Chapter 44:

Vol. 3, Chapter 44: One of These Days

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.Bookmark here

Whoosh! The arrow went as it cut across the air, followed by a pained cry of a stag that darted for the bushes.Bookmark here

"Shit," Auguste cursed with a restrained voice. He was the one who had fired the shot and landed it in the stag's hind.Bookmark here

"No matter, it happens. We'll simply have to follow after it and finish it off," said Gladiolus, directing Auguste step by step.Bookmark here

"Then let's-"Bookmark here

"No, act too soon and it'll only run further. Let's give it a bit of time."Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

"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."Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

"Was that too much?" asked Gladiolus who noticed Auguste becoming a little pale.Bookmark here

"Handling it with my own hands is a little different from just watching."Bookmark here

Gladiolus let out a hearty laugh.Bookmark here

"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."Bookmark here

"One of these days, huh. I would have preferred being able to do it from the get-go. It would certainly be nice."Bookmark here

"I think it's better if you learn in slowly though."Bookmark here

"That's just because you have a long lifespan. Humans don't even live half as long as the elves. Not even close."Bookmark here

"I suppose so. I apologize, I wasn't thinking when I said that."Bookmark here

"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."Bookmark here

"But as long as you're moving forward, then one of these days-"Bookmark here

"Yeah. Maybe."Bookmark here

"I apologize. Did I say too much?"Bookmark here

"It's fine. More importantly, what's the next step?"Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

"Finally, we're done," said Auguste as he stretched his body under the shade cast by a tree, away from the midsummer sun.Bookmark here

"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."Bookmark here

"Well, if you need anything else I'll just be here, being lazy."Bookmark here

"Now you sound just like Henrietta."Bookmark here

"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."Bookmark here

"I suppose that is one of her strong suits."Bookmark here

"She's nice to have around, I'll admit. Don't tell her I said that though."Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

Life certainly is full of surprises, Auguste thought to himself, both good ones and bad ones. Maybe more bad than good.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

"One of these days, huh..."Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

"Why don't you go ahead and take a nap," Gladiolus suggested. "I'll watch over things here."Bookmark 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."Bookmark here

"It doesn't seem like Henrietta shares your concern though."Bookmark here

For the past few days, it seemed that Henrietta hasn't done much other than eat and sleep.Bookmark here

"She's going to feel it once we're back on the job."Bookmark here

"Then how about you try fishing? It's a good way to kill time and you might just get us some dinner."Bookmark here

"Fishing, huh. That brings back some memories."Bookmark here

"I hope it's a good one."Bookmark here

"Let's just say the fishes got cooked before I caught them."Bookmark here

"What does that mean?"Bookmark here

"I'll save it for tonight. Anyways, let me go find a hook."Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

"Auguste," Gladiolus called out to him.Bookmark here

"Huh!? Oh sorry, I nodded off again."Bookmark here

"Auguste, there's something here."Bookmark here

Registering the urgency in Gladiolus' voice, Auguste became alert on reflex.Bookmark here

"Something? What's this something?"Bookmark here

"This feels... like a beast."Bookmark here

"It better not be after our meat," said Auguste as he reflexively drew his sword.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

"Here it comes!"Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

It's coming, Auguste realized, but for who? For Gladiolus? For me? From this angle, don't tell me it's-Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

As the beast slowly got up onto all fours, it released a low growl. Then, it fell back to the ground.Bookmark here

"Did... did it just die?" Auguste asked.Bookmark here

"No, not yet, but..."Bookmark here

"But what?"Bookmark here

"Perhaps this is not what I thought it was."Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

"It's... Gertrude?"Bookmark here

"Do you know her, Auguste?"Bookmark here

"Uh, well, kind of? We don't really talk all that much."Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

"Either way, I suppose we can't exactly leave her like this, can we?"Bookmark here

"We can't, but..."Bookmark here

"You're not going to suggest that we just leave her to starve, are you, Auguste?"Bookmark here

"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."Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

End of Chapter 44Bookmark here

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