Dungeons of the Abyss and the Unchosen Heroes
It was a realm of vivid red mixed with bands of chaotic colors. It has been said that the light of the Abyss was of this hue. Some claimed it to be a deeper red, some claimed it to be dark red, and depending on what region of the world one is from, the color of the Abyss would change. In the end, the Abyss is any color it was said to be, it would appear in the form that reflects what the observer thought it looks like.
As they floated through the directionless space, where up and down, left and right, forward and backward, none of it has any meaning. They could feel something anchored to their backs, pulling at them towards a coherent direction. Before long, their vision filled with chaotic red saw light, a white light, the light of the sun.
With a thud, the Henrietta Company tumbled across the dusty ground. They could feel the weight of their bodies being pulled towards the earth, being pulled by gravity. There was a sense of stability, unlike when they were in that directionless space where it felt as if they could fall apart at any moment.
Auguste stood up, looking back at where they all fell out from. There, in the midst of the air, there was a crack in the empty space, floating above the ground. Through the crack, a vivid red glow could be seen. It was the light of the Abyss, and this crack, it was an Abyssal rift. The rift was not as large as the ones said to be at the bottom of the Dungeon, it was hardly the length of Auguste's index finger, but it was sizable enough to be visible to mortal eyes and that in itself was alarming. Fortunately, beneath the open sky, where the stars shine even when they can't be seen, the crack slowly shrank and was eventually mended.
"Is everyone alright?" Auguste checked with the others. "No missing body parts or anything?"
They all appeared to be fine, at least on the surface. Though Lyudmila assured them that it would be safe, he still can't quite help but worry.
From the ground near her, Morganna spotted a gemstone by her foot. As she reached down to pick it up, it turned ashen and upon being touched, it came apart like dry sand.
"That woman, who in the world was she?" Morganna muttered.
Albert had offered the Henrietta Company another job. He requested them to track down the hi-catalyst they had sold while Albert and his companions deal with the newly opened rift within the Dungeon. However, the problem was that only Lyudmila knew how to ward off the Crawlers and the Henrietta Company have no ability to make it back themselves otherwise. Either Lyudmila had to escort them back out, leaving the rest of Albert's party to fend off the Crawlers or have the whole of Albert's party escort the Henrietta Company back to the surface before returning to the black wall. That was what Auguste and the rest could think of. However, Lyudmila offered another solution.
She called it 'teleportation'. According to her, she would use the Abyss itself to send them back to the surface. It had been said that nothing from this side could survive the Abyss. Nothing could maintain its form within the Abyss' chaotic and irrational domain. They would sink into it and be dissolved within the madness, becoming part of the Abyss in the process. However, Lyudmila had found a way to temporarily protect those entering.
She had not explained fully before gathering the Henrietta Company, beginning her casting before they could even voice a protest. Each of them felt a mysterious force coiling around him as Lyudmila began her spell. It was akin to what Auguste had felt when he was pulling Joseph out of the Crawler horde. Then, without warning, Lyudmila pried open a small Abyssal rift, and though it was small it was large enough to be visible, quite a feat for even the most powerful of witches. In that instant, they felt something pulling at them, and at a speed they could not comprehend, they were dragged away like fishes caught on a hook. The next thing they knew, they were already on the surface, beneath the blue sky.
"I've never heard of using the Abyss for traveling before," said Auguste, his sight turned towards Morganna.
"Don't look at me, I don't know anything about this either. If you told me this yesterday, I would have just said that it was nonsense."
"So, what do you make of it?" Auguste asked. "Can you do it too?"
"I can't say I even understand how it works. I hate to say it, but this is completely over my head."
"Well, it's good that we're learning new and interesting things and all," Elaine interrupted, "but we should probably track that hi-catalyst down before anybody gets hurt."
"She's right," Gladiolus agreed, "this takes precedence."
Getting their bearings together, the party found signs that seemed to be pointing the way back to town. They weren't too far away either, as it did not take more than ten minutes before they arrived back at town.
Passing through the gates, the party immediately headed for the guild office and made a beeline for the trading post. There, they found the appraiser from the Scholars of the Abyss sitting about idly. It was a surprise that he was actually there, considering that none of the Dungeoneers were heading down into the Dungeons due to the Crawlers and therefore, no one should be bringing in to sell.
Spotting the Henrietta Company approaching, the appraiser sat up straight and adjusted his round-rimmed glasses before greeting them.
"I wasn't expecting anyone to come in here," he said.
"Oh, then why are *you* here?" Elaine asked.
