Chapter 649: Machinations

Time passed in a flash and, before Vahn realized it, nearly six weeks had come and gone as he split his time between setting up wards, inspecting the constructions sites, and helping the girls train. Asfi had eventually made her move, a few days after his ‘all-out’ spar against Ais, using a strange magic item that allowed her to become invisible and hide her presence. Vahn had noticed her absence from the moment she vanished, sending out pulses of energy to test his technique’s tracking capabilities. He was pleased to note that it did indeed allow him to detect invisible enemies, something that had worried him in the past since he never had the opportunity to verify it.

Vahn followed Asfi’s trail, tracking her to an area where two people had been waiting for her arrival. He didn’t know who they were but Vahn knew they weren’t Xenos based on the structure of their mana. The larger of the two was a Chienthrope with dark brown hair and pale red eyes, garbed in the attire of a scout with various pouches and concealed weapons. His companion was a small Pallum woman with somewhat unkempt brown hair, highlighted with reds and yellows. She also looked like the typical scout type but was, surprisingly, much stronger than her male counterpart based on the flow of mana in her body and the size of her aura. Vahn guessed she was around Level 4 while the man was likely around Intermediate Level 3.

Asfi handed over a few scrolls, likely containing the information she had obtained over the last six weeks, though Vahn wasn’t entirely sure why it was necessary to exchange the information now. It would have made more sense for them to turn it over when they reached the surface, so Vahn suspected there was more to the situation than was apparent. Since none of them had ‘dark’ auras, Vahn decided not to pry too much but still tracked the two after they accepted the scrolls from Asfi. He wanted to know how they were able to reach the 39th Floor so easily, as their Levels wouldn’t have allowed them to pass through the White Palace on their own.

The duo eventually reached one of the entrances to the 40th Floor, surprising Vahn a bit since he had expected them to go ‘up’ instead of deeper into the Dungeon. Vahn had been tempted to follow them but decided against it since his priority was to protect the girls, not follow people randomly through the Dungeon. He didn’t fear being trapped, and was very curious how they were able to move through the Dungeon, but Vahn wouldn’t compromise the safety of the others just to sate his curiosity. Though there wasn’t much that could endanger them, Vahn’s instincts had been telling him something was going to happen soon. He didn’t want to be away from the people he wanted to protect, especially while they were deep in the Dungeon where conceivably ‘anything’ could happen.

After making his way back to the encampment, Vahn noted that Asfi had returned to her own room before returning to his. Fenrir and Haruhime had been waiting for his return so Vahn allayed the two’s concerns, promising to explain the details in the morning. Though there was still work ongoing outside the large fortress that had come into existence, it was currently around 1:40 AM so Vahn didn’t want to cause a disturbance. There was also the fact that he didn’t really know what Asfi had put in the scrolls so there wasn’t much to talk about at present…

Early the next morning, Vahn had breakfast with the girls and detailed his nightly excursion for them, explaining, “It’s probably not a big deal, but keep your wits about you for the next few days. I’ll probably get called to the surface any day now and it will potentially be dangerous on the return trip. Though I can probably clear through the Floors pretty quickly now, it would still take me a few hours to reach you during an emergency.” One of Vahn’s biggest concerns was having to return to the surface, leaving behind Ais, Tiona, Tione, Lefiya, Haruhime, and Mikoto. Though he could leave his [Hero’s Reprieve]s with Lefiya and Haruhime, Vahn didn’t like the idea of leaving them behind since they were high-priority targets for attack.

Tiona was munching on a piece of toast, staring directly at Vahn with her glistening brown eyes as if she hadn’t really comprehended why he was so concerned. Even before they got involved with Vahn, there hadn’t been too many threats to them. Now that they were even stronger, Tiona felt a little bothered by the fact that Vahn acted like they were delicate flowers. Though she enjoyed being pampered, Tiona felt like they would need to change his perspective and confront him about it in the future. Of course, now wasn’t really the time for that and she couldn’t really blame him for being worried since there was a lot going on right now.

Unaware of what was going through Tiona’s mind, Vahn continued to talk about various precautions until Asfi finally appeared out of her own room. She usually ate breakfast with everyone but had slept in a little since she had gone to sleep very late the previous night. When everyone turned to look at her, Asfi paused for a few seconds before releasing a sigh and sitting next to Haruhime. She already suspected that Vahn would have been aware of her absence and started to wonder how much he had been able to glean from her actions. Though it wasn’t too likely, Asfi even considered that Vahn might be aware of everything so she decided to clear things up by explaining, “My mission overlapped with some of the other ongoing jobs taken by the Hermes Familia. I handed over a brief report of my observations, including an updated map of ‘Lil Geirr’ and the surrounding area…”

Asfi’s words brought a temporary silence to the group as Vahn raised his brow, giving Asfi a curious look before asking, “So, those two were your companions from the same Familia? How are they able to reach the 39th Floor on their own…and what business did they have deeper in the Dungeon?” Hearing his questions, Asfi released a restrained sigh, fighting the urge to rub her temples since it was very apparent Vahn was indeed aware of everything that happened. She even suspected he knew how they had gotten down to the 39th Floor and was just ‘testing’ to see if she would be forthright on the matter.

