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Now I will tell you a tale of The Depths, a place that has been shrouded in mystery for uncountable centuries. If you ask a scholar, he’ll tell you this living home of horror and madness first appeared soon after the Piercing of the Veil. If you ask an old man on the street, he’ll tell you at length that that it always been with us. Just in different forms, and with a different name.
Whatever folk call it today, The Depths has become part of the fabric of this world and its stories. We’ve all been told from a young age that The Depths calls to bad little children to make them disappear forever. Of course, older folk spend time debating The Depths as philosophy or playful dispute, perhaps arguing that there is no way a group of Hammas would survive in there without help. Meanwhile, the wise or foolish leaders of the lands hold The Depths near the heart of their councils, discussing how long they must hold control of the place to crown their Realm supreme. And in between all of these there have always been those who would seek to profit from the treasures hidden within the murky secrets of The Depths, with or without the guidance of their Realm. Those folk are known as Delvers, and this is a tale of one of their raids, and the unlikely or unnerving revelations of The Depths they uncovered.
It was one of those balmy fall days that make the coming winter seem bearable. The weather was warm in the sun but cool in the shade, and the trees seemed to glow with the bright colors of the Fall Court of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Standing on a stony ridge overlooking the tree-filled valley below, an Arthurian by the name of Hidduk carefully surveyed the land beneath him. Many people believed that those of his race were blessed with exceptionally sharp eyes, but he chuckled at the thought, muttering “If they only knew how bad my normal sight is…”
Fortunately for Hidduk, his eyes were enhanced by both magic and a previous trip to The Depths, so the valley floor stood out in sharp detail, and he could pick out each leaf fluttering in the wind. However, despite his concentration, Hidduk’s mind drifted back to the horrible things that he had seen and experienced. He was the sole survivor of that raid, and most of his clan thought him insane for wanting to go back again. Not only that, but Hidduk knew that many within his Realm were already suspicious of Caits such as himself. There were many reasons not to go…
But something called to him, like a whisper in the back of his mind. A growing need to return, to discover more treasures and truths in The Depths. To redeem himself in his own mind, or in the minds of others, he knew what he needed to do. At the thought, his tail twitched and swished its way back and forth among the falling leaves. Up on the ridge, Hidduk expanded his senses and, true to his kind, crouched and watched patiently for the rest of the raiding party. He would wait motionless here, even if day turned to night and back again several times before they all arrived.
“I hate these woods,” Jorvald thought to himself early the next morning, as he crunched through the leaves on the valley floor that Hidduk watched from the stony ridge. “These are not proper trees! Their colors are too bright, their trunks too twisted.” In truth, he longed not just for the deep pine forests of his Viking homeland, but for the great underground forests of his race. Pulling twigs and fallen leaves from his beard with one hand, he absentmindedly flipped his great war-axe in his other. Up into the air it spun, flashing in the morning sunlight. He caught it without looking.
Jorvald had been practicing the trick since he was a young lad, well before his hands had absorbed some stony protection from the caverns of his people. Of course, he had more than a few scars from his own axe, but as his father once told him, “Females love scars, my boy! But do try to inflict more on your enemies than on yourself.” His father was full of such sayings. Something about seeing the dawn in this valley and the alien smell of the leaves underfoot made Jorvald miss everyone more than usual.
However, to find and enter The Depths…that was a badge of honor among his folk. This was especially true for a young Dvergr like himself, who had barely earned the first “emergence of jewels” from his body. “Hah! I might be younger than some,” he said out loud to quell any sense of dread he might feel, “But I earned this right through skill at arms. None could stand with me, whether with axe or hammer. Or more importantly, with two kegs raised to the sky! I will kill whatever stands in my way, and come out covered with glory…and those special gems that can only be found there.” Hopefully the women of his people would appreciate that, and he’d finally earn the respect of his elders. His father would be proud of him, and to Jorvald that was almost honor enough.
Again Jorvald flipped his axe, catching the light from the newly risen sun. Polished to a mirror sheen, the blade flashed light through the autumn leaves. Perched on the ridge above, Hidduk twitched when he saw the flash of light. At least he knew he was no longer alone, no matter how stupid this companion might be for giving himself away so easily to possible enemies. It would be at least several more hours before their third companion would join them, if Hidduk had read the sun correctly, so he once again settled into a relaxed but watchful pose.
