Chapter 1004: Changing Tides

Though Vahn had never expected that conquering the Dungeon would be a simple feat, he had grossly underestimated the time it would take to complete. By the time the group had reached the 84th Floor, a complex maze that was more than 500km in diameter, the expedition had already been going on for an entire week. It was getting to the point that each Floor took up the better part of a full day and, though he could bore through forcefully in the upper Floors, everything after the 78th had been protected by a strange membrane. The only way to proceed was by using the established pathways which, more often than not, were heavily guarded by large encampments of increasingly powerful monsters.

After descending into the 84th Floor, the mana density had increased to the point that the fog comprised of pure mana extended past their knees. This decreased visibility greatly, making the Floor one of the more difficult to traverse as the ground was full of holes that hid the small insectoid creatures that called it home. Unlike the 81st through 83rd Floors, where each individual monster was marginally powerful, the residents of the 84th through 88th Floors seemed to be the type to rely on numbers to overwhelm their enemies. Their exoskeletons also seemed to be comprised of whatever materials they had devoured within the Dungeon’s structure as, even after slaying large groups of the insectoid monsters, their carapaces would remain behind in death. These were almost entirely comprised of rare minerals like Mithril, Adamantine, and, in the case of the wasp-like creatures that would spew viscous acid toward the party, Orichalcum.

With each individual insect being around the size of a washbasin, often traveling in groups of several hundred, this meant Vahn’s reserves of the relatively rare resources was rapidly increasing while his OP reserves were growing far faster than he had ever expected. Each of the strange metallic insects would net nearly a hundred OP each, even without converting their drop items, so Vahn had been averaging an awe-inspiring 6.65 million OP every hour spent on the Floor. Since he was the one killing most of the insects, as Fenrir’s and Jeanne’s combat styles weren’t suited to the task, Vahn was practically giddy with anticipation as he watched his reserves steadily climb. By his estimate, knowing that the creatures would persist until the 88th Floor, he would be able to earn an additional 470-500 million OP by the time they reached the 89th Floor’s entrance…

Seeing how excited Vahn was to ‘harvest’ the materials dropped by the insects, Fenrir and Jeanne wasn’t in a hurry to progress while Helen, still giving the silent treatment, simply followed along under the protection of the two girls. She had started talking to Jeanne again, at least when they made camp, so Vahn was hopeful that she would recover enough by the time they reached the 99th Floor to avoid having to enact his plan. At this point, he already had a decent understanding of the necessary process, the result of having all of Ein’s notes memorized, but Vahn really wanted to avoid having to rely on such drastic means. If Helen managed to bear having her world collapse, Vahn believed she would be stronger for it after a few years of therapy and the guidance of people who cared about her…

Though he had been busy in the Dungeon, much of Vahn’s focus was on matters back on the surface world. He hadn’t exactly been able to make good on his promise to produce the One-Eyed Black Dragon’s head but, in an attempt to allay public concerns, Vahn had purchased a massive magic core from his Inventory to proffer forth as ‘proof’ of its subjugation. Though Ouranos was aware of the truth of the matter, he wasn’t the type that would get involved with such things so the general consensus was that Vahn had indeed slain the One-Eyed Black Dragon. As a result, the people had been celebrating for the last three days as the information quickly spread throughout the continent like wildfire.

Around the same time the news had reached the Southern Sands, awing the various tribes residing near The Plains region of the continent, Asfi had arrived in her homeland, the Maritime Kingdom, Aetheopia. Compared to the past, where the people often had smiles on their faces as they went about their business as fishermen and traders, there was an obvious melancholy throughout the various port Cities as they mourned the death of their King, all while preparing for War. Though he had only been imprisoned at first, Asfi’s father had quickly succumbed to the cold of the Palace’s deepest and darkest Dungeon. This was a place many referred to as the Watery Abyss as, anyone confined there would find themselves partially submerged in chilled saltwater that constantly sapped their strength and exacerbated any injuries they had sustained…

