Dungeons of the Abyss and the Unchosen Heroes
Ending his break earlier than others, Auguste decided to scout the areas ahead. From this point onwards, it was apparently unknown territory for even Conrad and his party. With him, was Feris, the handyman of Conrad's party who was also apparently in charge of scouting.
Soon after entering a cavern, Auguste raised his arm to the side, a sign asking for those behind him to stop. For the most part, signs used by Dungeoneers were simplified and shared universally with all parties to make impromptu cooperations easier should the need arise. Of course, that did not stop some parties from developing their own secret signs. In this case, Auguste was using a universal sign.
Hearing that Feris' footsteps had stopped, he turned his hand upwards, pointing out something above.
Feris looked up and furrowed her brows. Above, she could see a large number of the iridescent insects crawling about, somehow clinging onto the ceiling in spite of their size. They were far more numerous than the groups they've encountered prior. They might not be able to handle this number with just two parties. Fortunately, these insects weren't particularly aggressive, only ever attacking when they or those around them were being attacked. Honestly, if they pick their targets wisely, this may very well be the easiest money Auguste and the rest of his party have ever made. That being said, at this point, Auguste wanted to turn back. Though from their behavior it was assumed that the insects weren't aggressive, it was only an assumption. He did not know the true nature of these creatures. They might end up being extremely territorial and attack them in hordes should they enter a certain area. Either way, Auguste has no desire to be in a situation where he's overwhelmingly outnumbered by hostiles.
Unlike Auguste, however, Feris wanted to explore deeper. Tapping on Auguste's back and waving her fingers forward, she was making a sign telling him to keep going. From what he knew of them, Conrad's party has been operating for a little over a year now and Feris was there when it all began, making her at least nine months his senior as a scout. If she deemed it safe enough to keep going, Auguste has no heart in him to argue against it. A scout's job is to scout as far ahead as possible so that their party will have the information they need to safely proceed or pull back if it proves to be too much. To gain said information, it was only natural that a scout would have to risk their necks at least a little and go as far as they judge it to be prudent. Feris had made the judgment that they should go further and Auguste decided to follow along.
As the two went in deeper, they kept their senses at the highest level of awareness while they navigated their way through the cavern filled an overwhelming number of the giant insects going about. For the moment, the insects were shying away from the two, but just in case, Auguste and Feris kept their alertness high.
A small hand tapped Auguste's shoulder while he's watching the insects pass him by on the wall close to him. It was a gentle tag, as to not surprise him. He turned towards Feris to see her pointing towards a particular spot in the corner of the cavern. There was an insect, unmoving even when approached. There appeared to be something wrong with it as its shell was cracked, split open in fact. What could have enough power to do that?
Auguste turned back towards Feris, wondering if they should investigate. They haven't seen anything like this up until this point, so they have no idea what would happen should they approach it.
In the end, they went to check it out, and when they did get close enough, they realized that the shell was unexpectedly thin and was hollow inside. From the looks of it, something seemed to have broken out of the shell, most likely the actual insect itself.
Going further in, they found more of these hollow shells, some of which still hold moisture within, apparently 'still fresh', as they say. At the moment, Auguste had a thought. These insects, they might still be in their nymph stage, not even adults yet. Whatever will they look like when they're fully grown?
By this point, apparently making the judgment that they've gone far enough, Feris turned towards the way they came and waved onward, signaling to Auguste that it's time to turn back, to which Auguste swiftly nodded to. He has no love for insects, especially not ones this big and not in these quantities. While it's not enough to make him shriek and run the other way, it certainly made him highly uncomfortable.
En route to the cavern where the rest were waiting, Auguste felt that something was off. Something was different.
It's the sound, he was quick to realize, the sound of 'their' footsteps.
A moment ago, the pitter-pattering footsteps of the insects had sounded something akin to a panicked strut, scrambling to get away from the two invaders of their den. However, that has changed, and while they remained frantic, there was a sense of unity within their steps, a sense of direction, a direction which Auguste and Feris were in. They were all heading right for the two.
"Run," said Feris in a quiet but clear voice, no longer bothering with signs and gestures. They had more pressing concerns than keeping a low profile at this point.