Hidduk’s senses were correct, for a few hours later, the third member of their band entered the valley. He was called Xedric, and if one were to judge a person’s power by their physical appearance, Xedric would not be accounted for much. Unlike the other members of this group, Xedric was an “Unchanged” or the less kind word, “Furless”, meaning he was one of the people whose blood and bodies were apparently untouched by the power of the Veilstorms. He clearly lacked many of the natural advantages that the Changed possessed.
However, in this world, like many others, to judge by appearance alone would be a mistake. For though Xedric seemed unremarkable, the powers that he commanded were not. He was a Senior Sentinel of the Flame Wardens, fiery mages of the Arthurian Realm. While it is true that time and the use of magic had begun to take a toll on his outer body, the flame within him roared more fiercely than ever. Members of his Order could sense that power. It scared some of them, as great power can sometimes do among those with lesser power and lots of jealousy.
If their fear bothered him, Xedric never showed it, for he was on his own mission. The Flame Warden sought something within The Depths, something that he had read of in the most secret of ancient writings. It would grant him immense power, power that he greatly desired, no matter the cost to his outer shell.
As he tramped over the soil on the valley floor, looking at the fall colors, he mused on his great purpose. “Just like the Eternal Flame that we guard,” he thought, “I want to command and therefore protect the greatest power a Flame Warden has ever known.” Xedric adjusted his travel pack as the wind swept down through the trees, telling himself that he would only use this power for the protection of his Order and the good of his Realm. However, he wasn’t sure that he truly believed that any more. Maybe he had just gotten used to reciting the line to his fellow Wardens every time the subject came up.
The Wardens opposed the very idea of this raid, and particularly the idea of Xedric entering The Depths. But nobody, not in Arthur’s Realm nor any other, was going to stop him this time. When he had first heard of Hidduk’s “Call to Arms”, Xedric had jumped at the opportunity. And when one of the other Senior Wardens disputed his right to go, citing some nonsensical and illogical notion of risking life and limb only when commanded by Arthur or the Order, Xedric did what he had done in the past: he challenged the other Warden to a duel. After his opponent wisely turned him down, Xedric was free to make his choice. And now, as he neared the arranged meeting place with Hidduk, he smiled inwardly, for he knew in his gut he had made the right decision.
While Xedric was enjoying his moment of clarity, another future member of the raiding group was thinking quite differently. While those of his race are more used to causing fear than feeling it, Sacriphisto was having a moment of doubt. He had always been a bit of a walking conundrum, for members of his race rarely choose to practice the healer’s arts. Fighters, mages, and even crafters, yes, but a healer of the Bean Sidhe? Unheard of for many generations in his family circle.
Despite all that, Sacriphisto had always felt that his special powers and abilities should not be used to harm other living beings. To him, the dark origins of his race gave him no right to spread that darkness. He had endured constant teasing growing up, but he had held onto his principles and his chosen path. Though he had been pushed to raise his Dire Scream more than once, something he could do as well as any male and most female Bean Sidhe, Sacriphisto was completely committed to the life of a healer.
When his lifespan upon this world ended, he wanted his name to be known for the people that he had healed, saved, and even protected, and not the number of souls he had taken in battle. There had to be more to this strange existence than that. Sacriphisto hoped that he could find some understanding of his own ghostly life in The Depths, for he had found it nowhere else in the world. In his life of journeying far and wide, he had found little peace. It was on one of his many journeys to the other Realms that he had heard about this raid on the legendary place of horror and secrets.
Sacriphisto scaled the steep path lined with stones like clutching fingers and thought about his first meeting with the leader of the raid, a Cait Sith called Hidduk. To his relief, Sacriphisto had sensed no evil taint from The Depths upon the Cait, so he eagerly agreed to join him. But now, as he wound his way between the brightly colored trees to approach the arranged meeting place, Sacriphisto felt new doubts assail him. “What if The Depths really is a living creature?” he thought as a pair of tussling squirrels looked up quizzically at his approach. “Do we really have the right to harm it?”
Sacriphisto was no pacifist; he was willing to fight and even die if necessary for his Realm, but as far as he knew, The Depths was not harming anyone at the moment. Perhaps it was simply a place to be left alone and not bothered. What if he harmed it, or the other Delvers harmed it, and The Depths struck back merely out of self-defense?
However, though he began to wish he had fully thought this through before agreeing to join the raid, Sacriphisto realized it was too late for him to change his mind. Not showing up or refusing to go would be unthinkable. His honor, and the reputation of his race, was at stake. People had enough reason already not to trust a Bean Sidhe. Running from this challenge with his “mist below his legs,” as his grandmother used to say, would be the worst possible outcome. Better to die in The Depths than live with that cowardly act on his conscience.
