Chapter 547: Darkness

Once they had finished their breakfast, Vahn headed toward the Dungeon with Chloe and Shizune, allowing Chloe to cling to his left arm while he held Shizune’s hand like a child. She was still rather small, around 121cm, so Vahn escorted her like a little lady as Chloe playfully stuck to his left arm. Much like yesterday, Vahn was walking around in a transformed state but this time he had taken on a form that was easily recognized by many people, his ‘white tiger’ form. Nobody really knew the name Báihǔ within the City, so the rumors regarding his transformation simply described it as a ‘Beastification’, similar to a Weretiger but with white fur.

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As expected, Vahn drew a lot of attention while a few people were more focused on Chloe and Shizune than Vahn himself. Chloe’s identity as ‘Black Cat’ was unknown, but they had to make some concessions with the Guild to register all of the girls with ties to the underworld properly. Though it had faded into obscurity, as it was known to be related to ‘false allegations’, there were still a few people that would try to claim the bounty on Ryuu’s head if they knew who she was. As for Arnya, Lunoire, and Chloe herself, they also had former reputations and had now assumed different identities, though Arnya’s spear kind of gave her away for those that knew of her past actions. Even if it became a point of contention in the future, there were few people that would actually try to inflate the issue because the power of the Alliance was simply too strong.

The Guild had the most power within the City, as they were the organization that managed the Familias, controlled access to the Dungeon, and had a monopoly on monster core distribution. However, this didn’t mean there wasn’t a governing body that ruled over Orario and passed laws, regulated businesses, and managed things like taxation and property rights. There was a Governor, though Vahn had never met him, and several other people with various political positions that tried to wrest power from the Guild every now and then. They were the most likely candidates to stir up trouble, but there were few ways they could pressure large Familia since public opinion often favored the Familia over politicians that were known to be somewhat corrupt.

There wasn’t anything like an electoral system within Orario, so most positions were things that had been arbitrarily created when the City first came into being and many were inherited. This made it so that, even though they were technically the people that passed laws, the politicians within Orario, including the Governor himself, had very little actual power. Without making compromises with the Guild, negotiating with the large Familias, and paying concessions to criminal organizations, they had almost no authority. However, this didn’t mean they wouldn’t just at the opportunity to try and tarnish the reputation of the Hestia Familia if they had the chance, and they were the primary perpetrators behind Vahn’s own reputation being in the dumps at times…

After reaching the 1st Floor, Vahn looked over his shoulder cautiously and scanned the area before leading Chloe and Shizune into the interior of the Floor. Though it had been for a brief moment, Vahn had detected a large amount of hostility directed at him that had even been picked up by Chloe as her smiling face had become somewhat serious, even without her expression changing much. They had already discussed the possibility of their enemies taking action against him as he built up a pattern for them to follow, and it seemed like it would be sooner than expected.

Shizune hadn’t sensed anything awry, however, and was just looking around the Dungeon with a curious expression on her face as her aura started to flicker somewhat chaotically. She had heard many rumors about the Dungeon and the dangers contained within, but it didn’t seem nearly as scary as she expected. Shizune was more excited about the opportunity to grow stronger than she was genuinely worried about dying or suffering grievous injuries. Though she wasn’t complacent at all, as experiencing pain was never pleasant, Shizune was confident that Vahn and Chloe would watch over her. She knew well how expensive her own equipment was so offering any complaints seemed petty and inconsiderate considering the difficulties other people would have to face when they first enter the Dungeon.

After progressing through the Beginning Road, Vahn brought their progress to a stop and freed himself from Shizune’s somewhat clammy and worriedly small hand. She was even smaller than Tina, though her mental and chronological age made her much older, so Vahn couldn’t help but worry a bit. Fortunately, he had watched over Liliruca and Tina in the past, so he knew his concerns weren’t that necessary and that Shizune would be fine if she did her best. Reaching out his hand, he pat the ‘mature’ little girl on the head and said, “From here onwards, you’ll be leading the way at your own pace. Make sure to consider your actions seriously and do your best to overcome difficulties without relying on our assistance. I will heal you if you suffer injuries, but don’t expect me to step in unless you are in great danger…”

