12 – Martial Route – [ ___ ___ ]
I stared at my reflection and adjusted my shirt.
After following the imperial soldiers, we were guided to a room to prepare for the audience with the Emperor. Although a few servants were offered to help us get ready, I rejected them after seeing Saphira’s cold gaze and Aria’s worry. However, the less eyes on us the better.
Since I had been transported to a new world with just the clothes on my back, I had to find a formal outfit to meet the Emperor. Also, as my talk with the Brave resulted in me assuming the identity of an elder in some heavenly dragon sect, that formal outfit also had to match that identity.
The end result, after a while wracking my memories from before arriving in this world, lacking as they were, for designs, were what we currently wore.
For me, a dress shirt made of black threads with an oriental dragon embroidered in violet along the hems and sleeves. Pants of a matching color and shiny black loafers completed the outfit. With my hair lightly tousled to the side after Aria’s fussing for a half hour, the person staring back at me from the mirror was the definition of a young master from a martial sect. At my side, my faithful companion (stick) was hidden in a fold of shadows, ready to be drawn at a moment’s notice.
Behind me, Aria smoothed her dress, something that I designed after what I vaguely recalled being called a cheongsam. It was the sort that you would see in a martial arts movie worn by female princesses. Matching my own outfit, it was a dark fabric and embroidered with a violet dragon along the hem. Like her regular dress, it clung to her body and emphasized her curves… again, out of necessity and not of personal taste.
Made of mana threads that were bestowed Information Concealment, it did the same as her dress and concealed her elf ears. The dress also provided the usual resistances since Aria was, unfortunately, still magnitudes weaker than I or Saphira.
As for the dragon in the room, Saphira was idling about in front of another mirror. Perhaps out of some memory buried within or out of her devotion towards me, she was threading her long silver hair in an elegant braid. Like Aria, she wore a similar dress. The effect was much more pronounced on her, however, than on Aria.
“This feels weird, Nowun.” Aria frowned and ran her hands along the sides of her dress. “Putting so much effort into something like this for me… What if the Emperor finds out?“
“Be silent and accept it, girl.” Saphira’s voice called out from the side, her hands still intricately weaving her silver hair. “Your poor memory aside, my Master is more than a match for any human in this world. Even the Demon Lord would be forced to bow before his feet, let alone some upstart emperor.”
I sighed. “That’s enough flattery, Fi. And how many times do I have to tell you to not say things like that where other people can hear them?”
Saphira paused and turned towards me, crossing her arms. “Hmph. And who here can hear us with my Master’s concealment?”
I found myself at a loss for words. That dragon… she really was getting more arrogant as time went on. Fortunately, the hierarchy was still clear, but with that attitude I worried for the future.
Saphira shook her head and went back to threading her hair.
Finished with my preparations, I took a look around the room.
Although the world was supposed to be a fantasy one, the imperial palace was surprisingly modern. It was probably the effect from the goddess’s habit of transmigrating people over.
The room given to use was a large suite, similar to one that might be in a high class hotel. In the corner of the room, there was a hot tub over a tiled area. Past that, the floor was carpeted in some animal fur that Analysis told me belonged to an extinct species. A bed was in the center of the room, one large enough to fit Aria, Saphira, and myself comfortably. A door led to a bathroom and hallway respectively, and then there was a large wall-length mirror with a sink in front of one part of it. Finally, scattered throughout the room were a few lounge chairs upholstered with something Analysis told me was called Lethe silk.
Seeing that Saphira would probably take a while, I walked over to one of the lounge chairs near the bed and sat down. That done, I turned towards Aria and said, “Relax. I told you before, didn’t I? With me here, you have nothing to fear.” Anymore, at least.
Aria sighed and then sat down on the bed. “I know, Nowun. Still… I can’t help but feel unsettled. It’s as if… something is telling me inside to be careful? It’s… hard to explain.” The young elf furrowed her brow and said, “It’s like… someone is speaking to me. She’s saying that you’re going to regret coming to the capital.”
I froze and instantly focused my gaze on Aria. “That-“
Unfortunately, before I could question her, there was a knock on the door from outside.
