Chapter 998: Release

Following the scream to its source, Vahn found Helen at the very center of the ruined shrine. Fortunately, unlike her real-world counterpart, this version of Helen remained fully clothed as fragments of broken mirrors danced around her in a clear violation of gravitational laws. Reflected within these mirrors were various versions of Jeanne and, each possessing subtle differences, be it the color of their hair or something as simple as the expression on their faces. There were even some who seemed genuinely happy, casting radiant smiles from their faces that seemed to light up the surroundings. Strangely, though it didn’t seem as if she were in any danger, Helen was curled up in a ball hugging her knees as these images danced around her…

Releasing a sigh, Vahn attempted to make his way over to Helen’s side but he was quickly intercepted by a standing mirror that reflected, not Helen, but himself. This wasn’t entirely accurate, however, as, instead of a direct reflection, what Vahn saw in the mirror was himself strapped to a table as mechanisms cycled his blood. Upon seeing this, Vahn raised his left brow in mild surprise before a smile naturally spread itself across his face. Then, choosing not to waste his time, Vahn reached out his hand before muttering, “Sorry, but I’ve already accepted who I am…” Even without him having to destroy the mirror personally, Vahn watched as it began to dissolve into dust while the version of himself within the mirror returned a smile.

Having received some insight as to the ‘purpose’ of the illusions now, Vahn understood why someone like Helen would never be able to break free. She already lived a delusional existence and, regardless of whether or not you tried to make her see ‘reality’, she would deny it with every fiber of her being. He didn’t know exactly what she saw, or how long she was trapped within the illusion, but it was obvious the experience hadn’t been kind to her. Since there was little chance she would break free on her own, Vahn pulled out a mantle from his Inventory before sending a pulse of Source Energy through his domain to forcibly dissolve the illusion. The naked Helen appeared before him just as he wrapped the mantle around her shoulders, the mist in her eyes slowly receding as awareness returned.

Seeing Helen’s tear-stained face looking back at him in confusion, Vahn’s own expression softened a bit as he lightly whispered, “Sorry for being late…” These words caused Helen to return to full clarity as realization dawned upon her. She quickly inspected the state of her body before hugging the mantle tightly around her shoulders, a deep frown marring her face as she said, “That was no normal illusion…it must have been the trick of a god…” Since ‘normal’ illusions would never have affected her, Helen knew the culprit behind her suffering, once again, had been a god. Remembering what she had to experience, Helen felt rage and shame bubbling up inside of her chest only to have it replaced with shock when Vahn nodded his head and explained, “Yes, her name is Maya.”

Snapping her eyes back to Vahn, Helen asked, “You know her…?” To this, Vahn simply shook his head and explained, “She introduced herself when I came to help you. Earlier, when you screamed, she was ejected from the illusion somehow. I’m not entirely sure what happened…” Since the illusion was a product of Maya’s Divinity, Vahn didn’t understand why her body had faded away in the middle of their conversation. There was a lot more going on than he was aware of and, knowing it was very dangerous to leave things as they were, he held up his hand to stop Helen’s inquiries, adding, “Jeanne is still in trouble. We can talk about what happened after reaching the 79th Floor…”

Before Helen could issue a complaint, Vahn pulled out a pile of neatly folded clothes before separating himself from Helen with a partition. Then, amidst the silence that had settled between them, Vahn reminded, “Change quickly so we can be on our way. If you fall into another illusion…” Hearing the sound of clothes begin to rustle, Vahn allowed his words to trail and instead focused on their surroundings to see if he could sense Maya. Unlike other gods, who seemed extremely limited in the use of their power, Maya was unique in the fact that it didn’t seem as if she were restricted at all. Much like Ouranos, he couldn’t even sense her presence and, seeing how her Divinity affected a region larger than 400km, it was impossible to consider this was her ‘weakened’ state…

After a few short minutes had passed, Helen moved aside the partition separating them, her expression already having returned to the cold and detached mask she had mastered. Vahn accepted the folded mantle from her before throwing it into his Inventory without a second thought. Though Helen’s eyes seemed to flicker at this, Vahn wasn’t too interested to know what delusion she had as he plainly stated, “We need to find Jeanne as soon as possible.” This earned a curt nod from Helen as the runes in her eyes began to radiate with increased intensity. Then, without explaining what she was doing, Helen looked towards the East before extending out her finger and saying, “That way…” in her characteristically soft voice.

