Chapter 811: Rumination

After the first round of the investigation had been completed, Vahn was sitting within the same tent that he used to inspect each of the expedition members. Sitting across from him was Finn and, having arrived to welcome the expedition much earlier, Gareth. They were all sipping on some [Dwarven Stout], with Finn partaking of a diluted solution that had been mixed with a much weaker ale. Gareth had snorted upon witnessing this but kept his opinion on the matter to himself as their discussion progressed. He was eyeing the liquid in his own mug as he asked, “So, what’re the odds of Enyo attacking Lil Geirr? Do we need to start preparing for a war…?”

Vahn, tapping against the desk in a rhythmic fashion, brought his index finger to a stop as he responded, saying, “It’s hard to be certain, especially with how things have been progressing. This is definitely not the limit of Enyo’s forces so it almost doesn’t even make sense that she would be trying to stop us. It would have made more sense for her to stage a massive attack the moment we tried setting up camp on the 50th Floor, especially since it should be closer to their base of operations. These actions are exposing her hand before there has even been any direct contact between our main forces…it doesn’t make any sense…”

Because of how strange this matter had been, Vahn even went out of his way to meet up with Freya, Minerva, Nike, and Polemos, all gods possessing War and Wisdom Divinities. They were similar to his ‘war council’ and served as his advisors during situations where he might not be able to infer the answer from his own limited perspective. However, even they couldn’t understand why Enyo, who had been keeping hidden for so long, would suddenly oppose the expedition in such a direct manner. In fact, Nike pointed out that, since Enyo obviously had the means to control monsters, she would have forced the expedition to retreat by sending waves into the upper Floors and trying to attack the City directly.

Though the City certainly wasn’t helpless, having enough powerful monsters climb up through the upper Floors would effectively wipe out most weak Adventurers, potentially destroy the settlement on the 18th Floor, and force a restructuring of the defensive forces on the surface. If Enyo truly wanted to prevent them from entering, it would have made sense for her to completely ignore the expedition and pull their focus away entirely. Instead, she was clashing head-on with the expedition, which was the main reason Vahn began to suspect there was ‘something’ else going on.

Finn, seemingly a little tipsy at this point, gave a nasally ‘hnnn’ before making a speculative guess of his own, saying, “Maybe the point of their strategy is to throw us off by acting in an unexpected way from the very beginning. The feeling you have may not be coming from within the expedition itself, but may pertain to something going on ‘away’ from the expedition…maybe this is a big misdirect, or a means to buy more time so they can finish their preparations on the 50th Floor…?” Though he was speaking in a somewhat absentminded manner, Finn’s words rang with a bit of wisdom that had caused Vahn to fall into reflection once again…

Though he might not have investigated every small detail, his cursory look over the expedition when they were traveling hadn’t exactly been performed hastily. In fact, as everyone else was focused on the battle occurring, it would have been more difficult for them to keep secrets from his eyes and senses. Even when they announced the investigation, though there was a bit of dissatisfaction, nobody tried to sneak away or cause a scene. In fact, after getting some alcohol, setting up an entertainment tent, and making some delicious food available, most people had gotten wrapped up in a festive atmosphere. Now that Finn made his speculation known, Vahn was beginning to think there might be a fair bit of truth to the matter…

Gareth also seemed to be entertaining the idea and, after taking a hearty gulp of his stout, asked, “Ye’ have one of yer bodies up on tha surface, right? Think you ought to issue an alert through the Alliance ‘n start preparin’ for an attack. If Finn’s right, I expect that Enyo might be tryin’ ta get you to focus more on what is going on in the Dungeon. By tha time ya get down to the 50th Floor, it would be a little difficult to turn around if somethin’ started happenin’ on the Upper Floors.” After working alongside Finn for more than a decade, Gareth had a great deal of trust in the Pallum’s intuition and didn’t want to leave anything to chance.

