Dungeons of the Abyss and the Unchosen Heroes
Since morning, the rain had been pouring. It rained so hard that one would be completely drenched after three steps into the open. It rained from morning to afternoon and it showed no signs of stopping.
Standing by the front door of their rented house, Elaine stared into the distance. Auguste and Gladiolus should be back by today and yet there was not a single sign of them. The rain must have delayed them and hopefully, that's all that it was.
"It's rainin' pretty hard," said Henrietta, approaching the front door. From her disheveled appearance, it would seem that she had just woken up.
"It sure is," Elaine gave a half-hearted response. "But it certainly came later than expected, and harder too. I thought this area was supposed to have mild raining. Is this what's considered mild around here?"
"I heard that Dungeons popping up here and there are messin' up the world a little, but that's just what I heard, so don't quote me on this."
"Dungeons, huh. We've been making money off of them but we never did understand what they are, do we?"
"Well, I'm sure the Lightbringers will take care of it. Anyways, I think we should wait out the rainy season before heading out again."
Elaine smiled. She had since become used to Henrietta trying to find ways to slack off.
"You'd like that, wouldn't you? But I'm afraid we don't have the money to last that long."
"Ugh, but travelin' in the rain sucks."
"It shouldn't be raining this hard all the time, right? Maybe this is a one-time thing."
"But what if it does?"
"We can hire wagons, that much we can afford."
After watching Henrietta climbing back up the stairs, probably going to take her second nap, Elaine eventually heard wet footsteps, muffled by the rain. Raising her head to look, she spotted Auguste and Gladiolus approaching, looking wet and miserable, their mantle completely soaked through. As she was about to greet them, she then spotted a third figure, timidly trailing behind them.
"Welcome back," Elaine greeted them. "Did you have a hard time getting back?"
"It was pretty bad," responded Auguste, sounding rather worn out.
"The rain made the road muddy and it didn't seem like any of the farmers were planning to head into town with this weather. We ended up having to walk," Gladiolus supplemented.
"We walked from the break of dawn till the afternoon, nonstop," Auguste then went and added.
"In that case, why didn't you just stay at one of the farmer's place? I'm sure someone would be willing to let you take shelter."
"That was the plan, but..." Gladiolus fell silent, unable to quite find the right words.
In near-perfect sync, both Auguste and Gladiolus turned towards the girl behind them, the one wearing what appeared to be an assortment of tattered rags. In turn, she stared back at them expressionlessly, clueless as to the meaning behind their gazes.
"And who is that, by the way?" Elaine asked.
"This is Gertrude," Auguste introduced. "We're both disciples under the same mentor. We ran into her during our hunt."
"That's quite a coincidence." Elaine then turned towards Gertrude. "It's nice to meet you."
Gertrude turned towards Elaine. She began to frown ever so slightly.
"Uh..." Elaine was troubled by the lack of response. "Can she..."
"She can speak, the last I checked. She's like this with strangers."
"Well, just come in first," Elaine waved them in, giving up the greetings for the moment. "You must be hungry, right, go dry yourself while I prepare something."
"Yes, about that, can you make it a larger portion than usual?"
"Oh? It sure is unusual for you to be asking for more, Auguste. You must be starving. Didn't you have breakfast?"
"No, not really."
"Were you not able to catch anything? That's too bad. I'll make sure you have your fill."
Elaine thought that Auguste sounded a little strange for a moment, but she figured that he was just tired from all that walking.
Auguste came back soon after Elaine entered the kitchen, still drenched and tracking water and mud wherever he went.
"Do you, uh, have a spare dress by any chance?"
For a moment, Elaine was somewhat confused but soon recalled how the girl they had brought back, Gertrude, was dressed. It didn't seem like she had any luggage with her either, meaning that she likely had nothing else to wear.
"Alright then, I'll see if I have something for her."
"Thanks, I appreciate it."
"Well, aren't you awfully meek today? Still, you're quite welcomed."
After a while, Auguste and Gladiolus came to the kitchen, all dried up and changed. As the two helped set the table, Gertrude was left sitting by herself. She too had changed out of her rags and was all dried up, though her hair of gold and dark stripes was as messy as ever with dirt and branches entangled within. As the smell of food wafted towards her, a low growl can be heard from her.
