Dungeons of the Abyss and the Unchosen Heroes
It has been said that the Abyss, in its chaotic nature, possesses no true form. Instead, the forms in which it manifests are but reflections of the minds of living beings. For the witches who make use of the Abyss for their craft, the true form of their magic is in fact echoes of their minds.
In order to manifest the desired magic, a practitioner of the witches' school of magic, the Abyssal arts, must first possess a deep understanding of that which they wish to bring forth, an understanding that is, at most times, something that is beyond words or any form of physical expression. And so, seeking to gain understanding beyond what could be observed with the five senses, the witches sought out 'Ether', the ever elusive existence that permeates all things in this world.
While under normal circumstances, Ether itself could not be observed by regular means, seen only by the lights they emit when a high enough density of Ether is present. Due to their elusive nature, the composition of Ether continues to elude scholars within both the fields of magic and physics alike. However, even though it is of an unknown substance, what was known about it is that it filled everything in this world, from the soil of the earth to the air in the sky, within the nonliving as well as the living. Some even suggested that it was only due to Ether, that the world works the way it does, that the bodies of living things function as they do, and without it, this world would be as chaotic as the Abyss.
It has once been proposed that Ether are the souls of all things, or at the very least, the closest thing to souls in concept. This proposal was based upon one of the properties of Ether, that in its natural state, Ether passively absorbs and stores 'memories' of its environment. In theory, if one were to gather samples of Ether from within a person throughout their lifetime, one may be able to piece together a near flawless copy of said person's consciousness.
While Ether exists in all things, greater 'activity' is observed in the living and less in the non-living. 'Activity', in this case, refers to the amount of 'memories' being absorbed and 'leaking out'. It is through said 'leaking' that those practicing the Abyssal arts obtain the much needed understanding to manifest their magic.
Morganna, being a witch's former apprentice, naturally, still lacked the understanding to properly manifest her magic. And so, as apprentices do, Morganna employed the use of 'catalysts', objects made to possess specific 'memories' within their Ether through either natural or unnatural means, to aid in her casting. In her possession, there were three catalysts, a staff made from the wood of an ashen tree that had been scorched by a firestorm, a wand made from a branch of an old evergreen tree that had endured many winters, and finally, a wand made from a branch of an olive tree and was then drenched in enough olive oil that one could still catch a light whiff of the fragrance even now.
Standing before the pot set before her, Morganna held daintily her olive branch wand. Since it took longer to reach the lake in the hills than expected, it was decided that they would have lunch before doing laundry.
By the lake, Gladiolus had already cut off the head of the serpent Elaine had caught. After skinning it, he then proceeded to cut open the snake's belly, extracting the organs and cleaning the insides with lake water. Seeing that the meat shall soon be ready, Morganna began working her magic over the pot. She waved her wand, drawing a straight, horizontal line above the pot's mouth with the tip of her wand. Then, as if from an invisible slit between spaces, fragrant, gold liquid spilled forth, filling the pot.
Morganna looked up towards the sky. Though it was day time, she knew that beyond the blue sky, the stars still shone, and so long as they do, the Heaven's Ward was in effect. Speed was of the essence. The meal must be completed before all of the magical oil is erased by the starlights.
Upon exchanging her olive wand for the staff of ashen wood, she hastily pointed the end of the staff at the bottom of the hanging pot.
"You guys might want to step back," said Auguste to the gawking Henri, Finn, and Elaine, "Oil tends to bubble and splatter when you're frying things. It's going to hurt if they get on you. Worst if it gets you in the eye."
"Really?" Elaine was surprised. "Isn't that kind of dangerous for Morgan?"
"Don't worry about it, that's what her robes and glasses are for," Auguste replied, half-jesting.
"Oh, so that' what they're for."
"THAT. IS. NOT. WHAT. THEY. ARE. FOR." Morganna was not pleased. "Don't make me sound like some magical chef! I am a proud witch, and don't you sully that fact."
Elaine was surprised. This was the first time she had heard Morganna speaking in such a strong tone.
"What's the difference? You both wear tall hats and work over pots," Auguste made his claim, his voice filled with righteousness. He would have sounded quite convincing were his voice not coming from behind a tree, a tree which was then promptly blasted with a bolt of fire. A scorch mark was left behind but, fortunately, nothing caught on fire.
With a deep sigh, Morganna returned her attention back to the pot of oil, waiting to be heated. With the ashen staff in her hand, she reached for the Ether within the catalyst. For a moment, she could feel it, the tree scorched by flames, pieces of it breaking off as light and heat burst forth from its being. But, what began the fire? The Ether within the ashen wood has no knowledge of it. It only remembered being scorched. It remembered only the heat and light and being torn apart by it.
