Chapter 423: Within the Darkness

Progressing through the tunnel, Vahn had a scowl on his face as the corridor had quickly broken off into several directions after progressing for nearly 300m. Because his domain stretched 474m, he was able to tell that the system of tunnels was far more complicated than he had anticipated and it seemed like the one he had just passed through was just a recent addition. The most annoying thing of all was that the smell he had been tracking went down every single corridor and he was able to understand that it was a ‘false scent’ that had been spread to mislead anyone trying to pursue those that had fled through the complex system.

However, Vahn wasn’t so easily led astray by the lack of a proper scent and there were several ways he could track his ‘enemies’. Using his [Eyes of Truth], Vahn scanned through the area and looked for any signs that the elemental energies in the air had been disturbed. Just like when he was tracking the goddess Laverna, Vahn was able to see the somewhat chaotic fluctuations that occurred in the air when people passed through a location very recently.

Everything, be they people or monsters, were constantly absorbing elemental energies from the air while releasing small amounts passively. Unless they could completely constrain their energy, Vahn would still be able to follow them even without their scent. The only exception would be is if there was a powerful flow of mana through an environment, which could happen with some formations, but nothing like that had been installed in the tunnel system, at least at his current juncture.

Knowing that his enemies had tried to trick him through such a method, Vahn’s anger increased marginally as he used [Shundo] to arrive at the next juncture and repeated the process of inspecting the fluctuations in the air. During this time, he detected the arrival of two of his own allies and waited for them to catch up to his current position before continuing forward. Moments later, Vahn saw the subtle glow of two pairs of eyes before both Chloe and Arnya showed up inside the corridor and quickly closed the distance with him. Removing their hoods, Chloe asked in a cold tone, “Did you find anything?”

Nodding his head, Vahn explained, “I don’t know who they are, but to have a system like this shows they have to belong to a large organization or Familia. The way the tunnels are constructed doesn’t seem like they were dug out normally, but more like they had been carved with the use of magic. I can track them through their energy fluctuations, but I’m not sure if I should continue forward. Since the scent in the air is fake, they probably already returned to the surface and blended into the crowd…what do you think we should do, Chloe, Arnya?”

Chloe was wearing her ‘assassin’ attired that consisted of a black top, white shorts, a black cloak, and several sets of daggers fixed to the belt around her waist. As for Arnya, she looked like a typical adventurer wearing a white tunic, red skirt, black spats, and a pair of leather gloves and boots. There was a large belt wrapped across her chest and abdomen, and she was carrying a spear that had the head concealed by a tan cloth.

Vahn knew that is was the golden spear that was partnered to the silver spear of her brother Allen, though he didn’t yet know why she kept it concealed. He wanted to mention that, if her spear gave away an identity that she wanted to conceal, she could simply use a different weapon. However, though she pretended to be a ditz at times, Vahn knew Arnya was actually very intelligent and she had to have her reasons behind it. Even now, she had a cool look that completely contradicted her normal character and her expression was very serious.

After listening to Vahn’s words, both Chloe and Arnya sniffed the air before Chloe sighed and said, “Nyahaaa, I can tell that the scent is fake as well. It smells like someone walks through here periodically and just sprays around…they have to be part of an organized group to pull off something like this. I think we should fall back and let the Alliance investigate it and just report it to the Guild for now. It could very well be a trap they had laid specifically to draw you in, so it’s not a good idea to continue the pursuit if there is little chance we’ll actually catch them.”

Continuing where Chloe left off, Arnya nodded her head and said in a clear tone that belied her usual mischievousness, “For them to have been so close to the Manor and avoid detection, they couldn’t have been there for long. The Alliance has patrols that periodically sweep the buildings, so there is a high chance this entire setup is just a trap. Let’s return to the surface and then we can try to map out the corridors from above ground. Even if you can probably escape it, I imagine it wouldn’t be pleasant to have the ceiling collapse in on you. Its too dangerous for you to expose yourself like this, especially when the enemy seems to be organized, Vahn.”

