Chapter 999: Reality

It took a while for Jeanne to calm down but she eventually composed herself enough to proactively separate from Vahn and stand on her own. Though he encouraged her to take it easy, Jeanne shook her head with a tired look in her eyes as she muttered, “I don’t want to stay in this place…please, let us move on…” Unlike her chivalrous and ‘too-polite’ self, Jeanne very clearly lacked the confidence Vahn had come to expect from her. Seeing her like this caused him to feel a slight animosity towards the goddess Maya but, seeing as how the mist was proactively avoiding them now, he let the matter lay and simply nodded his head, saying, “Let’s find the entrance to the 79th Floor. If necessary, I’ll even make one of my own…”

As if in response to his words, the mist at the periphery of his domain parted to create a large path for them. Vahn and Helen both noticed this while Jeanne continued to hang her head, deep in her own thoughts. Noticing this, Vahn placed his hand on Jeanne’s shoulder and softly whispered, “Come, Jeanne…there will be plenty of time to think about what happened once we are away from this nightmarish place…” Though his own illusion had been relatively tame, likely the result of Maya not being able to directly interfere with his mind, Vahn felt that this place was extremely dangerous for anyone that lacked confidence and willpower. He had the benefit of his [Will of the Emperor] and the aid of his Source Energy so, even if Maya had tried her best to entrap him, the odds favored his quick escape.

Without making eye contact with Vahn, Jeanne nodded her head but waited for him to take the lead before falling into step close behind. She would normally proactively point so it was easy to see that Jeanne had been heavily affected by whatever she had experienced in the illusion. Vahn wanted to inquire about what she had seen but, true to his prior words, wanted to leave the confines of the 78th Floor before asking. Fortunately, even though Jeanne was distracted, both she and Helen were able to keep pace without any issues as they followed the path that had been opened in the mist. It didn’t even take them twenty minutes to reach a small staircase that was formed directly in the floor but, instead of immediately heading down, Vahn’s attention was brought to the statue that was overlooking the stairwell at the side…

The statue was wearing a ceremonial dress that barely covered her figure while holding a massive book within her embrace. Unlike the rest of the statue, which was formed from a highly polished and smooth stone, the book was clearly another artifact as it appeared to be bound in a subtly glowing leather with accents of gold embellished into its surface. Even at a glance, it was easy to tell that the book was unbelievably ancient yet, at the same time, it appeared almost brand new as it, very literally, emanated a glow from its surface. There were runes dancing around where the title would usually appear, constantly shifting in a pattern that was indiscernible even to The Path. Though Vahn could read the ‘words’ that appeared, they simply didn’t have any structure and appeared to be completely random, the same pattern never appearing twice.

As it was possible that neither girl knew who the statue represented, Vahn exhaled a sigh through his nose before explaining, “This is a statue of the goddess Maya. She seems to have dominion over illusions…” What Vahn didn’t explain was that this statue was very likely Maya herself as, if his speculation was correct, the secret of the Dungeon was even deeper than he imagined. If what he believed was true, which every sign seemed to indicate was the case, it meant that a god may very well be able to exist within the Dungeon with their real body. Vahn knew that gods were able to form avatars, sealing their Divine Body in stone before descending to the Mortal World. There was very obviously something ‘off’ about the statue holding the mirror and, now that he found a statue that was a carbon copy of Maya, Vahn believed the indestructible statues were none other than the statuesque Divine Bodies of gods…

Hearing Vahn’s words, Jeanne showed a clearly confused expression before muttering, “She looks exactly like Kali-sama…” With the exception of their clothing and facial expression, there were almost no other differences between Maya and Kali, to the point that they could very well be considered identical twins. Vahn was fully aware of this but, as if realization had dawned upon her, Jeanne’s eyes widened as she exclaimed, “Wait, Maya…!?” Jeanne then proceeded to clutch her head with a pained expression on her face that alerted both Vahn and Helen. The latter, however, simply extended her arm slightly while Vahn directly moved to support Jeanne before she could collapse to the ground.

Seeing the pained look on Jeanne’s face, Vahn’s anger was beginning to boil over once again since it was very clear that Maya had done ‘something’ to Jeanne for her to react in such a way. Before he could ask her to explain, however, Vahn caught a flash of light out of the corner of his eye as Jeanne’s body dissolved in his arms. Turning his head, Vahn saw that the statue had now assumed the form of the ‘real’ Maya, even though her presence couldn’t be felt. She was sitting on the edge of her stone pedestal, dangling her small legs in a playful manner as she explained, “You shouldn’t break this one so quickly. I altered time so that every hour in here is one second in what you believe to be reality. There are a few things I wanted to talk with you about and this is the only way I’m able to converse with you~.”