Vahn just nodded his head, remaining silent because he had already issued the alert at the same time as his ‘war council’. It was impossible to have a gathering of War and Wisdom gods where they wouldn’t have already come up with such an idea. Though their speculation didn’t run down the same line as Finn’s, they were very aware of the possibility of a misdirect and, knowing about the divinations of Cassandra and Sylfia, they weren’t going to take chances. Since a lot of the Alliance’s war potential was concentrated inside of the Dungeon right now, it was even more important for them to maintain proper accountability for their members and the situation within the City in general.

Still, to follow up on Gareth’s advice, Vahn went to talk with Eirene to have her increase the number of patrols occurring throughout the City, especially around the regions where construction was ongoing. Since this included Daedelus Street, and the artificial dungeon underneath, Vahn figured it would be prudent to focus their efforts there. If Enyo wasn’t going to come up through Babel Tower, she would undoubtedly move her forces through the artificial dungeon. At the same time, he sent a personal message to Freya, even though Loki also had a paired logbook, asking her to station her Familia in the area as well. She almost immediately responded back, agreeing without any debate whatsoever before Loki added a few words of her own…

So that Gareth didn’t think he was ignoring him, Vahn matched gazes with the amicable Dwarf and said, “Don’t worry, we won’t be caught off guard so easily. The Hearth Manor will be safe as long as Terra and myself are there, especially since we didn’t bring all of our reserves into the Dungeon. I’m more worried that you and Finn hit the nail on the head, just with a different target than the most obvious. It’s possible that Enyo may specifically target Lil Geirr and Rivira before she makes a move for the surface. The chances of her trying to cut off our escape from the Dungeon itself are quite high…”

Vahn’s mind was brought back to the strange flowers that had produced the aphrodisiac, which his Inventory had been able to identify as [Viscum Eudicotyledons]. They were a type of flowering mistletoe, which was somewhat ironic, that had several different possible toxins contained within their spores depending on the structure of a special type of protein called ‘lectins’. Other than the aphrodisiac spores, the most common spore produced would cause severe gastrointestinal problems, including debilitating stomach pain and spontaneous diarrhea. It was obviously a plant that had been designed for the sole purpose of serving as a distraction or causing chaos. Most Adventurers would have [Abnormal Resistance], which would prevent the majority of such effects, but it would be very effective on the general populous. Just imagining several million people running around like sex-crazed fiends, irrespective of age, race, or gender, was a terrifying thought…

However, using such methods in an open area would have a significantly reduced effect, leading Vahn to believe that Enyo may try to ‘flood’ the Upper Floors with the spores to cut off their route of retreat. Eventually, though it could take several months, it was possible for her to slowly extend the influence of the spoors between the 18th and 24th Floors until the entire area became almost impassable without specialized equipment. Fortunately, such equipment was easily purchasable through the system shop but it still didn’t discount the fact that Enyo’s forces could easily wipe out, at the very least, the settlement on the 18th Floor…

After Vahn gave his take on things, the tent became very quiet for several minutes as all three men ruminated over the best course of action. Vahn himself was starting to feel a nagging frustration that had been replaced by the familiar cooling energy from his [Will of the Emperor]. Honestly, he was getting fed up with these types of situations and was very tempted to throw caution to the wind and dive into the Dungeon with a small group of Elites and just target Enyo directly. He could even go on his own and, even if his body ended up getting destroyed, his soul would be entirely unaffected and reform with his Avatar on the surface. After that, he could always produce a second Avatar and then just repeat the process until Enyo’s forces just ‘break’…

The only thing preventing him from taking this course of action were things like Eva’s advice, the guidance from Sis, and the non-negligible chance that Enyo may have a way to seal him away, at least temporarily. Though he would potentially be able to destroy his own body, or even call Terra to his side for assistance, there were simply too many unknowns to make such a bold risk. It was infinitely safer to put pressure on Enyo’s forces, focus on the establishment of Haven, and slowly whittle them down through overwhelming power and resources.

