Chapter 626: Request

With the ‘monstrous’ size of their Expedition party, the progress into the Dungeon was relatively slow since they had to clear through every Floor. Many of the people that specialized in carpentry, construction, and other trades, had never cleared to the 18th Floor and they couldn’t simply be left behind. They were relying on the Loki Familia for protection and had accepted this commission with the guarantee that their protection would be the highest priority. This was also another one of Loki’s ‘plots’, as she wanted to increase the number of ‘normal’ citizens that had ventured deeper into the Dungeon. When they returned to the Surface, they would be able to spread information among their colleagues that could be very beneficial for the Alliance.

Not only would their ‘reputation’ increase, especially if they could avoid casualties and encountering any dangerous situations, but it would also make people less fearful of the Dungeon. Many people, even Adventurers, simply gave up progressing into the Dungeon after earning a stable income. Since the ‘goal’ of the Alliance was to one day conquer the Dungeon entirely, setting up settlements along the way, they needed to greatly increase the number of people venturing further in. At the very least, they could increase the confidence tradesmen had in the Familias of the Alliance, potentially allowing them to create ‘merchant caravans’ that ventured deeper into the Dungeon to obtain goods. They would be making several rare items available within the Dungeon, adamantly refusing to ‘transport’ them on behalf of other businesses unless stringent contracts were signed beforehand.

Though it took a bit longer than expected, the Expedition managed to reach the 18th Floor, Rivira, after around ten hours, setting up camp near a lake to the west of the settlement. This time around, the number of people that wanted to make arrangements with the Loki Familia had increased exponentially because the current ‘mission’ had been highly publicized throughout the City. There were so many people in Rivira right now that several encampments could be seen all throughout the forest, each belonging to Familias that either wanted to profit from the Loki Familia or simply touch base with some of the more famous Adventurers. As the ‘Leader’ of the Expedition, Vahn actually had to meet with some of their representatives while Finn, fortunately, dealt with all the extra commissions.

Vahn was currently sitting with Haruhime and Mikoto at his sides while someone he hadn’t expected to see had come to meet him. It was an intelligent looking woman with short aqua-blue hair, neatly arranged to frame her face with a strip of white in her bangs. She had cyan-blue eyes and was bespectacled, making her appear to be a calm and intelligent young woman. This was their first time meeting, but Vahn had recognized her unique look immediately, understanding this was none other than Asfi Al Andromeda, the ‘Perseus’ and Captain of the Hermes Familia.

At the same time Vahn was ‘evaluating’ her, Asfi was doing the same thing and she realized now why Hermes was always teasing her. Vahn was a very handsome boy and he radiated an air of mystery and ‘danger’ at the same time. He was much like a placid estuary that had powerful currents deep beneath the calm surface, threatening to swallow up anyone that carelessly treaded into his life. As a member of royalty, Asfi had been trained to discern the qualities of people from a young age so that she could select capable vassals. Though part of her whimsically thought about scouting Vahn, Asfi felt like she would quickly get wrapped up in his affairs instead. There was also the fact that he was the true ‘heart’ of the Alliance, causing Hermes to ask her to build an amicable relationship with him, if possible.

Not letting her emotions show on her face at all, Asfi maintained a calm and cool demeanor as she said, “Vahn Mason, Sage Aldrnari, Captain of the Hestia Familia, thank you for agreeing to meet with me on such short notice. I’m certain you’re curious as to why I’ve approached you like this, thus I will get straight to the point so as to allay any concerns you may have. Simply put, I come carrying a message for you and have also been tasked to request, not the Expedition, but you personally to attend a matter. Though I would like to convey the details, I must ask that you agree to keep the information we discuss a secret amongst your people…” Asfi had also evaluated Mikoto and Haruhime, feeling a strange pressure for the young Renard girl while Mikoto gave her a similar feeling to Vahn. Compared to a deep river, however, Mikoto was more like a sheathed blade that was waiting to be drawn at a moment’s notice…

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Vahn brought his fingers to his chin, contemplating what possible reasons behind Hermes’ decision to send Asfi here. Her presence meant the Hermes Familia, perhaps even Hermes himself, was likely present in Rivira. Unlike most gods, Hermes could freely enter the Dungeon because his Divinity allowed him to pass through without being restricted by barriers and such, going completely undetected by the Dungeon’s defenses. Even in the Manga, he always seemed to be nearby, constantly pushing Bell further along his path to becoming a hero. Vahn wondered if the ‘seemingly casual’ god had taken a similar interest in him, though it was more than likely related to a task assigned by the Guild.