With eight Valkyrie’s accompanying her, Asfi flew over the heads of her people with the aid of her modified [Talaria] and a full loadout of S-Ranked equipment. Her presence drew the attention of thousands but, amongst them, only a few seemed to realize the identity of the aqua-haired maiden that stood out, even amongst the eight otherworldly Valkyrie. Though her appearance hadn’t changed much since coming to reside within the Hearth Manor, Asfi still benefitted greatly from Vahn’s ‘care’. Though several years had passed within the Sub-Space orb at this point, she actually looked younger than before, her skin glistening with a healthy glow as her sharp and intelligent cyan-blue eyes reflected the image of her former home in their depths…

Seeing what her home had become, Asfi’s resolve had been redoubled as she slightly increased her flying speed in order to expedite the restoration process. With the Palace walls quickly increasing in size, several arrows began to tear through the sky as, regardless of anything else, the Aetheiopian Kingdom had already declared open hostility against the Empire. Since the Valkyries were not only recognized as Vahn’s messengers, but the executors of his will, the Palace guards immediately opened fire once they were in range. This didn’t end well for them, however, as even the Captain of the Royal Guard was only Level 3 while the weakest Valkyrie present was near the peak of Level 7. They immediately moved to counterattack the guards, tearing through the sky with a fierce momentum before harvesting the lives of any guards foolish enough to stand their ground…

With dull eyes, Asfi landed in the courtyard of her former home as death wails sounded from the surrounding walls. Six of the Valkyrie had started slaughtering anyone that didn’t immediately surrender while Byrnhildr and Bruna remained at Asfi’s side, assuring her safety. Though she had managed to reach Level 5 during her stay at the Manor, a Level that should have allowed her free reign almost anywhere outside of Orario, Asfi was still considered ‘weak’ from the perspective of the Valkyrie. Since their Master had entrusted her safety to them, Asfi had no say in the measures they took to guarantee no harm befell her. During the journey to the Aetheopian Kingdom, Asfi had to tolerate the presence of at least one Valkyrie, even during the moments when she bathed or required ‘relief’.

Having grown accustomed to the presence of Brynhildr and Bruna, Asfi moved forward without paying them much attention as she entered through the same large coral doors that she had passed through thousands of times in the past. There were several guards stationed inside of the Palace but, fully aware of the slaughter occurring outside, combined with their knowledge of Asfi’s identity, many chose to stand down and bow instead of barring her passage. Only those that had been twisted by the Queen’s corruption made any attempt to prevent Asfi’s advance but, much like all those who had come before, they were mercilessly cut down by Bruna’s halberd. Their armor, regardless of its make and thickness, provided them absolutely no defense against the insurmountable might of the resolute Valkyrie.

In this manner, Asfi quickly found her way into the already abandoned throne room before activating a mechanism that caused a false wall to collapse inward. She had never expected her Mother to stand her ground so, after seeing the tell-tale signs that the hidden passage had already been used once, Asfi quickly gave pursuit. It was likely that, from the moment she received the report, Cassiopeia had already fled the Palace in an attempt to preserve her life. She had always been a vain, petty, scheming, and, most importantly, a cowardly woman. Instead of dirtying her own hands, Cassiopeia was the type that relied on others to carry out her will, usually after ‘convincing’ them with her body…

After following the hidden passage to its end, Asfi came out into a private sanctum that contained a deep pool of crystal clear water and a channel connecting to the sea. There would normally be a stealthy cutter docked within the channel but, after her speedy escape, Cassiopeia had already taken the vessel out to sea. In most cases, this would have guaranteed her safety but, with the ability to fly, Asfi quickly followed the channel out to sea before ascending into the air with Brynhildr and Bruna flanking her. There had a been a metal gate intended to prevent pursuit but, even without Bruna cutting a path, Asfi had used a blood-red potion that instantly corroded the bars to grant them passage.

