Valde Incompertus Silva
Author's Notes: The title of this story is a rough English-to-Latin translation done by one of the innumerable translation sites they have on the great interwebs. Roughly, it means 'The Great Unknown Forest'.
That out of the way…
Disclaimer: I own nothing.
Prologue: Fortuna Ligamen Convoco
No one was entirely sure when or how it had appeared. The locals claimed that one night there had only been swelling hills of emerald grass – and the next morning, a huge crevice in the land that led into the strange forest, situated just on the outskirts of the sleepy town of Etria.
Some had theorized that it was the recent earthquakes that had been shaking the land, causing this strange new breach in the earth to appear. Others said that some great evil must have been lurking deep underground, and that this meant that it was attempting to force its way back out. Still others laughed and proclaimed that it must have been heaven's doing, to reveal an entrance to such a lush and uncharted realm to explore.
And so, before long, a team of intrepid explorers ventured in – and there they encountered a strange new world, filled to the brim with exotic plants and wildlife they had never laid eyes on before. As fate would have it, the local wildlife proved hostile – very hostile. They all made it out alive, but some would be scarred forever – and one had his arm so mangled it was all but useless.
Still, the herbs and jewels that the explorers had brought back with them convinced the Radha, the governors of Etria, that this great forest was worth exploring.
A proclamation was thus sent out, proclaiming to all and sundry of the discovery of this strange forest, and inviting anyone to come and prove his mettle by conquering the uncharted labyrinth.
Many came to try their luck – all failed. But the lure of adventure proved too strong to stem the flow of daredevils and bravehearts. Over time, Etria became a bustling city-town, its booming economy geared towards providing for the adventurers that seeked to conquer the wood. And over time, the great forest, that had so steadfastly defied all of man's attempts to plumb her depths, began to be known as the Yggdrasil Labyrinth.
And as the sun rises and sets, the flow of those who come to seek their fortunes in the vast caverns remains unceasing.
The Ceft Apothecary was often a busy place. With the large amount of people who got themselves incapacitated (sometimes permanently) while wandering the labyrinth, it was no surprise that the doors to the Apothecary remained open throughout the night and day.
Pale sunlight filtered in through the bay windows of the side room, falling upon and illuminating the desk the sole occupant of the room was currently using.
Brushing a strand of orange hair from her eyes, the girl slowly shifted the position of her magnifying glass, allowing her to see the dried herb on her desk in greater detail.
Apparently satisfied that she adequately committed it to memory, she set the magnifying glass down and turned to a sheet of paper lain down on desk. After several quick, precise strokes, the drawing of the herb began to take shape on the parchment.
A few moments later, she nodded, a brief smile appearing on her face. Then, turning to a blank area of the parchment, she began jotting down several notes.
Mugwort: Viridus Acerbus
Bitter to the taste; warming; increases concentration abilities; is often used commercially as an ingredient for bravants
Often found in the first floors of the Yggdrasil Labyrinth, these tiny herbs are green in colour and bitter to the taste. Due to their use in the manufacturing of bravants, travelers into the Labyrinth often bring back a supply of mugworts for the purpose of selling to –
"Cassandra! Cassandra? Where are you, lass?"
Cassandra Hoffman placed the pen down and twisted in her seat. "In here, grandfather!" She called.
A moment later, Dr. Hoffman, head of the Ceft Apothecary, entered the room, a warm smile on his face. "So that's where you were couched away in."
Cassandra smiled up at her grandfather. "What's the matter?"
"Nothing much. I was just wondering where you'd run off to." He moved closer glancing down at the dried herbs on Cassandra's desk and then the paper she had been making her notes on. "…Still at it, eh?"
"'Course!" She grinned cheerily as she gazed down at her own work. "The forest's huge, and it's filled with all sorts of strange and new plants and animals we've never seen before. There's so much information to be found!" Her eyes grew distant as she rubbed a finger along the crackling edge of the mugwort. "Just think… if someone could make a record of every species of Flora and Fauna in there…" She shook herself from her brief reverie and glanced up at her grandfather.