Though his rage hadn’t faded away just yet, Vahn fought to keep his calm as he rose to his feet and confidently stated, “That isn’t true, is it? If you wanted to, you could bring your avatar to meet with us, correct…?” In response to this, Maya lifted up her brows with an amused expression on her face but inevitably shook her head, explaining, “That isn’t entirely true, you know~? Though my avatar certainly exists, I don’t have the ability to move around as easily as you seem to believe. I don’t possess the means to move through the Dungeon’s restrictions, even if I’m one of the…well, let’s keep that part a secret~.” As she spoke, Maya’s expression turned into a teasing look that matched her childish appearance to a tee…

Knowing it would be borderline impossible to get any information out of an ‘illusion’, Vahn took several deep breaths to remain calm before asking, “What did you do to Helen and Jeanne? What is the purpose of the 78th Floor…?” Even after having come up with several guesses of his own, Vahn wanted to know the true answer. Unfortunately, Maya didn’t seem willing to sate his curiosity as she stuck out her tongue before saying, “If you want to know the purpose of the 78th Floor, you’d have to face the challenge directly. It is perhaps even more important for someone as powerful as you to undergo the trial I pose to anyone trying to venture into the Dungeon’s heart. As you are, it will be impossible for you to take the final step, even if you manage to reach the lowest part of the Dungeon…”

Maya’s expression turned from that of a mischevious child into one of absolute seriousness with her final words. Her green eyes shimmered with a mystical light as the surroundings quickly morphed, changing from the spacious bedrock chamber into a field of bones once again. Maya proceeded to look around at this landscape, her expression unchanged before turning back to Vahn and asking, “What will you do…?”

Seeing the familiar landscape, Vahn felt as though his suspicions were correct but, unwilling to ‘play’ along with Maya’s trial, he shook his head before confidently stating, “I know the path I’m walking may not be the ‘best’ path…I’m even aware that, no matter how much effort I put in, I may never end creating a world where everyone can be happy. However, the trials I must face are not yours to decide. I will walk the path I created for myself, not the path Nuwa had decided. Tell her that, if she truly believes her ‘creations’ can reach godhood, it will be through a path they have decided upon, not one she had laid out for them. ” Though Vahn wasn’t formed as a result of Nuwa’s machinations, he was annoyed by the fact that Jeanne and Helen had been forced to experience something so traumatic for no other reason than a goddess thought it her right to ‘test’ them…

Instead of being offended by Vahn’s words, Maya stuck out both her legs parallel to the ground with a bubbly smile on her face. Her green eyes flashed once again, causing the landscape to revert back to normal, before happily explaining, “That has always been the correct answer, Vahn Mason. The purpose of my trial is to make people realize that the only way forward is to live as you please. You must truly believe in the path you are walking, regardless of if reality deems it ‘possible’. It is the realization that there were never limits. to begin with, that will allow mankind to reach the same level as their creators. I pray that your convictions ring true, ufufufu~.”

Though there was still much to discuss, the tips of Maya’s toes began to dissolve away as the seemingly young goddess continued to laugh without inhibitions. Vahn’s frown deepened in response, especially when she suddenly added, “If you truly manage to become a god, I will finally be free from the task that has been assigned to me. I’d like to meet this ‘Kali’ that shares my appearance. Make sure to introduce me properly when the time comes, okay~?” With these parting words, Maya’s body completely vanished, leaving Vahn holding Jeanne’s body as he stared up at the statue which, unlike before, now had a small smile on its face…

Almost as soon as Vahn had ‘returned’ to reality, Jeanne’s headache had completely faded away but, along with it, so too did her consciousness. She became limp in his arms but, instead of having a pained expression on her face, there was a light and contented smile as she curled up in his embrace, her left hand gripping the edge of his tunic. Vahn knew that Maya must have done something to her while he was in her illusion but, seeing that Jeanne was no longer in pain, he simply released a heavy sigh before picking her up and looking back at Helen. The latter had been watching the events play out in silence but, seeing Vahn look in her direction, she quickly averted her eyes and deflected by asking, “What is the purpose of that book…?”

Seeing how Helen was behaving, Vahn squinted his eyes slightly before turning his attention to the book and inspecting it once again. If it was anything like the mirror that was held by the previous statue, the book was likely a powerful artifact that could be extremely useful to anyone that managed to make it this far. Unlike the mirror, however, the book was held closed in the statue’s embrace and it didn’t seem like there was any way to open it. Vahn cast his eyes towards the runes embedded into the foundation of the statue, reading, ‘A dream indistinguishable from reality is often more real than any memory. Are humans the product of their past or their desire for a future that exists only within the mind?’.

After reading the words, Vahn blinked in both realization and confusion as, though he understood their meaning, it didn’t really convey the purpose of the book. Since he didn’t really want to mull over it for too long, especially while holding onto Jeanne’s unconscious body, Vahn turned his attention back to Helen and explained what the runes meant. She had been in the process of translating them herself so, while she still listened to Vahn’s words, Helen lightly snorted through her nose before completing her own translation shortly thereafter. Vahn withheld a sigh upon seeing this but kept to himself while inspecting Jeanne’s condition to make sure she wasn’t suffering any abnormal side-effects from Maya’s illusion. It seemed like she was having a pleasant dream so he allowed her to continue sleeping as, after what she experienced, Jeanne could undoubtedly use the rest.