Deciding to test the waters a bit, Vahn asked, “Is it related to the Xenos…? Ah, don’t worry, I can guarantee everyone here will keep the matter a closely guarded secret. I’m certain your god, Hermes, would attest to the fact that the people close to me can be trusted, especially in situations like this.” Though her expression hadn’t changed in the slightest, Vahn noticed Asfi’s aura flare up and was pleased to have guessed, at least one of the reasons, for her being here. There had been a bit of turmoil in the City over the last few weeks and the Xenos were often talked about, generally in a negative light.

Asfi felt like her valuation of Vahn hadn’t been high enough, as he seemed to be more intelligent than his ‘honest’ face showed. Recalling the fact that he was given the title of Sage and had also become the youngest [Master Smith] in history, Asfi decided she needed to treat Vahn in a more respectful and cautious manner. Without any great delay, Asfi nodded her head slightly and said, “It is indeed as you’ve guessed, Vahn…” Though she was going to address him by his full title and name, Asfi noticed the subtle change in Vahn’s expression and realized he wasn’t the type that liked to be talked up to. This was going to be a little more difficult than she expected…

Collecting herself in an instant, Asfi continued, “I have a parchment to pass to you, for your eyes only. As for the sender, even I am unaware as the parchment was given to me anonymously, including a sizeable payment and a simple explanation of the request. Please be cautious, as the parchment will likely burn as you read it…” Asfir passed over a very official looking scroll that was sealed with a red wax seal, showing a red, white, and black circle orbiting around what looked like a stone. Vahn couldn’t discern anything from the mark though, given the fact the parchment was given to her anonymously and they still accepted the mission, Vahn suspected the person to make the request was Fels, Ouranos’ subordinate.

Opening the scroll, Vahn felt a fluctuation of magical energy that seemed to be able to track where his eyes passed, meaning he only had one chance to read the message. Activating his [Eyes of Truth], Vahn quickly scanned the contents, confirming there was nothing strange attached to it before reading the message itself…

*Sage Aldrnari,

Be cautious of enemies within.

-F

Vahn was surprised by the very ‘curt’ message and felt that the expensive parchment used to carry it had been a gross waste of materials. However, he was able to obtain a great amount of information just by the ‘-F’ signature at the end, almost confirming it was indeed Fels. Since it was coming from him, that meant Ouranos had likely discerned something and was cautioning him to pay attention, either to the enemies within the Dungeon, or potential enemies within the Expedition itself. This was the main reason he had most of the girls stay behind at the Manor this time around, as Vahn had already anticipated something might happen. The fact that the orb awakened at such a time was almost like the manifestation of karma’s ‘will’, meaning he would likely face a trial in the near future.

The parchment burned into ashes, surprising Asfi a bit since Vahn didn’t release it, even when the flames touched his fingers. Almost as if he was exploiting the gap in her thoughts, Vahn immediately asked, “Well, what request did you want to make, Asfi? If possible, I’d like to know who is making the request or it will make the rewards negotiations more difficult. The Hestia Familia isn’t in the ‘business’ of working with anonymous clients, as we act very above-board because of our intent to remain a ‘righteous’ Familia.”

Asfi nearly answered immediately, managing to collect herself just as the words reached her lips. She could tell Vahn was the type to try and control the ‘momentum’ of a conversation, though he didn’t seem to be aware of it himself. This was likely the result of some ‘training’ he had received, with Loki being the first person that came to mind when she thought about it. So as not to cause any misunderstandings, Asfi blinked consciously before answering, “The request comes on behalf of the god of my Familia, Hermes-sama. If possible, we ask that you take one of our members down to the 39th Floor, personally guaranteeing their protection and allowing them to map the area. As for why the Hermes Familia didn’t officially join the Expedition…it is because many of her members operate in secrecy and we try to conceal as much information as possible about our numbers and Levels. The person you’ll be escorting won’t be fighting unless there is an emergency situation that you’re unable to deal with on your own…”

Vahn tilted his head slightly and thought about the request, wondering if there was actually any reason to accept it. The Hermes Familia was part of the Alliance so Vahn could simply give them a far more detailed map of the area if they requested it. This meant the person he would be escorting may have a secondary objective, perhaps sending a message or carrying an important object. Other than that, the only thing Vahn could think of was that Hermes was just trying to get someone close to him so they could ‘spy’ on him and the others. Squinting his eyes, Vahn asked, “Is the person I’m supposed to be escorting a cute girl…?”

