Dungeons of the Abyss and the Unchosen Heroes
Having cleared out the makeshift barricade and after making sure that the east wing was cleared of hostiles, Auguste made it to the main hall and met with Gertrude, Henrietta, Lilia, and the dwarven lady that Lilia had called Hildy. The place had been reduced to an absolute mess with chairs knocked over, decorations torn off the walls, and mutilated bodies strewn about. The blackish sludge that the Black Slime had been reduced to was mixed up with all the blood and no one could tell it apart from the other bloody puddles around.
As Lilia was taking care of the Mimics that remained in the main hall, Auguste went towards Gertrude and Henrietta.
"Oi, Gusty, you alright?" Henrietta waved at him as he approached.
"I could ask you the same thing. What are you two doing here and where are the others?"
"In the new town, stuck behind the wall."
"Yeah, they locked down the whole place; shut all of them gates up real tight."
"Makes sense, given the situation. But how did you two get here."
"We jumped over the wall."
"Huh!? What do you mean by that? And why are you starin' at my legs? You wanna go!? You wanna go right now!?"
"At least you're still energetic. As for me, I feel like dropping dead right about now," said Auguste as he slouched upon one of the few chairs untouched by blood. "It's been a long night, far, far too long."
"Yeah, tell me about it, I can use a long, long nap."
Another person interjected, causing Auguste to turn his attention towards her while Henrietta fumed in the background. It was the dwarven lady with Lilia, Hildy. Unlike Henrietta, she seemed to be a much friendlier sort.
"Are you a Lightbringer?" asked Auguste upon spotting the badge she's wearing on her vest.
"Yep, that's right," Hildy hammered a fist upon her chest, looking rather proud of the fact. "Though, I'm just a helper. Lil' is the one doing all the work. Oh, and speaking of the devil."
From the other end of the hall, Lilia approached, all soaked in blood.
"I think that's about all of them in the main hall. Anymore elsewhere?"
"I've checked the east wing and I'm about to do a double-check. Don't know about the west wing though," Auguste replied.
"I see, I'll go take a look then. Can you gather the others to the main hall while you're there? It'll be safer if we're all in one place."
"That's the plan."
With that, Lilia and Hildy went towards the west wing while Auguste, Henrietta, and Gertrude headed for the east wing. It did not take long before both groups returned to the main hall, with Auguste's group escorting the clergy into the building.
"Any trouble?" Lilia asked kindly.
"None. It's all clear. They probably all got drawn outside when you started fighting."
"Great!" Lilia gave a thumbs up and a wink. "That's one less thing to worry about."
"S-sure." Auguste felt awkward, not sure of how he was to respond to this overbearing friendliness.
"Good to see that you haven't changed."
Entering the conversation at just the right time, Doris chimed in.
"Doris! How have you been?" Lilia went over towards the woman, arms open wide.
"I've been better," said Doris as she deftly side-stepped the bloodied Lilia's embrace. "Anyhow, I have someone I like to introduce to you."
Doris gestured Auguste forward and formally introduced him to Lilia before mentioning about how he's looking for someone to take in Gertrude.
"I see, I see. Well, you've come to the right person," said Lilia as she wiped her hands and face of blood with a fresh towel. "I think I'll be able to find a place for her."
"You won't be the one to take her in?" Auguste questioned.
"I'd love to, but..." Lilia turned towards the big bag of fruits that Hildy had placed on the ground beside her. "I'm kind of in a tight spot when it comes to food supplies myself."
Auguste frowned. He was kind of expecting to be able to at least meet the person who'll be taking care of Gertrude before handing her off. As things were, it seemed like he won't even know where she'll be heading.
"Don't worry though, the Lightbringers have a place even for someone like me. I'm sure we can find a place for Trudy as well."
"Yep. Her name's Gertrude, so she's Trudy," Lilia explained all matter-of-factly.
"Uh-huh... Still, you're telling me she's joining the Lightbringers?"
"That's right. We're always on the lookout for someone with a special sort of 'talent'. I think Trudy will make a wonderful addition to our family."
"Gertrude. A Lightbringer, huh..."
"You don't like the idea?"
"It's not as if I have anyone else to turn to. I'll have to leave her in your hands."
"Don't you worry, she's in good care. I guarantee it."
Lilia gave Auguste a bright smile, one that felt warm and genuine. While Auguste still had some reservations, from what he knew he felt that she might just be the right person to entrust this to.
"Oh, and one last thing." Auguste reached into his pocket, trying to fish out a certain gemstone. if anyone should be handling it, it should be one of the Lightbringers. "An old woman gave-"
Just as he was about to pull it out, a gentle, yet firm tug at his arm stopped him.
