Over the course of four hours, Vahn continued giving directions to Tina and Shizune as they made their way cautiously through the forest. Though they had already earned the right to enter the Dungeon, they still treated this short excursion very seriously because it wasn’t an exaggeration to say they were in danger of sustaining painful injuries if they got complacent. Tina, especially, had a bit of trouble at first but had started adapting to the stress and fear felt during combat after several engagements. Vahn couldn’t help shake the feeling that she was simply too young to be fighting against monsters, but he wasn’t going to challenge her desire to grow stronger.
Because monsters were very sparse, they had only encountered a total of thirteen goblins and two kobolds even after journeying forth for four hours. It wasn’t that there weren’t more enemies, but many of them were simply too strong for the girls at present and Vahn wanted them to take it slow. After all, they would be entering the Dungeon proper in a few days and that would be the true test so it wasn’t a good idea to strain them too much for now. Fighting Goblins and Kobolds was more than enough for their present level of strength and they would likely be constrained to the upper floors for quite a while, meaning they would be fighting the two types of monsters often.
Once they reached the clearing where the creek and rock formations were located, Vahn brought the group to a stop and felt especially reminiscent seeing the surroundings. Terra’s fragrance followed the entire group and Vahn felt it was very effective during moments like this. He turned to everyone with a gentle smile on his face and said, “This place was my home until I eventually made my way to Orario more than six months ago…it hasn’t really been that long, but it almost feels as though it was a lifetime ago.” Tina looked around with wide-eyes at the area and didn’t even notice the cave entrance at first because Vahn had blocked it off. She had been curious about Vahn’s lifestyle before he came to the Hearth’s Embrace since his behavior at the time had been ‘off’. Seeing that there was nothing but nature around them, she understood why he behaved that way and it made her feel a little sad seeing the ‘proof’ of the tragic past he had experienced.
Tsubaki walked over to a tree that Vahn had previously used for target practice as everyone else began looking around the area Vahn once called home. He opened up the entrance to the cave for them before heading inside to the place that had once given him shelter and also served as the location of one of the most significant moments in his life. It was in this moderately cool cave that Vahn became a ‘man’ and shared his life with other people for the first time, at least as man and woman. Before then, he had been living primarily to make other people happy without taking into consideration his long term actions. Now, he probably spent ‘too much’ time thinking about and preparing for the future…realizing how much he had changed made Vahn feel shocked at the influence of time.
Shizune looked around at the glowing stones in the cave and inspected the area with intrigue while Tina sniffed around the air, almost as if she were looking for something. Even though he had sealed off the cave, Vahn had made sure to air it out properly at the time because he didn’t want to draw the attention of animals to the entrance. Though there was an ambient aroma that was very similar to his own, it had faded greatly with the passage of time and it was likely only someone like Fenrir would be able to smell it. After failing to find what she was looking for, Tina seemed to be a little sad as she said, “This place doesn’t smell like a home at all…I’m glad you came to the City, Vahn…”
Unlike the ‘warmth’ that could be experienced in a place where people lived, the cave was cold and distant and it was very obviously a place unsuitable for living. She didn’t know how long Vahn had lived here, but knowing this had been his first ‘home’ made her feel melancholic. Her own life hadn’t been easy, especially for her mother, so she had done her best to mature in order to help out as much as possible. She knew about Vahn’s past, but it was difficult to believe someone could go through so much suffering without ending up much worse than Vahn had been. Remembering his actions when he first showed up at the end made Tina regret not treating him better at the time, even though she never actually treated him badly at all. In fact, because of her mother, Vahn had become her first crush because he had been very handsome and looked to be just a little older than she was…
Terra walked into the cave after a short while and looked around the area much like Shizune and Tina had done before saying, “This concentration of energy within this place is abnormal…it’s almost like Master has filled out the surrounding area completely~.” She then moved over to an area before crouching down and sniffing about with a ruminating expression. Though her sense of smell wasn’t actually that developed, her ability to sense energy, especially if it was Vahn’s, was inarguably higher than almost anyone else. Vahn recognized the area she was sniffing and walked over as he explained, “When I first arrived at this area, I nearly died fighting against a Goblin…I had bled in this area and fought hard to survive. Things have changed quite a bit since then…”
Though his blood dispersed after being exposed to the air for around a day, it didn’t mean the energy contained within the blood ceased to exist. It had permeated through the cave and nourished the energy in the surroundings during this small cavern into an energy-rich hotspot. The amount of blood and sweat that existed in this cave as a result of Vahn’s training was quite a bit because he hadn’t always walked away from fights unscathed. As a result, Terra felt the connection between Vahn and the cave and understood the ‘significance’ this place had. She flickered her wings and sent a gentle energy through the cavern and stirred the ambient energy to life at the same time.