"I get paid by the hour. It doesn't matter if anything comes in or not. Now then, what do you have for me?"
"We're looking from something actually, something we sold here about eight to nine days ago," Auguste replied.
"The guild has no return policy. If you sold it to us, that's it."
"Not even if the Lightbringers demand it?" said Elaine, her arms placed on her hips. "Auguste, show it to him."
Reaching into one of his pockets, Auguste produced an emblem, one cast in silver. It depicted a shining star shaped like a sword pointing downwards. It was the crest of the Lightbringers and Albert gave it to them to show that they're working for the organization.
Adjusting his glasses once more, the appraiser leaned in for a closer look.
"Very well," he said with a tired sigh, "what might you be looking for?"
While the Lightbringers have little association with the Dungeoneers' Guild, they do have special permissions from the five kingdoms to aid them in their efforts to quell the Abyssal threats, one of them being the rights to investigate all things with possible relations to the Abyss if need be. By law, the guild must comply.
"A gemstone, the one that has something murky inside just kind of swirling around," said Auguste.
"You say we brought it from you eight to nine days ago, yes?"
The appraiser went into the back, returning some time later with a ledger in hand.
"I am afraid what you're looking for is no longer within our storage. See for yourself if you're not convinced," he said as he handed the ledger to them.
Taking the ledger, Henrietta began looking through it.
"Aye, according to this, it doesn't look like it's still here."
"Any clues where it went?" asked Auguste.
"It's being delivered to a place called... Iotas Three? Iotas the Third?"
"Iotas Tria, is what it's usually called," Gladiolus answered. "It's the third town in the vicinity of Iotas, a city in the Theocracy of Arithmi."
"That is where one of the largest Scholars of the Abyss' university lies," the appraiser mentioned offhandedly. "The package was sealed tightly too, with high ranking mystics escorting it. Whatever you're looking for must be of significant interest to them."
"To them, but not to you?" Elaine asked out of curiosity.
"The Scholars of the Abyss can be a secretive group. Only member on the higher up has access to certain knowledge. Those on the bottom like us will likely be the last to hear about anything, if we hear about at all."
"You sound spiteful."
"I'm satisfied as long as I get paid for my hours. I suppose I'm more of a clerk than a scholar now," said the appraiser, though his tone somewhat betrayed his frustrations.
"Either way, it looks like we know where we're heading next," said Auguste. "There's a Lightbringer branch in Iotas, right?"
"I believe so," Gladiolus replied.
"Then we'll speak to them there and see if there's anything they can do about it. After that, we'll just have to wait for Albert and get paid."
The reward promised to them was three gold pieces, with one paid in advance to cover for whatever expenses they might encounter.
After leaving the guild office, the party split up. Morganna and Henrietta headed back to the camp while Gladiolus decided to head into the hills to see if he can't forage for some extra supplies. As for Elaine, she went to the market to purchase what they'll need for the coming journey, with Finn and Auguste tagging along in case she needed a hand.
They were set on leaving by the coming dawn.
After a short visit to Joseph and the rest of what's left of Conrad's party, Auguste decided to head for the town's tavern one last time before they leave the next day.
"Gusty, over here!" Finn waved Auguste over as soon as he stepped in.
The tavern was more crowded than usual, likely due to the fact that the Dungeon was currently too dangerous to enter, leaving a good number of Dungeoneers to loiter about. While some had already left for other towns, there were plenty of those not wishing to take the risk of moving to a new location, thinking that they could just wait for Albert and his party to solve whatever was occurring down there and swoop in to pick up the pieces for a quick profit. After all, Albert as well as those of the Lightbringers were no Dungeoneers and have no reason to collect the remains of corpses. If they could get down there fast enough, they might just be able to harvest a good amount right off the ground.
Auguste headed over to the counter and sat himself to the right side of Henrietta, with Finn to her left. Again, she was sulking. Someone must have made a comment about her size again. With dwarfs being so rare in this region and with so many people gathered here, it was bound to happen. Still, Auguste didn't think dwarfs could be so sensitive, not that he has met a whole lot of them prior to Henrietta. Still, he was under the impression that they were a tougher bunch, some would even say vulgar. However, Henrietta here, she's about as soft as a marshmallow at times, not that he minded it. In fact, he was sure that the rest of the party liked her just fine this way, when she's not shrieking, that is.
"You know, maybe we should just drink at the camp," Auguste suggested.
"No, I'll live..." Henrietta insisted. She might be soft, but her stubbornness lived up to the dwarven reputation. "Oi, pour me two more, one for me and one for this laddie over here."
