Chapter 87 – First Signs of a Plan
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After hearing Ast’s words, Miria stepped closer to him and took his hand into hers, leading it to her cheek. She brushed her face against it while closing her eyes and starting to release quiet purrs. The faint vibrations traveled through his skin and tickled his muscles, bringing a smile to Ast’s face.

Asterios placed his right hand on her hair and began scratching behind Miria’s rounded ears as she kept nuzzling her cheek into his left palm. His mind slowly calmed down and Asterios took a deep breath. 

Sensing the change, Miria opened her eyes and stared into his, now blue again. She smiled shyly and pulled herself up to join their lips in a gentle kiss. Asterios moved his hands to her waist and softly caressed her tail as they pecked each other’s lips.

A few moments later, Miria broke the affectionate kisses and backed away a little after brushing her cheek against Ast’s.

“How is it now, Master?” she asked with a tinge of rosiness covering her cheeks.

“Much better. Thank you.” He smiled at her.

Two hands suddenly slid onto his chest from behind and the face of a certain fox lady appeared next to his own, resting her chin on his shoulder while hugging him tightly.

“Fufufu~ Quite bold of you to make such a display in the middle of the street.” Selene chuckled softly at the panthergirl.

Asterios and Miria glanced around and noticed a few people giving them curious looks as they walked in different directions. Her face instantly turned crimson and she dropped her gaze, making Asterios chuckle quietly.

“It’s my turn to tend to him next time, alright?” Selene announced and left a peck on Ast’s cheek.

Miria’s strategy of calming Asterios down might have worked, but as a side effect, it caused her to require calming down next. They had to move aside for a moment to wait for the timid panthergirl to regain her composure before continuing with their business.

They found an open inn and went to register there for a room and dinner. After receiving the key, they ate their fill together. The journey and the recent bustling emotions increased their appetite quite a bit. 

Filled to the brim, they moved to their room to rest a little and Asterios asked Umbra to make contact with Guildmaster Suanori. She had been awaiting his message and they quickly connected. With Umbra’s help, Asterios materialized in front of her desk.

“I wonder if I will ever get used to this weird feeling of being in another place while at the same time not existing there,” he commented, looking around the office.

“Spatial Transfer?” Suanori raised one of her eyebrows at him. “No. You said something about not being here. Astral Projection? That’s quite a high-level spell which I’ve never heard to be in the repertoire of Summoners.”

“I’m just an illusion. Remember? Umbra is a master of mind arts. He is simultaneously feeding my brain with sensory information from your place while messing with your mind too, putting me in your field of vision. A fine way to hold a private conversation, don’t you think?”

“I guess as creepy as they are, illusions do have various different uses. If I understood you correctly, I’m pretty much speaking to myself right now, correct?”

Asterios nodded and moved to look through the window, amazed to be able to see a certain distance into the town. At some point, dark purple walls were erected in the form of a dome, most likely presenting the boundaries of how far Umbra’s senses could register things without him focusing on it.

“You can also speak to me in your mind, with your thoughts. That way, we can converse even in public, without anyone noticing anything. But, if no one is around, speaking out loud might feel more natural with me present in front of you, right?”

Suanori chuckled as she shook her head. “Full of surprises… So, what’s the situation?”

“One blinded-by-greed Guildmaster that coerced his subordinates into ignoring the clear signs of a Monster Outbreak for some easy profits. And while he was at it, he decided to go all-in and also ignored the evidence of an upcoming Dungeon War. It was swept under the rug for over a month.”

She sighed heavily and swiped down her face with both hands. “That’s why almost every Guildmaster that’s a retired adventurer is against letting civilians run the guilds… No one who has experienced the atrocities encountered in dungeons or amongst monsters would take such risks…”

They remained silent for a moment before Suanori spoke again.

“I’ll mark your quest as completed. Considering the trouble to get into the town, it will most likely have its grade raised. I’ll submit the prepared emergency request and head there myself. I know that you are heading to the Demon Continent but could you do me one more favor and keep an eye on them and the monsters until I arrive?”

Asterios turned to her and walked closer to the desk, taking a seat in front of it.

“That was my plan anyway. I can’t just walk away while knowing all of this is happening behind my back.”

“Thank you. With your group there, I have much less to worry about. Now, there’s just this one huge mess to somehow clean up. A Monster Outbreak from even one dungeon is usually a B-rank or higher emergency, and with three dungeons sending out waves of monsters it could as well be deemed an S-rank one. I have no idea how long it will take to gather enough forces and resolve this issue.”

“If you want to cull the armies of three dungeons at once, then surely, it will take long weeks if not months. After enough adventurers show up in Nebula, that is. And coordinating them won’t be an easy feat,” Asterios commented.

“Do you have any better ideas? Should we just take them on one by one somehow?” Suanori asked, leaning back into her chair.

Asterios asked Umbra to share with her their conversation about Dungeon Wars from earlier and then continued after making sure that Suanori fully assimilated the memories.

