Dungeons of the Abyss and the Unchosen Heroes
As sure as all things living will one day perish, morning arrived as promised, a fact that Auguste had always despised as he cranked his eyelids open.
Again, it was a night of unsatisfactory rest. "How many hours will it take before I am able to drift away?" The more he was bothered by that question, the harder it was to sleep, and yet each night, he agonized over it. Last night, other than the frustration over the lack of sleep, however, his mind was also weighed down by a certain worry. He had tried to hide it for the entirety of yesterday, but he was never able to keep it off his mind.
He thought that he was already resolved, that he was prepared to do it at any time. He had been naive and let his guard down. He thought that he could relax a little since it was laundry day, a day where they'd just do laundry and relax. Never would he imagine that Morganna would suddenly come so close to being consumed by the Abyss on such a day. Morganna had once told him that witches are most vulnerable to the Abyss when their minds have become weak and their hearts were shaken. On the other hand, so long as they kept their minds cool and their hearts calm, such dangers could be avoided, that Auguste will only be required to fulfill his promise should she ever slip up, something Morganna was very confident that she would not do. Still, Auguste had to be prepared just in case.
Auguste had prepared himself, at least, he thought that he had. Yet, when it seemed that the worst was about the happen, of the entire party, he must have been the most unwilling to do it. Fortunately, Morganna came back to her senses and he was glad that he didn't have to go through with it. He got lucky this time. However, what about next time? What if she never returned no matter how much he called out to her? Auguste knew that he will just have to do it when the time came, he knew it in his head at least, but still, whether his heart would comply was another question entirely.
"Auguste, have you slept well?" a soothing voice called out.
The voice snapped Auguste out of it. He had been squatting before a bucket of cold water from the town well, staring into his own reflection.
"As well as it'll ever be I'm afraid," he replied before promptly splashing the water onto his face. The coldness stung, yet at the same time, highly refreshing.
After a light breakfast, the party got their gear together while Elaine checked on their supplies for the second time around. Once everyone was prepared, they set forth towards the Dungeon once more.
On the day prior, upon returning to town, the party heard the news, that tremors could be felt from within the Dungeon and the surrounding areas. It was a tremor that lasted but for a few moments, one that seemed to shake not only the ground, but the air as well. That was a sign, a sign that the Abyssal rift beneath the Dungeon had been sealed.
Usually, when the Abyssal rift has been sealed, the activity within the Dungeon would drop dramatically, as if the creatures within had lost all sense of direction and purpose, as if the Dungeon had been pulling their strings this entire time and said strings had just been cut. With that information in hand, the party's goal for this trip was to reach the black wall they've found previously, where they picked up a gem with something murky swirling within. The gem had sold for six of their thirteen silvers earned. While there was some hope to find another one, it was not their only reason for going there.
The thing was, as with the cases of most explored Dungeons, much of the upper floors of the Dungeon had been looted clean. If a dungeoneering party wishes to make a profit, they'd have to go deeper, where fewer had been to and therefore would possibly have more valuables waiting to be found. By this line of thinking, the Henrietta Company set their sights on the black wall and the areas beyond, thinking that it should be safer now that the rift had been closed.
The day was cloudless and the sky turned a clear blue as the sun rose into the sky. It seemed like it would be a beautiful day, not that it mattered to the Dungeoneers. Their only concern was that the clear, sunny sky was lighting up the muddy path leading up to the well. Along the way, the party encountered a mass of Dungeoneers heading the same way, far more than what was seen in the last five days. Surely, just like Auguste's party, upon realizing that the rift had been sealed, they decided that it was finally worth heading deeper in, down to the floors that had been far too risky to search while the Dungeon was 'alive'. However, this might very well be the last time one would see so many Dungeoneers here, as once the rift has been sealed, the Dungeon would give birth no more. There will be no more creatures to kill and harvest, no more strange objects to find. The Dungeon would be, in a sense, 'dead'. And soon, with the Dungeon drying up, so will the revenue towards the Dungeon Town, and slowly but surely, it'll be abandoned.
Further along the path, guards could be seen patrolling the perimeter and checking for guild badges to make sure that only those with the proper authorizations could enter the Dungeon and at the same time, making sure that nothing born from the Dungeon makes its way to the town.