When the food had arrived, she did not even wait for Auguste and Gladiolus to sit down before digging in. She ate messily with her hands, shoving whatever her hands took hold of into her relentless maw, gulping them down without even chewing more than three times. In an instant, the food on her plate disappeared. It took only a few moments before her stomach began growling anew.
Hearing the accursed sound, Auguste gave up a sigh and push his plate towards her and like before, the food vanished into her maw in mere seconds. Then, her stomach began to growl.
This time, Gladiolus offered her his plate. To no one's surprise, the plate was clean before anyone could have a word in. Soon, a low growling could be heard from her.
Elaine, who had been watching from the side, turned her glance towards Auguste, and feeling her eyes on him, Auguste worked up the courage to look back.
"Pardon us for a moment," said Elaine as she pulled Auguste away by his arm.
Elaine let Auguste up to a corner of the second floor, furthest away from the dining table.
"What's wrong with that girl?" Elaine asked with a small voice.
"Well, here's the thing, she always had a big appetite. I think it got worse when she hit her growth spurt a while ago."
"How much worse are we talking about?"
"Okay, so here's the thing. During our hunt, Gladiolus and I actually caught a pretty large deer. We sliced it up, dried and smoked the meat, right? And well, she ate it all. In one night."
"That's..." There were many thoughts swimming in Elaine's head, so much she wanted to say, so much so that she couldn't form a coherent enough thought to find her words. In the end, the only thing she managed to ask was, "How long are you planning to let her stay here?"
Her tone was cold, enough to put Auguste off a little, though if he searched his heart thoroughly enough, he could not find it in himself to blame her. From what his master, Cera, had said, it seemed that Gertrude's appetite had become enough of a problem that even her own parents kicked her out. It's cruel, perhaps one of the worst things one could do as a parent. However, if they kept her around, they might all have starved to death. As for how Gertrude managed to survive for this long, Auguste had not a single clue, though that mattered little at the moment.
"Till I find a place for her."
"How long will that take?"
"Soon-ish? I hope."
"You have three days."
"That's right, three. I don't think we can afford to feed her for longer than that. Once three days are up, I'm going to chase her out. This is nonnegotiable."
It wasn't as if it had been decided beforehand, but from the start, Elaine had been the one deciding the party's budget. How they spend their individual money is their business, but when it came to the party's shared wealth, she was the one who set the limit on how much should be used. This also included supplies and food. Since no one really argued with her aside from the occasional complaints from Henrietta, somewhere along the line, Elaine just became something like a quartermaster for the party. As such, it wasn't surprising that Elaine wanted nothing to do with Gertrude. What did surprise Auguste was that she didn't say that she'll make him get rid of her, that Elaine will be the one to get rid of Gertrude herself.
"Don't worry about it," Auguste assured her. "It's not as if I took her in without a plan."
"I sure hope it works out then."
"Hey, don't jinx it!"
"Anyways, while you work on that, I'll go see how much food we have left and figure out how I'm going to feed this friend of yours for the next three days."
"Yeah, you do that. I'm going to-"
Before he got to finish speaking, this time, his own stomach started to make noises. It was true that he hadn't had breakfast and he barely got to eat lunch before offering it up to Gertrude.
"I think you best have something to eat too before you do anything."
"Good advice, I'll take it to heart."
By evening, the rain had already let up and the clouds had parted to reveal the setting sun. All around town, braziers and lamps were being lit to light the way.
Walking through the dimly lit streets of Iotas Tria with his own lantern in hand was Auguste, heading out after a light dinner. Having dinner with Gertrude on the same table once again reminded him of how dire the situation this was. That girl cleaned out three days' worth of food for six in a single go. He felt sorry for her, he really did. She never asked for this, surely no one would, but she has got to go.
Passing through the gates dividing the old and new town, he tried to retrace the steps he took the last time he was here. With how the streets were, he didn't have much of a trouble at all finding where he needed to be and soon found himself at the doorsteps of the temple of Arithmi. As it was supposed to be a public place, he pushed open the door and walked right it. As he entered, Auguste was met with a pair of golden eyes.
