Dungeons of the Abyss and the Unchosen Heroes
To the eastern of the Principality of Zeth, near its countryside, there was once a Dungeon hidden behind a waterfall. Discovered by a search party trying to track down children who had gone missing from the nearby villages, it was a Dungeon of underground lakes and underwater tunnels, filled with strange aquatic creatures as well as gemstones and crystals of high Ether density. Needless to say, it attracted Dungeoneers from far and wide to plunder it, including an upstart party of Dungeoneers called the Henrietta Company.
Under the guidance of Gladiolus, a Guide they have hired, the Henrietta Company carefully searched the few tunnels above water for anything that seemed profitable. As the traversable tunnels had already been searched by those that came before them, the returns were minimal.
"Damn, we're not getting much out of this at all, are we?" said the most heavily armored of them all, the one called Henrietta.
"According to the information provided by the guild, the creatures are the ones that carry the gemstones. Perhaps we'll find some on the sites of battle, though that may also put us at risk of engaging with the creatures," the Guide, Gladiolus gave his suggestion.
"So you're saying that we might have to fight to be able to earn something significant?" asked Elaine.
"Only if you feel that you're ready."
"M-maybe the fighting can wait. I mean, none of yer knows how to fight, right?" asked Henrietta, gauging the room.
"If we don't fight, then what's the point of all these weapons and armor?" said Morganna, more than a little annoyed by the indecisiveness of the supposed leader of the party.
"I'm just saying that we don't got to rush, you know. Fighting is dangerous business after all, we ought to be more careful."
"Agreed." Sensing an upcoming argument, Gladiolus put his foot down, trying to curb the embers before a fire start. "Fighting isn't what all a Dungeoneer's about. It's best to avoid it unless absolutely necessary."
"Still, at this rate, we'll be in the red," Elaine commented. "We might have to go into debt at this rate."
"Alright, fine!" said Henrietta, pressured into an ultimatum. "Here's what we'll do. Let's vote on it. All who agree to head into the danger zones raise yer hands."
Nearly everyone raised their hands, all except Gladiolus, who would abide by the decisions of the party, and Henrietta, who really didn't think it through when she decided to form a dungeoneering party.
Once the decision was made, the party consulted the map they've brought from the guild's informant and headed into the so called 'danger zones', areas where creatures have been sighted and where combat occurred frequently.
Gladiolus acted as a scout for the party while bringing Auguste along. The Guide has deemed the young man suitable for the job and planned to train him to take on this role after he departs from this party. Once it was confirmed that the coast was clear, they regrouped with the party and led them onward.
Within the danger zones, the party has fond much more success in their scavenging, at least enough to be sure that they'll be able to afford food upon their return.
"Phew, so far so good," said Henrietta as she prepared to drink from her waterskin only to find out that it had run empty.
Looking around, Henrietta quickly found a nearby pool in which she thought she'd drink from and refill her water at the same time.
"Hey, Henri!" Auguste called out. "Are you sure you should be drinking water from a Dungeon?"
"Huh? Why not?"
"Because, you know, it might do something to you."
"According to the informants as well as the testimonies given by the other Dungeoneers, the water seemed safe to drink," said Gladiolus. "However, it's best to err on the side of caution and avoid using it if we can."
"Well, I'm thirty and I already ran out, so there."
Henrietta reached her hands into the pool, cupping the water in her hands before bringing it over to her mouth. As she was about to gulp it down, she hesitated for a moment. What if it does do something to you? What if the other Dungeoneers were wrong and it just needed some time before it took effect? Such fears ran through her mind.
Henrietta stared back into the water, wondering if she should drink after all. She hesitated just long enough for the ripples on the water surface to still, revealing something that Henrietta had not really taken notice before. There were fishes, or at least, they had the faces to that of fishes.
Henrietta let out a silent shriek as she pulled away, just in time for a slimy claw to miss her.
"I-I thought yer said that this place was clear!" Henrietta screamed back at her party as she broke into a sprint.
"It... It was! I checked!" said Auguste.
"There might have been an underwater tunnel underneath," Gladiolus explained. "They must have arrived here through that."
"But the maps didn't say anything about tunnels!" said Elaine, readying a woodcutter's axe to defend herself with.
"Maps are never fully accurate, especially in 'living' Dungeons, where changes may happen on a daily basis," Morganna supplemented. "We're told of this already, weren't we?"
While the party was in distraught by the sudden appearance of enemies, more of the creatures emerged from nearby pools, surrounding them and blocking off their exit.
These creatures had the heads of fishes complete with sharp teeth and massive maws while at the same time, having humanoid bodies covered in scales. On their limbs, they have webbed hands and feet as well as sharp claws attached to each finger and toe tips. The locals called them Sahuagins, after the mermen spoken of in folklore.
"All hands, prepare for combat," Gladiolus cried out, seeing that there was no longer a way to avoid a fight. "Quick, gather over and have your backs against this wall! We can't get surrounded!"
With clumsy haste, all except Elaine quickly dropped whatever baggage they have on them and drew their weapons, preparing for combat.
"Morgan!" Auguste turned to Morganna.
