Dungeons of the Abyss and the Unchosen Heroes
A day came and went without incident, and as the sun rose to yet another morning, the Henrietta Company marched over the town gate, their footsteps weighted down by the supplies that would hopefully last them for the coming few days.
Awaiting their arrival before the gates, there stood four figures, the members of the Lightbringers. Their mere presence had gathered a crowd even this early in the morning. Some came to gawk, and some were there to send off the heroes with well wishes and encouragements, while others came out of spite, muttering curses at the ones who would put a dent in their profits by shutting down the Dungeons. They're quite famous and very much infamous. After all, as part of the Lightbringers, they were the ones going around and sealing off Abyssal rifts within he Dungeons, keeping the Dungeons from expanding and devouring the lands.
Towards the crowd, Albert showed his brightest smile and waved in response to their hospitality. His comfort with the crowd showed off his confidence and bravado, and Auguste could not help but feel a great gap between them.
Approaching the gates, Morganna clutched her ashen staff close to her chest. She has no love for mobs, especially when their attention is pointed towards her, something that would surely happen when they join up with Albert and his party by the gates.
"Sure is rowdy this morning..." said Finn, feeling rather nervous with the crowd as well.
"Yeah... I should have arranged to meet by the old well instead," said Auguste, feeling rather bad for his lack of foresight.
"Hmph! Knowing these busybodies, I'll bet they'll gather all the same," said Henrietta, eyeing a particular group of young women who were cheering louder than anybody else, their sharp voices cutting into her ears. "Damned longlegs."
As they approached the gates, the cheers died down a little and one could hear voices expressing confusion.
"What are they doing here?" some said.
"They're not trying to tag along, are they?" some questioned.
"That's dangerous! Not with those insects running around!" said another.
Auguste could feel the sting of their jeers. It was, of course, only his imagination, but like Morganna, he did not like having so many eyes upon him.
"Auguste!" Albert greeted. "Good morning."
"Yes, good morning to you too," Auguste said without cheer. "Shall we?"
"Very well then, the sooner we get to the bottom of this the better. Let us set off."
As soon as they moved far enough from the town, things became refreshingly quiet. Never would Auguste imagine that he'd actually be glad to be heading towards the Dungeon.
With the level of danger within this Dungeon suddenly skyrocketing overnight, there was not a single party of Dungeoneers to be seen along the muddy path and though the guards were still on patrol, they appeared to be more on edge than ever. While it's true that the insects had not shown to be able to handle its own weight once out of the Dungeon, their appearance can be quite unsettling for those unused to the Dungeons.
Due to the lack of Dungeoneer presence along the road, the two parties arrived before the old well with relative swiftness.
"Well then, we'll be counting on your to point the way," said Albert before being the first to descend into the old well.
The Dungeon was a sprawling and labyrinthine place. If Albert and his party were to search on their own, they may have to search for weeks or even months before discovering the Crawlers' den. That was why there was a need to hire an amateur party such as the Henrietta Company to point the way.
"Just don't get in the way, understand?" said the one with the mean look, Zeke, as he pointed his golden halberd right at the party. "Or else, I'll kill you myself."
"Alright, Zeke, get a move on," said Helena, the woman with the sharp eyes. "Just because Albert can't see you doesn't mean I won't tell."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever."
Retracting his halberd, Zeke promptly leaped into the old well, entering without the use of the rope ladder. As a result, the head of his halberd ended up getting caught on the side of the well, tearing a gash along the wall as he fell and causing him to land on his hind. A great cry soon followed.
"That idiot!" Helena cursed before turning towards Auguste. "Gusty, you and your friends stay back and don't come down until we say so, alright?"
"I'm not a child Lena, don't talk to me that way," said Auguste, his brows were knitted tightly together.
Helena looked taken aback, but she hardly had the time to say anything. Thanks to Zeke, the Cobalt Crawlers had probably noticed their entry and might very well be upon them as they speak.
"Lyudmila, I'm counting on you," Helena said to the witch before leaping into the old well.
From above, Lyudmila waved her staff made of pale and seemingly lifeless wood, and in turn, just as Helena was about to hit the floor, a burst of gust cushioned her fall, granting her a soft landing. And once Helena had landed, Lyudmila followed behind, landing in a similar manner.
"So, what now?" asked Henrietta, the leader on paper.
"I guess we wait," said Auguste. "I'm sure they have it under control."
"Agreed," said Gladiolus, "that would be wise."
It took but a few moments before things settled down, it ended so quickly that it seemed to end as soon as it began.
Hearing Helena's voice beaconing them, the Henrietta Company descended the rope ladder. As they descend, they each felt a drop in temperature that was more drastic than what they had expected, and when they finally set foot on the bottom, the found frost covering the floor with gigantic clusters of ice sealing off the various tunnels leading in. Strewn about the ground, were the frozen carcasses of the Cobalt Crawlers, some of which appeared to have been split cleanly into two before being frozen solid. Someone was able to cleave through the carapaces that no one in either the Henrietta Company or Conrad's party could do anything about.
"They're a whole different level from us, aren't they?" Finn muttered in awe to no one in particular, though the entire party heard him regardless.
"Alright, we're in the clear for now, so hurry up and point the way!" said Zeke with an impatient tone, pointing once again with his golden halberd.
As Auguste, and perhaps even Elaine, was about to say something about that dangerous habit of his, Albert stepped in, gently pushing aside the head of halberd.
"Please do," Albert said with a tender tone. "We're counting on you."
