Dungeons of the Abyss and the Unchosen Heroes
Packing up their belongings, The Henrietta Company prepared to leave at the break of dawn. The journey to Iotas Tria would take up an entire day. If they were quick, they should reach there by nightfall.
"I know I didn't say anything before, but..."
It was during the first shift of nightwatch. Auguste took the shift, as usual, and with him was Finn, his expression hinted at the trouble in his mind.
"You don't think we should leave? You want to keep exploring this Dungeon?" said Auguste, seemingly able to read Finn's mind.
"N-no, that's not it. I think you're right in choosing to leave. My sister agreed too so it couldn't be wrong. Even Henri didn't raise much of a fuss."
"Though she did go ahead and said something along the lines of, 'If you guys are this scare, I guess it can't be helped.' As if she wasn't getting all squeamish and turning blue while we were reading that report."
"Yeah, she likes to act tough. I don't hate that about her though."
"Neither do I. Makes her that much easier to tease."
"Anyways, what I was trying to say is that I'm wondering if we shouldn't challenge ourselves more. If not with this Dungeon, maybe the next." As soon as he those words left his mouth, Finn began to laugh awkwardly, somewhat regretting that he said it. "I know, I know, I'm being stupid."
"That's right, you're being stupid," Auguste agreed. "Taking unnecessary risks means walking that much closer to death. I like this job, but it's dangerous enough as it is, I don't want to do anything that would make it even more so."
"You're probably right, no, you're absolutely right. That's how this party survived for so long. Us being alive is proof that you're not wrong."
"But," Auguste wasn't finished. "I do wonder about it sometimes, if we weren't being a bit too cowardly. That, and if we were holding you back."
"Me?" Finn pointed at himself, looking rather confused.
"You're big and tough, and despite being timid, you step up when we need you to. I wondered from time to time if you'd do better if you were, say, in Albert's party."
"Y-you can't be serious, right?" Finn sprung up to his feet. "I mean, I know I'm bigger and stronger than most people, but in Albert's party? I'm just going to be dead weight."
"Maybe in the beginning, but you might get better as time goes on. Besides, they kept that jerk with the halberd in their party, Zack, or was it Zeke? He's essentially just a guy with a polearm in the Dungeon. I don't think you'll do poorer than him given the time and experience."
"You really think that?"
"I do. What good would it be for me to lie to you about this?"
"Wow, that's... I don't know what to say."
"How about you say something good about me in return," Auguste smirked, half-joking.
"Well, in that case, I think you're-"
However, before Finn was able to say anything, a commotion could be heard going on around the camping grounds.
"Quick! Wake the rest!" said Auguste, the urgency in his tone pushed Finn into immediate action.
"They got through the fence!" yelled a voice from afar. "There's a horde of them!"
"Fence?" uttered Morganna, her hair disheveled and her hand rubbing her eyes. "Are they talking about the one around the tomb entrance?"
"That's the only fence I can think of," Auguste replied. "And if that's true, then we better get our things together. I don't like the sound of this."
It took a while longer than usual for everyone, with the exception of Gladiolus, to be up and ready. They have been taking it easy for the past seven days after all, and as such, they've gotten lax.
"It's a good thing we've packed our stuff ahead of time, huh," said Elaine, though perhaps she had spoken too soon.
"H-hold on! I haven't packed everything yet!" cried Henrietta, reaping the consequences of not heeding Elaine's advice some hours prior.
"Well hurry it up!" Auguste yelled. "We don't have-"
Before Auguste got to finish his sentence, Finn's call turned his attention away from the tent and towards a figure approaching their camp. The figure was a young man with dark hair, slender yet had well-defined muscles from head to toe. As for how Auguste knew that the male had such fine muscles on his body, it was because the man was stark naked. He wasn't wearing any clothes and his skin was pale as snow, as if no blood flowed through him. No, not 'as if', there was certainly no living blood in him, for he was a corpse, probably one of those found within the Stone Circle Tombs. In the corpse's hand, there was a bloodied longsword with some poor soul's severed hand still attached to the handle.
"Good... Evening... Nice... Weather... We... Have..."
Auguste felt a chill down his spine. The corpse spoke, albeit barely, and it sounded as if it was greeting them. Immediately, Auguste's mind flashed to the part of the report mentioning the aberrations within the Mimics, the ones that preferred to infest the brain and could seemingly understand speech.
Without warning, a bolt of fire was flung towards the corpse who then sidestepped it with nibble footwork before shifting its weight forward and began charging.
Stepping towards the corpse, Finn tried to intercept with a wide swing of his axe, only for the corpse to bend its back backward at an impossible angle with an audible crack, ducking right under the axe and continuing onward.
Bending its spine back to position straight, the corpse used the momentum of its backbones snapping into position to leap forward. With the bloodied longsword in hand, the corpse prepared to thrust, the tip of the blade pointed straight at Morganna, the one who shot off the bolt of fire in the first place.