“Master Nowun. Emperor Elio is ready to receive you now.”
It was a vast throne room, yet one surprisingly spartan. Save for an iron throne and a crimson carpet, the only other pieces of furniture were a wooden table set off to the side with four chairs, three on one side and the last on the other.
I walked inside. Saphira and Aria followed from behind, slightly to my left and right like a pair of servants would. As for myself, I stepped forward with confident strides and my head held up high, just like a young master would.
But inwardly, a cold chill formed.
There was but a single person in the throne room. Seated on the iron throne was a young man, not much older than myself. He was seated with one leg crossed and his head supported by a hand from the arm he knelt on the side of the throne. On our entrance, he smiled and casually waved a hand. “Welcome, foreign master.”
I came to a stop ten feet away from the throne. At the same time, I quietly activated Information Concealment. “Thank you for the hospitality, your Imperial Majesty.”
The emperor laughed and shook his head. “How humble! But you are welcome. Perhaps with characters like yourself rising to power, there might be a chance yet for a proper alliance between our homelands.”
I smiled and didn’t respond. Information Concealment would erase any mistakes I might make, so I took the chance to thoroughly examine him.
A fair and valiant face that wouldn’t be odd to see preserved in stone sculptures. Silver eyes and golden hair. With a slim platinum crown upon his head and flowing crimson robes, he looked every bit the part of a powerful young ruler. That was the one known as Emperor Elio Lux, the one that had united the north over the course of ten years.
But that wasn’t important. Overpowering all those features, surpassing his appearance and authority, the emperor reeked of power. It was on the level that I wondered if he was even human. But, although I wanted to confirm it with Analysis, I remembered when the Brave had tried using it on me in the future and refrained. Instead, I said, “That I make no promises.”
Emperor Elio shrugged. “That may be the case. However, I can’t help but think of the aid it might be in the threat of the Demon Lord.”
I made a show of glancing around. “Indeed. Though it appears that your Imperial Majesty would have no fear even if that person invaded.”
The lack of guards and the fact that no one else entered alongside us spoke volumes about the emperor’s strength.
I felt the urge to draw my faithful companion (stick), but quickly suppressed it.
That person… he was dangerous. I had heard that the emperor was mighty from wandering around, but thought those rumors were due to his position. However, it seemed to be a rare case of the rumors under-exaggerating the person’s strength.
Emperor Elio Lux. A man ruthless enough to decisively suppress the elves. A man powerful enough to not fear assassins. And, judging from the barely concealed dark and chaotic aura around him, a man that could take down the demon army in an invasion by himself, if not reach a stalemate.
But instead of that, it seemed that he had chosen to summon not only a Brave, but that person’s classmates as well to form an army.
Just what kind of world was that goddess running? Was she that fond of chaos? …No, from what I remembered, she said that they would be acting out the same old play. Then… was this a common occurrence in this world?
Emperor Elio laughed.
In the corner of my eyes, I saw Saphira stiffen. It seemed that she had realized it as well. The emperor being so strong was a wild card, one that neither of us could have expected.
“Enough. You and your servants have been standing for a while now. Come, let’s sit more comfortably.” Saying that, Emperor Elio rose from his throne and began walking towards the table.
I didn’t say anything in response and simply followed. In the corner of my eye I checked Aria’s condition. This person was the one who ordered the fate that befell her family and kingdom. It would be odd if a person was able to remain calm in such a situation.
As expected, Aria was pale, her emerald eyes subconsciously flitting towards the emperor before looking away. Each time, a mix of pain and fear flashed. If it wasn’t for the fact that Information Concealment was up and running, we would have been exposed the moment we walked into the throne room.
However, it was, and so we were fine. …For now.
But after watching the emperor’s calm demeanor and seeing his oppressive aura, I wasn’t sure how long that would be.
The plan was to gather information before deciding on a course of action. But at this rate-
I cut off my train of thoughts and took a seat. Aria quickly sat down beside me, with Saphira deciding to stand beside me.
