Endless Path : Infinite Cosmos Chapter 1453
Situated a considerable distance from the other territories, to the point of being virtually inaccessible to anyone but Heroic Spirits, a large Japanese palace could be found. It was structured similarly to an ancient castle, complete with a tiered structure, tiled roofs, tall walls, and a variety of ornate statues, each a work of art in and of themselves.
After teleporting nearby, Vahn couldn't help but marvel at the large palatial structure, finding it quite beautiful under the golden rays of sunshine that cascaded down from the faux star above. It, and the city surrounding it, gave off the impression of a capital city filled with wealth and vitality, a veritable utopia, at least from above.
Though he didn't bother to venture into the streets below, Vahn could see various humanoid figures walking about, each wearing clothing that didn't suit the time period. Instead of informal wear, such as a yukata or a tunic, they were wearing long hooded cloaks, seemingly made from some type of stained black leather. To make them even more creepy, each person, be they adult or child, wore the visage of an animal to cover their face. These masks were formed from a base of glazed porcelain, painted with accents of bright red, gold, and black.
While the presence of thousands of masked people was perturbing in its own right, the fact none of the entities below had feet was more troubling. Instead, they had wispy appendages that seemed to be formed from shadows, leaving a trail of blackened footprints behind them wherever they went. It made the otherwise vibrant capital feel 'polluted' in a way...full of life on the surface, but, if you took a closer look, you would find a group of veiled shadows that hid away from the resplendent golden light from above...
Since he already knew what would happen if they ventured into the city, Vahn elected to ignore the surrounding capital, setting his sights on the palace in the center. There, if you had eyes that could see such things, a spherical barrier that roughly resembled a chubby fox could be seen. It reminded him of the sparrows that followed Benienma around, but, instead of an amorphous bird, it was a cute fox with an intricate pattern depicting nine tails along its surface.
Deciding to transition to where the 'head' of the barrier was located, coinciding with the location of the castle gate, Vahn found himself face-to-face with even more masked figures. Unlike the shadowy citizens populating the capital, however, these ones were rather tall, each adorned in the traditional robes of an onmyoji, complete with ringed staffs and conical hats. They also had masks to cover their faces, and, though it wasn't meant to be amusing, Vahn found it interesting how their porcelain fox ears protruded through their hats...
Though the 'men' seemed to serve as palace guards, they remained completely silent even as Vahn led Artoria through the front gate. Other than following with their eyes, they made no effort to try and bar Vahn's passage, simply watching as he made his way further into the compound. This was more than a little creepy, but, knowing there weren't any guards inside the palace itself, Vahn didn't mind their gazes, passing the hundred or so masked figures with impunity.
Upon reaching the second set of gates that connected to the palace itself, Vahn turned to Artoria, a serious expression on his face as he said, "The entity beyond these gates wields immense power. If it comes down to a fight, I fear even Avalon might not be able to protect you completely. While I won't ask you to stay behind, promise me you will focus on preserving your life if things go south...I would never forgive myself if something happened to you."
Hearing Vahn's words, Artoria's expression became even more serious than before, clear conviction visible in her gaze as she answered, "I will not fall. It was only moments ago that I promised to stay at your side, forever. That included facing your enemies, even if it means exposing myself to danger. Even if the opponent is far beyond me, I will simply push through my limits until I'm able to secure a victory. I trust in you, Vahn. Please, trust in me as well...now, let us be on our way."
Without waiting for his response, Artoria pulled Vahn's hand while pushing open the heavy wooden doors as if they were made from styrofoam. This returned the smile to Vahn's face, as, for once, he was pulled along by one of his women, rather than them following behind and basing their reactions on the things he did. It reminded him of how Loki, Hephaestus, and Fortuna would do things, never questing whether or not he trusted them. They always took the action they thought necessary, their status as Goddesses giving them the confidence to push through any obstacle barring their passage.
After trespassing silent halls for several minutes, Vahn and Artoria found themselves near the center of the palace, a massive pavilion that didn't quite match the external decor. Though it clearly had similar Japanese accents, the floor had transitioned from ornate carpets and neatly organized tatami to thick marble slabs. More startling was the fact that, despite being inside of the palace, the interior pavilion seemed much larger than the structure appeared from the outside. It was an impossibly vast area that seemed to stretch upwards into eternity, its walls appearing similar to fragmented data that and fused together with stone blocks...
What made the pavilion even stranger were the various statues that occupied the surroundings, each depicting soldiers with horrified looks that had been perpetually frozen in time. Some were oriented in the opposite direction, as if they were trying to flee, but the vast majority were facing inward, their weapons drawn as they appeared to be charging towards the figure lounging upon the throne at the far end of the room...
Following their combined line of sight, Vahn could see a young, exceptionally beautiful, woman. She had uncommon pink hair, set into two lively pigtails that jut out from the sides of a massive ribbon that was situated behind two vulpine ears, each possessing a reddish-orange color, similar to a fox's fur. As for her attire, she wore a loose kimono that, even to those unfamiliar with Japanese traditions, resembled a white bridal gown, complete with red accents and an ornate obi. This greatly enhanced her already beautiful appearance, but, what stood out more than anything were the nine wispy tails that danced about lazily behind her body, each reminiscent of flames...