Auguste took off only half a step after Feris, the two of them sprinting back towards their parties at the swiftest speed they could muster. As they ran, Auguste heard a strange sound behind him, like a multitude of huge fans waving in unison. He thought back to when he saw the hollow shells, some of which seemed freshly cracked opened. However, he dared not look back. He imagined what would happen to him if he were to trip while being possibly chased by an army of giant insects. Hopefully, imagining it will be the only way he gets to experience that particular situation.
"Pack your bags, we're getting out of here!" Auguste yelled the moment he caught sight of his party sitting around the campfire.
Hearing the keywords echoed through the cavern, the Henrietta Company reflexively grabbed their things and began to make a break for it towards the way they came without a second look back. There wasn't much, if anything, excellent about this party, but the fact was that they've survived for three whole months in this business. With only two members actually experienced in combat, namely Gladiolus and Auguste, they owe much of their survival to their ability to turn around and run at the drop of a hat.
"Oi, Gusty, come on!"
"In a second!"
Auguste, on the other hand, instead of heading towards the exit, decided to run for his cheap rucksack. Once they return with the insect carapace, the Dungeoneers remaining in town will surely catch wind of this, meaning that they'll surely dive down here in droves searching for this particular tunnel and it'll only be a matter of time before they find it. There would probably not be another chance to make this kind of profit again. Even considering these things, normally, he wouldn't have gone for it. However, on that day, Auguste recalled Elaine's words. 'You can never have too much money', she said. 'It's not greed, it's about protecting ourselves,' she defended. He didn't think she was wrong, just that it was kind of sad. But, if it meant that he and his party will have even a slightly easier time in the near future, then perhaps it won't hurt to indulge in just a bit of avarice.
Closing in, Auguste leaped into the ground, sliding across it with his momentum while sticking his arm outwards. He didn't think it would work, in fact, he expected to completely miss the mark and when that happens, he'll give up. However, for some reason, just like that, with a clockwork-like precision, Auguste's arm slid right into the strap of the cheap linen rucksack. Immediately, he shifted his body to a kneeling position, and with one shoulder, he lifted the sack and began running.
"Oh geez, I'll feel that in the morning," he grunted out those words as he pulled something he felt should not be pulled in his back.
However, that will have to be a worry for the coming morning. To make sure that morning will even arrive, he can't afford to slow down. And so he made a mad dash towards the rest of his party without regards. Seeing that Auguste was making his way over, his party members started to move as well.
Then, for just a moment, Auguste took a glance back. Conrad's party, they were far more capable than the Henrietta Company. Rather than moving frantically, they made sure to assess the situation before making any rash decisions. This was their difference. Where the Henrietta Company would turn around and just run, Conrad's party was able to act calmly and accordingly in regards to the situation. This allowed them to find much more success than those of their peers. However, it was also due to their 'think first, act later' nature that they were just one step slower than Auguste's party to make the decision to run for it, and being one step behind was all it took.
Conrad's party did not expect it, that the insects would be behaving so much differently from what they knew. It seemed to happen so quickly, too quickly in fact, for these once docile creatures that only fought back when threatened to rush at them so aggressively. Was it because they sensed that their den was being invaded? That can't be. If that was the case, they should have done so sooner, shouldn't they? What could have possibly triggered such a sudden shift of behavior?
Whatever the reason may be, Conrad needed only to take one look at the numbers of hostiles coming at them to decide that they should retreat. He was relatively quick in analyzing the situation and made his call. Sadly, this was only after he had seen their numbers, when it was already too late.
"Conrad!" Tristan, the handsome one in Conrad's party members called out.
There were sounds coming from above, the sounds of large fans stirring the air in unison. When Conrad turned to look, there they were, right behind them, in the way of their escape, likely having emerged from the various other tunnels in the walls of the cavern. Their bodies were flat and on their backs were a set of four membranes like wings, flapping in sequence to keep their large bodies afloat. They have a pair of large eyes on either side of their flat heads and pincers in front of their mouths. Six legs dangled from their bodies with some kind of claw at the end of each one.
