Dungeons of the Abyss and the Unchosen Heroes
It was not uncommon for a dungeoneering party to have its own rules and customs outside of the regulations set by the guild. At times, these were unspoken rules, at others, these were something that had been properly decided upon and written in stone. Auguste's party, officially registered as the 'Henrietta Company', had one such unspoken rule: The day after which they returned from the Dungeon shall be laundry day.
Certainly, cleanliness tended not to be of much concern for the pack of roaming vagabonds such as Dungeoneers. However, within the Henrietta Company, there were quite a few that were fussier about staying clean than most others. In fact, it would be easier to list the ones who were unconcerned about hygiene that those that did. It was Finn.
Usually, on such a day, any water source would do, and if it were a river, they'd do it downstream so that their filth would not flow into the town or village. Today, on the other hand, they were heading elsewhere. On this day, they needed somewhere more private, a place where prying eyes would not be able to catch them hanging a particular cloak of a particular principality to dry.
Originally, only Gladiolus and Auguste were going, but when Morganna and Henrietta caught wind of it, they wanted to join in as well. They had never quite gotten over drying their unmentionables out in the open for the public to gawk at. And with the majority of the party heading out, Finn and Elaine ended up tagging along as well.
"The sun is out and shining today," Gladiolus commented, his joy from being able to bask under the sun did not go unnoticed.
"Let's hope it stays that way," said Auguste. While they could always rely on Morganna's magic to dry their clothes, he always preferred the sun, especially since Morganna's control over her magic can be somewhat unstable depending on her condition.
They were heading for the hills a little ways from town. According to Gladiolus, he had found quite a beautiful lake up there while hunting. To get there, they must follow a muddy road leading west before breaking off to follow an animal trail. It was a place that few had apparently set foot in, making it a perfect place for their purpose. At the same time, however, it also makes the place difficult to find without Gladiolus' guidance.
"Go on ahead, I have a bit of something to take care of," said Auguste, stopping in his tracks, "This shouldn't take long."
"Will you be able to follow?" asked Gladiolus.
"Leave a mark on the trees if you think I'm taking too long."
The muddy road also happened to be the same one they took when they first traveled to the town. Days ago, when they initially came down this path, Auguste stopped at this point as well, and he had returned here on mornings that were not spent in the Dungeons.
By the side of the road, there was an altar devoted to 'Ceratias, Goddess of Fate and Guidance'. The altar was small, built from stone bricks and housed a pedestal of piled-up stones. Atop the pedestal, there stood a decorated lamp, the object associated with Ceratias. Before the Principality of Zeth arrived from across the ocean, far to the west, Ceratias was worshiped throughout the known lands of what later became the five kingdoms. Now, however, only desolated alters and shrines remained, with the exception of those within the Vestal Coalition who still worships her to this day.
Auguste got down on one knee before the altar and closed his eyes, head dipped downwards in what seemed to be a prayer. He remained in his position for about a minute and a half before standing back up again.
Following the trail the others had walked across, Auguste found, to his surprise, someone waiting for him a little ways ahead. It was Elaine, and she was alone.
"What's wrong?" Auguste asked, wondering why she hadn't gone on ahead with the others.
"I thought I'd stay behind and point the way," she replied, "just in case you missed the markings."
Elaine's parents had died while she and Finn were young and for the longest time, she was the one who had to look after her younger brother. For as long as she could remember, she was someone's big sister, and watching over others had become second nature to her by the time the party was formed.
"There's no need. I don't get lost that-" he fell silent when he noticed that Elaine's eyes had tilted towards the ground, and before he could ask her, she had already begun pointing at his feet.
Carefully, with as little motion as possible, Auguste turned his head downwards. It was pure black, its scales glistening in the daylight as it slithered ever so silently by Auguste's feet. Auguste remained still, going so far as to hold his breath to avoid being seen as anything more than a still object. He had seen snakes and vipers while traveling around this region and this was not exactly a special sight to behold. However, at those times, Gladiolus was there, guiding them, telling them which were venomous and which were not, even dealt with a few should they prove dangerous enough. Without Gladiolus here and with the serpent so close to him, he had no choice but to remain frozen and wait for the slithery creature to pass. It was the only thing he thought to do in his current state of surprise.
All of a sudden, he saw the snake tensing up as if startled by something. Auguste didn't know why the snake had reacted the way it did, but his instincts flared up and adrenaline coursed through his veins. He could feel it, the serpent's intent to kill in its motion, and quickly, he kicked off the ground, leaping backward just as the snake rose to strike.
It's coming! Auguste could feel it as he reflexively placed his hand on the hilt of his sword. The snake is coming for me!
He was ready to fight. As if a switch had been flipped, his fight or flight instinct had tuned to 'fight'. To kill it before it kills you, by his instincts, it was what he had decided to be the best response in this case. Auguste was able to escape death on more than one occasion due to honing this instinct.
He was ready to go for it. Due to the weight of his hefty shortsword, his swing would be slow in comparison to the speed of a snake's bite. He had no time to think, he had to strike first, to act before the snake even commits itself fully to the kill. That was the only way he could surpass the beast's speed.
