Erik came to a stop in front of Elio and then clasped his hands together for a brief salute. "Greetings, Emperor Elio."
The emperor stopped as well and nodded. "The same to you, Heavenly King." His eyes flitted across the entourage before focusing on Eve. With a faint smile, Elio said, "I see that you are doing well."
Nero immediately stepped in front of his younger sister, blocking the Emperor's view.
Eve rolled her eyes and beauty pushed him to the side. After that, she stepped forward and said, "I would be better if certain people were not so overprotective." She turned to glare at Nero.
The white-haired demon didn't respond, his focus entirely upon the Emperor.
Elio laughed and said, "You have to understand. Older siblings cherish their younger siblings. That holds especially so after the dire events that occurred in your case."
That time, Eris and Moros stepped up, blocking Eve from the Emperor's view.
Eve seemed upset, but she didn't move them like she did her brother.
Elio continued and said, "See? Concern for your safety is a natural course of action."
Nero scoffed and said, "How conscientious of you. In that case, would you care to alleviate my concern by explaining why you worked with the Goddess to kidnap my sister and frame my death?"
A strange emotion flickered on Elio's face and he said, "That... is a complicated question. And one not to be answered in the open."
Titania glared at the Emperor. Under her breath, she muttered, "What a manipulative liar."
I frowned, carefully observing Elio. After a while, I shook my head and said, "I won't deny his manipulative nature... but in this instance at least, he doesn't appear to be lying."
Titania shifted her glare to me. "Of course. Someone like you would know all about that, wouldn't you?"
Aria sighed. "This isn't the place for an argument." She tugged on both my hand and Titania's and said, "Come on. Let's talk things over with Miss Xinxin and see what we should do. Mister Nowun?"
"...Right." I was a bit curious to see what they were talking about, but I was more curious about Xinxin's role in all of this.
Before I could do anything though, a ripple in space swept over us and then the surroundings changed.
A lush, decorated interior with golden leaf and silk tapestries. A space larger on the inside than it appeared on the outside. And a table in the center of it, behind which sat my beloved disciple.
Xinxin took a sip from a cup of tea and said, "It's about time you three showed up."
I shook my head and leaned against the side of the compartment. "We would have arrived sooner if the plan was to make a show of force."
Xinxin sighed and said, "We are here to make allies, not enemies, Sifu. And because of that, there are proper procedures we have to follow."
"...True." I nodded and said, "But if things turn out poorly, I'm killing everyone in our way and taking us out of here."
Titania placed her hand on her sword and said, "For once, I agree with you, Nowun." She smiled and said, "I just cannot wait to start cutting down Imperial soldiers."
Aria sighed. "Of all the things you two agree on, it has to be murder. The Empire has done terrible things, but even so..."
Xinxin shook her head. "It won't reach that point." She looked at me and said, "After all, that Emperor seems to have a shared interest in fighting 'that person'."
"Oh?" I raised an eyebrow and said, "I assume you mean our resident interloper?"
Xinxin smiled. "Who else?"
Aria blinked and looked between me and Xinxin. "Um... Mister Nowun? I think I'm confused."
Titania frowned. "I am as well... but if Master Xinxin has a plan, I will follow it."
Xinxin nodded. "I do. For now-"
A knock on the outside of the compartment.
I frowned and then concealed my presence along with Aria and Titania.
Xinxin glanced at me and then looked to the silk screen entrance.
"Elder Sister?" Erik's voice called out and said, "Would you kindly grace us with your presence?"
"That's my cue." Xinxin stood up and walked over to the door.
I frowned and said, "Are you sure this is necessary?"
Xinxin rolled her eyes. "Just watch this time, alright, Sifu?"
"...Fine. But we're going to be following right after you in case that guy tries anything funny."
Xinxin shook her head. "I think I liked it better when you were colder..."
"And you were cuter when you weren't so sarcastic."
Xinxin stuck out her tongue at me and then turned around to walk through the silk screen.
I moved to follow, beckoning Aria and Titania after me.
Erik stood outside, watching Xinxin leave. In the distance, Emperor Elio was staring, his eyes evaluating.
I shook my head and let my beloved disciple head off to do her work. In the meanwhile, I turned around to check on Aria and Titania.
The eldest elf princess caught my gaze first and sighed, shaking her head. "I still do not see the point of joining forces with that man. After all that he has done... I cannot understand Master Xinxin. This all seems unnecessary considering her strength." She looked to me and said, "Do you not agree?"
I paused to consider that. "...You know..."
Titania had a point.
I agreed that it was good to have allies, especially if we were doing the long play against the Goddess.
However, there wasn't really a need to have her show up and be so accommodating.
From what I knew, that guy who was betrothed to Xinxin in the past did a lot to build up the reputation of the Sun Kingdom. It was even enough for me to have used it as a deterrent against the Braves in the past.
Framing it like that...
"...You have a point, Titania. This is strange."
She frowned and said, "Do you think that Master Xinxin-"
"Ah!" Aria flinched and clutched her head. She blinked, her eyes wide, and started to sway.
"Ari!" Titania quickly moved to her sister's side and grabbed her.
I narrowed my eyes and then spread my spiritual sense throughout Alvheim.
Soldiers, people from the sect, Xinxin, the demons, the Emperor...
I thought the Goddess might be involved somehow, but that didn't seem to be the case. Since nothing was out of the ordinary, I turned my attention to Aria and said, "What happened, Aria?"
She shook her head and then steadied herself, leaning on her sister for support. "I... don't know. Just... for a moment, I felt like there was something dangerous staring at me. Like... a predator staring at their prey."
Titania narrowed her eyes and stared at the Emperor. "Is it that guy?"
"No," Aria said. "I don't think it was him. It felt... further away?"
A faint premonition. Instinct and intuition from unexpected changes I'd experienced in the past.
Without thinking about it, I pulled Aria close to my right side and grabbed Titania with my left hand.
The eldest elf princess struggled and said, "What are you-!"
Before she could finish, there was a pulse in the air. A ripple of pure mana, accompanied by a silent scream.
Aria winced and grabbed her head.
Titania froze and looked to the tree. "Yggdrasil?"
Suddenly, blinding white light flared, filling the entire Ancient Forest. But it wasn't just light that emerged.
I felt a ripple of distortion. A paradox occurring from 'Order' meeting 'Chaos'.
Time and space began to twist. At the same time, Aria and Titania started to slip away.
I narrowed my eyes.
The cause of the distortion was unclear.
However, I wasn't about to let it spread out unchecked. Focusing on the stored up mana I had in my veins as well as the cultivation base I'd replenished, I reached out to force reality back into place.
But then, just as suddenly as it arrived, the pulse vanished, along with the distortion.
Suddenly, I was standing in a misty forest with Aria held tight against my right side with Titania clinging to my left.
The surroundings had shifted. The burned out hollow of the World Tree was nowhere to be seen. Instead, there were what seemed to be miles of trees, covered in a thin veil of white mist.
It reminded me a lot of the Lost Woods... except that it wasn't.
At that time, it seemed like Titania realized what she was doing since she jumped away from me and quickly took a few steps back.
I rolled my eyes. "You don't need to exaggerate disliking me that much."
"...My apologies." Titania shook her head and then placed her hand on the sword at her left side. "I just... had an odd sense of incongruity and instinctively reacted."
Aria shuddered, clinging tight to my right arm. She looked around the surroundings with wide eyes and said, "Nowun. What... is this place?"
"Give me a moment." I started to reach out with my spiritual sense to take a look around.
But before I could, footsteps echoed from just up ahead, a female silhouette slowly emerging from the mist.