Dungeons of the Abyss and the Unchosen Heroes
It was the Henrietta Company's last day in Iotas Tria. Following immediately after the Mimics incident, the party came to a consensus that it was high time for them to leave.
Early in the morning, Auguste, Elaine, and Finn, the procurement team of the party, headed out into the market to procure supplies for the upcoming journey. The marketplace was bustling as always with people going about their daily businesses. It was as if there hasn't been an outbreak of Mimics just days prior. Due to the quick decision to lockdown the old town, the Mimics never did spread over to the new town. Still, Auguste and the others decided that they ought to be careful, just in case any had slipped by.
"We should probably not get any dried fruits this time around, unless you want to eat them boiled of course," Elaine suggested.
"Ugh, that's probably a good idea," Auguste squirmed internally. "Boiled fruits are bad enough, I don't want to know what they taste like dried and boiled."
"So... We're sticking with meats and nuts then?" Finn tried to confirm with them.
"Some bread might be good too," mentioned Auguste. "We could deep fry them. I doubt the Mimics could survive that."
"I see." Elaine nodded to the idea. "They're not too expensive around here and it does taste pretty good deep-fried."
In the three days Auguste and Henrietta were separated from the rest, they've been experimenting with deep frying as preventative measures against the Mimic threat. Due to that, the party had grown to have a liking for the flavor and since it was all Abyssal magic anyways, the health risks would simply be wiped away by the glorious Heaven's Ward.
"That settles it then," announced Elaine, the captain of the procurement team. "Nut, meat, and bread, that should be good enough a variety to last us till our next stop."
While the three were out shopping for supplies, the other three remained at their rented house. With Henrietta still in bed and Gladiolus doing maintenance on his bow, Morganna was left to her own devices. At the moment, she had her eyes on the souvenirs brought back by none other than Auguste upon his return.
Placed on a desk and wrapped in the olive, magic resistant cloak, there was the hi-catalyst. The story he told of how he got his hands on it was a strange one. There was an old woman whom he had never met before mistaking him for someone named Joseph. Surely, it couldn't have been the same Joseph they knew. Right? At any rate, it seemed like they don't plan on handing it over just yet. Auguste, of all people, proposed that they should wait until someone issues a bounty for it, which was a pretty good idea, though it sounded almost too business-minded for it to have come from Auguste.
The hi-catalyst Morganna would leave alone. She rather not go near that thing and it gave her bad feelings all around. It'd be best that it remained wrapped under the magic resistant cloak and carried only by Auguste. The thing that caught Morganna's eyes was something else Auguste had brought back with him, the thing that's mindlessly bouncing up and down in the corner of the room at the moment.
It was a Slime. Apparently, after having lived alongside a bunch of them for three days as they cleaned up the Mimics, he thought that they might be safe to keep. And so, he stuffed one into a bottle and snuck it past the guards at the gates. He discovered that they 'eat' more than just the Mimics, that they deal with the likes of lice and fleas as well. For Morganna, she wanted to know more about how they could maintain their form under the Heaven's Ward. On the surface, they seemed to be blobs of animated liquid, but perhaps there's more to them than meets the eye.
"Hey, stay away from that," Morganna said to the Slime despite knowing full well that it couldn't understand her. In fact, she wasn't even sure if it had a sense of hearing or if it could even be considered a living creature in the first place.
With bare hands, she pulled the Slime off of the magic resistant cloak. While she feared for the worse, it did not seem like it would dissolve from the contact. There must be something about the way it was formed that allowed it to exist as it is. If only Morganna could figure it out, it might become a key to Abyssal arts that could last beneath the Heaven's Ward. In that regard, it certainly helped that Morganna could easily stare that the thing bobbing up and down all day.
The morning of the next day, with a brief farewell to Tobias, the Henrietta Company set off, leaving the town behind. For a short time, it was home, and leaving it felt somewhat melancholic. Still, they were Dungeoneers, and they make a home wherever the Dungeons, where profit, could be found. Surely, they'll find a new 'home' soon enough.
Silently, a shadow slithered into a corner room of a remote inn in the old town. As it entered, it found someone sitting on the bed, awake and expecting company.
"Have you heard of the phantoms coming and going with the wind?" the shadow asked.
"There are no phantoms, tis but an Old Wives' Tale."
Having heard its reply, the shadow nodded in satisfaction before moving into the light.
