The moment the spar began, Vahn and Tiona immediately leaped towards each other. The surprising thing for Vahn was, even though Tiona was at the peak of Level 4 he was easily able to keep track of her movements. Though she was much faster than him, it wasn’t nearly as difficult to follow as Tsubaki’s had been.
As the two closed the distance in an instant, Vahn tried to perform a fast instep to transition his weight behind his right punch. He twisted his body and aimed directly towards the exposed stomach of Tiona, but before his fist came anywhere near a hand grabbed the inside of his forearm and dispersed the force of the blow away from Vahn’s body. In the gap that had been opened in his defense, Vahn saw a healthy brown thigh peak through the gap in fabrics as a knee approached his face.
Using his left hand, Vahn tried to vault off the knee and use the contained momentum to launch himself away, but the moment his hand made contact he felt a pressure on his left shoulder. Tiona had locked down his body to prevent him from evading the incoming blow and Vahn was unable to stop the momentum of the knee as it crashed into his chin. He was sent flying, but since his forearm had prevented a direct hit he managed to retain his consciousness.
After sliding across the ground for several meters, Vahn managed to steady himself and leaped back to his feet only to be met by a small exposed brown foot right in front of his eyes. He tried to intercept the blow, but it was moving much faster than his body could keep up with. Though his senses could ‘see’ it coming, his body was unable to react as the foot stopped right before colliding with his defenseless face.
The wind from the blow blew back Vahn’s hair and in his absentmindedness, Vahn continued his defensive action and grabbed the stalled leg even though it had ceased its advance. The moment he grabbed, he could hear a sweet laughter as Tiona said, “That tickles, but I think this is my win.”
Vahn released the leg and gave her an awkward look before apologizing. Tiona didn’t seem to mind as she wagged her foot back and forth. “Its fine, I don’t mind if you want to touch it again in the future. Just make sure you work hard to become strong, okay?” After her parting words, she ran happily towards the Loki group while Ais took her distance from Vahn.
Vahn, seeing she had her sword, became somewhat nervous. He knew she was even stronger than Tiona presently and was much more agile. Seeing his nervousness, Ais looked at her sword before setting it off to the side. Instead of the blade, she lifted her sheath and took her stance again. Noticing that she had swapped her sword out, Vahn released a sigh before grabbing one of the training weapons off the wall. They were all blunt with rounded edges that wouldn’t severely injure, but Vahn didn’t hold any expectation of landing a hit in the first place.
He assumed a stance with his feet squared apart while holding his blade at a twenty-degree angle favoring his right shoulder. He leaned his body slightly and prepared to attack the moment the signal was raised. Ais’s stance seemed full of opening as she pointed her sheath forward while raising her left hand slightly.
Tsubaki confirmed they were both ready before repeating her earlier actions. She took a deep breath before dropping her hand in a cutting motion while shouting, “Begin!”
Vahn dashed towards Ais who had remained standing in her starting position. As he closed the gap, he tried to attack with a low sweeping motion to force her to reposition. Ais slightly bent her knees before slamming the butt of her sheath into the attack vector of Vahn’s sword. Her actions caused the blade to collide with the ground and stopped Vahn’s momentum. Using the moment he lost his balance, Ais deflected her sheath off of the blade and stabbed it into Vahn’s diaphragm.
Falling backward, Vahn felt the air escape his lungs but he managed to prevent himself from collapsing to the ground. He put his sword into a defensive stance to prepare for a counter, but Ais just stood in her original spot holding the sheath towards him. Realizing she had no intention to attack, Vahn steadied his breathing before renewing his efforts.
This time he tried to attack from above with an overhead swing while shifting his momentum backward to prevent her from being able to use his own attack against him. He sacrificed power in performing the contradictory movement, but it made it much harder to exploit any openings. Ais looked toward the approaching blade with her expressionless eyes before stepping forward.