Despite several hundred meters separating them, the vulpine women could feel Vahn's gaze, even if his eyes didn't so much as move a single micrometer. This caused her previously neutral expression to shift into the characteristic smile only vulpine woman would manage. She squinted her eyes in an inherently seductive manner, the red mascara surrounding them making her gaze seem passionate, yet predatory. At the same time, her lips curled up slightly at the side, extending a little further than was natural, yet, in spite of this incongruity, it had a way of captivating men's hearts.
Vahn could feel a powerful charm try to affect his mind, but, even if he hadn't already anticipated it, such tactics were virtually useless against him. Thus, with the same slight smile on his face, he walked forward with Artoria, stating in a calm tone of voice, "You must be Tamamo-no-Mae-."
Interrupting Vahn's words, Tamamo mused, "And you are Vahn Aldrnari Mason, the infamous Sage Dragon Emperor that has thrown the world into turmoil..." while playing with her long, fringe, bangs, At the same time, her tails became more vibrant, spreading a significant amount of heat through the room that seemed to say, 'come no closer'.
Rather than deny Tamamo's words, Vahn answered with a curt nod before saying, "Things are never quite that simple, but that is the short of it. I will not deny my crimes, however, this will not stop me from trying to make the world a better place. I have come here-."
Without letting him finish, Tamamo once again interrupted Vahn's words, stating, "You come seeking an accord with this vulpine beauty. Yet, despite everything you have to offer, you cannot give me the thing which I seek. Do not feign ignorance with me, boy. We both know I am a Bunrei, a fragment of something far more powerful...something you wish to tame, yet lack the means to do so. After what you have done, you'll be lucky to leave this place alive, much less convince me to obey your will~."
As Tamamo spoke, Vahn could feel the Flow of Fate around him become tumultuous and disorderly. It was like a series of intertwined rivers had suddenly converged together, forming a vast ocean that threatened to drown anyone reckless enough to venture into its currents. This was something he had yet to experience, causing his brain to stall for a brief moment as Tamamo's eyes shifted from a pale yellow to a resplendent gold, eclipsing even the sun in their vibrance.
After moving from her lounging position to a seated one, Tamamo stated plainly, "Archimedes may have been a scoundrel, but he was also the man I had contracted to. He had promised to grant my penultimate wish, something your existence would deny me. Therefore, you only have two options, child of a foreign star...you will become my betrothed, dedicating your everything to me. Otherwise, you, that woman beside you, and everything you have endeavored to build...I will destroy it all. I will allow you to experience the same helplessness you have bestowed upon others...what say you?"
Prior to this encounter, Vahn hadn't realized how much he had been relying on reading the Flow of Fate when it came to making decisions. He was suddenly at a loss as to how to respond, despite the obvious answer being to outright refuse Tamamo's proposition. While making her his bride was not completely out of the question, this would set a dangerous precedent. More importantly, her words made it very clear he would become 'hers', rather than the other way around. She would likely force him into a powerful contract, fully intent on keeping him locked away under the threat of destroying everything he held dear...
Needless to say, Vahn wouldn't allow someone to arbitrarily endanger his loved ones, so, even if this was just a test, his aura exploded outward as he glared at Tamamo and said, "I'll make a third option, choosing my own path...!"
Though his aura was typically more than enough to overwhelm his foes, Vahn was slightly shaken when, after releasing his full might, it seemed to be forced back into him. His domain, which had previously spread for nearly a dozen kilometers, was restricted to less than a single meter. At the same time, Tamamo's smiled had become similar to a demon's, the corners of her mouth nearly reaching her slit-like eyes as two sun-like irises stared back at him in amusement...
In the brief moment where Vahn was considering whether or not to attack, an intense surge of heat slammed into both him and Artoria. Their surroundings also changed in an instant, changing from a battlefield filled with stone soldiers to an indescribably large temple. It was almost like he had been shrunken down to the size of a mouse, as, laying before him, a woman that was more than thirty meters tall lay lazily on her side, an amused expression on her vulpine face.
Compared to Tamamo, the woman before him was even more beautiful, and, though they shared many similarities with each other, their differences were like comparing a golden chalice to a rusted bronze cup. Even Vahn, who had seen numerous indescribable beauties, was at a complete loss as he stared blankly at the magnificent giantess lounging before him, helpless as her aura threatened to consume him...
Vahn couldn't help but overlap the woman before him with the Tiamat he had encountered back in the Record of Danmachi. She was simply so far beyond his current level that, even if he fought, there seemed to be little hope in victory. He had told himself that he would never run away again, but, in the face of nine-tailed Goddess, all of his instincts were screaming at him to flee. Fighting would only amount to becoming her plaything, freely toyed with at her leisure until she either got bored with or outright erased him...
Overwhelmed by the woman's aura, Vahn's fight or flight response resounded a unanimous 'flight', so, without further hesitation, he turned toward Artoria, exclaiming, "We need...to..." before paling.
Instead of the stalwart woman who had promised to remain at his side for all eternity, Vahn saw a red-hot [Excalibur], straining under the intense heat radiating from the Goddess before him. Nothing else remained, not even her armor that had been enchanted to the point of being able to resist even an A-Rank Noble Phantasm. There weren't even ashes, just a slowly melting sword...
Awaking him from his stupor, a melodious voice echoed through the vast, impossibly large chamber, stating, "You made the wrong choice...now, you have one last chance. You took something precious from me so I expect compensation. Offer yourself to me or despair like everyone else in the world you have created...these are you only two options, ufufufufu~."
Title: April Fools Day is Malicious
(A/N: Alternate Titles: 'Shadows beneath the light of the Sun','Venturing forth without fear','Feelings of absolute despair...')
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