Chapter 52:

Vol. 3, Chapter 52: Step Up

Dungeons of the Abyss and the Unchosen Heroes

Hidden Haven, such was the ironic name given to this Dungeon.Bookmark here

Around the southwestern tip of the five kingdoms, there lied a great stretch of land barely explored and touched by settlers, filled with all manner of strange beasts and even stranger legends. There, within the depths of its jungle, a team of explorers stumbled upon a cave that went on and on deep into the ground, eventually leading to a great cavern. It was a cavern so vast that it had its own ecosystem, its own weather, and its ceiling so filled to the brim with luminescent vegetation that it created an illusion of the open sky. It was a cavern that could be said to be a world in and of itself, a very dangerous world, filled with dangerous and highly hostile creatures.Bookmark here

Long story short, the cavern turned out to be a Dungeon. It was recognized as such when one of the sample the explorers tried to bring back evaporated shortly after it was brought outside. Some said that it was a plant while others claimed that it was part of an animal but regardless of what it was, its existence was not allowed beneath the Heaven's Ward. And so, with the cavern becoming known as a Dungeon, Dungeoneers naturally flooded in. Of course, the Henrietta Company was amongst them.Bookmark here

Within Hidden Haven, there lived a variety of bizarre creatures. Amongst them, there were the Great Apes, hairy creatures that stood two hundred to three hundred centimeters tall with limbs as thick as logs. Their hair protects them from the blades of swords, but piercing weapons had been proven effective. The Great Apes' habitat within the Dungeon could be found within the dense jungle to the east with large towering trees. Living in large packs and rarely seen alone, should one of them be attacked, the others would immediately return the favor with swift and crushing retribution. Trying to hunt them without preparations would be most unwise.Bookmark here

"Are you ready?"Bookmark here

"Can't wait to get started."Bookmark here

"Very well. Then on my mark..."Bookmark here

A pair of arrows were let loose into the air. One lodged itself into the shoulder of one of the Great Apes sitting atop a gigantic tree while the other struck the neck of the other ape sitting beside the first. The first Great Ape roared in pain and anger while the second one plummeted to the ground, clawing at its bleeding neck as it fell.Bookmark here

"Wait, did I actually kill one?"Bookmark here

"Under normal circumstances, I would have commended the shot, but that was clearly not what you were supposed to aim for this time."Bookmark here

"Yeah sure, I need to work on my aim, but right now let's work our feet and get going."Bookmark here

As soon as the Great Ape hit the ground, the entire jungle came to life with inhuman screams and screeches. The thick branches hanging overhead began shaking violently and great shadows could be seen leaping from tree to tree.Bookmark here

The two hunters made full use of their legs, sprinting with all they had to try and escape the jungle.Bookmark here

"From above!"Bookmark here

The warning prompted the younger of the hunters, the one who struck the second Great Ape dead, to hastily leaped forward, tumbling, scraping his elbow, and got back up to his feet while barely losing any speed. He dared not look back as he ran, but he felt the ground shook behind him. More than likely, one of the Great Apes had tried to land on him.Bookmark here

In a few minutes that felt far, far too long, the two hunters broke out of the jungle and made it down a rocky slope before entering an open field. There, in the distance, four figures could be seen waiting for them.Bookmark here

"Don't miss the jump, Auguste."Bookmark here

"You don't have to tell me twice."Bookmark here

Auguste and Gladiolus, after running a distance from the jungle, leaped over a patch of land before finally making it back to the rest of the party. It was time for the second phase of the plan.Bookmark here

Tossing his bow and quiver of arrows onto the grass, Auguste strapped on a bag of wooden spears made out of the relatively smaller trees from the forest to the south. Meanwhile, the Great Apes, numbering in at least twenty, rapidly approached, running on all four of their massive limbs. As they got near, stepping over the patch of ground that Auguste and Gladiolus had leaped over, it was revealed to be nothing but sticks with leaves laid over. It was a trap, a pitfall, and at the bottom, wooden spikes pointed upward, awaiting those that would fall in.Bookmark here

They had dug half a dozen of such traps, each wide enough for at least two or three of the Great Apes to fall into. One by one, the Greats Apes fell into these deathly pits as they chased after Auguste and Gladiolus blindly. By the time the Great Apes came into range, more than a dozen had already fallen into the traps.Bookmark here

