Dungeons of the Abyss and the Unchosen Heroes
"So, what do we do with this one?" Auguste sought counsel from the rest.
"Just leave her here. She'll wake up eventually," said Morganna as she put her hat back on.
"That's a bit too mean, don't you think?" said Finn, feeling a little bad.
"It is certainly a little too cruel to just leave a girl unconscious in the street like this," said Elaine, taking pity on the dwarven merchant collapsed before her.
The four exchanged looks with one another, not quite knowing what to do with the situation. Then, finally, Morganna broke the silence.
"We just have to watch over her till she wakes up, right? But who's to say we have to just sit around and wait for her to wake up?"
And so, from a nearby well, Finn brought back a bucket of water. With the bucket placed before her, Morganna pulled out a wand made from the branch of an evergreen tree. Pointing the wand towards the bucket of water, she unleashed a blast of cold, chilling the water enough for a thin layer of ice to form on the surface.
"Well, here goes nothing," said Auguste.
With barely any hesitation, he splashed the first bucket of water onto the dwarven merchant.
"Gah!" the merchant cried as she shot up from the ground.
"Would you look at that? She's awake and doesn't smell as bad. I guess that's two birds with one stone," Elaine commented as she watched the dwarven merchant frantically looking around as she tried to get a grasp on the situation.
It took only a little time before the merchant began to remember what had transpired.
"I-I-I-I swear, it's all a misunderstanding! I don't know anything at all! It's all a mistake! I didn't know what I was doing! Please forgive meeeeee!"
"Um... Morgan?" Auguste turned towards Morganna.
"What? I just wanted my hat back. I don't particularly care beyond that."
"Well, it *is* your own fault that it got stolen in the first place," said Elaine. "I told you to put it away before entering town, that the shiny gem on it will attract the wrong kind of attention, but you just wouldn't listen."
"How am I supposed to know that there are people dumb enough to mess with a witch!?"
"There are people dumb enough for anything, Morganna."
While Elaine and Morganna were engaged in a tiny bit of an argument, the merchant took her chance to slowly crawl along the alley wall, hoping to slip past them unnoticed. That was, however, not to be.
"Hey, you forgot this," said Finn as he handed the merchant her burlap sack filled with her goods.
"Oh! Uhh... Thanks?"
The merchant was getting confused about the situation. She did not expect such kindness from these people. Then again, thinking about it a little, who are these people? She never did found out.
"By the way, do you by any chance remember who sold you that hat?" Auguste went ahead and asked.
"The hat? The pointy one? All I remember about them is that they seemed kind of shady," the merchant casually answered as her mind began turning. "Wait! Yer guys hounded me for a stupid damn hat!?"
At that comment, Morganna stomped her ashen staff upon the ground, her anger felt from the sound of impact.
"I'll have you know that this isn't just any old hat. It's a witch's hat. Do you realize what that means?"
"Aye, I've heard a thing and a half about the witches and their silly hats. What about it?"
Morganna seemed closer to popping a vein the longer she listened to the merchant talk. Fearing the worst, Auguste decided to intervene.
"What my friend here is trying to say is that the hat is stolen goods and it has been stolen from us, stolen from our friend here to be exact."
The merchant tilted her head. Then she looked up towards Morganna, noting that the gloomy looking woman has been wearing the hat for a while now. She had thought that the woman really liked the hat and decided to put it on. But, if that's hers in the first place, if that pointy witch's hat was hers to begin with...
The merchant began to turn pale upon finally realizing what she had done.
"P-p-p-p-please forgive meee! Whatever you do, don't curse me, please! I don't think I can survive as a frog. I don't want to eat insects for the rest of my life. I don't want to be all wet and slimy all day every day."
Morganna sighed deeply, sounding as if her soul had gone with the breath, while watching the merchant grovel before her.
"I was supposed to head for the Dungeoneers' Guild office today. Why do I have to deal with this?" said Morganna while shifting her glasses and pinching the bridge of her nose.
'Dungeoneers' Guild', those two words did not escape the merchant's ears. Though she's a complete moron at times, during times of crisis, her wits somehow become uncharacteristically sharp. Perhaps this is part of what they call survival instincts.
"Ah, I see yer looking to be a Dungeoneer. Look, just give me a listen, alright? It won't take long."
The merchant's desperate words caused Morganna to give pause. Seeing that her interest had been piqued, the merchant continued speaking in rapid-fire fashion.
"It ain't cheap being a Dungeoneer. With all the supplies, equipment, and information you gotta buy, it's not easy tryin' to start without joinin' a clan. But clans got rules you see, and they might not treat you so well, they might even use you and discard you. So hear this, let me sponsor you. I've got the money to get you started."
"And what would you want in return?" Elaine asked, wondering what this merchant was up to. While she wasn't all that worried as this particular one doesn't seem all that shrewd, one can never be too careful.