The floor of the cave immediately became covered in a dense and fragrant coating of moss that spread all the way until reaching the mouth of the cave. Seeing this, the other girls outside made their way into the interior as plant life came into existence at a startling rate, including many relatively rare herbs and flowers. The crystals within the wall and roof shifted from emitting a dull light to shining like the sun itself as the entire cave came to life. Vahn watched the phenomenon with his [Eyes of Truth] active and could see pulses of energy radiating through Terra’s feet as it ‘activated’ the dense energy located in the surroundings. He had never realized the effect he had on this place in the past and now knew that his own blood had many other potential uses…
By the time the energy had settled, there was even a small tree growing near the center of the cave, strangely enough where Vahn had spent his first time with Tiona and Ais. He had put in a great deal of ‘effort’ at the time, so it made sense that a lot of his own energy had dissipated out into the environment at the time. Having a tree mark the location was a little strange, but Vahn didn’t mind it too much since the ‘rays’ of light coming from the now vibrant crystals made the entire cave look like a mystical micro-climate. Tsubaki had even removed one of the crystals from the wall and had been inspecting it with her magic eye before saying, “These glowstones have an incredible amount of pure earth mana contained within them. They aren’t the highest quality material, but you could probably use them if you wanted to make some durable armor…”
Vahn shook his head gently and said, “I think it’s better to leave this place untouched as much as possible. Exploiting the place I called my home just to get a few small benefits doesn’t sit well with me. Besides, I can obtain higher quality materials from the Dungeon…” Though she couldn’t put the stone back into the wall, Tsubaki tossed it near the base of the tree so that it would nourish it in the future. There was a fair chance the small cherry tree would die out due to a lack of real sunlight and nutrients, but it would still last for several years with the energy from the stones. It may even grow strong enough to break through the roof of the cave in the future, though it wasn’t likely.
After eating lunch within the ‘comfort’ of the cave, it was time for them to return to the Manor so Terra returned to her dragon form and allowed everyone to ride on her back. Unlike the last time, where he simply covered it with a stone, Vahn spent a bit of time manipulating earth elemental energy to completely seal off the cave. Terra then placed her palms against it and vines began to grow from the area as the crawled up the rock and made it appear as though there had never been a cave in the area. On the inside, other than the cherry tree, Vahn had left a small ‘shrine’ dedicated to his past life and the many important experiences he went through. He also left a small lockbox that contained an emblem and a note to anyone that might one day discover this place. If they brought the emblem to the Alliance, Vahn would consider their fates somewhat intertwined and give them a favor.
The return flight had been relatively quiet and Vahn held both Tina and Shizune in his arms throughout the duration of the hour-long leisurely flight. They had to sit in a line to fit on Terra’s back, as she wasn’t nearly as ‘wide’ as Fafnir, so Milan held his body while Chloe held her, leaving Tsubaki holding onto Chloe. It was a little awkward, especially considering that Terra wasn’t comfortable with being ridden by them, but the flight was uneventful and she didn’t utter any complaints. As for the two girls in his arms, they had fallen asleep shortly after the flight began since Vahn’s comforting embrace, compounded with Terra’s aroma, caused their previous tensions to fade entirely.
Once they reached the Manor, Vahn carried the two sleeping girls to their room and left Milan to help change their clothing. Though it would have been better for them to take a bath, Vahn had removed the sweat, dirt, and any grim from their bodies with his ‘cleaning’ magic so they just needed to change into sleepwear. He then made the ’rounds’ and spent some time with all the girls that were present in the Manor before finding his way to the back garden where Fafnir, Terra, and Riveria were located. He found Terra once again helping clean Fafnir’s scales so he took over the task after promising to help groom her feathers when he was done.