However, there was one, the one at the forefront of the chase that was able to avoid every single one of the traps. At first glance, this one was not too much different from the rest or that much bigger or nimbler than an average Great Ape. Upon close observation, however, one would soon find that this one was covered in scars, proof of the many battles it had fought and that it had survived it all.Bookmark here

"Finn, you're up!" Auguste called.Bookmark here

In response, Finn stood up from his kneeling position. He had been in meditation, to focus his mind and pruge it of fears and doubts as Gladiolus had been teaching him.Bookmark here

"I'm ready," he said curtly.Bookmark here

There was a complete change in the air about him when he's concentrated like this, his timidness and hesitation gone. He had moments like this from time to time before, moments when he bore no doubts as to what he had to do, what he must do. When he's like this, it felt like nothing could stop him and nothing would be able to get through him, at least, that's the feeling Auguste felt from watching him. After that visit to the temple of Arithmi, he had since learned of his potential and sought to draw it out with the help of Gladiolus who in turn, taught him some elven meditation techniques.Bookmark here

Additionally, he had completed the assembly of his armor. Selling off the claymore and with the party pitching in somewhat, they were able to purchase pieces previously missing from his armor set. It was a mishmash of secondhand goods, quite a few of which had to be resized, but armor was armor. Fully armored, no longer was Finn left vulnerable and he could take on foes straight on without fear, just in time for the party to change up their formation.Bookmark here

Two arrows cut through the air, towards the scarred Great Ape. In response, the scarred ape shifted its weight and easily avoided both. With a large grin on its face, the Great Ape seemed rather pleased with itself, not realizing that it was all but a distraction and served to slow down its charge.Bookmark here

Seeing his opportunity, Finn smashed into the scarred Great Ape, stopping it with a powerful shoulder charge and knocking it slightly off balance even. Without missing a beat, Finn then hooked the Great Ape's leg with the beard of his axe, tripping it while its balance was off before burying the axe head into the creature's shoulder. The ape roared ferociously in pain, but Finn showed neither fear nor mercy as he raised his axe once more and took off the Great Ape's head with another swing.Bookmark here

There is no need to fear, Finn thought to himself, everyone has my back. I just need to hold the front, to draw their attention towards me, to make them fear me, and to hold as many of them back with this huge body of mine for as long as I can.Bookmark here

With the one in the lead cut down, the charge of the Great Apes came to a gradual halt. They appeared to have a social hierarchy and when the leader was cut down, the rest began to panic. Unfortunately for them, before the thoughts, or perhaps the instincts, of running came to them, a ball of fire curved over them and erupted into a great wall of flames, cutting off their escape route. While their fur would have protected them from most of the burns, instinctively, as living creatures do, the Great Apes feared the flame and were driven forward.Bookmark here

As the Great Apes came towards him, Finn cut them down with powerful swings, not talking a single step backward despite the creatures desperately charging at him. From his two sides, there were Auguste and Henrietta, making sure that Finn was not overwhelmed.Bookmark here

With a powerful charge forward, Henrietta, with a wooden lance tucked under her arm, drove the weapon into a Great Ape's chest, and though the tip of the lance broke off soon upon penetration, there were no worries. In this Dungeon, in the Hidden Haven, trees were plenty and more could easily be made with little to no cost. With the lance currently in hand broken, however, another Great Ape took the opportunity to go on the offensive, forcing Henrietta to hide behind her shield as it pounded on her from various angles, backing away as it tried to get behind her. The Great Ape was strong, nimble, and much larger than Henrietta. It was only a matter of time before her shield was torn away from her.Bookmark here

Henrietta was as scared as she ever was, the onslaught of attacks so fierce, that she wasn't even able to complain or cry out for help, not that she needed to. The changes to their formation were not limited to merely having Finn swap places with Henrietta.Bookmark here

With a crunch and a pop, blood splattered all over and dyed the grass red and littered it with chunks of skull fragments and grey matter. When Henrietta looked up, the Great Ape's head was no more.Bookmark here

Standing just a little behind her, there was Morganna, adjusting her glasses. With Finn moving up front and becoming their main frontliner, their defenses had become much sturdier. This allowed Morganna to move closer up front, forming a second line of defense that served to support the frontliners.Bookmark here

While Morganna's fire could do little against the Great Apes and their body of thick hair, fire magic was no longer the sole offensive spell within her arsenal. With her new catalyst, the wand made from miller's bran, she could not only conjure forth powdered wheat from the Abyss but also tap into the forces involved in grinding the wheat down to its powdered form and compressing the bran into this wand. She had learned to conjure a 'concentrated force' from the Abyss.Bookmark here

