Endless Path : Infinite Cosmos Chapter 1078
As all good things were ought to do, Vahn's free time quickly came to an end and, though it was difficult to recall when it had started, he was currently on the receiving end of one of Scáthach's beatings. Because she still had the energy he had charged her with earlier in the evening, it had already been ten hours since they had started. Though he didn't realize it at the time, due to the persistent feeling of 'nothingness', this actually represented a marked improvement in Vahn's growth since the start of their training.
Originally, Vahn had only been able to persist for around four hours before being completely drained of his energy. Though his reserves had increased a fair amount since then, so too had the intensity of Scáthach's training. The fact he had been able to draw things out more than twice the duration actually put a small amount of strain on Scáthach as her own reserves would be on the verge of depleting, denoted by how she would start consuming his blood in the midst of combat...
While this was occurring, Vahn and Scáthach had a small audience in the distance as, much like he had expected, Artoria had been observing him after talking with Rin for a few hours. The latter had explained what she knew of Vahn's past as an Emperor, how he had been forced out of his world, his rather large family, and his desire to increase his strength to one day reunite with his family. These types of things weren't all that beneficial to his purposes, especially the mention of his large family, but Rin also mentioned the fact that he went out of his way to help people. As someone who had given her all to the people, only to believe she had failed them, it was especially pertinent that Artoria was able to draw comparisons between herself and him. The key difference is, Vahn had been relatively successful as an Emperor, to the point that even Gods and Goddesses willingly followed him...
With her intrigue successfully stirred, Artoria had set out to obtain information from others and to personally observe Vahn's actions for herself. Seeing the intensity of his training, she was more than a little shocked, both at Scáthach's strength and Vahn's resolve. What she found strange, however, was that Nobunaga and Lakshmibai were just watching from the side, the former with a 'bored' expression on her face while the latter seemed somewhat listless. As they were sitting at a low table drinking tea, Artoria had elected to join them in order to get to know her companions better and see if they were willing to discuss their own impressions of Vahn.
Now wearing a white blouse and a neat blue skirt that extended past her knees, Artoria smiled toward her two companions, asking, "May I sit here?" Though both girls had noticed her approach, it was Nobunaga who smiled before patting the seat next to her and saying, "You can take the seat right here, little lady. Come, I'll pour you some tea and we can get to know each other better~." Even though she was steadily being 'tamed' by Vahn, something she would never admit, Nobunaga found Artoria the textbook definition of beautiful. Since she had high bearing and a regal disposition, an irresistible urge to tease Artoria stirred within her heart the moment the latter asked for permission to sit down at an open table.
Immediately placing Nobunaga into the 'troublesome woman' category, Artoria took the seat almost directly opposite the one she had been offered, politely stating, "Thank you for the offer, but I will have to politely decline." This caused Nobunaga to stick her tongue out in a playful manner before almost immediately turning her attention away from Artoria when a sickening crack resounded in the distance. Vahn had just been planted into the ground like a daikon, causing a huge fracture in the white 'stone' near where they were fighting. Seeing this, Nobunaga frowned slightly, complaining under her breath, "That purple monster doesn't know how to hold back..."
Artoria, keying in on what Nobunaga had said, was intending to broach the subject and ask if Vahn always trained in this manner. Before the words could form on her lips, however, she saw the sad and concerned expression in Lakshmibai's eyes as she closely observed the battle between Vahn and Scáthach. Nobunaga, catching Artoria's movements out of the corner of her eye, cast her glance over before shifting her gaze to Lakshmibai. A mischevious smile formed on her face when she saw the confusion in Artoria's eyes, leading her to explain, "You don't have to mind her too much. She has been hopeless ever since Vahn gave her some 'special' attention. The girl can hardly even look him in the eye anymore, shishishishi~."