Morganna was unsatisfied. Each time she wielded this staff, she felt that she had gleaned only a small fragment of the whole. There was so much more she needed to know, so much more she needed to learn, and she was determined to do it all on her own. She had no need for masters, mentors, or teachers, no need to be dictated and restrained by their traditions, cowardice, and narrow-mindedness. She will gain more knowledge, more understanding, more power, and more recognition on her own. She will prove that her's was the right way.
"Fire... Why... fire?" Morganna muttered.
"Morgan?" she heard a voice calling for her, but for some reason, she ignored it. It was a voice that irritated her and she'd rather not hear him anymore today.
"Flames... What is......?" Morganna continued on, her consciousness drifting further and further in.
"Morgan!" the irritating voice shouted.
All of a sudden, Morgan felt something squeezing down on her wrist. It was painful and made her aware of herself.
She turned to look, and there she found Auguste, his face pale and his hand sweaty. No, it wasn't his hand that was sweaty, it was her arm and so was her entire body. It was hot, and it soon became obvious where the source of the heat came from. Before her, where the pot hung, a pillar of flames raged on, flames so hot that the bottom of the iron pot was turning red.
As soon as she could, Morganna ceased her magic, forcing the fire to recede. When the fire ceased, across the hanging pot, she spotted Gladiolus stuffing an arrow back into his quiver. There was no doubt in her mind that he was about to shoot her, and she did not blame him for the decision.
It was said that when you stare into the Abyss, the Abyss stares back. If the witches' magic, which relied upon the Abyss, were the echoes of their own minds, then what they'll end up staring into may very well be their own unfiltered consciousness.
The mind is a wild beast, impossible to fully tame, and though Morganna had intended to bring forth only the flames from the Abyss, her overtly strong desire for knowledge, and therefore, power and recognition, might have leaked through. The Abyss twists reality to reflect the minds of those who came into contact with it, however, as much as it twists reality, its reflection of the mind is truer than the reflection one may see in the mirror. With the mind being the wild beast it is, should it ever break free of the inhibitions and reasons that chain it, what might become the bearer of said mind?
'Demon', they were called, beings twisted so by the Abyss in both body and mind that not even the Heaven's Ward could repair them. It had been said that the first of the Demons came from the witches, so devoted to the mastery of the Abyss that they fell snare to it. Many had to be hunted and put down, and it was written in history as the 'Great Demon Hunt'. The outbreak of Demons was an affair so bloody, that it led to the continual hunting and persecution of witches as well as anyone suspected to be one. Only in the last hundred years, when the witches took the Vestal Coalition's side and drove back the then aggressively expanding Principality of Zeth from the territories of Vestal, did they proved themselves valuable assets during those warring times.
Ironically, in the end, they won back their place in the world through bloodshed surpassing that of the Demon outbreak. Still, that did not change the way the world saw them, as Demons ready to be born at any time. Wherever they may be, they shall be feared and kept a constant vigilance over. There was even an order formed to deal with witch related threats. They called themselves, the 'Spellbreakers', and though their presence in the five kingdoms protected many, their overzealousness has also been the cause of many problems between witches and the rest of the populace.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," Morganna apologized profusely. "I... I lost myself for a moment there."
"Morganna, you said you left your apprenticeship before you were deemed ready, correct?" asked Gladiolus.
"........." Morgan only bit her lips, unable to respond.
"It's fine," Auguste placed himself in-between Morganna and Gladiolus. "I'll take care of her if it comes to it. That's what I'm here for. Well, one of the reasons anyways."
"Is that true?"
Gladiolus turned to Morganna, who managed to return a nod while her eyes were fixated upon the ground.
Having received a semblance of a reply, Gladiolus turned towards the pot of oil.
"Well, I better get frying. While the oil's still hot," he said, now with a softer, cheerier tone. "Morganna, try to give magic casting a break for the rest of the day, alright?"
"Yes..." she replied with a quiet voice.
With that, everyone went back to whatever they were doing before and pretended to not be bothered about what just happened. Elaine went back to sorting out her laundry, Finn went back to practicing his axe swings, and Henrietta went back to trying out some weird stretches that she heard would make one grow taller.
Once things appeared to have calmed down, only then, did Morganna let out a sigh. She couldn't believe that she had done that. She had been so careful up till this point and had been able to cast her magic without incidents even in the most stressful of situations. To think that she'd slip up during a day when nothing was supposed to happen.
Can it be, Morganna thought to herself, did I get stressed out without realizing it? if Gusty hadn't stopped me, would I have really...
Speaking of Auguste.
"Hey, Gusty..." Morganna called out in a soft voice.
"You alright?" Auguste asked, not necessary in response to her call.
"I'm fine. That's why you can let go now."
He hadn't realized it, that his hand was still on her wrist. His grip was so stiff that he had to pry it off her finger by finger, and when it finally came loose, he realized that it was shaking.
Auguste took a glance at Morganna, his eyes clearly showed that he had something on his mind though he ended up saying nothing before moving away. Sitting himself under a tree a short distance away and stayed there until the snake meat was ready.
