Dungeons of the Abyss and the Unchosen Heroes
Finally, into the second day, they've arrived before the black wall. Though much of the Dungeon had changed since they were last here, the black wall appeared unaffected by the changes around it.
"Is that..." Albert muttered.
"That appears to be it," Lyudmila replied, knowing exactly what Albert was trying to say.
"What? What's wrong?"
"What's wrong? What's wrong!?" Zeke turned hysterically towards Auguste. "This! This wall is what's wrong! Why didn't you tell us this was here!? You knew this was here, right?"
"Well, you never asked."
"Oh, don't you get cheeky with me, you trash!"
"Yeah, that's right, you heard me! You Dungeoneers are all profiteering trash. You don't care if the Dungeons are expanding and consuming the world. In fact, you'd be much happier if the Dungeons keep popping up wouldn't you?"
"Zeke, that's quite enough," Albert called out.
"What?! Am I wrong? Of course not, you know I'm right! All they do is get in our way!"
"That's not necessarily true. Regardless of their intentions, they help keep the population of the creatures at bay."
"Sure, the ones that they can profit off of. If they can't sell it they'd leave it be and it could tear up a village or two for all they care. Argh! Whatever! I don't know why I even bother to argue with a people pleaser like you!"
Before Albert could get another word in, Zeke broke off, bumping shoulders with Auguste as he went. The man was strong, and Auguste could feel the impact traveling up his neck and down his arm as he was knocked aside, almost falling over.
"Bastard..." Auguste cursed beneath his breath as he glared at the back of the man walking away, towards the mouth of the tunnel they arrived through.
Zeke would remain in front of the tunnel, standing watch and not bothering to look back.
"I'm sorry for that," Albert apologized on Zeke's behalf. "He has his own history. I'm not going to ask you to understand, I just hope you won't mind him too much."
Auguste has his grievances, too many to put to words. He wasn't sure what Zeke's problem was, but he was pretty damn certain that it had nothing to do with him and he certainly did not appreciate becoming a punching bag for Zeke to take out his anger on.
"I think we'll mind him as much as we'd like, thank you very much."
The one who spoke up was Morganna, who wasn't any more pleased with the man than Auguste was.
"I wonder if we get to file a complaint to the Lightbringer's office," Elaine went on to add. "If Auguste's shoulder is injured, I think this party of ours would like some compensation."
"I-I know you guys are trying to save the world and all, b-but I don't think it's alright for you to be mean," Finn, despite being as timid as he was, came to the defense of his party member.
"Yeah, I'm with them, I'm afraid," Henrietta raised her hand, making sure that she got everyone's attention, before crossing her arms and trying to appear imposing. "Yer don't get to mess with my party, I ain't forgiving that, even for you, Albert."
"I..." Albert showed an obviously frown before catching his slip and relaxed his expression. "I understand. However, we're currently in a Dungeon, meaning that we're going to have to stick together to make it through. So please, at least put up with us a little longer."
"It's not as if we're here to make friends anyways," Auguste replied, knowing that his teammates have his back allowed the boiling emotions within him to settle down. "So long as we're paid at the end of the day, we'll do what we signed up to do."
"Thank you," Albert showed a smile. "I appreciate that."
"Whatever you say, but first, what is up with that wall?"
"About that," Albert turned towards Lyudmila, who was just done with examining the wall. "Lyudmila, what do you think? Is this the same one we found last time?"
"It seems so, fortunately."
"Fortunately?" Auguste questioned.
"It means what we're looking for may very well be right behind it," Albert answered.
"And that would be?"
"An Abyssal rift."
Auguste turned towards the wall. He was not all that surprised. That it had been the Abyss all along was the answer that seemed to make the most sense.
"I thought you've already sealed off the rift."
"True, we did," Albert frowned as he spoke, the shadows of many troubles clouding over his complexion. "Once, we thought that upon a rift's sealing, our work was done, until we encountered a black wall similar to this one."
This had been the second time Albert and his party encountered a black wall such as this. It began when they received reports of a supposedly 'dead' Dungeon acting strangely and in a manner that seemed as though the rift had never been sealed in the first place. As the rift within said Dungeon had been sealed by Albert and the others, they were the ones sent to investigate. There, they found the black wall. Using Albert's sword to cleave open the wall, they eventually found a tunnel that led deep into the ground, where there was an Abyssal rift from where a new Dungeon sprung forth. It turned out that the strange happenings within the old Dungeon had occurred due to the new Dungeon expanding into it, merging the old Dungeon with the new, creating a Dungeon twice the size of what it would have been. What's worse was that alongside the Abyssal rift, there was a creature guarding it. It was a creature that seemed, at first, like your usual Abyssal creature, but it possessed at least enough intelligence to stay close to and protect the rift from intruders. Was the creature the one who opened this new rift? Or was this creature placed there by someone? If so, then had someone created such a creature?
