Chapter 997: Illusion

Relying on the ‘directions’ he had received from the glowing bone, Vahn eventually found himself at the base of the 78th Floor’s wall. Much like the ground, the walls were also comprised of compacted bones which seemed to stretch upwards forever. Though the ceiling was only around 2km above him, seeing the wall disappear into the everpresent mist caused Vahn to feel as if any attempt to scale the wall would be an eternal endeavor. He didn’t know why but the wall called out to him but, refusing to give in to such whims, Vahn shook his head to clear his thoughts as he asked, “What is going on, Sis? It feels like my mind is clouded, even though I shouldn’t be affected by the illusion…”

Vahn had already noticed that something was ‘wrong’ about the 78th Floor but it wasn’t until silence greeted him that he understood things had gone awry. His mind seemed to shrink at that very moment before, just as he had done before, Vahn sent out a powerful pulse with his [Will of the Emperor]. As a secondary measure, Vahn mustered up his Source Energy to create a membrane around his mind while covering his body with [Vis Maxima]. The moment he did so, Sis’s voice echoed within his mind as she worriedly stated, (*I thought you would never break out of it. This place is more dangerous than we suspected, Vahn. You should find the others and leave as soon as possible.*)

Hearing Sis’s voice caused Vahn to calm down considerably as he looked around and noticed that, instead of bones lining the floor and wall, there was nothing but simple bedrock in its place. He didn’t know what the illusion was supposed to represent but, now that he had broken free, Vahn felt as though a weight had been lifted off his mind as clarity returned to him. The unfortunate outcome of this clarity was the realization that all of the bones he had collected were fake and, instead of having looted several precious materials, Vahn had simply been throwing stones into his Inventory. After tossing them aside, Vahn shook his head before transforming into his Qinglong form and taking to the sky.

While searching for Jeanne and Helen, Vahn asked, (“Is this phenomenon the result of an Innate? I thought [Will of the Emperor] would protect my mind from normal illusions…”). In response to this, Sis explained in a patient tone, (*Though it isn’t too dissimilar, I believe this illusion is more the result of a Divinity rather than an Innate. You were able to resist it at the beginning but there was a gap created when you began to exercise your power directly. Since you believed you were in the clear, you fell victim to the effects of the illusion without even realizing it. The lack of any other dangers prevented you from realizing something was wrong until you finally reached the wall and tried to call out to me.*)

Since the odds of Sis being wrong were minuscule, Vahn assumed her conjecture was correct and, considering that his soul was still only Tier 3, it wasn’t too difficult to believe he had fallen victim to a Divinity. The question then became, which god had a Divinity related to Illusions and how did they come to reside within the Dungeon. Though the simplest answer was that Nuwa was involved, which made sense considering that the mirror didn’t give any information about the 78th Floor, none of the information he possessed associated Nuwa with a Divinity related to Illusions. It was one of the more abstract Laws so, while some gods possessed minor Divinities related to it, there were very few gods that had enough mastery over Illusion to exercise influence over him.

With his mind wandering, Vahn found himself flying through the sky over a vast plain where an incalculable number of soldiers were enthralled in an endless struggle. His flying speed slowed to a stop as Vahn looked out over the bloodshed, feeling of detachment and contempt welling up inside of him. Understanding this was yet another illusion, Vahn focused his mind once again, only to hear Sis loudly ‘yelling’, (*Damnit Vahn, stay focused…!*). Since she never cursed, or yelled for that matter, Vahn nearly fell out of the sky upon hearing Sis’ outburst resonate through his mind. Fortunately, he was able to catch himself quickly as Sis’ rather embarrassed voice sounded within the back of his mind like a tiny mouse squeak, (*Sorry, you started drifting so I…*)

Shaking his head, Vahn allowed a smile to spread across his lips as he amusedly said, “You are becoming more human every day, Sis. How cute…” Having long developed the habit of teasing girls, Vahn couldn’t help but remark about how ‘human’ Sis’ actions had been. This seemed to cause her even greater embarrassment as anxiety that wasn’t his own seemed to spread through his mind before fading away into nothingness. Then, as if nothing had happened, Sis’ calm and cool voice explained, (*You should keep your focus from hereon, Vahn. Whoever is creating these illusions isn’t to be trifled with. I couldn’t even tell when you fell under its influence the second time…please, be careful.*)