Because Vahn had committed to a strange action, instead of defending as she did previously, Ais used the fact he wouldn’t be able to change his direction to side-step the attack and once again press her sheath into his diaphragm. This time she put less strength into the blow knocking Vahn back three steps before he was able to regain his footing.
Though he hadn’t exerted himself much, Vahn was already breathing heavily. Unlike Tiona who had fought him head on and defeated him, Ais was allowing him to attack at his convenience. Not only that, but she was even showing leniency in her counterattacks to give him more opportunities.
Vahn didn’t know why, but the fact she was going easy on him frustrated him greatly. He wanted to measure himself against the two, but the only thing he realized was the fact he was much weaker. They didn’t have to make any effort to defeat him and actually had to hold back to prevent Vahn from sustaining injury.
As his frustration built up a cool sensation began to spread in his mind as Vahn began regulating his breathing. The domain around his body began to condense, and Ais showed increased caution as she readied her sheath for the coming attack. Vahn took a deep breath and held it in as he fiercely lunged towards Ais while swinging his sword in a large arc.
Ais tilted her body to deflect the attack, but the moment her sheath contacted the blade her body carried forward slightly as the entire sword was knocked to the ground. Vahn had put his full weight into the blow but used his senses to release his grip the moment he was able to perceive Ais’s counter.
Instead of being knocked off balance by her deflecting the blade, he managed to catch her off guard by dropping his own sword. Now she had created a gap for him to exploit since she was still stuck in the motion of parrying his attack. Vahn stepped in low with his shoulder to knock her further off balance and open her up to an elbow strike.
Unfortunately, even though she was slightly surprised, Ais was still a level 5. Though she was slightly off balance, she managed to put enough strength into her pivot foot to spin her entire body around in an instant. Instead of contacting her body with his shoulder, Vahn passed right through the location Ais has occupied as the sheath made contact with the back of his head.
Vahn immediately lost consciousness from the blow and didn’t even feel when he impacted the ground. Naaza and Lili immediately ran towards his body to see if he was okay and released relieved sighs after they saw he had just passed out. Lili glared toward Ais before shouting, “You didn’t have to be so rough! What kind of spar ends with one person being knocked out and injured!?
Ais stood still as Lili screamed towards her and she stared down at the unconscious Vahn with an almost sad and apologetic expression. She was a little rough in her last attack, and if she hadn’t reduced her strength at the last moment she may have ended up killing him on accident. She had what could be considered a ‘vexed’ look as she faced towards Rivera. “Rivera, please…”
Rivera sighed before walking towards Vahn and inspecting his body. She could see he wasn’t seriously injured, but would probably be nursing a headache for the next few days if left untreated. After muttering an incantation, she pointed her staff towards the unconscious Vahn and casting the healing spell [Fil Eldis]. A gentle light spread across his body as his eyelids started to flutter.
Vahn opened his eyes and saw the worried faces of Naaza and Lili. Behind them, he could see Ais staring at him showing a hint of concern as well. Vahn closed his eyes and released a tired sigh. (‘I lost…’). Though he never expected to win from the start, it was still hard to swallow how helpless he was against the two young girls. How could he protect anything if he couldn’t even defeat people that went easy on him…
As he was lost in his own thoughts, he could feel something poking at his cheek. Opening his eyes, he saw a new face next to the previous two. It was Tiona looking down on him with a smile and cheerful expression. “You did well. Make sure to work hard and challenge me again, okay? I’ll be waiting…and Ais too, right?”
Vahn could see Ais nod in response to Tiona’s question. She looked towards the sword Vahn had dropped when he tried to get an advantage against her. “Smart…but dangerous. Make sure to have backups.” She then stared at him for a few seconds before thanking Riveria and moving to the side. Tiona followed suit after poking Vahn’s stunned face again. “Bye-bye Vahn. Come to visit the Loki Familia if you get a chance.”
After saying their farewells, the members of the Loki Familia left Tsubaki’s manor (A/N: I’m calling her house a manor because it honestly is.)
