During the day of ‘rest’ that had been assigned by Finn, the expedition prepared all of the supplies onto the convoy for the coming journey. Since things were already consolidated into one area, it hadn’t taken them much time at all so they spent the rest of the day talking about what they would do once they reached the surface. As for Vahn and the girls, with the exception of Mikoto who could be found training outside, they went unseen throughout the day, including during meals. Things had taken a strange turn at some point and Vahn had decided he wanted to pamper the girls more after Lili and Fenrir ‘goaded’ him into it. He spent the rest day polishing his [Hands of Nirvana] and [Petting] and, by the time the day of the departure came, all of the girls seemed more ‘vibrant’ than in the past.
As they were already very beautiful, cute, and adorable, it was something that everyone within the expedition noticed and it started another round of rumors. Though it wasn’t as ‘extreme’ as some speculated, Vahn didn’t make any efforts to refute their words and they knew better than to try and badger the girls. He did notice a big change in the fluctuations of some of the women, however, and it was somewhat unnerving to be stared at with what could be described as ‘feverish’ gazes. Vahn was a very handsome man with high status, a lot of authority, and an incredible amount of wealth. Combined with the fact he could make them ‘more beautiful’, Vahn became a very popular existence amongst the female troupe. Since it was very well-known he had a ‘harem’, some of the girls that were confident in their beauty thought they might have a chance.
However, Fenrir’s gaze deterred the majority of them while the more sensible ones recognized the fact that Vahn was already surrounded by a number of capable women, including actual goddesses. Unless they were willing to put themselves in a position to ‘compete’ against some of the best within the City, their ‘fortune’ likely wouldn’t hold out. Just the fact that Loki, their goddess, was amongst the women surrounding Vahn was a powerful deterrent. Since Loki was somewhat lecherous and licentious by nature, many of the girls had been ‘victimized’ by her in the past. She would be able to see through their plots relatively easily as well so, while they enjoyed looking and fantasizing, none of the girls had the boldness to approach Vahn.
Once everything had been prepared, the expedition reformed the convoy and, after Finn gave the orders to march forward, the journey to the surface officially began. It generally took around five days to reach the 50th Floor, but the return trip could take nearly an entire week as they were transporting carts that were heavy with materials and supplies. Thus far, the expedition had been going on for twenty days, so they were still a little bit ahead of schedule as things had originally been planned for up to a month. Vahn’s existence within the expedition had caused things to progress much smoother than in the past, but it also accelerated events by a great deal.
As the majority of the girls from the Hestia Familia were near the limits of their potential, they took the initiative to help transport the supplies instead of trying to engage in combat. Lili was an especially welcome addition since she could actually pull a cart that typically needed several people all on her own. Though others had offered to help, Lili wanted to try and increase the proficiency of her [Artel*Assist] while also showing off her strength so that people wouldn’t underestimate her. Combined with her [Atlas] Innate ability, Lili was dragging along a cart that weighed nearly 4,000kg on her own. She still needed help for elevated areas, especially on stairs, but was otherwise able to move forward without slowing down the pace of the convoy at all. For many people, this was a somewhat ‘scary’ sight, because Lili’s diminutive size made her look like a small child instead of a physical powerhouse…
During the return journey, Vahn had wanted to speed things up a bit so he had allowed invigorating energy to permeate through the convoy to keep everyone in high spirits. To increase his own reputation even further, Vahn would periodically perform feats like raining boulders onto the enemy, spreading waves of fire, or even hurling icy cannonballs at monsters. Unless he replicated Haruhime’s [Icicle Edge], Vahn wasn’t able to make normal spears of ice that could emulate the effects of her magic. To compensate, Vahn had instead decided to make compact cannonballs of ice that were infused with almost pure ice elemental energy. Using his physical strength to throw them, they would crash into enemies and disperse the collected energy into their bodies. As a result, unless they were fire-based or had resistance against ice, parts of their bodies would be instantaneously frozen. It wasn’t the most lethal ability, but Vahn was focused more on building proficiency than anything else.
For slightly more than two days, which was fast since the return often took three, the convoy continued tirelessly until they reached the safety of the 39th Floor. Vahn realized that reinvigorating people for long periods of time was a bit of a double-edged sword. Though their pace had increased greatly, the mental strain people had suffered during the trip was marginally greater than what they would have experienced dragging things out longer. Fortunately, nobody really complained about it since they were now closer to the surface even sooner than expected. To make amends, not that anyone was blaming him, Vahn purchased a veritable buffet of seafood for everyone and worked side-by-side with the chefs of the convoy to prepare the meals.