"You should be tired by now, aren't you? Perhaps it's best you leave it for tomorrow," said Doris, her hand gripped firmly onto his arm. Her golden eyes appeared to be glowing as he stared into them.
"I... I guess you're right. It can wait."
He couldn't find the willpower to oppose her. Perhaps it was due to the rush of combat wearing off, but Auguste suddenly felt very tired, to the point that he simply couldn't keep his eyelids from falling over his eyes. Taking Doris' suggestion to rest, Auguste cleaned up as best as he could and fell asleep in a corner of the main hall.
With that, the long night came to an end. However, while the battle was over, there were still Mimics roaming throughout the old town and the lockdown continued.
No one knew where the Mimics truly came from, though many suspected it to be from one of the Scholars of the Abyss' facilities. In response, the Scholars issued a statement on how they only had a small number of samples within their facilities, hardly enough to overrun the entirety of the old town within such a short time. Additionally, while they were not responsible for the incident, they extended a helping hand to clean up the remaining Mimics in the old town. They did so via the Slimes they had collected from the Dungeoneers, the Slimes that they had collected so many of that they had to call off the bounty on them. The Scholars released the Slimes all over town, letting them roam free to hunt down the Mimics as they seemed to have been created to do. The clean up went on for three days.
In those three days, Auguste and the others spent their days in the temple. At first, Auguste was worried about their food supply with Gertrude and Lilia's presence. Since the lockdown not only meant that they couldn't leave, it also meant that nothing got to enter, foodstuff included. However, the worries proved baseless as Lilia was able to control her appetite and had a method to mitigate Gertrude's hunger.
According to Lilia, Gertrude's hunger came from being unable to control her 'talents', that she uses up too much energy just by just moving about and performing day-to-day activities. Lilia taught Gertrude how to relax and not use more strength than she needed to. She even gave her a drug that was said to be able to knock a bear out cold should she find it difficult to relax. Gertrude ended up taking the drug and though she became rather sluggish under the drug's effect, she was still capable of being up and about. Thanks to the drug, for the first time in her life, Gertrude wasn't constantly in a state of hunger.
During this time, Auguste grew to like Lilia more and more. She was a capable teacher, very gentle and patient, explaining everything to Gertrude step-by-step and repeating it as many times and it took for Gertrude to finally get it. She was a far cry from Auguste's own mentor who rather not spend much time, or anytime at all, explaining anything. It's a shame that she won't be taking in Gertrude personally, but he's glad that Lilia had spent some time with her.
On the last day of the lockdown, Auguste and the clergy had finally scrubbed out all of the bloodstains from the temple's walls, floors, and even ceiling. They were letting him stay after all, so he'd feel bad if he didn't at least do that much. It was after completing the momentous task that Henrietta came running up to him with Lilia in tow.
As it turned out, Henrietta had asked Lilia for some pointers regarding combat. From what Auguste heard, Lilia had given Henrietta some advice before and it worked like a charm. Lilia, wanting to see what they've got, suggested to spar with Auguste and Henrietta, both at the same time. Interested in facing off with someone from the Lightbringers, Auguste went along with it.
On the Henrietta Company's side, Auguste wielded a broken handle from a broom, and Henrietta was armed with a piece of a broken fence. On Lilia's side, she had two pieces of sizable wood taken from broken furniture and shaved down to wieldable shapes. With that, the mock battle went underway.
Long story short, Lilia wiped the floor with them. Even with their combined strength, Auguste and Henrietta couldn't even touch her. Battered, bruised, and laying upon the grass on which Lilia had slain the multitude of Mimics just days prior, Auguste and Henrietta, likely the most stubborn of the Henrietta Company, accepted their defeat after a mere three rounds. And to think Lilia had been holding back too, keeping her usage of unnatural abilities to the minimum. Auguste had heard about it from Doris, but only upon this moment did he truly believe with all his heart. Lilia was the S-ranker he's been hearing about, the one that single-handedly sealed off the Abyssal rift within the Stone Circle Tombs.
"Well, you tried your bestest and that's what really counts," said Lilia, trying to patch up whatever wounded pride they might have.
"Not in a real battle, it doesn't," Auguste was quick to retort, surprised by how little he was able to do against Lilia. Not a single attack he made against her seemed to work.
"Gah! Curse these stubby arms! I would have at least landed a hit if they weren't so short!" Henrietta began throwing a tantrum where she laid, tossing and turning and kicking as she went. She had it worse than Auguste. At least Auguste's attacks made contact, at least Lilia had to actually block and parry his strikes. For Henrietta, she couldn't even land a proper hit.