The emperor noticed that, but didn’t bring it up. Instead, he waved his hand. With that act, the table was covered in luxurious foods. Steaming meat, baked goods, seafood… countless entrees lined the table. With another wave of his hand, plates appeared before each of us, along with silverware.
“Feel free to serve yourself. There’s no need for decorum among equals.”
“Equals?” I casually reached for a roast beef and carved out a portion with a knife, placing it on my plate. “You value me too much, your imperial majesty.”
The emperor carved a piece from a baked fish that looked like a salmon and placed it on his plate. “A man capable of defeating two archfiends without suffering a single wound is more than deserving of such treatment.”
“You flatter me.” I smiled and then grabbed a jug filled with juice. At the same time, I used Analyze to check for poisons or potions. There weren’t any, but even so I was cautious as I poured it into a glass.
The emperor simply smiled in return, pouring himself a glass of juice as well. “It is praise well-deserved, particularly for one who attained the rank of Master so young. The Heaven-Seizing Dragon Sect must be thrilled to finally have a worthy talent among their disciples.”
I raised my glass. “And the empire is blessed to have such an outstanding ruler, your imperial majesty. Attaining such heights for yourself and the Northern Empire is no trivial feat.”
“Now it’s you who’s flattering me.” The emperor’s smile widened, revealing perfect white teeth. “Then, shall we toast to our outstanding prowess?” Saying that, he raised his glass.
The soft clink of glass echoed in the room.
“Now,” the emperor said. “I don’t believe I’ve been introduced to the lovely ladies accompanying you?”
There it was.
Beside me, I saw Aria tense up.
Without hesitation, I reached over and placed my arm around her shoulder.
Aria froze, but then turned a deep red before leaning into me.
“This is Aria, someone to whom I owe an unending debt.”
Hearing those words, Aria’s flush deepened and she muttered, “You’re exaggerating again.”
“And the woman behind me is Saphira, my most trusted servant. I hope your imperial majesty won’t mind her standing. She becomes… uneasy sitting down at the same table as I.”
That was a blatant lie. However, it seemed believable enough.
Emperor Elio nodded and said, “I understand. My dear Alice is the same as well, even though we’ve known each other since childhood…” He sighed. “Station can be such a burden at times.”
The emperor was being a gracious host. Idle chatter, flattery… if I didn’t know better, I would think that he was being authentic in his attempts to win me over. But considering the parade of event flags triggering since I entered the Northern Empire, I knew better.
Still, I didn’t let any of that show and started to serve Aria some food. A few fruits, some meat, bread… unlike myself, I gave her a more balanced meal.
Part of that was because she needed it, considering that her body wasn’t on par with mine or Saphira’s and had been subsisting on hunted magical beasts for a couple of days. Another was to show the emperor an implicit amount of trust by serving a variety of food to the one I valued the most.
“Even so,” the emperor said. “You two seem fairly close.” He turned his gaze towards Aria and said, ”Might you be Master Nowun’s lover?”
Aria tensed. However, it wasn’t because of the emperor’s question, but rather his gaze.
I decided to change the subject. “I’ve heard that the elves have joined hands with the Demon Lord. Is that true, your imperial majesty?”
The emperor leaned back in his chair and said, “Just ‘Leo’ is fine.”
“…Then you may simply call me ‘Nowun’.”
The emperor, Leo, nodded and then sighed. “It truly is a shame, but yes. The Goddess sent down a divine revelation and stated that the elves had fallen from grace.”
Aria flinched. “That’s impossible!”
I grabbed her hand, gently running circles along it.
Aria bit her lip and then relaxed, although her gaze seemed conflicted.
The emperor stared at Aria for a while and then said, “…Indeed. Yet, it is the truth. Thus, to prepare against such an alliance, the Brave and his compatriots were summoned with the blessing of the Goddess.”
Where did the lie end and the truth begin? The words the emperor said were logical, and yet rang false to my ears.
I saw the state of the captured elves. I remembered the morally corrupt soldiers that chased them. And I recalled the ruined state of the Ancient Forest, as well as Alvheim.
With such events, the elves joining hands with the Demon Lord was indeed possible. Yet, the Empire was the instigator. And the one in charge of that was the man that sat before me.
