Dungeons of the Abyss and the Unchosen Heroes
"Albert..." Auguste addressed the man who, upon entering the bar, came straight to him.
Henrietta, who had been rather excited since Albert showed up, started shaking Auguste violently with her tiny arms.
"Oi, Gusty, yer never told me that yer knew Sir Albert!" she said.
"No, I don't actually *know* him. We've only crossed paths once or twice."
"I think we've crossed paths more times than that, my friend," said Albert with a bitter smile before turning towards Henrietta. "Oh, and please, don't call me 'sir'. Just Albert is fine."
"Y-y-yes! My name is Henrietta. We've met once before as well, mayhaps you remember me?" Henrietta replied in a fluster, so much so that she dropped her accent completely and began speaking in a, frankly, uncannily elegant tone that made Auguste question if that had been the same person he's been traveling with.
"Henrietta? Hmm... Perhaps you could remind me of where we've met?"
"Oh, um, do you remember the Verdant Trails a few months ago by any chance?"
Henrietta was getting quite red in the face and rather giddy.
"Verdant Trails, you say?" Albert rubbed his chin for a short moment before snapping his fingers. "Ah! You're the dwarven peddler, correct?"
"That's right! Thank you so much for your aid back then!"
"That's quite fine. No need to worry about it," said Albert as he showed her a bright smile, causing Henrietta to become redder than a ripe tomato. "I was just passing by."
It was something that occurred before Henrietta had met Auguste and the others. While traveling into the territories of the Vestal Coalition through the Verdant Trails, Henrietta had been attacked by a band of highwaymen. It had been Albert and his companions that rescued her from the predicament and she had been smitten with her dashing rescuer ever since.
"At any rate, while I would love to sit down for a friendly chat, I am afraid and I have urgent business. Henrietta and Auguste, if you don't mind, can you tell me about what you saw down at the Dungeon the last time you were there?"
"Why us?" Auguste asked, his tone sounded a little less friendly than it usually does. "I'm sure there are plenty of others you can ask."
"Not necessarily," Albert's tone shifted as well, speaking more seriously, graver. "The talk of the town is that you and your party have brought back materials previously not seen in the Dungeon, and the timing in which you returned with them coincided with the outbreak of the giant insects. I'm sorry if I sound condescending, but parties with more experience than yours have attempted to hunt those insects and returned with casualties and hardly anything to show for. It appears that they're just far too aggressive and numerous. And yet, you returned with a bountiful of materials akin to those of the insects' carapaces. I'm curious. How in the world were you able to harvest such an amount?"
"Since when did you become a detective?" said Auguste, still appearing reluctant to cooperate.
"Oi, Gutsy, have yer lost yer mind!" Henrietta pulled Auguste down to her and whispered, if one could call that a whisper. "It's Albert, *the* Albert of the Lightbringers, and he's asking *us* for help!"
"Alright, alright! I'm not saying that I'm not helping."
Auguste sighed, though he wasn't sure why he was sighing. Perhaps it's because he didn't want to run into Albert. Maybe it's that Albert had essentially called out their party for being inexperienced, which was by no means untrue.
In a natural manner, Albert sat right down beside Auguste while he was still occupied by Henrietta. By the time Auguste had notice, even if he found it to be unpleasant, it would only make him look exceedingly petty if he complained about it.
And so, having given in, Auguste described the events down in the Dungeon, including that of the Cobalt Crawler's den, as he saw it. Though, he did leave out the part where he rescued the remainder of Conrad's party. It wasn't important and he didn't want to seem like he's tooting his own horn, especially not in front of Albert. Against Albert, anything he did would naturally be insignificant.
"I see..." Albert contemplated aloud, "So these Cobalt Shell Crawlers, as you call them, they suddenly became aggressive and some even underwent rapid growth all of a sudden, did they? In the Dungeon, sudden changes to the creatures within aren't unusual, not in a 'live' Dungeon that is. Though, such drastic change is more of a trait of areas closer to the Abyssal rift."
"The den was in a deeper floor, though I'm not sure whether or not if it was *that* deep."
"Well, I hope that's helpful. Now, if you don't mind, I'll be going."
Auguste got up from his seat and proceeded to leave for the exit, when-
"Hold on," Albert called out.
