Dungeons of the Abyss and the Unchosen Heroes
"I'll be just a minute."
Spotting an altar devoted to Ceratias by the side of the road, Auguste briefly broke away from his party. Perhaps it was because of its proximity to Lars, this one was much better maintained than the ones seen on their travels.
"Again? Didn't yer just leave the temple in Lars?" Henrietta asked, not wanting to stop now that they have gotten going.
"That was that and this is this," Auguste replied.
"Yer not making any sense."
"Just let him have it," Morganna defended. "This shouldn't take long, right?"
"Like I said, it'll only be a minute," said Auguste.
"In an awfully good mood right now, aren't yer?" Henrietta commented.
"Not in particular," said Morganna
Henrietta tilted her head to that response. She found it rather strange that Morganna was being so nice, at least for Morganna's standard, when she was being so grouchy a moment ago.
As for Morganna, she quietly watched over Auguste as he kneeled before the altar. It got her feeling somewhat nostalgic.
On that day, when Morganna had finally made up her mind to leave her master as well as the only home she had ever known, she came down this very same road. Back then as well, there was Auguste, kneeling at the same altar by the roadside.
Before becoming a Dungeoneer, Morganna was an apprentice to a hermit of a witch who lived in a forest. For as long as she remembered, Morganna had always been an apprentice to her. What happened before that, she wasn't quite clear. All Morganna knew was what little she had been told, that her village had been burned down by a burning Demon and she was the sole survivor. Her master found her amongst the ashes and took her in. She was about five back then and for whatever reason, she remembered nothing of the experience. Soon after being taken in, Morganna's affinity with the Abyss was recognized and it was decided that she would be a witch's apprentice.
However, despite being an apprentice to a witch, Morganna was permitted to use very little magic. In fact, she was hardly allowed to practice them and when she was given the allowance, it would have to be exactly as her master instructed, nothing more and nothing less. In fact, her master's teachings were so rigid that most of Morganna's knowledge was acquired from books. Her master showed love for very few things, but she did love books if nothing else, and as such, their little cabin in the woods was filled with both books acquired from traveling merchants and journals penned by the master herself.
Morganna, observant even from her younger days and strongly connected to the Abyss, felt that there was more to magic, to the Abyssal arts. In a sense, it was as Lyudmila had said, Morganna was a prodigy. Feeling restricted and unable to wield her talents to their fullest, Morganna eventually began to practice behind her master's back, trying to figure it out on her own, as she has done so with so many other things. She even managed to craft her own catalyst out of a branch from an old evergreen tree.
It was on a day when Morganna's master was out on an errand in a nearby village. While being a hermit, she had not completely cut her ties with the rest of the world. She was a witch, not a hunter, and as such, she has a need to trade for food and supplies. Working as a physician for the villagers too poor or sick to see the doctors in town, she made a bit of a name for herself and has been receiving requests to tend to the sick every now and then. It was on such a day did Morganna sneak into her master's room and stole her ashen staff. Morganna has been waiting patiently for the opportunity, the opportunity to practice with fire spells to her heart's content.
Morganna went into the deeper parts of the hill right behind the cabin she lived in, where there was a small pond. She had found this place completely by accident and upon repeated visits, she was quite confident that this was a place where no one would stumble upon her. Sure enough, no one did stumble upon her. It was she who stumbled upon someone else.
There he was, a man, a young man, was there, sitting by the lake with a fishing pole in hand. Morganna watched him from a distance, behind the trees, and she was quick to pick up on the fact that this person would likely not be leaving soon. Why? Because he was terrible at it. Fishing, that is. He was unable to sit still, lifting up the pole to check on the hook every other minute, constantly changing his positions, and kept making strange noises from his mouth out of boredom, likely scaring away the fishes in the process.
After about thirty minutes of observation, Morganna decided to just throw caution into the wind. It wasn't every day that she would have an opportunity to be away from her master's eyes. This was going to be one of the few chances she'll have and she wasn't about to waste it just because of an idiot who's at the wrong place at the wrong time. And who knows, maybe seeing a giant fireball out of nowhere will be enough to convince him to leave. He might talk, but he didn't look too bright, so chances were that nobody would believe him.
