Vahn awoke the next day, body almost entirely submerged in the warm essence of the wellspring with a naked Terra clinging to his body. Her long green hair, slightly damp as a result of the previous night’s exertions, curled around at the ends, sticking to her skin as the runes shimmered lightly on her body. When she detected his awakening, Terra also opened her sky-blue eyes and gave a beautiful smile before pulling herself further up Vahn’s chest and kissing his lips. Her wings, which had previously been floating in the essence, pulled up as if she were trying to embrace his body as she entrusted her weight to him for a few minutes longer…
The sun had yet to rise but most of the people within the Manor were already up and ready to go about their day, full of smiles and excitement as they worked towards mastering their [Pactio]s and learning new skills. Knowing how much effort they put into growing stronger always made Vahn feel a sense of pride and, after the things he had experienced the previous day, Vahn felt gratified seeing their smiles. If possible, he would bear any form of burden in their stead, all to ensure their smiles never faded away with the passage of time. As impossible as it may seem, Vahn wished it to be so and, having some idea about how The Path worked, Vahn believed he could increase the number of smiles shown by people all throughout the world.
After watching the training for the better part of an hour, Vahn enjoyed a hearty breakfast with some of the other earlier risers within the Manor before stopping by the maternity ward to check up on Anise and Meinya. Seeing Arnya sleeping on the sofa, letting the tiny Meinya sleep on her stomach, brought a soft smile to Vahn’s face. Since Arnya hadn’t been at the morning training, he figured she had stopped by to feed her daughter and ended up falling asleep in the process. Vahn helped fix her clothing but Arnya didn’t stir awake until he picked Meinya from her body. Seeing that it was Vahn, she gave a smile of her own before falling asleep with a quiet ‘nyuhuhu’ when he stroked her head.
Vahn gave his daughters a quick kiss on their foreheads, made sure they were properly beneath their blankets, and then exited the room as quietly as he was able. Ina, Vana, and Erika had all moved to different rooms at this point, with Erika moving next door to Eina’s sister, Risna, while Ina and Vana shared a room next to where Hephaestus had been staying. Even though they were only around a year in age, physically, their mental development was closer to a child around 3-4 years old so it wasn’t too surprising that they had been moved from the maternity ward. Mona had been sad to see them go and was continuing to stay in the Manor until the end of her contract, acting as a Nanny for the girls and helping out with some of the chores around the house.
Haruhime, Mikoto, and Fenrir were all waiting for him by the time he exited into the courtyard, all garbed in their equipment and ready to venture into the Dungeon. Fenrir came to his side the moment he arrived, giving him a sudden tight hug as she nuzzled against his chest for a short while. Vahn stroked her hair, understanding she had been very worried about him the previous day since his mood had been in the dumps. Even Lefiya had come by to check up on him during the evening, fortunately before his ’bout’ with Terra had begun since things had gotten a little intense. It was actually the first time he had been alone with Terra in such a way and it seemed to have triggered something in Terra that made her decidedly more ‘proactive’ than normal…
Mikoto gave a polite bow while Haruhime smiled, saying, “We’re all ready to go, Master.” in a soft tone of voice. Vahn turned her smile before patting Mikoto’s shoulder in passing as he said, “Let’s go. The Dungeon, our allies, and our future companion awaits…” Haruhime giggled, happily falling into step at Vahn’s side as she linked her arm with his. It was somewhat rare to walk to the Dungeon like this so she intended to take advantage of the moment and have Vahn escort her. As for Fenrir and Mikoto, the latter stayed a few paces behind, allowing her eyes to dart around at passersby while Fenrir lazily floated through the air as she practiced her own levitation ability. She drew a lot of attention but, seeing that Vahn was present, there were few people that would directly approach since it was well-known that, while he was a very amiable young man, Vahn didn’t take kindly to being stopped on the street and asked questions, especially in regards to the girls around him.
Of course, there were a few exceptions so, when a group of children ran up to Vahn he slowed down a bit and returned a smile to the seven-child group as he asked, “Ah, Thoma, how have you all been?” This was one of the many groups of orphans he had helped out in the past, now wearing finer clothes than in the past, even though there were still a few patches here and there. Thoma, a green haired boy with hazel eyes, smiled vibrantly with a missing tooth as he said, “We have been helping around at some of the stalls in the marketplace in exchange for food. You were right, Vahn, people really do treat us better if we work hard!” Vahn laughed, ruffling the boy’s head as he passed over a small bound package to the small purple haired girl standing close to Thoma. She was named, if memory served, Pelt, a young Pallum girl that ended up getting taken into Thoma’s group when they saved her from some bullies.