"I'm pleased to have finally met the legendary S-ranker of the Lightbringers."
"The name's Lilia, well met," Lilia introduced herself, her friendliness apparent giving away no sign that she was on guard. "But you knew that already."
"And my name is... Let's go with Aisha."
"Not going to tell me your real name?"
"Not on my life, I'm afraid."
"Well, I'm not going to force you. Let's get to business, shall we?"
"We shall, though I'm regretful to inform you that the mission was a failure. We did not retrieve the hi-catalyst. It was gone by the time we reached its supposed location."
"I guess the lack of support due to the disappearance of the branch office here really hurt, huh?"
"Indeed. We took too long gathering information on our own."
"It's almost as if someone knew we were coming and took steps to obstruct us," Lilia had a knuckle under her chin as she stared out into the night. "Still, were the Mimics really necessary?"
"The ones the Scholars kept in their underground facilities? We didn't have anything to do with that. Someone else had let them out."
"Where did they get so many anyways?"
"Criminals on the death row, human trafficking, and some good old fashion kidnapping. The Scholars aren't all that different from witches when it comes to their relentless pursuit of knowledge."
"Yet another faction we have to keep an eye on... As if the Demon Lord and the Cult of the Nameless God weren't enough. Did you ever find out who wiped out our branch here? There can't be that many capable of doing it so silently, right?"
"Whoever did it left no traces of themselves, at least none we could find. Perhaps a witch might have more luck in tracing them. Speaking of which, Albert and his party are currently on their way here as we speak. Meet up with them as soon as possible."
"Is that an order from the higher up?"
"I still can't understand why they couldn't just inform me directly."
"It's more secure to go through us. You never know if a spy is in our midst. No, at this point, I'd say there must be."
"What a drag. Why can't we all just get along?"
"That's not going to happen anytime soon. Besides, I'd be out of a job if that happens. One last thing, the scholars seem to think that we're the ones who broke in and took the hi-catalyst. They might try something while you're here."
"We'll you did break-in, that much they got right. Still, who in the world was the one who got to the hi-catalyst ahead of you? Who else knew about it other than us?"
"We will continue to look into that as well. You need only to worry about yourself for the time being."
A knock came from the door just as Aisha finished speaking as if it all been timed, down to the last second.
"Lil', Doris was asking if you'd like some milk." It was Hildy's voice behind the door.
"Sure thing. Tell her I'll be right there," Lilia replied.
By the time she turned back towards Aisha, she was already gone. She had left as she entered, without a single sound.
Within the lands of the Principality of Zeth, there lied a Dungeon, the firsts of the Dungeons, the oldest of them all. However, old as it was, it remained hidden from the rest of the world, quietly expanding without anyone's notice. Within the deepest floor, there lied a throne made entirely of crystallized Ether and upon it sat a fair, knife-eared woman possessing a head of long, golden hair with tinges of green. She was of the elven race, or at least, that was what she had once been.
In the room, lit by the orbs of concentrated Ether, there stood a mass of writhing darkness before the elven woman. The darkness spoke with an unnatural voice, a mockery of human speech.
"All goes as planned, my mistress," said the mass of darkness.
"Did the Scholars put the hi-catalyst to good use?"
"They've been toying with it, yes, though only to a disappointing degree." The mass of darkness turned towards a literal husk of man left on the floor, one wearing white robes with a blue sash. On his robes, there were golden trimmings, signifying a higher status. On his neck, he wore an amulet with engravings of a set of three eyes, the symbol of the Scholars of the Abyss. "After all the trouble I went through to subtly instruct them, what shame."
"But they had a taste of its power, a power that is now lost to them. They'll seek out the rest and be on guard against those that have stolen from them."
"Will they truly become enemies? The Scholars and the Lightbringers? Even we consider it foolish to challenge them directly at this stage."
"The humans have not changed in the last thousand years, and surely they won't anytime soon. They will fight, and while they do, we shall continue our work."
"And as for Albert?"
"We have an agent ready in Iotas Tria, do we not? Have them meet with him, lead him to the next hi-catalyst."
"It shall be done, my mistress."
The mass of darkness then sank into the ground, blending in with the shadows before slipping away. With her subject gone from sight, the elven woman slouched on her throne, one hand to support her head while the other tapped away at the armrest as she bided her time before her next move.
End of Chapter 51