Dungeons of the Abyss and the Unchosen Heroes
After escorting the man they've found back to the camp, the party gave him some of their food. For this expedition, they've made sure to bring extra, in the case that they find any surviving members of the client's party.
The man ate gratefully and asked for a second helping. The party indulged him, but even after gulping down the seconds, he was still apparently hungry.
"I'm afraid that's as much as we can give you right now," said Gladiolus. "I'm sorry, but you'll have to bear with it."
"I... I understand. I'm just... So, so hungry."
"We understand. We'll get you out of here as soon as possible. However, we need you to help us a little too."
Gladiolus began asking questions, about which party the man was from, about how he ended up like this, about the rest of his party members. The man confirmed that he was indeed from the client's party and that he was separated from the other's when the traitor attacked them. Being the one in charge of the map, he pulled one out and marked the spot where he last saw the rest of his party, though its accuracy might be questionable since it was a map made days ago and Dungeons were prone to changes.
"Thank you, now take your time and rest up. We'll go search the area tomorrow and head right back the day after."
"D-do we have to wait till the day after? I... I want to leave now. I don't want to be here for a moment longer." The man's voice was shaking, sounding as if he was about to burst out in tears.
"Sorry, but we're working for a client, we don't want to go back empty-handed if we can help it. Don't worry, you'll be safe with us."
Gladiolus' assurance calmed the man down. Somehow, the elven male had that kind of effect on people. There was something about his voice, or perhaps it was the way he talked.
The party left Auguste and Elaine to watch over the man while the rest of them went around scouting out the nearby areas. There shouldn't be a problem, since Gladiolus was with them, but since this was the first time they had to split the party, they were all somewhat nervous. Fortunately, nothing really occurred during the time they were separated.
"Hey, Gladiolus, you don't happen to have anything for itches, do you?" Auguste asked. "He kept complaining about the itching and wouldn't stop scratching."
"Hmm, I think I have something. Give me a moment."
From his rucksack, Gladiolus pulled out some herbs and grounded it down with a mortar and pestle. After adding some water to the grounded herb, he let the rescued man drink it. In a moment or two, the itches began to alleviate and he scratched no more.
It turned out, the herb was supposed to help numb the pain should any of them became grievously injured.
"You sure have all sorts of things handy, don't you?"
"I can teach you to identify them if you want, the herbs I mean."
"Sure, but I'm warning you, I'm a slow learner."
"And I have plenty of time, more than most human's lifespan, at least."
"You made it sound as if some other humans live as long as elves."
"Some do, though I suppose you might not consider those human anymore."
Soon, day turned into night and the party rested after dinner, leaving Auguste and Henrietta to take the first shift of the nightwatch. Auguste watched over the man they rescued, concerned over how restless and uneasy he was being. He figured that it could not be helped. Having been stuck in the darkness of the Dungeon all alone for at least two to three days would do that to a person and even if the Dungeon wasn't particularly dangerous, there was still a possibility that their party's traitor might find and finish him off.
Deciding that it was better to leave the man alone, Auguste turned his sight upon Henrietta who was dosing off. Tapping her on the shoulder lightly, Auguste tried to get her to wake up to no avail. She seemed tired. She must have been quite anxious running around the Dungeon without the full party for the first time. In the end, Auguste let her sleep. He wasn't as tired and could probably do the shift alone.
It came in the middle of the first shift. All of a sudden, the man they rescued began to convulse violently, his mouth foaming and his eyes wide open. Frightened by the sudden seizure, Auguste called for the rest, quickly waking them up.
"What do we do!?" Auguste asked Gladiolus.
"Give him something to rest his head on," said Gladiolus, prompting Elaine to quickly fold up her impromptu hide bedding to serve as a pillow.
Gently, Finn lifted the man's head while Elaine slipped the pillow beneath him.
"He's hot to the touch, I think he's having a fever!" said Elaine.
"Cool him down, put something cold on his head," said Gladiolus as he turned towards Morganna.
Morganna, in turn, pulled out one of her wands, the one made from an evergreen tree's branch. With the wand, she froze a water skin before handing it over to Elaine who held against the man's forehead.
Sometime after, the man began to vomit violently, throwing up everything he ate. Carefully, Gladiolus wiped his mouth with a cloth while Auguste and Henrietta helped clean the vomit up.
It was a hectic few minutes, but the seizure soon passed. The party began to relax as the man breathed normally, only to then begin convulsing all over again.
