Dungeons of the Abyss and the Unchosen Heroes
Before the arrival of the Zethian Empire, now the Principality of Zeth, the territories of the Vestal Coalition were the frontiers, wild and unexplored. As the empire began to expand, more and more tribes began to escape east and began settling in the frontiers. The tribes were disparate and wars for territories and resources were constant. It wasn't until the Zethian Empire began to set their eyes upon the frontier around a hundred years ago did the tribes finally unite under the banner of a folk hero know as Vesta, sometimes called the Sly, the Fox, and ever so occasionally, the Magnificent. That was how the Vestal Coalition came to be.
In the Vestal Coalition, there were no kings. The lands were owned by those who have worked it and it was originally the elders and chiefs of each village who preside over the settlers. However, while there were no kings, there were warlords.
The warlords command soldiers and armies, and their jobs consisted of protecting the villages from outlaws and enemies alike. In exchange for their services, they were paid a set amount of tributes from the villages and towns under their charge. Additionally, they may also come up with laws applied to the region they protect in the name of keeping the peace. The villages may either choose to follow the new laws or risk having an army marching in. The reality was the while the warlords posed themselves as protectors and peacekeepers, the power they hold made them the true rulers of the land and no one was under the illusion of it being otherwise. Ironically, in their struggle for more power and influence, they were the ones who sparked conflicts in greater number and scope than any other within these lands.
If one was fortunate, their warlord would be benevolent, collecting tributes at a fair rate while keeping the villages safe. If one was not, however, they might find themselves stripped of most of what they own while their safety and security were completely neglected. The town of Wilmot was the more unfortunate of such towns and it was also the hometown of Elaine and Finn.
"Are you sure you want to go straight through?" Auguste asked.
"That's quite fine. The sooner we pass the Verdant Trails, the better," said Elaine.
"And if do they recognize you?" asked Morganna.
"Then we'll just have to deal with it," Elaine answered, her expression ridged and poised.
The Henrietta Company, as they continued traveling westward, had run upon the town of Wilmot. As it was part of the shortest route to the Verdant Trails, the party had little choice but to pass through it. Elaine and Finn had few fond memories of this place. In fact, they had a bit of a problem with the guards while they were still living here. If they could help it at all, they'd avoid the place completely. However, they can't just go around it either, as there was a river in their way and the only bridge across was in Wilmot. It was a town built on two sides of a river. The best thing they could do at this point was to hope that no one recognizes them.
Unfortunately for them, that was exactly what ended up happening. Before they even set foot into town, the guards by the gate recognized them immediately.
"If it isn't Elaine and her little brother. You've got some guts coming back here," said a skinny guard, standing before them with one hand on his sword hilt. With a single gesture of this skinny guard, a dozen more guards rushed out of the gates, surrounding the Henrietta Company.
A large, wicked grin hanged upon the skinny guard's face, taking quite a bit of pleasure in the fact that the six before him were at his mercy. Or so he thought. However, standing at the forefront of the party, appearing to be unfazed and utterly composed, there was Elaine.
"Auguste," said Elaine as he held her hand out to him, "hand me the thing."
Without the slightest bit of hesitation, Auguste tossed over a coin-sized silver piece that Elaine promptly caught. With the silver piece in hand, Elaine strutted over to the skinny guard. The skinny guard did not become wary with Elaine's approach and neither did the guards surrounding them. They had the advantage in numbers and more than that, they were expecting a bribe. They were used to it and the notion of someone just waltzing up to one of them and stabbing them in the face never did occur to them.
The skinny guard just stood there, letting Elaine approach, eagerly waiting for her to grant him his prize as if that was but a given. Seeing that smug expression of his, Elaine damned near thrust the silver piece in her hand right into his face but managed to control herself and stopped right in front of said face.
"See this here, Eustace? We're on urgent business for the Lightbringers. If we are delayed for whatever reason, they'll come looking and it's your head that they'll have if you try anything."
The silver piece was the emblem of the Lightbringers that Albert had given them as proof that they were indeed working for them.
The skinny guard, Eustace, stared at the emblem with scrutiny, even tried to swipe it off Elaine's hand. Elaine, in response, was swift to pull back, not wanting to let the man before her even touch such an important article. Who knows what such a devious man might do with it.
"That's a fake!" Eustace announced, "As if someone like you could-"
"Try us, Eustace! Just give it a shot. We could kill you and your lot right here and no one of significance would even blink an eye!"
Elaine's strong tone sent Eustace reeling. Fear was apparent in his eyes and the recognition of that only made Elaine stronger.
"Y-you're lying! The Lightbringers do not have the authority to allow that! They're just a bunch of mercenaries!"