Soon, they arrived before the old well. They've only passed by here a no more than six times, to and from the Dungeon, however, the party felt as if the old well had been part of their lives since forever ago. Perhaps it's the trick of the Dungeon, or perhaps it's just their own natural ability to adapt to their environment.
The first one down the well was Auguste, one of the two designated scouts. Sometime before, it had always been Gladiolus who went in first, but he was only a Guide, hired for a limited period of time to show this amateur party the ropes. That was why, bit by bit, he had been handing his duties off to the rest of the party so that even when he's gone, they'll be able to function without issues.
Once Auguste gave them the clear, Henrietta followed, and behind her was Finn. They were the most heavily armed of the six, and with Auguste, they formed the frontlines of the party. Then, came Morganna, Gladiolus, and finally, Elaine.
With Auguste taking the lead and Gladiolus bringing up the rear, the Henrietta Company's expedition had begun proper.
The descent was quick and uneventful. They have come and gone through the same hallways and stairs plenty of times now. Unlike a 'living' Dungeon, a 'dead' Dungeon does not change and neither will it created new traps nor rooms. It will remain still till the day it collapses, if such a day ever comes. As such, with their familiarity and with the markings they've made on the walls, the party could find their way around the upper floors of this particular Dungeon as if their own backyard. With torches in hand and consulting the map ever so occasionally, they made it down to the lower floors with ease and just in time for their bellies to begin grumbling for the third meal of the day.
"We didn't run into anything today, did we?" Auguste commented as they set up their camp.
"I guess they must've been all wiped out," Henrietta replied him.
"That would be for the best. But, it was pretty quiet that other day too, at least till we ran into the corpses."
"That room we found was pretty fresh though, I guess no one ever found them. There were plenty of them sweet loots too. Damn! Are yer sure we don't want to go back to get 'em?"
"The entrance was sealed. Unless you want to waste time looking for another path that might not even exist, I don't recommend it."
"Ughhhhhh!!!" Henrietta fell to the ground, squirming, kicking, doing something akin to a child throwing a tantrum. "We had such a big haul too!"
"Um-hmm," Auguste vaguely responded, deciding that he'd be better off ignoring her from this point forward.
After having their meal, the rested for the 'night' and there were no incidents.
Without sunlight, the Dungeon was a dark, cold place, and without the sun, it was impossible to tell when the morning had come. As such, Dungeoneers had to rely on their biological clock to wake them up. In the case that they were late in their waking, the last shift of nightwatch would wake them.
With the first grumbling of the stomach since waking, it was officially morning, and after having breakfast, the party set off deeper into the dark depths.
It was a little after lunchtime when they finally saw the landmark of their destination. Glistening under their torchlight, it was a black wall. As the approached it, Morganna began to feel uncomfortable. It seemed as though she and the wall had a bad affinity. Or, perhaps she was simply reminded of the nightmares she claimed that the gem they picked up around here gave to her.
Once more, Auguste examined the black wall, caressing it with his bare fingers. It was smooth to the touch and had a bumpy surface, as if it was made from hardened gel. The last time they tried to take a sample of it back, they broke a pickaxe without even leaving so much as a scratch, and so they wouldn't try again.
They moved along the wall, checking the ground they walked on as they went. They did not find anything. Disappointed, they moved beyond the wall and went deeper.
"I think I found something," Auguste reported upon returning from his scouting.
He had found a collapsed wall, and beyond the said wall, a tunnel was revealed. It stood out, as the Dungeon was primarily of halls and rooms made of stone bricks akin to an actual dungeon one would find beneath some castle.
"This wasn't here before, was it?" asked Henrietta, seeming less curious and more excited at the prospect of finding a previously undiscovered area of a Dungeon.
"I don't think it was," Gladiolus replied. "I certainly don't remember it being there."
"This makes it our second time in a row, doesn't it?" said Morganna, not as excited as Henrietta about it, remembering what a horrible time they had the last time they found an undiscovered location.
"How did the wall collapse? The tremors maybe?" Auguste asked.
"Maybe a creature broke through it?" Finn replied. "The Dungeon may be dead, but some of its creatures are still up and about, right? Maybe they dug it?"
"Something this big over the course of two to three days?" Auguste questioned Finn's rationale as he tried to measure the size of the tunnel with his eyes. It was, as far as he could tell, over five meters in height and two to three meters in width. "It's possible if we're closer to the Abyssal rift at the bottom, but we're not *that* deep in, are we?"