Then, a shadow fell over the serpent. With swiftness and not a sign of hesitation, a pair of rugged hands reached out, the rough fingers coiling around the snake's neck, locking its head in position and its jaws tightly shut.
He was able to stop himself in the nick of time, twisting his body at odd angles just so he could stop his swing.
"That was dangerous!" he wanted to say, but the words never came out.
"Are you alright?" Elaine was the first to ask.
"I-" Auguste too another deep breath, relaxing himself before speaking, "I'm fine, at least, I don't think I was bitten."
"That's good," she said, the serpent still writhing in her hands. "You sure gave me a fright. Well, at least we have an appetizer for lunch now."
"You're going to keep holding it like that?"
"Normally, I'd put it in a sack, but the only sack I have are for my laundry and I'm not keen with this thing slithering around in my clothes."
"Maybe we should cut its head off first?"
"But then the blood would get everywhere. That wouldn't be good."
Auguste stared at the serpent uncomfortably. He had seen plenty of them before, that much was true, but ever since he woke up with one coiling around his leg, he had developed quite a distaste for the creature.
"At any rate, we should catch up with the others."
"We should, shouldn't we? Come, it's this way."
Elaine began leading the way, only to turn back after a few steps forward.
"I'm right behind you."
And by that, he meant at least ten paces behind.
They went along the trail, following the markings on the surrounding trees to help them find their way to the others.
"Do you believe in fate?" Elaine spoke up.
"It's a thing... Maybe?" Auguste answered vaguely, and rather than calling it an answer, it felt more like an incoherent mashing of words. It didn't seem like he had thought about it before.
"I don't quite like the idea of my life being determined by someone other than myself," said Elaine.
She had meant to say it a while back. It was an urge she felt each time whenever Auguste went to pray at one of those altars. However, each time, she held it back. It was none of her business what Auguste believes in and it was none of his business what she thought of it. Yet, she had gone and done it. After all those times, the floodgates cracked open just a little, and she let it spill.
"I'm sorry," she quickly added, "I didn't mean to-"
"Neither do I," Auguste came back with an unexpected answer. "I don't want someone or something that's not me deciding where I go or what I do."
"But you worship the Goddess of Fate and Guidance, don't you?"
Though she wanted to continue the conversation no longer, what Auguste just said stirred her curiosity and she could not help but dig deeper in spite of herself.
"I do, I guess. It's complicated."
"What are you talking about?"
"Um, well, I told you before, right, that I came from the town of Lars, or rather, a small village close to Lars."
Lars was a small town located in the northern territories of the Vestal Coalition. It was a vassal town under the city-state of Fortuna, who chiefly worshiped the goddess, Ceratias.
"It is a tradition of Fortuna, and therefore Lars," Auguste continued to explain, "Any child who became of age at the age of thirteen was to be brought to the temple and have their 'fate' deciphered by the priest and priestesses. I got mine and so did the other children with me. Usually, the priest and priestesses have quite a way with words when describing what they saw in the children, easing them to their 'destinies'. The priestess I met though, she was blunt, mean-spiritedly so. I, um, didn't like what I heard."
"What did you get?" Elaine was getting invested. This was likely the first time Auguste even got close to telling his reasons for coming out here, to risk his life delving into the Dungeons. Not even Morganna, who was with him when they both set out on their journey, knew what his goal was.
"It's nothing interesting, certainly nothing worth talking about."
Elaine didn't believe him. It can't be 'nothing interesting', she thought. Still, she could take a hint. He wasn't going to tell her more than that, not for the time being at least.
"But you still worship the goddess even after that?"
"Like I said, it's complicated."
A little after the conversation died down, Auguste and Elaine caught sight of a small figure, trudging along with her short legs, her fluffy pigtails swaying left and right as she climbed up the hilly path, there was Henrietta, and ahead of her were the rest of the party.
"Hey guy, look what I've caught!" Elaine called out to them, raising up the long slithery creature in her right hand for the rest to see.
"Ack! Why would yer drag that thing around with yer!?"
Henrietta was the one who responded first. Like Auguste, she has no love for long and slithery creatures either.
"What are you going to use that for?" Morganna came forward to take a closer look. She was used to handling snakes, mainly as ingredients.
"I'm thinking of using it as an appetizer for lunch."
"I don't know," Morganna frowned, "I don't like them too bony."
"We could try deep-frying them," Gladiolus suggested.
"Deep fry?" Elaine tilted her head. She had never heard the term before.
"It's a method of cooking in which you submerge food in hot oil," Gladiolus explained, "It'll make the meat crispy and the bones crunchy enough to chew."
"That kind of sounds nice," Finn commented, looking like he's going to start drooling at any moment.
"But where do we find oil in the middle of a forest?"
"If it's oil you need," Morganna began to speak, "I might just have the thing."
"Oh boy," Auguste spoke from afar, keeping a distance from Elaine and the creature in her iron grip. "You're talking about *that*, aren't you? It's not going to ruin our stomachs, would it?"
"Don't worry about it, I've used it plenty of times and the old hag never complained. In fact, that's all she ever allowed me to use my magic for," said Morganna, a hint of irritation can be heard from her tone. She had remembered something she rather not be reminded of.
End of Chapter 5