Dungeons of the Abyss and the Unchosen Heroes
"Was it necessary to go that far?" said Auguste as he left the guild building alongside Elaine.
"Back there, with the appraiser..."
It was a lapse in judgment as far as Auguste was concerned. He hadn't meant to let his thoughts out. He had no intention of starting any discourse while he's working with this party, not as long as there were no major issues. This was no issue, just his personal grievance, something that he believed he should have kept to himself.
"Maybe I've gone a little too far," said Elaine as she continued walking, Auguste was right behind her. "Still, if you're asking if it's necessary, then yes. We got an extra silver out of that, didn't we? Besides, we can never know if they're trying to swindle us. Better be safe than sorry."
"Still, all that for a single silver..."
Elaine suddenly paused in her steps, turning around to face Auguste. From the looks of her, he could tell that she was somewhat upset.
"Auguste, you're from a pretty good family aren't you?"
"Well, we weren't starving, I suppose."
"No, of course not," Elaine almost sneered at him but was able to adjust her tone before it became obvious. "If you only knew what starving felt like you wouldn't be saying that. One silver, even one copper, matters. I mean, you know this already don't you? Everything costs money and we'll need every bit we can get."
"We still have some savings left over, don't we? We'd be fine even without going so far, right?"
"Maybe we do for now, but what if something else happens? We're barely able to break even this time. What if we earn even less the next time, what if we earn nothing at all? And what about on days we can't go into a Dungeon, like if one of us had gotten sick or injured? What if one day, the five kingdoms decided to go to war again and the prices for daily necessities start rising like no tomorrow? Having more coins will help get us through those times. We can never have too much money."
Auguste furrowed his brow and for a moment he wasn't able to say anything. Even though in the Dungeons, in battles, he's can be sharp and decisive, so much so that both Henrietta and Gladiolus agreed to have him in charge when it came to fighting, here, on the surface, he always seemed a bit too naive.
"It almost sounded like you're saving that we have no choice but to be greedy and nasty in order to survive," Auguste finally said.
"It's not greed," she denied, "It's about protecting ourselves."
"I wonder... In the end, exactly how much do we need before it is enough? How much do we need to have before we stop having to fight for every scrap?"
"Never, Auguste, it is never enough. Too many things can happen in life and too many things cost money."
"...... Maybe you're right."
Recently, Auguste had begun to realize something. Even though he hadn't become a Dungeoneer dreaming of becoming rich like so many others, even though his goal was supposed to be something else, nowadays, his concern had always been about how many meals he'll be able to get with what he had saved up, how much he'll need to make the journey to the next Dungeon, how much should he spend on supplies and repairs and how much should he spend in the local tavern, if he'll go there at all. His head was filled with numbers and calculations to the point that he was starting to forget what he was even doing this for in the first place other than for his next meal. He had never considered himself as someone greedy before, in fact, he was somewhat lacking in material desires, but lately, all that had been in his mind were money and things related to money. He felt as if he was becoming like one of those sleazy merchants that Henrietta talked about all the time, the ones that cared for nothing other than gaining more coins.
"Life just doesn't play out the way you want it to, does it?"
The sun had dipped into the horizon and the day had turned to evening. Auguste was sitting in the local tavern, Henrietta to his left and Finn to his right. The three had become drinking buddies after that one time Henrietta just so happened to be in a drinking mood and invited Auguste and Finn along. Those two never had any alcohol before that but have since learned to enjoy them along with one another's company.
"What're yer talking about, Gusty? Yer drunk already?" said Henri, her face red and looking rather drunk herself. She had only just finished a tankard of some watered down beer.
"I just got here, you realize. I haven't even had a sip."
"Eh, figures. Yer say strange things even when sober. What? Yer tryin' to be a poet or somethin'? A bard?"
"Oh, speaking of a bard," Finn suddenly started talking after being quiet for some time, "my sister used to want to be one."
"Really!?" Auguste exclaimed, "Elaine? A bard?"
"You wouldn't figure it, looking at her now."
"Can she play an instrument?"
"She used to play a little on our dad's lute. Had to sell it though, for our dad's funeral."
"Well, she said it was fine," Finn took a sip out of his tankard, "She hadn't been playing it anyways."
"Oi, yer two ignorin' me or what!?" Henrietta suddenly shouted. Neither of the two had any idea as to why.
"What? Did you say something?" Auguste asked without turning to her. He was ordering something to drink.
"Oi, Finn, how'd yer get so big?"
"Me? I had always been like this. My sister used to complain about how big I am and how hard it is to keep me fed."
"Lies! There must be some secret yer not telling me. Cough it out, damn it!"
"It's in the blood," Auguste cut in. "Some are just born like that. That's how it goes."
Henri began growling like some kind of dog as she pressed her face into the table, grinding her forehead against the wood as if she's trying to bore a hole into it.