Hearing both girls telling him to return to the surface restored a bit of clarity to Vahn’s mind and allowed him to relax a little. He could see the concern clearly shown in their expressions and knew it was as they said, that he was the likely target for any larger schemes. Even if one of the girls was captured, they would have likely been used as leverage to get to him specifically. By heading into the enemies territory without any information, Vahn not only exposed himself to more danger, but he also left fewer defenses for the Manor as a result. As Arnya said, he could just as easily map the tunnel system from above as he could from below. It was far less likely they had set traps on the surface, as they would have been noticed by the Alliance patrols when doing so.

Though it wasn’t the best time for such a thing, Vahn reached over and stroked both girls on their heads and felt a little at ease when they both squinted their eyes and dropped their serious expressions. With a smile on his face, Vahn said, “Let’s get out of this place…I can just stroll around when we get to the surface and create a map of the tunnel network. My [Shundo] will be much more effective aboveground anyways…” As he spoke, Vahn felt his instincts flare up slightly and he turned his vision to the corridor he was about to go down earlier.

For a very brief moment, Vahn felt fluctuations in the air so, without questioning his own instincts, he sent a wave of flames down the corridor and increased the temperature to nearly 1,000 degrees Celsius after a few seconds passed. The flames caused the airflow in the tunnel system to fluctuate greatly and created a powerful backdraft as the fire consumed the oxygen in the air. Within the flames, Vahn saw a silhouette appear for a brief moment before they slammed their hand in the wall and lines of earth elemental energy appeared which caused the entire tunnel system surrounding them to begin collapsing.

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Arnya’s tail turned rigid as she tried to grab Vahn’s arm as she shouted, “We need to get out of here, nyaow!” Vahn pulled free from her arm as he glared at the ‘person’ that had started the collapse. He wasn’t sure how the figure was able to pull it off, but their aura was almost entirely concealed and the only thing that gave it away was the ‘absence’ of energy within the area surrounding it. Vahn’s domain turned a pale gold as [Enkidu] emerged from the air and created a grid above their heads that stopped the collapse from reaching them as he extended two chains to try and capture the figure. Realizing the danger contained within the chain, or perhaps just trying to escape, the silhouette dropped into the ground and ‘burrowed’ deep into the earth before disappearing from Vahn’s perception several seconds later.

Chloe had been watching Vahn’s actions and asked, “What was that, the enemy? Could you tell how strong they were?” Vahn shook his head before looking back at the two girls and saying, “I couldn’t sense them at all. If not for my instincts warning me something was wrong, they might have been able to walk right up to us without me noticing at all. The only thing I could detect was ‘nothing’, and that was what gave them away. Just seeing that it was able to resist my flames shows that, at the very least, they have high capabilities…though I don’t think they were that strong. They’re probably a specialist that uses unique magic related to the earth, but I didn’t sense any magical fluctuations until after the magic activated…it could also just be a rare skill since I wasn’t able to see through it at all…”

Chloe nodded her head before looking at the beautiful golden chains preventing the ceiling from collapsing in on them. Most of the tunnels surrounding them had collapsed and they would have been buried in debris if Vahn hadn’t taken action when he did. It was somewhat ironic that they had been warning him about such a possibility right before it actually happened to them. Realizing what she was thinking, Vahn chuckled before reaching out and patting her again as he said, “It was actually your warning that made me more cautious and I had already started thinking about preventative measures if such a situation actually occurred. Thanks, Chloe, Arnya.”

Arnya didn’t stop Vahn from stroking her ears, but she still cocked her head slightly and asked, “How are we going to get out of here? My spear isn’t very suitable for digging…” Vahn laughed at her words before pointing toward the ground where the shadow beneath their feet had been growing and becoming darker. There was nearly no light in the tunnel earlier, but Vahn’s [Enkidu] was casting a beautiful golden light that illuminated the area they were in and cast long shadows in the small area. Once they saw the shadow, both girls understood what was going on and made room for Fafnir to peek up out of the spot it had been hiding in since earlier. Since the Hearth Manor was nearby, Vahn had been able to call over Fafnir and it arrived a few seconds later and had been on standby since before he even entered the tunnels.