After giving them the bundle of smoked meats, which he knew they had been after from the start, Vahn waved goodbye and watched them disappear into the various alleyways, laughing with wide smiles on their faces as they looked for a safe place to share the food. Vahn always made sure the care packages he shared with the various street orphans was full of highly nutritious items, this time giving them some thin strands of dragon meat that had been preserved with sea salt that was harvested from the depths of the Poseidon Sea. There was a small amount of mana contained in each piece of meat, which would help fight off sickness and give them slightly increased stamina, something that would benefit them greatly in their daily lives.
It didn’t take long for the group of four to breach through the first eighteen floors of the Dungeon, making a short stopover in Rivira to see if there were any simple quests posted. Vahn picked up a few slips for gathering quests before they made their way deeper into the Dungeon, drawing a fair amount of attention to themselves along the way. After all, Fenrir, Haruhime, and Mikoto, all had a unique beauty and appeal to them, making anyone who sees them have a desire to interact with them. Of course, there were few people that would try these days, especially after the reputation of the girls themselves had increased.
Haruhime was considered something of a rising star within the City and Fenrir, identified as one of the Xenos, was entirely off-limits unless you had a death wish. Rumors of her capabilities during the previous Expedition had long since circulated through the City and there were few people that wanted to offend someone that could purportedly freeze a thousand monsters with a wave of her paw. As for Mikoto, she rarely spoke to anyone that tried to talk to her and was considered something of a cold beauty who only had an interest in the sword. She obtained a few fans, especially some swordsman that respected her dedication, but Mikoto didn’t pay any mind to them at all since she was already ‘taken’.
As they probed deeper into the Dungeon, Mikoto had taken up her spot as the vanguard and was cutting down any enemy that tried to approach them. Her [Pactio] was a great enhancement to her swordplay, especially with how every strike left behind an illusory shadow that repeated her actions. Even if you evaded the first blow, it was almost impossible to exploit any of Mikoto’s openings unless you could deal with her shadow as well. Since her strikes were faster than the eye could follow, even appearing as a blur to Vahn, it was very difficult to deal with her strikes directly.
When a Mad Beetle, known for their durable carapace, charged at Mikoto, she cut through its body with such speed that it almost looked like she used [Shundo]. In one moment, she had been in front of the monster yet, seemingly without the passage of time, Mikoto was on the other side of it with her sword sheathed once again. The Mad Beetle, seemingly unaware it had already been killed, tried to turn its body and attack her again, surprised when the upper half of its body slid smoothly off the lower half as it turned to purple dust moments later.
When he saw this, Vahn smiled widely and praised Mikoto, making her slightly flustered as he stroked her silky black hair and said, “You have gotten a lot stronger, Mikoto. At your current level of skill, I think you could even fight against some Level 6 opponents.” Mikoto gave a curt nod, pulling away from his hand with a light blush on her face before she smacked both of her cheeks to get back in the groove for the next fight. Vahn gave a wry smile when he saw her actions, earning him a peal of elegant laughter from Haruhime before she poked her tongue out at him and pouted, “I guess I have to work harder so Master will praise me~.” As she was currently in her Empress-like attire, Haruhime waved one of her long sleeves, causing two of the crescent-moon crests to light up momentarily as a volley of ice spikes shots forth and pierced a group of enemies.
Haruhime, though still possessing [Icicle Edge], no longer relied on as her preferred method of attack and had instead adopted a nameless spell with a similar effect. She had a very high affinity with magic and, even before he saved her, had an understanding of three different languages. With her dedication to studying, Haruhime had been picking up magic at a much faster pace than many of the other girls, only falling behind Lefiya while being slightly ahead of Lili. The latter, though not possessing any magic of her own previously, had been learning physical enhancement abilities very quickly. Lili could already make use of the named spell, [Cantus Bellax], generating a light aura around her body that enhanced her strength by around 3x. Considering that she had an Innate that gave her monstrous strength, even a small enhancement had very drastic effects on Lili’s power output.
