Dungeons of the Abyss and the Unchosen Heroes
"What was that!?" Auguste couldn't help but burst out.
"Those looked like some form of parasites as far as I can tell," Gladiolus answered.
At the forefront of Auguste's mind, there was a thought, one that he dared not spell out. What if those things were in them as well? There was no way to know for sure, not until one of them starts to act strangely like that man. Saying anything about that at this point would only cause unneeded anxiety.
"Let's just find what we came here for and leave," Auguste announce.
No one was in opposition. Even Henrietta, who would occasionally complain about decisions made without her, was quietly compliant.
At the spot that was marked by the rescued man, the party found several bags scattered all about. It was as if they were dropped in a hurry, as if whoever dropped them were getting ready to enter combat.
Checking for whatever that could be salvaged, the party found mostly equipment, personal trinkets, and some scribbled down maps that might be of value if sold to the guild informants. Anything else, such as foodstuffs and herbs were deemed too much of a health risk to be worth anything, and as such were left behind.
Once everything of value was retrieved, the party quickly departed on the journey back to the surface, longing for sunlight and not wanting to stay in this Dungeon for any moment longer.
The trip took them two days, just as planned. By the time they've returned, the sun was already setting. Dragging their tired bodies back to their camp on the surface, they each helped prepare for dinner. Once they've eaten, everyone but those on the first shift of nightwatch went straight to bed. They would go see their client in the morning.
In the morning, as they hauled their retrieved goods to the client, Auguste noticed a shift in mood within the camping grounds. There was an air of caution with every Dungeoneer eyeing the other, their hands never too far away from their weapons.
After tallying the goods and reporting what they have found within the Dungeon, the Henrietta Company took their pay and headed straight for the tavern. While usually, they'd have a laundry day the day after their return from the Dungeon, they decided that it could wait. There's always tomorrow. They weren't in any hurry to return to the Dungeon this time around.
While it was called a tavern, it was in truth a large tent with tables and stools set up inside. Barrels of beverages could be seen in plain sight stacked in one corner with the owner seated on a table in front of it. It was all rather lackluster, but as a place to drink and make merry, there wasn't much to complain about other than how drafty the place can get when a breeze picks up. That, and the surprising lack of people around, causing the place to feel rather dreary.
"Oi," Henrietta pulled Auguste down to her, "you think there's somethin' wrong with the drinks here?"
"You know, I can hear you, little lady," the owner spoke out. "And no, it's not the drinks, people are just getting paranoid thanks to some rumors from the Dungeon."
"What kind of rumors?" Auguste asked. "Oh, and what have you got in those barrels?"
"Sit down for a drink and I'll tell you," said the owner, smirking. "I've got mead, ale, cider, even some wine if you're feeling fancy."
The party sat down and ordered the cheapest thing on the menu to the disappointment of the owner. Still, they were the few customers he was getting at the moment, so he wasn't about to complain.
"So, what's the news?" Henrietta, after taking a big gulp, went ahead and asked.
"Some new freakiness from the Dungeon is what's the news. It's got everyone all paranoid and keeping to themselves. My business will be ruined at this rate, I tell you."
Auguste frowned, remembering something unpleasant. As he surveyed the table, it seemed that they might all be thinking of the same thing.
"What kind of freakiness are we talking about?" pressed Gladiolus.
"The word is that amongst those that entered the Dungeon, some would become all strange when they return. At first, they don't act all that different, but gradually, they start to become more irritable."
"Maybe they're just tired," said Henrietta.
"If they're just irritable, then maybe, but there's more. You see, for a few days, I've been hearing a few parties quarreling and fighting within themselves, all of them, and I mean all of them, were about how one or two of them went and ate all of the rations in one night. And apparently, from what I've heard, the ones who ate all of the food were still complaining about how hungry they were like they've got a hole in their stomach."
"Anything about seizures?" Elaine suddenly mentioned.
"Seizures? Haven't heard of anything like that," the owner replied, shrugging.
In the end, the party drank only a little, not even enough to get lightheaded. They had lost the mood. Once back in camp, they discussed what they were going to do in the comings days and decided that they won't be entering the Dungeon any time soon. At one point, they even considered leaving but ended up agreeing on waiting for more information to come in about these anomalies before doing anything rash. After all, moving locations was not only a hassle but also costly. Just the mere act of living costs money and even more so when on the road. At least while they're camped near a forest, Gladiolus can always hunt and forage something to lighten their living cost. Besides, it's not every day they get to be one of the firsts on site of a new Dungeon and they wanted to take advantage of that and earn a bit more before leaving. And who knows, perhaps it'll blow over in time.