Since the cooking techniques he made use of were ‘foreign’ to the majority of the other cooks, Vahn taught them a bit and even spread around the specific recipes he was using. Though it might lead to a ‘food revolution’ in the future, Vahn didn’t think this was a bad thing at all as he was very fond of delicious foods. Though it was now beginning to fade from the forefront of his mind, Vahn could still recall the endless days of bland and tasteless food. Besides, everyone was happier when there was delicious food to eat and it made Vahn’s reputation within the expedition increase even further. Not only did he provide the materials himself, which had caused a few rumors to begin circulating, but he also helped in the preparation. The fact they could be served meals by the ‘Sage Aldrnari’ made many people feel like he was a very amiable and humble youth.
The only time anyone had any real ‘conflict’ with Vahn was when they said something to one of the girls that often surrounded him. At this point, most people had reigned themselves in even though they had just been teasing them a bit. It was very obvious that Vahn was ‘close’ with all of the girls present and people weren’t dumb enough to make an enemy out of the Captain of another Familia, especially when that person was also the Father of their goddess’ child. Though it might give them a sense of ‘conquest’ if they were able to succeed, it was very obvious that Vahn would probably not take the matter laying down. Seeing the methods he employed when dealing with monsters, even those that were confident in their strength found themselves far from his capabilities. Thinking he was able to accomplish this when he was Level 3, and taking into consideration his age, many people treated Vahn like a maturing dragon that slept with one eye open…
After resting for the evening, the convoy continued the climb in the hopes of reaching the surface within three days. Vahn still helped reinvigorate people, but he also spread calming energy through the crowd to help ease the tensions of their mind when they weren’t engaged in hard combat. The monsters were getting progressively easier the further they went up, so he had stopped assisting in battle and focused entirely on supporting those at the frontlines. Vahn’s support was his greatest ‘miracle’ of all and there was even an incident where someone had taken a spear directly to their diaphragm and would have almost certainly died if Vahn hadn’t stepped in to save him.
Though people had opened up to Vahn a great deal, there was a noticeable shift that had started to occur the longer they were exposed to his presence. Instead of giving Vahn grateful looks and sharing a few amiable words, people began to look at Vahn with solemn and serious expressions with somewhat respectful eyes. Every time he saved someone, that was someone’s friend, ally, companion, and potentially even lover. Though many veteran Adventurers knew what it meant to lose someone close to them, that didn’t mean they were accustomed to it at all. Vahn’s intervention made many of them very grateful for his presence and it had started to infect other people with a similar mentality.
With everyone’s morale reaching ever greater heights, the expedition reached the 18th Floor, Rivira, well before the end of the third day. The atmosphere, especially after passing through the ‘water hell’ of the 27th-25th floor, had reached a critical level and everyone was in high spirits as they ‘invaded’ Rivira and began bartering goods. As the Loki Familia had accepted several missions from those gathered within the small settlement, they set up a small station after setting up their encampment in the forest. Even if there was little chance of it happening, there were always a bold few that might try to steal from the carts in the dead of the night if they stayed within the settlement itself. It was better to have people come to them, receive their items, and then send them away than it was to keep everything in the heart of relatively ‘lawless’ territory.
As for Vahn, he had been on high alert ever since they reached the Middle Floors and had been inspecting the Dungeon as they progressed higher towards Rivira. He had noticed that the artificial dungeon reappeared near the 25th Floor and there were increasingly more signs of it the higher they climbed. This allowed him to confirm that the artificial dungeon wasn’t actually that deep, which meant their enemies had to be using pathways within the Dungeon itself to reach the Deeper Floors. Since they were ‘restricted’ in their movements in the Deeper Floors, it made sense why they weren’t able to easily take action against them. Now, however, the enemy could pop up at a variety of locations and could even intermingle with other people since they didn’t actually look like monsters.
While the Loki Familia had been setting up their camp, Vahn had started exploring the area where he had recorded entrances to the artificial dungeon and began setting up small ‘ping’ formations that would alert him as long as he was on the 18th Floor. There was a fair chance the enemies would be able to remove the formations, but event his would give Vahn more information about their capabilities. He had been using his highest stealth capabilities and had worn camouflage equipment during the process so there was little chance he had been detected through conventional means. If they were still able to find him, it meant they had ‘eyes’ within the Dungeon and were able to track the location of people through means he was unable to detect presently.
To potentially ‘lure’ them out, Vahn remained near one of the entrances for a few hours until he could feel the ‘angst’ coming from the girls through his bond with them. It was beginning to get late, so they were probably starting to worry about him somewhat. Since his enemies never showed, Vahn left behind a letter pinned to a tree in the event that they had been watching him and simply were unwilling to act. If it were still there in the future, as Vahn had hidden it away from the common line of sight, Vahn would be able to determine if they were truly able to spy on him. Though it wouldn’t eliminate the chance they could be watching, it would show they couldn’t watch everything.