Promptly, Auguste turned toward Gladiolus, silently asking which of them should lead the way. Gladiolus only nodded to him, more or less telling him to take the role. In truth, with the changes that had occurred in the Dungeon, Gladiolus was hesitant on letting Auguste take the lead as a scout. However, Gladiolus knew that he won't be with them forever, and somehow, Auguste seemed to be more eager than ever before. Thinking that this might build up confidence and much needed experience in the future, Gladiolus decided to put his faith in him.
With Auguste pointing the way, Lyudmila melted the ice block sealing the specific pathway that was pointed to. With the ice melted, the Crawlers began flooding in, clambering over one another to get to the invaders of their den.
Facing the insects, Albert calmly reached for his sword. The moment the blade left the scabbard, a brilliant light was unleashed, and with a single, effortless swing, everything before Albert seemed to be eradicated within an instant. All that was left when the light subsided was a long fissure left in the ground and a few pieces of what was assumed to be the remains of the Cobalt Crawlers scattered about.
"Leave the fighting to us, just guide us to the den," said Albert while his sword, long with a broad blade, was still emitting a faint glow with specks of lights breaking off from the blade and floating into the air like weightless, powdery flakes.
"What was that?" said Auguste with a gasp. He had never seen anything like that.
"It was Ether, Ether concentrated enough for the naked eye to see," explained the witch, Lyudmila, her eyes looking as sleepy as ever. This was apparently not that impressive a sight for her.
"Ether?" Auguste turned to look at the destruction craved out by the light, "I thought they were only good for catalysts."
"Not true. Being a medium of storage for 'memories' is but a small use for it. The witches' teachings are too obsessed with the use of the Abyss to make full use of Ether's potential."
"Are you not a witch? Um..."
"Lyudmila. Mila is fine if you prefer. And I suppose I'm was a witch, until I realized that there's more to magic than the Abyssal arts."
Briefly, Auguste glanced over to Morganna, who was looking their way. He couldn't be sure, but it looked like she was listening. Auguste wondered what she thought of it. For Morganna, who rejected her master's way and decided to strike out on her own, perhaps this might be a rather interesting subject.
"Hey, don't just stand about being useless!" Zeke shouted, apparently running out of patience. "Get working already!"
Auguste did not like the man's tone, but he wasn't wrong. It wasn't the time to be chatting. Without a word, Auguste got back to work, retracing the steps they took the other day and pointing them out to Albert and his party.
The earlier stretches of the Dungeon had not changed that much in spite of the Crawlers digging tunnels throughout the brick laid halls. However, as they proceeded further, the more things had changed. The hall eventually ended, giving way to caverns with holes and craters on every surface aside from the floor, each with something squirming within the shadows. It was reminiscent of the den and it was highly discomforting to be in, and not just because they might be attacked at any time from nearly any angle.
"Oh wow, reminds me we found that maggot infested-"
"What's this? Can't handle thinking about a few worms, Helena?"
"Well, I'm fine, but..."
Helena's eyes turned towards Auguste, who, upon noticing her look, glared back at her.
"I'm just saying, some of us might be squeamish here."
"Ha! If they are, then they should just get used to it. You won't last long in this business if you get sick so easily," Zeke then turned towards Auguste and the rest. "Isn't that right, rookies?"
"More or less," Auguste replied.
"I don't disagree," answered Gladiolus.
Morganna didn't feel like replying and Finn just smiled awkwardly, meanwhile, Henrietta was too busy eyeing Albert to pay any attention and Elaine didn't want to get involved with the conversation.
"You see," Zeke turned back to Helena, looking mighty smug.
Helena only sighed in response.
"Heads up!" Albert suddenly shouted, his voice followed by a chaotic symphony of tapping footsteps and fanning wings. "Here they come again!"
"Auguste, which tunnel!?" Helena called out.
However, by that time, Auguste was unable to figure out which of the myriads of tunnels was going to take them back to where they first found the den. The Dungeon had simply changed too much from the last time they've visited.
"This way!" seeing the urgency in the situation, Gladiolus decided to take charge, pointing the way in Auguste's stead.
With the path decided, the two parties rushed into the tunnel with Albert taking vanguard, cleaving their way through the Crawlers flooding in from the opposite direction. Once everyone has entered, Lyudmila sealed the tunnel with a giant block of ice, preventing them from being followed.
"Hey elf," said Zeke, "are you sure this is the way?"
"I'm sure, elves do not get lost."
"Then why in the Abyss are we having that idiot lead!?"
Zeke was pointing towards Auguste, and due to how cramped it was in the tunnel, this time, he did not use his halberd.
"Zeke! That wasn't very nice," Helena cried, trying to get the man to shut up.
"What! I'm right, aren't I!?" However, Zeke was having none of it.
"Calm down, all of you," Albert was quick to intervene. "The thing is, Gladiolus here is just the party's guide and not a permanent member. That's probably why he let Auguste lead, to build up experience for later. Besides, he took charge when it mattered and got us out of there in time, so it's fine, right?"
Hearing Albert's calm words, even Zeke began to settle down.
"Well, so long as it doesn't do anything to hinder us, I guess that's fine."
"Eh, I'm just telling it as I saw it."
It was impressive how Albert was able to manage someone as wild as Zeke, at least, Auguste certainly thought so. If there was someone with such an... 'outstanding' personality in his party, he wasn't sure if he'll be able to go a week, much less three months, with them.
"I'm sorry, Auguste," Gladiolus whispered lightly into his ears.
"No, it's fine. I was about to ask you for help anyway. You came at the right time," said Auguste in a small voice, his tone flat and his face stiff and expressionless. Contrary to what he had said, he was actually quite mortified by his failure. However, there was no time to lament. They were still on the job and Auguste has no desire to commit any more mistakes for the duration of this expedition.
End of Chapter 13