Dungeons of the Abyss and the Unchosen Heroes
The forest surrounding the stone circle was hardly dense and neither was it all too difficult to travel. With that being said, the moonlight was hardly enough to light the way for the party. Though they were used to the darkness of the Dungeon, finding their way in near-complete darkness was far too strenuous a task, not to mention dangerous.
It was fortunate then, that while the rest were still frantic from combat, Elaine had lit a torch by one of the braziers before escaping into the forest. While some might disagree, for the Henrietta Company, the presence of a noncombatant within their party was one they could not do without, especially when the said member was Elaine.
Under the flames of Elaine's torch, they each changed into their armor before lighting their own torches and proceeding forward. Their pace slowed as they carefully navigated their way through the barely trodden path of the forest. Tension was high in the air, as they knew that while they would not be able to see the creatures coming until they're too close for comfort, their torches made spotting them from afar all too easy. In a sense, it was exactly like how it was in the Dungeon, perhaps made even worse by the fact that the forest was teeming with life and they could not tell if it were a critter rustling within those bushes or a creature of the Dungeon. Then again, considering that said creatures were the Mimics, the chances weren't nil that the critters were already infested.
"Auguste, I hear footsteps," Gladiolus warned. "Three sets heading our way."
"How far away?"
"There's some distance between us, but at the rate they're moving, it won't be long before we encounter them."
"In that case, are they friend or foe?"
"Unknown. But in this situation, I'd advise discretion."
"Morgan," Auguste turned towards the witch, "the Heaven's Ward will keep your flames from spreading too far, right?"
"That's right. You want me to cut them off?"
"B-but, they might just be Dungeoneers trying to get away, right?" Finn spoke up. "Maybe we should make sure first?"
"If they are, then they'll just have to find another way around," Elaine chimed in. "Besides, even if they act like normal, the Mimics take a while to take over, don't they? They might be carrying them inside their bodies without knowing."
"She's right." Auguste agreed. "We can't afford to trust anyone right now."
Of course, he'd feel a little bad if they were in fact Dungeoneers. The forest wasn't all that dense but in this darkness, it would be difficult to find another path to follow. There was certainly a possibility of getting lost and wound up being ambushed. That being said, the safety of his own party supersedes all else, helping others will come only after the party's safety was secured.
"Morgan, do it."
Flames erupted upon the trail where they had just come from, setting ablaze the trees and undergrowth surrounding it. Making it difficult to traverse without getting burned or choked out by the smoke and it will only get more difficult as the Abyssal flames spread, at least until the Heaven's Ward unwound this distortion of the natural law.
"Hey, Gusty, was that really alright?" Finn asked as he stared Auguste in the eyes with the look accusation.
"Finn!" Elaine immediately rebuked him, causing him to shrink away.
"I-I'm sorry. I get it, I really do. I just..."
"That's fine," Auguste said curtly. "Let's get going."
In truth, he was quite thankful that someone called him out on it. He wasn't wrong, that much he knew, but he felt that if everyone just agreed with him, he'll end up sinking further and further. Sink into what? He wasn't sure, but he felt that it wasn't something he would want to be submerged in.
As they turned and walked away, the rumbling of the ground behind them pulled their attention back. Gazing behind, they found the earth upturned and the burning trees fallen and buried beneath great mounds of dirt.
Before they could even think of running, the dirt mound parted, pushed to two sides, as easily as dust being blown away by one's breath. With the dirt parted, a woman in black robes and a pointed hat was seen standing in the midst. At the tip of the hat's point, there hung a yellow gemstone octahedron in shape. In her hands, she held a staff made seemingly out of entangled roots.
"Friend or foe!" Auguste cried out, desperately hoping for the answer to be the former.
"Friend... Buddy... Together... Good... Friends..." And as the woman spoke those fragmented words, white, string-like creatures could be seen wiggling out of her mouth and ears.
Without even waiting for a second, a bolt of fire flew forth, aimed at the woman's head. As if reflexively responding to the threat, a pile of dirt formed out of thin air and created a shield between the woman and the fire.
"Oi! What's up with that!? Nobody told me that them Mimics could do magic!" cried Henrietta, speaking on everyone's behalf for once.
"Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the witches had abandoned this place and sealed it away," Gladiolus commented, keeping his clam despite his surprise. "These creatures may have proven themselves too much even for them."
"Friend..." the woman continued to utter as she tilted her staff and caused a mound of dirt to rose beneath her, carrying her forward like a wave.
"Take her out! Take her out now!" Auguste ordered in a panic.
At the same time, following behind the woman were two more figures. One was a man wearing chainmail and armed with a spear. The other was a corpse, naked, and wielding what appeared to be a woodcutting axe.
In rapid succession, Gladiolus fired off three arrows at the witch, two bounced off the chainmail she wore beneath her black robes while the last buried itself into her neck, the impact of which caused her body to recoil backwards and fall to the ground.
"Henri, Finn, take care of the spearman. Morgan, take out the naked one." With barely enough time to recompose himself, Auguste gave out instructions in quick succession once the witch was down.
Heeding the orders, Henrietta and Finn rushed forward while Morganna prepared another fireball for the naked corpse. However, as Henrietta and Finn moved passed the fallen witch, they came to a stop, their feet suddenly feeling rather heavy. On Morganna's end, soon after sending her fireball flying, it would then crash into a wall of dirt, suddenly risen from the ground in front of the naked corpse, protecting it from the flames.