The merchant scratched the back of her head with an awkward smile.
"See, the thing is, I've been wantin' to start a dungeoneerin' company for a while now and I've been looking for potential members to join my party."
The thing was, the merchant has been smitten with a particular member of the Lightbringers ever since he rescued her from highwaymen lurking in the Verdant Trails. If she remembered correctly, he was called Albert, and she hoped that she'll run into him again if she got into the dungeoneering business, not fully understanding the dangers that it entailed.
"But, well, so far I haven't found anyone worthy to invest in," the merchant kept talking, "so I thought I might be stuck as a merchant forever. Oh, and if you do join up with me, I'll be the leader of course. I'm the one payin' after all."
And by 'worthy to invest in', she meant people who seemed simple enough that they won't think of trying to trick her. As far as the merchant was concerned, these people here dressed and talked like a bunch of country bumpkins to her. She was under the impression that those living deeper in the Vestal territory were going to be easy to trick and she had planned to trick them into buying some useless trinkets as she traveled the countryside, trinkets that she had been tricked into buying herself at a high price thinking that they were some kind of magical artifacts.
"Well, I'm a witch so I don't really need any equipment. As for information, I'll figure something out."
The proposal was plainly rejected, which caused the merchant to start panicking.
"Wait, wait, wait! Don't say that, surely you'd want some protection just in case, right? And what about yer friends, they don't seem to be all that well equipped. None of them even have a proper weapon."
"I'm the only one becoming a Dungeoneer and we're not friends. We're just sort of heading in the same direction."
"Yer got to be kidding me! And yer guys work together so well too, like a real party, yer know? Come on, let's join up! I'm sure we'll make some big money! Pretty pleaaase!" The merchant started getting desperate and began crying, going as far as to hug Morganna's leg and not letting go.
"Hey, let go!" Morganna tried to pull away, though to no avail. "Damn it! How strong is she!?"
Truth to be told, the merchant's business wasn't exactly going well either, especially not after spending all those coins for some useless trinkets, a few of which were said to be able to make one taller. If she doesn't do something soon, she'll be eating earthworms for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, for the foreseeable future, and she certainly did not what to go through that again.
"How profitable is the dungeoneering business anyways?" asked Elaine. "And while I've heard that it can be pretty dangerous, how dangerous is it, exactly?"
While Elaine wasn't exactly interested in the business of dungeoneering, she was interested in not starving. She and her brother were running a little low in terms of money. The trip from Wilmot to Fortuna had been more expensive than she had initially thought and if they don't find work anytime soon, they might have to start begging on the streets. And if they had to make money, she would much rather it be something that grants her more freedom and not have her work herself to the bones for a pittance of a salary. She's had quite enough of those days.
"Oh, it's not too dangerous if yer know what yer doing. And while I can't guarantee that you'd be rich, yer can most definitely make a living. And in case yer worried about not knowing yer left from right, we can always hire a 'Guide'. They're basically mentors for hire who'd go into the Dungeons with you."
"I don't need a mentor," Morganna declared.
"Now, now, Morgan, I know you have issues with mentorship, but you wouldn't even be able to cast a single spell if it weren't for your master showing you the basics, right?" Auguste argued.
"........." In response, Morganna fell silent and began to sulk.
Seeing her response, or the lack of it, Auguste discreetly shrugged. It seemed that Morganna harbored a greater grudge that he realized.
"At any rate, maybe we should take this inside," said Auguste just as a cloud floated over the moon, casting a dark shadow over the night.
Having moved back into the inn the merchant had been staying at, they continued the discussion in regards to joining the merchant on Dungeon expeditions. It had been a strange day for them. One moment, they were tracking down Morganna's hat, and on the next, they were having talks with some strange merchant about a new business venture. At the end of it, they all decided to opt in.
For Elaine, the money and freedom were tempting, and on the good chance that this turned out to be a scam, she figured that she could just take the money and leave. From what she learned of the merchant after trying for the whole day to track her down, it did not sound like the merchant had the means to go after her and her brother should they decide to make a run for it.
For Finn, having long since admired the stories of the Lightbringers, he was simply thrilled to have a chance to take one more step towards being like one of them. And who knows, perhaps one day, when he becomes good enough, he could join. It was a naive hope, like a child chasing after an impossible dream, but he was excited by the prospect nevertheless.
For Auguste, he figured that he would go with the flow. Cera, the Oracle, made him leave with Morganna for a reason, as she did with many of the seemingly inexplicable demands she made of him. Perhaps this too would lead somewhere. That, and there was also the issue of Helena and Albert on his mind. If he became a Dungeoneer, perhaps their paths would cross once more. Though, what will he do once they meet again, he did not know.