Dr. Hoffman had removed the spectacles from his face and was now in the process of polishing it with the edge of his coat. "Well, you're not going to make much headway by studying mugworts, my dear. Any first year student at the Apothecary knows all about them."
"I know!" She giggled. "But there're still so many unrecorded plants and animals in there. I want to be the first one to find and study all of them! If nothing else, it'll definitely be a great contribution to the records of Etria."
The master physician laid a comforting hand on his granddaughter's thin shoulder. "You do realize, of course, that this will entail venturing into the Labyrinth on a rather regular basis?"
Cassandra nodded. "And that's why I've been training myself up." She glanced to her side and reached over to grasp a staff, finely carved from solid oak wood. "I'm not good as a fighter… so I'll be their medic. I'll take care of the fighters, patch up their wounds, make sure they live to fight another day…" She grinned and winked at her grandfather. "Just like you, huh?"
He had to chuckle at her brightness and optimism. "Indeed, indeed." The smile became pensive. "Just like me."
With a nod of respect to her grandfather, Cassandra got up from her chair and left the room, still clutching her oak staff.
Dr. Hoffman remained behind, lips pursed, deep in thought. Finally, he reached over and picked up the mugwort Cassandra had been observing, turning the brittle plant over and over in his hand.
The Golden Deer pub was a noisy place at the best of times, Valerie reflected as she gazed over at the chaotic spectacle with her with an amused air.
Explorers and adventurers that had entered the labyrinth were all sitting around tables swapping stories, each more fantastical than the last. The few patrons who wished for no conversation, merely a quiet meal and a drink, were sitting cloistered in their individual booths along the wall. In one smoky corner of the pub sat Ormund, no doubt mangling yet another song to a group of listeners. It was her decided opinion that he was best off sticking to storytelling.
She heard the snap of fingers and saw someone at the far end of the till signaling for a drink. She nodded gamely, quickly preparing the necessary mead – she knew most all of her patrons on sight, including their tastes and preferences.
The drink finished, she set it down on the till, well out the reach of the customer. He shot her a questioning look, to which she merely replied with a smile.
A roll of the eyes and a resigned smile – she saw the customer reaching back into his pocket.
There was a sharp crack! and suddenly a length of dark cord had wrapped itself around the mug. The dark-haired customer smirked and yanked once. The drink slid across the table, coming to rest in the outstretched hand of the whip-wielding patron. His drink appropriated, he flipped a shining coin in Valerie's direction, one she caught effortlessly.
Vante Simern – Lash to those who knew him well enough – sat back on his stool, tipping the mug and taking a long and thirsty swallow from it.
"Yer not bad with a whip, lad." An elderly man next to him observed.
"Comes with my line of work." Lash smirked. "If I weren't good with my weapon of choice, I'd have no business callin' myself an adventurer."
"An adventurer?" The old crone grinned and chuckled. "Round these parts that only means one thing." His voice dropped to a conspiratorial tone. "How far in have you been, lad?"
Lash gave the man a bored look and swiveled around on his stool so he could gaze out at the rest of the bar. "Oh, I'd say… zero floors."
"Hah!" His drinking companion chuckled. "All talk! Should've known."
The Dark Hunter rolled his eyes as he took another draught. "If you'd known anything, old man, you'd know that most of the local guilds aren't bothering to hire any new blood – so most of us newcomers don't have much choice but to sit pretty on our thumbs."
"So start your own guild or something." The elderly man offered.
"Good one!" Lash tipped his mug back again, draining the last few drops from it. "I'm not leader material – I tried that gig a while ago. Better at just fighting when I'm told to fight."
"So, you're just going to splurge your cash on drinks and food while waiting for someone to come in and scout you for your ability to snag drinks with a whip. Hmph!" The elderly patron stood up and walked away, shaking his head.