Hearing Nobunaga's words, Lakshmibai's face turned red almost instantly as she quickly stammered, "It isn't that serious...! I just...I..." To this, Nobunaga just waved her hand dismissively before turning to face Artoria and warning, "You seem a little uptight so let me give you a warning, girlie. If you intend to try and muddy the waters over something like 'duty', you'd better properly prepare your heart and mind. There is nothing you could have experienced that can prepare you for what Vahn will do to you once you're alone in a room with him..." Though she tried to say this casually, even Nobunaga's face became a bit red when she remembered her most recent affair with Vahn. As for why she chose to give Artoria a warning, she had already seen through Vahn's intentions a bit and knew that 'challenging' a proud Knight was the quickest way to make them do something stupid.
As even Rin had 'warned' her, Artoria furrowed her brows slightly before saying, "Surely, you must be exaggerating things..." In response to this, it was Lakshmibai who answered, her face a ruddy shade of pink as she shook her head and explained, "No, she is being serious. I had originally gone to our Master in order to have my strength bolstered for future battles. Though I knew my actions were troubling him, he still treated me so gently...I've never experienced anything like that before. During the time we were together, it was like nothing else in the world mattered at all..."
Piggybacking off what Lakshmibai was saying, Nobunaga gave an understanding nod before adding, "She isn't exaggerating at all. I even have nicknames like the 'Demon King of the Sixth Heaven' and the 'Conqueror of the Warring States'. Once that man gets his hands on me...it feels like all of my ambitions and accomplishments lose their meaning. For the few 'hours' we are together, the only thing that seems to matter is that singular moment..." Though this was something she would never say in front of Vahn, Nobunaga felt 'safe' to mention it since Lakshmibai had already described what was on her mind. After all, this was the main cause for her current stress as Nobunaga slowly felt like she was losing the 'image' she had created for herself by associating with Vahn...
Though Artoria had already head about the various Servants Vahn had recruited thus far, she still lacked the specific knowledge of their legends, accomplishments, and personalities. If Nobunaga was recognized as a Demon King and Conquerer by the Holy Grail, this meant she must have a strong personality. As for Lakshmibai, Rin had told her that the former was a Queen who had led a long revolution against a much stronger power in order to secure her people's independence. Neither girl had a weak personality so, seeing them act like maidens as they talked about the same man, Artoria felt a little more apprehensive about her own future. She knew that Vahn had the apparent ability to greatly empower his Servants and, believing her heart would not waver, she had intended to have her own strength increased as well. Now, however, her conviction was quickly dwindling in the face of Lakshmibai's and Nobunaga's seriousness...
In an effort to guide the conversation away from bedroom talk, Artoria looked towards Vahn fighting in the distance as she asked, "Where do you think his strength and conviction come from? What drives him forward through so much pain and suffering...?" Seeing Vahn get his elbow inverted in the distance, Artoria's brow twitched almost imperceptibly as she imagined how painful such a thing would be. At the same time, Nobunaga answered, "Anyone that has known Vahn for more than a day would be able to answer that...it's because he is a hopeless idiot."
Surprising Artoria, Lakshmibai nodded in response to Nobunaga's 'insult' with an affectionate smile on her face. As even Rin had referred to Vahn as a 'hopeless idiot', Artoria couldn't help asking, "Why would you say such a thing...?" This time, Nobunaga gave her a skeptical look before answering, "You must have sensed it yourself, at least a little bit. That man has no idea how to reach his goals but, no matter what he has to go through, he keeps moving towards the future without any hesitation. The thing that makes him an idiot is the fact that he could probably get there much faster if he focused on himself. Instead, he lets himself get sidetracked every time he sees someone that needs help...by the time that man reaches his goals, I imagine the whole fucking world would have been changed as a result..."