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With no other leads, Vahn chose to trust Helen’s judgment and began running at a pace that she would be able to match. Though it would have been faster to carry her, Vahn felt like it was very ‘dangerous’ to show too much sympathy to Helen in her current state. His understanding of women had increased with the passage of time but, no matter how much effort he put into ‘figuring them out’, Vahn was often surprised by the reactions of even his closest lovers. The meaning behind Maya’s words had also escaped him as, though he knew Helen was undoubtedly very lonely, he had no means of opening her heart without, theoretically, getting together with her. This made it almost seem as if Maya was pushing him towards Helen, something the latter would have undoubtedly credited to her ‘fate’…

Thinking this far, a small frown adorned Vahn’s face as a very real urge to send Helen back to the surface emerged in his heart. He knew she genuinely had a fate related to the Dungeon but, regardless of the machinations of gods and goddesses, he had no intention to fit into the mold they had formed. It was obvious that there was more going on in the Dungeon than he had expected and, though its purpose seemed to be the same as his expectations, it seemed like the opposite party was trying to make them follow a script of sorts. This annoyed Vahn a great deal as, though he was still affected by the Laws of Fate and Destiny at his current Soul Tier, the thought of anyone believing they could manipulate him to such an extent grated on his nerves…

Just as that thought crossed his mind, Vahn noticed his surroundings had changed once again, causing the frustration in his heart to bubble up and explode in an instant. The illusion around him shattered like a broken mirror as his feet slowed to a stop. Helen came to a stop at his side, mild confusion visible in her otherwise expressionless face. As for Vahn, his eyes had turned skyward for a brief moment before turning back to Helen, asking, “Which way…?”

Seeing the seriousness and ‘anger’ contained within Vahn’s gaze, Helen nearly took a step back by instinct but ultimately managed to resist the urge as she reached forward and pointed once again. Vahn gave a curt nod in response before she suddenly felt as if her stomach was being tugged by an invisible force. Before she was able to issue a complaint, Helen found her surroundings changing rapidly as Vahn used his telekinesis to pull her along at a much faster speed than she was capable of moving herself. Helen’s face morphed into a frown but she remained silent as, even more than Vahn, at least she would like to think, she was worried about her friend…

Now twenty-two years old, Jeanne was no longer the same young girl that had stumbled onto a battlefield years prior. Not only had she physically matured a great deal, even more than the version of herself that haunted her dreams, but her armor was far more immaculate than before. Instead of having to scrape together pieces that she had looted from the battlefield, she now had a full set of custom-made armor that perfectly conformed to her body and allowed her to move without restrictions. Though it was somewhat heavy, Jeanne felt comfortable in the armor, almost as if it was a second skin that she simply couldn’t live without.

Unlike the ‘past’, where the war had stopped after driving away the enemies from her homeland, this time things had been significantly different. Jeanne had proactively moved her way up the ranks instead of simply becoming a ‘symbol’ within the army that could be used at their leisure. She no longer took orders from others and was now in charge of a full regiment of her own that, compared to all others, was vaunted as the most elite within the region. With her trusted companions at her side and capable soldiers under her command, Jeanne’s Regiment had become similar to the spear she carried at her side, piercing into the enemies heart without mercy.

Jeanne was currently sitting on the back of a grey stallion as she looked up at a massive black fortress that had been built into the side of a mountain. She only had eighteen hundred men under her command while the enemy vastly outnumbered them three-to-one. Since they were also in a fortified position, the coming battle would be a hard-fought victory that would truly test whether or not her troops deserved to be called elites. If they emerged victoriously, there would be nothing to stop their conquest of the neighboring region that had greedily invaded their homeland more than a decade prior. Jeanne wanted them to pay for all the deaths they had caused and, now that she had a chance to fight back in a meaningful way, she hadn’t wasted it.

From Jeanne’s right, no longer wearing the outfit of a ‘battlefield relief specialist’, a mature beauty with curly green hair rode a red-haired mare. Like her Commander, she was wearing full-plate armor except, contrasting the more ‘conventional’ design, the breastplate had been constructed in such a way that it perfectly cradled her ample bosom. Jeanne often complained about the design but, according to its wearer, it distracted the enemies and provided her a slight edge against similarly skilled opponents. Though Jeanne would have rebutted almost anyone else as foolish, she invariably allowed this particular person to get away with a great deal as, over the years, they had become far closer than normal friends…

Gently flicking the reins of her horse, the green-haired woman came to Jeanne’s side as she mused, “That is quite the welcome they have prepared for us…” In response to this, Jeanne’s face adopted an eager smile before she turned to face the woman and said, “It would be a shame to keep them waiting, no? Come, Maya, let us away…” Though she was preparing to give a speech to her waiting troops, Jeanne’s words trailed off when she saw her closest companion shake her head, an amused smile on her face. Just as her confusion began to compound, Jeanne’s mind began to feel heavy as Maya asked, “Is this really what you want, Jeanne? Are you satisfied with being a spear instead of a shield…?”

