After leaving behind Artemis and her Familia, Vahn found a large room with hard stone floors that would be suitable for having a large bath. Though the walls and ceiling had cracks running through them, the foundation was strong and it wasn’t in any danger of collapsing. Even so, Vahn set down a comfortable sofa for the confused Rethusa and set about using Earth Elemental manipulation to repair the structural damage. He was only doing some temporary fixes, as anything more comprehensive would take far more than the hour they had, but it still made the room look presentable.
Once his impromptu repairs were done, Vahn inspected the floor to ensure it was thick enough before cutting a large 5x5m square hole in the ground that was around 55cm deep. He levitated the excess stone slab and began cutting it into tiles that would surround the perimeter of the bath before rounding off the edges. With his skills as a [Master Smith], combined with his ability to manipulate the earth with reasonable ease, the entire process took just over ten minutes. When he was finished, Vahn created a few wards to regulate the temperature of the water, before purchasing mineral rich onsen water directly from the system shop before crushing a large number of magic cores into fine dust and letting it spread through the liquid medium. He wanted the girls to not only feel relaxed in the bath but refreshed and revitalized as well…they had been through a lot and small comforts went a long way towards promoting happiness…
When he was finished, Vahn turned to the quietly observing Rethusa, smiling as he said, “The bath is ready…let me know if I need to adjust the temperature any.” These words startled the somewhat absentminded woman but she was more surprised by the fact that Vahn set up a partition and pulled out a large basin for his own bath. He began filling it with water, fully aware of the fact that she was watching him as he removed his clothing and submerged himself into the very hot water. A contented sigh escaped from his laps before he quietly remarked, “Worrying about the past serves no purpose, Rethusa…none of your Familia lays blame on you, including Artemis herself. They’ll all be happier when you set this aside and, once again, become the reliable Captain they all know and love…when you finally want to start moving forward, they’ll all be there waiting for you…”
Though he knew his words were a bit underhanded, given the circumstances, Vahn would rather she become the ‘confident’ and decisive person she had been in the past. He could easily have pressured her into become dependent on him but, similar to what he had told the girls outside, the direction their lives took lay on their own decisions. This world was already very chaotic and, by the time he linked the records, Vahn knew things would be even more problematic to deal with. Though he would never abandon those who followed him in earnest, he couldn’t invest his time and energy towards taking care of people who were unable to function without him.
There was no way of knowing what the future would hold and, without being independent and strong, any girl that held affections towards him would be forced aside by the sheer complexity of his life. After all, everyone had limitless potential and, as strange a thought as it may be, Vahn knew he could essentially pick up any random orphan off the street and raise them to be incredibly powerful. If they desired it, he could change their appearance, race, gender, and even alter their very preferences. The only thing that stopped him from doing so was the happy life he already enjoyed, the family he loved dearly, and the simple awareness that people needed to be free to make decisions about their own lives. He couldn’t live their lives for them…just as he sincerely dreaded the thought of anyone trying to live ‘for’ him…
A few minutes passed in silence with nothing but the subtle sound of system notifications within Vahn’s mind. He was aware of the fact that Rethusa’s Affection had slowly been increasing as time passed and, even without him doing much of anything, it had just crested over 90(Trust). Around the same time, he could hear steps on the cold stone, followed by clothes falling to the ground as Rethusa crossed the partition with a flushed face. She had removed her tunic and was now using it as a makeshift towel to cover the front of her body as she muttered, “I want to wash your back…I failed the last task Artemis-sama gave me…I won’t fail a second time…!”
Hearing this, Vahn lightly nodded his head before leaning forward in the basin that was easily large enough for two people. He kept his eyes closed and slouched slightly as Rethusa slowly climbed into the bath behind him. When she tried to adjust her position to sit down, her foot came into contact with his back, causing her to splash a bit of water in surprise. Seeing that he didn’t react, Rethusa began to calm down as she picked up the nearby soap and sponge. For a brief moment, she was surprised by the quality of the soap and its texture but quickly set other thoughts aside as she began scrubbing his back in earnest.