Eventually, something would have to give and Enyo would be forced to try and contend with Haven directly, exposing the errant goddess and giving Vahn the chance to deal with her directly. He even had the option that, after finishing the establishment of Haven, diving into the Dungeon with Haven serving as a waypoint. This would save him a lot of time and effort while also creating a place for the girls to fall back to if things got dangerous. Since they would undoubtedly be involved in the fighting that was to come, having a base of operations to rest and recuperate were incredibly important…

Ironically, though he wasn’t exactly fond of the idea, one of the best options was to simply wait for Bell to become strong enough to ‘trigger’ whatever events fate had machinated for the boy. Vahn was trying to accelerate Bell’s growth so that he would become useful, not necessarily to resolve the problem, but to serve as a means of directing the problem in a controlled manner. Vahn believed that, if he and Bell were both involved in the situation, events would undoubtedly transpire around Bell. This made it much easier to plan around things because they would always know the approximate location where events would take place. By simply observing Bell’s actions, and comparing them against other variables, it might even be possible to predict the future, even without someone that has an ability related to divination. After all, ‘fate’ and ‘karma’ were far more reliable things than any form of future sight that wasn’t directly related to looping through time.

To bolster Bell’s growth even further, Vahn intended to try and strengthen the people around him since it would constantly urge Bell to grow even faster. At this point, it was easy to see that Bell had imprinted on him as the ‘target’ for his [Liaris Freese], so Vahn had been trying to make the boy feel somewhat indebted towards him. Though there was certainly no resentment coming from Bell about the help he had received, Vahn could tell that it bothered the boy. It was because of this that Vahn had ‘challenged’ Bell to become stronger without having to use the second [Effigy of the Hero], as it would become a powerful motivator for the boy’s growth. Once he obtained equipment that would allow him to push himself even further, Bell might even skyrocket to higher Levels in a very short period of time, especially with fate as his guide…

Realizing the ‘best’ option was to simply ‘react’ to whatever Enyo threw at him, the icy feeling in Vahn’s mind increased in intensity. In truth, he didn’t like the idea of simply waiting around, even if everything seemed to point towards that as being the best solution. He had already ‘put off’ several other things that were bothering him, especially the matters related to the Rakia Kingdom and the Iron Hills. If not for his resolution to avoid becoming the ‘Emperor’ version of himself from the Divination, Vahn felt it would just be easier to charge into the capital and ‘remove’ the cancer as he had in the Elven Kingdom.

The difference was, he had a very real reason to take action at that moment, especially with the coup that had been staged…if he just charged into two nations where he had no real power or influence, it would take much longer to bring about changes than it had with the Elven Kingdom. There, he had the support of the King, the High Priestess, and was even made the Prime Minister…none of which he would have once he essentially declared war on and slaughtered a large number of people…

Though he knew it wasn’t likely the case, Vahn couldn’t help looking over at Gareth and asking, “Gareth, you wouldn’t happen to be some landed noble from a powerful family in the Iron Hills, would you…?” To this, Gareth began to laugh as if he had just heard the most hilarious joke in the world, even hammering the table a few times before he said, “Ah’m afraid not, ma boy. Before I came to Orario, I was nothing more than a miner who had a little bit of an ego, constantly gettin’ myself in’ta trouble by accepting dangerous missions around volcanoes. Even so, I managed to make a name for myself an’ have quite a few connections back in the Hills.”

Vahn just waved his hand in a dismissive manner, not wanting to ruin any relationships that Gareth had established with his kinsmen. For someone like Gareth to associate with them, Vahn didn’t believe they were part of the ‘problem’ and, even though it was a potential ‘in’ that he could make use of in the future, it wasn’t opportune to do so right now. Still, the impatience he was feeling about everything was starting to wear at him and, at the very least, Vahn intended to vent a little bit when Enyo began moving. He intended to venture progressively deeper into the Dungeon after establishing Haven and harvesting a plethora of materials and OP that would serve towards completely his current goal. At the very least, he needed 10,000,000,000OP to complete his current objectives, meaning he needed to be somewhat frugal with his expenses whenever possible…

After another hour of drinking, Finn had been taken out of commission and was currently producing a pool of drool on the table, mumbling something about being too busy to change another diaper with an almost ‘pained’ expression on his face. Vahn and Gareth both laughed when seeing this, prompting Gareth to follow up and mention, “You know, I have a daughter of my own back in the Hills. Haven’t talked to her after havin’ a falling out though…damn, hard to believe it’s already been thirteen years since I saw the lass…make sure you treasure the time you have with your children, Vahn, they grow up faster than you’d think…”