Just like that, with flimsy determinations and lofty goals, they set their minds on the path towards the Dungeons. No great mission to accomplish, no great destiny to fulfill, on a little more than a whim, they simply follow this path to wherever it might lead them.
"It's hard to believe that we've been doing this for three months now."
"It certainly felt as if we've been doing this forever, doesn't it?"
"Well, there that, but back then, I sort of figured that we'd quit after a few weeks or so."
"Funny you should say that, because to be honest, there was a point in time when I was thinking of just taking the money and run."
"By the piss drinkin' Abyss! Yer two realize I'm here right!?"
Out of nowhere, Henrietta cut into the conversation Auguste and Elaine were having. She had heard what they were talking about, not because she was eavesdropping on them, but because they were talking out loud without regard to whether Henrietta was there or not.
"What are you even on about?" said Auguste. "We stuck with you, didn't we?"
"Indeed we did," Elaine agreed, "and that was in spite of how dangerous it wounded up being. If it weren't for Gladiolus, none of us would be here right now. I still occasionally have nightmares about the first time we set foot into one of the Dungeons."
"Ugh..." groaned Auguste. "Just remembering that first time makes my stomach churn. Thinking about it now, there were so many ways we could have bit it."
"Okay, look, so I exaggerated a few things and downplayed some others," Henrietta defended, "but hey, if I didn't yer lot would have been too scared to do it and we wouldn't be here right now, would we?"
"Good point," said Auguste, "but I'm still a little pissed."
"We could have died too," Elaine added. "We were very lucky to be still alive."
"Oh, shut it! It's yer own fault for being talked into it so easily."
"Ah, she went for it," Auguste threw his arms up in the air in good humor, "I've got no riposte for that."
"I suppose in the end, we have only ourselves to blame. Well, I suppose there's still time to just take what I've got and leave."
"Wait, wait, wait! Stop right there, Elaine! I mean, please! I need yer here! We all do. If yer leave, Finn will leave too. I can't have that. I can't deal with the frontlines all on my own!"
Henrietta went and hugged Elaine's leg, refusing to let go regardless of how much she tried to shake her off, not that Elaine could even do that with Henrietta's iron-tight grip.
"Alright, alright! Sheesh, I was only joking. Now stop, you're making a ruckus."
At the moment, the Henrietta Company is in the Fortuna branch of the Lightbringer's office, located two streets over from the Dungeoneers' Guild office they've visited around three months ago. Sitting about in the mess hall, they waited for one of the managers of this branch to get back to them in regards to the report submitted about the hi-catalyst.
"You're the members of the Henrietta Company, yes?"
Coming out to greet them was a thin, balding man appearing to be in his forties.
"That's us," Auguste answered in their stead while Henrietta was calming down.
"I saw your report. He's my official letter to the Iotas branch. Hurry now over there and deliver it if you will. Of course, transportation has been prepared for you."
"So we'll have to go all the way there after all?" Auguste asked.
The thin man nodded.
"That is correct. The hi-catalysts are actually known only by a select few and as such, we wish to keep this case as discreet as possible. Of course, rather than some outsiders, we would much rather leave it to the more trusted members of our organization. It is unfortunate that we are very shorthanded right now due to reports of 'abnormalities' within supposedly dead Dungeons. I'm sure you're aware of what I'm talking about."
Auguste knew what he meant. Apparently, dead Dungeons were being revived with new Abyssal rifts being formed within. The worst part of the problem was that these rifts were supposedly artificial, meaning someone might be creating Dungeons intentionally and whoever that was, they're going around reviving the dead ones.
To be honest, Auguste didn't know how to feel about it. In his head, he knew that this was bad, but in his heart, there was a small elation in regards to new profits to be made. He didn't remember being like this. Before this, before all this, what's good was good and what's bad was bad. Now, however, there is the good, the bad, and tomorrow's meal, and that one new addition made things very complicated.
"Yeah, I remember Albert mentioning something along the lines, but I didn't realize it was that bad."
"If it weren't we would be hiring helpers off the field left and right. Now, do make haste. We may have very little time."
"Alright then, we'll be going."
Auguste turned to Henrietta, who by that time had already calmed down. In response, Henrietta nodded to him, gathered up the rest, and got them ready to leave.
"Please remember," the thin manager addressed them as they were leaving, "the badge granted to you by our members is a sign of great trust. We only give those out to those we believe worthy of it. Do not betray it."
The man seemed to be addressing Auguste specifically. Was the man under the impression that Auguste was the leader since he was the one doing the talking? Auguste wasn't sure, but he felt the pressure to give some semblance of an answer, especially since no one else looked like they were going to.
"We're just going to do the job and get paid, that's all." Augusta managed to squeeze out an appropriate sounding answer.
"And that is all I ask," said the thin man before finally seeing the Henrietta Company off.
End of Chapter 30