"Ain't any easier than it sounds, old man!" Lash called after the swiftly departing elder. Then he sighed and leaned backwards, letting the back of his head rest on the hard wood of the bar till. "I swear, if I could just get myself hired by any of those stinking guilds…"
"I think she's wakin' up!"
"Huh? Boy, that's fast!"
"Yeah, isn't it now? Especially considering the knocks she had to have taken to get so banged up like that."
"Hmm… wasn't sure she was going to make it, at first."
"Out of the way, out of the way! Give me some room! I need to check up on her!"
The first thing she began to become aware of was noise. A lot of confused talking, the intermingling of voices. Some of it seemed to make sense – most of it did not.
Second, she became aware of what she was feeling. She was lying down on something soft. It was rather rough to the feel, but otherwise it felt comfortable.
She then opened her eyes. She was in a room, simple and sparsely furnished. Several people were milling about, not appearing to be doing much of anything in particular. One of them, however, was leaning by her side.
"How do you feel?" He asked softly.
"F-fine." She mumbled in response. Hesitantly, she pulled herself into a sitting position.
"We found you on the third floor of the Labyrinth." One of the men said shortly. "You remember what happened?"
Labyrinth? She closed her eyes, pressing her hand to her forehead. Yes… Yes. Scraps and whispers of memory, floating through her mind.
Screams. Heat. Pain. The roaring of beasts. Dark shapes that flitted about the shadows of her memory.
And blood. The smell of it, the dark maroon stains everywhere…
"Not third…" She spoke slowly, trying to pull out more information from her mind. "The tenth floor. We were ambushed there…"
One of the men in the background whistled. "You made it up seven floors with wounds like that? You got my respect, girlie." He received an elbow to the gut from one of the women in the room.
"We found this band on your arm." A red-haired warrior held up a strip of cloth with an insignia etched upon it. "Turns out it's the Atropos' guild's insignia. Haven't been heard from in almost a week."
There was a silence in the room as they let the implications of what had been said sink in. Finally, the healer at her side – well, she assumed he was a healer – spoke up again.
"What's your name?"
Another uncomfortable silence descended as she kept her head bowed.
"I… don't remember." She finally mumbled. And it was true. She couldn't remember much of anything. Where she had come from. Who she was. Her parents, her friends, everything seemed to have to fallen into some dark abyss that she could not reach. "I don't remember." She said again, rising panic in her voice. "I don't remember anything."
"Makes sense if ya ask me. She'd taken a couple nasty ones to the head when we found her…" A subdued voice came from the doorway.
"Wait, calm down." The medic smiled in a calming manner. "Think it through slowly. Try to let it come to you."
She tried to slow her breathing, tried to calm herself down… She focused, sifting through the murky haze of her mind.
"Archery." She spoke. "I remember stringing my bow and taking aim at faraway targets that no one ever thought was possible to hit. I remember taking down some enemy beast that tried to sneak up on me – I shot it in the eye. I remember – I – oh!" She fell silent.
"What? What is it?" The healer prompted.
"The labyrinth." She whispered. "I remember the labyrinth."
She looked up, looking each person in the room in the eye.
"I need to conquer it."
Directly outside the Yggdrasil Labyrinth was a grassy knoll. It was one of several such knolls that dotted the surrounding area, and insofar as the knoll itself was concerned, it was an entirely unremarkable knoll.
What was different about the knoll was the person standing on top of it, glaring down in the direction of the Labyrinth. It wasn't known how long he stood there, simply gazing down into the vast undergrowth.
Gradually, there came the sounds and shouts of a group of explorers from behind him. A well-armed, well stocked group of adventurers walked by, obviously intent on entering the Labyrinth for yet another go.
The last one of them, a young lad with rust-red hair paused and glanced quizzically at him. "Hey, whatcha doing?"
Quark Teknon turned his red eyes upon the youth. "I wish to enter the Labyrinth." He said shortly. He paused. "Will you let me go with you?"
The young fighter shrugged. "Sorry, man, that's up to the boss."