Shizune squinted her eyes slightly, enjoying the warmth of Vahn’s hand, before asking, “How many enemies did Tina manage to kill~?” Though the difference in their ‘age’ was great, Shizune still considered Tina her ‘older’ sister and closest rival. They had very similar physical ages, sizes, and starting points. She was confident in being able to outgrow Tina if they trained at the same pace, but Shizune knew that Tina actually trained much harder than she did. Because of the difference in the amount of time they had lived, Shizune had a slightly jaded mentality compared to the earnest young cat girl and believed that doing things ‘efficiently’ and thinking ahead was better than working hard and following instincts…

Vahn briefly thought about inflating the number to urge Shizune to try hard, but he didn’t like lying to people just to achieve results. After considering the matter, Vahn said, “She managed to kill twenty-eight Goblins, including a group of four…” Shizune nodded her head, knowing that Vahn’s words were the truth because she had already heard about it from Tina herself. She was curious if Vahn was going to try and rile her up, but it seemed like he had confidence that she would do her best regardless. This made Shizune feel a little more relaxed and she smiled, saying, “I’m not sure I’d be able to fight four at once, but I think I’ll be able to defeat more than twenty-eight before we return. I heard you gave Tina a massage for her efforts, so please take care of me properly if I work hard~.” Though it was nice to be pampered by Vahn during their picnic, Shizune wanted a more ‘meaningful’ reward from Vahn.

Though he knew she was probably going to be a bit mischevious, Vahn nodded his head and said, “Sure, but you’ll have to behave properly and I’ll also have Milan and Chloe there to accompany you. I made a few mistakes yesterday, so having people watch the process will allow me to make more sensible decisions.” Shizune looked like her brain had stopped working for a moment while Chloe began laughing cheerfully while holding her stomach. Everyone that interacted with Shizune closely knew that, though she had made great strides in her progress, she still ‘struggled’ whenever she was around Vahn. Even yesterday, though Shizune might have wanted to be alone with Vahn, Chloe would have never allowed it from the start…

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Shizune had a somewhat dark and serious expression as she took soundless steps toward an unsuspecting Goblin. She had been studying assassination techniques with Chloe and was more fond of the idea that enemies could be killed without exposing oneself to danger. Though she would undoubtedly have to fight large numbers of enemies at once, one of the reasons she wanted to greatly increase her speed, Shizune still wanted to polish her ability to kill unseen. She already had the [Featherfoot] ability, but she was trying to awaken the [Stealth] skill by silently stalking her enemies. There was also an urge to ‘vent’ that had appeared in her body from earlier and she felt like the Goblin needed to pay the price for her own frustrations.

After approaching within five meters of the Goblin, it began to turn around and inspect the area as Shizune pressed herself low to the ground near a small rock. Though she had skin exposed in some places, her entire outfit, including her kimono, was a matte black in color and Shizune was trying to ‘will’ herself to be invisible. Fortunately, Goblins didn’t have the best senses and their ability to see in the dark wasn’t that great. After smelling around for a bit, the Goblin started walking off which prompted Shizune to step forward with quick, nearly silent, steps as she stabbed her dagger, [Moonshadow], into its back. Much like Tina, she tried to focus on precise strike but had easily managed to hit the monster core with her sneak attack.

The Goblin turned into dust in an instant and Shizune didn’t get a speck of blood on her at all, also managing to preserve the majority of her stamina since she fought indirectly. This was already her seventh Goblin but she didn’t feel like she had vented nearly enough. After releasing a sigh, she picked up the monster core and carried it over to Vahn in exchange for a few head pats from him. It made her feel a little frustrated knowing how childish her actions seemed, but the warm energy coming from his hand and the way he stroked her head and ears was strangely addictive. Shizune had vehemently disliked having her ears touched by men in the past, because they were often very aggressive and sometimes teased her cruelly, but Vahn always showed a lot of care in his caress. When he would inevitably pull his hand away, it always made her feel like the moment was very short and her urge to ‘vent’ on monsters became progressively stronger.