The moment she heard Maya’s question, visions of all the people Jeanne had ever killed began to play within her mind all at once. She suddenly felt extremely nauseous as, compared to her ‘past’ self, where she had disarmed her foes and left them alive, she had killed thousands of enemy soldiers this time around. Though it hadn’t been easy, Jeanne had grown accustomed to death and, not wanting to be her ‘weak’ self that was taken advantage of, she pushed on tirelessly until finally reaching the point where she could deal real and lasting damage to her enemies.

After nearly falling from her horse, Jeanne righted herself before looking into Maya’s eyes, a look of disbelief clouding her own as she shouted, “Who are you? What did you do with Maya!?” Jeanne felt as though an enemy mage had invaded her ranks and replaced her closest confidant but, seemingly unflustered by the accusation, Maya’s smile just softened slightly as she explained, “I would have liked to see how far your convictions could have taken you, Jeanne. It really is a shame that our time together has come to an end…” As she spoke, Maya looked towards the distance where a loud commotion had just started. Jeanne’s eyes followed Maya’s, allowing her to see the image of a man ‘breaking’ through the sky as the world began to shatter apart like fragments of a mirror…

Seeing the once-familiar figure, Jeanne’s eyes widened in shock as she habitually muttered, “My Lord…” in a sheepish tone that barely reached her own ears. Then, far clearer than her own words, the voice of Maya echoed, “You are what you choose to be, Jeanne. If you wish to live without regrets, you must forge a path all your own. Few are afforded the opportunity to ‘correct’ their past actions…but, are you satisfied with the person you have become…?”

Snapping her head back to Maya’s location, Jeanne noticed that the woman had simply vanished, much like the rest of the world around her. A powerful feeling of loss spread through her heart as even the horse she was saddled to ceased to exist, dropping her unceremoniously towards the ground. Before she landed against the hard bedrock below, however, a pair of warm arms wrapped around her shoulders before gently lowering her onto a cushioned surface. Jeanne felt hot tears flowing from her eyes as she looked up into the same face that would often appear in the back of her mind whenever she did something she didn’t truly believe just…

Seeing Jeanne’s crying figure, Vahn felt her anguish as his own, causing his heart to twist painfully in his chest. Reaching out his hand, Vahn wiped away her tears with his finger before pulling Jeanne into a warm hug as he whispered, “It’s okay, Jeanne…everything is okay now…” Though he wasn’t exactly close enough to Jeanne to warrant such a response, Vahn could see the loss and confusion contained within her gaze. He had seen the two armies within the illusion she was trapped in and, noticing that even her appearance was drastically different from normal, it was obvious she had experienced something far different than Helen and himself…

Having Vahn embrace her made Jeanne feel suffocated as tears continued to pour down her face in even greater volume. Her memories returned to her like an unrelenting tide, washing away the fourteen that she had spent within the illusion. It was already becoming difficult to recall what had happened but, even if the memories faded, the emotions that had driven them still persisted. Jeanne felt incredible shame, not for having fallen into the illusion’s trap, but as a result of becoming a person that was almost the complete opposite of everything she believed in. It felt as if her whole world had come crashing down and, instead of pride and dignity, the only things she felt right now were an overwhelming sense of shame, sadness, and, most heartbreakingly of all, warmth…

Though Helen felt greatly relieved when she and Vahn had found Jeanne, these feelings quickly faded when she saw the genuine concern Vahn had for the latter. Unlike when he had saved her, Vahn had tightly embraced Jeanne and immediately began trying to console her without even a second thought. It wasn’t the same unceremonious response he had given her, almost as if the fact she had been trapped in an illusion was an ‘inconvenience’ to him. Seeing the stark contrast in how Vahn treated the two of them made Helen feel as though her speculation about the relationship between the two was undoubtedly true. Though her interactions with Jeanne over the past few days seemed to contradict this, Helen now felt as if she had been slapped in the face as the ‘truth’ was revealed before her very eyes. An overwhelming urge to shed tears welled up inside her fractured heart but, knowing there wouldn’t be anyone to console her, Helen buried her emotions as deeply as possible before turning her eyes away from the scene of Vahn and Jeanne’s embrace…

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(A/N: Alternate Titles: ‘Vahn is a bit of a butthole, even if he has reason to be’,’I dreamed a dream of time gone by…’,’Hearbreak…’)

(A/N: I have no idea what happened but I somehow ended up sleeping for 11 hours. I’m not the type that ever uses an alarm clock so I was genuinely shocked when I saw what time it was after sitting down at my computer. There will still be three chapters today but the release may be a few minutes later than the standard two hour window.)

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