As Henrietta tried to wave a wench over with her tiny arm, Auguste's ears picked up a snicker from a nearby table.
Subtle, he tried to glace over. There, he noted the gaze of those around the table. There were four women and six men. With mocking grins, their eyes were upon where Auguste, Finn, and Henrietta were sitting.
Something was off about them. That was what Auguste had sensed. Within their gaze, he found something malicious and for some reason, it was directed at him and the two sitting with him.
I don't understand, Auguste thought, we didn't do anything to them, did we? Have we even met before?
Then, he remembered, at the very least, he remembered one of the women on that table. She was a member of the Bright Aegis, a Dungeoneer clan, which is a conglomerate of multiple dungeoneering parties. It was one of the largest clan within the five kingdoms and has often aided the Lightbingers in their operations. This woman here, with her defining features being her long black hair and the greenest of eyes, she was called Seren and she had been seen tagging along with Albert's party as they dived into the Dungeon, until a certain depth, that is. At which point, it was judged to be far too dangerous for them and they would be more nuisance than help.
The woman's malevolence came from the fact the while she was told to keep out of the Dungeon as it would be too dangerous for them, in her place, the Henrietta Company was chosen to act as guides for Albert's party. The fact that the Henrietta Company knew the way to something she had no idea existed was not something she bothered to consider as her malice for the party bubbled to the surface.
Auguste had noticed Seren's malevolence, but he did not know where it sprung from. His instincts told him that he should leave, but knowing Henrietta, it would likely be easier to let her drink herself drunk and drag her out of there than trying to convince her.
Soon, the wench brought another tankard for Auguste and refilled Henrietta's. However, before Henrietta could gulp it all down in one go as she does, a voice from the nearby table caused her to pause.
"Pardon me, but are you sure you should let such a small girl drink," said one of the women. Anyone within an earshot could hear her sneering through her voice.
"Oh, look closer Mirabelle, that isn't a little girl. It's a dwarf. Where would you find a girl so stout?" Seren retorted with words that sounded forced and with a voice filled with mockery. It was clear that she intended to be heard by the one she was mocking.
Even Auguste could tell, this wasn't just someone poking fun anymore. They were taunting them, trying to pick a fight. Even those that hadn't said a thing, especially the six men around them, their eyes were glinting with anticipation.
"That's right," another woman said, "she looks more like a giant infant than a girl."
"Oh, don't be silly Eliza, she's more like a hobgoblin that a baby. Looking like that, she really ought to be careful when waddling up to Sir Albert. He might mistake her for some foul creature and cut her down."
"Damned long-legs..." Henrietta muttered as she gulped down her drink. Had it been Auguste or someone else in the party poking fun at her like this, she'd be barking back by now. However, this was a member of the Bright Aegis, someone that even Henrietta knew she should not start any trouble with. Not to mention, she was sure that even if she spoke up, anything she could say would only make things worse, they'll end up just using it against her. And so, the only thing she could do was pretend that it didn't bother her.
Auguste turned towards Finn, and he found the large man gritting his teeth. Obviously, he's mad, but he wasn't the sort to go around picking fights. However, even the nicest person has their limits. Auguste felt in his guts that perhaps it's best to find an excuse to leave before things escalate further.
"What was that?" Seren suddenly said, speaking directly to Henrietta for the first time. "You muttered something, didn't you, dwarf?"
But Henrietta ignored her, which in turn, only infuriated the woman more.
"Hey! Do you have any idea who's talking to you?" One of the six men stood up, then the other five followed suit. "This is Seren of the Bright Aegis, you'd be wise to not offend her!"
All of a sudden, the air within the tavern became tense. Everyone went silent, watching, waiting, for what was to come. Auguste could feel it in his guts, a storm was approaching.
"She just said that the ale tasted watered down," Auguste responded, trying to defuse the situation.
For his effort, the man came forward and grabbed Auguste by his collar, pulling his face closer.
"She wasn't talking to you, boy. It's rude to respond when you're not being addressed." The man had a crooked grin. "Maybe I should teach you a lesson."
By then, it was clear to Auguste that it was always going to go this way. The opponent was looking for a fight, and any response, as well as the lack of it, would only be used as an excuse to ignite the spark. It was all rather silly, childish he would even say. He wanted to roll his eyes at him, but his instincts told him that he can't afford to take his sight off the violent man before him.
"Look, I apologize if I offend you," said Auguste, picking up his wooden tankard with his left hand. "Here, have a drink, my treat."
With a single motion, the man swatted the tankard off Auguste's hand.
"I'm not interested in whatever cheap swill you can afford, my friend."