As she continued to strike down enemies, the crescents on Haruhime’s clothes were constantly refilling with magical energy. The unnamed spell she was using didn’t even have a chant, as Haruhime was using her [Icicle Edge] as a sort of ‘template’ in their casting. This allowed Haruhime to amass the spells in her artifact and, as it had natural amplification abilities, cast relatively powerful ice magic without expending much of her mana. With her tails further enhancing her capabilities, every cast generated a total of three ice spikes per crescent, allowing Haruhime to cast up to twenty-seven in a single instant, as long as she had time to prepare the spells beforehand. The most useful properly of her artifact, however, was the defensive capabilities it afforded her…
Trying to flank them from the side, a group of Gun Libellula, a type of dragonfly monster, launched a series of projectiles from their abdomen towards Haruhime. Having enhanced senses, Haruhime had easily detected their presence from the incessant buzzing coming from their wings. However, she didn’t show them any attention, not so much as flinching when the veritable cloud of spikes slammed into her barrier before repelling away in the next moment. Haruhime continued to deal with the enemies on the ground before turning towards the cloud of buzzing insects and sending out a blue wave of pure ice elemental energy, slowing their movements enough that she could accurately hit them with her ice spikes.
Though her initial affinity had little to do with ice, Haruhime had gained an ice affinity after using the [Icicle Edge] grimoire in the past. Vahn hadn’t realized it at the time, as his ability to sense people’s affinities hadn’t fully developed, but it was now very apparent since he had documented the changes in the other girls after tasking Loki with finding more grimoires. Now, most of the girls had dual, or even triple, affinities as they slowly acquired more grimoires. Vahn had been paying for them out of pocket, but it hadn’t really dented his savings much, not that he minded since it made the girls even stronger. Haruhime now had elemental affinities related to Ice, Illusion, and Light, all complimentary affinities that would enhance each other while covering some of the weaknesses prevalent in their individual kits.
While Mikoto and Haruhime were dealing with the enemies, Fenrir was bobbing in the air next to Vahn, releasing a long yawn out of boredom since she could have cleared out most of the enemies in an instant. Haruhime gave a wry smile when she saw Fenrir yawn, continuing her attacks while trying to ignore the slightly ‘teasing’ look in Fenrir’s eyes. In the past, their strength hadn’t been that far apart but, after Fenrir’s time in the orb, the difference in their strength was like a massive gulf. They were never truly rivals, but Haruhime was feeling a bit of pressure these days as she constantly strove to increase her strength to the next level. After all, she wanted to be one of the people Vahn could rely on the most, a belief that empowered her attacks towards ever greater heights.
Vahn could see an illusory tail beginning to segment off of Haruhime’s ‘main’ tail. He gave a wry smile as he cast a glance towards Fenrir, causing the small Vanargandr to turn her eyes up and stare towards nothing in particular. Haruhime might not have realized it, but Vahn knew Fenrir was trying to urge several of the girls to become stronger, even helping them out with a few tidbits of advice on occasion. Though she did well to keep it hidden from him, Vahn had slowly realized that the Fenrir of the past no longer existed and she was now far more mature than in the past. The fact that she went out of her way to act similarly to the past always made Vahn feel a little guilty, but also very grateful to her. He still hadn’t come up with a solution to make things ‘easier’ for her if they actually started a relationship and, though she might not complain about the pain, Vahn didn’t want her his interactions with Fenrir to cause her harm, even temporarily…
Once the group reached the Great Fall, Vahn stood at the ledge, looking down towards the massive basin several hundred meters below. After contemplating the best course of action, he lifted Haruhime and Mikoto with his telekinesis and jumped down while Fenrir followed behind with her own levitation magic. Though the fall into the water might have been painful, it wasn’t a problem at all now that Vahn could levitate himself, and others, through the use of unnamed spells. Haruhime and Mikoto seemed to enjoy passing through the scenic area of the falls under Vahn’s guidance, preferring it over having to cut there way through thousands of enemies just to breach through the area. As for Fenrir, she sent a few waves of ice elemental energy into the gigantic waterfall, creating huge blocks of ice as she tried to freeze its surface.
By the time they reached the bottom, Fenrir hadn’t had much success as she asked, “Where does all this water come from? Fenrir is curious…” Hearing her sudden question, Vahn experienced a momentary pause because he wasn’t actually sure. He knew that the giant basin beneath the Great Fall previously connected to Melen lake but, after the Leviathan had been slain, that connection had been cut off. Vahn had no idea where the water runoff went, nor were had he ever learned where the source of the water originated from. After all, the floors above the 25th-27th Floors were comprised of the Large Tree Labyrinth, while those even further up were comprised entirely of bedrock. Unless there was a large underground lake feeding into the Dungeon, which didn’t seem to coincide with how it was structured, Vahn couldn’t really understand what could feed into a waterfall more than 400m wide and 800m tall…
Unable to come up with an answer, Vahn shook his head and said, “I’m not really sure, Fenrir. When we have time, maybe we can investigate it. After all, if we follow the flow of water to its source, we may find something unique and interesting that has never been seen before.” Even if there wasn’t some great treasure, at least it would sate their curiosity and answer one of the questions that seemed to have never been posed before. There were so many unknowns about the Dungeon and learning more about its structure was never a bad thing.