"Maybe it was already here when the Dungeon was formed?" Henri suggested.
"Then it wouldn't be a part of the Dungeon now would it? It'd just be a regular cavern," said Elaine.
"In that case, I suppose we won't be checking it out after all," Auguste decided.
"Huh!? Why not? And who made yer the leader?"
"Look," Auguste responded, "At best, it's a regular cave with nothing in it, and at worst, judging by the size of this tunnel, there's a giant something at the end of it ready to eat us. There's no merit in trying to investigate."
"Wait, a giant what now?"
"Ah," Gladiolus spoke up, "I have heard of giant, worm-like creatures that would dig tunnels with their massive maws and lie in wait at the end of the tunnel with their mouths wide open. Then, when a prey gets close, part of their maw would detach and lunges towards said prey and pull it into the worm's mouth. They call it the 'Death Maw' if I recall correctly."
"D-D-D-D- Death Maw!?" Henrietta stuttered, her complexion pale. "Then are we safe here? We should be gettin' lost right about now shouldn't we?"
"We should be fine as long as we avoid the tunnels."
"Good! Let's just do that! What're we waitin' for? Harriet Company, move out!"
"I thought it's Henrietta Company," Auguste took his chance to quip.
"Y-y-you shut up, Gusty, I know what I said!"
Ignoring the tunnel, the party traveled deeper into the Dungeon. However, after spending the entire length of time before their stomach grumbled for the third time of the day, they weren't able to find anything valuable. This was their second day here. The supplies they could afford would last them only three more days, half a day more if one counted the extra they brought with them just in case. Considering the return trip, they could go on for one more day before they'll be forced to turn back. If they don't find anything soon, they'll be in trouble.
"Hey, check this out," Auguste called out to the rest of the party who weren't that far away from him.
It was a scorch mark on the ground. It seemed to be an aftermath of a campfire.
"No ashes," Gladiolus remarked. "Might be a witch's magic. Morgan, can you take a look."
Morganna came over and traced her fingers over the markings, reaching into the Ether within the scorched floor.
"No doubt, this is magic of the Abyssal arts," she said.
"How long ago was this?"
"Not too long. It was still burning around breakfast time."
"You think the party that camped here is still around?" Auguste asked.
"Why? Yer planning somethin' bad? Henrietta retorted. "I know we're desperate, but we're not *that* desperate."
"Huh, I thought you'd be the first one to jump in on 'somethin' bad'."
"Look, I might want to get rich as much as the other guy, but I ain't robbin' nobody, alright!"
"So you're robbing somebody?"
"Shut up, Gusty! You know what I meant!"
"Alright, quiet down you two," Elaine intervened. "How about we have some dinner already?"
"I agree," said Gladiolus. "An empty stomach is bound to make people cranky."
"But here? On someone else's campsite?"
Auguste was a little uneasy about running into other parties down in the Dungeon. Even if they're fellow Dungeoneers, if they're not part of your party, you can never know if they'll be friends or foes.
"There's no rule saying that two parties can't camp at the same place," said Gladiolus. "Besides, if there's a chance we might run into one another, it's best we let them know we're here ahead of time to prevent any accidents later."
After all, the Dungeon was a dark place and Dungeoneers were usually well armed and jumpy. Accidents could occur if parties ever walk in on one another during combat or surprise each other unintentionally.
And so, they decided to make camp there, keeping vigilance while waiting for the other party to make their appearance.
For a good amount of time, no one came, and it seemed as though the other party had moved on. Then, all of a sudden, Gladiolus turned his head, his hand on his bow but he did not draw it.
"Who goes there!?" an unfamiliar voice called out from the hallway. The hallway was dark, meaning that whoever that was, they had already put out their torches, likely having seen the light of the campfire from around the corner.
"Dungeoneers," Gladiolus replied, his voice calm.
For a few short moments, no reply came, but the party waited. The ones in the dark were probably discussing whether or not should they approach. Eventually, figures can be seen walking out into the light. There were five of them.