Around two hours after Vahn had left the area, in the dead of the night, a figure appeared from the concealed entrance that connected to the artificial dungeon. It was a man with a thin figure that had a layer of lithe muscles adorning his body. He was wearing what could only be described as white tribal attire and even adorned his face with a white skull mask with curved horns. As if competing with his outfit, the man’s hair was also white and he carried himself with a flamboyant and arrogant attitude as he walked forward and ripped the letter from the tree. Opening it up, the man read the contents before crumpling it up into a ball and discarding it. He looked toward the area where the Loki Familia had set up camp with a cruel smile on his face before eventually shaking his head and returning through the same path he came from.
Though he had been asleep, Vahn had detected when the formation was triggered and it had immediately awoken him from his slumber. Along with his awakening, Fenrir also opened her eyes while Lefiya stirred about slightly. Within the contents of the letter, Vahn had stated, ‘I don’t know what your purpose is, but if you are my enemy I will not show you any leniency. If you have the courage, face me directly, as either friend or foe, and we’ll see where each of us stands. I will arrive at that area within ten minutes if you haven’t fled before then.’ As the distance was only a few kilometers away, Vahn could cover it in less than a minute even without the use of [Shundo]. However, after just three minutes passed, Vahn felt another ping pass through his mind that made him frown deeply.
This almost guaranteed that they were his enemy and showed that they had no intention of facing him directly at all. Vahn disliked schemers greatly and this caused him to feel greater animosity for them. At least he was able to confirm a few of his speculations, assuming they weren’t trying to deceive him, so Vahn wasn’t entirely dissatisfied with this development. He now knew they had a way to ‘see’ within even the safe areas, at least around Rivira, but it didn’t seem like they had detected him when he was in stealth. Even now, Vahn could sense that all of his formations were still active and this meant that they either didn’t care if he knew when they were entering and exiting their pathways, or they were simply unaware of it.
Since the person that read the letter obviously didn’t have any intention of confronting him directly, Vahn stroked the back of Fenrir’s hair to calm her down and slowly allowed himself to fall asleep. They would be returning to the surface in the morning and Vahn wanted to put the matter behind him for the time being since it wouldn’t benefit any of them to worry about ‘cowards’. Now that he had reached Level 4, Vahn’s confidence had greatly increased and the only people he could see himself losing against were the more powerful Level 5’s, like Ais, and a few Level 6’s. Other than that, the only opponent he somewhat dreaded fighting against was Ottar, because Vahn’s instincts told him he wouldn’t be able to withstand a single serious blow from the man known as the ‘King’…
Early the next morning, Vahn awoke with everyone else in the expedition as they prepared for the final leg of their journey. They could have easily returned to Orario the previous evening, but they still needed to exchange items with Rivira and it was already late by the time they had finished. Since climbing seventeen flights of stairs with carts wasn’t something anyone looked forward to, they didn’t mind waiting for one more night before returning to the surface. Once they reached the surface, they would have a two-week period where they weren’t required to enter the Dungeon at all. People were already making plans for how they planned to spend their vacation while talking about what they intended to buy. Expeditions were very profitable for everyone involved and most of the combatants would be walking away with small bonuses that typically exceeded one-million Valis. Even the Supporters would make several-hundred-thousand Valis while the remaining amount would go to the Loki Familia’s treasury to purchase the necessary supplies for the next expedition.
Even Vahn was planning to have the girls take a decently long break so they could familiarize themselves with their new capabilities and advance their training. Now that they would all be Level 3, or higher, they would have a lot more freedom to move about the City in the future. Though they would still need an escort, while also reporting their intended destinations, it was still good for them to be able to move about more freely in the future. Thus far, Haruhime hadn’t really explored the City much and had only ever gone out in large groups. Now, there were few Adventurers below Level 5 that would even be able to hurt her unless they took her by surprise.
Though she might cause a bit of a commotion, as she had become increasingly beautiful with the development of her Innate ability, it was a good chance to spread awareness of her existence to other people. The Guild would undoubtedly spread the information of their achievements, but having some public exposure would be beneficial for both the girls and the Familia. Vahn expected he would have to accompany them during the occasion, but his schedule had opened up a fair amount for the foreseeable future.
Until the orb awakened, Vahn would be holed up inside the Manor working on his research and the only times he planned to leave were during future expeditions and to accompany the girls when they went out. He wanted to complete the prototypes for the girls’ armor, research a few of the things he had taken an interest in, and also develop his own network since his ‘clubhouse’ should be finished by now. The most important thing on his schedule though, other than spending some time with the girls that had patiently awaited their return, was to leave the City and name the Green Dragon that had been safely stowed away in his Inventory…