Helen had made her way over to the foot of the statue which, even after being elevated on a platform, was still shorter than she was tall. Though she also failed to understand the true meaning behind the translated runes, Helen wasn’t content with simply moving on after being forced to experience an illusion that she needed Vahn’s help to escape. Without anything else to go on, Helen trusted her instincts as she began tracing the edge of the book with her index finger. It felt strangely warm to the touch but, even after trying to remove it from the statue’s hands, the book remained firmly in its place without budging even a single centimeter. Helen then tried to make sense of the runes on the book’s cover but, seeing them rapidly change, she quickly gave up while simultaneously refusing to ask Vahn for help…

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Seeing Helen have little success with the book, Vahn wasn’t too surprised since even he couldn’t discern a method to extricate the book without damaging it. There was likely a ‘key’ that they had overlooked, perhaps related to Maya’s illusions, but that wasn’t of particular concern to Vahn at the moment. Since the book didn’t seem necessary in conquering the Dungeon, Vahn decided he would investigate its functions later. The odds of him encountering Maya in the future were exceptionally high and, though she seemed somewhat troublesome to deal with, Vahn was confident she would reveal the book’s function after he reached godhood. She seemed to have accepted the duty of testing anyone that was trying to reach the lowest Floor of the Dungeon so, after reaching that point in the near future, Vahn suspected she would come to him on her own accord after her duty was fulfilled.

Since it already felt as if he had spent a lifetime on the 78th Floor, Vahn held Jeanne’s sleeping figure close before saying, “Let’s descend. We can investigate the book later on. I’m sure you could use some rest as well so let’s not waste our time here…” In response to this, Helen looked toward Vahn with slightly squinted eyes as soundless words seemed to form on her lips. Ultimately, however, she simply closed her mouth and gave a small nod before walking towards the stairs without waiting for Vahn to lead the way. Seeing this, Vahn was slightly surprised as Helen was obviously acting very differently compared to her past self. Much like Jeanne, she had likely experienced something extremely traumatic and it seemed to have a lasting impact on her behavior. This was slightly troubling as, even before being trapped in the illusion, Helen was already somewhat difficult to deal with…

Deciding not to blame Helen for something she had no control over, Vahn released a small sigh before following closely behind her. It wasn’t her fault that she had become victim to Maya’s illusion as, even with a ridiculous amount of ‘benefits’ on his side, even he had fallen into her trap several times. If he treated Helen’s trauma as something that was ‘troublesome’, Vahn knew it would be extremely selfish as, even at this very moment, he was tending to Jeanne’s trauma as if it were his own problem. This realization caused Vahn to feel ashamed of himself as, from an outside perspective, it was clear as day that he was showing Jeanne preferential treatment while leaving Helen to suffer in silence. As he would never allow anyone else to go through the same thing without expressing his empathy, Vahn fell into step beside Helen, surprising her as she hadn’t expected him to suddenly invade the inviolable personal space that naturally followed along with her.

With his expression softening into an apologetic one, Vahn quietly muttered, “Once we get to a safe area…if you want to talk…” Even as the words left his lips, Vahn felt incredibly awkward as it had been a long time since he had trouble talking to a girl. Realizing this, Vahn laughed at himself internally before straightening his back and saying, “I’ll make you something warm to drink and cook you up a hearty meal if you’re feeling hungry. You’ve experienced something terrible and I’m sorry if my actions have seemed unempathetic, Helen…please don’t push yourself too hard. You may not consider me as such, but I’d like to think of us as friends…if you need to talk, I’ll always be around to listen. I may not be able to give the best advice but, even if I end up embarrassing myself, I’d rather suffer your ire than see you go through this alone…”

Having never expected Vahn to say such words, at least after her perception of him had changed, Helen was momentarily at a loss as to how she should respond. In the back of her mind, however, the little voice that always guided her actions suddenly whispered, ‘He is trying to fool us. He sees the weakness in our heart and is trying to take advantage of us. We cannot allow him to trick us. He obviously cares about Jeanne more and is just trying to manipulate us so that we can be useful in the future.’ With these words as a guide, Helen’s expression turned dour as she venomously stated, “Your consideration is not necessary…worry not, however, as I’ve already made my convictions. Besides, your food…it isn’t that good…”

With her last words barely audible, Helen increased her gait to create some distance between herself and Vahn. The latter was left looking at her back and, barely resisting the urge to allow his eyes to wander, Vahn’s expression turned into one of genuine concern and pity as, within his mind, Helen’s affection dropped from 78 down to 53 in an instant. The bracket parameter, which had always been (Trust) before, even transitioned to (Confused) before quickly turning into (Contempt) moments later…

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(A/N: Alternate Titles: ‘Pieces of the truth…?’,’Maya’s Duty’,’Helen has gone full-tilt (o_o)…’)

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