"What's wrong with her?" Auguste leaned over to Finn and whispered.
"Well, she happened to hear someone talking about how small she is and how short and pump her arms look and that they're akin to that of an infant's."
"Oh, I see..."
Currently, they were at the eastern territories of the Vestal Coalition, a place that also happened to be at the edge of the five kingdoms. It was a countryside amongst countrysides, with only the wilderness and frontier further east. The dwarfs, on the other hand, dwelled in the north, and upon being invaded by the Principality of Zeth, they escaped to the isle off the northeastern coast, now the territory of the Free Cities of Tuur. As such, those in the east would likely have never seen a dwarf before and would naturally find them strange. The country bumpkins around were probably only curious and lacking in the social etiquette that Henrietta was used to. Probably, they didn't mean anything harm. Probably.
Auguste glanced over to Henrietta, taking a peek at her short and plump arms. He was inclined to agree with the statement. Of course, he's going to keep that to himself. The moment he let it slip, it'll be the end of him, or so he thought.
But then, all of a sudden, Henrietta's face rose from the table and without meaning to, Auguste's gaze reflexively avoided hers.
"Oi, Gusty, what's up with that?"
"Whatever do you mean?"
"I saw that look of yers, I know what yer thinkin'!"
"We love you the way you are, Henri," Auguste said with the flattest tone.
"Lies! You're just saying that 'cause I'm yer boss!"
Henri leaped from her chair the moment those words were spoken and wrapped her arm around Auguste's neck.
"What the-!" he cried in surprise, not expecting such speed and nimbleness from the dwarf.
"How'd yer like them baby arms how, eh!? Yer little, yer half-assed little... If yer gonna say something to make me feel better, yer should at least see it through!"
"I... I'm not... paid enough for this..."
Though he said 'paid', in truth, there were no set salaries within this party. At the very start, it was agreed upon that they'd split whatever they earn from the Dungeon evenly between them. When Henrietta had sponsored them to form the party, she wasn't looking for people to work for her, but rather, the party itself was what she had wanted. She wanted, needed, a party to go down with her into the Dungeons. And so, whatever they earned from each expedition would be split evenly into six, and whatever extra leftovers that could not be neatly divided would be the party's joint property, used to afford traveling, lodging, supplies, and so on without needing the members to pitch in on the fees regularly.
On the other end of the town, away from the bustling tavern, lied the just as rowdy Dungeoneers' campsite. This was where those who preferred to drink by the campfire gathered. Here, several tents were erected with braziers lit to light the way. By the side of one of those tents, a red-headed girl with a pair of braided pigtails was keeping a campfire going as a boiling pot hung over the flames. Unlike the flames started by magic within the Dungeon, the natural fire here had to be fed fuel to burn continuously.
"Are you sure you don't want to join them, Morgan?" asked Elaine as she tossed another log into the fire.
"I don't drink, and the tavern's too rowdy and cramped for my taste," Morganna replied as she stirred the boiling meat within the pot. They were making a stew out of the leftover dried meat that had been their rations. It wouldn't do much for the taste but at least it'll soften up the tough flesh and make it easier to eat.
"I wonder if Gladiolus found some good herbs or vegetables. I don't really mind it all that much, but it's tiring tasting the same thing every day, isn't it?"
"It sure is."
Again, silence. Unlike the party's vanguards who currently are enjoying themselves at the tavern, the conversation on this end had died more times than Elaine had been bothered to keep track of. For the longest time now, Elaine was trying to get a conversation going with Morganna. However, with Morganna being Morganna, who tended to keep to herself unless she actually has something to say, the conversations never went anywhere.
"It certainly is a shame isn't it?" Elaine spoke up once more, she wasn't about to give up just yet. "If only the fire would keep itself going like it does in the Dungeon."
"The fire from a witch's magic is different from natural fire," replied Morganna with enthusiasm not seen with other topics, her interest was apparently piqued when the subject of magic came up. With a cough to clear her throat, she continued, "The witches draw their magic from the Abyssal realm, you see, our magic would not last beneath the starlights. There's a reason why, the Dungeons, born similarily of the Abyss, only ever forms underground."
"Even if you feed it plenty of firewood?"
"The magical fire would fade long before the wood becomes charcoal."
"It is because the stars keep the Abyss at bay, forming the Heaven's Ward over the sky." Even while speaking, Morgan kept stirring the pot with the wooden ladle in hand. "While the Abyss manifests chaos and twists the natural law, the Heaven's Ward protects order and repairs the twisting caused by the Abyss. Magic performed by taking advantage of the Abyss is bound to fade when the Heaven's Ward repairs this world to its rightful state."
"Ah, I see... That does make sense."