"What? Oh, that's right. If you want to go and investigate, I don't particularly mind letting you copy our map."
"While that's a fine proposal, I have a better idea."
"And that is?"
"I would like to hire you and your party to guide us down to where you found the den. It's faster than trying to copy your maps and we might have more questions when we get there."
While in reality, only one scout would have been sufficient, it was an unwritten rule amongst Dungeoneers that when a member of a party was hired, it usually meant that the entire party was hired. This was not only to avoid disputes within the party, but it was also due to the fact that dungeoneering parties were usually small and were formed in such a way that losing even a member would be a detriment to the party's ability to function and thereby causing a loss in profits. As such, Dungeoneers tend to avoid being hired individually as to not risk conflicts within the party.
"That's not my call, I'll-"
"Yes! We'll do it!" Henrietta, the 'official' leader of the Henrietta Company, interrupted.
"We'll have to talk to the rest of the party first," said Auguste, dismissing Henrietta completely. "How many people will we be guiding? Are there any non-combatants? And of course, what's the pay?"
"There's four of us, and don't worry, for the foreseeable parts, we will be the ones to handle the fighting. You just have to guide us to the destination. As for payment, how about sixty silvers to start-"
"Forty will be plenty. Sixty is overpriced."
If Elaine was there, she'd smack him over the head for passing up the extra twenty silvers. Twenty was by no means a small amount and their lives would most definitely be easier for the foreseeable future if they took it. In the end, it all boiled down to pride. Albert was a bright man. He wouldn't not realize that what he was offering had been too much. In other words, it was charity, charity for Auguste and the rest of his party. That's what Auguste believed, at least. And while Auguste wasn't averse to receiving help and in truth, he wouldn't have gotten as far as he did without help, he didn't like that Albert was essentially looking down on him, that Albert thought that he was doing so poorly that he needed the charity.
"Give me a day," Auguste added before finally leaving, "I'll get back to you tomorrow."
"I apologize," said Henrietta. "My friend here is always a little rude, not to mention slightly strange in the head."
Albert laughed it off. It didn't seem to matter to him.
"It's fine. I don't mind an honest fellow."
After leaving, Auguste headed straight back to camp. If Albert has returned from the Dungeon, that meant that the rest of his party must be around town as well. He didn't feel like running into them, one of them specifically.
When night came and the party gathered at the camp, Auguste brought up Albert's offer to them.
"In other words, we only have to show them the way, correct?" asked Gladiolus to confirm.
"That's what he said."
"Still, to think a member of the Lightbringers is asking us for help. Isn't this exciting somehow?" said Finn, his enthusiasm could be seen in his wide grin.
"How much are they paying us for this?" Elaine asked, ever materialistic.
"He offered sixty silvers," Henrietta answered, "but Auguste said that's overpriced and brought it down to forty."
Elaine then turned her sight towards Auguste. There were no words, only glares.
"W-well, it was! Right, Gladiolus!?"
"Certainly, sixty silver coins just for guiding the ways do appear to be somewhat absurd. I wouldn't pay that. Even forty I find to be rather pricy, though not out of the question, I suppose."
"Either way," Auguste pushed the conversation forward, "I don't think it's that bad of a job, considering that we might not be able to enter this Dungeon for a while."
"You say that, but are you sure we don't have to fight?" asked Elaine, "Though I suppose it's not exactly my place to bring it up."
"I do not think there's a need to worry in that regard," said Gladiolus. "The members of the Lightbringers each have their own talents. They wouldn't be recruited if they're unable to hold their own or provide something useful when dealing with the Dungeons and the Abyss."
"If they're so capable, I suppose there's no reason to turn it down," said Elaine.
"I say we should take the job as well. Perhaps you'll be able to learn a thing or two from watching," said Gladiolus.
"Of course, I'm certainly ain't going to turn down a request from Albert, he saved my life after all," said Henrietta.
"I don't particularly have a problem either," Morganna chimed in after being silent for most of the conversation.
"So we're going? This is going to be great!" Finn exclaimed, already rearing to go.
And so, it had been decided.
When morning came, Auguste went to sought Albert out. Figuring that the man had money to spare, he would most likely be lodging in the impromptu inn that the Dungeoneers' Guild had set up.
