Dungeons of the Abyss and the Unchosen Heroes
As the sky slowly turned from dark to blue, sunlight peered through the gaps of the leaves above. Gradually, as the temperature rose, the moist scent of dew in the air faded away, leaving behind only the smell of mud and dirt.
Whoosh! The arrow went as it cut across the air, followed by a pained cry of a stag that darted for the bushes.
"Shit," Auguste cursed with a restrained voice. He was the one who had fired the shot and landed it in the stag's hind.
"No matter, it happens. We'll simply have to follow after it and finish it off," said Gladiolus, directing Auguste step by step.
"No, act too soon and it'll only run further. Let's give it a bit of time."
After some waiting, they began their pursuit. Following the footprints, trampled grass, broken branches, and drops of blood, the two tracked down the stag, now on the ground bleeding from its wound.
"Just like how I showed you before, approach from outside of its awareness. Make use of your surroundings, silence your steps, and take note of where it's looking as well as the direction of the wind. Once you think you're close enough, take aim. Control your breathing. Stay calm and do no fire until you're sure it'll land."
Auguste nodded and began his approach. Keeping his hip low and his feet gliding across the ground, he tried to get as close as possible without getting noticed. Not that he had any experience to draw from, but when he felt in his guts that getting any closer would alert the stag, he stopped. Slowly rising from the bushes and standing upright, Auguste began to take aim. Though Gladiolus had mentioned that once he's skilled enough, he'll be able to shoot from any position, at the moment this would be the best.
Upon releasing his fingers from the string, the arrow flew forth, cutting across the air and slammed into the stag's chest. The stag leaped to its feet with a sharp cry and began to run. It did not get far before collapsing. After taking a few moments to watch for any onset of struggling and eventually finding none, Auguste turned towards Glaidolus who gave him the signal to approach. It was the third day they were there, and on this day, Auguste made his first kill.
Cautiously, Auguste made his way to the collapsed stag with Gladiolus right behind him. After making sure that the stag was properly dead, they gutted it before dragging it back to camp with Gladiolus showing Auguste each step of the process.
"Was that too much?" asked Gladiolus who noticed Auguste becoming a little pale.
"Handling it with my own hands is a little different from just watching."
Gladiolus let out a hearty laugh.
"You'll get used to it. Gutting, shooting, tracking, stalking, as long as you keep at it, one of these days, you'll do it as naturally as breathing."
"One of these days, huh. I would have preferred being able to do it from the get-go. It would certainly be nice."
"I think it's better if you learn in slowly though."
"That's just because you have a long lifespan. Humans don't even live half as long as the elves. Not even close."
"I suppose so. I apologize, I wasn't thinking when I said that."
"I'm not particularly offended. At the end of the day, I can only go slowly. That's my one and only speed, whether I like it or not."
"But as long as you're moving forward, then one of these days-"
"I apologize. Did I say too much?"
"It's fine. More importantly, what's the next step?"
Once they're back at camp, Gladiolus showed Auguste how to skin the stag before butchering it. Once butchered, they gathered the meat into a basket and moved them to a riverbank nearby, where they proceeded to clean the meat. Once the meat was cleaned, they cut them into thin slices and proceeded to hang them onto simple racks constructed out of logs and ropes. As the area by the river was open with few trees in the way, it was the perfect place to dry the meat.
After hanging up most of the meat under the sun, Gladiolus hung a few he set aside over a pit he had dug the day prior. He started a fire in the pit and fed it chips of wood before partially covering it up with leafy branches so that all the smoke would exit from a single spot. He thought that just dried meat would get rather stale after a while and decided to mix it up by smoking them.
"Finally, we're done," said Auguste as he stretched his body under the shade cast by a tree, away from the midsummer sun.
"Good job," Gladiolus commended. "That was a large one and frankly, I wasn't sure if I could have dealt with all that meat on my own."
"Well, if you need anything else I'll just be here, being lazy."
"Now you sound just like Henrietta."
"Sure, except Henri is like this even when in the Dungeon. How does even she do it? I don't think I can ever relax down there."
"I suppose that is one of her strong suits."
"She's nice to have around, I'll admit. Don't tell her I said that though."
Gladiolus laughed as he carefully fed the flames in the fire pit. It had been a surprise. Four months ago, Auguste wouldn't have imagined Gladiolus to be such a jovial guy. When they first met, there wasn't even the slightest smile on his face and Auguste thought that he was a stern, no-nonsense kind of person. It was only after joining the party did he gradually warmed up to them and turned out to be someone Auguste was glad to have met.
