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Endless Path : Infinite Cosmos Chapter 1081

After a much longer period of time than Vahn had expected, a combination of Artoria's massive reserves and poor efficiency, Vahn finally plucked his fingers from her lips. It had taken a total of twenty-three minutes, leaving his index and middle finger slightly pruned while Artoria's expression now had a ruddy hue that had diffused down to her neck. Vahn gave her a wry smile in response before pulling out a towel to wipe down his hand as mused, "You're quite the glutton..." This caused Artoria to immediately have a coughing fit as she quickly rolled to the side before smoothly transitioning into a seated position with her feet tucked beneath her. The most remarkable part of this maneuver was that she transitioned into casual wear with practiced ease, discarding her broken armor in a single motion.

Finishing things by giving another light cough, Artoria proceeded to smooth out the crease of her skirt before placing her hands neatly in her lap and adopting the most 'serious' expression she could manage at the moment. Vahn wasn't going to let her recover completely, however, as it would make things a lot easier if he kept Artoria slightly off balance. To facilitate this, he inclined his head towards where Scáthach and Fenrir were still battling in the distance. Artoria followed his gaze, a confused look upon her face until she finally remembered their wager. This caused her face to turn practically crimson as, presently, Fenrir was only wearing what amounted to skin-tight shorts and a top visually similar to those worn by female Sprinters in the Olympics. She didn't even wear anything on her hands and feet as she relied on her claws to gain traction for complex movements...

Finding Artoria's reaction amusing, Vahn pushed her a little further by commenting, "It still covers more than a swimsuit..." Then, to more or less guarantee that Artoria would relent, Vahn added in an apologetic tone, "Well, you don't have to worry about it. With how I behaved earlier, it felt less like a spar than a full-on assault. Consider our wager forfeit since I took things too far..." This had the result of Artoria immediately frowning, regaining much of her composure in the process before saying, "I was the one who told you to take the battle seriously. With how things turned out, I can only blame my lack of awareness and skill..." With that said, Artoria scrutinized Fenrir for a few seconds before her outfit changed from a prim and proper blouse and skirt to a far more revealing skin-tight singlet and short-shorts.

Seeing Artoria's unblemished and smooth skin, perpetually locked in the transition between being a young lady and a proper adult, Vahn couldn't hide his appreciation. She was genuinely one of the most beautiful women he had seen, even if she lacked the charm of more mature women. If not for the fact she had a serious expression on her face, Vahn felt few would be able to contend against her appearance without heavy makeup and professional care. Since it was better to say such things out loud, consequences be damned, Vahn gave an appreciative nod before saying, "You have a lean and balanced figure. It is obvious you were diligent in your training from an early age...very nice." Since using more flowery words would probably have less of an impact, Vahn chose more objective and neutral words when complimenting a woman like Artoria.

Artoria didn't seem to know how to take such a compliment as, even though she had opened up to her femininity during the Fifth Holy Grail War, she was still inexperienced with such things. Both Rin and Shirou were essentially children back then and, due to their chaotic circumstances, neither were acting in a manner that could be considered 'normal'. The only thing she could rely on when dealing with Vahn was her experience in observing Merlin flirt with various women. She had no personal experience with courtship as even her wife had been arranged for her...

Remembering a few dark thoughts, Artoria's embarrassment quickly died down as she straightened her back and simply answered, "Thank you for the compliment..." This caused Vahn's brows to raise in suspicion but, knowing it probably wasn't the best time to ask, he chose to let the matter lay. It was a good opportunity to break free from the rather awkward atmosphere they had cultivated so Vahn rose to his feet before politely extending his hand to Artoria. Instead of accepting it, however, she leaned forward slightly before rising to her feet in a single smooth movement that Vahn knew would actually be very difficult to pull off without impeccable balance and leg strength...

Though Artoria's figure while standing was even more phenomenal than when she was seated, Vahn made a point not to gawk as he started leading the way back to the small lake. Along the way, Artoria dutifully kept pace with him, even though she had become silent after whatever memories plaguing her heart had resurfaced. Vahn was genuinely curious how long she would be able to keep up her melancholy while wearing a royal-blue and white version of Fenrir's training garb...

With that in mind, Vahn gestured for Artoria to take a seat at the low table located a short distance from the lake. He was tempted to sit next to her but, deciding against it, moved to the opposite side before asking, "So, what are your intentions? I already informed you earlier than Rin and I intend to destroy the Holy Grail permanently this time. I imagine you will want to provide assistance though, as you can see, it isn't necessarily required. Your help would undoubtedly prove useful, but we will not be powerless if you want to act as a reserve force."

Hearing Vahn's words, Artoria produced a small frown before staring directly at him and saying, "I will fight. Even if I no longer seek my own wish, I will fulfill the duty I have been assigned. If it is your desire to destroy the Grail, so too shall it become my own...!" The tone of her voice didn't leave much room for argument but that didn't stop Vahn from shaking his head and saying, "You should choose your words more carefully, Artoria. I can appreciate your willingness to assist in the Holy Grail War, but I can almost guarantee you are incapable of helping fulfill my desire. You will do your duty, certainly, but that will be where our paths diverge...isn't that correct?"