Once they had cleared enough space, Fafnir lifted its head out of the shadows and asked, (“Vahn, Chloe, Arnya, do you need my help~?”) Vahn smiled before walking forward and stroking Fafnir’s head and saying, “Yes, please help us get out of here Fafnir. You should be able to shield us from the debris and break through to the surface, right?” Fafnir lifted its head toward the ceiling and its stark blue eyes glowed for a bit before it said, (“I can’t get through the chains, Vahn. You will have to move them or I will be stuck in the shadows.”) As it spoke, Fafnir raised its body and leaned over Vahn to shield him from the debris that would be freed as soon as he removed [Enkidu].

Chloe and Arnya moved under Fafnir’s head as well and clung to Vahn as he allowed [Enkidu] to disperse so that Fafnir could take further action. He had already confirmed there was nobody on the surface so, other than a bit of collateral damage, everything else should be okay. When the silhouette collapsed the ceiling earlier, it had probably done a fair amount of damage on the surface anyway, so it wasn’t like adding a little more would have any major consequences. Thus, when the golden radiance faded and the entire tunnel returned to darkness, Fafnir began to raise its body from the shadows while using its darkness magic to ‘dissolve’ the surrounding earth.

Other than the magical light glowing from the scar on its chest, everything else was completely dark for several agonizing seconds until beams of light broke through from above and entered the tunnel. Fafnir continued to clear around the area until debris stopped falling onto its back before saying, (“Okay, everything is clear, Vahn~!”) Vahn rubbed Fafnir’s stomach and used [Hands of Nirvana] to pass energy into its body as he said, “Thank you, Fafnir, you’ve been a great help once again.” Fafnir ‘giggled’ under his touch and said, (“Vahn, that feels very nice, much better than normal! How strange, hehehehe~!”) As it spoke, Vahn noticed that his OP was increasing and this made him laugh because he had been somewhat distracted earlier and forgot about his [Petting] ability for a moment.

After Fafnir dove back into the shadows, Vahn grabbed Chloe’s and Arnya’s waists before using [Shundo] to escape from the tunnel. They would have easily been able to climb out on their own, but Vahn wanted to be ‘gentlemanly’ and save them the effort. The tunnel system had only been about 10m underground, enough that they could have jumped out, but they still allowed Vahn to do as he pleased and ‘obediently’ held onto his body. When they appeared on the surface an instant later, Vahn released their waists as Arnya said, “That technique is amazing…if possible, I’d like to learn it in the future. Or, if nyaat myself, you should at least teach it to our child. Yes, that sounds like a good idea~nya.”

Vahn nodded his head complacently as he scanned around the area for any signs of the enemy, even though they had likely escaped long ago. It was weird to be looking for ‘nothing’, but now that Vahn knew what he needed to be aware of it was much easier. He could from the surrounding devastation that nearly an entire City block had been collapsed from the enemies earlier attempt to entrap them, and this showed they were likely a mage that was around Level 5. Vahn would probably come out ahead in a normal fight, but they would be a troublesome enemy if they used guerrilla tactics like this.

Since reinforcements were already mobilizing, Vahn surveyed the area with Arnya and Chloe for a while making casual conversation. When people began to arrive, Chloe and Arnya had dawned their hoods and retreated from the area, as they both had somewhat sensitive identities. Their enemies probably already knew about them, as they lived at the Hearth Manor, but they still didn’t reveal themselves to the public, or even the Alliance at large. Knowing they wanted to protect their identities, Vahn started thinking about a few new equipment designs that might be suitable for such things while he explained the situation to the Alliance squadrons and the City Guards from the Eirene Familia.

Though he had planned to walk around the area and visit his friends, Vahn spent the rest of the afternoon walking around and ‘mapping’ the tunnel system instead. He drew out a map for the Alliance so they could investigate the network of tunnels at a later date and also alerted them to several empty buildings that were connected to the system. The network was far extensive than even Vahn had suspected and he realized that the enemy ‘earth mage’ was going to be a pain to deal with.

