Dungeons of the Abyss and the Unchosen Heroes
The city of Fortuna, once a fortress city built to defend against invasions from the west, it had since become the gateway to the Vestal Coalition and the frontiers further east. Much like Wilmot, if one comes from the west, one would inevitably have to go through this walled city, generating much revenue for the businesses there. Being such a well-traveled location, one of the main attractions of the city was its sprawling bazaars, selling goods from all over the five kingdoms. Whatever one might be looking for, there was a good chance that they might find it in the bazaars of Fortuna.
Aside from the bazaars, there was also the Great Fortuna Temple, a temple of a monumental size devoted to Ceratias, Goddess of Fate and Guidance. It was at least five times larger than the one seen in Lars and several more times grander.
The first time Auguste visited, he could feel his mind go numb from trying to comprehend the sheer size of the city. He had never seen something so vast created by the hands of man before in his life. Morganna was equally fazed, and though she had known about the great cities in the traveling journals penned by her master, seeing one first hand was quite shocking for the first time. Elaine was less impressed, as she had spent some of her childhood here while Finn was visibly excited, more enthralled than shocked.
That was a little over three months ago, and as the Henrietta Company passed through it once more, they no longer feel the elation and surprise they have felt the first time around. There was a sense of exhilaration, yes, but it wasn't something that made their hearts race. In that, there was a slight sense of loss felt within them.
"Ah, back to Fortuna once more. It felt like a lifetime ago since we're last here."
"So you say, Henri, but aren't long living races like dwarfs supposed to experience time slower?"
"Shut yer trap, Gusty! I'm tryin' to be poetic here! Let me have my moment!"
Passing through the massive gates, the party was greeted by a wide street populated to the brim on each side and a pair of seemingly ceaseless lines of horse-drawn carriages and wagons in the middle, going in opposite directions parallel to one another.
"Remember, we head straight to the office, and then we leave as soon as possible," Elaine reminded them.
"Oh, come on. Can't we stay? Just a night, pretty please?" Henrietta pleaded. "I'm sick and tired of having to camp outside."
"Then I hope you won't be sick and tired of starving. We all know how much the lodgings cost here."
"Ugh... Fine, but we'll definitely have a break once we get to Iotas Tria, alright."
"Sure thing, but only when we get there."
The party weaved their way through the crowds, making sure to check for one another so that no one would get separated.
"Say, Morgan," Henrietta spoke out. "Where's yer hat. I'm so used to seeing it I almost thought you went missing. You look like someone else without it."
"Really?" said Morganna, sounding like she was actually surprised. "I thought you'd be looking at my ankles more than my hat."
"What's that supposed to mean!?"
"As I was saying," Morganna moved the conversation along with little regards to Henrietta. "In a city as big as this, there's bound to be people dumb enough to mess with a witch. They're so dumb, they'd grab anything shiny looking without a second thought. It's like they have a brain the size of a bird's."
"What's that mean?"
"She's saying that she doesn't want her hat to be stolen," Auguste supplemented. "You know, like last time."
"Last time? Oh... Last time..."
"I'm impressed you forgot."
"More like I don't want to remember."
"You made quite a mess."
"W-whose fault did yer think that was!?"
Henrietta's complexion flushed red. She didn't want to remember it. Not at all. As far as she's concerned, that must have been the worst day of her life thus far.
In a corner of a somewhat traveled street, a small stall was set up. Permissions had not been granted and even if the owner tried to apply, she would likely be refused as the process heavily prioritizes the member of the Merchant's Guild and a member she was not. In fact, she hated the guild with a passion, not that she would say it out loud of course. She was a loudmouth, but her feelings for the guild was something she never let slip out of her tiny lips. That was how wary of them she was.
In her stall, which was more or less a bunch of goods atop a cheap carpet, she sold curios gathered from her travels, where she skirted the edges of the five kingdoms. Those were places where the guild's influence was minimal and where smaller merchants unaffiliated with them could somewhat survive.
For the past few days, her business had been doing fine. It wasn't great, but she was making some profit. At the very least, it wasn't doing so bad that she had to scrounge for mushrooms, herbs, berries, and even insects in order to survive like she was doing some weeks ago. However, on this very day, her business was going poorly. No one was willing to even look at her goods no matter how much she hollered or called or wailed or begged. No one was willing to give her the time of the day. She couldn't understand why, never once suspecting that it was perhaps due to one of the objects she currently has on display, one that was traded to her by some shady looking individuals earlier that morning.
Said object was a witch's hat, one with a blue tear-shaped gemstone hanging at the end of the pointy hat's tip. The foreign merchant, unwise to the ways of the locals, was trying to peddle off a witch's hat in Vestal territories, where witches were feared and respected, feared for the most part.
It was around the moment when the merchant was about to give in and call it a day. It was right then, did someone finally approach the stall.
"Finally, a customer! Come here! Come closer! See anything yer like?"
Said 'customer' was someone holding what seemed to be an oversized walking stick made of ashen wood and was wearing a robe that was as black as her hair. On her face, she wore a pair of glasses framed by ebony wood, and behind these very glasses, eyes of eerie red glared down at the shorter merchant.