Auguste had heard that in the Arithmi Theocracy, numbers determined one's station in life. That it was through the parameter evaluations provided by the Augurs that they place the right person in the right place. At first, the numbers were but a factor to be considered, but soon, people began to heavily rely upon it, even discriminate by it. Here, in the Iotas region, it wasn't as bad. The settlements were young and opportunities were many, lacking the competitiveness of the regions closer to the capital and as such, numbers weren't as emphasized.
Auguste wasn't fond of having others determine where he'll go in life, but for those having trouble finding their own place in the world, perhaps there would be no better options than this.
"You certainly have brought me quite a conundrum, haven't you?" said the auburn-haired woman with the brilliant gold eyes, Doris, as she had introduced herself.
"Is there a place you can find for her?" asked Auguste. He was optimistic when he entered, but the more he described Gertrude to the woman, the more the reality of the situation sunk in and the less hopeful he became.
"You mentioned that she's strong. How strong is she?"
"Plenty strong, I've seen her swing a huge sword like it was nothing."
"But her appetite offsets her usefulness..." Doris mumbled to herself before turning back to Auguste." You said she was kicked out of her home. How did she survive until this point?"
"She didn't say. I don't think she wants to tell."
"So, what do you think? Can you find a place for her?"
"I have an idea or two."
"Yes, an acquaintance of mine is currently staying around here you see. They might be interested in taking this friend of yours in. They could use someone like her and should be more than capable of feeding her."
"Do you know where they're staying?"
"I'll give you the address, just hold on a moment."
With Doris leaving to find some ink and paper, Auguste was left alone in the main hall. Though a few candles were lit so that Auguste and Doris may have their conversation, it was hardly enough to light up the entirety of the spacious hall. Auguste wasn't fond of dark, wide spaces, a preference he gained during his time in the Dungeons, as it meant that something might jump out from any direction. The flickering of the candlelights weren't helping either as the dancing shadows made it feel like something was moving in the corner of his vision, fueling Auguste's paranoia even further.
When the front door creaked open, Auguste nearly pulled out his sword. Fortunately, he stayed his hand, for the one entering was an old woman. She wore a white robe and a blue sash, something the mystics wear. She stumbled her way into the temple with labored breaths. As she seemed to be having a hard time, Auguste went over to her.
"Is something wrong? Do you need help?" asked Auguste, putting on a friendly tone.
Seemingly alerted by his voice, the old woman turned to him with foggy eyes. For a moment, she froze, and then her breaths became rapid and uneven. Without warning, she lunged at Auguste, causing him to reflexively pull back. He would have gotten away too, but a mysterious force held him in place.
The old woman grabbed onto his shoulder, her fingernails dug into his flesh through his clothes.
"Let go!" Auguste cried out in half-panic.
"What a thing we've done!" the old woman lamented. "I should have listened, Joseph! I should have listened!"
"Hey! Calm down! I'm not Joseph! You got the wrong guy!"
Auguste tried to pry her off of him, but something was stopping him, an unseen force. As he stood there, unmoving, unable to move, the same unseen force pulled his hand towards the old woman.
"Take this. Take it! This can't be in mortal hands. Return it to whence it came! Let it sink to the depths of the Abyss!"
As she spouted what only sounded like nonsense, Auguste kept struggling to break away. There was nothing he wanted more than to get away from this old woman at the moment. When he eventually did break away, it was as if the built-up force were released all at once, causing him to crash into the chairs behind him.
"Ah... I can feel it coming," said the old woman with a sigh, her breathing now still. "This is the end of me. The price for tampering with such a thing. May Remigia have mercy."
As soon as she fell silent, the old woman's flesh began to melt and fall off her bones. Meanwhile, her bones began crumbling away, breaking into fine powder. As the pool of melted flesh, powdered bones, and blood gathered beneath her, they turned into blackish color. In time, the old woman's legs gave away and her entire person fell into the puddle as she melted, becoming more liquid as moments went by. In the end, all that was left was a black, semi-transparent body of liquid with a gel-like consistency. Slowly, the body of liquid wiggled and crawled towards Auguste, who by this moment had lost his voice to the horrific scene that had just occurred before him.