With her time freed up, Terra sat with Riveria and poured herself a cup of tea as she looked over all the notes atop the table, all concerning her physiology and characteristics. Using Vahn’s notes as a template, and conversing with Terra directly, Riveria had compiled a ‘comprehensive’ account of Terra’s information and it was very ‘interesting’ for the elegant True Dragon. She was quite fond of Riveria, so seeing the High Elf’s interest in her made Terra feel ‘amused’. However, after combing through the information to ‘validate’ it, she noticed there a few details mentioned and said, “The liquid within the wellspring isn’t the ‘sap’ that you have documented within your journal. My [Healing Sap] is entirely unrelated to your notes about potential applications of the fluid are somewhat flawed.”
Riveria raised her brow slightly and looked over the information within her journal and realized she had related to the liquid within the wellspring to Terra’s [Healing Sap] based on its properties. Since she had compared the data previously, it was strange that she would have made such an oversight but, after looking over her own notes, she realized the issue. There was actually no information provided by Vahn regarding the [Healing Sap] so she had made assumptions based on a lack of information. Though he was prone to oversights, this was very uncharacteristic of Vahn since he was typically very thorough when it came to such things.
After confirming it for herself, Riveria felt confused by the matter and asked, “Have you never discussed your [Healing Sap] with Vahn? Is there a specific reason why it isn’t written within his notes?” Terra laughed in a playful manner that perplexed Riveria when she asked, “Would you like me to discuss it with him? I’m certain he would be more willing if you express you interest in the matter~.” As they had interacted with each other a lot over the last week, Riveria knew Terra’s ‘nature’ a bit and realized that there definitely had to be a reason Vahn had never gotten around to it. Much less an oversight on his part, he probably had avoided it based on reasons she wasn’t currently aware of…
Before Riveria could properly consider the matter, Terra flickered her wings and shot up away from her chair before landing near Vahn. Riveria knew she had ‘triggered’ a landmine of sorts so she rose from the table to correct any misunderstandings that might occur. When she neared, she heard Terra saying, “Master, I have been patiently storing my sap for you…now that Riveria has brought it up, I believe now is the best opportunity to extract it~.” Vahn had been using a rather large brush to help scrub down Fafnir’s scales and had been completely caught off guard by Terra’s words. Seeing Riveria walk over, Vahn asked, “Did you have an interest in Terra’s ‘sap’?”
Riveria furrowed her brows slightly and said, “I won’t deny that I’m interested, but I can tell there is some information that isn’t properly being communicated here. If it needs to be extracted in an awkward fashion, I won’t press the issue an-” Terra’s wings flickered and made a sound like a breeze passing through the trees as she laughed and said, “It isn’t really awkward, at least from my perspective. Master is just a little overly cautious about the matter because of my human form~” Vahn shook his head in a slightly exasperated manner and explained for Riveria’s benefit, “Terra’s body doesn’t process food and drink the same way as other people. Her basic physiology is closer to a plant and her body filters nutrients before storing in a gland around the base of her tail, where a normal person’s anus would be.”
She had already known about Terra’s physiology, which allowed her to understand Vahn’s words, but Riveria had been caught off guard by the rest of his explanation. Even if she wasn’t really a ‘person’, Terra shared many characteristics of a woman and imagining her ‘excreting’ the life-giving fluid from her butt was rather disconcerting. She understood why Vahn would have avoided researching the subject since he often tried to at least ‘try’ to act with propriety. Given Terra’s personality, she would have likely brought it up at some point and, given her general intelligence, it was very obvious she was using the current developments as an ‘opportunity’.
Terra tilted her head and said, “But I read a lot of books and the ‘anus’ is supposed to be the opening at the end of the alimentary canal through which solid waste matter leaves the body. My body doesn’t produce solid waste at all and I don’t even have the same organs that would process such waste in the same manner. I have neither an intestinal tract, nor a liver, so it would be more accurate to call it ‘nectary’ or a ‘sap-producing-organ’ than an ‘anus’~.” Hearing her words, both Riveria and Vahn felt a bit of a headache coming to them because, as she had explained, there were some distinct differences. The problem remained, however, that she still had a human-form so Vahn said, “If you’re that intent on producing it, you should be able to do it yourself or, if you are adamant about having it extracted, you should turn into your dragon form..”
Before Vahn had finished his words, Terra started laughing as a vibrant green light appeared and she turned into her dragon form. Vahn sighed because he thought she was just insisting that he should help her with the process but Terra suddenly asked, “Can you see the difference between my dragon and human forms, Master~?” As she spoke, Terra slowly rotated her body and ‘waggled’ her tail from side to side as she leaned forward. Vahn was very confused at first until Riveria commented, “She doesn’t have the sexual characteristics associated with female dragons…” Hearing her words, Vahn stared at the ‘bare’ area that Terra was displaying and understood the situation. She was essentially ‘showing off’ that she couldn’t produce it in her dragon form at all.