"They're afraid of fire, I know!"
With a swing of her ashen staff, an orb of fire flew into the midst of the Sahuagins, erupting into a torrent of flames. The Sahuagins recoiled from the fire as the heat evaporated the moisture from their skin and gills, causing them to suffer. Of those caught by the flames, some fell to their knees as their gills gaped open for air while others went clambering towards the pools of water they've emerged from. What was once a horde of twenty to thirty had been reduced to a group of less than a dozen. Though at the time, Morganna was limited to three fire spells per day, her ability to make use of each one to their maximum effect did a great deal to make up for her limitations.
"They're faltering, cut a way through!" Gladiolus cried.
"A-aye, let's get 'em. We'll show 'em what they get for messin' with us!" Henrietta forced out a roar as she charged the Sahuagins with Finn and Auguste following suite.
However, as she got closer and had a better look at their hideous maws and sharp, slimy claws, she quickly got cold feet.
"On second thought, I can't. I just can't do it!" she cried as she tried to turn back.
"God damn it, just go!" said Auguste as he shoved her upfront with a strong kick to her back. "What do you think all that armor is for!?"
While Henrietta had indeed sponsored the party, selling off everything she had in the process, the unfortunate thing was, she simply could not get enough money to fully arm every one of them. Instead, they had to make do, with most of the resources placed into the ones who would become the frontliners, namely, Auguste, Finn, and Henrietta. Of the three, Henrietta was the most heavily armored of them, Finn was the second, while Auguste drew the short straw and decided that he'll just have to rely on what little experience he already had.
With Henrietta in their way, the remaining group of Sahuagins split into two as the majority of them tried to bypass the wildly flailing Henrietta. Four went towards the left flank where Finn stood while three went towards the right flank where Auguste was on standby.
To the approaching enemies, Finn swung his battleaxe wildly, putting all of his strength in each blow, with each swing powerful enough to cleave right through one of these mermen. Unfortunately, not a single blow connected as the Sahuagins could clearly see his movements and slipped right out of range like the slippery fishes they were.
On Auguste's end, he was able to quickly dispatch of the first one that approached him. Drawing it in with a pretend retreat, Auguste plunged his sword into the throat of the Sahuagin as it was about to charge him. However, after felling the first, the other two came at him from both sides, and as he was distracted by one, the other sank its jaws into his left arm. By reflex, Auguste stuck his hefty shortsword into the gills of the one biting into him before it could tear out his flesh and in exchange, left his back open to the last one remaining.
As the last one reached its claws towards Auguste's neck, an arrow buried itself into one of the merman's eyes before two more slammed into its torso. As he watched the Sahuagin fall, Auguste stood there, stunned, realizing how close he was to death.
On the left flank, Finn continued to swing repeatedly at thin air even while his breath became rugged and his feet unsteady. Though he was unable to land a single hit, the Sahuagins around him had already fallen, each one with arrows stuck in their bodies like pin cushions.
"Elaine, quiver!" Gladiolus requested, his arrows already used up.
Having been keeping an eye on the situation, Elaine has already had a new quiver of arrows ready in her hands and quickly passed them over to Gladiolus.
Over at the frontmost position, there was Henrietta, grappling with a total of three Sahuagins trying to pry off her armor with their claws and teeth. Her greatshield was left on the ground, presumably pried away by one of the merman, while her shortsword could be found stuck in the body of a lifeless Sahuagin corpse.
"Somebody! Somebody save meee!" Henrietta cried as she could feel the pieces of her armor coming loose and fearing that it was only a matter of time before the merman figured out how to lift her faceplate.
"Morganna, guard Elaine," Gladiolus gave his instruction before rushing out, circling around Henrietta to try and get a better shot. While Henrietta might be protected by her armor, Gladiolus would prefer not to shot at her if he could, not knowing if an arrow or two might slip through one of the gaps. Not to mention, the chances of his arrows breaking against the armor wasn't nil, and when in a Dungeon, it's best to conserve supplies when you can.
With three shots, one in the head and then two in the torso when the Sahuagin didn't drop dead from the headshot, Gladiolus took out one of the mermen. Meanwhile, Finn, unable to bring down his axe upon the Sahuagins clinging onto Henrietta out of the fear of hurting their leader-on-paper, began trying to wrestle them off of her, causing them to turn their attention towards the larger man instead.
Seeing the two Sahuagins ganging up on Finn, clawing and trying to take a bite out of him, Auguste came in and delivered a strong kick to one of them. However, his target had apparently seen him coming and greeted his kick with its large maw, trapping his foot in its mouth. The needle-like teeth dug into his trapped foot, though fortunately, his leather greaves spared him from most of the wounds he could have sustained.
With a hunting knife, Gladiolus moved up to the one biting down onto Auguste's foot and plunged the blade into the gill, twisting and turning the knife till the Sahuagin no longer moved. On Finn's end, with the help of Henrietta who had finally pulled herself together, the two held down the last remaining Sahuagin with their combined strength, allowing Gladiolus to slay it with ease moments later.