For the rest of the day Auguste appeared to be distracted, even as he ate, even as he washed off the blood and stench out of the fire resistant cloak he had looted from one of the moving corpses, he was rather out of it.
That night, it was Auguste and Gladiolus' turn to be the first shift of nightwatch. Even though they were in town, there were still chances of someone trying to steal from them. They were barely getting by as they were, getting rob would ruin them. They wouldn't be able to procure enough supplies to make it to the next Dungeon Town, and even if they somehow made it, they wouldn't be able to purchase information and maps from the guild informants, they wouldn't be able to perform repairs and maintenance on their equipment, and they most definitely won't have enough provisions to last them through the Dungeon.
"Gusty?" Morganna called. Thought it was supposed to be Auguste and Gladiolus tonight, Morganna had asked to take his place.
"Hm?" replied Auguste from across the campfire.
"Is there something on your mind?"
"Why?" he asked curtly.
"Nothing... It's nothing. You just seemed out of it the whole day."
"Well, I mean," Auguste looked up towards the night sky. "I just wish I brought some flour."
"Pardon?" asked Morganna, eyes wide.
"Yeah. You see, if you cover something in flour before you deep fry them, you'll get this crunchy outer layer once it's all done. If I knew we were going to deep fry something, I would have brought some."
"That's... what was on your mind?"
"Now that I think about it, maybe I should have asked you to make some. I know Gladiolus said no more magic for the day, but just a small amount should-"
"Let me stop you right there. I can't make flour."
"Even though you can make oil?"
"That's the only sort of insignificant gimmick I was allowed to learn."
"But flour is not one of them?"
"Why would it be? Food created from the Abyssal arts would only be erased by the Heaven's Ward. You wouldn't gain anything from it."
"It shouldn't matter in this case though, the flour is only there for taste and texture anyways."
"It still doesn't warrant going through the trouble of learning it."
"Oh! Oh!" Auguste suddenly exclaimed, as if he had just remembered something. "But have you heard about dust explosions?"
"Dust what?" Morgan tilted her head. She had a feeling she read about it somewhere, in the dusty old tomes her former master had. Though the master burned them all after she found out that Morganna had been looking through them.
"It's when you fill a closed space with flammable powder and setting fire to it. The resulting explosion is called a dust explosion. Apparently, it's pretty powerful."
"So you're saying that I could do the same with flour?"
"Then maybe I'll think about it. Would wheat stalks make good catalysts, I wonder."
"Maybe if you got a bunch and bundle them up to make a staff?"
Morganna was awfully chatty with Auguste. Though she would have usually kept to herself, when she's with Auguste, she tended to become more talkative. Perhaps it was only natural. When Morgan decided to leave her former master, essentially running away from the only home she knew, Auguste was there. It wasn't that he was tagging along though, they just happened to be taking the same road at the same time when they set out on their journey. That time, Morgan had only met Auguste a day prior, bonded after being attacked by an abnormally large boar. In the end, Morganna chased it away by splashing it with oil and setting the boar on fire. Auguste followed it, took pity on it as it lay burning, and killed it with the dagger he had with him. The incident gave Morganna the confidence to set out on her own.
As for Auguste, well frankly, Morganna never really did know why he decided to leave. He was just there, on the road with luggage on his back when she ran into him while leaving.
"Still, it's pretty great to have as much oil as you want. Now that I know it's safe to eat, let's just fry everything from now on."
"Didn't Gladiolus say that fried food isn't good for you?"
"Well yes, but doesn't the Heaven's Ward eventually erases the oil anyways. Doesn't that mean you get all the taste but none of the harm?" All of a sudden, there was a sparkle within Auguste's eye. "Wait, hold on a minute... Did we just discover something that would revolutionize the culinary world? Is this it, the holy grail of gourmet?
Auguste's excitement seemed to have him flabbergasted.
"I would rather be discovering something that would revolutionize magic though."
Morganna, on the other hand, did not share his enthusiasm.
"Oh come on, don't be like that. Maybe your master was on to something after all."
"Don't you start, Gusty!"
"Fine, fine. Sheesh!"
Morganna sighed. She really didn't want to think about the old hag.
"Still though, how'd you know so much about deep frying? I hadn't heard of it till today and the old hag never mentioned it. If she did, I'm sure she'd make me fry her something every day. That hag is a picky one after all."
"Huh... Where have I heard about it?"
"You don't do it at home?"
"No, we use butter back home. Maybe I heard it from someone somewhere, an elf maybe?"
"You think it's an elven thing?"
"Must be, right? I mean, none of you ever heard of such a thing till Gladiolus mentioned it right?"
"Hm... You might be right. Let's ask him about it some time."
That being said, by the time they woke up in the morning, the conversation the night prior had already left their minds. The time to relax was over. It was time to get back to work. It was time to return to the Dungeon.
End of Chapter 6