Vahn activated his [Eyes of Truth] and scanned over Terra’s body and noticed that the ‘important’ part he was looking for didn’t exist at all. There were already many unknowns about how her body was actually able to transform, but it apparently also included the ‘disappearance’ of entire organs during the transition. When she returned back to her human form, Vahn saw that the ‘bladder-like’ organ came back into existence and was completely filled with an emerald-green fluid. Before she could try to ‘convince’ him to help her, Vahn held up his hand and asked, “Tell me honestly, Terra, can you remove your sap on your own?”
Terra smiled and nodded her head before saying, “Yes, that is correct, Master, but I’ll refuse to do so unless you ‘order’ me to. Unless it is ‘necessary’, I would rather not have produced it at all and, if you wish to make use of it for your research, I would want you to extract it yourself. It may be a little ‘selfish’ of me, but I believe it’s within my right to request as it is also somewhat ‘selfish’ to ask for my ‘materials’ without harvesting them yourself.” Vahn realized now why Terra had always gotten him to take the materials personally in the past…it was all so that she could make her current argument and remove any grounds he had to argue against her. Her intelligence was very high, but Vahn hadn’t expected she had been scheming for an entire week. He was impressed by her foresight because he now found himself in a very difficult situation where it would be ‘wrong’ to insist she produces it for him. Terra knew well that he didn’t want to ‘exploit’ them and she was now making use of that information to test his own convictions regarding the matter.
Vahn released a sigh and looked into Terra’s ‘gentle’ expression and saw the expectation contained within her eyes. Because he couldn’t stand not knowing the true reason, Vahn asked, “Why are you going to such lengths, Terra? Help me understand why you machinated this type of situation…” Though he already knew most of the reason, Vahn still wanted to hear Terra’s explanation and, seeing how unphased she was by the question, she had already prepared her answer. Her smile turned softer than it had been previously as she explained, “Though it may not have been my place at first, I can see that Master treats us all as his companions in a very serious manner. You want us to have individual wants and desires instead of being bound by your words and orders…this is how I express my desire, Master. You can consider it a result of my ‘pride’ as a dragon that had been blessed with the opportunity to meet you. Now that I have the option, I can’t be content with simply staying in the background and only being of use on occasion…I want to be needed by Master in a way I can ‘feel’ with my own body…Unless you change how you treat us, your subordinates, I can’t help but want to reduce the distance between us even more~.”
Terra had been content with simply being Vahn’s servant in exchange for being able to see the surface, but the efforts he had put in to try and make her happy were deeply rooted in her heart. He tried to make sure she had everything she wanted and asked for very little, even going out of his way to help her get close to others so that she had more companions. However, seeing his relationship with Fenrir and how he spent his time with the other girls made her somewhat envious of them. Since he was a very ‘structured’ person that tried to keep his promises, she had been going through all the steps ‘required’ by him to get closer to him. She had also used his treatment of others, especially his ‘pampering’ of Fenrir, as an excuse to receive pampering of her own in the form of grooming. As he had inferred, this was all so that she could convince him to do even more things with her in the future all because, when she first became a human, she had seen the way he looked at her. It wasn’t the look of a kind boy observing a monster, it was the look of a young man ‘admiring’ the appearance of a beautiful woman. She wanted him to always have that same intrigue in his eyes when they were together, instead of the ‘pretense’ he adopted…
(A/N: Alternate Titles: ‘Culvation Cave?’,’Cherry Tree…’,’Terra’s Desires’)
(A/N: I know people may be concerned with the late chapters, so let me explain what happened. Verizon was trying to charge me an additional $85.02 simply due to a clerical error and the fact that they had failed to transfer my phone service. Because I had used .083MB of a 500MB plan, they tried to shoe-horn me into paying for the service even though the only app I had run was the Verizon app itself. I was on the phone with them from 7:06 AM until 11:18 AM and needed a bit of time to cool my head. If you were on the Discord, you would have felt my wrath a bit and I even broke my mouse after having been transferred to the eleventh person. By the end, I had talked to a total of seventeen people until the savior, Chris, appeared. He did in fifteen minutes what sixteen people couldn’t do in four hours…)