"…Fine." Quark turned away and resumed staring impassively at the entrance to the Yggdrasil Labyrinth, his ebon hair swaying slightly in the breeze. The youth watched him curiously for a moment or two before turning and quickening his pace to catch up with the rest of the group.
Swallowing nervously, he stepped into the room.
A heavy cloth had been hung up across the window so as to keep the heat of the sun outside, the net effect being that the entire room had a hazy, ethereal glow to it. Franz barely paid it any mind as he glanced towards the bed.
Was it his imagination, or did she look even paler than before?
At the sound of his footfalls, she shifted her head, enough so that she could look him in the eye. "Franz…" She murmured.
"Amelia." Pulling up a chair, he settled down besides her. "How are you feeling?"
"Fine." He winced inwardly at her terse reply. He could tell that even these small actions were tiring her out. He shouldn't have come, he should have just let her rest…
"Hm?" He glanced back at her. "Yes?"
She was staring at him quizzically, a curious expression on her pale, drawn face. "Franz… you have something you want to tell me?"
He sighed, nodded. "Amelia… you've heard of the Yggdrasil Labyrinth?"
She nodded slowly.
"They've discovered all sorts of plants and herbs in there, Amelia – Etria's been making use of them to make new medicines and elixirs." He paused. "And it's been said that the deeper you go, the more exotic plants you'll find. Amelia," he continued excitedly. "If I could find something that could help you fight your illness-"
"I've heard of the Yggdrasil Labyrinth." She spoke in a measured tone. "I've heard… that those who go too deep never make it out again."
Franz shook his head. "And what's the alternative, Amelia? The best healers in this land have proved useless – they don't know what to do. You've had this disease for six months now and you've only gotten worse. Am I just supposed to sit on my hands and watch you waste away?" He reached over, covering her hand with his own. "I can't do that."
She made no response, save for a single crystalline tear that leaked out from her eye.
"Amelia," Franz continued, his voice steady with resolve. "I will find a cure. And I'll be back soon. And then you'll be cured. This I promise you."
As he descended the steps of the house, he saw his gleaming shield, resting against the wall.
A Holy Knight. He thought to himself as he lifted the shield up, gazing upon his reflection in the polished surface. One sworn the protect those who cannot protect themselves.
Knighthood under the Order of the Silver Rose had always been in the cards for him, especially since he'd come from House Albion. Upon being knighted, he'd been assigned to the countryside, his duty to patrol the countryside villages with the rest of his regiment, staving off the occasional bandit raids.
It'd been in one such patrol that he'd first entered the village of Messor, on account of having dented his blade in an accident. The village blacksmith had obliged to repairing it for a modest fee, and it had been while he was waiting for his sword to be repaired that he had seen the blacksmith's daughter.
She'd originally been interested in the fact that he was a knight – somehow, the concept of being clad in steel and being touted as the first line of defense against barbarian hordes or marauding brigands was of great appeal to the peasantry as a whole. He'd obliged her questions, telling him about his latest patrol mission. It had been a profound eye opener to him that what he had hitherto considered a routine – boring, even- part of his life was of the utmost interest to Amelia.
The span of two hours had passed faster than he had thought possible, and before he departed he'd made a promise that he would return to see her again soon. This he had done so – and on a rather regular basis, to the point where the blacksmith and his family knew when he was off-duty.
As the visits continued, she'd began to ask less questions about his life as a knight, and more questions about him as a person. And, in turn, he'd begun to find himself asking more questions about her as well.
The night they'd confessed their feelings to each other had been a rainy one, he remembered. He'd never much liked rainy days, mainly because those days tended to be cold, and he hated the cold. With him not needing to return to active duty until late next morning, and with the rather incessant drumming of raindrops around their heads, he'd accepted the blacksmith's gracious offer to spend the night here. The conversation that night had been a rather usual one for its ilk – largely upbeat, positive, and punctuated by plenty of giggles. Then, for no discernable reason, they conversation had slowed to a halt, they'd both gazed deep into each other's eyes, and the words just came tumbling out.