Morganna's blood ran cold as the sword tip pierced through the air to get to her, her eyes could not help but focus on the light of the campfire glinting off the blade. All of a sudden, the glint blurred, and when she came to her senses, the corpse had flown several meters to the side.
It had been Auguste. He had delivered a kick into the corpse's side while it was focused on Morganna. He had figured that she was its target. Not only because she was the first to attack, but also because he had a feeling that these things do not like fire all that much.
"Pain... Hurts..." the corpse uttered as it bent its limbs to get back onto its feet. At the same time, white, string-like creatures could be seen wiggling out of its ears.
"Don't you talk about how much it hurts after folding in your spine like that!" said Auguste, only to then immediately feel like he's beginning to lose it for trying to converse with the creature.
Before the corpse was able to get back up, Morganna quickly set the corpse on fire with a swing of her staff, making sure to burn it thoroughly. It seemed like she's as fond of these things as they do her flames.
"Alright, I'm done! See, it didn't take that long at all," Henrietta announced as she rushed out of her tent, her messily packed belongings on her back.
"It took long enough," Auguste had to strain himself to not yell. "A little too long in fact."
Slowly closing in on their camp were more of the corpses, some pale and in the nude while some appeared to be fresher and clothed, presumably their more recent victims. In their hands were weapons, bladed for the most part, as if they knew how best to open a wound.
"L-let me put on my armor first," said Henrietta, in her regular clothing, as were the rest of them.
"Too late, make do with your shield," said Auguste, taking charge as soon as it became apparent that there would be combat. "Gladiolus, any openings?"
"I spot fewer of them to our left," Gladiolus replied.
"In that case..." Auguste turned towards Henrietta. She looked terrified outside of her armor, more so than usual, and was practically hiding behind her shield. "Finn, get up front. And Henri, give him your shield."
"Huh? Uh, sure..." Henrietta was surprised that Auguste didn't force her to the front like he usually would.
"This is kind of heavy with one hand," said Finn upon receiving the shield.
"Then use two," Auguste suggested, leading Finn to hand Henrietta his axe.
"Let's get moving, they're closing in," Gladiolus alerted.
"Keep your shield in front of you and don't let them hit you, now go! Henri and I are right behind you!"
"Wait! Me too?" said Henrietta with a yelp.
"You'll be safer behind him than anywhere else, don't you think?"
With a strong pat on his back, Auguste sent Finn forward.
And behind them a wall of fire rose up from the ground, causing any of the corpses trying to give chase to shrink away from the heat and light.
Charging forward, Finn knocked aside the corpses in their way like a mad bull. Those trying to get up would either find themselves pinned down by arrows or be at the receiving end of a swift kick that would send them back onto the ground.
As they make their way towards the forest surrounding the stone circle, the Henrietta Company could hear the sounds of skirmishes breaking out all around them and see fires and smokes rising in the distance. It was chaos, and Auguste prayed that he and his party could make it out before they were caught up in it.
Turning around, Auguste checked if everyone was keeping up and to his relief, no one was missing. He didn't want to think about what would happen if even one of them were to fall behind. If that ever happened, he would either have to abandon them or risk the entire party to go back for them. Frankly, he wasn't sure what he'd chose to do and he was scared of finding out.
"Stick close! And whatever you do, don't fall behind!" Auguste yelled, both to rally the others and to keep himself focused. It wasn't the time for deep introspections.
"Auguste! Up ahead!" Gladiolus cried out.
Turning his eyes forward, he saw a fully armored figured wandering into their path. For a moment, he seemed out of it, but as soon as he spotted the Henrietta Company, he poised himself for battle and readied the large claymore in his hands.
"Inside... It's inside... Inside... IT'S INSIDE OF ME!!!" the figure muttered and then bellowed, making it clear that not all was right with him.
"It's the Mimics!" Auguste shouted. "Finn, get him!"
With Henrietta's greatshield in hand, Finn charged without questioning, attempting to knock the armored man out of the way.
"What!?" The words left Finn's lips without him realizing it.
Finn was a large young man, large and strong. If he were to charge in at full speed with something as heavy as Henrietta's shield in front of him, it was difficult to imagine anyone at the receiving end being able to remain standing after a direct hit. However, the armored man did more than that, he held firm against Finn's charge. With his feet planted upon the ground in a broad stance, the armored man took on Finn's charge with his shoulder, receiving it without even being pushed back and stopping the large young man dead in his tracks.
Once stopped, the armored man pried the shield to the side with one hand while stabbing with the claymore with the other. Wary of being cut, Finn quickly pulled back, abandoning the shield in the process.
As soon as Finn had retreated, a ball of fire flew over him and struck the armored man, erupting into a flaming torrent.
"Finn!" Elaine cried as she ran forward, checking if he was cut.
