with my spiritual sense.
Xinxin noticed me, but other than her, it seemed like we were in the clear.
Since that was the case, there wasn't any point in prolonging this situation. I glanced at Aria and Titania and said, "Don't panic."
Darkness surged, space bent... and then we were standing a few paces behind Xinxin's palanquin.
As expected, my disciple got up to move, her silhouette shifting from within that concealed compartment. But before she could get out, people started to move.
In front, Erik and his two woman, the blue-haired and elegant Mary along with the brown-haired tomboy Sarah, led Nero, Eve, Moros, and Eris towards Yggdrasil.
Then, walking over towards us, there was a small platoon of Imperial soldiers led by a single man.
Golden hair and a suppressed aura bearing traces of darkness, chaos, and a golden light that seemed to mix mana with qi to become something else entirely. An iron crown placed upon his head and a body covered in black steel armor from the head down.