Though it was a seemingly ‘harmless’ question, perhaps misleading some to simply think Vahn was a bit of a pervert, Asfi felt a bit shaken since she could tell he had guessed part of Hermes’ objective. She had actually been planning to introduce several of their members to Vahn, allowing him to pick from amongst their group since it didn’t matter who accompanied him. Seeing the subtle changes in his expression, Asfir could even tell Vahn was able to see through her slight perturbation and she suddenly felt like she had already walked a little too deep without realizing it. Stifling the desire to release a sigh, Asfi nodded politely and said, “Forgive me for being roundabout, but the member that was originally going to accompany you was me…I would not be so boastful as to call myself a cute girl, so please excuse me from having to comment on that.”

Hermes had advised her that, if Vahn was able to see through their plan from the beginning, Asfi should conceal the fact that their people were in the area and accompany Vahn herself. Though she had some inhibitions about it, feeling as though Hermes had set her up somehow, Asfi realized the other girls wouldn’t be able to deal with Vahn, nor would they be able to carry out their secondary objective. She could easily excuse herself from combat since, though she was recorded as a Level 4 with the Guild, she was far more famous as a craftsman and nobody would expect her to take to the frontlines.

Vahn was surprised by how ‘adaptive’ Asfi was, feeling very impressed by the stability of her character and the perceptiveness of her mind. Since he was sitting cross-legged, Vahn put his knee on his elbow and propped up his head, appearing to be thinking about it while maintaining eye contact with Asfi. He hadn’t realized it himself, but Loki had indeed been ‘grooming’ him to make better use of his perception and better control conversations. She was afraid he would end up being fooled by someone, specifically other gods, so Loki had been ‘priming’ him during their conversations. Because of this, Vahn was able to see through and infer many things by the very subtle changes in Asfi’s expression, body language, and aura. His [Eyes of Truth] had been active since earlier so he could even see her arteries pulsing and the flow of air in and out of her nose…

Asfi felt like she couldn’t keep any secrets in front of Vahn, almost like his stark blue eyes could pierce straight through her. She had a strong desire to cover her chest, causing her fingers to twitch a little as Vahn continued to stare directly at her. He wasn’t actually using his ability to see through objects right now, but Asfi didn’t even know he had that capability or she very well might have tried protecting her dignity. Fortunately, she didn’t have to withstand his intense gaze for much longer as the Renard to his right, who she knew as the ‘legendary’ Sanjouno Haruhime, began to laugh in a very elegant manner. Asfi felt like she was standing amongst her peers in the royal court when she saw Haruhime’s behavior, deciding she needed to investigate the girl further after returning to the surface.

Vahn turned to Haruhime when he heard her laughing, curious about what she found so interesting about the current situation. Haruhime’s pale golden eyes glimmered with a magical light as she said, “I think you should accept to escort her, Vahn…she seems like a very interesting girl and I think we can be ‘good’ friends in the future~.” Much like Asfi, Haruhime had realized that the latter was definitely either a noble, or some other high-born woman. It was very obvious she had been trained in court etiquette and the way she carried herself, with her straight back and slightly raised chin, showed that she was accustomed to authority, both given and earned. Though it wasn’t impossible she had ‘learned’ it from other sources, Asfi’s behavior was too ‘perfect’ and Haruhime believed she would be a powerful ally in the future…

Squinting his eyes, Vahn smiled slightly since he could tell Haruhime was being a bit ‘playful’ and was likely teasing Asfi a bit. Since the latter was probably around twenty years old, Vahn found it kind of funny to see a fourteen-year-old girl teasing a mature beauty with a ‘cool’ disposition. Without pressuring Asfi any longer, Vahn turned his now-green eyes to her and said, “Well, I never really had any intention of refusing since the Hermes Familia was one of the first to join the Alliance. We haven’t had the ability to collaborate much in the past so this is a good opportunity to better our understanding of each other, smoothening future cooperation between our Familias.”

Though he couldn’t be absolutely certain, Vahn felt like these events had been orchestrated by Hermes, someone Loki had cautioned him about several times in the past. It would be ‘problematic’ if Vahn couldn’t accept escorting the Captain of an Allied Familia, especially since it wasn’t a difficult task given the face the escort took place during the Expedition. He was positive Asfi had another reason for venturing into the Lower Floors as well, something Vahn was interested in as it likely related to the Xenos. It was a good opportunity to touch base with them, potentially paving the way for easier access to the Dungeon if they could make use of the hidden passages only Xenos could find.