Hearing the concern in Sis’ voice, Vahn gave an understanding nod as he focused his mind to the extreme while, back within Babel Tower, he entered into a deep meditation with Fenrir sitting in his lap. With his main body listening to the indiscernible words uttered by the [Mantra of Eternity], Vahn found that his mind became infinitely more clear than before. He hadn’t even noticed that his mind was so burdened until it had been removed entirely. Sis also seemed to notice this, remarking, (“The [Mantra of Eternity] seems to be far beyond the Tier of this Record…*) As she had spent several hundred years analyzing it at this point, without any progress, Sis was often surprised by the seemingly endless functionality contained by the mysterious mantra.

With renewed confidence and a stark increase in his source energy replenishment, Vahn expanded his domain to nearly two kilometers as he streaked through the empty room. The room was remarkably bare so he was hopeful that finding Jeanne and Helen wouldn’t be much of an issue, even if the surface area he would need to cover was quite large. Hopefully, though he didn’t hold out much hope this was the case, both girls would have been unaffected by the illusion. At the very least, it didn’t seem as if the illusion was intended to cause harm so there was a fair chance he would find them somewhat shaken but otherwise okay. What he didn’t account for was the fact that, much like the several minutes Fenrir had experienced during the single second she was gone, the passage of time within an illusion was far beyond any expectations Vahn could have…

Within a tent located near the frontlines of an ongoing battle, Jeanne was sitting with a wooden basin filled with murky water as she dressed a puncture wound on her abdomen. It had already been three years since she had started fighting and, though she was far from being considered an adult, she had recently celebrated her eleventh birthday amidst the company of a few trusted companions. Though she would often feel that something was ‘wrong’, especially after receiving an injury, Jeanne now credited her knowledge of the future as a form of Clairvoyance, much like the upper echelons of the army. Unlike the strange memories she had of her ‘past’, where the same men treated her with scorn and contempt, they now treated her with respect. There were still some that looked at her developing body with eyes that caused her spine to tingle but, compared to what she ‘remembered’, things were much better than they had been previously…

After cleaning her wound, Jeanne applied a balm made from herbs before dressing the wound with the cleanest bandages she could find. Around the same time, a brown-haired woman named Maya entered into the tent and, seeing the young girl failing to apply the bandages adequately, quickly made her way to Jeanne’s side to assist. Though the latter had panicked a little upon hearing someone enter her tent, seeing the smiling face of her trusted friend caused a small smile to spread across Jeanne’s face as she meekly replied, “Thank you, Maya…” This caused the far more mature woman to smile radiantly as she deftly tied the bandages while saying, “Think nothing of it, Jeanne. If not for you, I wouldn’t even be here to help dress your wounds. Please, promise me you’ll take better care of yourself in the future…we all rely on you more than you know…”

Hearing Maya’s words, Jeanne felt a bit of warmth spread through her heart that caused the strange incongruity in her mind to fade away. She had been in a strange state ever since the tip of an enemy’s spear cut through her armor as, for reasons she was unaware, reason told her that such a thing should have been impossible. As this wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened, Jeanne credited to battle fatigue as she internally reminded herself that, while some may jokingly refer to her as the Invincible Saintess, she was still just a human. She was just as susceptible to fatigue as anyone else and, if injured, she would bleed all the same…

With the help of Maya, Jeanne’s wound was quickly dressed and, though it wasn’t recommended to move around in armor with such injuries, the latter ignored her friend’s advice before dawning her armor once again. She didn’t like to walk around the camp, where very few females were allowed to trespass, without wearing her armor. Though she had been accepted as a soldier by most of her fellow countrymen, there were more than a few who believed that women shouldn’t be allowed on the battlefield. Many of the exceptions to this rule were those with medical knowledge and, in nine out of ten cases, women of ‘questionable’ morals who were intended to boost the morale of common soldiers. Even Maya was in the latter category and, if not for Jeanne’s intervention, she may have lost her life after a particularly brutal battle had caused some of the men to become unruly…

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Helping Jeanne into her armor, Maya absentmindedly commented, “You will become a beautiful woman in the future…its a shame you hide your figure behind so much armor. Though a battlefield may not be the ideal place, young women are meant to blossom in the open, not be hidden away from sight…” With her own attire consisting of nothing more than a bodice, showing off her ample cleavage, and a tattered skirt, Maya couldn’t fathom how Jeanne could wear armor over the majority of her body. Though she was arguably stronger than most of the male soldiers, much to their chagrin, seeing an eleven-year-old girl wearing full plate armor was a peculiar sight for both allies and enemies alike.