They did everything they could to keep the man comfortable, but being within a Dungeon, there was only so much they could do. And even if they could somehow return to the surface, they won't be able to find a proper physician till they return to town, which would take at least a day of walking to reach and a few hours by carriage. Of course, they'd have to leave the Dungeon first, which would take two days at least to navigate.
In the end, there was nothing they could do but to accept that this man was going to die and helplessly watch over the man, watch him twitch and convulse over and over again, for hours, till morning. When he had finally stopped, his breathing had already ceased. The man was dead.
"That wasn't a pretty way to go," said Auguste, the bags under his eyes heavier than they usually were. He hadn't slept a wink at all last night.
"No, it wasn't," Elaine agreed. She wanted to say something more, but never quite found the words. "It was a horrible way to go," was what all she could utter.
"What do we do?" Auguste turned to Gladiolus. "Do we take him with us?"
"I'm afraid we do not have that kind of luxury," Gladiolus responded. "But we can't leave him as if either, since he might return as an undead."
"I'll do it," Morganna stepped up, "It'll only take a bit."
Like Auguste, Morganna too has bags beneath her eyes. In an attempt to keep the fever down, she has had to refreeze the water skin on the man's head over and over again.
"Then let's take him outside," said Gladiolus. "Setting things on fire in such a small space is unwise."
After Auguste and Elaine removed them man's armor and anything that wouldn't be flammable, Finn and Henrietta lifted the man and carried his lifeless body outside and into one of the wider halls.
"Do you think these would count as 'retrieved belongings'?" Elaine asked as she set the man's armor and weapon aside, probably referring to their client's request to bringing back whatever his party had left behind.
"I don't really want to think about it right now," said Auguste.
Then, after a brief pause.
"But yes, probably," he added.
After making sure that the hall was clear, Gladiolus called the party over and had Finn and Henrietta set the body down in the middle.
"You think there was anything else we could have done?" Finn asked.
"Don't look at me," Henrietta replied to him, sounding somewhat irritated, perhaps due to the lack of sleep. "If Gladiolus couldn't think of anything, what makes yer think I could have?"
Stepping forward, Morganna adjusted her glasses and readied her staff. Conjuring a ball of fire from the Abyss, she lowered the orb of crimson towards the body. As the fire was about to consume the corpse, all of a sudden, Morganna extinguished the flames. Something at the edge of her vision caused her to stop.
"What? What's wrong!?" Auguste asked.
"No... I just thought I saw him move."
All of their eyes fell upon the supposedly dead body. There, they saw his fingers twitching. For an instant, they thought that it might have been his death throes, but then, his eyes snapped open and his entire body started to move, slowly crawling up to his feet.
"Morgan!" Auguste reached out in a hurry, practically grabbing Morganna on the shoulder.
In response, Morganna pulled back, switching positions with Auguste. At the same time, Finn and Henrietta moved up front beside Auguste, forming a wall to protect those behind them.
As the man stood up, he began mouthing words that could not be heard as he stumbled towards the party.
"Stay back!" Auguste yelled, but his words appeared to have fallen on deaf ears as the man continued forward.
Sharply, the man sucked air into his chest and once more began to speak.
"So hungry... So itchy... Hungry... Itchy..."
Sensing danger, Auguste's right foot shot out towards the man's torso, sending him across the air, flying backwards and tumbling onto the ground.
"Oi, Gladiolus, yer sure he's dead, right!?" Henrietta question.
"He's dead," Gladiolus said with confidence, "that much I am sure of."
"In that case, Morgan, light 'em up!"
"Already on it!"
With a swing of her staff, the ball of fire curved around the frontliners and smashed right into the walking, talking corpse. The flames immediately set the man's dead body ablaze, and in the inferno, they could see something emerging from beneath the man's skin, tunneling out of him, where the flames had not yet covered.
They were long and white, like thick threads of strings. As they tried to evacuate the burning body, they wiggled and rose into the air like independent strands of hair dancing in the winds. They emerged from all over the body, from the arm, the legs, even the face, desperate to get away from the flames. As the body burned, more and more emerged, to the point that they were practically flooding out of every unburned surface on the man's skin.
Having been watching in horror, Henrietta had apparently reached her limit and began throwing up onto the floor.
"Wha... what are yer waitin' for!?" said Henrietta as she wiped her mouth. "Finish 'em off already."
"A-alright," Morganna, having been watching with morbid curiosity, replied. "I suppose there's no reason to let this go on any longer."
With another swing of her staff, Morganna added to the flames, this time consuming the entire body as well as the string-like creatures. They were all burned away in an instant.
It was only when the body had fallen onto the ground and was completely charred, did the party began to breathe easy.
End of Chapter 35