Before Asfi had any chance to breathe, however, Vahn asked, “And, may I ask what the reward is? I don’t mind escorting a ‘beauty’, but I have a feeling you aren’t part of the payment. Or, perhaps you are…?” Asfi realized that Vahn was teasing her at this point and she felt like she had suddenly come across another Hermes-like person since she could tell he was both serious and playful at the same time. ‘She’ was indeed part of the reward, though not in the sense that Vahn’s words might imply if someone heard him without understanding the context. Asfi realized his perception was far higher than even Hermes realized, as Vahn had even been able to glean insight into the reward before the negotiations even began.

Struggling to maintain her calm disposition, Asfi closed her eyes and stated in a cool monotone, “The Hermes Familia isn’t in the best financial situation right now so I had agreed to assist in the production of a unique Magic item fitting the specifications you designate. As you are a [Master Smith], you likely have many rare materials that would be useful in making unique items that only someone with the [Mystery] Development Ability would be able to produce. In addition, we will also provide thirty of each, Burst Oil, Thunder Oil, and Healing Grenades, valued at 14,900,000 Valis.” As Vahn would be providing the materials for the Magic Item, they obviously couldn’t make that the only reward as they would become the laughing stock of the City if someone heard such ridiculous terms.

Because he had access to ‘any’ item through the system shop, Vahn would have been perfectly fine with just having Asfir create a Magic Item for him. He figured he could learn the [Mystery] Development Ability through observing her and, after checking the price of the three items she mentioned in the shop, Vahn saw he would save nearly 200,000 OP by accepting them. Without considering it in great detail, Vahn smiled and said, “Very well, I, Vahn Mason, will accept the request of the Hermes Familia to escort Asfi…Andromeda to the 39th Floor, protecting her safety until the Expeditions return…”

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As he spoke, there were two realizations that took place, though for very different reasons. Asfi heard the pause in Vahn’s words and, though some might misconstrue it to mean he had simply forgotten her name, Asfi knew he had ‘stopped’ himself from saying something else. She hadn’t told him her middle name but, though she wasn’t sure how he had figured it out, Vahn seemed to be aware of her origins. As for Vahn, he realized that he may not be able to actually keep his word to Asfi since he may have to return via [Heroes Reprieve], meaning she would be left behind when he teleported out…

Vahn furrowed his brows and decided to put his faith in Eva, as she would most certainly teach him Magia Erebea before he had to return to the surface. He also had the option of ‘carrying’ Asfi to the surface when the rallying whistle was blown, confident he could reach the exit in less than a day if he pushed himself. With the training he would undergo in the orb, Vahn didn’t think it would be difficult at all, especially if he managed to contact the Xenos through Asfi. Resolving himself, Vahn looked to Asfi and said, “As you know, I’m currently expecting my children to be born within the next two months, meaning I may have to leave for the surface at a moments notice. In the event I am called back, we will have to break through to the surface in a single push…I can guarantee your safety, but you may have to suffer a few grievances in the process…”

Asfi inhaled slightly more than normal, having many questions pass through her mind that she was certain she couldn’t ask outright. One of the reasons Hermes wanted someone to get close to Vahn was because he had many secrets and a variety of unknown capabilities. Asfi could infer, through his words, that Vahn had a means of communicating with the surface. He also seemed to have a method to make a three day trip within a single day, likely even just a few hours, which was both terrifying and exciting to think about. However, the ‘grievances’ he mentioned unnerved her a little bit, even though she nodded her head and said, “I understand…childbirth is very important and you should be at the sides of the mother’s instead of holed up inside the Dungeon. If it comes to that, I will tolerate ‘mild’ grievances without blaming you…”

The truth of the matter was, Asfi also had a few means to pass through the Dungeon very quickly and, if things got ‘bad’, she could help guide Vahn out instead of following normal routes. Their Familia worked with some of the ‘Xenos Refugees’ on occasion so Asfi knew a few key passages that would allow them to skip a few floors. She also had her [Talaria], a pair of winged sandals that allowed her to fly, so they could outright skip the Great Falls area on the return trip. Vahn seemed to be an ‘ally’ of the Xenos so it wouldn’t be a bad thing to allow him to interact with them in the future.

Vahn smiled, somewhat apologetically because he imagined using [Shundo] to run through the Dungeon, carrying Asfi in a princess carry for several hours. He thought she was an interesting woman but was currently in a phase where he wasn’t really trying to start any new relationships. Since she seemed like an intelligent woman, Vahn figured they could be friends since she was loyal to the Hermes Familia and would likely return to her own country in the future. He could use this as an opportunity to potentially meet the Xenos while also being able to witness the [Mystery] Development Ability in action, two very beneficial things. Thus, without beating around the bush any further, Vahn matched gazes with Asfi and said, “I look forward to our cooperation, Asfi. Hopefully, the Hestia and Hermes Familias can get along well in the future…”

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