Upon reaching open water, it didn’t take long to spot the cutter’s off-blue sails that seemed to blend into the seawater below. Asfi adjusted her pose before doing a nose-dive towards the ship, a fierce glint in her eyes as she acrobatically flipped over at the last moment before gently touching down on the boat’s surface. Two robust-looking guards immediately charged at her but, without having to raise her own hand, Asfi continued forward while Brynhildr and Bruna descended upon them like the wrath of God, mercilessly piercing their bodies into the deck. Their blood quickly pooled across the painted surface of the cutter, creating a stark contrast against the backdrop of the sea as Asfi walked unhesitantly towards a cloaked figure trying to blend in with the ship’s supplies.

Realizing she had been discovered, the cloaked figure tossed aside her garment, revealing a shapely body that seemed to ignore the passage of time. This was achieved with several extremely potent Elixirs and constant care as, regardless of the fact that she was in her fifties, Queen Cassiopeia couldn’t tolerate having her appearance degrade with age. Now that she had been exposed, she stood with her head held high and a venomous look in her eyes as she spat, “You unfilial brat…not only did you betray your country, fleeing to that vile City, but you have the audacity to return after bedding that pretender!? What, are you going to kill your own Mother before offering your homeland as a sacrifice to that fools ambitions!?

Having already closed the distance between them, Asfi responded to Cassiopeia’s words with a swift backhanded slap. This caused the frail Queen to spin around with the momentum before falling to the deck, hard. An expression of disbelief appeared on her face as she brought her shaky hand up to her swollen cheek, tears welling up in her reddened eyes. As for Asfi, she had a frosty expression that could even turn magma to ice as she stared down at her Mother and stated, “You would accuse me of the same vicious acts as you, completely ignoring your own depravity. How sickening…” Though her Mother’s accusations weren’t entirely false, as Asfi had indeed made herself a bargaining chip for her own revenge, hearing it directly felt like having someone spit into her open mouth…

Resolving to never be like her Mother, regardless of accusations that may be thrown her way, Asfi shook her head in exasperation before pulling out a relatively plain-looking dagger. Seeing this, Cassiopeia’s open mouth immediately snapped shut as she held up both hands in a gesture of surrender. Her eyes were darting around in their sockets as she thought about a means to get out of this situation but, unwilling to stand idle, Asfi never afforded her the opportunity. Using the dagger, Asfi cut through her Mother’s wrists before unceremoniously slicing the blade across her neck. Curiously, if the casual observer were there to witness the event, they would have noticed that there were no visible injuries on the Queen’s body as she slumped onto the deck of the cutter.

Placing the dagger into her own personal storage bracelet, Asfi then bent down to check her Mother’s pulse before turning the latter’s head to face her. Cassiopeia’s eyes were twitching slightly as she attempted to direct them toward her daughter but the shock of having the connection between her brain and body severed had forced her into a catatonic state. The dagger Asfi had used was not intended to cause physical damage but, much like Vahn’s [Mercy], it could directly sever the mana circuitry in a person’s body. Asfi made sure that she didn’t completely sever the connection, as this would have caused her Mother’s death, as she intended to imprison her in the same Watery Abyss that her Father had been forced to suffer…

After tying of Cassiopeia’s body, Asfi stowed her within the cutter’s cabin before helming the boat and sailing it back towards the Palace’s secret passage. She didn’t make it very far, however, before the sea began to rapidly swell up in front of the cutter. Brynhildr immediately pressed a black gemstone embedded into her gauntlet as she and Bruna moved to protect Asfi. The nose of the cutter began to be pushed up by the swelling water before large tentacles began to emerge, breaking the water’s tension and revealing a monstrous black creature. More noticeably, however, was the barechested man sitting on the creatures head as he tapped a glowing golden trident with his fingers. Aquamarine hair, as if he hadn’t just exited the sea, fell into natural and wild curls around a handsome face as deep-blue eyes, set in an expression of contempt, reflected the image of the two Valkyries and their charge…