Shaking her head slightly, Asfi said, “I apologize, Vahn, but I can’t reveal such secrets as they relate to the very survival of my companions. Just know there are various secrets regarding the Dungeon that most people aren’t privy to, many of which have been discovered and documented by the Hermes Familia. We operate with the consent of the Guild and have been granted special autonomy in exchange for keeping certain matters confidential.” This was already revealing more than necessary so Asfi believed Vahn would be understanding on the matter. Tione, however, didn’t seem to fond of her words as she asked, “What the hell are you going on about? You’re spying on us openly and now want to make excuses for your actions? Huh!?”

Tione had broken the cup she was holding, causing tea to spill onto the table as she glared directly at Asfi, who maintained a cool and calm demeanor the entire time. Vahn, seeing conflict about to break out, gestured towards Tione, saying, “It’s fine, Tione. I accepted the mission knowing the purpose behind it so don’t be too harsh on Asfi. Besides, the information she has obtained really doesn’t impact us too much, especially since most of it will become useless after a few months pass.” Vahn sent a playful look to Asfi, noticing her aura ‘trembled’ slightly in response to his words. Tione continued to glare at her for a few seconds but eventually sat down properly, but not before commenting, “Che, if you think you’ll be able to hide behind Vahn and do whatever you want, don’t be surprised if I end up relocating a few of your bones…”

Asfi raised her brow slightly, unsure of what to say in response so she just remained quiet, especially after noticing Fenrir’s penetrating gaze. She actually wasn’t that afraid of Tione, and the other girls didn’t really pose much of a threat since they weren’t that hot-headed. The only exceptions, people that Asfi was truly afraid of, were Fenrir and that True Dragon of Vahn’s, Terra. Asfi felt that, if she actually tried to take any action to endanger Vahn, they would step in and strike her down mercilessly. On the other side of that matter, the other girls were even more difficult to endanger since Vahn himself would step in, raining down a furious vengeance that Asfi wasn’t sure any force in the world could weather.

Breakfast continued with an awkward atmosphere until it was time for Vahn to make his rounds and inspect the construction efforts. He had Fenrir and Asfi accompany him while the rest of the girls went about their own business, which usually meant they were studying to learn magic. Lefiya already had some marginal success with basic spells, so she was the ‘tutor’ for the rest of the group when Vahn and Fenrir weren’t around to explain things. The first time she had been able to cast a basic ‘light’ spell, Lefiya’s face had beamed like a blooming flower that made Vahn want to smile just thinking about it. She really was very talented, especially considering that she was already deeply rooted in the magic system of Danmachi. Vahn suspected that Lefiya would become one of the more capable Mages in their party in the future, potentially reaching the S-Rank alongside Terra.

As it had already been six weeks, the fortress itself had almost been completed in its entirety with most of the remaining work being geared towards reinforcing the existing structure. Vahn had already set up a large grouping of control wards the enhance the formation they had been set out. Though wards were typically more versatile than formations, the latter had the effect of allowing those that held the ‘command’ keys to sense intruders and determine the positions of everyone inside the formation. This made it very useful for basic security purposes while Vahn used the wards to serve both offensive and defensive purposes. As long as someone was registered to the ward, they could trigger the spells contained within and it was even possible to activate a powerful barrier that could last for up to three days in emergencies.

Vahn met Quinn on his rounds, noticing the stout woman had a large grin on her face as her workers carved an ornate stone mural on one of the interior walls. Since the ‘Lil Geirr’ was going to be managed by the Loki Familia, Vahn had incorporated some of the aesthetics of the Twilight Manor to make it feel more homely for those that would be stationed here. There was even a statue of Loki herself in the main hall, standing in a somewhat domineering manner with several faceless Adventurers grouped around her. Though it was clearly designed after people like Finn, Gareth, Riveria, Bete, Ais, Tiona, Tione, and Lefiya, the faces had been left blank to emphasize the fact that many Adventurers followed Loki’s leadership. She didn’t discriminate against the races and actually made an effort to try and recruit ‘at least’ one of every race that she took an interest in…

During their rounds, Vahn greeted all the works, each returning a friendly greeting and a few kind words to Fenrir and Asfi in passing. Vahn usually walked around 2-3 times a day and had been on friendly terms with most of the members of the Expedition, many of which actually felt like this job was more of a ‘vacation’ than the trying experience they had expected. There was always good food to eat, accompanied by delicious alcohol, and their work schedules were pretty lax. When they were bored, they even had the option of gambling or visiting the ‘relief’ quarters that had been set up on the western side of the encampment. Overall, it was one of the easiest jobs many of them had ever been assigned to, even though it was somewhat gloomy to be in the Dungeon for so long.