Entering the building for the first time, he was hit with the sweet scent of a boiling stew filled with both meat and a rich variety of vegetables. On the long tables set up in the main hall, there were baskets of freshly baked bread for the residents to help themselves to. The inn provided breakfast as well, it seemed. It made sense since only the best of the best and the sufficiently wealthy would be able to afford the prices of the rooms here. With the building and rooms being so shoddy, the least they could do was provide some good food.
Then, there was Albert and his party, who were actually not part of the guild. They were part of the Lightbringers, which was an outside organization that had acquired special permission from each of the five kingdoms to enter the Dungeons. On paper, they were a band of mercenaries with offices all over the five kingdoms. However, they do not fight battles or guard caravans. Rather, they have made it their mission to eradicate the threats posed by the Abyss, which included the Dungeons, the creatures within, as well as Demons. And while they do hunt Demons, they apparently do not abhor witches and have actually been actively recruiting them, treating them as experts on the manners of the Abyss.
"Oh... You must be the one Albert was talking about."
Greeting Auguste soon after he entered was a woman with long and ashen hair along with sleepy eyes that held the color of the winter sky.
The woman was most likely a witch, as she wore a black robe and a pointy hat, and at the tip of her pointy hat, there hung a red gemstone with the shape of a crescent moon. Apparently, all witches have such decorations on their hats, and they seem to not get stolen due to the fear of being cursed by the witches wearing them, demonstrating exactly how feared and respected the witches were during this time.
The witch led Auguste to a table where Albert and another two were having breakfast on. Of the two, one was a man with raven black hair and dark, narrow eyes. His fine and angled face had a mean and arrogant look to it. The other was a woman, she wore a bob cut and her hair was a golden brown, reminiscent of a field of wheat, and her sharp eyes had the hue of almonds.
Auguste ignored the man but exchanged looks with the woman before his eyes landed on Albert.
"Did you already have breakfast? You could join us if you want?" Albert extended his invitation.
"It's fine, I already ate," Auguste curtly refused. "I'm just here to tell you that we decided to take the job. When will you need us?"
Albert wiped his mouth with a handkerchief as he listened.
"Could you be ready by tomorrow?"
"So long as nothing serious comes up, it shouldn't be a problem."
"It's settled then. Shall we meet by the entrance tomorrow morning?"
"Fine by me."
The exchange had been stifling and rigid, and though he had kept a warm smile on his face, Albert felt troubled by how unfriendly Auguste was being. Not that it would prove a problem when it came down to it. It was simply a case of Albert not remembering doing anything that offended the person before him.
"I'll be taking my leave then," said Auguste.
"Very well, I'll see you tomorrow."
Auguste nodded before promptly turning around and headed towards the exit.
Once Auguste was out of sight, lightly, Albert sighed.
"I'm not very well-liked, am I?"
"Of course not," said the man with the mean look. "What's there to like about a goody-two-shoe like you? Besides, we're not here to make friends. I only care about whether this punk can do his job right or not, and he better, or else."
"I wouldn't worry about it," said the woman with sharp eyes. "While Gusty isn't exactly the hardest working person I know, once he decided to take on a task, he'll do it whole-heartedly."
"Oh, yeah? Do you want to bet on that? The loser will have to do whatever the winner says, how about that?"
"Sure thing," the woman with the sharp eyes showed a mischievous smirk. "Perhaps I'll have you jump off a cliff once this is done."
An audible gulp came from the man with the mean look.
"Wait, you're serious? Y-y-you know I was just joking, right?"
"Oh? Going back on your words are you? And here I thought you were supposed to be a man of integrity."
"Zeke, Helena, that's quite enough," Albert intervened before things got out of hand. "I'm sure whatever happens, we'll be able to handle it, right, Lyudmila?"
However, the witch, Lyudmila, did not reply. She appeared to be distracted by something.
"Something wrong, Lyudmila?" Albert asked.
"The child, there is something off about him?"
"Is it the Abyss? Is he a Demon?" asked the man with the mean look with excitement in his tone.
"No..." Lyudmila replied, "Just somewhat odd. That is all."
"And hopefully, that's all it will be," was something Lyudmila did not say, a thought kept to herself.
End of Chapter 12