Vahn watched Shizune fighting from the side with Chloe, using a thin membrane of air to prevent their voices from traveling. Chloe had been explaining the type of training she had been doing with Shizune, including her assassination training. Since he had already noticed how Shizune was drawn to such methods, Vahn wasn’t too surprised and, as long as she didn’t actually want to become a ‘child’ assassin, he didn’t have any problems with it at all. Chloe had also been worried about Shizune’s nature and had said, “I think she wants to track down her previous ‘owners’ and kill them with her own hands…even though her body has changed, Shizune can’t seem to let go of the past so easily. The happier she becomes, the more she wants to ‘erase’ the past completely…”

Not just Chloe, but even Vahn could understand Shizune’s desire for vengeance as he couldn’t even imagine being able to easily move on from that kind of treatment. Knowing that the people who caused him harm were still out and about, potentially harming other people, would make him want to seek vengeance as well. If not for the fact he was in a completely different world, Vahn couldn’t deny there was a possibility he would have sought vengeance against the ‘scientists’ and ‘doctors’ that had experimented on him. It was a way of ‘taking back’ power from the people that had hurt you and he would have wanted to ‘prove’ to others that he had more value than something that was decided by others. As someone who was literally exchanged for currency, Shizune most likely felt a similar urge and Vahn couldn’t blame her for it at all.

After thinking over the matter, Vahn asked, “Have you been able to find out who they were?” Chloe’s expression became serious but she shook her head and explained, “Once she had been purchased and shipped to Orario, the trail had gone completely cold. Other than the name of the handler she had been purchased from, I haven’t been able to find out anything. Without tracking him down and tracing the source back from one individual to the next, there isn’t any way to find out who Shizune wants to kill unless she tells us. I’ve tried talking to her about it, but she has been tight-lipped so far…”

The fact that Shizune was keeping the matter under wraps was pretty much a clear indication that she wanted to take care of the problem herself. Though Vahn didn’t expect that she would outright leave the Manor in the future, there was a fair chance she would hunt the men down if she got the chance. He would likely travel around himself and, when he went to the Far East, she would undoubtedly want to come along. Vahn worried about Shizune and would want her to avoid that kind of path, but he also didn’t really have the right to stop her from doing so. What people decided to do with the power they obtained was entirely up to them, so the most he could do was try to guide her onto a better path. At the very least, he would have to make sure she kept her vengeance tied to the people that had harmed her instead of targetting the innocent.

As if she could understand his thoughts, Chloe nodded her head and said, “Don’t worry, I think she will mellow out with time and there is little chance she would leave the Hearth Manor any time soon. There are too many things she has attachments to and this place really has become the closest thing to a home she has ever known. It likely wouldn’t even be for several years and, even then, only when things had calmed down or the opportunity presented itself. Other than myself, there are several people looking after her so you just need to keep being the ‘light’ so she doesn’t stray too far away…”

Chloe knew that the greatest reason many people had for wandering into the darkness was that they had lost direction in their lives. As long as she had a stable environment, Shizune would likely never actually go through with her plans to seek vengeance at all. She would be too worried about the people she was leaving behind, especially the voices of guidance and reason she had come to rely on. Vahn nodded his head with a serious expression and followed behind Shizune silently, making sure she never left his sight and wandered off on her own…

Almost as if decreed by fate, Shizune ended up coming across a room that had a total of four Gobline present. She had originally intended to avoid the confrontation but, after imagining Tina coming out ahead in such a situation, Shizune found it very difficult to take a step back. She didn’t really consider herself to be a competitive person but, imagining a girl that was younger than her possessing more conviction, made Shizune feel anxious and a bit frustrated. After thinking for several minutes, she eventually unsheathed her black dagger and psyched herself up by saying, (“The only way to experience true growth it to willingly face your limits and overcome them..”). These were words that had been repeated often during their lessons, but Shizune specifically recalled hearing them from a confident Vahn and she had replayed the scene in her mind several times in the past few months.

