Vahn awoke early the next morning and accompanied Lili to the City gates. He still had time before his meetup with Hephaestus, so he decided to enjoy the sunrise with Lili before she started her training. Lili was very pleased with the decision and spent the entire breakfast period humming away while happily eating the crepe Vahn had taken from his storage. (A/N: Seriously guys, I had some amazing seafood crepes and I can’t help but write about them!)
After reminding her to take her training seriously, Vahn parted ways after Lili exited through the gate. Though he still had plenty of time, Vahn headed towards Hephaestus’s workshop. On his way, he could feel the ‘eternal flame’ in his chest pulsate in a slightly more powerful manner. He enjoyed the feeling as he slowly made his way through the early morning traffic toward his destination.
Vahn arrived outside the workshop nearly two hours before the designated time. The shop was currently closed, so he loitered around the area and just watched as residents of the City went about their day. He often found himself surprised at the sheer number of people in this world, and the variety of shapes and sizes they came in.
As the people made their way without taking notice of his observations, Vahn found himself wondering what each of their stories were. Unlike the manga that only showed a limited number of characters, he now saw hundreds of unique people that all had their own stories. Each of them had a past that shaped their current life, desires that determined their current state of mind, and goals that helped pave the way towards their future.
Though it had only been around eight months since he entered this world, and barely three weeks since he entered the City, Vahn found his current life to be infinitely more enriching than the entire 14 years of his previous life. He wondered how his future actions would shape his experiences even further into the future, and even began to imagine if he would ever interact with some of the people who moved about completely unaware of his current thoughts.
With more than an hour still remaining, Vahn’s reverie was interrupted by the sound of the door opening from behind. He saw Hephaestus giving him a bemused look with an awkward smile on her face. Though he was still a little absentminded, Vahn instinctually spoke the words that came to his lips. “Good morning, Hephaestus.”
Hephaestus had been observing Vahn crowd-watching almost since his arrival. When he had been making his way towards her workshop, she was able to vaguely sense his approach. Over time the feeling grew more powerful until she felt he was very near.
From inside the workshop, Hephaestus had been waiting on the other side of the door for Vahn to knock, but after nothing had happened for several minutes she decided to peek through the window to see what he was up to. She saw that he was staring into the crowd in a daze while watching people pass by. In his expression, she could see feelings of melancholy, hope, and even expectation. Afraid of interrupting his thoughts, she just idly watched him for nearly an hour before breaking out of her own reverie and deciding to invite him inside.
When she heard him greet her, the awkward feelings she had been experiencing immediately faded away. She returned a gentle smile and reciprocated his greeting. “Good morning Vahn. Come inside, I’ll pour you a drink before we head out.” Vahn nodded in response and entered through the door at her invitation.
They sat at a table where Hephaestus would often negotiate with her customers. There was a kettle for tea and coffee nearby, and Hephaestus filled two cups before passing one to Vahn. Vahn accepted the cup and deeply inhaled the rich fragrance, still not fully free from his earlier state of mind. He felt at peace and wanted the experience to last for as long as the circumstances would allow.
Hephaestus was aware of his present state and allowed him to enjoy the coffee in silence. She just sat at his side with a relaxed expression of her own while periodically sipping at the contents of her cup. She very much enjoyed the current atmosphere, and the steady beating of Vahn’s heart within her soul brought her a rare peace of mind. It had been longer than she could remember since she was able to simply enjoy the process of ‘existing’ without worry.
Unfortunately, all things must come to an end, and time ceases for no man, woman, or god. The moment for their departure had arrived, and the two released simultaneous sighs and smiled after the realization they had similar reactions as each other.
Hephaestus cleaned away the cups before leading Vahn outside the workshop and locking the door behind her. He noticed that, once she had secured the lock, a formation had activated that prevented anyone from approaching the building. Seeing the curious look on his face, Hephaestus explained it was to prevent anyone from trying to steal her crafts while she was away. She also let him in on a secret and told him that the surrounding buildings were all a front for her security service. Even if there was nobody inside, there were always people watching the workshop.
The two made their way through the City and Hephaestus pointed out landmarks and buildings she was familiar with. As she had been in Orario for several years, she had an extensive knowledge of the important landmarks and noteworthy features and sights. Vahn enjoyed the conversation and even contributed a bit of his own while updating the minimap according to her descriptions.
After two hours they arrived at their destination. They were now in the north-east section of the City, in a largely residential district belonging entirely to the Hephaestus Familia. Since Hephaestus had an agreement with the Guild, all members of the Familia were allocated their own workshop and living space. Though many opened shops within Babel, there were a number of veteran smiths that operated solely from within their homes.
The building they presently stood before was the only ‘eastern’ style house in the area. Vahn found the appearance pleasing as he had only seen such structures in anime and manga previously. He was excited to be able to explore its interior and even live within the premises starting from today onwards.
They made their way through the courtyard and entered the front of the building through a door that had been left ajar. After Vahn stepped inside, he came face-to-face for the first time with the woman that would torment him endlessly in the future, Tsubaki Collbrande. She was presently sitting on the floor while polishing a deadly looking katana. From what Vahn could see, the only clothing on her body was a red hakama hanging somewhat loosely around her waist, and a sarashi wrapped around the largest pair of breasts he had ever set his eyes on. She also wore an eyepatch on her left eye, the inverse of Hephaestus’s who covered her right.
