Endless Path : Infinite Cosmos Chapter 1456
Contrary to what might be expected from the fragmented spirit of a Sun Goddess, Tamamo used a combination of ice and fire elemental manipulation when battling. She was also much faster than a traditional caster, relying on her agility to dark between foes, blasting them with close-range spells or casting long range curses over a large area. This had the effect of significantly reducing the speed of her foes, covering their body in a layer of ice that seemed to penetrate weaker magical defenses with ease.
For reasons only Tamamo would know the answer to, the Onmyoji, soldiers, and even the shadowy 'citizens' outside were programmed, not to keep others out, but to keep her trapped within. Though she could break free whenever she wanted, Vahn and Artoria both felt it was a rather strange way for her territory to develop. She had effectively built a prison for herself, indicating that her past, even after hundreds of years, still haunted her.
Fortunately, Tamamo seemed to be enjoying herself quite a bit during their short stint to escape the palace and its surrounding barrier. She blasted through the offensive formation the Onmyoji had set to repel her, laughing somewhat maniacally as she rained down large chunks of fire and ice, similar to what you might expect during an apocalyptic scene.
Tamamo wasn't known as one of Japan's Three Great Monsters for nothing, and, though she gave off a very different impression than Shuten, it was hard to determine which of them was scarier. After all, despite his intention to preserve the peculiar capital city for future research, Tamamo either forgot or simply didn't care about his intentions. Rather, if not for the fact she was a Divine Spirit, rather than a Servant, Vahn didn't think it would be difficult to convince others she was a Berserker, especially after watching her laugh uninhibitedly while sweeping over the capital like a natural disaster...
After Tamamo was 'satisfied' with the destruction she had caused, she darted up to where Vahn and Artoria had been patiently waiting for her to finish venting. Artoria had initially intended to help out, but, seeing how 'indiscriminate' Tamamo's attacks were, she ultimately decided to simply join Vahn as he watched the event play out with a wry smile on his face. He knew it was never a good idea to get in the way of a woman when she was venting, so, with the shadowy figures below being nothing more than modified Attack Programs, he saw no reason to intervene.
With a happy smile on her face, Tamamo's ears twitched a few times as she asked, "Shall we be on our way, Ten'n-sama~? I am eager to see our love nest with my own eyes, ufufufu~."
Since her rampage had taken a little longer than expected, Vahn just gave a curt nod in response to Tamamo's question before turning his eyes skyward and saying, "Transfer us to my territory." This earned him a curious look from Tamamo, but, as their surroundings instantly changed following his command, she became more distracted by the massive castle than her previous question.
Before Tamamo could wander off, Vahn startled her by gently pinching the tip of her pointed vulpine ears, saying, "You can't wander around on your own while you're here. Everyone gathered below is an important citizen of the Empire. Follow Artoria's lead and make sure you treat them with care and respect."
Though she had been originally been intending to go exploring, Tamamo nodded in affirmation to Vahn's words, smiling as she said, "Yes, of course, Ten'n-sama. I will be on my best behavior; this I can promise you. Now, hurry along to deal with your matter. I will draw a bath and dutifully await your triumphant return to the castle, ufufufu~."
After ruffling Tamamo's paradoxically soft yet bristly hair, reminding him a lot of Fenrir, Vahn turned to Artoria, giving her a curt nod as he said, "I'll leave here to you. Don't worry, I won't be too long..."
Punctuating his words, Vahn used his mastery of Petting Laws and [Hands of Nirvana] to caress the side of Artoria's face, running his fingers through her fringe bangs. He was tempted to kiss her, but, knowing it would trigger Tamamo, he settled on just resting his forehead against hers, a display of affection he had become quite fond of in recent months...
With both girls seeing him off, Vahn turned his eyes skyward and said, "Transport me to Chang'e's territory."
Immediately following Vahn's words, his figure disappeared from view, leaving Tamamo and Artoria staring at the spot he had been hovering moments prior. Then, at nearly the exact same moment, they looked toward each other, Tamamo's smile curling up at the sides while Artoria just stared with a contemplative expression on her face. She felt like Tamamo was going to get herself into trouble in the near future, so, in the hopes of mitigating some of the fallout, she said, "Come, there is much for us to discuss. The nature of the Empire is likely very different from what you're imagining, so, if you really want to make an impression on Vahn, you will listen closely."
Hearing Artoria's words, Tamamo's ears and tail twitched a few times, but, as Vahn had told her to listen to the petite Empress, she offered a polite smile before saying, "Certainly, Kg-sama. Though I believe my own experience will suffice, please, advise me well, ufufu~."
As could be expected from a Goddess, Chang'e's territory was quite the sight to behold, even at a distance. Though not as impactful as Tamamo's capital city, the mountain housing Chang'e's palace had a certain phantasmal quality to it, almost as if it had been pulled directly from a popular Chinese novel depicting Immortal Cultivators. It wasn't something you'd ever find in the natural world, but, in spite of this, it possessed what could only be described as a natural, albeit ephemeral, beauty...
Unfortunately, Vahn wasn't afforded much time to take in this natural splendor, as, moments after he was teleported outside the mystical palace, three lightning-fast arrows, each aiming for a vital point, tore through the air. He was able to repel these by simply condensing the space around him, similar to how he would prevent Mordred and others from trying to approach him.
Without waiting for a second volley of arrows, Vahn teleported right next to his attacker, stunning the cat-like woman and causing her to perform a series of backflips and other acrobatic maneuvers as she released several bursts of sporadic arrow fire. This was only possible due to the fact Vahn was somewhat unwilling to strike her, as, even if she wasn't real, the fact she looked and acted similar to the Atalanta he knew made it difficult to strike.