Fenrir nodded her head, sending one last look at the falls as she sent forth a massive wave of ice elemental energy into it. Though she created a block of ice that caused a section of the falls to freeze temporarily, it quickly broke down under the pressure of the water, segmenting into smaller pieces that floated in the giant basin. Fenrir had a small frown on her face since her instincts told her Eva would have been able to freeze the entire Great Falls. She still had a lot of room for growth so, other than helping out the others, Fenrir also worked hard in her own training.
Deciding to enjoy the scenery of the Great Falls for a short while longer, Vahn set out a picnic blanket and some light dishes so they could eat a small meal before continuing forward. This was one of the areas where monsters didn’t venture so it was relatively safe to make camp in this area, assuming the Monster Rex had been taken care of. Though Vahn could sense its presence forming in the depths of the basin, it would likely take a few days before the Amphisbaena actually spawned. If they were lucky, they would be able to catch it on the return trip, though it was unlikely to happen. It was one of the Monster Rexes that were commonly hunted almost immediately after spawning since the ‘Amphisbaena’s Dragon Liver’ was worth a veritable fortune. Securing it could net a Familia upwards of 80,000,000V, which was quite a sum when added to the price of the other materials and drop items.
With their light luncheon completely, Vahn stowed away all the leftover and the group continued further into the Dungeon. The 28th-36th Floors didn’t spawn too many monsters so they were able to progress through them at a leisurely pace. By the time Vahn stepped onto the 37th Floor again, they had only been in the Dungeon for a total of nine hours, which their arrival on the 39th Floor expected within the next two. This was a little slower than his previous venture, when he came down by himself, but was still a pretty good pace since they hadn’t been rushing. He had been giving Haruhime and Mikoto the opportunity to practice their skills in live combat so their progress has been slowed by the constant fighting.
Since the 37th Floor was the start of the White Palace, the walls, floor, and ceiling had all taken on a white coloration. This Floor was one of the best places to test your skills and it was very obvious that Haruhime and Mikoto were aware of it since they both seemed excited. It didn’t take them long to reach one of their intended targets, a large Coliseum-like structure where waves of enemies would spawn, only allowing further passage through the Dungeon once the room was cleared. Without any hesitation whatsoever, they continued into the Coliseum while Vahn leaped into the stands with Fenrir to watch the performance. They had already discussed it previously so, unless Haruhime and Mikoto needed help, they would be clearing each Coliseum on their own.
The entrances slammed shut as powerful barriers spread throughout the complex stone structure, sealing off the area until every enemy had been slain. At the same time, several cracks emerged all around the Coliseum structure as Lizardman Elites and Barbarians emerged. There were even three variants, two taking the form of large purple Lizardman Elites while the later was a Green-furred Barbarian that was more than 6m tall. Mikoto activated her artifact and, instead of using the traditional Flying Heavenly Sword Style, wielded both of her katanas in an open stance as she engaged the closest variant species. One of the things she had been working on recently, other than polishing her skills further, was adapting her style to multiple situations. Though ending a fight in a single attack was a very lofty goal, not all enemies were suited to be dealt with in such a manner. Mikoto, through sparring with Haruhime and Ais, had increased the variations in her attacks and adapted both a single-sword style and dual-sword style for combat.
The large green Barbarian swung towards her with a massive black cleaver, intending to bisect Mikoto with a single strike. Mikoto, without making any large movements, compressed her body lower the ground, allowing the blade to pass over her head as it slightly distorted her silky black hair. In the next instant, almost as if she had infused the principles of the Flying Heavenly Sword Style in her normal attacks, Mikoto shot forward like a spring and crossed her blades in smooth arcs that seemed impossible to track with the eyes. She ended up on the other side of the Variant Barbarian, passing through its legs during her strike, before sheathing both katana. The monster didn’t seem to know what happened and only reacted when a shadowy figure repeated Mikoto’s strike, creating two more cuts that separated the monsters legs cleanly from its body.
As the Variant Barbarian fell forward, howling in pain and anger, Mikoto finished sheathing her blades and muttered, “Nitoryu…Whirlpool Slash…” under her breath. The instant her katanas sounded out that they were perfectly aligned in their sheaths, a tempestuous swirl of water created a vortex around the fallen monster’s body, cutting it into pieces and drowning it until only a cloud of purple dust remained. Mikoto, not showing any concern for its plight, had already continued forward to the next group of enemies, this time using only a single sword that created several arcs of light as she passed through the horde of enemies like a phantom…