Chapter 1078: Variable Paths

Now that he had Artoria as his first long-term companion within the Nasuverse, Vahn decided it was time to begin forming his ideas into words. He had already been thinking about what he would do following the Holy Grail War so, now that he had someone to bounce the ideas off of, Vahn set out some fresh and fragrant mint tea as he explained, “Though my plan will change depending on who else we are able to recruit, there are two courses of action I have plotted out. The first is a lot more high-profile than the second option, as it would entail us traveling around the world to help people in ways that couldn’t easily be covered up by the Clock Tower and the Holy Church. There are a lot of major illnesses within this world, several of which can millions of lives every single year. If we begin curing people on a global scale, while performing acts like terraforming desserts and detoxing the atmosphere, there are few ways they would be able to spin the information away from magic.”

Though what Vahn was proposing sounded like a wonderful idea, as it would essentially put him in the role of a savior, Artoria showed a complicated expression as she cautioned, “I am not against such methods, but they could have disastrous consequences if we are unable to build the proper momentum before our enemies respond. There is a chance that they could even release plagues and other calamities in order to lay the blame on your head and turn public opinion against you. Over the course of history, the two things that have proactively killed the largest number of people have always been politics and religion…” As someone who had been betrayed in several different ways throughout her life, Artoria was well aware of how extreme the death toll could get when the people were manipulated for someone else’s ends…

As he could understand Artoria’s concerns, Vahn nodded his head before ultimately saying, “One of the things you might not have considered properly is how interconnected people are in the current Era. Depending on how we chose to play our hand, it isn’t impossible for upwards of a billion people to instantly learn of the existence of magic. Though there would be a public outcry, followed by large-scale protests, that would have always happened, regardless of our efforts. The people of this world have been pacified to such an extent that they will flock together and protest before taking any truly decisive action. Anyone that tries to lead something like a revolution in a so-called first world country is almost always assassinated and suppressed long before they can gain even a small following…”

Vahn knew he lacked a complete understanding of the current world, as he had only researched it sparingly at best, but one of the things he had noticed throughout was that people only ‘decisively’ acted through means of protesting and riots. These would always get suppressed relatively quickly, as the current Era made it impossible for people to commit to such actions without compromising their livelihoods. The vast majority of people around the world had to rely on their minimal wages just to make a living, meaning they could never just stop working and become proactively involved in protesting. Though some could last for weeks, people would inevitably move on after feeling their actions were fruitless, falling back into the trap that had been set for them by the very people they were trying to protest against. In a battle of attrition, it was the wealthy and affluent who were the victors, the only exception being when those of similar wealth and power were the ones trying to rile people up…

Keying in on what Vahn was saying, Artoria furrowed her brows as she asked, “Then what would be the point of riling people up?” To this, Vahn just smiled as he explained, “It is a lot harder to control people when you introduce metaphysical and spiritual concepts into the equation. As a result of being forced into passivity, there are a phenomenal number of people who are simply waiting for an excuse to rise up in a more meaningful way. If you could decisively prove the existence of things like Magecraft, there would be no end to the number of people that would rise up to defend the concept. Though the powers-that-be may use extreme methods to try and suppress the information, or even lay blame on us, we need only keep creating miracles in order to have the public demanding the truth from their would-be leaders…”

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Though she could understand what Vahn was trying to say, Artoria once again pointed out, “That kind of method would lead to wide-scale chaos, costing the lives of hundreds-of-millions in the long run. I am not the kind of person who believes the end justifies the means…” Before Artoria could go down a non-conducive route where they would simply argue, Vahn raised his hand in a placating gesture before adding, “I would never desire such an outcome, Artoria. The simple truth of the matter is that the current system is intentionally designed to cause that kind of reaction. The powers ruling behind the scenes have designed it that way in order to guarantee they can always control the public, even when they are riled up. Since it ultimately does not affect them, they have no problem with increasing the amount of chaos so that they are able to step in and ‘guide’ the survivors back to the intended path…”

With her hands forming into fists, Artoria exclaimed, “Then we should be targetting the powers behind the scenes! If we know they are just going to manipulate people to their own ends, they should be out first targets!” As this was Vahn’s own intentions, he simply nodded in response, casually smiling in a way that made Artoria swallow her words before sitting back down. When she had settled down, Vahn explained, “That is why, from the very start, I said there were two methods I had thought of. The first method would undoubtedly have the fastest results, but the consequences could be disastrous depending on the response from the powers behind the scenes. In order to avoid such an outcome, the second option is to become a global power that can directly contend against those lurking within the dark…”

Even if it would undoubtedly have him classified as a Dead Apostle Ancestor, Vahn went on to detail the plan he had come up with to see what Artoria thought. Though he hadn’t worked out all the wrinkles just yet, Vahn was intending to either secure an island or a mountain as his base once the Holy Grail War had come to an end. He needed time to consolidate his power but, with the existence of the Sub-Space Orbs, time was a luxury he could, quite literally, purchase. So long as he had time, Vahn was confident they could all greatly increase their power, all while coming up with a far more comprehensive solution. Then, be it through negotiation or more direct means, their organization could slowly dig up the roots of the other major powers until they were forced to compromise. This would guarantee their status as an enemy to both the Mage’s Association and the Holy Church, but that was always going to be the outcome if they wanted to bring about real and lasting change…

