Every day that passed made Vahn feel more antsy, something that had been noted by Finn as they were sitting in the Central Command Room discussing his coming departure. Finn was more than a little aware of Vahn’s concerns since one of the expecting was the goddess of his own Familia. He listened to Vahn’s plan of action, showing a serious and contemplative expression on his face as he said, “So, you’re going to head towards the surface with just you, Asfi, and Fenrir? While I can agree that Fenrir is more than strong enough to deal with most threats, it’s too dangerous to make such a trip with just three people. You may be very strong Vahn, but surely your stamina can’t hold out for such an extended period of time…”
In response to Finn’s words, Vahn maintained his calm and explained, “Actually, I’m more than capable of such a feat, Finn. And I’m not just saying this to alleviate your concerns…hmm, I can’t really explain the reason, just know that there won’t be any problems. I’m more concerned with how things will go while I’m away…I never intended to stay down here for a long period of time, but leaving behind the girls makes me nervous.” Finn frowned at Vahn’s words but Gareth, who had been sitting at the side, just laughed out loud, remarking, “Don’t you worry about those lasses, Vahn. They’re strong in their own right and the Loki Familia isn’t so soft that it needs the concern of a single boy…” Though he spoke in a serious tone, Vahn could see an almost amused look in Gareth’s eyes as he stroked his beard.
Vahn released a sigh, recalling the conversation he had with the girls just two days ago. Though not a direct confrontation, Tiona had brought up how odd he had been behaving lately, telling him to have more confidence in their strength. Before he had reached the same Level as them, gaining the [Magia Erebea] in the process, Vahn had shown a lot more confidence in them. Now, however, he was acting like they were ‘weak’ and, as an Amazoness, it made her a little uncomfortable. Tione shared the sentiment and, while Ais didn’t seem too bothered by it, she still sided with the girls and asked that he believe in their strength, just like they believed in his.
Raising his head, Vahn met the eyes of Gareth and Finn, showing a wry smile as he said, “When the time comes, I’ll leave them in your care. When do you plan to make the return trip?” Finn showed an amicable smile before pulling out a document from his desk, which had been provided by Vahn, stating, “Well, we’ll be heading up to cycle out some personnel in 41 days, but the Expedition itself will be continuing for six months before we escort the workers back to the surface. Several people have already agreed to a two-year contract, but we’ll need to get some fresh people on site to prevent any issues. Before you leave, please help shore up the defenses and do a second pass of the surrounding area. Your cartographic skills are exemplary, and it would be very helpful if we had updated maps before you return to the surface.”
Gareth gave Finn a curious expression before answering the question Vahn had actually asked, “When we cycle out personnel, we’ll be on the surface for about five days before making the second trip. Don’t worry, as the girls will probably return on their own once they help escort everyone down. If you’re not busy at the time, it would probably go much faster if you helped out. It’ll be up to you what you choose to do though.” Since it was obvious Vahn just wanted to know when the girls would return to the surface, Gareth clarified matters. It actually wasn’t a simple thing, manning a fortress within the 39th Floor, because there were only a few Elite members in each Familia. Though it would be taxing on the girls, they were ‘necessary’ for making sure everyone was protected, meaning they needed to accompany the Expeditionary party, especially when traveling between certain Floors.
Vahn grimaced slightly, scratching the back of his head as he thought about possible solutions to make travel in and out of the Dungeon easier. It would take some time, but it was possible to try and set up a teleportation ward that could be connected to the surface. However, that would invalidate the ‘challenge’ of having people venture into the deeper Floors on their own, as many would simply bypass it. There was also the chance that the Dungeon itself would react negatively to having a teleportation ward inside of itself and, though he had an affinity with Space magic, Vahn wasn’t actually that confident in circumventing the Dungeon’s ‘sealing’ effect. There was a chance people wouldn’t reach their destination properly, potentially even ending up in walls or lost within the void itself…
After thinking for a few minutes, Vahn nodded his head and firmly stated, “I’ll have to make sure everything is taken care of on the surface, but I’ll probably join the Expedition just to make things run smoothly. It’ll save everyone a lot of time and I’m more suited to transporting supplies than entrusting it to a convoy. You’ll still need to come up with a method of delving into the Dungeon that isn’t so reliant on the girls though, as it isn’t fair for them to have to spend several months just protecting people. The Alliance is full of powerful individuals and we should be doing joint-operations in the future…”
Finn nodded his head, already having considered the matter in great detail, explaining, “Indeed. It is as you say. However…before things have become stable, there is always the chance that competing Familias will send their own Expeditions down. We’re expecting there to be a few points of troublesome matters to deal with over the next year or so, especially since this entire operation is something new. Though they aren’t likely to do anything too drastic, it’s very likely to become a talking point in the future…well, it won’t really matter that much since the Loki Familia alone is more than most people can deal with. Once the Alliance and Guild start stationing their forces here, most people should take a step back to avoid the potential backlash.” Seeing Vahn’s annoyed look, Finn waved away the matter since it was something he would have to deal with as the Captain of the Loki Familia. Though Vahn was very helpful at times, it wasn’t an exaggeration to say he was a little brash, often times not understanding the complexities of some issues…
Vahn spent another half hour talking with Finn and Gareth, discussing things like supplies and the allocation of forces. Finn had already compiled a very detailed list of what they would need to last upwards of two years, which was all accounted for in Vahn’s ‘storage’ before the Expedition began. In truth, he was simply purchasing the items from the shop since his own Inventory was more than half filled with various items, primarily ingredients, medicine, and clothing. Finn had obviously tried to sneak in a few things, likely to test a ‘theory’ of sorts, but Vahn ‘corrected’ everything before putting it all away in the large storehouse, the most heavily protected area of the entire fortress. Finn’s expression hadn’t broken for a moment when Vahn pointed out the discrepancies but Vahn had noticed his aura flicker slightly as his thumb twitched.