Artoria seemed to understand the falsity contained within her words, causing her expression to turn slightly apologetic as she corrected her previous statement, saying, "I misspoke. You are indeed correct in your ascertaions, Master. Were it within my power-." Before Artoria could finish her words, Vahn held up his hand and said, "I just told you to choose your words carefully. As the King who had formed the Code of Chivalry, do not think I will excuse you from duty so easily if you make arbitrary promises. I will say it now, so there is no room for later argumentation, but I am more than capable of allowing you to stay within this world. Even more than other Servants, the fact that you are still alive would let me anchor you to the current time axis..."

Seeing that Artoria was failing to understand him completely, Vahn plainly stated, "If you truly wish to begin moving forward, I would not mind your presence at my side. You may have guessed it, but I intend to make this world a better place before I finally move on. I cannot simply watch as the world is led to ruin for the benefit of a few greedy individuals consolidating power behind the scenes. Even if the whole world turns against me as a result, I will bear that burden knowing that my efforts will create a better future for those that follow...so, once again, King of Knights, Artoria Pendragon, you will choose your words carefully. Do I make myself clear...?"

Given how Vahn needed to maintain his [Will of the Emperor] just to keep [Laplace's Key] at bay, each of his words had a compulsion effect that carried a great deal of pressure when spoken seriously. As a result, Artoria's expression had become serious as her back was ramrod straight, even if it made her chest stand on display. She didn't seem to consider how she was dressed, evidence that her habits and manners were deeply ingrained into the very core of her being. When she finally responded, Artoria did not answer his question directly and, instead, asked, "How do you know the path you are walking is what the world needs? Will you insist on your ways, even if hundreds of millions need to die...?"

Though he hadn't prepared an answer, Vahn didn't hesitate at all when it came to explaining, "I do not know if the path I have decided upon is for the best. However, that does not mean I will stop trying to make the world a better place. It is because I am uncertain about many things that I choose to surround myself with people who share similar ideals. When I lose my way, I never hesitate to rely on the advice and input of those I've given my trust...I believe, when comparing the two of us, that is our biggest difference, Artoria."

Even before Vahn had finished his words, Artoria had already been taking in an audible breath through her nose. From Vahn's perspective, this was a good thing as it almost undoubtedly ended with a person making a firm resolve. Thus, Vahn wasn't even surprised when Artoria balled her hands into fists and said, "I will follow you. I am also unable to stand by and watch as the innocents of the world suffer. Though I may not have made a proper King, I can still fulfill my duties as a Knight...!"

While allowing a genuine smile to spread across his lips, Vahn couldn't help but close his eyes and internally remark, ("She is too accustomed to other people deciding a path for her. I'm not sure if I should be grateful to Merlin or if it would be more appropriate to lecture him...") Though Artoria undoubtedly came with a lot of baggage, Vahn knew she would be extremely useful with her powerful fate and cheat-like skills. There was even a chance that her SSS-Ranked [Child of Destiny] is what led him to pressure her as much as he had. Though he existed outside the natural flow of fate, that didn't mean he was immune to its effects. Just as Tina's [Luck] had often caused him to act in an uncharacteristic manner, there was a very real chance that Artoria's maxed out Luck had a similar effect. With that in mind, Vahn internally mused, ("Well, if that's how it is going to be, don't blame me for taking advantage of the situation.")

Opening his eyes, Vahn stared back at Artoria before adamantly stating, "Then from this moment onward, you will be my first Knight within this world. I will hold you to the same virtues you had expected of others in life, those of Honor, Honesty, Valor, and Loyalty. In exchange, I will swear to never deviate far from the path we have decided upon together. I may make mistakes, but I will trust that you will always be at my side to help guide me back to the correct path. From now, until our final parting, this is my pledge, my promise...do you accept?" Though Vahn had skewed the words a great deal, he was very aware that his words almost sounded like wedding vows. When Artoria looked back on this day in the future, he wondered if she would feel bittersweet, or resentful for his ploy...

Apparently failing to see through Vahn's 'scheme', Artoria raised her head with a determined and resolute gaze as she answered, "I do...!" The moment these two words left her mouth, however, Artoria had a reaction not all that dissimilar to Lefiya's. Though the process only took around two seconds, a line of red could be seen rising from her neck before disappearing beneath her bangs. At the same time, Vahn had an amused smile on his face as he mused, "How reliable...well then, I will be in your care..." As he said this, Vahn pulled out what looked like glowing glass doll before handing it over to Artoria and explaining, "If your words carry true conviction, you will be able to use that item by simply desiring it..."

Vahn was forced to let his words trail as, even though Artoria still seemed unbelievably embarrassed by her own fervent exclamation, she immediately vanished into thin air after taking hold of the [Spirit Vessel]. Then, with his [Eyes of Truth] active, Vahn watched as the glowing glass doll took on the shape of a miniature Artoria, completely bereft of clothing. As the light within grew in intensity, so too did her body until, less than a minute later, Artoria was sitting naked on the table while hugging her knees. Her eyes were closed for several seconds longer, remaining as such until the light from her body completely faded away. After this, her eyelids began to slowly open, making Vahn the first thing she saw in her brand new faux-body...