For several long minutes after she decided to fight, Shizune waited in absolute silence with her dagger at the ready. She used the cover of the corridor itself to obscure her body and was paying attention to the paths and actions of the four Goblins that ‘communicated’ to each other with guttural sounds and ticks. They weren’t actually intelligent, at least not by common standards, but they had a rudimentary form of communication when they weren’t in combat. Eventually, two of the Goblins seemed to find the room less interesting and started to wander toward one of the connecting corridors in search of ‘prey’. Shizune used this as an opportunity to stalk forward because the other two Goblins had been watching the departure, almost like they were seeing off their companions.

Shizune moved around to the flank of the closest Goblin, well outside of its peripheral vision, before running low inside its blind spot. She didn’t have confidence in being able to hit the monster core without immediately alerting the other Goblins so she instead targetted the neck and jumped forward to nearly severe the monster’s head from its body as she rolled across the ground and dashed to the next Goblin. It had been alerted to her presence and released a loud cry that caused the two departing Goblins to come running back from the corridor they had entered. Shizune pulled out her second curved dagger, and dual-wielded as she swung forward at a low angle at the Goblin’s stomach.

Mindless as it may be, the Goblin wasn’t going to simply take the dagger to its gut without trying to evade so it jumped back and arched its body to avoid the swipe. Unfortunately, Shizune had twisted her body and dragged the curved dagger toward its exposed head in the same motion, cutting through its ocular cavity and completely blinding the Goblin. The other two ran towards her, but Shizune used the flailing Goblin as cover and kept it between her and the two assailants. Unable to see, the blinded monster swung out at its surroundings and this made it difficult for the other two to attack since they were ‘programmed’ not to harm each other.

Shizune used the opportunity when one of the Goblins tried to move around its companion to throw one of her needles into its soft stomach, causing it to release a shrill shriek and mindlessly try to charge at her. This allowed Shizune to fight it in a 1v1 situation by stepping around to its flank away from the final uninjured Goblin. At this point, Shizune was already breathing a little heavily but she kept her focus and sheathed her dagger as she backstepped, reaching into her small pouch immediately afterward. Finding the familia orb she was looking for, Shizune tossed it forward into the screaming face of the Goblin and a small explosion of dust and smoke erupted in its face. It was a simple tool called a [Blinding Ball] that had small particulates that acted as a powerful irritant. On contact, exposed skin would become itchy, eyes would be blinded, and it could even cause weaker monsters to spasm just by breathing it in.

After taking a direct hit to the face, the Goblin breathed in a large volume of the small dust-like irritants and wailed loudly as it tried to rub away the particulates from its eyes, only causing further damage. Shizune waited for the dust to settle, as she didn’t currently have the [Abnormal Resistance] Development Ability yet, before moving forward and stabbing the Goblin in the center of its chest after unsheathing her [Moonshadow] once again. She knew that the growth of the weapon depended on how she used it, so Shizune made sure to deal the final blows with her growth weapon whenever possible.

With the second Goblin dead, the one she had previously blinded continued to thrash about while it looked as though the final uninjured one was considering fleeing. Shizune watched it from the ‘safety’ provided by the blinded Goblin before moving forward in a swift motion when it had turned its back to her. She had used a few seconds to catch her breath and killed the third Goblin before moving toward the ‘fleeing’ final Goblin. Realizing it couldn’t escape, it tried to turn around toward her and attack, but Shizune jumped forward with the greatest momentum she could manage and tried to keep to the back of the Goblin as it turned. It tried to turn to match her, but Shizune spun around and used their counter-motions to ‘slam’ both of her daggers into the Goblin’s torso before it was able to actually face her.

Though the attack hadn’t hit its core, the severe trauma experienced by the Goblin caused its body to turn into dust as the monster core fell to the ground at almost the same time as the exhausted Shizune. Fortunately, instead of the cold and dirty ground, Shizune found her body landing in a warm embrace that made her laugh awkwardly and say, “I have a little more respect for Tina now…” Vahn also laughed as he cradled her body and pressed his palm directly around her stomach to replenish her energy and help regulate her labored breathing. Thus far, Shizune had only killed 19 Goblins and there was still plenty of time left for her to continue onward. However, she surprised him a bit when she grabbed the sleeve of his tunic and said, “I’m not in a hurry to get stronger… let’s go home, I’m tired.”

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