The moment Morganna approached the pond, however, something about the boy changed. There was an air about him, a sense of stillness uncharacteristic from how he was behaving before. No longer did he made any unnecessary noises or movements, in fact, he was hardly moving at all, not even when there was finally a reaction from his hook. Morganna knew from watching the animals in the forest that the young man had sensed her presence and was making use of his other senses to observe her before deciding his next course of action.
Morganna immediately changed her mind about this young man. Bad at fishing he may be, he's not some simple village boy. If she were to take him too lightly, she might end up paying dearly for it.
"H-h-how strange, I didn't think anyone would find this place."
Morganna's voice was shaking in spite of herself. This was the first time she had spoken to someone that was not her master.
Hearing Morganna's voice, the young man turned around, his head tilted with a brow quirked. It appeared as though he was expecting someone, or something, else.
"Well, hello..." the young man greeted her before turning back to his rod. The fish that got caught on his hook previously seemed to have gotten away. "Here for the fishes? Frogs? Or the field of herbs up ahead?"
The young man spoke normally with Morganna despite her wearing her pointy hat, part of a witch's traditional clothing, a uniform, one could even call it. The witches had been wearing it since times of old and they wore it into battle when they aided the Vestal Coalition against the expanding Zethos Empire, now the Principality of Zeth. The pointed hats woven from silk, each with a gemstone hung at the end of their tips, set them apart from the soldiers wearing iron helmets. Those were the days, when witches stood tall and proud. Morganna admired the history behind these hats, and since her master no longer wore it, she took it and wore it upon her own head behind her master's back.
"I'm not here to fish or to look for herbs," said Morganna.
The young man stuck another worm onto his fishing hook and went back to fishing. Meanwhile, Morganna concentrated on her master's ashen staff, reaching into its Ether.
"What?" Morganna asked curtly, her tone giving away her irritation.
"Nothing..." said the young man, turning his eyes away. He had been stealing glances at the apprentice witch.
"If it's nothing then stop peeking at me."
"Well... it's just that I thought you look kind of young. Are you really the old hag?"
The comment almost made Morganna blow her top.
"Who are you calling an old hag?" she said in a cold tone.
"You're that hermit witch that lives here right? Or are you some other witch?"
"I'm her apprentice," Morganna answered bluntly, though she was quick to regret giving up that information so freely to a stranger.
"Oh. That makes sense."
The man went back to his fishing, but it was only a moment later did he crack, feeling awkward with the silence.
"So, what *are* you doing here?"
"None of your business."
"I don't know about that... I'm not comfortable with where that staff is pointing."
"It's not as if I'm pointing it at you."
"You're not planning to do anything to the fishes, are you? I kind of need them."
"Nothing is going to happen to the fishes... Probably."
Morganna began concentrating once more while the young man slowly moved away from the pond. Morganna paid no attention to the young man and neither did she mind her surroundings. All of her focus was upon the memories within the ashen staff, the memories held by the Ether within, the memories of the firestorm.
Just above the water surface, a spark ignited and immediately following that, a ball of fire about the size of a larger than average pumpkin flashed to life.
Morganna took repeated deep breaths to contain her excitement. It was the largest fire she had created thus far.
"Hey, that's pretty neat!"
In contrast, the young man beside her did not even try to hide his exhilaration.
"This is nothing," said Morganna, her ego growing large. "I can do much better than this."
Her mind sharpened further and with her will, she pulled forth more flames from the Abyss. Hotter, brighter, more power. Like the legendary pillars of fire that held back the invading Zethian forces in the northern mountain pass for three whole days during the Zeth-Vestal war.
Then, she felt something slipping from her, like water flowing through a crack in a dam, a crack that only opened further as the water passed through.
The ball of fire erupted, from a small orb into a rising pillar, giving off so much heat that scorching gales were formed around it.
Desperately, Morganna tried to keep it in check, trying to hold it all back. It felt as if she's sealing the crack in the dam with her bare hands even while water poured though in raging torrents.
By the time the fire subsided, Morganna was exhausted. On her knees and sweating profusely, she gasped for each breath.
Hot vapors rolled off from the water surface. Through the vapors, floating atop the bubbling water, were the carcasses of the fishes, cooking in what was once their habitat.