Agreeing with Nobunaga's words, Lakshmibai's smile turned more radiant as she added, "For Heroic Spirits like us who had failed to reach out goals...seeing him endeavor tirelessly towards making the world a better place is inspiring. He doesn't even have to make it his primary objective...the world is changed by his presence alone..." Though she did not doubt her own cause, Lakshmibai felt a little silly when thinking about how much effort she had put into trying to protect a single Kingdom. She didn't even care about the rest of the world, choosing to focus on the people she had been charged to protect. Vahn, however, simply couldn't ignore the suffering of others once it had reached his ears. Even if he couldn't do anything at the moment, he would tirelessly endeavor to improve his own strength until he reached a point where saving 'everyone' was a possibility...
Having 'failed' to protect her own Kingdom and guide its people towards the better future she had promised, Artoria was more impacted by Lakshmibai's words than all those preceding them. Since Vahn was supposed to hail from the Age of Gods, the scope of everything he did made her greatest efforts seem like those of a child playing at being King. She couldn't even manage the affairs of her own family while Vahn, seemingly without limit, extended his influence over actual Gods. Trying to compare their accomplishments made Artoria feel strangely insecure, especially since she hadn't even been able to keep order within her singular Kingdom...
Seeing the reminiscent state Artoria had fallen into, Nobunaga's expression became somewhat severe as she said, "Hey now, you're not doing something pointless like regretting your life, are you? Tales of your accomplishments were even able to reach Japan more than a thousand years after you kicked the bucket. Sure, you might've fucked up a few times, but you shame everyone who believed in you by having that kind of mentality. I don't care how depressed you feel, you had better not let Vahn ever see that kind of expression on your face..."
Shaking her head in response to Nobunaga's words, Artoria explained with a sad smile, "Do not worry. I have already come to terms with my failure and no longer seek to change the past. You are not the first to say such words to me, Nobunaga-dono, but I am grateful for the reminder." Though a time when she was truly without regrets would never come, Artoria had received two hard lessons in the form of the previous two Holy Grail Wars. She even treated the current and 'future' Grail Wars as a punishment for her folly of ever harboring the intention of altering the past. Even if she was to be used as nothing more than a tool to fulfill other people's dreams and desires, Artoria had hardened her heart to bear her punishment.
Regardless of how resolutely Artoria made her claim, both Nobunaga and Lakshmibai were looking at her with skepticism clear on their expressions. Artoria might not be aware of it herself, but it was her mindset of 'accepting' an arbitrary punishment that Vahn would undoubtedly key in on. As a result, Nobunaga shook her head before releasing a tired sigh and muttering, "This one is going to be trouble..." Though she didn't say anything out loud, Lakshmibai was also in agreement with Nobunaga's words as, regardless of what Artoria said, even she could see the combination of sadness and acceptance within her eyes. These were two emotions that should almost never overlap, especially when it came to discussions regarding the future...
Feeling that she had made the atmosphere awkward, Artoria showed an apologetic expression but, before she was able to say anything, Nobunaga interrupted by 'glaring' at her and saying, "Don't waste our time with your apologies, brat. I'd rather talk about something more interesting and just let Vahn deal with your uptight ass later on. If you don't have anything fun to talk about, just keep your mouth shut and sip on your tea like a good little girl..." Though her impression of Artoria hadn't been all that bad at first, Nobunaga now felt that she was an unbelievably troublesome girl. Knowing that Vahn would become a bleeding heart that tried to help Artoria was more than a little annoying, especially since it would eat into her own limited time with him...
With that thought crossing her mind, Nobunaga sat up straight before looking at Lakshmibai and saying, "If you're gonna keep flustering about, you mind if I keep Vahn to myself for a bit?" This question caused Lakshmibai's face to turn redder, giving Nobunaga the answer she wanted. After that, she just supported her head with her elbow, completely ignoring the now-silent Artoria. It was obvious she was more than a little offended by the words Nobunaga had used previously but, as Nobunaga was even more offended by the unexpectedly 'selfish' person Artoria turned out to be, it didn't bother her at all to be hated.