Without minding Maya’s words, Jeanne picked up her beaten and battered kite shield before strapping it to her back. Lastly, she picked up a highly polished sword which, unlike the rest of her equipment, was exceptionally well maintained. It was her most important possession and, though it lacked a sheath, Jeanne had a blacksmith fabricate a slot in her kite shield where it could be seated outside of combat. Though this made it harder to draw in an emergency situation, Jeanne rarely ever dropped her guard and, using her ‘Clairvoyance’, dealt with most enemies before they could present a real threat. Even amidst a group of seasoned warriors who were more than twice her age, there were none who were her equal with the blade, something she often had to prove when some of the rowdier troops had too much liquor.

After readying herself, Jeanne had Maya tie her ashen-hair up into a tight knot before stepping out of her tent which was located a fair distance away from the men’s quarters. There was a seemingly invisible barrier surrounding her tent that nobody dared trespass as even the Commanders of the army knew better than to antagonize the young girl who had won them victory after victory. One had tried to force Jeanne to become his Paige, intending to raise up the girl as a young bride due to her already striking beauty, but the only thing he got for his troubles was the loss of both hands. Though this would have resulted in a heavy punishment for most other soldiers, the fact that Jeanne had slain more than a hundred enemies in the previous battle caused the upper echelons to excuse her behavior. They would rather retire an errant Knight that had lost his hands than imprison a capable warrior that single-handedly outperformed most squadrons…

From the moment Jeanne stepped out of her tent, the surrounding atmosphere seemed to change as, instead of the gloom of a battlefield, a slight fervor began to spread throughout the area. Though she wasn’t preparing to enter the fray just yet, Jeanne’s presence seemed to inspire everyone in the vicinity as they all raised their heads just a bit higher as the youthful girl walked through their encampment. Many even had genuine respect visible in their gazes as they gave small nods to Jeanne in passing before making way so as not to impede her passage. To these men, Jeanne returned a courteous nod before continuing on her way, blue eyes fixed on the horizon where, just as it had for the previous three years, the sun was beginning to rise on yet another battlefield…

With his speed, Vahn was quickly mapping large sections of the 78th Floor before, after nearly two full hours had passed, he finally detected a second presence within his domain. Sensing the familiar fluctuations, Vahn released a small sigh before quickly beelining towards Helen’s location. He would have preferred to find Jeanne first but, considering the reality of their situation, Vahn knew it was likely far worse to leave Helen alone in such a situation. Upon reaching her location, however, Vahn’s mind almost completely blanked as, standing in the middle of a devastated landscape, Helen could be seen with a dazed expression as tears poured down her face. Though this alone was a sight to behold, it was the fact that Helen’s clothes had been disintegrated that caused Vahn’s momentary stupor…

Before he had realized it, Vahn found himself within the ruins of an ancient shrine that hadn’t held up against the test of time. The surrounding stone pillars seemed to have suffered the effects of hundreds of years of weathering while several spots had outright decayed as a result of encroaching moss. There was a stagnant smell in the air that overlapped with a peculiar sweetness that caused his heart to itch madly after a brief inhalation. Fortunately, though his mind was influenced by the illusion, Vahn’s body quickly rejected the invasive aroma as he shook his head in an attempt to clear his thoughts. This time, however, the illusion seemed far more persistent and, before he could break free, Vahn was distracted when a familiar figure appeared before him.