Vahn was rather accustomed to having his back washed by others but he enjoyed the fresh sensation and awkwardness of a girl’s first time doing so. It was obvious Rethusa had helped to wash others before but, having almost no association with men at all, every action she took had a great deal of hesitation and delicacy. Even so, she managed to get through the process in just a few minutes before cupping hands of hot water to help remove the suds. The entire time, there was very little direct contact between them, even though Rethusa’s feet had inched forward slightly while she was scrubbing.
Once she had removed all the suds, Vahn nodded his head slightly and said, “Thank you, Rethusa, it was a very refreshing experience…” Even until the end, Vahn had kept his calm demeanor and remained seated with his eyes closed. Rethusa had peeked around to look at his face a few times and he was aware that, while there had been very little, most of the time she had touched him was intentional. By the end of the backwashing session, her Affection had increased to 92(Love?) and Vahn felt things might become troublesome if he kept silent.
Before Rethusa could say something along the lines of wanting to wash his front, Vahn startled her by saying, “You know it as well, don’t you…Artemis had suffered a lot from this incident…?” In response to this question, Rethusa remained silent but Vahn could feel that she had nodded her head. Even so, he allowed the silence to persist for a short while before saying, “If we rounded up, Artemis has lived for nearly 450 million years…it’s an incomprehensibly long period of time…in all those years, however, it was the loss of her children in the mortal world…something that should have been inconsequential to a goddess in the flow of time…that made the biggest impact on her heart. Even the love she feels for me, though I will likely never understand the sheer magnitude of her feelings…I’m certain she would have traded it away if it would have been able to protect all of you…”
Artemis, even though she had quirks of her own, was a very sensible and responsible woman who genuinely desired family, even if she hadn’t been fully aware of it. Unlike the first time she had descended, where she observed her Familia from a distance, Artemis had genuinely lived with her ‘children’ this time around. It was because of this close association that she even started to comprehend things like love, meaning she had experienced more change in the last sixty years than almost the entire preceding years combined…watching these precious children of her’s die, by her own power no less, had been a very tragic happening…
In the silence following his words, Rethusa ended up resting her forehead against his back, trembling as the sound of tears rolled down her cheeks and fell into the water below. Vahn knew that she had also experienced great suffering from this outcome but knew she was strong enough to overcome it with a little guidance. A small smile spread across his lips as he stated in a sincere tone, “What you have experienced…it is something that would break most people. However, so long as you remember why you fought so hard in the first place…why it hurt so much to fail…you will recover…you will grow even stronger…and, so long as you continue fighting for those you care about, you will never have truly failed them…”
At this point, though she wasn’t hugging him, Rethusa had both of her fists resting on his back as she used him to support her shaking body. Vahn felt a very strong urge to turn around and embrace her tightly in his arms, bringing comfort to help drive away the pain and the fear…but he didn’t. Instead, confident that Rethusa would be able to forge a path forward for all of the girls, Vahn stated, “We will all return to Eden together…Artemis, everyone…the world is full of pain and sadness, Rethusa, and I want to make it a better place for everyone, regardless of race and status. In order to do that, to right the wrongs in the world, I need people that understand the suffering of others…will you help me? Can you use the strength I know you possess to prevent tragedies like this from ever happening again…?”