"That's a shame," Auguste muttered. "For you!"
From the right, another tankard smashed right into the violent man's face. While the man was distracted by the drink in Auguste's left hand, Henrietta had placed the one she was drinking out of in Auguste's other hand. With the man disoriented, Auguste propped himself against the counter and kicked the violent man off of him with his two feet, sending him crashing into another table.
Another man from Seren's table began moving in as soon as the violent man was struck, but before he could even get close to Auguste, a large shoulder rammed into his side, sending him tumbling to the ground. It had been Finn. And he was only getting up from his seat.
"You're dead! You hear me? You're dead!" the violent man Auguste had kicked away yelled.
Then, slamming her hands on the counter and leaping up to stand on her stool, Henrietta turned towards Seren and the rest of her entourage.
"I've had about enough of yer lot!" Henrietta yelled at the top of her lungs. "So yer wanna fight!? Well then come and get it and prepare to die!"
"Yeeeaaah! Let's get 'em!!!" having finally reached his limit, Finn followed suit, his face red as he unleashed his pent up anger in one thunderous bellow, his timidness all but forgotten.
"We've got your back!" said Auguste, bumping Henrietta's shoulder with the back of his fist.
From the stool, Henrietta leaped right in the direction of Seren, the subject of her rage, but was intercepted by the violent man who was then knocked to the ground by the airborne Henrietta. Auguste and Finn followed immediately after her, keeping the rest of Seren's bodyguards off of her as she served up a full course of knuckle sandwich to her opponent.
As the melee got more violent and collateral damage spread, more and more of the customers joined the chaotic skirmish, some holding a grudge against Seren and her gang, who acted as if they owned the place just for being in the Bright Aegis, others wanted to let out some of the frustration of being unable to make a living due to the Crawlers infesting the Dungeon, and finally, there were a few who were just bored and looking for something exciting to do. By the time the fighting had settled down, Seren was found lying on the ground, her nose broken, as if something hard had struck it, the forehead of a dwarf perhaps. Henrietta, Auguste, and Finn were nowhere to be found. Once again, the ability to flee at a moment's notice had served them well.
"You know we like you the way you are, right?" Auguste suddenly said on their way back to camp.
"Gusty, did yer hit yer head on somethin'?"
"I'm just saying... Isn't that right, Finn?"
"Yup. You're one of us, regardless of how tall you are."
Hearing their kind words, Henrietta hung her head low, her expression turned somber even as she hid her face from them.
"Well, I don't like it though, the way I am. This ain't a body a human would like. If I could change it, I wanted to be more like my mother."
"I thought you said your mother was a gnome," said Finn, quirking a brow. "Aren't they just about as tall?"
"Y-yeah, about that, I, ah... lied about that. My mother, she was actually an elf. She was tall and slender and really pretty. I'm nothin' like her."
"Why hide it? It's not like there's anything wrong with that, right?" Auguste asked.
"Yer haven't been to Tuur have yer? Yer don't use to find free elves there. My mother, she was, umm, a slave."
"Slave?" Auguste's brain started turning. As far as he knew, slavery had been completely abolished from all corners of the five kingdoms by around twenty years ago. "Henri, how old are you?"
"Huh? Whatcha doing askin' a girl about her age?"
"Well, I'm only forty-three, so there, stop yer wonderin'."
"Pardon? Forty what now?"
"Forty-three! What? Did yer actually hit yer head."
"I've always assumed you were around sixteen or something," Auguste said, kindling a fire within Henrietta's chest.
"I thought she was around twelve," said Finn, unknowingly adding fuel to the kindle.
"Huh!? Yer two got a problem!?" Henrietta blew up at them.
"Oh, I've got a problem alright. I've got a problem with all three of you!"
Neither Auguste nor Finn had spoken. In fact, by the time Henrietta heard the voice, their faces had already turned pale.
Henrietta turned towards the direction there were staring at, and there she was, Elaine, standing before their camp with her arms crossed and one of her feet tapping away impatiently. In her eyes, the faces of the three covered in bruises were reflected, lit by the campfire blazing directly behind the diminutive woman.
Henrietta swallowed an audible gulp as she turned slowly towards Finn who had cast his sight downwards in guild and fear. Due to Henrietta's height, their eyes met, and Henrietta only nodded.
Finn nodded back in response.
"Gusty started it!" the two said in unison.
"Son of a-" Auguste cried out in protest, but it was no use.
"All three! On your knees! Now!!!
In fact, none of it was of any use. The moment Elaine saw them, all three was going to get it and it went on all night long.
End of Chapter 16