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Finding it far more acceptable to be in the line of fire herself, Artoria had a resolute expression on her face by the end of Vahn’s long explanation. Even her Loyalty had jumped up to 92 points, making it very clear which of the two options she preferred. Before she could go off on some grandiose speech, however, Vahn tempered her fervor by reminding, “If we are going to use the second method, it will likely take years before we are even ready to begin moving. We also need to acquire allies to aid in our endeavor, and not just in the form of powerhouses that can fight against our foes directly. If we were a force solely focused on combat, our purpose would become skewed with the passage of time…”

Since it was obvious that Artoria preferred the second method, Vahn went on to explain how he intended to keep every willing Servant manifested, even after the Grail War came to an end. Though there were undoubtedly reliable allies to be found in the present, there was a reason why very few ‘modern’ people ever became Heroic Spirits. The current state of the world, combined with how information was strictly controlled, meant it was almost impossible for new legends to form. Few people could hold up under the scrutiny of the modern era where, instead of inflating stories and giving power to the legends, people were more than likely to call into question the validity of such claims. There would be an incalculable number of naysayers that would flock to disprove anything miraculous had ever occurred, some of which belonged to groups that were payrolled by the Mage’s Association and Holy Church…

Towards the end of his explanation, Vahn allowed a confident smile to adorn his face as he finished up by saying, “Ultimately, we will endeavor to become an unshakeable existence that has enough power to reform and regulate the other organizations. I expect the opposition will not sit idly by, but there are few legends where the bad guys don’t play a proactive role in the hero’s story, right…?” No matter how he tried to spin it, Vahn’s proposition was essentially creating an organization of heroes that was determined to root out evil. He harbored no delusions that evil could be, or even should be, eliminated. But the future of the world shouldn’t be solely determined by a few tens of thousands of people while ‘literally’ billions endeavored to support their errant lifestyles.

With her Loyalty now a commendable 107, Artoria returned an affirmative nod before allowing a somewhat excited smile to spread across her face. Vahn blinked in genuine surprise with how her beauty seemed to double with such a simple action, but he otherwise managed to control himself as Artoria proclaimed, “I will do my best to make our shared dream a reality, Master. I may be lacking in various regards, but I will endeavor to become much stronger if it can increase our chances by even a single percent…!”

Since it was too good an opportunity to pass up, Vahn smiled teasingly before musing, “Our shared dream…well put, Artoria…” This, combined with the very fresh memory of her practically shouting, ‘I do’ caused Artoria’s face to immediately ‘puff’ into a completely reddened state. Then, though it was inarguably manipulative, Vahn reminded in a calm and gentle tone, “Do not forget the commitment you had shown as a Servant. Though the fundamental nature of our relationship has changed, there are some things that simply can’t be glossed over. However, regardless of how you feel about the matter, know that I have no intention of making things difficult for you, Artoria…when you have truly prepared your heart, know that I have already prepared a place for you within mine.”

Even without every other Servant already receiving his ‘mana’, it was never truly a question whether or not Artoria would partake in the exchange. So long as her Master’s wish wasn’t against her Cod of Chivalry, Artoria almost defaulted to the mentality that she was simply a tool to be used. If she could rationalize that it would increase their chances of victory, something like a Command Spell wasn’t necessary to sway Artoria’s actions. If you tried to force the matter, it would be next to impossible to break through her defenses. Inversely, however, you only needed to present things in a way that she could justify according to her preformed biases in order to have the woman known as the King of Knights wrapped around your finger. Though this was a massive flag showing how she had been manipulated her entire life, Vahn would not allow her to be sad in the future…

Knowing what Vahn was getting at, as there wasn’t really anything left open for interpretation, Artoria hung her head slightly as she answered, “I am still inexperienced in matters of the heart. However, I shared a promise with my former Master that I do not desire to break. I will do my duty, regardless of what you require of me…but please do not expect my heart to be so easily swayed…” From her perspective, it hadn’t even been a full month since her broken body was dissipating into small particles of light. At that time, she had promised her former Master, Shirou, that she would continue to love him until they one day reunited. Though she knew such promises were foolish, especially with how inexperienced she was in such matters, Artoria didn’t want to believe her heart was so weak that she would set aside her promise just because she knew Shirou had died…

As Artoria’s response was well within his expectations, Vahn gave an understanding nod in response, even though he knew her resolve likely wouldn’t last. With what he knew of reincarnation, even with a contained system like the Root, the chances she would ever reunite with the same Shirou were infinitesimally small. Though meeting one with the exact same thoughts and memories wasn’t too much of a stretch, it would inarguably be a different person on the most fundamental level. This was one of the reasons why he hadn’t wanted to get too close to Rin from the start as, with the intention of traversing various timelines, Vahn knew he would meet near-identical versions of her along the way. He was afraid that falling in love with one of them would compel him to come to the aid of every Rin he encountered across the multiverse…