"Um, I mean, you were trying to hit me with a shield. A shield doesn't have much reach you know," said Lilia, looking down at Henrietta with a frown, appearing as if she had done something bad to Henrietta.
"Well, it worked all the other times! Ain't that right Gusty?"
"Yeah," Auguste responded, his brows raised in astonishing realization. "Strangely enough, you hit more often with your shield than your shortsword."
"Fighting a person isn't quite the same as fighting mindless creatures and beasts, not to mention that a shortsword hardly has any reach," Lilia interjected, "Have you ever tried a spear or a longsword?"
"We tried spears before," Auguste answered, "but she's not exactly gentle with them so they kept breaking in combat. A longsword on the other hand, well, we never got our hands on one. They're pricey, you know. Oh, but we did pick up that claymore the other day..."
"That's pretty hard to handle with one hand though, even for me," said Henrietta.
"Not that you'll be able to swing it properly with your height," said Auguste, ignoring the glare Henrietta gave him upon mentioning 'height', "and even if you use it like a spear, it's not exactly balanced for that. You'll have a better time with an actual spear. Maybe it's time we start looking for a sturdy enough polearm for you."
The Henrietta Company hadn't put in much thought about it up until this point as they were always able to somehow get by, but since they were doing pretty well for themselves these days, perhaps it's time to upgrade their arsenal after all.
"A strong polearm or spear would be a great idea for Henri. I think something like a study lance would definitely suit her," Lilia suggested.
"I can see her getting it caught on the walls or ceiling in the Dungeons though," Auguste went ahead and added. He just couldn't help being the stick-in-the-mud. "Well, maybe not the ceiling."
"What about me? Any pointers for me?" asked Auguste, ignoring Henrietta's protest and moving the conversation along.
"As for you, Gusty..." Lilia tilted her head, a knuckle under her chin. "You very good when you're on the defensive. I find it very hard to get a hit in. However, your attacks are too... Forced? Stiff? It's like you're not used to being on the offensive. Oh, and I can see that you're trying to draw me in to create an opening, but your baits are a little too obvious. I think it'll work better if you add some offense into the mix rather than being on the defensive most of the time."
"I see..." Auguste crossed his arms, trying to internalize what was said.
"How many people have you sparred with before this?"
"Yeah, there was my mentor, and then there's Gertrude."
"Ah, I see, I see. I assume they're both much stronger than you are. You must have picked up some strange habits thanks to that."
Thinking back, when facing Cera, Auguste was always on the defensive. The woman was never the one to go easy on him, after all. Occasionally, she would bait him into attacking, tricking him into committing mistakes and delivering swift counter-attacks with no mercy whatsoever. Auguste was able to pick up that trick from her somewhat, though it was also thanks to this very trick that he became hesitant to go on the offensive. So far, his defensive style worked in his favor, but that was likely because he was fighting mindless creatures and had the rest of his party backing him up. However, one of these days, that's not going to be enough. He's going to have to break out of his current habits if there was any desire to improve.
"Let's go again, just you and me this time," Auguste requested.
"Fine by me."
Try as he might, however, there would be no breakthrough that day. In the end, facing someone more skilled than he was will always cause him to fall back onto the defensive, and while he was able to hold his own initially, he would eventually be worn down and reveal an opening to be exploited. To make matters worse, Lilia also had this tricky style of fighting that made it difficult to see where and when an attack was coming. With a weapon in each hand, she could make him think that she's about to strike from one direction only to attack from another. Perhaps it's due to her unnatural healing abilities, but she's rather aggressive in attacking too, which makes things all the harder for Auguste to deal with.
As the sun began to set and Hildy, along with a drowsy looking Gertrude, came to get them for dinner, the sparring session had to come to an end.
The next morning, with the announcement that the lockdown had been lifted, Auguste and Henrietta said their farewells and were setting off to return to the rest of their party.
"If you don't have a place to stay the next time you come around, you're welcome to stay here anytime," said Doris as she saw them off.
"It's been fun having you guys around. Let's go have a drink or two the next time we meet," said Lilia, her hair messy from having just woken up.
"Sure thing," said Auguste.
"Definitely!" Henrietta added.
Before taking his leave, Auguste once more reached inside his pocket. He was still wondering if he should hand over the hi-catalyst after all. However, when he caught a glance of Doris staring right at him, those thoughts withered away. For the three days they were there, whenever Auguste tried to bring the hi-catalyst up to Lilia, Doris would always be there, getting in the way. When he asked her, she told him that it would be dangerous for anyone else to hold it.
Auguste remembered what happened to the old woman who gave it to him and recalled when Lyudmila from Albert's party told him about the dangers of a hi-catalyst and how his lack of magical talents made him resistant to its effects.