“You should be already aware of the things I explained to my familiars, but nevertheless, these do give me a few ideas. First, we could try to take their war to the underground. The dungeons are sending monsters outside because that’s the only way to attack their opponents. You know that. It’s certain that their territories are almost, if not directly, touching. We could send out a team, or a few, made up from elites, to break the walls and create passages between neighboring floors.”

“I see. It certainly isn’t an easy task to complete, but the dungeons shouldn’t be able to heal bigger damage to their structure quick enough to prevent leakage of monsters inside. That would certainly reduce their presence on the surface since they would have to focus on either offense or defense of their own territory.” Suanori nodded in understanding, rubbing her chin.

“Second, since this is a three-way war, and each of the dungeons is in a different direction, we could launch an attempt to clear the middle one completely, destroying the core for good. Yes, that could potentially reduce the profits that having three of them present offer, but honestly, I personally think that an order to get rid of one should have been issued long ago, before the youngest one was able to grow too much, instead of the usual prohibition to do so. Three is just too much. And Nebula is not a huge megalopolis with high numbers of adventurers but a medium-sized port town.”

“I have to agree with that. The presence of three dungeons surely brings many adventurers to Nebula, but it will always be much fewer compared to what big cities can cough up innately, even with just a single dungeon in their vicinity. But, I digress. Clearing a whole dungeon is an even harder task than breaking its walls.”

Asterios nodded. “That’s why the best option would be to do both of these at once. It will be much easier with the target dungeon weakened from expending its resources to fight the invaders back or send their own forces outside, and rebuilding the damaged structure at the same time, assaulted by adventurers that flood the other ones. But, these are just my hastily gathered ideas. You should host a proper strategy meeting after getting here. I'm not the most experienced one here.”

Suanori gazed into the distance while in deep thought and Asterios waited for her response. It certainly wasn’t easy to get permission to remove a dungeon, but in the current predicament, she could be able to achieve it with her influence, if the other Guildmasters she was friends with supported her.

“I’ll bring that up to the lord in whose territory the three dungeons are located, just in case,” she said, refocusing on him again. “If we ended up going with what you suggested, the only leftover issues would be organizing and managing everything and finding powerful and skilled adventurers to form a team that would tackle the middle dungeon. Unless…”

Feeling the Guildmaster’s eyes on him, Asterios could guess what she was thinking about and smiled wryly.

“Unless your party agrees to take on that role. I dare to say, while you are acting low-key a lot, your strength and coordination are very likely on par with S-ranked teams, judging by everything that I know about your doings. What do you say?” Suanori leaned forward and supported her chin on her folded hands as her elbows rested on the desk; a calm smile adorned her beautiful face.

“A D-rank leading an assault on an old Dungeon Core? That can’t go well with the other adventurers.”

“If I endorsed you as one of my trusted aides, a holder of my Token of Fealty, no one would have anything to say about your current rank. Successful completion of such a grand event could boost it up nicely, in an official way. Receiving the right to clear a whole dungeon alone could be an extremely profitable opportunity. Do you know how expensive even the tiniest fragments of a Dungeon Core are?”

“I can imagine.”

“Then?”

Asterios pondered for a moment. He certainly considered joining the whole operation anyway, perhaps to help break the walls or just deal with monsters, raking up some useful cores in the process, but he didn’t think even for a moment that they would go after the Dungeon Core personally when he had suggested that solution.

Certainly, the number of materials, cores, and potentially magical artifacts or other items that could be gained from such an endeavor was incredibly high. And a huge portion of that would belong solely to them, with just a small part getting seized by the guild as a tax.

“What about the failure penalty? Something on this scale would surely have an astronomical one. Even if I would take on this request, the safety of my familiars would be my utmost priority and I would withdraw after judging the situation greatly exceeding our capabilities.”

“Emergency quests have no penalty. That would be counterintuitive. Bringing the attention of as many adventurers as possible to them is their main role. Yes, it can be potentially abused, but resolving the crisis is much more important. Besides, quests in the current times rarely have one. Unless it’s a direct request or something that can be attempted by a limited number of people,” the Guildmaster explained.

Asterios nodded. “If it’s like that, then I guess we could try it. I would like to consult with my partners first.”

“Naturally. I can wait for you to contact me again.”

~That won’t be necessary,~ Umbra’s voice boomed throughout the room.

In the next moment, the figures of Miria and Selene materialized behind Asterios. The former started waving her hands around in complete confusion, trying to catch balance before she fell to the ground while the latter curiously scanned the room with her eyes.

“Waaaaaah! What’s this?!” 

Miria managed to fix her stance and quickly placed her hands on the weapons hanging behind her back. She noticed Asterios and Suanori looking at her and soon realized where they were. She chuckled awkwardly as a faint blush showed up on her cheeks.

Asterios sighed and shook his head. “Don’t just pull them in without a warning.”