Life certainly is full of surprises, Auguste thought to himself, both good ones and bad ones. Maybe more bad than good.
He stared down at the hunting knife he was just using, the one with an ornate handle, clumsily carved but with plenty of attention given. It was the hunting knife Helena had given to him during his coming-of-age.
"One of these days, huh..."
Even so, even if he did get there one day, it wouldn't matter if those he's trying to catch up to had long moved on, would it? Not that it mattered. When Gladiolus said that he had nowhere to go, he wasn't exactly wrong. While there was once a place, a goal, he could not take his eyes off of, the moment he recognized that it's a place he'll never reach, he cast his gaze away. Since then, he wandered without direction, like a chicken without a head.
"Why don't you go ahead and take a nap," Gladiolus suggested. "I'll watch over things here."
"It's fine. I wouldn't want to make a habit out of it. It's going to be a pain to readjust once we go back to dungeoneering."
"It doesn't seem like Henrietta shares your concern though."
For the past few days, it seemed that Henrietta hasn't done much other than eat and sleep.
"She's going to feel it once we're back on the job."
"Then how about you try fishing? It's a good way to kill time and you might just get us some dinner."
"Fishing, huh. That brings back some memories."
"I hope it's a good one."
"Let's just say the fishes got cooked before I caught them."
"What does that mean?"
"I'll save it for tonight. Anyways, let me go find a hook."
After a quick search, Auguste found a suitable branch and fashion a fork of the branch into a hook with his knife. After digging up some earthworms to use as bait, he spent the rest of the afternoon trying to catch something from the river. Sadly, he caught nothing.
That night, Auguste told the story of how he met Morganna while chewing on the dried meat. He skipped around here and there and paused plenty to find his words, so it ended up not being all that interesting a story to listen to.
As per usual, Auguste took the first watch. The forest at night was a lot noisier than the Dungeon and Auguste had to learn to not jump at every little sound. Unlike the Dungeon, not everything here was out to get them. Though perhaps it was due to there being just the two of them and therefore his shift of the watch was longer than he was used to, Auguste started nodding off after the third hour. This had happened the past two days they were there and usually, around this time, Gladiolus would come and switch with him.
"Auguste," Gladiolus called out to him.
"Huh!? Oh sorry, I nodded off again."
"Auguste, there's something here."
Registering the urgency in Gladiolus' voice, Auguste became alert on reflex.
"Something? What's this something?"
"This feels... like a beast."
"It better not be after our meat," said Auguste as he reflexively drew his sword.
Having collected the dried and smoked meat, they placed them all in a basket and wrapped it up with a cloth. Of course, that wasn't going to stop an animal with a strong sense of smell from catching its scent.
"Here it comes!"
From the bushes, a mass of blackness leaped out into the open. Its form was blackish and wavy, its shape flowing and difficult to define even by the light of the campfire.
As Gladiolus was about to intercept it, the beast kicked off the ground and shot off into the air before crashing into the side of a tree- No, not crashed, it landed there and for a moment, Auguste could see a pair of dirt covered legs beneath the blackness bracing against the tree bark.
It's coming, Auguste realized, but for who? For Gladiolus? For me? From this angle, don't tell me it's-
Reflexively, Auguste tossed his sword towards the beast, forcing it to twists to the side just as it was about to leap off the tree, altering its trajectory and wounding up crashing into the ground right beside their tent, where they kept their meat.
Gladiolus, with his dagger at the ready, drew closer to the beast on the ground while Auguste went and retrieve his shortsword before following suit.
As the beast slowly got up onto all fours, it released a low growl. Then, it fell back to the ground.
"Did... did it just die?" Auguste asked.
"No, not yet, but..."
"Perhaps this is not what I thought it was."
Carefully, Gladiolus approached the 'beast', and with his hands he peeled away the blackish layer on the creature. As it turned out, the blackish, wavy layer was but a mass of tattered and filthy rags wrapped around this so-called 'beast'. Having peeled off what appeared to have been the hood, what was revealed underneath was the face of a young woman, a girl even, having a head of hair that was gold with stripes of dark.
"Do you know her, Auguste?"
"Uh, well, kind of? We don't really talk all that much."
Again came the low growl, and with Gertrude's face in plain sight, it was clear that she wasn't making that sound with her mouth.
"Either way, I suppose we can't exactly leave her like this, can we?"
"We can't, but..."
"You're not going to suggest that we just leave her to starve, are you, Auguste?"
"No, of course not. But the thing is..." Auguste scratched the back of his head, he seemed to have caught the habit from Finn. "It's complicated. Just hear me out first."
End of Chapter 44