Dungeons of the Abyss and the Unchosen Heroes
It had been said that even amongst the Lightbringers, Albert and his party were exceptional. Having sealed more rifts than most of their peers, their names were known far and wide.
The man leading the four, the one called Albert. Little was known about him during that time. It was said that he might have been a son of a nobleman in the Principality of Zeth. There were even rumors about him being a knight at some point. However, since he rarely talked about himself, his background remained shrouded in shadows to even his own allies. His abilities, however, were without question. With swordsmanship that impressed even the masters across the five kingdoms and charisma that allowed him to befriend those of various walks of life, he soon became one of the more accomplished and well known of the Lightbringers.
Then, there was his sword, a divine relic of unknown origin, capable of striking from any distance and cleaving through any enemy with compressed Ether. It was said that the moment his sword was drawn from its scabbard, none stood a chance against him.
Of the first to follow Albert in his journey was Helena Cless, the child of a hunter hailing from a small village near the town of Lars. After being rescued from a Demon who had killed her family, she joined Albert with the relic that had been a family heirloom. The relic took the form of a silver bow, capable of producing and shooting ethereal arrows that do no harm to the flesh but instead, the mind. Those struck by these ethereal arrows would have their Ether affected in a way that causes them to experience from the subtlest change of mood to the most horrifying of hallucinations. The illusions brought on by the ethereal arrows were so powerful, it was said that they could convince the mind that it was indeed dead and have it cease to be.
The second to join Albert's company was a man named Zeke, a descendent of a nomadic clan that hunted large beasts ranging from the krakens of the sea to the griffons of the sky, with some oral legends mentioning the hunting of dragons. He wielded a golden halberd that he had found in a cave. Apparently, the halberd could summon earth-shattering lighting out of the sky during a certain time of the day, though it only works outdoor, meaning that in the Dungeons, it was merely a quality polearm.
Then, there was the ever mystifying Lyudmila, a witch of unknown origins who seemed to have dabbled in more than just the Abyssal arts. She seemed to know much about the ways of magic as well as the world. As such, she was a trusted advisor, and occasionally a teacher, to Albert and the rest. Unlike the others, she held no relic in her possession, though she made up more than enough for it in combat with the use of her magic.
"They're coming from above!" Auguste shouted as he ran along with the others. He could not afford to slow down, none of them could.
"I got it," Helana replied, drawing her bow as an ethereal arrow was produced from the string. The arrow looked like it had been shaped from a jellyfish beneath iridescent lighting
Helena shot the arrow into the air while keeping up with the others, and once in the air, the single shot split itself into a barrage, hitting three of the Winged Crawlers. Upon contact, the arrows wormed its way into the Winged Crawlers, infecting the Ether within their bodies which in turn affected their minds, causing them to become confused and crashed into one another.
The deeper they went, the more Crawlers there were, and at their current depth, they found themselves fighting for every step they took. Albert was responsible for cutting open a path, while Zeke and Lyudmila kept the constant flood of Crawlers from surrounding and overwhelming them, with Lyudmila freezing those ahead of the swarm and Zeke essentially swatting away at those that avoided being frozen by being either beneath or behind the frost-covered carcasses of their kindred. Meanwhile, Helena took charge of keeping those in the air away, hitting them despite their incredible speed with barrages after barrages of arrows.
The Henrietta Company was unable to do anything other than trying to stay out of the way. Through this experience, they could clearly feel the difference in terms of abilities between Albert's party and themselves. Compared to them, Albert and his friends were like gods amongst men, a height that felt impossible to attain.
For god knows how long, they've been constantly on the move, constantly fighting. For the Henrietta Company, to even keep up with them took everything they've got, which certainly made Auguste rethink whether or not if that sixty silver he had been offered was a fair price after all. In the end, who was the one being condescending? Auguste realized the answer, and it tasted most bitter. A taste of a good medicine perhaps, or so they say.
They did not know when, but eventually, the combat died down. The Crawlers seemed to have lost interest in them and even when the two sides crossed paths, there did not appear to be any signs of hostility towards the parties.
"Phew, finally!" Zeke turned towards Lyudmila "Couldn't you have figured out how to ward them off a little sooner!? Did you know how many close calls I've had!"
"If you don't like it, I could drop the ward for just you and only you. Would you prefer that?"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa! Hold on," Zeke waved his hands in a panic. "I never said that I don't want it!"
"Then why the complaints?"
"Well, because... You know what, forget it. Foul witch..." Zeke muttered that last part in a small voice.
"Hey, Morgan..." In an unrelated conversation, Auguste leaned in close to Morganna. "What's a ward?"
"That's just a blanket term referring to a spell that keeps certain things away. For this specific ward, I believe she's creating some kind of calming pheromone around us. Since she didn't use it in the beginning, I would guess that she figured it out midway, through the Ether of the carcasses and likely her past experiences with insect type creatures."
"Ah, there's a sharp one amongst you," said Lyudmila as she turned her sleepy eyes towards Auguste and Morganna.
"It's simple observation and a bit of thought," Morganna replied.
"Many things sound simple, but are difficult in practice."
"I wouldn't know. It's simple for me."
"You must be a prodigy then?"
"A prodigy? Me?" Morganna scoffed at the idea. "That wasn't very funny."
"Well, you certainly have the stubbornness of one," Lyudmila said with a smile, and with her sleepy eyes, Auguste thought that her smile looked rather tender, though, for Morganna, Lyudmila merely looked like she was looking down on her. Much like how Morganna was aware of how the world saw the witches, she was just as aware of how other witches saw the ones that had ever finished their apprenticeship, the ones that had never been approved by their masters.