Vahn remained calm within the bath but, deep within the 50th Floor of the Dungeon, he squeezed his fists together with enough force to draw beads of blood. It simply felt wrong to be leading someone that was experiencing emotional turmoil onto a path he had decided. Since he had the power to help her, it was very difficult to continue with this ‘charade’ he had created…but, even though this was the case, Vahn pressed forward. He knew that he had always been trying to live in a way to help others but, in order to create true happiness for a larger number of people, Vahn knew he needed to teach people to help themselves more. If the only way people could become strong in this world was by being closely associated with him, then he would become the linchpin of reality…the moment he ‘broke’, everything would be lost…
For several minutes, Rethusa continued to cry, each of her tears weighing heavily on Vahn’s heart and disturbing the ocean within his mind. He hated seeing girls cry and, knowing he could have stopped them, Vahn felt like he had wronged Rethusa for his own selfish reasons. It wasn’t until she finally sniffled, asking, “Can I…become stronger…?” that the tensions in his body released. Then, without any hesitation whatsoever, Vahn firmly stated, “You may not believe me now, but I can promise you…so long as you desire strength and continue forward with a firm conviction…it is even possible to exceed the level of the gods themselves. There are no limits to the growth of those who have the convictions to face against limits themselves…and shatter them completely…”
These words caused Rethusa to remain silent for a short while, her aura undergoing a somewhat worrying change before she said, “I’ll do it, Vahn…I will follow you…I will become strong enough to protect everything I care about…!” As sincere and determined as these words sounded, Vahn remained silent and solemn, waiting for what Rethusa would say next. She had already moved her head away from his body and he could hear her moving around in the water as she said, “But…if the path you talk about is truly possible…I know I wouldn’t be able to walk it if I have regrets. I swear, no matter what it takes, I will become even stronger than the gods someday…but, for just this one moment…can I just be a woman that you love…just a little…?”
Vahn turned his head, finding Rethusa propping herself against the basin with her back arched slightly, a visible plea present in her gaze. There were still visible signs of the tears that had stained her face, causing Vahn’s heart to twist in his chest. He reached his hand out, caressing the small of her back before bringing his palm to rest on her rather plump butt, saying sincerely, “If you are determined to walk this path, I will give you more than just a little of my love, Rethusa…I may not be able to give you everything you undoubtedly deserve, but I won’t back down when it comes to making you feel wanted…never doubt yourself…”
As he had been speaking, Vahn used his now SSS-Rank [Hands of Nirvana] to send threads of energy into Rethusa’s body, causing her to tremble as she tightly held the side of the basin. When she heard his words, Rethusa looked over her shoulder while biting her lower lip, tears building in her eyes once again as she said, “I want it…I’m sorry for Artemis-sama and the other girls, but I can’t help it…I’ve never felt this way before…please, Vahn…” In a display that caused Vahn’s brain to buzz like a gong that had been rung, Rethusa reached between the gap of her thighs and spread herself open for Vahn to see…
Vahn didn’t know how much of her actions were the result of his [Allure] and [Temptation] but, as there were no signs of external influence like he would see in the charm of a god, Vahn didn’t hesitate any longer. His body was already more than prepared and Rethusa’s entrance looked hot, filled with a slightly murky liquid that was most certainly not from the bath. He continued to massage her butt with his hand, targetting all of the nerve clusters and muscle groups that would make things much easier on Rethusa, before placing his glans near her entrance. Suddenly, a thought crossed his mind and, thinking it would improve things from her perspective, Vahn admitted, “You know…I’ve always had a thing for red-haired women…especially when they are strong and independent…”
Though he hadn’t entered into her yet, Vahn felt the entrance of Rethusa clamp up slightly before she moved her own hips back, just a little. She had turned to face him, almost as if trying to discern the truth from his expression before a small smile appeared on her face, followed by a very subtle chortle. In time, this turned into a restrained giggle before, a few seconds later, Rethusa had started laughing in a lighthearted manner. This was a bit unexpected but Vahn didn’t lose his patience, even though he did send a little jolt into one of her sensitive spots. Rethusa’s laughter was replaced but a rather throaty moan before she nearly slipped while trying to cover her mouth. Fortunately, she was able to catch herself rather quickly, a very visible blush on her face as she looked back once again and said, “I want it…”
This time, Vahn returned an appreciative smile toward Rethusa before moving his hips forward in a steady advance. Her legs locked up a little and she tried to raise her hips but Vahn kept her firmly rooted in place as his dragon once again wandered into unclaimed lands. A barrier tried to stop its progress but, as if ascending to the heavens from the mortal world, the dragon continued forward until it found the sacred temple of life located within. Here, so long as special care was taken, it was possible to forge a new life and, very familiar with these procedures, the dragon began knocking at the gates in a steady rhythm with powerful energy emanating from its proud form. Then, very subtly, the dragon began to gain a slightly pink hue that caused the sacred temple to tremble as if affected by a world-devouring earthquake…