Within the range of two to three meters, Morganna could create a small area of concentrated force powerful enough to crush skulls. And though she could not create a force powerful enough to do much outside of three meters, the new formation the party had adopted made it so that she could move close enough to enemies without being in harm's way.Bookmark here

While Finn stood his ground at the front and Henrietta paired with Morganna to defend his left, Auguste was some ways behind Finn, keeping a low profile and remaining unmoving as Gladiolus had shown him. As he waited, he saw five of the Great Apes breaking away from the rest, attempting to get around the wall of fire and escape the battle.Bookmark here

Three arrows, one shot after the other in a rapid volley flew off towards the escaping Great Apes, slamming into the one leading the escape. Two struck the side of the chest and the other buried itself into the creature's thigh. The Great Ape fell almost instantly and after a few spasms, it laid on the ground dead.Bookmark here

Right after the leading Ape had been struck, three of the five turned their attention towards Gladiolus, realizing that their escape would be difficult so long as Gladiolus was there. As the three began their charge, the last of the escaping five, a smaller one of the group, tried to join in at the last second. However, with a roar from the largest one amongst the group, the smaller one was sent running. Sadly, it was to no avail, as Gladiolus made quick work of it with another volley of arrows.Bookmark here

The largest one roared with ferocious anger as the smaller one was felled, charging directly towards Gladiolus with a single-minded hatred while the other two followed immediately after.Bookmark here

As they came far from the right, Finn was unable to intercept them in time, allowing them to charge into the rear of the party. There was no need to fret, however, as Auguste, who had kept a low profile since the beginning was able to blindside the enemy and struck from their flank.Bookmark here

Swinging his arm down, Auguste flung a spear towards the charging Great Apes. He aimed not for the larger Ape in the front, but instead, the ones following. The spear landed in the guts of one of the Great Apes, rupturing the kidney and causing it to go into shock and fell to the ground. The other one, running beside the fallen ape, quickly took notice of the overlooked threat and changed its course towards Auguste.Bookmark here

He hadn't realized it before, but having a Great Ape charge directly at him was a frightening thing. Their speed and ferocity, the bulging muscles of their massive arms and their maddened glare, it struck a primordial fear within Auguste and caused his spear arm to falter, missing his throw by an embarrassing margin. The fact that he's fully armored notwithstanding, Finn being able to go up against one of these creatures directly was an impressive feat in and of itself.Bookmark here

As the Great Ape got into attacking range, Auguste's survival instincts took over. Swallowing his fear, Auguste ducked low as the Great Ape stood up on its two legs and raised its fists high up in the air. Auguste knew, from the weeks of stalking these creatures, he knew that this was their preferred way to attack. Keeping his posture low, Auguste leaped towards the Great Ape's side, expecting the creature to slam its fists down at where he was in an attempt to pummel him into the ground. To his surprise, Auguste was then hit by the back of the Great Ape's arm. He was struck in the chest, and though his leather vest had softened the blow, he could feel his breath being squeezed out of him as he was sent flying through the air.Bookmark here

Auguste hit the ground and skipped twice more like a smooth stone across the water surface before stopping. He tried to get up as soon as he landed, but his body ached and his head was spinning, rendering him immobile for some time. The Great Ape could have easily finished him off if it wanted to. If it could only make its way to him, that is. Unfortunately for the Great Ape, it had a spear lodged into its thigh, crippling its mobility and causing it to bleed profusely. Auguste had made sure to get a hit in before being blown away.Bookmark here

With its arms, the Great Ape dragged itself towards Auguste, trying to finish him off. However, before it could even get close, a slab of metal struck it from the side, sending it tumbling away.Bookmark here

"Oi, Gusty, you ain't dead right!?"Bookmark here

"I'm-" A coughing fit cut his words short. "Just finish it off!"Bookmark here

Just as Auguste forced out those last few words, Finn was already stepping in, his battleaxe up high. With a single swing, the Great Ape's head went rolling, dribbling a trail of blood as it tumbled away.Bookmark here

Looking around as he crawled back up, Auguste realized that there was only one Great Ape left, the largest one of the bunch, the one that was heading for Gladiolus.Bookmark here

