Endless Path : Infinite Cosmos Chapter 1454
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?"
Hearing Tamamo's words, Vahn was liberated from his momentary stupor, his expression returning to a relaxed state as he answered, "I will choose the third option, following my own path. I may be able to help fulfill your wish, but, even if you cast away your current form, you would not be able to take everything away from me. You would not have allowed your Bunrei to suffer such a tragic fate if that were the case..."
Though she was tempted to interrupt him, Tamamo was amused by Vahn's words, allowing him to finish before musing, "Is that really the case, I wonder~?"
The moment Tamamo's words fell, a powerful aura swept through the area, crashing into Vahn's and Artoria's bodies as every statue in the surroundings turned to ash. By the time they had recovered their senses, their surroundings had completely changed, become a massive temple-like mausoleum. At the very center of this structure, where Tamamo had been sitting previously, a vulpine humanoid, nearly thirty meters from the tips of her ears to the soles of her feet, could be seen lounging before them.
Though the woman before him shared many similarities with Tamamo, Vahn found it hard to directly compare the two. If the former could be compared to a pretty porcelain doll, the woman before him was like a natural marvel, a work of art beyond the capabilities of even the most skilled craftsman, be they God or mortal. Her size only made this more apparent, elevating her to a transcendental status that simply couldn't be grasped by natural perceptions...
Finding Vahn's reaction amusing, the giant nine-tailed fox giggled, her voice echoing throughout the vast chamber. Her tails also flickered around behind her, each reminiscent of solar flares, radiating an immense heat that could rival the corona of the sun, exceeding millions of degrees despite the fact it had little influence on the surroundings. She, much like Zhqu, had full control over how her flames affected the surroundings, releasing just enough heat to force Vahn and Artoria to sweat.
Despite feeling like he could just marvel at the woman's figure for days on end, Vahn ultimately just shook his head, a wry smile on his face as he muttered, "You're quite breathtaking in your true form. I wonder, would you rather me continue referring to you as Tamamo-no-Mae or by your True Name, Sun Goddess Amaterasu...?"
Hearing Vahn's words, Amaterasu squinted her eyes slightly, answering, "Even if you are also a God, do you think it wise to address me without honorifics? This may be little more than a projection, but I'm confident in being able to discipline a pair of lizards, ufufufu~."
This time, it was Vahn's turn to laugh, as, despite Amaterasu' phenomenal aura, his own was slowly pushing back against hers. While she was much stronger than him, there was still an insurmountable gap between her Divine and his Source Energy. He also had a high affinity with Yang Element, so, while the heat radiating from her bake his clothing, he only felt an annoyingly itch feeling due to his [Magia Erebea] constitution.
Amaterasu wasn't fond of Vahn's outburst, but, as she didn't want to endanger the life of her Bunrei, releasing more of her aura was out of the question. Instead, she took advantage of the fact that he had walked toward her, extending her hand out with surprising swiftness before 'gently' flicking him with enough force to send him crashing through the surrounding walls. This wasn't enough to cause any substantial damage to him, but, as it achieved the effect of stopping his laughter, Amaterasu was content with the result...
After liberating himself from the surprisingly realistic rubble, Vahn made a mental note not to overtly tease giantesses in the future. He should have already learned his lesson from Illya, but, perhaps as a result of Amaterasu's beauty, he wasn't thinking as clearly as usual. This, and his inability to read the Flow of Fate, was affecting him more than he would have liked to admit. He would need to reflect on his overreliance on the relatively powerful ability, as, much like Innates, there were no actual limits to the number of things that could counter it...
Before returning to Amaterasu's mausoleum, Vahn allowed his own aura to surge outwards, repelling the sun-like aura that dominated the surrounding space. At the same time, his size rapidly increased, a feat he would find difficult to pull off in the 'real' world, but, knowing this was an illusory space, all he needed was a bit of willpower to freely change his surroundings.
By the time he had broken through the walls surrounding Amaterasu's chamber, Vahn's height had increased from 185 centimeters to 31 meters. This earned him moderately surprised looks from both Amaterasu and Artoria, the latter of which had already drawn her [Rhongomyniad], preparing for a tough battle.
Gesturing for Artoria to stand down, Vahn took in his surroundings from his new perspective, finding the previously vast chamber to actually be rather small. If Amaterasu was to lay down directly on the floor, she wouldn't even have enough space to extend her arms without contacting the side walls. In fact, now that he saw the room from a similar perspective as the massive Goddess, he noticed it was actually just a small shrine, appearing much like a prison cell despite its lavish decor...
As this thought crossed his mind, Vahn plainly asked, "Do you wish to leave this place? Even if this is an illusion, I feel it isn't all that different from your actual location..."
Though she had half-expected Vahn to try and push her down, Amaterasu never expected him to suddenly offer her 'freedom'. This brought a genuinely surprised look to her face as she asked, "Did you know of my agreement with Archimedes? Are you trying to toy with me?"
Shaking his head, Vahn explained, "I knew there was a reason you agreed to help him, but, much like Musashi and Caenis, I thought you had simply been fooled. Now, I see the truth...you wanted to use the return of the Umbral Star as a means to escape the Reverse Side of the World. If the Surface was destroyed, the restrictions placed upon the Gods would be loosened, allowing for their subsequent return...you intended to abandon the planet in order to obtain your freedom..."