Leading the pack was a confident looking young man with a heater shield strapped to his arm, a long-sword hanging off one side of his waist, and a tomahawk on the other. His brown eyes held a strong yet gentle gaze and his dark hair can be seen peeking out from his barbute helmet, the kind of helmet with a T-shaped opening for the face. On his body, he wore a chest plate, a pair of pauldrons on his shoulders, a pair of gantlets on his hands, vambraces on his forearms, and greaves on his legs. He had almost a full set of armor, with whatever parts his armor did not protect covered by the chainmail he wore underneath. In his party, there were two others armed in a similar manner. While Auguste wasn't an expert in metallurgy, he could somewhat tell from the sound of them moving that it was lighter than iron, so it was likely steel of some sort. This party was doing well and it showed in their gear.
"The name's Conrad, I'm the leader of this party," the leading young man introduced himself.
"And I'm Henrietta," the short girl stepped forward. "I'm the one in charge of this party here."
To Conrad's confusion, Henrietta immediately flared red.
"What!? Yer got a problem laddie!!!"
"Oh, no, no, no!" Conrad hastily took a few steps back, his hands waving while backing away. "I simply did not expect someone so young to be in charge."
"I ain't a kid yer hear!"
"Well you can't exactly blame him, because you sure look like one," Auguste cut his way into the exchange.
"Oi! Whose side are yer one, Gusty!"
"I'm just telling it as it is," said Auguste, plainly. "And you act like a child too, by the way."
"Oh, I've had it! I'm takin' yer down right now!"
"I apologize for that," Gladiolus stepped in while Henrietta was sufficiently distracted. "Our leader is a little conscious of her size."
Conrad let out a small laugh, trying to brush it aside, albeit awkwardly.
"We all have things we rather not hear, I'm sure. Once more, the name's Conrad."
The two exchanged a firm handshake, establishing friendly relations between the two parties.
By the time Henrietta had calmed down, the introductions had been done and over with. Henrietta's and Auguste's introduction were done by proxy.
"Alright," Conrad spoke up while relaxing by the campfire. "Now that we're well and acquainted, I have a little proposal for you guys. Interested?
"Not in particular, no," said Henrietta, still grumpy.
"But do tell regardless," said Auguste, overriding her.
Conrad laughed, he was beginning to grow fond of this party he'd just met. Sure, their leader had some issue in regards to personality, but her inability to hold in an outburst lent her a childlike, or rather, childish sense of honesty, and honesty, along with trustworthiness, were two things that one can't help but learn to appreciate in this line of business.
Reaching for the rucksack he was carrying, he pulled out what seemed to be some kind of shell with a dark bluish hue and an iridescent surface. It was curved and about half a meter wide. He placed the shell on the ground.
"Muriel, can you demonstrate?" he called to one of his party members.
The one stepping forward was a woman with an iron staff in hand with mace-like heads on each end. With her cold blue eyes, she briefly measured her swing before bringing down her staff with a twirl of her wrist.
A clanging sound echoed through the dark halls. Muriel blew out a sigh with her pouty lips as she gazed upon the shell she had just struck, there was a look of defeat in her eyes. The shell, the blue, iridescent shell, through slightly curved and placed on a flat surface, did not bend even the slightest after being struck dead center.
"Impressive isn't it?" Conrad nearly exclaimed, seeming rather excited about this. "We're thinking that it'd probably fetch a good price if we sold it to the guild."
"So why tell us about it?" Elaine questioned, she was getting suspicious. Dungeoneers risk their lives in exchange for profit and as a consequence, they usually weren't this generous.
Conrad had a smirk on his face when the question was asked, as if he had expected this exact response.
"The problem is, they're kind of hard to harvest, and as you may already know, it's only a matter of time before others find out about this and that'll cut into our own profits. So, I'm thinking that if we have someone to help us, we'll both be able to make a good profit while we're ahead. You guys seemed like a trustworthy lot, so I thought you might be perfect for the job. What do you say?"
The Henrietta Company all simultaneously looked towards Gladiolus. The truth was, while Henrietta was the official leader, she had very little authority over the rest if, it weren't apparent already. And though she did have the final say on what to do and where to go, the moment to moment decisions were laid upon Gladiolus, the most experienced of the group, while combat was left to Auguste to command.
"I am not averse to helping one another, but we are going to need a bit more details before we could make a proper decision," said Gladiolus. "Will you fill us in?"
Conrad smiled, a little cheekily too.
End of Chapter 7