It was a Slime, or at least, it was something looking very similar to one. And this wasn't the small ones found within the Stone Circle Tombs either, this one was at least three times the size of the old woman whose remains it rose from. Augutse had no idea where all the extra mass came from, but that was hardly his concern at the moment.
Quickly, he scrambled away from the creature, terrified of what might happen if it were to overtake him. However, his fears wound up unrealized as the Black Slime suddenly became hardened, turning into a solid body with smooth textures, textures that Auguste found to be rather familiar as light reflected off its surface. Where had he seen this before? He was quick to remember. It was one of the more 'eventful' finds down in the Dungeons, or rather, it was a find that led to something 'eventful'.
Auguste was thinking of the black wall, the curious construct that was found in the Dungeon with the Cobalt Shelled Crawlers. Finding it led to the discovery of the Crawler's nest and it was later revealed that hidden behind it was a passage leading towards a second Abyssal rift, one that caused the revival of a 'dead' Dungeon.
The Black Slime, in its hardened form, was exactly like the black wall. However, unlike the black wall in the Dungeon, the Black Slime eventually broke apart. Like a bubble filled with water, black bile splashed all over the stone floor. It would seem that the Black Slime couldn't hold itself together for long under the light of the Heavens' Ward.
While struggling to understand the situation, Auguste thought to look down at his hand. The old woman had given him something. In his hand, he felt something round and hard, and when he finally looked down, he caught in his eyes a green gemstone with something dark and wispy swirling within. He couldn't have mistaken it. It was such a peculiar item after all and it fetched quite a price, perhaps even more if he knew what it was when they sold it.
It was the hi-catalyst, the very thing Albert and his party was looking for and there it sat, right atop of Auguste's palm.
The Black Slime, the hi-catalyst, and then...
"She said 'Joseph'... Maybe it's a different Joseph."
Yet, he did meet a Joseph, in the same Dungeon he encountered the black wall and the hi-catalyst. He was searching the areas around the black wall too along with the late Conrad's party. He was there when the Crawlers underwent a sudden mutation. He was also the one who named them the Crawlers, though perhaps that was inconsequential. And having arrived at Iotas Tria, they've been staying at the place of Joseph's friend. Was that a favor to them, or did he have something more in mind?
The door to the east wing swung open, causing Auguste to jump. When he turned to look, it was only Doris. When she came walking in, a piece of parchment in hand, the first thing she noticed was the smell. There was a smell of blood in the air, of blood and rot.
"What is this smell? What is that?" she asked, noticing the puddle of black bile on the ground.
"It was... I'm not entirely sure myself," answered Auguste, drenched in cold sweat, his eyes still wide open from shock.
The clouds had since parted, revealing the lights of the moon and stars above, gently shining through the windows of the temple. And with light, came the shadows, many of them, all of which closing in on the temple.
Sensing something wrong, Auguste turned away from Doris and rushed to the door, slamming it close the moment he reached it.
The woman did not question him. Something was obviously very wrong. It was unusual for so many people to gather outside the temple at this hour, much less without a single source of light with them. They were there before the clouds parted and could not have found their way by the moonlight that was not there. And when people gathered, there tends to be noise, yet these people, they made none.
Auguste instinctively knew something was wrong; something about how they moved alerted him. There was something unnatural about them, something Abyssal.
"Let... us in..."
"Itchy... It itches..."
"Open... the door..."
"Hungry... So hungry..."
Auguste could hear them whisper as they pressed against the doors. When they found that they could not open it, they began bashing against it. One was even able to crash her head right through one of the windows on the sides of the doors.
Having broken through the window, her neck wounded up punctured on the window glass, and so, without turning her neck, she twisted her head by the spinal cord to face Auguste.
"What fine weather we're having," she said with the most chilling smile. Auguste thought that he could see something wiggling beneath her cheeks and some white, string-like things crawling over her eyes balls.
Turning to the auburn-haired woman, Auguste shouted, his voice barely coming out due to this sudden turn of event.
End of Chapter 45