In the distance, Gladiolus could be seen locked in combat with the last Great Ape, managing to keep out of the range of the creature's grasp while still sending arrows its way whenever the opportunity presented itself. Still, due to the bulky muscles on the ape's body, the arrows were having a difficult time hitting the vitals. Meanwhile, Elaine had already moved away from the rear and was making her way towards the rest of them.Bookmark here

"Let's finish this. We'll go with the 'Circle Formation'," said Auguste as the three frontliners moved in while Morganna met up with Elaine.Bookmark here

The formation was simply the four of them, Auguste, Henrietta, Finn, and Gladiolus, surrounding an enemy within a circle. Whenever the enemy focused on one of them, the others would strike. Though not a single one of them could land a decisive blow, neither could the Great Ape, distracted by attacks coming from all directions. As each strike tore open the Great Ape's flesh, as each blow made it bleed, bit by bit, they whittled the Great Ape down. When it moved no more, when it simply stood there, bloodied and still, they carefully approached it, confirmed that it was dead, and had Finn lop its head off just to be safe.Bookmark here

With the last of the Great Apes taken down, that was it, they have effectively wiped out the pack. While there should also be females and youngs within the pack, without the males to protect them, the pack was done.Bookmark here

Having been given the signal, Morganna shot up a ball of fire into the air, exploding into a fiery blossom. Soon after, a group with horse-drawn wagons approached from the distance. They worked for a merchant, one that the Henrietta Company had signed a contract with through the Dungeoneers' Guild. It was their first big gig and should they perform well, there's a huge bonus waiting for them.Bookmark here

The workers descended from the wagons and began to make quick work of the corpses of the Great Apes, skillfully skinning them with speed and dexterity. Due to the thickness of the fur and toughness of the hide, these would apparently make for a popular commodity to the adventurers, mercenaries, and Dungeoneers operating up in the northern regions of the five kingdoms.Bookmark here

"You didn't get too hurt, did you?" asked Elaine as she approached Auguste who was sitting on the grass, watching the hired hands work. Everyone else was close by, resting or eating or looking at whatever caught their interest.Bookmark here

"I'm fine. At least, I don't think I broke anything."Bookmark here

"That's good to hear. Medical fees aren't cheap all the way out here."Bookmark here

"I'll be careful."Bookmark here

Elaine quirked an eyebrow. Usually, Auguste would have come up with a wisecrack, but on this particular day, he felt quieter than usual.Bookmark here

"Are you sure you're not hurt?" Elaine asked again.Bookmark here

"Hm? I said I'm fine, didn't I? You know I don't hide these things."Bookmark here

"No, you don't."Bookmark here

"Oh, by the way, I found something on one of them."Bookmark here

From his pocket, Auguste produced what appeared to be a ring made of a metal Elaine could not quite identify.Bookmark here

"I found it on one of the Great Apes. It wore it on its ear," Auguste added.Bookmark here

"An earring is it? You think they might have been more than just beasts?"Bookmark here

"I don't know. I rather not think about it. I mean, Gladiolus never said anything about it either."Bookmark here

"Why bring up Gladiolus?"Bookmark here

"Well, I mean, 'cause of their ears," said Auguste as he raised a finger next to each of his ears as a gesture.Bookmark here

"Ah, I see. That's true."Bookmark here

Other than their size, the Great Apes had one more difference from ordinary apes, their ears. Their ears were long and pointy, like those found on the elven kind.Bookmark here

"Then again, I wouldn't have problems killing them even if they had rounded ears like us, so maybe it's not something to be bothered about. Either way, there's no point worrying about it now. We've killed plenty of things up to this point, who's to say that the things we killed along the way weren't 'more than just beasts'?"Bookmark here

"I don't disagree, but that's somewhat cold coming from you."Bookmark here

"Maybe. Maybe that just means I'm 'growing up'."Bookmark here

"'Growing up', huh? Those have become rather lonely words as of late."Bookmark here

Elaine turned towards Finn, his attention currently on the dried meat he's chewing on as a snack.Bookmark here

"We still need you, you know?" Auguste commented after catching Elaine's expression.Bookmark here

"I know," Elaine replied quietly.Bookmark here

With that, the conversation stopped at an awkward place. For a moment, Auguste thought that he should ask about what they'll be having for dinner, but he already knew what it would be. It's the same thing they've been having for the past week. Fried dried meat and fried bread. Perhaps it's time they have a change in menu.Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

End of Chapter 52Bookmark here

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