Of course it would have been largely easy to lose himself in the passion of the moment, but being a Holy Knight, he'd had the teachings for virtue and whatnot drummed into his head harder than most, and besides, taking advantage of the daughter of someone who'd agreed to put you up for the night just didn't seem right. Settling for a rather long kiss, they'd both went to sleep content in what the future held for the both of them.
Except, of course, that the future had thrown them a curveball by striking Amelia down with some strange malady the physicians couldn't begin to diagnose, never mind cure. Franz frowned as he finished buckling on the last of his armour to himself. And of course that had led to their current situation.
He nodded and patted the letter tucked securely into his breastplate – his request for a leave of absence for an indeterminate period of time had been granted. Now all was left was to set out for the Labyrinth.
"You ready?" Came the voice from the doorway.
Ewan Paraji was by no means a blood relation of Franz, but upon first glance, one might note that both of them had blond hair and blue eyes. Of course, Franz's hair was just a couple of shades darker, almost fading into a glossy brown if one looked at it in the proper lighting. Ewan also had this habit of keeping his eyes hooded, such that it led most to believe that he was either very thoughtful or lazy.
"As much as I'll ever be."
There was a soft cough, and Franz turned to see Amelia's father standing in the dooway.
"Sir Franz…" The blacksmith stepped forward.
Franz dipped his head low. "Master Russell… I'll be back soon. Please look after Amelia well."
He nodded in response, a smile forming under his beard. "Take care, Sir Knight. Fare you well."
Ewan Paraji was rather reticent and reserved – he opened up only to close friends of relatives. But when he had found a friend, he stuck with that person through thick and thin.
Having grown up as the son of a servant in House Albion, he'd formed a fast friendship with Franz, the only other boy around his age. Later on, he'd proved himself adept in the arcane fields, and Franz had convinced his father to help fund Ewan's tutelage in the Mage's Guild – a favour that Ewan had always sought to repay Franz for (Notwithstanding that many in the Guild now viewed Ewan as being just a bit too obsessed with Fire formulae magic).
"…" As the two of them saddled their horses, Ewan paused to glance back at Amelia's house.
Of course, repaying a favour by keeping silent about his own attraction to Amelia seemed a pretty poor way of going about things. Notwithstanding that Franz and Amelia seemed entirely happy together (or at least they would have if not for this strange disease), she didn't seem particularly aware that Ewan existed as anything more than 'Franz's buddy'.
"Ewan? What's the matter?"
"Hm? Oh, nothing much." Ewan gave his old friend a grin. "Well then… to Etria?"
Franz nodded, already astride his steed. "To Etria."
Scarcely anyone paid any heed to the cloaked traveler as the person paused in the middle of the Verda Plaza, glancing around to check the surroundings.
As one Etrian villager walked by, the traveler coughed softly. "Excuse me sir, do you know the way to the Guildmaster's office?"
"It's that prominent building riiight over there."
A few minutes later, the Guildmaster glanced up as the cloaked traveler entered his office. "Hm, don't think I've seen you before. Come to check out the Labyrinth?"
"Well, can't let you go off all on your lonesome. After one too many people bit the big one, the folks at Radha Hall made it so that only people entering under the jurisdiction of a guild can enter."
"My apologies, I've no intention of joining a guild."
"What? But then…" A grin spread across the Guildmaster's face. "Heh. Most of the current guilds are too washed up and stuck-in to be accepting new members. Are you telling me you're going to be one to look to the needs of those poor souls just lounging around here with nothing to do?"
"Maybe, maybe not." A hand reached up to throw the hood of the cloak back – revealing the face of an attractive woman in her early twenties, golden hair cascading down the back of her neck. "My name is Eurydice Alexandra Katarn, and I'm here to start a guild."
"For what manner of purpose?" He asked, though of course he knew the answer already.
A thin smile blossomed on Eurydice's face. "To conquer the Yggdrasil Labyrinth."
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