"So... What was that you said about the fishes?" commented the young man.
"I..." Morganna was still trying to catch her breath. "I didn't think I have so much power."
The young man turned back to the pond, gazing grimly upon it. The raging, uncontrolled flames reminded him of a bad memory.
"Doesn't seem like you can control it though."
"I just need more practice. That's all I need."
Again, Morganna readied her staff. Taking deep breaths, she focused her mind as she poised herself for another spell.
From a distance, there came a bestial roar, one bearing primal and ferocious anger. Birds can be seen fluttering into the sky while chirping in panic.
"What was that!?" said the young man, fear gripping onto his heart the moment he heard that raging roar.
"No idea," said Morganna, doing her best to keep her wits about her as she tried to think of any animal that might make such a sound.
"We better get out of here."
"You may go if you're scared, but I still have unfinished businesses here."
"Are you sure you want to stay?"
"Whatever it was, it sounded far away. It shouldn't bother me all the way over here."
But, as soon as Morganna spoke her last word, tremors were felt along the ground and trees could be heard falling. The tremors rapidly became stronger with each wave and the tallest of trees that could be seen over the treeline started to fall one by one.
"Run... Run!" the young man cried before taking off running without even looking back.
Sensing the danger within her guts, Morganna as well, took off only a short moment after the young man.
Even as they ran, the tremors grew more powerful and the crunches of tree trunks snapping could be heard ever clearer. Whatever creature causing all of this was getting closer and not only that, but Morganna also had a feeling that it might be heading right towards them. Against her better judgment, Morganna turned to look behind her as she ran.
And there it was, a beast of unnaturally large proportion, with a pair of brownish-red eyes, a huge snout, a body of thick, dark fur, and a great pair of ivory tusks. It was a boar of a never seen before size, as tall as the cabin Morganna had lived it and tough enough to knock aside any tree in its path without a scratch on itself.
Thinking about how such a creature was pursuing her, Morganna's blood grew cold and the beat of her heart was so strong that she felt as if it was about to break out of her chest. Her breaths soon became uneven and her legs began to wane in strength. She can't stop, Morganna knew that, but her legs wouldn't listen and the more she panicked, the harder they were to move.
"This way!" the young man shouted. "Down the hill!"
Morganna was quick to catch onto what he was trying to say. The boar, with its size, would likely have trouble stopping itself if it were to charge downhill at full speed. If they could run to the side at the right time, they might be able to escape. A path was opened to her. With all of her willpower, Morganna gathered her strength for a final sprint. Scrambling towards the path the young man pointed towards, Morganna forced her stiff legs to move.
Alongside the young man, Morganna ran, even when she was clearly going dangerously fast downhill, she kept going, enduring the fear boring a hole at the pit of her stomach.
"Now!" the young man shouted again.
"Alright!" Morganna replied, instinctively knowing what the young man was thinking.
At the drop of the hat, the two made a ninety-degree turn, each towards the opposite direction from one another. What happened afterward, Morganna did not see, but she certainly heard a sharp beastly cry and felt something huge tumbling downhill behind her.
When she looked back, what remained was a wide crevice drawn in the ground, tracing along a path of destruction lined with fallen trees. At the end of it all was the massive beast, fallen against the mound of dirt it had gathered with its own body. Of its four legs, one of them was twisted in a rather grotesque way. The beast wasn't about to get up anytime soon, if it was ever going to get up.
"What in the world was that?" the young man asked. "Some kind of forest guardian?"
"Sure. With at all the trees it knocked down, that must be what it is," said Morganna, not without a sarcastic tone.
"Trees grow back, but that pond you boiled is going to be barren for a while. Besides, I'll bet if left alone, you'll set the entire hill on fire."
"I would not!"
"That's roughly the same thing you said about the fishes."
"Whatever, let's just leave. I rather not stay here for another moment longer."
"Agreed. Imagine if there's another one of these."
"Don't you jinx it!"
Then, ever so slightly, they felt the ground shake. The two simultaneously turned towards the source and there, they saw the fallen beast, slowly propping its massive body back up against the dirt mound.
Morganna turned to glare at the young man.
"Wait! This is completely different from what I just said!"
"If you have time for that then just run! Run, goddamnit!"
End of Chapter 23