In that sense, Doris wasn't wrong in not wanting Auguste to hand it over to her friend. Still, he sensed that there was more to it than she was letting on but he had no proof and had no way of getting it out of her. He simply lacked the eloquence of pulling it off and she'd probably play dumb if he tried to force it out of her. In the end, he simply gave up. It wasn't important enough for him to see it through anyway. He'll just hand it over to Albert the next time he sees him, or even better, when the Lightbringers offer a bounty for it.
"Oh, and one last thing, a gift before you leave," Doris walked up to Auguste and took both his hands into hers. For a moment there, Auguste expected to hear her say something menacing, or perhaps a veiled threat. "Now, just close your eyes."
"What are you planning?"
"Just do it. Come on, don't make this awkward."
Auguste did as he was told. With his eyes closed, all he could see in his mind was bad things happening to him, like getting stabbed or have a bag thrown over his head.
"There. All good."
But nothing happened, absolutely nothing at all. It was somewhat of a letdown even.
"Uhh... What did you do?"
"I just raised your chances of finding something good on your journey. Consider it a gift for protecting this place."
"So what? It's a lucky charm?"
"You could say that."
There was a hint of mischievousness in Doris' smile and Auguste wondered if she's pulling his leg for a brief second.
"Well, we should get going. I'm sure the others are worried sick."
With a final farewell, they headed off...... before turning right back around. It was Gertrude. She was following Auguste and Henrietta back to the others as if it was the most natural thing to do.
"Gertrude, you're staying with Lilia now. Got it?" Auguste said to her. He had told her this a few days before, but perhaps due to the drug Lilia had given her, she must not have understood or even heard him properly.
She gave him a frown, clearly not too thrilled about it. Though, it wasn't as if she disliked Lilia. As far as Auguste could tell, they got along just fine.
"I'm sorry, but we just can't afford to feed you. Lilia will find a place for you."
Hearing that from Auguste, her frown only grew deeper, her lips shaking and she bit down on it as if to hold it still.
"Oi!" Henrietta struck Auguste's side with her elbow. "Yer could have put it nicer, couldn't ya?"
Auguste was a straight-shooter; he doesn't tend to mince words as it simply wasn't in his nature. Still, looking at Gertrude, he couldn't help but feel sorry for her. The poor girl looked like she was about to burst out in tears. She probably had this conversation before, perhaps more than once. Her parents had probably said roughly the same thing to her before getting her to leave. Cera had probably said something along the lines to her as well when she went to the temple in Lars.
"Hey, runt," Auguste walked over and looked her straight in the eyes. "You're not even a match for me right now."
Those few words seemed to have gotten a rise out of her, lighting up a fire in Gertrude's eyes, her sorrowful frown turning to that of anger.
"Eat, get strong, then we'll have our rematch. I'll beat you fair and square."
All of a sudden, Gertrude raised a fist at him, and for a moment there, Auguste was prepared to be flung across the street, or at least get a broken rib. Yet, he felt that if he stepped aside, it would be the same as losing. Lose at what? He wasn't clear, but it felt something along the lines of being caught in a staredown and he didn't want to be the first to look away.
In the end, he only received a gentle tap on his chest.
"It's a promise, right?" asked Gertrude, her eyes somewhat teary.
"Yeah, I'm going kick your ass."
As they leave, Auguste could feel her staring into his back still, feeling it bore a hole into him. Even though to Auguste, it was but a trick to get a child to behave, she took that little promise with all the seriousness in the world.
"What was that about a rematch?" Henrietta asked out of curiosity.
"I said I spared with two people regularly, right? My mentor and Gertrude."
"Seriously? Yer won against her in a fight?"
"Won? Nah, I always dragged it out till she got hungry. After all, I'd go down in one hit and broken ribs aren't exactly fun to have either."
"Sheesh, I feel sorry for her."
"And not for me? For having to deal with her?"
Auguste gave a sigh and half a shrug.
"She sure got tall though. This will probably be the last time I get to call her a runt."
"She's almost the same height as you right now isn't she? I'll bet she'll be taller than you the next time we meet. Then yer gonna know my pain."
"Unfortunately for you, I can still reach the top of a shelf, so..."
"Shaddap! Just let me have it!"
The two chatted all the way to the gate leading out of old town.
"So you really jumped over that wall, huh?"
"I already told ya that's what happened."
"It's hard to believe, even for her."
"She couldn't do that before?"
"Not even close. If she could from the start, I'd already be dead." Auguste made an audible gulp as he thought back to the first match he had with Gertrude. "As much as I hate to admit it, I don't think I'll be winning that rematch."
End of Chapter 50