Despite feeling something venomous boiling at the pit of her stomach, Morganna kept her silence. At the end of the day, Lyudmila was better than her in every way, whether in experience or ability. There was nothing Morganna could say to her that wouldn't just bounce right off her, or worse, bounce right back at herself.
"Alright!" Albert suddenly spoke up from the front. "Since things have finally calmed down, why don't we take a break? I for one, am rather beat."
It was a perfect timing, Auguste thought so, and a few others would be inclined to agree.
After finding a suitable cavern in which they'll be camping for the rest of what may or may not be the night, Lyudmila used her magic and sealed off every single entrance other than the one they came in from, making it essentially a safe room, or at least, as safe as it could be.
Sitting around the campfire, they had a quick meal and went to sleep right after. Even Albert was out cold mere moments after lying down. Despite not showing it, he was tired, perhaps the most tired of all of them due to having to cut open a path through hordes upon hordes of the Crawlers.
For the first shift of the nightwatch, there were three volunteers. As per usual, there was Auguste, then there was Finn who was a little too excited to sleep, and finally, there was Helena who, rather than volunteered, was the only one who happened to not be fast asleep in Albert's party.
Sitting by the fire, Helena yawned without reserve. No doubt she was tired as well, but she felt bad leaving it all to the members of the Henrietta Company. Form her perspective they were only here to guide them and it was their job to escort them. To leave the guard duty to them would have been rather irresponsible. As far as the Henrietta Company was concerned, however, being Dungeoneers, everyone who was able to do so has a part in guard duty. The Dungeon was no place to let one's guard, yet, few were actually able to keep their guards up all of the time, and as such, each member of the party had to watch out for one another. It was only through this cooperation with each other that a party might survive and Dungeon.
"If you're tired, feel free to rest. Finn and I are more than enough here," Auguste said to Helena. There was no point forcing those who were exhausted to be a lookout. Not only would they not be able to do a very good job, but it would also impact their performance the next day.
"It's fine, I can stay up for a bit longer."
"If you insist."
"Um, can I ask something?" Finn spoke up, having been waiting for quite a while for the chance.
"Ask away," Helena welcomed him with a friendly, albeit tired, smile.
"What's it like, being in the Lightbringers?" he asked, eyes widened in wonder like that of a child.
"What's it like?" Helena tilted her head to the side. "Well, I suppose you could say that it certainly wasn't dull. For one, there's plenty of different and... let's say, 'interesting' people around. We get to visit plenty of different places on missions and things generally move at a fast pace compared to life in the countryside. It's to the point that I sometimes get a little worn out, actually."
"Is that so? I guess doing something like saving the world tend to be rough. Still, I kind of feel envious. I mean, I really admire you guys, running around helping people and saving the world. Growing up, hearing stories about the Lightbringers, I wanted to be just like that."
Helene let out an embarrassed chuckle, not quite knowing how to react to Finn's display of fervor.
"Why, thank you. It's nice hearing such things now and then. Still, I would have preferred to live a more quiet life. The dangers, the responsibilities, the things others expect of you, it gets overwhelming sometimes."
"In that case, why did you join in the first place?" Finn asked, his head tilting to the side.
"Finn," Auguste intervene, "that's quite enough. She's tired so let her rest."
Auguste had spoken, albeit unintentionally, in a rather strong tone, surprising Finn and made him wonder if he had done something he shouldn't have.
"Thank you, Gusty, but that's quite fine," Helena said while smiling weakly towards Auguste sitting across the campfire. "My parents, they're killed by a Demon. The Demon apparently belonged to a cult worshiping the 'Nameless God', the God of Destruction. It has not been confirmed to be the truth, but the very same cult may be involved with the appearance of the Dungeons somehow. That is why I'm here. I know it's not the noblest of goals, but still... I can't let them get away with what they've done."
"I... I see, I'm sorry that I brought it up," said Finn.
"No, that was a while ago. I'm fine now, mostly, thanks to the people that were with me during the hard times."
"That's the first I've heard of it, the cult I mean," said Auguste, "I always thought that it was just a Demon that happened to wander by."
"Yeah... Sorry for not saying anything, I guess I sort of left in a hurry back then, didn't I?"
"You sure did."
"What about you, Gusty?"
"What about what?"
"What are you doing out here? I tried to ask the last time we came across one another, but you kind of ran off before you gave me an answer."
"Did I? Something must have came up. I wonder what it was."
"Well, why did you come here, to the Dungeons?" Helena asked again, getting somewhat impatient as she sensed that Auguste was trying to avoid answering. "Is your family's farm in trouble or something like that? If so, I-"
"They're fine. Don't you remember? One of my sisters was married to a lord. Even if they have a bad harvest or two, she'll be able to bail them out."
"Then why? Why come to such a dangerous place if you're not in need of money? You could have stayed and lived a normal life. Why choose this?"
"I... It's none of your business," he ended up saying, knowing all too well that it was the worst answer he could have given.
"None of my business!? How can you say that!?" Helena sprung from the ground by reflex. "We grew up together, didn't we? You were like a brother to me and-"
"Lena," Auguste called out in a cold tone. "People are trying to rest. Keep your voice down."
"I... I'm sorry," she said, sitting back down. "I just... Why would you come to places like this? I can't understand what you're thinking."
"Well, let's leave it for another day. If we keep talking about this you'll raise your voice again."
The conversation died down afterward, leaving Finn feeling rather awkward as the one who started the conversation that led to this in the first place. Though, in all honesty, it was always going to lead there. Finn only made it easier to bring it up.
End of Chapter 14