"Joseph, hold the rear! Feris and Tristan, crossbows! Muriel, shield up!" Conrad gave out his order in quick successions. He knew they had no choice but to break through these winged insects or there'll be no hope in escaping. He figured that as these new insects could fly, their shells must be lighter than the ones on the ground and therefore weaker. If they could only manage to fell a few and break up their formation, they might very well be able to secure a path out.
"Make it quick, I can only hold out for so long!" said Joseph as he raised his arms up high against the horde of insects crawling up to them from the rear. "HA!"
With a shout, the foremost of the insects grounded to a halt, and even as their hairy feet pushed against the ground, even as they pile upon one another tying to get through, they could not advance, as if a wall was in their way.
Meanwhile, as Tristan and Feris scrambled to get the crossbows from their bags, Muriel and Conrad had their shields raised and weapon at the ready, just waiting for one of the winged insects to fly close enough to get in a swing at them.
There were at least ten of them in the air, the winged insects. Hovering in the air, they moved side to side with a speed that could barely be followed by human eyes, making it near impossible for Feris and Tristan to land a hit on them with their crossbows. It was already quite unbelievable that they could fly with their size, much less moving at such speed. If they were on the surface, where the starlights shine regardless of day or night, surely they would be grounded by their own weight.
"To your left!" Conrad yelled out, and true enough, from Muriel's left flank, one of the winged insects rapidly approached.
With Conrad's voice still ringing in her ears, Muriel twisted her body leftward, her shield intercepting the incoming insect.
There had been a dull sound, one that came from Muriel's shield. Something had torn right through it, the shield forged from steel, not of the highest quality, but it was still hardened steel. What tore through the shield was what appeared to be a stinger at the end of the flying insect's abdomen, stingers that weren't originally found on the nymphs.
Still, even though it went through the shield, it missed the arm and what's more, the stinger appeared to be stuck. And so, using the shield to pull the insect closer, Muriel swung her doubled headed mace at what appeared to be the insect's thorax. Upon contact, she could feel something breaking through her mace and the sensation was followed by a screech. Promptly, the insect fell to the ground, curling up and appearing to be in great pain.
It's now clear more than ever that the adult form of these insects has softer shells, however, at the same time, their hardness appeared to have gone into their newly grown stingers, making them strong enough to penetrate steel. Conrad would bet that those stingers could sell for a high price, at least five silvers each perhaps, maybe even ten. Unfortunately, there was no time to delight, for as soon as the first insect fell, the rest came rushing in as if trying to rescue their fallen fellow. Seeing their ever increasing numbers and aggressiveness, Conrad sensed that they might very well be in deep trouble, and with those stingers, their chances of escaping without taking any losses seemed to be getting dimmer by the minute.
"The wings? I know!"
A ball of fire erupted behind the horde of winged insects, scorching the wings on the one closest to the inferno while the air riled up by the heat knocked several off course.
"Auguste!?" Conrad called out in surprise. He did not expect the other party to come back for them.
"Conrad, come on!" Auguste yelled from the mouth of the tunnel leading to the exit. By his side, there was Morganna, her ashen staff in hand.
Again, another ball of fire erupted, and again, another winged insect fell to the ground, its wings ablaze. Then, came two more, burning up yet more wings and creating scorching winds that caused the winged insects to be incapable of flying properly, leading many to frantically land.
"Now! We're breaking through!" Conrad commanded as he himself was preparing to cut a way through the fallen insects. As their carapaces were softer and they can't use their stingers without being airborne, he was confident that they'll be able to force their way through.
"Boss, watch ou-"
Conrad had barely registered what Joseph had said. All he felt was something sticking out of his chest and that his legs seemed to be dangling in midair. In his ears, he heard the flapping of what sounded to be giant fans, rapidly stirring up the air very close to him.
"Muriel... up to you now..."
Those were the only words he grunted out before the blood flooding up his throat choked his voice from him. Soon, strength left his limbs and his body went limp. Only then, did the stinger that penetrated his chest lowered, letting Conrad's body slide off and plummeting to the ground with a wet, bloody thud.
End of Chapter 9