With a slightly apologetic smile on his face, Vahn easily deflected the false Atalanta's arrows, saying, "You are quick on your feet...however, it is a bit slow compared to the original. It seems Jason can't manifest your powers to their fullest..."
As all of her attacks had been swat away without any effort, Atalanta's brows furrowed into a deep frown as she said, "You speak as if you know my original..."
Immediately following Atalanta's words, Vahn nodded his head, pulling out a shimmering golden apple as he said, "The wish of your original, it is something I have sworn to realize. Please, do not make me fight you..."
Seeing the golden apple in Vahn's hand, Atalanta's face contorted into one of shock and disbelief. Though it was possible he had obtained a different golden apple, the way he spoke indicated he was 'intimately' familiar with her original self. This made her feel a small amount of resentment toward him, but, after several seconds of silence, she was able to recover enough to ask, "Did you cheat...?"
Understanding what Atalanta was asking, Vahn shook his head, explaining, "You gifted me this apple, saying I could use it against you if I was willing to accept responsibility. Instead, I defeated you using my own ability, freeing you from the burden you had forced upon yourself. Now, you spend much of your time silently watching over my children, protecting a kind-hearted girl named Astrid, and, when there is a full moon, we all go hunting together...you can be quite competitive..."
Hearing Vahn's words, Atalanta lowered her bow, a tired sigh escaping her lips as she muttered, "It is a little unfair, telling me these things..."
Vahn didn't disagree with Atalanta's words, but, as it was better than having to fight and defeat one of the people he cared about, he didn't regret his decision. Instead, he pulled out one of the apples grown on Avalon, tossing it over to Atalanta as he said, "For what it's worth...I would have liked to save you as well..."
After catching the apple out of the air, Atalanta just snorted in response to Vahn's comment. Then, without sparing him another glance, she alighted from the room, vanishing without a trace...
Though it wasn't exactly his fault, seeing Atalanta's retreating figure caused Vahn to harbor a little more hatred toward Jason. Atalanta might not be one of his women, at least not in the 'traditional' way, but that didn't mean he felt nothing for her. It wasn't easy, knowing he was effectively killing a version of her that, to an extent, possessed at least a fragmentary desire to live...
As this thought crossed his mind, Vahn turned his gaze to the right, staring toward the lumbering figure that had been observing his actions with a steely gaze. Then, much like how he had dealt with Atalanta, he silently muttered, "Your wife and children are alive..."
Immediately following the light utterance, Vahn felt an oppressive aura descend upon him as the man, Heracles, asked, "Is this your scheme? Would you have me believe you have summoned all of the Argonauts, pacifying each of our most earnest desires?"
Shaking his head in response, Vahn explained, "That may be something I do in the far future, but not any time soon. You came into my service at the end of the recent Holy Grail War. As for Atalanta, she was summoned by a young lady named Astrid. Other than the two of you, the only other member of the Argonauts I have summoned is Medea, the version of her who had yet to experience the tragedy wrought upon her by Aphrodite and Jason...her aunt, Circe, had been rather insistent..."
Hearing Vahn's words, Heracles' expression became solemn and serious. He wasn't foolish enough to believe Vahn's words outright, but, based on what his instincts were telling him, there didn't seem to be a reason for him to lie. It was impossible to know just how vast the difference in their power, but Heracles got the impression that even his original self wouldn't be able to bridge the gap between him and Vahn.
While Heracles still seemed to be measuring his options, Vahn slowly extended his hand, offering a [Projection Orb] to the somewhat overbearing demigod. This earned him a pointed glare, but, after saying, "It is an item that records memories as images...determine the truth for yourself.", Heracles ended silently accepting it.
Though he was still suspicious, Heracles' grim face visibly relaxed once he saw the images that were being projected onto the adjacent wall. They showed a relatively spacious house near a port, but, far more importantly, he could see several familiar figures, including his own. He seemed to be teaching his sons how to properly moor a small ship, an uncharacteristic smile on his face as Therimachus did his best to emulate several complex knots.
Just as Heracles was beginning to wonder where his wife was, he could suddenly hear the voice of another woman asking, "Are you filming them again?", followed by the image changing to show a woman with white hair and red eyes. Then, revealing the truth of the matter, he could hear his wife's voice answer, "I can't help it. These are blessed days. Were it possible, I would capture every single moment of our happiness, preserving them forever. One day, if my husband loses his way, I pray he will find strength in these recorded moments, freeing him from the burdens forced upon him by that vile woman..."
Even without asking, Heracles could easily imagine who Megara was talking about, his expression forming an almost indiscernible smile. He still didn't fully believe in Vahn's words, but, even if it was just an illusion, it was a pleasant scene to witness. It was also something he was willing to protect, as, much like Atalanta, he understood the true nature of his current existence.
Like all of the Heroes summoned by Jason, he was nothing more than a bastardization of his original self, an incomplete replica derived from the former's memories of him. As a result, he was unable to recall several important events throughout his life, especially if they were memories prior to the time he set sail aboard the Argo. Thus, even if it wasn't real, Heracles felt closer to the images projected onto the wall than any of the ones that had been 'fabricated' as a result of Jason's poor recollection...
As this thought crossed his mind, Heracles looked down at Vahn, saying, "I'll going to keep this..." before turning his attention back to the projection. This earned him a silent nod from Vahn, who, understanding the meaning behind Heracles' words, bypassed the mountain-like man, making his way further into the large palatial compound...
(A/N: Alternate Titles: 'Never underestimate an Imperial Courtesan','Poor Atalanta (T ^ T)...','Not all battles need be fought with violence. Understanding is, in many cases, the most powerful weapon. "The most supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting" -Sun Tzu')
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