"Hold on a minute! Hold on a minute!" Henrietta cried out. "The dirt is coiling around me! Finn! Hurry and pull me out!"
"I-I'm stuck too! I can't get free! It's like the soil is holding me in place!"
Having risen from the ground, dirt coiled around the two, trapping them on the spot and slowly burying them.
Turning towards the fallen witch, Auguste realized that no blood was coming out of her neck. Instead, there were white, string-like creatures, worming out from the wound and pushing the arrow out. Once the arrow had been pushed out, the Mimics used their string-like bodies to stitch the wound shut.
Slowly, the witch rose to her feet, no worse for wear. As she rose, a volley of arrows flew at her from one side and a bolt of fire came from the other. Both attacks were blocked by the shields of dirt that formed out of nowhere. Instinctively, Auguste felt the abnormality of the witch's sudden increase in reaction speed and he wondered if it had anything to do with the Mimics inhabiting her body.
With his eyes wide open, Auguste searched for weaknesses, places he could possibly strike from. However, if neither Gladiolus nor Morganna could land a hit on her, what chance does he have? Slowly, Auguste began to panic from the cries from Henrietta and Finn, desperately defending themselves against the spearman and the naked corpse, only further exacerbated his pertubation.
"Don't just stand around like an idiot!"
The harsh words came from Morganna.
"Just go help Henri and Finn, let a witch take care of another witch."
Auguste wasn't sure what Morganna had planned and honestly, he was rather uneasy about leaving it all in her hands. However, he had no luxury for hesitation.
"Elaine! The sword!" Auguste signaled.
"Here!" And without wasting a single second, Elaine complied, handing him the claymore taken off the armored man from earlier.
With claymore in hand, Auguste charged forward, cleaving into the naked corpse that Finn had been keeping away with swings of his battleaxe. The Mimics flooded out from the open wound, coiling around the claymore's blade as if trying to remove it. In disgust, Auguste reflexively tried to deliver a kick to the corpse only to find a body of soil wrapping around his leg, trying to seal away his movements.
"I wouldn't look away if I were you," Morganna said to the infested witch as she approached her.
With her ashen staff pointed at the witch, Morganna adjusted her glasses. The very next moment, swirling flames rose around the witch, heating up the air and scorching the witch's skin. Though deadly at long range, Morganna was far more powerful up close, her control over the flames more precise the closer she was to it. Unable to defend herself with just a shield or two, the witch made a small dome out of dirt to prevent being roasted alive.
With the witch cut off from the outside by her own dome, Auguste felt the soil's grip upon him lightening and managed pulled his feet out. With his legs free, Auguste quickly drew away from the naked corpse, recomposed himself, and went in with a wide swing.
Nimbly, the corpse avoided the swing only to find itself to be cleaved into two regardless. While focused on defending the attack from Auguste, the naked corpse did not notice Finn who had managed to free himself and was ready to swing the moment it unwittingly stepped into his range.
The two halves fell onto the ground, yet, they weren't about to stop moving. The top half scrambled towards Finn and clung onto his leg while the bottom half ran towards Auguste, the Mimics pouring out of where the top used to be in an attempt to crawl onto him. Having lost half their weight, the two halves had become faster than what Auguste and Finn were prepared for.
Meanwhile, Henrietta, having broken free, was locked in an engagement with the spearman. However, with the superiority in range, she could only sit there while the spearman made attempts to get past her shield and armor, albeit to little avail. In his frustration, he tried to pry the shield off with his bare hands. The moment he reached down, however, a cold chain struck the side of his neck and coiled around him. At the end of the chain, there was Gladiolus, and promptly, with chain in hand, he deftly climbed up a nearby tree and flung the chain over a sturdy branch. And as Gladiolus fell back to the ground, he pulled the china down with him, dragging the spearman on the other end by his neck and hung him up on the tree.
As Gladiolus, Finn, Henrietta, and Auguste were engaged in combat, Morganna kept her flames going, increasing the heat to such a point that even while protected by her dome, the witch within would still be gradually cooked alive. At least, Morganna hoped that it would be enough. She was nearing her limit, feeling her body heating up and her head beginning to spin as the effects of Rebound began to take hold. With Morganna being Morganna, instead of letting up, she instead turned up the heat even further, determined to end this right there and then.
By the time the flames ceased, glass had been formed on the surface of the earthen dome. Morganna's flames were so intense that they even set the nearby tree and bushes on fire. Out of strength, Morganna leaned against her staff, sweating profusely and barely keeping herself from falling onto her knees. Deeply, she breathed a sigh of relief. Now that the witch had been defeated, the rest of her party should be able to take care of the rest. Or so she thought.
With her sight cast downwards, she watched the droplets of her sweat fall to the ground, dripping off her chin, nose, and hair. It was somewhat calming watching them drop away from her face and into the ground. As each droplet hit the soil, she absent-mindedly counted them, trying to keep a semblance of focus. If she doesn't, she felt that she might just faint on the spot. That would mean more trouble for the others. That wouldn't be good. As she counted, Morganna began to notice something, something wrapped around her left leg, her left ankle to be precise.
It was a hand. A hand reaching out from beneath the ground.
Realizing what it was, Morganna's heart began to race, but race as it might, she no longer had the strength to move. All around her, the dirt rose from the ground and formed hardened spikes and each one had its end pointed right at her.
Even while in a haze, her mind understood what it meant. This was the end of her.
End of Chapter 38