Noticing the presence of the two intruders, Tsubaki glared towards them with a fearsome gaze until she recognized who had entered. Her expression immediately morphed into a more pleasant look, and she sheathed the katana before standing to greet them.
“Welcome to my humble workshop Hephaestus-sama. My apologies that you have to come all the way here. And you…must be Vahn?” As she asked the question, she quickly approached the unsuspecting Vahn.
In his surprise, Vahn subconsciously took a step back but it was futile. Tsubaki had managed to approach him within an instant and stopped just inches away from his face. As she was much taller than Vahn at 170cm, she had to bend over to make eye contact. In doing so, Vahn could see her breasts beneath her body sway.
Vahn tried relieving some of the awkward tension. “Good morning Ms. Collbrande. Hephaestus told me you would be teaching me about blacksmithing and combat techniques.” As he spoke, Tsubaki continued to stare at him as a smile grew increasingly larger on her face.
“Ehhh, I can see why Hephaestus-sama rambles on about you, you’re quite the adorable little kid. Do you mind if I hug you?” Vahn was stunned and tried to respond, but before he could answer she hugged him regardless of his intent. The last thing he saw before he lost sight was the looming approach of the monstrous peaks crashing down on his face.
Hephaestus watched with an irked expression as Tsubaki buried Vahn within her chest. She wanted to lash out but had to restrain herself so she didn’t lose any face in front of Vahn. “Tsubaki, I think that is more than enough. If you continue any longer he might suffocate to death.” She spoke each word in an exasperated manner. Even though Tsubaki was trustworthy and respectful, she also had a wild and untamed nature that even Hephaestus found difficult at times.
Tsubaki released Vahn and he began gasping for air. The combination of her raw strength hugging his head into her chest had completely prevented him from breathing. Even though he struggled for a bit at first, there was such a large difference in their strength that Vahn was powerless to resist. The only thing he could do was resign himself to his fate until Hephaestus had thrown him a lifeline.
Afterward, she showed him to his room before moving into a side room and having a discussion with Hephaestus. Vahn assumed it likely had to do with his circumstances, but he wasn’t worried as he had a lot of trust in Hephaestus. Tsubaki herself also had an aura that showed she was trustworthy when Vahn included the fact that she had values of 66 and 73 for affection and intrigue after their brief meeting.
Vahn sat in the room and patiently waited for the conversation to end. After about half an hour, both Hephaestus and Tsubaki exited before the latter dragged him to a large open area in the courtyard. At a glance, Vahn was able to easily recognize this was an area for training. There were mannequins and bamboo pillars lined up throughout the area and even some strange contraptions that likely assisted in the development of martial arts. On the side, Vahn could see various different weapons that seemed to get increasingly heavier when viewed from left to right.
Tsubaki opened a distance between Vahn who was looking around. Though he wasn’t fearful, he immediately became alert since Hephaestus was standing off to the side. This left him in a position away from the two women, and he began to feel his muscles slowly begin to tense in response to his instincts.
“Oh? You have pretty good instincts. I was going to try and attack you while you were goofing around, but this makes things more interesting.” The moment her words ended, Tsubaki literally vanished from Vahn’s vision. He instinctively activated his [Will of the Emperor] but, in the several milliseconds it took for the skill to reach its full effect, Vahn was already tumbling through the sky.
His vision changed multiple times between the sky and earth before he finally crashed hard into the dirt clearing. As Tsubaki often used this grounds for training, the grounds had become compacted over time. This made what would have usually been a soft fall incredibly painful for Vahn who had just crashed into it.
“Haha, aren’t you way too weak? Hephaestus-sama said you had the blood of gods inside you, but even with that skill that makes even me feel pressured, you weren’t able to respond to my movements. What’s the point of having a skill if you can’t make use of it when you’re in danger?”
Vahn slowly raised his body from the ground. His [Will of the Emperor] was fully active, and he got into a combat stance he learned from the CQC manual. He knew the moment he stood up she would probably attack, and he wanted to at least be able to react this time.
“Oh, good resolve. Very good! I like that expression on your face right now! But-” Tsubaki who had been nodding in approval vanished once again. Even though she had been in the range of his domain, Vahn was still unable to sense her at all.
After less time than it takes to blink, Vahn felt a presence from his right and tried to react, only to experience a powerful blow sweep his legs out from under him from the direction he just turned away from. For the second time in less than a minute, Vahn ended up experiencing the life of a coin that had been flipped effortlessly through the air.
When he landed, Vahn felt the wind escape his lungs as a shockwave of pain spread through his body. He struggled for air while Tsubaki stood at the same spot where she initiated her two previous attacks.
“Don’t rest for too long Vahn, we still have a lot to cover before concluding our warmup.”
Vahn, who had finally begun to recover his breathing, once again started struggling for air after hearing the ruthless but happy sounding words. For the first time since he arrived in this world, he began to regret the path he walked…
(A/N: Alternate Title: Cyclops of the Twin Peaks)