By the time their training had crossed into the twelfth hour, Vahn was running on empty as his fatigued body fell forward like a marionette with its strings cut. Even going down, however, Vahn struck forward with his left hand on pure instinct, nearly impacting Scáthach's abdomen before she casually stepped to avoid it. She had originally been intending to catch him so Vahn's final attack, issued when he was already unconscious, had been a surprise for even her. As a result of his actions, however, Vahn fell face-first against the hard white floor. Though this did absolutely no damage to him, hearing the heavy 'thump' was enough to make most normal people flinch.
Unfortunately for Vahn, Scáthach was far removed from any semblance of the word 'normal', resulting in her picking him up by the collar of his shirt and dragging him over to where the others were seated. She quickly glanced over Nobunaga, Lakshmibai, and Artoria, reading through each of their intentions before tossing Vahn in front of Nobunaga and saying, "He worked hard so make sure to reward him properly."
As she was used to seeing how Scáthach treated Vahn, Nobunaga barely even had a reaction to her words as she prepared to pick up her beaten Master's body. Artoria, however, took exception to such uncouth actions, causing her to immediately rise up and exclaim, "Training is one thing! How can you treat the body of your Master in such a disrespectful way while still pretending to praise him!?"
In response to Artoria's outburst, Nobunaga and even Lakshmibai looked at her as if she had lost her mind. As for Scáthach, her expression remained entirely unperturbed as she plainly stated, "You lack the qualifications to speak on the matter. If you intend to insult my student by insinuating he needs to be coddled, you will find I am unwilling to humor you. This is a path Vahn has set himself upon. It is not your place to speak for him, King of Knights." With that said, Scáthach wasted no time arguing with Artoria and simply vanished by returning to her Spirit form. This caused Artoria to frown even more but, as she looked around for support from the two girls that seemed infatuated with Vahn, the only thing she saw in their expressions was mild contempt and exasperation...
Taking pity on Artoria, Lakshmibai explained, "This is one of the reasons why people like us are not able to achieve the things Vahn sets out to do. Almost everything he does, he does to an extreme most people can't even comprehend. Though Scáthach's methods seem ruthless, Vahn had grown much stronger over a short period of time. At the same time, his stress has eased considerably while his focus on progress has been steadily improving. He knew beforehand that Scáthach's methods were unbelievably fierce but, from the very beginning, he has never once complained at all..."
Deciding to hammer the point home, Nobunaga nodded her head as she picked up Vahn's body in a princess carry and added, "If you had seen Vahn's growth with your own eyes, you would not be so quick to anger. Your words and actions are driven by pure ignorance, based solely on assumptions. Even though you have just become a part of something bigger than yourself, you are already trying to assume a position of authority that you have yet to earn. Perhaps that is why you are so filled with regrets...you are just a pretentious little princess who had everything handed to her from the start."
Hearing Nobunaga's words, Artoria's expression became one of abject shock as, regardless of how desperately she wanted to refute them, she found herself unable to. Visions of her past failures played through her mind, memories that also accounted for several people saying almost the exact same words as Nobunaga. Even her own foster brother, Sir Kay, a man she had treated more dearly than most real kin, had uttered such words. She had wanted to know why he was always so brash and argumentative, leading to the man sighing deeply as he answered, "You an existence blessed from birth, forced onto a path that had been cleared by others. From the very beginning, you were intended to be a King 'beyond' the capabilities of any King past, present, or future. One day, all of this will come crashing down around you because the ideal you pursue was never possible from the beginning...you needed to earn your position, not be handed it..."
By the time Artoria came back to her senses, both Lakshmibai and Nobunaga had vanished, the latter taking Vahn's body along with her. Then, much as Vahn was often inclined to do, Artoria found herself questioning the path she had walked once again...
(A/N: Alternate Titles: 'Vahn has become twice as good at receiving beatings~!','Nobunaga would make a good wingman xD...','Artoria is just a cyclic as Vahn (x _ x)...')
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