"Um... Can I help you?" the merchant asked in a smaller voice. Perhaps it was her red eyes, but there was something about the woman before her that triggered a primordial fear within the merchant.
"You... What do you think you're doing?"
The woman's voice was trembling ever so slightly, and as the words flowed jaggedly into the merchant's ears, a chill ran down her spine.
"W-well, you see, um... Yes, that's right! Go ask that guy, it's all his idea!"
The merchant pointed behind the woman, prompting her to look behind. The moment the woman's eye was off of her, in a single motion, the merchant rolled up the cheap carpet her goods were displayed on and tossed the entire bundle onto her wagon right beside her stall. Some of the goods were dropped, but it didn't matter as oftentimes, being caught meant getting a fine costing far more than a few trinkets. And this time, she felt that getting caught might just cost than a fine.
The merchant was very good at running away. She had practice, a whole lot of it. As she was setting up shops without proper permission, she was technically doing business illegally. Having to make a quick getaway at a drop of the hat had become her forte.
"Hey! Stop right there!"
By the time the woman noticed, the merchant was already speeding away. She might have been short, but her strength more than made up for it. Dragging her wagon along by her own two hands with ease, the merchant charged full speed down the street. In her hurry to get away, a few more of her goods had fallen onto the ground, none of which were the witch's hat.
That evening, wanting to forget the terrible encounter she has had, the merchant decided to visit the tavern to drink it all away, something she does every evening anyways.
As she sat down at the counter and ordered her drinks, two men came beside her, one on each side. One of them was tall while the other one was very tall.
"You're the one selling curios without a permit, right?" the not-as-tall one leaned in and asked her.
"N-n-n-n-no! That wasn't me? Nope, definitely not me. You've got the wrong person laddie."
The not-as-tall one quirked an eyebrow and turned his eyes towards the taller one.
"They were saying that she speaks with a strange accent too weren't they?" the not-as-tall one asked.
"That's what I heard," the taller one answered plainly.
The merchant had no idea who these people were or what they wanted exactly, but she had a few inklings. They could be the loan sharks she borrowed money from and never quite paid back, or they could the goons from the Merchant's Guild cracking down on her for doing business independently, or perhaps they could be part of a criminal gang whose territory she happened to set up shop in. Whichever they were, it meant trouble for the merchant. In fact, for her case, if someone was actively looking for her, it usually meant trouble.
Kicking off the counter, the merchant fell backward while on the barstool, knocking the back of her head against the wooden floor.
"Oh shit! Was she drunk already!?" said the not-as-tall one.
"I-I-I don't know! What do we do!?" the tall one blabbered.
It was while the two were confused and shocked that the merchant's eyes shot open, her dwarven skull more than protected her from a concussion, as she tucked in her knees and did a backward roll, turning around and ran right out of the tavern the moment she got back on her feet. Despite having such short legs, she runs very fast.
Having lost her pursuers in the twisting and turning alleyways of Fortuna, the merchant returned to the inn she was staying in and with great haste, gathered all of her things into a crude sack. Clearly, this city has proved itself too dangerous a place for her to stay in. Turns out, it was a mistake for an unaffiliated merchant to try and make business in a big city such as Fortuna.
As soon as she had gathered her belongings and merchandise, the merchant rushed downstairs and out the building, going to load her things onto the wagon she had left in a nearby alleyway. Upon turning the corner, she bumped into a red-headed woman, her hair tied into a pair of braided pigtails draped over each shoulder. She bumped into the woman so hard that she almost knocked her off her feet.
"You ought to watch where you're going!" the woman complained.
"Sorry about that, but I ain't got time for this!" the merchant made a hasty apology before turning back towards where her wagon should be. It was then, did she realize that there was someone else there, standing right by her wagon.
As the clouds part and the moonlight shone down, the merchant turned pale. At the same time, the person by her wagon turned her red eyes towards her.
"You..." said the red-eyed woman, her voice trembling ever so slightly in apparent anger.
An audible gulp can be heard from the merchant's throat. She knew that if she were caught, she would be done for. Quickly, she turned and tried to make a run for it, but this time, the woman with the pigtails blocked her path.
"Is this the one?" the pigtailed woman asked.
"That's the one," the red-eyed woman responded.
Is this it? Am I done for? Such thoughts ran through the merchant's mind. No, not yet. I'll just have to force my way-
But before she could even finish that thought, another two figures showed up, a tall one and a very tall one.
"Elaine! Morgan!" the very tall one called out.
"She's a slippery one, be careful!" warned the not-as-tall one.
While the merchant had thought that she gave them the slip, those two figured that they should just head for the inn she was staying at, having found out where it was some time prior.
If it was just one of them, the merchant could manage. Being of dwarven blood, she was stronger than most. With three of them in her way, on the other hand, she wasn't so confident.
As they slowly closed in on her from both sides, the merchant's complexion gradually turned blue. Tears streamed down her eyes as she started shaking, her mind going blank from terror. Then, everything went black.
"D-did she just pass out?" asked the very tall one.
"Wait, what's that smell?" the not-as-tall one pointed out.
"Don't tell me, she-"
"Quick, grab the sack off her! I don't want it getting on my hat!"
End of Chapter 29