This discovery was disturbing, as it suggested that any of the 'dead' Dungeons could be revived through such a method. However, it also suggested, with more certainty than ever, that the phenomenon was likely artificial, which in turn opened up a possibility that if they could find whoever was behind it and stop them, the Abyssal rifts, as well as the Dungeons by extension, would stop appearing altogether.
"At any rate," said Albert, smiling, "this appears to be it. I know we hired you to lead us to the den, but this had been our objective from the start. We were hoping to find this in the den, but it's a good thing that we didn't have to go that far."
"Wait, hold on! Don't just try to brush it off like that. Why didn't you tell us about the wall earlier? Heck, why didn't you tell anyone about it? If that's a sign that there's another rift, then everyone should know, right?"
For a moment, Albert's smile turned bitter with a frown. Then, before long, he put on a solemn expression.
"We were told not to by the leaders of the Lightbringers. 'There's too much uncertainty about it,' was what they said. Not to mention that if the Dungeoneers' Guild, as well as the Dungeoneers, found out that there might be a way to revive a dead Dungeon, we're not sure what you might do. This is, after all, your livelihood, and there's much to profit from a Dungeon that could keep pumping out creatures for you to harvest indefinitely."
Auguste went silent. He saw Albert's point. Knowing the guild, knowing the Dungeoneers, they might not be able to resist the temptation. Even knowing himself, he was not confident that he could turn away from such a profitable proposition. It's never easy to have to relocate their operations to another Dungeon. There was always much to learn, more information they had to buy, more squabbles with Dungeoneers that were already there and were not happy with newcomers cutting into their share. Frankly, things would be much, much easier if they could just remain at the same place. Studying a changing Dungeon they already knew about was much simpler than studying one that they were new to.
"So, what's this wall about anyways?" Morganna stepped forward after Auguste had fallen silent. "It's unlike anything I've seen before. The materials felt unnatural."
"It certainly wasn't natural," Lyudmila replied to her. "In fact, the material you see here is made entirely of something without equivalent within our reality."
"I don't understand? How does it not have an equivalent? You may create something that does not naturally exist by combining parts of what does exist, but to create something that is entirely of something that has no reference in reality is impossible."
Morganna was confused. For all she knew of the Abyssal arts, one could only conjure forth a copy of a real world object or phenomenon from the Abyss. Whether it be fire or frost, one must first know them from reality before they could properly replicate them within the Abyss and bringing them forth into reality.
"It is true that no one can conjure something that they have never seen before, as they'll have no understanding of something they've never seen in the first place," Lyudmila replied without looking away from the wall. "But, what if it wasn't a person? What if it was a being that does not share our logic and rationale, a being whose view of reality is so different from ours, their 'common sense' would be our equivalent of insanity? And in their 'common sense', they conjured forth something that only made sense within their twisted mind."
"Demons? Is that what you're talking about?"
"Indeed. You are knowledgeable."
"It's only natural. I'd be more worried about a witch who hasn't been properly taught about that."
"I suppose I cannot refute that."
Lyudmila turned back to the rest of the two parties, her hand reaching into the pouch she wore on her waist.
"One more thing, did perhaps one of you found anything like this around here?" Lyudmila asked, presenting a gemstone with some murky substance swirling within.
Having handled it before, Auguste, Morganna, as well as Elaine immediately recognized what it was.
"We have, as a matter of fact," Auguste answered, all the while having an ill foreboding in the back of his mind. "We sold it."
"You what!" Zeke shouted as he came running back.
As soon as Zeke came before him, he reached out towards Auguste and grabbed him by the collar, pulling him closer.
Seeing what was happening before them, the rest of Henrietta Company immediately tensed up, with Henrietta and Finn adapting a low stance, a reflex ingrained into them as the party's frontliners, while Morganna had tightened her grip on her staff, ready to let loose a spell at where it would hurt the most.
"When did you sell it? For how much!?" Zeke interrogated.
Auguste tallied up the days in his mind.
"Around nine days ago, for six or seven silvers."
"Be more specific!" Zeke shook Auguste by the collar. "And six or seven!? You serious! You sold a hi-catalyst for loose changes!?"
"A hi-catalyst?" Morganna muttered. That wasn't a term she was familiar with despite it sounding like something a witch would know about.
"Zeke, let go! He's doesn't know!" Helena yelled at him.
Zeke shifted his eyes over to Helena, noting her sharp glare, the one she would wear while shooting down targets. Instinctively sensing danger, Zeke felt that he should probably back off for now.
"Tsk," he clicked his tongue at Auguste before pushing him away, "This is why you Dungeoneers are scum."
He wanted to jump him, deliver a left hook right into his jaws. It seemed doable at this range, and unless Zeke drops his halberd, he shouldn't be able to intercept. Maybe. However, in the end, Auguste gave up on the idea. It wasn't worth it. It's not as if dungeoneering was a particularly noble profession anyhow, so Zeke had a sliver of a point.