With a deep baritone voice, the man ran his index finger along his trident as he stated, “All who have earned the ire of the sea are destined to be devoured by its fury…tell me, child, what have you done with my concu…bine…?” Though he had started off with an intimidating fervor, the man allowed his words to trail as he passed his gaze over Brynhildr, Bruna, and Asfi in succession. He had already seen the previous two on several occasions in the past, as he was closely affiliated with Zeus and Odin, but Asfi’s appearance caught his eye. He could vaguely remember the young girl that was slated to become his pet’s plaything in the past but, now that she had matured, a slight regret had welled up inside of his heart as he suddenly felt it wasteful to simply kill her.

Before he could issue another word, Brynhildr had stepped forward to protect Asfi as she broke convention and stated, “Lord Poseidon, this is a personal matter between mortals. As a god, you have no grounds to intervene in the affairs of any mortal Kingdom you do no directly preside over.” Having followed her Father, Odin, for more than eight-hundred years, Brynhildr was intimately familiar with the vows gods had to take before descending into the mortal world. Though they could certainly build up Kingdoms, or even rule over vast Empires, Gods were prevented from using their power to intervene in the affairs of other Kingdoms directly, especially if there were no gods presiding over said Kingdom.

Hearing Brynhildr’s words, Poseidon’s face formed a deep frown before he stood atop his pet, Cetus, a cruel glimmer in his eyes as he asked, “You think yourself to be in a position where you can provide counsel to me…? Did you Father not educate you properly, you snot-nosed brat!?” With each word spoken by Poseidon, storm clouds began to gather as the sea became increasingly more tumultuous. Though Brynhildr’s words were true, and he couldn’t intervene directly, there was an infinite number of loopholes that could be exploited to get his way. Chief amongst them was to allow his pet to act freely, loosening the restraints that kept it bound to him and allowing Cetus to lay waste to entire islands if necessary.

Just as Poseidon was preparing to teach Brynhildr a lesson, his eyes snapped wide as he inclined his head back in response to a spatial fluctuation that had appeared right next to him. By instinct, Poseidon began to stir up his Arcanum in response but, before he was able to even release a fraction of his power, golden chains emerged from the void before tightly binding his body. Cetus, which had been towering over the cutter beneath his feet, began to sink into the sea as the surrounding water became suffused with a red hue. By the time Poseidon processed what was happening, a ceremonial dagger that shone with the same light as his trident passed through his neck. His head was sent twirling through the air as his deep blue eyes reflected the image of Vahn and, more importantly, Kali…

Knowing that Poseidon hadn’t lost consciousness just yet, Kali licked the golden blood from her dagger with a vicious light in her eyes as she mocked, “Aren’t you a bit old to get riled up over the words of a mortal? Though, I suppose the ‘sea’ is known to be temperamental…? Kukukuku~.” With her words finished, Kali dematerialized the dagger in her hands just as Poseidon’s body began to break down into particles of light. Vahn quickly stowed the ‘corpse’ into his Inventory, as there was always a chance it could be useful in creating another divine-grade avatar in the future. The one he had produced with Artemis’ body had been a ‘fluke’ but, now that he knew it was possible, Vahn had been intending to experiment with Apollo’s body when he got a chance…

Carrying Kali down to the ship, Vahn looked at the kneeling Brynhildr and Bruna before saying, “Rise. The two of you have done well…” In response, the two Valkyrie showed prideful expressions before obediently rising to their feet and saluting, Brynhildr remarking, “We are unworthy of such kind words, Your Majesty. If not for the treasures you had bestowed unto us, we would have been powerless in the face of a God such as Poseidon…”

With the best poker face he could manage, Vahn gave a curt nod in response to Brynhildr’s words before giving up trying to set Kali down onto the ship. She was snickering in his arms while adamantly refusing to let go of his neck. With her small size, she could easily dangle without her feet touching the ground so Vahn just accepted the awkwardness of the situation as he turned his eyes to Asfi and asked, “Do you want me to accompany you…?” She had been standing with a blank expression of her own ever since he had arrived so Vahn was a little worried about her.