The main reason why the 39th Floor was only meant to be a Supply Depot was due to the fact that the area was full of brackish white stone, with very little vegetation compared to the 18th and 50th Floors. There were still trees and other forms of vegetation, but it was somewhat gloomy and gave off a ‘haunted’ vibe. Most of the workers didn’t venture far from the encampment at all, leaving only the members of the Loki Familia, and a few other Adventurers, to probe into the surrounding Floors. After all, this was also a good opportunity to get some training in since the number of monsters on the 38th, 41st, and 42nd Floors were quite profitable to hunt. For those looking for a challenge, they could even backtrack through the 38th Floor and clear out some of the Coliseums, something that Ais, Tiona, and Tione were quite fond of…

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Towards the end of his rounds, Vahn stood atop one of the towers that had been erected on the third outer perimeter. In total, the territory of Lil Geirr was around 3km in diameter since it was never intended to be home to a large number of people. One of the important tasks had been the creation of a ‘border’ wall that had a total of twelve guard towers, each mounted with powerful ballistas that could even penetrate the hide of a dragon. The wall itself was constructed to be a perfect circle, possessing three defensive layers with a corridor running through its length. This was intended so that the defensive soldiers manning the perimeter would be able to move about without being noticed by external observation. There were numerous wards that, when active, caused the external walls to become transparent, allowing those inside to see outward while their observers were none the wiser.

Vahn greeted the three-man ballista crew before looking out into the eerily quiet terrain of the 39th Floor, a silence only broken by the sound of hammers and construction behind him. Fenrir and Asfi stood at his flanks, observing the area beneath the slope of the plateau as if trying to understand what Vahn was looking for. Since even he didn’t know, they just continued to observe in silence until Vahn decided it was time to head back. He gave the crew a few encouraging words before jumping down for the 20m tall tower, landing safely on the ground below as Fenrir and Asfi jumped after him. The fact that nothing had happened was beginning to bother him greatly since he was admittedly very ‘content’ right now, especially after learning [Magia Erebea].

From experience, Vahn knew this was the exact moment when karma would put him through a trial, this time with Vahn wanting it to happen before the birth of his children. If his enemies, whoever they may be at this time, decided to use the moment of the delivery to cause problems, Vahn swore to make them pay dearly. He tried to be understanding, even when it came to his enemies, but Vahn wouldn’t forgive people that tried to exploit such an important and emotional event to their advantage. There were just some things that he couldn’t stand for, the matter of his children being at the very top of the list. If they had the audacity to try something during the deliveries, Vahn wouldn’t show any leniency this time around…

Though he might not have realized it himself, Vahn was radiating a very oppressive aura right now, causing Fenrir’s hackles to stand on end while Asfi began turning somewhat pale. She didn’t really know what was going through Vahn’s mind, but Asfi knew it wouldn’t end well for the person that had earned his ire. Fortunately, it didn’t seem like his ‘anger’ was aimed towards her, at least for the time being. She hoped that Hermes didn’t do anything stupid while she was away and prayed for the safety of her comrades that were performing their own tasks. As for Fenrir, she just flexed her paws, causing her claws to extend and retract several times as she readied herself for any coming conflicts.

After parting with Asfi, the Chienthrope male, by the name of Reid, and the Pallum female, named Tallow, continued into the 40th Floor until they reached what appeared to be a dead end. After knocking around one a few points, the walls of the Dungeon started to crack with a rainbow-colored light that slowly faded away to reveal a passage that hadn’t existed there previously. The main reason Vahn wasn’t able to find such passages when he was exploring was due to the fact that they simply didn’t exist under normal circumstances. Many of the corridors he thought were just parts of the Dungeon he hadn’t found an access point to were actually the ‘safety’ corridors used by the Xenos. After corresponding with them for so long, the Hermes Familia had been given access to some of the Xenos’ passageways so they could easily move through the Dungeon.