Vahn was tempted to retort something along the lines of ‘you have no idea’, but kept it to himself since he could see that Gareth had become melancholic after mentioning his daughter. Since he was currently 56, that meant Gareth had been 43 the last time he met his own child, something Vahn couldn’t really imagine doing if he was in the same record as his children. Considering that Gareth was a Minor, that meant he was probably in his late teens or early twenties when he had a kid, making her around her mid-thirties, at the very least. Since it didn’t seem like Gareth really wanted to talk about it, Vahn shelved his curiosity for the time being and intended to inquire about her later. After all, if he truly waged war on the Iron Hills, it would be a terrible tragedy if he accidentally deprived one of his few male friends of his own flesh and blood…

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Slowly but surely, Gareth also started to succumb to the heavy alcohol and eventually ended up excusing himself after picking up the small keg and carrying it with him. He knew that Vahn couldn’t actually get drunk and had only been ‘humoring’ him for the last few hours. Since he also knew that Vahn wouldn’t mind if he took the ‘remnants’, Gareth happily snatched the keg and laughed boisterously as he made his way out of the tent. Finn had stirred a little from the loud laughter, enough to fall out of his chair and onto the ground, but ultimately remained asleep. As for Vahn, he finished the remainder of his glass and set a potion on the ground next to Finn before heading to his own tent. He had been able to sense that most of the girls had been waiting up for him and knew that Alexa was probably growing impatient with his absence.

After reaching the ‘Hestia Familia’ tent, Vahn was reunited with the girls and noticed the presence of two people he hadn’t quite expected to see, Rufina and Shakti. It had turned out that, while he was watching over the encampment and busy with things back on the surface, the two girls had somehow found themselves staying within the Hestia Familia’s tent. They were actually somewhat surprised to see him, as he hadn’t slept a single night since the expedition began, with Rufina even asking, “What are you doing here?” in a mock hostile tone. Vahn, however, just released a small sigh and said, “I wonder…” before walking into the side room where the giant futon was and dropping onto his face with a thump.

Alexa had, very quickly, followed behind him and seized the initiative to claim the area immediately surrounding him. As if she was afraid the other girls would try to make a claim, she even used her wings to blanket him, something that made Vahn unsure of whether he wanted to laugh or cry. Ultimately, he just decided to let them sort it out themselves as the other girls had also started to meander into the room as they began teasing Alexa for her clingy behavior. At the same time, Haruhime and Lili had also moved to his immediate surroundings with Lefiya, showing a great deal of concern, even changing into her [Pactio] as she hesitantly asked, “Master…do you want me to wash your body…?”

To this, Vahn just sent her a telepathic message saying he was fine and saying he simply wanted to sleep for a bit to recover his mental energy. Though he had only sent this message to Lefiya, she quickly relayed it to the other things, causing the tent to become silent very quickly. They had wanted to talk about a few things before bed but, seeing Vahn appear genuinely tired, knew it could wait until the morning. As for Rufina and Shakti, they suddenly felt awkward for having intruded into the place they knew was Vahn’s domicile.

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In truth, they had just gotten a little carried away after having gotten along well with all of the other girls. When they received an invitation to stay in the tent, it had been pointed out that Vahn would undoubtedly be sleeping there as well. They had accepted this at the time but, until now, Vahn had never even shown up for a single moment. Now, they suddenly felt out of place and Shakti brought forth the idea of leaving to go set up a tent of their own nearby.

Around the same time that Shakti made this proposition, Haruhime poked her head out of the side room and said, “Come now, what are you two acting so shy for? We even have children sleeping in the room so you don’t be afraid of just one sleeping boy…besides, will you really be satisfied if you keep hesitating~?” With a somewhat mischevious look on her face, Haruhime retreated back into the room and left the two girls alone with their thoughts. Eventually, Rufina got up with a huff and made her way towards the side room but ended up hesitating before making her way inside. Shakti, seeing this, released a sigh and, even though she felt like her life had taken a turn she had never expected, stood up to push Rufina into the room, following behind with a small blush on her face…

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