Hearing Vahn’s words, Asfi allowed a small smile to spread across her lips before shaking her head and saying, “No, I will handle the rest. This is my homeland…it is up to me to restore it to its former glory. Please rest assured that, one day, the Aetheiopian Kingdom will become one of the Empire’s staunchest allies…!” Though it was more appropriate to call them a vassal state, Vahn had left the decision up to Asfi in regards to when her Kingdom would officially join the Empire. For the time being, the Alliance would be sending people over to help them rebuild while Asfi worked to consolidate power as the Kingdom’s new Queen. Officially, she was considered his consort so, regardless of how long the transition took, the Aetheiopian Kingdom was already his by virtue of their relationship…

Though he would have normally parted with her after a long embrace, Vahn knew it would be impossible while Kali was clinging to his neck. This realization made him realize that Kali was behaving this way intentionally but, as she had been acting this way ever since he told her about the existence of Maya, Vahn had already gotten used to it. She was determined to get an ‘advantage’ over this mysterious twin of hers so, while the rest of the City had been celebrating, Kali had been lingering around the Manor and bothering Vahn whenever she knew she could get away with it. Now that she had even helped him strike down a god, giving him the means to avoid having any naysayers in Heaven call him out, Kali was intending to capitalize on the opportunity as much as possible…

With his presence no longer required, Vahn transformed into his Qinglong form once again before carrying Kali with him back to a transfer point he had set up at the distant Iron Hills Sanctuary. In order to avoid ‘triggering’ Terra and Alexa, Vahn had decided to avoid using his Qingling form near the City, thus resulting in him using Yggy’s personal network to get around on occasion. Upon arriving within the verdant garden that now existed where atop what remained of the Mother Mountain, Vahn saw Yggy wearing a white floral dress as she tended to a small grove of golden peaches. Though she was more than aware of his presence, she pretended to be ignorant since Kali was still firmly clinging to his neck…

This time, Vahn allowed a wry smile to appear on his lips as he ‘gently’ pinched Kali’s side and asked, “What do I have to do to get you to let go…?” Though he already had several ideas regarding what she would ask, Vahn allowed Kali some leeway to make her demands. He wanted to see how far she would push her luck but, knowing full-well that she still wasn’t ‘that’ close with Vahn, Kali surprised him by saying, “For now, let’s just take a nap together…we still have a few hours before dinner time, right…?” Even though it wasn’t even in the top ten things she ‘wanted’ to do with Vahn, Kali knew better than to push him too hard as she rested her head against his chest and began listening to his heartbeat.

As this was a simple enough request, Vahn acquiesced to Kali’s ‘demand’ before carrying her in a proper bridal hold and asking, “How long has it been since I gave you a massage? I fear my techniques have been getting rusty as of late…” Since she had ‘willingly’ compromised, Vahn decided to give Kali one of the actual rewards. There was even a chance that things could develop along an axis that she would undoubtedly ‘benefit’ greatly from so, without any hesitation, Kali began to snicker before licking around Vahn’s neck. She made sure that her actions couldn’t be seen by Yggy as she whispered, “Very well…if you want me to make sure your skills haven’t rusted, you’ll have to give me a full course this time around…ufufufu~.”

(A/N: Alternate Titles: ‘Vahn has already learned to lie, just like a good politician…’,’It’s hard to tell if Asfi, or the Valkyrie, are more ruthless o_o…’,’Kali is learning to pull Vahn’s strings well…meanwhile, Yggy being a ‘good’ daughter and ignoring her Father’s philandering xD…’)

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