Thus ended their first ever battle, unrefined, undignified, and a complete uncoordinated mess. After the battle, they quickly left the area, with Henrietta and Finn each dragging two Sahuagin corpses along with them.
Upon their arrival at one of the safe zones, Morganna healed Auguste's wounds with her Abyssal arts, not forgetting to warn him that this was but a temporary measure and that his wounds will return once they make it outside. As such, he best not neglect to tend to his wounds upon their return.
"Alright, so these things are supposed to carry the crystals, right? I don't see 'em anywhere on these freaks, so what gives?" said Henrietta while searching the corpses of the Sahuagins. "Heck, I don't think they're wearing anything on them!"
"It's in their guts," Gladiolus said plainly.
"It's in their guts," Gladiolus said again. "You have to cut them open."
"And by that you mean..."
"Here, I'll show you."
With that, Gladiolus proceeded to cut open one of the Sahuagins' torso and began disemboweling it without the slightest change in his expression. Being made to watch it all unfold, Henrietta gradually grew paler by the second and eventually began throwing up. In her nausea, she mistook her helmet for a bucket.
The thumping of the horses' hooves, the grinding of the wooden wheels against the dusty road, the slight bumps felt as the wagon moved forward on the ever so slightly uneven road, when all these sensations disappeared from his senses, Auguste stirred from his sleep. He was a light sleeper, one who would wake up with the slightest change in the environment. This made him a good Dungeoneer but very bad at getting him any decent sleep. That being said, these days, it wasn't as bad as before and he could sometimes fall into a deep enough sleep to dream.
When he opened his eyes, he found himself looking up at someone, a red-headed young lady with a pair of braided pigtails draped over her shoulders.
"Elaine?" Auguste mouthed.
"Hm?" she responded, apparently having heard his barely audible words. "Did I wake you?"
He vaguely remembered slouching to the side while asleep. He wound up leaning on someone, but since nobody seemed to be trying to stop him, he just kept on sleeping. Elaine must have decided to let it slide and was even kind enough to let him sleep on her lap it seemed.
"Are we there?" Auguste then asked, wondering if that's why the wagon stopped.
"Not yet, we're just stopping for a bit of break. Henrietta was complaining about her bottom being sore."
Slowly, he got up from Elaine's lap and onto his feet. As he stretched his body, he let out a yawn. He felt comfortable. The sun was warm and the breeze was pleasant. On this wagon with no covering whatsoever, it had been an enjoyable ride, all things considered.
"Sorry about that?" he said to her.
"It's fine. There wasn't much space on this wagon anyways."
"You could have woken me up."
"True, but you looked like you needed the sleep. Actually, I've never seen you get a good night's sleep since the moment we've met. You're always jumping at every little noise."
"Well, I mean, it's been literally beaten into me. It's second nature now."
"But these days, you seem to be sleeping better."
"Probably because we're out of the Dungeons for a while."
That, and because the others were around him, though he wouldn't be caught dead saying that.
"Which was why I thought to let you sleep as much as you can before we go back to our usual business."
"Yeah, I'm not looking forward to that, but thanks, I slept well."
Since leaving the Verdant Trails and heading into Arithmi territories, it had been nothing but flat plains. Being upon the edge of the Iotas region of the Arithmi Theocracy, Auguste could see windmills in the distance and wheat fields as far as the eyes can see.
"Almost there, huh," Auguste muttered.
"We sure are. After this, it's back to the Dungeons."
"Can't exactly say that I miss it."
"Starting to regret your life decisions?"
"A little bit, maybe. But... it's not too bad either, I guess."
"I for one would rather not have to keep doing this for the rest of my life. Once I saved up, I'm going to buy myself a piece of land in Magnolia and live out the rest of my life in peace and quiet."
"That doesn't sound too bad. You know, I happen to know and thing or two about tending to livestock, if you're thinking of running a ranch, maybe I can help out a little."
"Oh? Would you like to join us? Me and my brother I mean."
"Honestly, I don't know. I kind of enjoy traveling around like this. I'd even go as far as to say that I prefer it over being stuck on a boring old farm. Then again, from time to time, I feel like I need a break, that all this action and moving around is somewhat tiresome."
"Well, there's still time. Plenty of things can happen between now and whatever comes later. There's no point counting our chickens before they hatch. We can make up our minds when it happens."
"Yeah, I suppose we do have some ways to go and too many things can happen. Too many things indeed. Life's such a bitch, isn't it?"
"I can't say I disagree, but I suppose every now and then, she could offer a good ride or two, if you catch what I'm saying."
"I guess you're still too young, huh."
"No, I know what you're talking about. I just didn't expect it from you."
"I have to set an example, after all. Play the role of the good elder sister, you know?"
"Is that so? Well, from what I see, I'd say you're doing a pretty good job."
"Do you think so? I think Finn still has some ways to go."
"Don't we all? Besides, weren't you to one who said that there's still time?"
"You're right. I suppose worrying too much about it isn't going do much either."
"I only hope that there's enough time," was something Elaine did not say. It would have done no good, not for either of them. All they could do was move forward one step at a time, doing what they think was best.
End of Chapter 31