Understanding that Artoria probably lost her ability to manifest clothing, Vahn gave a light cough before pulling out a change of clothing and saying, "You should use these for the time being..." Until he had said this, Artoria seemed to be in a state of processing what she had just experienced. After hearing his words, however, she looked down at her body with a fretful expression before muttering, "Why does it feel like I just sold myself to something even worse than the World...?" In response to this, Vahn snorted through his nose before saying in a firmer tone, "Artoria, unless we need to have a serious talk about your exhibitionist tendencies, you need to get off that table and wear the clothing I have provided for you. That is, of course, assuming you can't still manifest clothes...?"

As soon as these words left his lips, Vahn produced a wry smile as a set of high-coverage clothes formed around Artoria's body. Though he was tempted to point out their earlier deal, Vahn no longer cared about that since he had essentially secured one of the strongest 'anchors' of fate that he had ever encountered. So long as he didn't somehow become her enemy, Artoria's presence would be a powerful shield that also allowed him to study how fate could be manipulated to his advantage. Thus, without harping over the matter, Vahn rose to his feet before extending his hand to Artoria once again, this time saying, "My Knight, Artoria...give me your hand..."

Though she had an unbelievably complex expression on her face, Artoria still reached out to grasp Vahn's hand, allowing him to pull her up and off of the table. Then, as he was certain she had a lot of questions, Vahn guided Artoria to take a seat, this time next to his own. She didn't have any reaction to this so Vahn just explained, "That item is something hailing from the Age of Gods. It is known as a [Spirit Vessel], a faux body that allows a willing soul to inhabit it. You may find it hard to believe, but trust me when I say that deception cannot be used to trick someone into entering a [Spirit Vessel]. As for what you should expect, well, it isn't all that dissimilar from being a Servant from what I can tell. The biggest difference is you are no longer considered an active participant within the Holy Grail War while your soul, which had been stuck in a status known as 'Chrono-Displasia' is now rooted in the current timeline..."

After his initial explanation, Vahn went on to detail all of the benefits and detriments to inhabiting a [Spirit Vessel], courtesy of information provided by Sis. The biggest con was the fact that Artoria's strength could not increase beyond her current base parameters, no matter how much she trained. As this wasn't all the different from a Servant, however, it ultimately didn't make much of a difference. In that same vein, she still needed to take in mana from external sources as, much like a Servant, she lacked skills like [Od Conversion] and other means to replenish her reserves. However, considering that she got to keep the knowledge obtained from the Holy Grail, combined with the intrinsic ability to create clothes with a thought, it wasn't all that bad.

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The most important matter Vahn discussed was the fact that he would be able to prepare a more suitable body for her, one without the limits of a [Spirit Vessel]. Though they were undoubtedly very useful items, Vahn felt they were better served as temporary containers to host a soul and its ego while he prepared a vessel without restrictions. Since this world had the concept of things like Homunculus and Artificial Humans, Vahn knew he could create a body for Artoria from scratch. The possibility of forming one for her out of himself also existed, though Vahn was uncertain whether or not the form would hold if he wasn't the one 'piloting' it.

Fortunately, even without going to that extreme, Vahn felt there were plenty of options available to them. He could even talk with Lord El-Melloi II or Gray about her past as, now that Vahn had seen Artoria, he was absolutely certain that Gray was something akin to a clone or an experiment in recreating Artoria in the present. Though he would never be insensitive enough to simply ask her about such things, Vahn felt it wasn't beyond his means to obtain the information. It seemed like Gray only needed a small push before she was swept up by his momentum, something Vahn was becoming increasingly aware of as the days passed. Ever since he had given up on restraining himself, things had been becoming progressively easier as not only had his drive increased but so too had his confidence. Vahn hadn't realized how big of a confidence booster it was to spend his rest periods making love to strong and capable women who, in his hands, became like pure maidens...

As these types of thoughts had come to him towards the end of their discussion, Vahn sent a glance towards Artoria before smiling in response to her confusion. There was one thing he hadn't told her about her [Spirit Vessel] but, until she stumbled across the subject on her own, Vahn would leave it be. That didn't mean he couldn't think about the possibilities however as, until this moment, he had yet to use his Unit Managements 'Modify' feature within this Record. Now that Artoria was no longer a Servant, but had been reborn within a [Spirit Vessel], she was reflected in the system as a Unit that could be Modified. Though he could have determined them without the aid of the system, Vahn's smile increased marginally as he looked at the detailed information on Artoria's various sizes, weight, and preferences. The only limit, besides her required consent, was the fact that her Loyalty was still relatively low at 84 points...

(A/N: Alternate Titles: 'Just imagine Fenrir bullying Artoria by wearing a bikini xD...or maybe a school swimsuit!?','Loki's Influence has made itself known O_O...','Someone stop this man before he grows even more out of control...!')

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