Deciding he would put off talking about such complicated things until Artoria had truly opened her heart to him, Vahn guided the conversation into a more positive direction. This primarily revolved around him talking about his past, the monsters in the Tower of Babel, the various gods he had interacted with, and the basic way of life people lived on the Continent of Eden. He knew Artoria’s past was essentially a giant minefield so Vahn figured he could earn some points with her by talking about things she would undoubtedly be interested in. He still intended to have her ‘figure’ out most of the details on her own, primarily through conversation with Nobunaga, but that didn’t prevent him from giving an embellished summary in the form of a story. Given how her Loyalty would slowly tick up every few minutes, Vahn assumed she had enjoyed it a great deal…

With time forever flowing forward, it wasn’t all that long before Vahn found himself staring into the crimson-red eyes of Scáthach as the two moved much further away from the lake than normal. As for why they were just staring at each other, this was due to the fact that Vahn had thought to get a small victory against his Teacher by using [Laplace’s Key]. The moment he activated it, however, Scáthach just tilted her head to the side and began watching him in silence. This had already been going on for ten minutes, neither side moving a muscle until Sis began helping him regain his senses. Vahn would soon lament this, however, as Scáthach immediately vanished like a phantom from his vision before he felt her metallic heel sinking into his cheek, crushing the bones in his jaw and fracturing his spine in the process…

This time around, Vahn only lasted seven hours before he was unable to support himself any longer. Throughout the thrashing, he had tried multiple time to use his [Laplace’s Key] but, much like during the first instance, Scáthach would just slow to a stop before staring blankly at him until he released it. Then, as if to make up for the lost time, she would hit him far harder and faster than during their previous training sessions. It wasn’t until Vahn was a borderline amorphous blob on the ground that he learned what had gone wrong. While he still had his consciousness, Scáthach squatted down next to him with a modicum of confusion in her eyes as she plainly asked, “How are you able to enter that state? I could not feel any intentions from you at all…”

Though Scáthach couldn’t see into Vahn’s future, her combat style was fundamentally focused on taking advantage of the actions and intentions of her opponent. The moment they began to move, she would already know exactly what they were trying to do and could instantly counter it with the vast difference in knowledge and experience. When Vahn used [Laplace’s Key], however, he just stood there without any discernable intentions to be read. Since there was no ‘optimal’ course of action to take, Scáthach could only continue watching Vahn until something changed to disrupt the spontaneous equilibrium they had found. As soon as the light returned to his eyes, the relaxed state of her body would immediately explode outwards like a spring that had been coiled under pressure. She didn’t know what Vahn had done, but intuition told her she had been in a precarious position that required an immediate and decisive response…

Having heard Scáthach’s question, Vahn was quickly able to discern one of the major flaws of his [Laplace’s Key]. There was no intention driving it so, as long as his opponent was not taking action that could endanger him, he would simply stand there like an idiot. This was why he had stopped short from attacking Artoria when it looked like she was considering her surrender. Then, after disarming her of [Excalibur] shortly after, Vahn had just stood there without following up. Though this was highly beneficial in instances where he didn’t actually want to kill his opponent, it meant that [Laplace’s Key] was almost impossible to use offensively without drawing focus to himself. If he ever found himself in a team battle against multiple opponents, it was even possible that he would just stand idly at the side the moment his enemies stopped targetting him…

Just as he had been required to put in a lot of effort to understand his [Blacksmith] Development Ability in the past, Vahn realized there were no truly free lunches in the world. Though he had gotten access to an unbelievably powerful skill, he would never be able to achieve its full potential without putting in the effort to truly master it. After all, it was a skill that should qualify as being near the peak of Tier 5, based on the fact that the scroll was supposed to push it to the limits of the Record. Since he was only Tier 4, lacking the power of an actual Tier 4, Vahn knew he had an incredibly long journey ahead of him if he wanted to master [Laplace’s Key]. At the same time, however, Vahn knew that his attempts would bear fruit and, almost as if he now had a guideline, the path to Tier 5 felt like it had opened itself to him…

Seeing that Vahn had fallen into unconscious without answering her question, Scáthach poked his cheek a few times as she wondered whether or not she should punish him. Because of that strange phenomenon, it felt like he hadn’t made much progress in his training this time around. Though she knew he was trying something new, that was no excuse to slack off and produce less than expected results. With that in mind, instead of turning Vahn over to the other girls to be tended to, Scáthach picked up his body before carrying him deeper into the high-pressure zones on the periphery of the Sub-Space Orb. Then, after creating an illusory barrier that would cause any observers to think they were still training, Scáthach reached into Vahn’s chest before pulling out a familiar rainbow jewel. Ever since his encounter with Ozymandias, Vahn had made a habit of keeping an indestructible core within his body to avoid the worst possible outcome. This, however, proved to be his undoing this time around as Scáthach rolled him between her fingers before doing things Vahn would never speak of to others…

(A/N: Alternate Titles: ‘This conversation is too meta…’,’Vahn, don’t bully Artoria…!’,’This has to be some kind of comeuppance…’)

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