"No, stay back. We're not done yet!" warned Finn as he pushed Elaine back. Having seen how the man performed up close, his instincts warned him from feeling at ease before he sees the armored man slain and on the ground with his own eyes.
Things turned out as Finn had feared, Morganna's flame had hardly scathed him. With his hand covering the visor of his helmet, the man's armor protected him from the heat.
With haste, Morganna began preparing for another spell that could get around the armor. The armored man, however, was quicker, charging in and bringing his claymore down on the closest target.
Sparks flew as steel clashed with one another. The one who received the claymore was Auguste, and with his hefty shortsword, he deflected the large blade to the side.
"My bag! Get the thing in my bag!" he shouted, a slight panic could be heard from his voice as he prepared to receive the next blow.
With another sharp clang, Auguste parried another swipe of the claymore, his focus entirely at the end of the long blade, where the blade is the furthest from the hands that wield it and thus the easiest for him to manipulate. That is, of course, if he manages to catch it before it catches him.
With frantic steps, Auguste danced a mere hair's breadth from the claymore's reach, redirecting the blade's path each time it reached out to strike him, focusing solely on defense. With each strike parried, the burden on his wrist stacked on, and with each contact with the long blade, he endured a numbing pain that seeped into his bones.
While Auguste drew the attention of the armored man, Morganna was guarding their rear, keeping away the approaching corpses and infested with wave after wave of raging flames. With their enemies occupied, the rest of the party began probing the bag Auguste had dropped to the ground.
"Here, I've found it!" Elaine exclaimed as she pulled out something bundled together with a tied cloth.
"Alright, leave the rest to me," said Gladiolus, taking the object from Elaine's hands.
Again and again, the swords collided. Auguste, his hand shaking from the repeated clashes, was running out of breath and his focus was waning. Once more, the armored man moved in, stepping in deeply with a powerful downward swing. Angling his shortsword, Auguste deflected the blow to the side, having his opponent's blade slide off the flat of his sword.
Auguste smirked. This had been the moment he was waiting for, the moment for his opponent to get impatient and overcommit to a strike. In the instant right before the armored man was able to regain his balance, Auguste closed the distance in a single step and aimed his dagger towards the slit of the man's visor.
"Tch! Son of a-"
Unfortunately, by simply turning his head, the armored man moved his visor to the side, causing Auguste's parrying dagger to scrape against the helmet. This time, it was Auguste who had overcommitted to his strike. Taking the opportunity, the armored man moved his claymore in position to counterattack.
The armored man swung his blade from the side, making a horizontal swipe at Auguste's waist. It was at an angle Auguste could not possibly deflect and even if he managed to do so, the blade would have gone either towards his leg or torso, neither of which were desirable. In the end, he had no choice but to block it head-on.
With his hefty shortsword, Auguste received the blow while pulling back at the same time. And though his weary hand eventually gave way and his sword slipped from his ever loosening grasp, he was able to get out of reach of the claymore and narrowly avoided being cut. However, now disarmed, Auguste has no way of defending himself. Not missing the opportunity, the armored man closed in once more, determined to end it with an overhead swing. As he brought the sword down, however, the armored man found that he could not. His sword was stuck.
Wrapped around both the claymore and his arms was a length of chain with a piece of weighty iron welded at the end. Tracing his sight to where the chain led, the armored man turned behind him to find Gladiolus, chain in his hands, pulling at the claymore. As the armored man attempted to free his sword, another weighted chain was flung into his side and entangled his body, followed immediately by yet another chain, wrapping itself around his legs.
"Oi, did yer all see that! I got 'em on the first try!" Henrietta cried out in excitement as she pulled the chain wrapped around the armored man's legs tight.
"I'm not surprised. You were practicing with them when we had nothing to do the last seven days after all," Finn made mention.
"W-w-wait, when did you see that!?" Henrietta flushed red. "I thought I made sure nobody was around!"
While the two bantered, Auguste took the chance to catch his breath. As he did so, he turned towards to Morganna and found her already with her wand at the ready, the one made from an olive branch.
Drawing a horizontal line in mid-air with the wand, golden liquid spilled forth from the wound into reality. With another swing of the wand, the golden liquid gathered into a ball and flew towards the armored man, immobilized by the chains. As they splashed onto him, the liquid seeped into the gaps of his armor and drenched the clothing inside.
Adjusting her glasses, Morganna readied her ashen staff. As she swung the staff, a ball of fire gathered upon the tip, flying off mid-swing and landing squarely onto the armored man. The flames ignited the oil he was soaked in, setting even the inside of his armor ablaze.
The man fell to the ground, burning and writhing in pain. White, string-like creatures would be seen trying to escape the armor but were instantly burned the moment they tried.
As the corpses and infested were finding their way around Morganna's walls of fire, the party had no time to retrieve the chains entangled around the burning armor. They only one they were able to retrieve was the one wrapped around the claymore and of course, they took the weapon as well.
With that, they made their escape into the forest.
End of Chapter 37