After leaving the storehouse, Vahn made his rounds with Fenrir and Asfi, deciding to map the area now instead of putting it off for later. Hephaestus was due any day and there was a chance he would get the call at any moment, potentially even during his scouting of the 39th Floor. Thus, Vahn led the girls to make a large perimeter, mapping out every part of the plateau and inspecting the wards he had left on the outskirts. If monsters entered the territory, other than Xenos, the area would light up vibrantly, alerting those manning the outpost. It was an idea Lefiya had come up with when they were discussing the usefulness of wards compared to formations. Though it wasn’t effective to the point of being able to alert someone of the exact location of someone else, just having an early warning system was very useful.
Fenrir was riding on his shoulders along the way, playfully pawing his head while Asfi walked slightly behind them. She had been even more reserved after the ‘admission’ during breakfast a few days prior, often keeping to her own room except during meal times. Even when they were walking around like this, she seemed somewhat distracted and Vahn noticed her aura would become stagnant at times. Though he wanted to console her, as part of his nature seemed to be ‘wired’ towards consoling women, Vahn knew she needed to sort things out for herself. Asfi was obviously a very intelligent and ‘moderately’ courageous woman, so Vahn expected she would be fine after enough time had passed. If there were truly any problems that she couldn’t deal with, Vahn knew she wasn’t the prideful type that avoided asking for help so she would certainly…
Just as Vahn was having that thought, Asfi’s feet came to a stop, causing him to nearly release an exasperated sigh as Fenrir hopped off his shoulders. Asfi remained silent for a few seconds before saying, “I have a Magic Item that allows me to contact my allies…it doesn’t allow for sending messages, but it does send pings to let us know everything is okay…” Vahn turned to match Asfi’s eyes, seeing the cyan blue contained within wavering slightly as she said, “My companions were supposed to pass off my message in the Upper Floors…but the things I’ve been receiving show they have stopped…” Unfortunately, the magic item she made didn’t actually show if a person was dead or alive, just an approximate location that updated every few hours. Asfi noticed that their position hadn’t changed at all, even after several days had passed, so she began to fear the worst.
Vahn could see that Asfi was putting up a strong front and she didn’t seem like the type to try and actually entrap people. This was likely an event that had transpired as a result of his karma so it was better to take care of it as soon as possible unless it became a bigger issue later. The problem was, much like his refusal to follow the duo previously, Vahn didn’t want to leave the girls behind. Though he did respect their strength, Vahn couldn’t help but worry about them during times like this. However, he wouldn’t easily forgive himself for potentially abandoning people that didn’t actually seem to be ‘bad’, given the state of their auras. The Pallum girls had been a soft yellow, intermixed with a bit of blue, while the Chienthrope’s had been a mellow orange color with a touch of yellow on the edges. This showed, at the very least, they weren’t the type to bring harm to others…
After thinking it over for a short while, Vahn released a sigh and said, “I’ll help you track them down, but we need to inform the others first. I can’t simply disappear on them and I have a feeling I’ll probably be called to the surface soon…” Vahn looked towards the ceiling, staring at the vibrant crystals above that shone like the sun. He suddenly missed the surface a lot more since it felt like things were much simpler than being cooped up in the Dungeon like this.