Vahn continued to sit in the training grounds in silent contemplation. The two girls tried to cheer him up, but Vahn only nodded and showed them a kind smile before continuing to reflect on the fights. Seeing that they were distracting him, Naaza and Lili went to prepare breakfast. They had already gotten a late start to the day and wanted to give Vahn time to think before training began.
When he was the only one left in the training area, Vahn sighed deeply. He had made a lot of improvements in the last month while training with Tsubaki, but his overall power hadn’t increased by much. Sure, he could probably use his skills/techniques to handle several similarly skilled adventurers, but the moment he came across anyone marginally stronger he would be defeated. Tsubaki said he had the potential to fight people above his level, but that was only by relying on his overbearing skillset and not his actual fighting prowess.
After thinking it through and looking over his skills for several minutes, Vahn knew what he needed to do. He would have to leave Lili to Naaza and Tsubaki and begin delving deeper into the dungeon. It was only by pushing himself to his limits that Vahn would be able to exceed them. Though he didn’t regret spending time with Lili, there was no telling what would happen in the future. If Vahn wasn’t strong enough he knew he was bound to regret it if anything happened.
“Seems like you made up your mind.” From behind, Vahn could hear the voice of Tsubaki. He turned and saw her looking at him with gentle eyes and a kind smile. He nodded his head in response to her question. “Yes…I need to forge my own path for a while. If I keep staying in one place I will begin to stagnate and my growth will come to a halt. Though training helps increase my combat ability and technique, it has more of an effect on my mental state and discipline than it does my combat capabilities. If I don’t experience real combat and push myself further, I won’t be able to meet my goals…”
Tsubaki shook her head and sighed with her hand on her head. After a brief moment, she looked towards Vahn and began to laugh with a large smile on her face. “The only person you can rely on to become stronger is yourself. But make sure you remember what is waiting for your return. A lot of people are happy just seeing you alive, even if you never became any stronger.”
Vahn nodded as the faces of all the people he had begun to care about flashed through his mind. First was Hephaestus…he owed her a lot. Next was Chloe…Vahn owed her more than he could probably ever repay. Behind these two central presences, the images of Lili, Tsubaki, Tina, Naaza, Milan, and even Eina and the other girls at the guild passed through his mind. After realizing that most of the impactful people he could recall were girls, Vahn felt a fluttery sensation in his heart which caused the ‘eternal flame’ to dance in his chest.
He put his hand over his heart and realized he had a lot of things he had begun to care about. There was even new people he was beginning to develop an interest in like the members of the Loki Familia. They took a central role in the original story and Vahn had even considered joining the Familia when he was making his decision. It would have been fun to grow alongside people like Tiona and Ais. And Gareth and Rivera seemed to be kind and caring of their juniors.
A loud smack sounded which broke Vahn from his internal reflection. Tsubaki had slapped his back and knocked him forward slightly. Vahn had to catch himself with his hands before face-planting into the dirt. Tsubaki laughed while walking towards the dining room. “Don’t think so much Vahn! Just do what you think is best without worrying too much. Hell, if you can’t work things out on your own there are plenty of people that will help you. Now, let’s go eat breakfast! After that sorry display earlier, I’m going to have to train you doubly hard today!”
A shiver passed down Vahn’s back but after it passed he smiled. Looking towards the tower in the distance, Vahn felt anticipation building within. He would work hard to become strong enough to stand at the top of that tower one day, while also delving deep into its depths and uncovering all the mysteries of the dungeon. If it was possible, he even wanted to battle the one-eyed black dragon and see what other secrets this world had to offer. But, for now, Vahn would just enjoy breakfast.
(A/N: Alternate Titles: ‘What? A Man’s Gotta Eat.’,’Wrekt, Wrekt Again’, ‘Touch the Foot’,’Turning Point’, ‘Lili’s Nightmare Begins’, ‘Naaza Aggressively Wagging Her Tail’)