Though reason told him this was just part of the illusion, another part of Vahn recognized the entity before him as a ‘real’ existence, even if he couldn’t actually sense her. The reason for his distraction was because, though her hair was a different color, being a vibrant leafy green, the ‘woman’ before him was a carbon copy of Kali. Much like her crimson-haired counterpart, the figure before him wore attire that couldn’t be considered modest in the slightest. Unlike Kali, however, her clothes weren’t adorned with bones and silken fabric and were instead comprised of a peculiar cloth that seemed to be formed of the same mist that pervaded the entirety of the 78th Floor. It was for this reason that Vahn felt that the entity before him was ‘real’, even though the form she had taken was very likely just an extension of her Divinity…

As if to answer his speculation, the petite figure showed a mischevious smile before bringing her index finger to rest on her lower lip as she remarked, “How peculiar…you seem to recognize me? Tell me, boy, what exactly are you? Why have you trespassed my domain? What do you seek to gain from conquering the Dungeon…?” Though this was just the tip of the iceberg in regards to questions she wanted answering, they were the most ‘important’ for the time being. Before Vahn could answer, however, the goddess seemed to realize something as she floated off her feet, closing the distance between herself and Vahn as she exclaimed, “Before you ask, my name is Maya. Now, don’t want my time and answer my questions, okay~?”

Unlike Kali, Maya seemed infinitely more child-like, causing Vahn’s stupor to persist for longer than he would have liked before he finally recovered his senses. Seeing Maya only a few centimeters away from his face, Vahn took a step back while raising his hand to prevent her from getting closer as he asked, “Are you the one who created the mist outside? What are your intentions…?”

Though she had snickered playfully when Vahn backed away from her, Maya showed a deep frown after hearing Vahn’s questions. Still floating in the air, she pulled out a large body pillow from nowhere before hugging it tightly as she complained, “What kind of idiot answers questions with more questions? I already gave you the answer to one question so the least you could do is answer one of mine…!” Even though Vahn hadn’t asked for her name, Maya knew it would be one of the first questions that came to mind so she had gotten it out of the way. At the same time, this gave her leverage to force Vahn into a disadvantage where she could get a better grasp of his character.

Feeling that the situation would become far more troublesome if he offended what was very likely a powerful goddess, Vahn lowered his hand before giving an apologetic nod as he stated, “I did not mean to upset you…I am just worried about my companions. To answer your questions, you have a similar appearance to another Goddess I’ve met. As for what I am, my species qualifies me as a Progenitor. My purpose here is not to trespass your territory while my reason for conquering the Dungeon is out of necessity…” It wasn’t accurate to say he ‘needed’ to conquer the Dungeon but, considering that he was nearing Tier 4 and would lose the opportunity soon, Vahn felt that it wasn’t wrong to make such a claim.

While Vahn was speaking, Maya continued to hug her pillow as she rolled upside down and watched him with a curious expression on her face. She had the ability to discern all truths so, hearing Vahn claim to know a Goddess that matched her appearance had caught her interest. At the same time, though there were some falsehoods within his words, she could tell that he wasn’t exactly lying to her when he claimed to be a Progenitor and wanted to conquer the Dungeon out of necessity. Though she had never seen a Progenitor before, Maya knew what they were and, if Vahn was truly a Progenitor, his chances of conquering the Dungeon were much higher than most. What she was most curious about, however, was why he believed conquering the Dungeon was a necessity, even though he didn’t seem particularly interested in doing so. Though she hadn’t been able to peer directly into his mind, as something prevented her from doing so, she had still been able to glean a few insights into the type of person he ‘should’ be…

Without hiding her curiosity at all, Maya continued to roll through the air while holding eye contact with Vahn the entire time. Just as he was about to open his mouth to ask her a few questions of his own, Maya’s body began to blur away as a startled expression appeared on her face. She turned her head to look towards the interior of the shrine before quickly looking back at Vahn, an even more mischievous smile on her face as she said, “You know, at the rate things are going, that little one will break completely. I don’t know why you brought her here but it is very dangerous if you allow her to be alone much longer…I wonder what you will do, fufufufu~.” Then, without explaining anything, the figure of Maya disappeared from the shrine as an ear-shattering scream echoed from the shrine’s interior. Hearing this, Vahn’s heart twisted in his chest as, even though he knew they were trapped in an illusion, hearing the pain in Helen’s voice was like having a dagger pierce his heart…

(A/N: Alternate Titles: ‘There are no absolutes’,’Jeanne :O…’,’The Mischevious Maya’)

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