A grueling and fearful seven days passed since, and finally, the guild released a report on the creatures named 'Mimics' from the Scholars. Unlike the information collected from outside sources by the guild informants, the information released directly from the Scholars of the Abyss were typically free-of-charge and anyone could have a copy of it if they head to the guild office's counter.
In the reports published, the Scholars had managed to obtain a subject infested by the Mimics and performed an autopsy on them. Within the body, they found the worms infesting nearly every part of the body, with most of them concentrated around the muscles and organs. Within the body, they also seemed to have grown root-like extension and reached into the host's nervous systems, presumably taking over their motor functions this way. Eggs of the Mimics were also found within the host's organ, with the most concentration around the stomach, kidney, liver, and heart. Most alarming, however, was that some had even found its way into the brain, laying eggs there.
Taking the egg samples they've retrieved from their autopsy subject, they released them around selected livestock to observe how they began their infestation. The eggs samples took less than a day to hatch, infecting their first victim mere minutes after hatching. The first livestock observed to be infected appeared to have become so orally. Said livestock was a dairy cattle, and during its feeding, the Mimics had apparently hidden themselves within the hay used for feeding. It should be noted that the eggs were placed nowhere near the hay. The Mimics were somehow able to identify the diet of their prey moments after their hatching. Whether this was something inherent to their nature or the influence of the Abyssal rift within the Dungeon was unknown.
The cattle, infested by the Mimics, would begin to act abnormally, developing an insatiable appetite and becoming increasingly nervous and aggressive, wounding up injuring a nearby scholar in one instance. Said scholar was later found to be somehow infested as well. It would seem that the Mimics were able to infect through an open wound as well and seemed to make use of the increased aggression of their hosts to create more opportunities for infection.
Amongst the Mimics, there also appeared to be aberrations. Their preferred method of infection seemed to be through the ear canals, worming their way into the brain where they would proliferate and spread to the rest of the body through blood vessels. This type of Mimic was discovered when one of the Scholars was complaining about an itching in his ear. He was promptly taken in for examinations and was found with a Mimic within his ear canal. The Scholar would later experience violent seizures before finally dying. However, moments after his death, he would be moving once more. And while the animated body was highly violent, it seemed to be capable of speech, mimicking phrases that the Scholar was uttering moments before death.
Detained for further studies, the body seemed to be improving in eloquence with each day since reanimation, even requesting food using crude words, apparently understating the words it had been using. It seemed possible that in time, the Mimic controlled body would be able to hold proper conversations. Unfortunately, before such conversations could be observed, the Mimic's increase in aggression forced the Scholars to put the host down.
As for preventative measures against being infected, cooking or boiling one's food and rations were recommended as the Mimics and their eggs could not survive high temperatures. Exposing any open wounds in the open was discouraged, and should the need ever arise to do so, such as changing bandages, one would need to keep a close eye on their surroundings and apply only clean bandages on wounds. Earmuffs, masks, or anything that sufficiently covers the ears and mouth were also recommended. Though aberrations weren't common, caution should always be exercised.
Along with the report, the guild also issued a new bounty. Apparently, the Scholars wanted more samples and wanted the organs of the Mimic infested bodies, specifically, the liver, kidneys, heart, and brain. Each one brought in would have to be, like the Slimes, securely sealed in a black jar. Each organ would have a payout of twenty silvers, meaning that should one bring in a full set of liver, kidneys, heart, and brain within a single infectee's body, they'd have exactly five organs, meaning one hundred silver, which equated to one gold piece. If the party were careful, they'd be able to make a quick profit and hit the road without having to worry about anything for a good while.
"Looks like the path ahead of us is clear," said Auguste
"Yeah," Henrietta agreed, "let's get our asses out of here."
The Henrietta Company, they're not a party that was excellent in much of anything. Even so, they managed to survive when other parties might have fallen. Their secret? The ability to run away at the first sign of trouble.
It certainly was a shame, as they'll be potentially missing out of perhaps the greatest haul in their lives. However, many a dungeoneering party had fallen to such a lure. The Henrietta Company had survived on their instincts to not take the bait, the instinct some might call 'cowardice'. As such, there wasn't even a debate in the decision to leave. As soon as they finished reading the report, they decided to cut their losses and get lost from this place. True, they won't be able to make much as other Dungeoneers doing things in this fashion, but they'll likely live longer than most.
End of Chapter 36