"What's a hi-catalyst?" Auguste turned towards Lyudmila, pretending to ignore the seething Zeke across from him. The fact the Zeke seemed to be the sort who would be irritated when he's being ignored was a comfort for him.
"In essence, it's a far more potent catalyst, a purer, one might say." Lyudmila then gestured towards her staff of pale white. "As an example, here is a regular catalyst, made from a tree grown in a land of perpetual winter. It is through the memories held by the Ether within that I came to embody the concept of frost. However, the memories were not solely of winter and snow, but of other things the tree had experienced as well. A hi-catalyst does not have such impurities and instead held memories that centered solely around a single spell, allowing for intricacies not found in regular catalysts. A hi-catalyst is powerful, but it is also dangerous, as it allows anyone who got a hold of it to cast its spell, regardless or not if they have practiced the Abyssal arts. You understand the danger, do you not? It is risky enough for a trained witch to wield the power of the Abyss, imagine if someone who had never known magic for most of their lives were to try and wield it. The effects of the spell aside, at worst they'll become a Demon, and even at best, they'll likely suffer a terrible Rebound."
"Not to mention," Albert added, "the hi-catalyst we've found is highly volatile and could potentially force someone in contact with it to cast a spell, especially those untrained in the magical arts."
"Well, that's strange. Nothing happened when Morgan and I were handling it, other than the nightmares Morgan was having, that is. Maybe that wasn't it after all?"
"No, that sounds like it," said Lyudmila. "Morgan must have been unconsciously resisting its effects. As for you, Auguste, you're probably someone that's... 'special', someone who has no talent at all in the magical arts, so much so that not even a hi-catalyst would help." The witch then leaned in closer, her sleepy eyes examining him. "That's rare, very rare."
"That's not exactly the kind of 'special' I'm happy to be." Auguste drew away from Lyudmila. "So someone used the hi-catalyst to create that black wall and dropped it, is that what's happening here?"
"We have only discovered two incidents so far," said Albert, "but the presumption is that a Demon has made at least two of these hi-catalysts and handed it to selected followers or servants to reactivate the Dungeons."
"So what now?"
"Well, the fastest way would be to penetrate this wall. That would lead us straight to the rift. Otherwise, we'll have to explore the den and hope that it connects to it."
"Is there even a way to penetrate the wall? Nothing we tried even scratched it."
"Well, that shouldn't be a problem."
With that, Albert drew his sword and pointed it at the black wall. From the tip of the blade, a blast of compressed Ether emerged, showering the cavern in a bright light. By the time the light has faded, a deep crater had been bored into the black wall. However, deep as it was, five to seven meters perhaps, there was more of the wall still. Albert struck it with his sword again and again, disintegrating more and more of the wall each time, carving out a tunnel, but the black material continued on still. It was as if someone had dug a tunnel and then filled it up with whatever that made up the black wall.
"Looks like someone learned their lesson. This is much deeper than last time," Albert commented. "This might take a while. Can't dig around it either, since that might risk the tunnel collapsing."
"What now?" Helena asked. "We can't exactly leave the hi-catalyst be either."
"Hmm..." Albert stuck his sword in the ground, lightly leaning onto it, as his mind was in thought. Then, as he went through the available options in his head, his eyes landed upon the Henrietta Company. "I suppose there's not much choice."
Albert went and reached into the bag he had set aside and pulled out a pouch. With the pouch in hand, he headed over to Auguste, the one he contacted for the job, and handed the pouch over to him.
"It's your payment. The promised forty silvers and a little bonus for keeping up with us as well as you did."
Auguste handed to pouch to Henrietta, who then counted a total of sixty silvers within. It was what Albert offered originally and it seemed like he had intended to pay that amount from the start.
There was an unhappiness welling up within Auguste. He had regretted lowering the price down to forty silvers due to silly pride, that remained true, however, now he felt as though he had been seen through, his pitiful feelings laid bare before the penetrating gaze of the one they called Albert. Albert had seen through everything and Auguste felt ashamed.
Auguste had always been envious of Albert, envious and perhaps even spiteful. Albert was a man he wished he could be but knew deep down he never could. The gap between them was simply too huge, whether it be abilities or character, there was no competition. It was laughable that Auguste even thought of him as a rival.
"Thank you," said Auguste to Albert, swallowing his pride. Spiteful and envious as he was, he also held great admiration for the man. He was undoubtedly a man chosen by the divine relic in his hands and Auguste has no doubt in his mind that the man before him deserved all the blessings granted to him.
"You're welcome," Albert replied, smiling. There was no pretense on the expression he wore this time around. "And if you're interested, I actually have another job for you. Would you like to hear me out?"
Auguste turned towards the rest of his party. Gladiolus nodded and Henrietta bobbed her head with enthusiasm. No oppositions appear to be coming from the rest of them.
"Well then, I suppose we'll hear you out if nothing else," Auguste said coyly.
End of Chapter 15