Unless they set up formations to prevent them from using magic, it was even possible that the mage could burrow underneath the Hearth Manor itself and collapse the entire building. Fortunately, the type of security formation they had installed prevented such thing and, unless they collapsed the entire ground supporting the foundation of the land the Manor was built on, it wouldn’t be a problem. However, realizing that the enemy had such an extensive network, Vahn knew it was possible for them to actually perform such a feat given enough time. The fact that they didn’t try allowed Vahn to infer a very important piece of information and allowed him to connect the dots on a few factors that might have otherwise been overlooked. For them to avoid tunneling under the Manor in such a manner showed that, one way or another, the enemy knew about his detection ability…

During the evening, after he had returned from assisting in the mapping of the tunnels, Vahn gathered everyone in the Hearth Manor to discussed the matter in detail. Even Loki and Hephaestus had shown up for the occasion and gave their input on the matter as they discussed countermeasures that could be implemented against the mage. The Manor was about to be under construction soon, since they were going to be expanding several things and building a few new structures, so they would also be digging a network of tunnels themselves that would serve as the core of a much more powerful formation that would link together all five of the main Alliance Manors in a massive defense network.

This would be an exorbitant cost, but there were plenty of ways they could make enough Valis to cover the costs in the future. Though they hadn’t sold any of the materials, Vahn’s mini-expedition had earned over a billion Valis in just the span of a week so, if he accompanied a larger expedition, they could likely increase their earnings greatly. It was already planned, since the Loki Expedition usually made deep Dungeon probes every 3 months, that they would be trying to increase the record floor clear towards the middle of January. This meant that in as early as three weeks, Vahn would be on an expedition that would last upwards of a month. During this period, as many powerful members of the Hearth Manor would be away, the Hestia Familia would be protected almost exclusively by the Hephaestus Familia and, after Loki suggested it, the Freya Familia.

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Vahn was ‘scheduled’ to meet Freya before the expedition began and they would be able to use the protection of the Hestia Familia as leverage since Vahn was going to be doing her a big ‘favor’. It was a bit awkward, but he had agreed to help Freya get pregnant with one of her other lovers so that he wouldn’t have to worry about her doing anything to him or the people around him for at least nine months. Though she wasn’t part of the Alliance proper, Freya was one of the three members of the Tripartite Cooperative, so she had actually been ‘taking care’ of several enemy forces that were approaching the Hestia Familia in the shadows.

As for other security measures, it was decided that everyone would always travel in groups of four, even though this was already the case from before. Because there were a few low leveled members in the Hestia Familia, they were almost always looked after by someone that was Level 4 or higher, with someone that was Level 5 accompanying them in the Dungeon itself. It might seem a little ‘overprotective’, but Vahn wasn’t the only potential target for their enemies. In order to get to him, or just to weaken the Alliance, any of the girls were a potential target, just like Milan and Tina had been in the past. They each understood this and hadn’t any intentions of going against the decision in the first place, so everyone agreed to follow the security protocols without complaint.

After the long discussion came to an end, Vahn retired for the evening with the accompaniment of Hephaestus, Loki, Arnya, and Chloe. They had all worked very hard on his behalf today, so Vahn wanted to thank them for their efforts and reward them while developing his [Petting] ability. Though Chloe and Arnya had already noticed it the previous night, Hephaestus and Loki also realized the ‘difference’ in Vahn’s touch and gave him a few heavy compliments that inflated his ego somewhat. By the end of the night, he had actually given each of the girls a half-hour massage before they ‘thanked’ him in their own way after the fact. It was the first time the girls had cooperated together and Vahn was reminded once again about how ‘dangerous’ Loki could be when she made Arnya’s back arch after playing with her for a few minutes…Vahn could get a similar reaction with a bit of effort, but he was surprised with how ‘deftly’ Loki was able to handle other girls…

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