To Suanori’s surprise, the chair that Asterios had been sitting on suddenly morphed into a wide sofa and the two girls sat down on his sides. It was an unimaginably confusing show to watch.

With Umbra’s help, Asterios relayed their conversation to the beastfolk duo, again sharing his memories with them.

“I have nothing against you taking that request up, my Lord. I’m even looking forward to it. It’s a great way for us to test our limits after growing stronger. Isn’t that right, Miria?” Selene started after they caught up.

“I agree. And since Master wanted to find more cores, this would be a good opportunity to do that, no?” Miria asked, leaning into Ast’s shoulder while glancing up at his face.

“Also,” Suanori captured their attention, “I would personally join your team heading for the core if you’d allow me. Thanks to my affinity with Nature, I’m quite good with Healing Magic. That would further increase the safety you mentioned, right?”

“Aren’t you retired, though?” Asterios asked.

“That doesn’t mean all I do is sit behind a desk and fill in documents. I’m still an adventurer. And as an S-rank, it’s my responsibility to help in situations like these. Even if not that many high-ranked adventurers adhere to that.”

Miria and Selene exchanged glances while smiling at each other. Asterios could only shake his head at that, having a pretty good guess on what was going through their minds.

“Everyone seems to be on board with this. If we really end up doing it this way, I guess my party will assume the aforementioned role. Fighting alongside a veteran S-rank could be a great learning experience too,” he gave Suanori an answer.

“Great. I truly appreciate your cooperation. Leave the paperwork to me and we’ll discuss all the details on-site. I should be able to wrap things up in a day or two at most so I’ll arrive in Nebula in four or five.”

Miria’s eyes sparkled slightly after she realized that the Guildmaster could cover the distance a day faster than her, even though Asterios didn’t boost her on the way to Nebula, and she grew curious about her means of travel, wondering if it was magic or something else.

“Alright. Just one more thing that I wanted to confirm. If I’m not mistaken, according to the rules and regulations, the monsters that kill each other outside of their home dungeon are considered belonging to no one in particular and gathering materials from their corpses is a free-for-all, right?” Asterios asked, raising one of his eyebrows.

“That’s… technically correct.”

“Thank you. That’s all I needed to know. Now, if you’d excuse us, we need to make haste or we’ll miss out on front seat tickets for an all-you-can-eat buffet,” he exclaimed with a smile and the trio disappeared into thin air, alongside the sofa.

“He is going to ransack all three armies, isn’t he?” Suanori chuckled to herself and then moved out of her office.

Asterios, Miria, and Selene found themselves back in their room at the inn. After noticing Miria lying on the bed flat on her belly, he realized the reason behind the panthergirl’s unusual reaction from earlier. She gasped for air after being brought back.

Since just sitting on the walls surrounding Nebula and waiting for the monsters to finish their battle would be pointless and just a huge waste of time, Asterios asked Umbra to keep watching their movements from above and inform them of the first signs of retreat.

He was a little hesitant to request that, feeling like he was overworking his shadowy familiar, but Umbra assured Asterios that it was nothing and that he would speak up whenever he had something against any of Ast’s orders, which weren’t exactly considered ones since Asterios never used his contracts to force his commands on his familiars. Unless they were going to do something stupidly dangerous.

He and the girls enjoyed a calm night together and then went to the town to look around some more, maybe ask captains of the still docked ships if any of them was heading to the Demon Continent anytime soon.

The fight was continuing for the whole day, so they didn’t really get to do that much before spending time together and keeping an eye on the Guildmaster from this branch of the Adventurer’s Guild to make sure that he was taking proper steps under the current predicament.

Of course, Asterios didn’t know a lot about the internal procedures, but it wasn’t that hard to notice the change in the man’s behavior and him becoming much more active in the life of the guild, which was certainly a good sign, meaning that he started working on things he had previously neglected or ignored.

Finally, near the evening of the third day since their arrival in Nebula, Umbra notified Asterios about the monsters backing off from each other and heading back to their dungeons. He didn’t waste any time and they jumped straight in.

With the shadowy raven’s guidance, Asterios and the girls avoided the areas still infested with retreating monsters and focused their efforts on retrieving magical cores from the deceased, only stopping for a bit longer to gather other materials if they stumbled on something extraordinary.

For the next few days, after their initial harvest, they kept coming back for more only occasionally since many more scavengers joined the fray after the gates of Nebula had been opened.

Umbra’s help allowed them to avoid running into other people, but Asterios wasn’t so greedy as to scoop every single monster core. They would have a much better opportunity soon enough. He just wanted to resupply his crystal sigil collection before they would have to head down.

Finally, just as Guildmaster Suanori had promised, she arrived in Nebula five days after their meeting, flying on top of a giant hawk, which landing attracted quite a lot of attention. Asterios and his party headed to the guild to meet up with her.

 

Time to get that meeting moving!

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