Asfi bowed low in response to Vahn’s words, saying, “Thank you, Vahn…I am indebted to you.” Vahn just shook his head, gesturing for Asfi to follow as they made their way back up the plateau. He was starting to feel like ‘debts’ were horribly inconvenient since it made him feel like he was only helping people for his own benefits. Though it was certainly true, at least on a basic level, Vahn didn’t think of it that way so it bothered him hearing yet another person beholden to him. It would be so much easier if people just asked for help and just passed on their gratitude to less-fortunate people that would benefit much more than someone like him…
As expected, all of the girls wanted to accompany him so Vahn spent the better part of an hour explaining why that wasn’t a good idea. He couldn’t simply take away the strongest force of the Expedition and potentially take them into a trap, which his instincts told him this was. There was also a chance that their enemies would use his absence to stage an assault on the encampment itself, so Vahn asked them to protect everyone in his stead. If it got to the point where he needed their assistance, Vahn promised he would call them to his side with [Pactio]. He could also update them on the situation using telepathy so it was better he travel with just Fenrir and Asfi.
Before they allowed him to leave, Vahn had to share an embrace with each girl, generally lasting a few minutes. Even Mikoto, who was more reserved than most girls, gave him a very brief kiss and wished him luck, promising to be ready the moment he needed her assistance. Vahn gave the earnest swordswoman a smile, stroking her glossy black hair affectionately before finally making his way out. He gestured to Fenrir and Asfi, saying to the latter, “Lead the way…” before they all took off towards the east, heading to the same entrance that the two, who Asfi identified as Reid and Tallow, used. Since there weren’t many other foreign scents in the area, Fenrir easily locked onto the trail, taking the lead while Vahn and Asfi followed close behind her…
The 40th Floor was populated with similar monsters to those found within the White Palace, chiefly Loup Garou, Skull Sheep, Obsidian Soldiers, and Peluda. Typically, they would pose a threat to parties since Loup Garous were very fast while Peluda were capable of attack from a distance with powerful poisonous quills. Against Vahn and Fenrir, however, they were hardly able to react before Vahn either ripped them to shreds or Fenrir had completely frozen them over. Both had [Shundo] at S-Rank, so it wasn’t difficult to close the distance to monsters before they even realized they were under attack. Asfi’s cloak apparently made it almost impossible for monsters to detect her without looking directly at her, so she just followed behind as they cleared the way.
After twenty minutes, the trio ended up at a dead end, causing Vahn to give Asfi a curious look before she stepped forward and pressed several non-descript locations on the wall. Vahn immediately activated his [Eyes of Truth], seeing a corridor come into existence that connected to the one adjacent to them. He couldn’t help but rub his temples a bit, understanding that he had made a few oversights in the past. Looking towards Asfi, Vahn asked, “How did you know where the secret passages are located?” Asfi looked like she was about to answer but instead widened her eyes as large cracks appeared in the wall next to them. A large creature, reminiscent of a Minotaur, broke through the wall and released a loud roar. Unlike its lesser counterparts, this one was more than 5m tall, covering in metallic blue fur with onyx-black horns and rippling muscles.
Vahn turned to look at the intruding variant, which was currently calling reinforcements as its voice cracked the walls, ceiling, and floor of the Dungeon. He had already detected the approaching Monster Party so, unlike Asfi, Vahn remained calm as he asked, “Fenrir, can you lend me some of your magic for a bit?” Since it was more efficient to ‘borrow’ Fenrir’s magic before helping replenish her source energy, Vahn saved himself the effort. Fenrir nodded, putting her paws together before spreading them wide as she said, “Master, give me strength! Come to me, spirits, heed Fenrir’s call! Drown, Freeze, I don’t care! Go go go~!”
Instead of turning to direct her magic at the enemies, which likely would have killed them all, Fenrir compressed it toward her Master who extended his hand, shouting, “Stagnet. Complexio. Supplementum Pro Armationem!” Since Fenrir was freely ‘offering’ her magic, it was even easier to seize than Eva’s sword of darkness from the Phantasmagoria. In less than two seconds, the massive amount of magic power that Fenrir had summoned vanished, leaving Vahn standing with negative light shining from his body. Instead of lightning, his body radiated terrifyingly cold energy that caused wispy tendrils of ice elemental energy to coil around him. There were even crystalline ice spikes sticking out of parts of his body, jutting from his back and shoulders.
As the creature, which Asfi had identified as the terrifying variant known as a Baphomet, began its charge, Vahn stepped forward with [Shundo]. His hands moved around, tracing slow arcs through the air that the monsters couldn’t seem to react to. Even without touching them directly, the monsters surrounding Vahn’s body began to rapidly freeze, turning into icy statues as Vahn’s palms struck the Baphomet. The area his hand contacted turned stark white, dissolving away as an icy shockwave spread through its body and emerged from its back. Accompanying this shockwave was a massive ice pillar that flowered our, freezing everything behind the Baphomet and completely sealing off the corridor. Vahn pulled his hands away, marveling at the 5m tall statue of ice before turning to Asfi and asking, “So, how are you able to identify where the secret passages are?”