Reid was palming one of the scrolls Asfi had passed over to them, tossing it up and down as he lazily remarked, “Do you think Asfi’s report is legit? It sounds like that Mason kid is a real monster…” Tallow scoffed, sending Reid a glare as she remarked, “The Captain wouldn’t lie about such things so it must be true. You would do well to hold your tongue, Reid, unless you’re curious about the taste of my daggers…” Tallow had never really gotten along well with Reid, as he was both arrogant while also having a lazy personality. He had gotten them into trouble several times and, if not for the fact he had an ability to smell monsters several kilometers away, she wouldn’t bother partnering with him.

Hearing Tallow’s remark, Reid grimaced slightly but remained quiet since he really didn’t want to antagonize the crazy Pallum woman. The last time he pissed her off, she actually laced his drink with a scentless paralytic before dumping him naked in an area of the Entertainment district where men were known to seek the company of other men. Fortunately, he had been picked up by one of their companions and had avoided the ‘tragic’ fate of having his chrysanthemum plucked. Ever since then, he tried to avoid earning the ire of Tallow since, though he talked a big game, it was a fact that she was more than a little faster than he was. Since her small frame made her hard to target, it was simply too troublesome to even try fighting her to establish his superiority using the difference in their Power…

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The two continued onward in silence, Tallow’s eyes glowing with a magical light as she looked around the area. Though Reid had a hypersensitive nose, Tallow had enhanced eyesight that became even stronger when there was less light. She could see the hairs on a fly from 300m away and her kinetic vision was more developed than most, even those much faster than she was. It was for this reason that she often paired up with Reid, as their combined senses made them excellent scouts that had a track record of more than seventy successful missions over the last three years. She could even sense when Asfi was approaching, though only because the latter’s movements made small marks on the grass and slightly disturbed the air flow.

After traveling for nearly an hour, they knocked on another wall to reveal a second secret passage, this one actually connecting to a corridor leading to the stairs of the 38th Floor. They had to follow a steep incline to reach it, but it was much better than having to traverse a monster-infested Floor where they could potentially be ambushed by hordes of enemies. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like fate favored them this time around since Reid suddenly reached forward, picking up Tallow as he dove to the side. She felt a powerful impact pass through his body and into her’s as they both crashed into a wall.

Before Tallow could make sense of what happened, she felt a hot and sticky fluid soaking her back as the dull voice of a female said, “Interesting…I didn’t think he would try to protect you at the last minute. I guess you weren’t really at odds with each other…well, not that it matters.” Tallow turned around, pulling Reid’s body as she tried to open up a distance, moving away from the source of the voice. She could see a large amount of blood staining Reid’s back so Tallow pulled out an Elixir and emptied the contents against his body as she took a look at their attacker. Tallow’s eyes widened and she felt like her knees had turned to jelly when she locked eyes with the red-haired woman. She had eyes like a snake, vibrant green with vertical slits that looked at her like a predator eyeing its prey.

Revis looked at the Pallum girl that was doing her best to try and flee, only to fall over when they actually made eye contact with each other. A slight look of contempt appeared on Revis’ face before she averted her eyes away, looking at the scroll that had been dropped by the Chienthrope man. She bent down, taking the scroll into her possession before looking towards the duo, more specifically the Pallum. Revis put the scroll into a pouch at her waist before leaping forward, causing the Dungeon Floor to fracture with the strength she put into her feet. After overtaking the Pallum girl, who tried to stab forward with a pair of daggers, Revis chopped at the girls’ wrist, breaking one while she used her other hand to catch the second.

Tallow began to panic, kicking forward with all her might as blades appeared from the tips of her boots. Revis side-stepped the attack before reaching forward, grabbing Tallow’s neck with enough force to completely seal off the flow of oxygen. With a cold and detached voice, Revis asked, “I will give you a chance at life. You will tell me everything you know about Vahn Mason and turn over all of your magical items and weapons to me. Since you know of these passages, I assume you’ll be able to reach the surface even without equipment…” At the end of her words, Revis dropped Tallow, allowing the Pallum girl to fall to the ground, coughing violently with a hand-shaped bruise on her neck.

Fearing for her life, Tallow lowered her head powerlessly and began detailing everything they had learned about Vahn from Asfi’s report and the rumors on the surface. Truthfully, Tallow hated being in this kind of position since she wasn’t the disloyal type that would betray an ally, even if she had never worked alongside Hestia Familia. However, seeing the unconscious body of Reid, who was fortunately still breathing, Tallow swallowed her pride and regurgitated everything she knew. Even if the odds of their survival were slim, she needed to do her best to protect her companion and try to buy them a chance at life. By the time she was done, Revis had a thoughtful look on her face, stroking her chin for a few moments before smiling as she said, “Very well. I can tell you’re being honest so I will keep my word…now strip, everything.”

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