“Ah. But it seems that we have been talking for a while now, Nowun and still have yet to come to the important point.” The emperor smiled. “Tell me. What do you want? Land? Money? Don’t be afraid to ask.”
“…What does your imperial majesty know of ‘Chaos’ magic?”
I leaned against the wall to our temporary room, arms crossed. The talk with the emperor was still fresh in my mind, as well as the information I learned.
Across from me, Aria slumped into a lounge chair. She shook her head. “I… can’t believe it’s true. The elves… forsaken by the goddess.”
Saphira took a seat on the bed and waved a hand. “What do you expect? A goddess like that is far from benevolent. At best, she’s merely impartial.”
“…Even so, I thought that we would have been saved. We have watched over the world tree like she commanded for thousands of years. And yet now…” Aria trailed off.
I didn’t know what to say.
A course of action. This route was a dead end. Meeting the emperor had already tipped my hand. Although Information Concealment was strong enough to hide from the goddess, it wasn’t perfect. If it was, then the goddess wouldn’t have known my intentions.
“That doesn’t matter,” Saphira said. “My Master. The emperor’s mana. Did you perceive it?”
I nodded. “Chaos and darkness. Similar to my own, right?”
I was quiet for a moment.
The emperor explained to me his research in chaos after I asked. A means to overturn the strength of the demons and fight back against those that were far more capable in magic. He spoke about it like it was a saving grace, and yet hid the fact that his mana carried traces of darkness as well.
Whether intentional or not, I could not tell. And that was the troublesome part. As much as I hid my own capabilities, the emperor did the same. What I saw then would only have been what he wanted me to see.
“Nowun?” Aria called out to me. “What do we do now?”
That was the question.
I was sent into this world by that goddess for her amusement. I didn’t really have a plan going in, and I didn’t have an objective at first other than ‘become strong enough to not worry’. That objective still held true, but strength would only lead so far.
What did I want?
…In the end, there was only really one answer.
“We go back.”
I nodded. “That’s right. This time is a dead end.”
The elves were already captured and Alvheim fell. While I had freed the elves with Aria, they were only a small fraction. And with the death of the two arch-fiends, I had a feeling that events would get testy soon. If I wanted a life free from her designs, I had to resolve all of those issues before it got to this point.
Aria frowned. “But… where are we going back to?”
“Hm? We just have to go back to before all of this… started…”
I trailed off.
How could I forget? Absolute Memory… it was something that only I had. If I went back, they wouldn’t come with me. Neither Saphira nor Aria would remember.
“Nowun?” Aria called my name and stared at with confusion in her eyes.
Hearing it, I hesitated. And since I hesitated, I was too slow.
Something invisible flew through the air towards Aria.
“Aria!” I constructed a barrier made of shadows and ran towards her. It was fast, but I was fast too. But that brief moment of contemplation I had made me too late.
The barrier that should have stopped the invisible projectile was like air. Still staring at me with confusion in her eyes, Aria’s chest plumed with a rose of blood.
Again? Did I fail her again?
Aria reached towards me and her body fell out of the chair.
I caught her, but the warmth had already gone from her body.
Something flickered in the corner of the room.
I lashed out with darkness, but it was scattered. I lashed out with chaos, but it was nullified.
A person stood in the corner of the room. Covered in black clothing, it was impossible to tell anything of the person’s identity other than their gender: female. But I could tell. Even obscured like that, even hidden like that, I knew who that person was.
I set Aria down and drew my faithful companion. And then-
Fatal blow received. The sensation of mana erasure has been memorized. Anti-Magic LVL 1 obtained.
-Something pierced through my chest, destroying all of my mana. Then, my world turned black.
Mana Erasure prevents further memorization.
Memory is unstable due to lack of mana, preventing return to the current moment.
Due to disruption by mana erasure, Absolute Memory evolves. Memorization is no longer affected by the presence or lack of mana.
Due to the evolution of Absolute Memory, hidden effects are strengthened.
Due to the evolution of Absolute Memory, the recollection point is reset to the user’s first awakening.
Recollection in process…
Martial Route – [ Bad End ]