Elaine had little idea in regards to what was talked about. The education she received was limited. Still, she could at least piece enough of what she got out of the conversation to make a response. After all the trouble she went through to start a conversation with Morganna, she wasn't about to just go 'uh-huh' and let it die off, though she certainly wished that she was able to capture Morganna's interest with an easier to understand topic.
"However, there seem exceptions to the rule. I've heard that there are Dungeons capable of expanding above even the surface. These Dungeons appeared to be very old, and it seemed that in time, they have grown too much for even the Heaven's Ward to handle."
"That's kind of scary, as if your regular, underground Dungeons weren't unsettling enough already." Elaine sat onto the ground and hugged her knee, her head turned upward and her eyes stared up into the sky, toward the stars. "It's almost unbelievable that we're making a business out of them. Then again, there's nothing we can do to fix it, so might as well make a profit out of it, I suppose."
"It is fine, isn't it? As long as *they're* handling the situation, I mean."
"The Lightbringers? I suppose we have them to thank for keeping the world from ending. You know, my brother wanted to join them some time ago, I think he still wants to even now. I keep telling him that it's a bad idea."
"Seeing his performance today, I doubt he'll survive going as deep as the Lightbringers do. Not just him, we're all still too incompetent. It's not time yet for any of us."
"Not yet? Morgan, are you thinking of joining one day?"
"A witch's power lies with the Abyss, so what better way to learn than actually experience it first hand?
Elaine frowned. While she didn't know the exact age of anyone other than her brother and her own, she felt that Morganna was younger than she was and somewhat grew to see her as a younger sibling.
"Isn't that dangerous? Like, much, much more than what we're doing now?"
"That's a risk I'm willing to take."
Elaine had felt it from time to time, something strong and unwavering within Morganna. And it's not just her, she had felt the same thing in Auguste as well. These two, at least according to Elaine's intuition, might very well be the youngest of the party, and if not, they're at least the least mature. However, within these two, there was a sense of conviction, or more accurately, a sense of ambition. It made them push further than anyone else within the party, but it also felt dangerous, as if these two were always walking along the edge, pushing against the boundaries. One day they might push too far and fall over, that was Elaine's fear for them.
"Gah! Let me down! Yer think these legs of mine are too short to keep up, eh!? I'll show yer, I'll show all of yer!"
Cutting through the somber mood were uncouth cries drawing closer and closer to the party's camp.
"I thought you said you were only going for a quick drink!" Elaine called out, her exasperation clear to see.
"S-sorry, sis, I swear, she only had a tankard," Finn, replied flustered. All the while, his right arm was hooked under Henrietta's left.
"It's no big deal, you know how she is. A bucket of cold water will fix her," said Auguste, his left arm hooked beneath Henrietta's right.
Like so, Finn and Auguste lifted Henrietta and dragged her out of the tavern when she was starting to make too much of a ruckus and brought her all the way back to the campsite.
"This happens every time," Elaine complained. "That's it, from now on, no more drinking before dinner."
"Tell that to Henri here. She's the one who wanted to go," Auguste quipped as he and Finn laid Henrietta on the ground.
After setting the short girl down, Auguste went into the men's tent and pulled out a waterskin form their luggage.
"Morgan, if you don't mind," he said as he presented the waterskin before the former apprentice witch.
Reaching towards her back, Morganna pulled up the pointed hat hanging on her neck by a strap, the hat with a tear-shaped blue gem hanging off the pointed end.
"Let's see here," she then reached into the sleeve of her black robes and produced a wand made from the branch of an old evergreen tree. "It's been a while since I've used this one. You might want to leave it on the ground."
And Auguste did just that. Only then did Morganna pointed the wand towards the waterskin. With a flash, a cold mist puffed around the container, and upon its leathery surface, ice crystals were formed.
Auguste went to pick the skin up, and reaching out, he found the grass surrounding the waterskin to be rigid and frail, crumbling from merely brushing against his hand. He now understood why she told him to take his hand off it.
Shaking the skin, Auguste confirmed that the water within was still liquid and then promptly unplugged the cork before dipping the mouth down towards Henrietta who was lying on the ground.
"Hya!" Henri let out a high pitched sound as she leaped off the ground, icy cold water dripping down from her face. It took her a few moments to realize what was going on. "Oi, Gusty! I told yer not to do that!"
"Maybe you'll be able to stop me if you're actually sober."
"Why yer little..." said Henrietta as she let out a low growling, making Auguste wonder if she was a cross between a dwarf and a kobold instead, kobolds being creatures which some said were like dogs while others claimed were like lizards.
"Oh, what good timing. I see everyone has gathered already."
Interrupting what looked like an inevitable showdown, the waifish elf, Gladiolus, returned with a basket of leafy greens and plump roots in his hand. He appeared to be in a good mood as his beaming smile was able to calm even Henrietta who was on the verge of turning rabid. He must have found plenty of something good from the looks of his basket and mood.
That night, dinner tasted more bearable than usual.
End of Chapter 4