While she didn't like how Vahn phrased it, Amaterasu made no effort to deny his claims, stating, "I am a Goddess of the Sun. Being sealed away within the planet I was meant to govern is ridiculous. The last time, I refused to fight against Velber and ended up being sealed away in a place removed from the Time Axis. This time around, I don't care if I lose my life. I would rather die fighting against the calamitous star than rot away for an eternity. If you can truly free me from this place, I wouldn't mind calling you Master...or, perhaps, Goshujin-sama~?"
Resisting the urge to roll his eyes, Vahn took a seat on the ground before Amaterasu, answering, "I have already relinquished the authority to make those kinds of decisions to my wives. You are very beautiful, this is something I can't deny. However, beauty, power, and even Divine Authority do not determine the quality of a woman. I'm surrounded by many amazing women, so, even if your offer is tempting, I'll grant your freedom without such constraints. All I ask of you is the same thing I ask of all people, that you abide by the Common Law and live a life without suppressing others..."
Hearing Vahn's words, Amaterasu's tails flickered around behind her in a manner eerily similar to Haruhime, indicating mild frustration. It didn't show in her expression but she was clearly dissatisfied with his words, specifically the parts concerning the 'quality of a woman'. She wouldn't be a Goddess of the Sun if she didn't possess a certain amount of pride, so, even if she was tempted to accept his terms, Amaterasu ultimately stated, "You may rule over the planet, but I am responsible for the entire Sol System. If you are not my Master, why should I care about the insignificant laws you have created to govern your people...?"
Though he nearly responded by saying, 'So you can be free', Vahn ultimately restrained himself as it could easily be misconstrued as a threat. Then, he manipulated his body to produce a large sakazuki, the saucer-like cup that often accompanied sake sets. Afterward, under the scrutinizing gaze of the Sun Goddess, he filled the saucer with a mixture of sake produced from his own body. Buying a large enough quantity from the system shop would cost him a fortune in OP, so, while it wouldn't exactly rival legendary brands, Vahn knew from experience how 'tantalizingly sweet' the fluids produced by his body could be.
After filling the saucer nearly to the brim, Vahn held it out towards Amaterasu, explaining, "You are too eager to ingratiate yourself to others. If you were sincere in your desires, it would be difficult for me to push you away. I have a small trauma related to women going out of their way to service me, fearing they had no other option. The women I prefer are those who can move toward their goals without feeling inhibited by their relationships. Happiness is something people find when working alongside each other, not something one person grants to another..."
Hearing Vahn's remark, Amaterasu couldn't help but give him a skeptical look, asking, "And what is this sake supposed to signify? My current self is nothing but an illusion, do you think it will have any effect on me, even if you mixed something into it?"
Finding Amaterasu's remark rather humorous, Vahn issued a light chuckle, which, due to his size, echoed through the surroundings with thunderous force. Even Amaterasu's vulpine ears twitched, her expression turning slightly dour as she scrunched up her nose at him. This caused Vahn to stop laughing, remembering how easily she had sent him flying previously. His size might have increased, but, while this might have an effect on his physical strength, it did little to increase his actual power.
In order to avoid Amaterasu's ire, Vahn adopted a wry smile, explaining, "This sake is nothing more than an offering. I may not be a Japanese Emperor, but I am aware of the customs when it comes to making a request from a Goddess. After this is over, I will begin making preparations to liberate you from your temporal isolation. Until then, your Bunrei can accompany me, viewing the world I wish to create with her own eyes. I hope that, by the time preparations you are ready to be summoned, you will be convinced that the Empire is not some malicious force..."
What Vahn didn't say was, even if Amaterasu decided to oppose him, her power was limited by the same restrictions that forced Gods to the Reverse Side. He also had authority over Sol itself, so, while he didn't know the exact method of establishing contact with it, it shouldn't be that difficult to figure out. If it ultimately came down to it, sealing Amaterasu's power wasn't out of the question, even if it would only be as a last resort.
Though she could sense greater meaning behind Vahn's words, Amaterasu didn't detect any direct falsehoods within them. Thus, after eyeing the crystal clear liquid in the sakazuki cup and noticing a strangely tantalizing rainbow hue refract across its surface, she ultimately offered an amused smile, saying, "Very well then. I will entrust my Bunrei to you. If you go back on your words or try to harm her in any way, don't blame me for being impolite..."
Following her words, Amaterasu downed the entire cup of sake in a series of large gulps, seemingly unconcerned about the looks she was receiving from both Vahn and Artoria. Then, after finishing the contents of her cup, she released a girlish 'Pahaa~!' before smiling radiantly and saying, "It seems I underestimated the quality of your offering...fuuu...it's been a long time since I've felt my body burn like this. The next time we meet, I'll be expecting something of similar quality...don't disappoint me, Ten'n-sama~."
Before Amaterasu had finished speaking, Vahn and Artoria could feel the world around them distort, their surroundings becoming hazy as the pulse that had originally repelled them seemed to invert, pulling them forward. At the same time, the thousands of statues which had previously been turned to ash reformed, almost like time reversing, as they once again found themselves in the expansive pavilion housing the now-sleeping Tamamo...
(A/N: Alternate Titles: 'Deja Vu?','Amaterasu, I've come to bargain...','An illusory ability that can even rival the Dick Wizard...')
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