And now Eustace's attention has been shifted, from the notion that the emblem might be a counterfeit to questioning the authority the Lightbringers hold.
"Mercenaries that can combat the Abyss mind you. That much has been recognized by the five kingdoms which include the Coalition. And like I said, we're on urgent business, urgent enough that if you even delay us in the slightest, your precious lord will have to deliver your heads on a platter to save his own."
Not to mention that it was common knowledge that the members of the Lightbringers came from all walks of life, some of whom were descendants of great heroes of the past while some came from noble houses. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that the Lightbringers have many powerful connections throughout the five kingdoms. If they want the ear of the Council of Warlords, a gathering of the most powerful of warlords in the Vestal Coalition that oversaw the affairs of the Coalition, the Lightbringers would no doubt have it.
Of course, it was all a bluff. At the end of the day, the Henrietta Company were little more than messengers. Their task was important, yes, but not to the extent of having the protection of the most powerful of warlords in the Vestal Coalition. Of course, Eustace and his lot wouldn't have known that, and that was what Elaine was counting on.
"Well, Eustace? Do you step aside and let us be on our way? Or will you test us and find out exactly what is going to happen?" Elaine made her final push. "Which will it be? Make it quick!"
"F-f-fine! Just go! B-but you better watch yourself the next time you-"
"What was that!?"
"N-n-nothing! Nothing at all!"
Eustace broke easily, and frankly, if Auguste was in his position, he would have broke too. He wouldn't even try to act tough, he'd simply let her go on through and hope that he won't get in trouble for it. Elaine was just that intense.
It was only after they passed the gates, when the guards were far, far away from earshot, did Elaine let out a sigh that was almost too quiet to hear. She then proceeded to mumble something along the lines of "gutless morons" and "spineless buffoons". This made Auguste think, that while he liked Elaine enough, she was probably the last person he would hand any sort of power to. With just a mere emblem, she commanded the man's fear as if it was her plaything. If she could do that with the little emblem, imagine what she would be able to achieve with real power. Auguste could only shudder at the thought.
The town of Wilmot was built on two sides of a river and connecting the two sides was a stone bridge. As the bridge was commissioned and paid for by the warlord of the region, it was more or less considered to be his property, and as such, it was his right to collect tolls from those wishing to cross it. And since the bridge was the only one available in town, there was little choice but to pay if one wishes to cross to the other side. Interestingly enough, the bridge did not use to be the only one. There used to be others, but mysteriously, each and every one of them eventually collapsed under circumstances most mysterious. There also used to be boats that would ferry passengers across the river, but for one reason or another, such businesses were quick to fade away once the stone bridge was completed. It was all very mysterious. Though, truth to be told, everyone knew what went on behind the scenes and under the tables. It was just that no one would talk about it, lest they too vanish under circumstances most mysterious. So long as one kept their mouths shut and one eye closed, life in Wilmot wasn't so bad.
All things considered, Wilmot was prosperous. Any merchants or travelers traveling from Fortuna to the frontiers or frontiers to Fortuna would have to go through it one way or another thanks to the river dividing the Vestal Coalition into east and west. In the past, it was both the source and prize of many conflicts. Eventually, it fell into the hands of the warlord who founded Fortuna, who would then grant Wilmot as a fief to his favorite vassal. Said vassal's decedents would continue to oversee it to this day.
Yes, so long as one behaved themselves, chances were, they'll live a peaceful and prosperous life. That was the case for most of the citizens of Wilmot. Most of them, at least.
Elaine and Finn were siblings living in the outskirts of Wilmot, on the east side of the river. Elaine and her parents came from Fortuna, seeking to earn a small fortune in Wilmot before heading into the frontier to carve out a new future for themselves. Unfortunately, things would often not go as smoothly as one hoped, and for Elaine and Finn's parents, such was their case.
A famine had hit the very year they settled into Wilmot, and making a living was difficult for everyone within the Vestal Coalition. It was later on that very same year that Finn was born, adding to the burden of the household. A year later, their mother would pass away and in five years' time, their father would work himself to death. By that time, Elaine would be thirteen years of age and her brother would be six. The next eight years of Elaine's life would be devoted to keeping her brother warm and fed, taking any menial labor she could get so long as she got paid. It was not an easy life, but she somehow managed to make sure that her brother was well fed while keeping herself alive. This life, however, would come to an abrupt end on one fateful day, when her brother stirred up yet another trouble with the guards.
While quiet and timid most of the time, Finn was also a young man who held a strong sense of righteousness in his heart, an effect from listening to one too many tales of heroism from the traveling bards it seemed. In the town of Wilmot, it was to one's best interest to live with their mouths shut and one eye closed. Finn lacked the ability to do either in the face of injustice, something the town guards commit on a daily basis.
End of Chapter 25