Uncertain but unyielding, Sacriphisto pushed on through the windblown forest and its carpet of leaves.
The fifth member of this group had no such reservations. While his slightly less-than-average build, even for a Luchorpán, made travelling by foot a bit slower, he made the miles go quickly with thoughts of all the loot that he was going to find in The Depths. Yes, there would be great danger there, but that was nothing compared to the fame and reputation that he would earn by accomplishing great feats of thievery and fun within it. “The Depths is just a really dangerous tomb,” he thought to himself as he bounded over tree roots, “and I’ve seen more than a few of those in my life!” He imagined coming home and walking up the steps while literally dripping with jewels and possibly an artifact or two from this magical vault.
He’d heard the stories, sure, but he was convinced that nothing in this world could be as bad as all that. He was still a very young Luchorpán, free of the hopelessness he thought he saw seeping into some of his elders’ eyes. As he leaped past a fallen log and skipped over some stones by the side of the path, he imagined himself jumping over pits, diving under the blades of enemies, and picking the locks of chests that he knew would be brimming with enough wealth to keep him and some lucky female (or two) happy for many cycles of the world. “This will be fun,” he said out loud, “No matter what, this will be fun!” Just like everyone else, he was convinced that his motives were pure, good, and true.
The final member of the group couldn’t disguise her passage through the forest, no matter how hard she tried. While she too was relatively young, her size and girth made stealthy movement difficult at best. How others of her kind found their way into professions that required silence and furtive movement puzzled her. She pushed aside two creaking saplings so she could pass, and let them snap together behind her. “I’ve only reached the second stage of my life, and look at how large I am already!” she shouted suddenly, giving up on hiding her position. “If any enemies can’t see nor hear me now, you’d have to be dead, asleep in a drunken stupor, or deaf, dumb, blind, and without any magical senses at all!”
Partly in frustration, and partly to show her fearlessness in the face of potential danger, she snapped off some dead branches, kicked a few small boulders, and skipped through the woods with a mad smile. She made more noise than a host of “Shorties” (the Jötnar term for just about everyone else) on the move. Fortunately, the only people that were anywhere nearby were already expecting her.
She was very pleased to be going on this expedition with that nice Cait. She expected to have a good time, smashing Abominations and other foul things in The Depths, but what she truly sought was knowledge. She enjoyed battle, using her prodigious size and strength to great effect, but what she most wanted from this trip to The Depths was to come back with all sorts of secrets. To truly gain the respect of her people, she needed to show them interesting things to study, decipher, and learn.
Why some of the other races thought of her people as just big, brutish thugs, she never understood. Probably simply because her race had been reborn with great size and strength through the power of the Veil. But she, like other Jötnar before her, would prove them wrong. As she crashed through the trees, she let out another exuberant shout. “Look out Depths, I am coming for you!”
As this final day passed into night, Hidduk listened to the stomping, tromping, and landscape-chewing exploits of his companions. He slowly removed himself from his state of watchful relaxation, and realized it was time to go down and greet them all. However, before he formally announced his presence, he decided to exercise caution, as was his habit, and survey the Veil. He crept away from the edge of the ridge and out of sight, and began a different meditation. He sighed as the power built in him gradually, and let out a second breath as the gateway to the Veil opened even more slowly, for it was not speed of opening he sought, but safety of opening.
After what seemed to him a bit longer than usual, the world around him began to shift. His Veil-enhanced senses felt the barrier between worlds wavering and growing thinner. And when it had grown thin enough, he walked through the barrier, and he felt it tear as one might tear a thin sheet of paper. He looked around for a sign of unusual pain from the Veil, but he sensed neither blood nor anger, as he had hoped he would not find, due to his careful summoning and tearing of the barrier.
As the companions met up in the moonlit clearing at the end of the valley, Hidduk, the Cait Sith Veilwalker, made his way down, looking for any sign of trickery. Fortunately for them, and perhaps himself, he saw no sign of any other presence in the Veil nearby. As the group exchanged greetings and salutations, Hidduk checked again, extending his senses within the Veil, but finding no sign of any contact from those people to anybody or anything in the Veil. After a few minutes, the group sat down to make a fire and prepare a meal. While they did that, Hidduk waited for the right moment to appear. As Donnie began to eat his meal, Hidduk tensed. Just when the Luchorpán took the first bite, the Cait Sith walked into the firelight.
Ever wonder how far a Luchorpán can launch himself when frightened? The answer is quite far, quite far indeed!
“It’s a shame that the tree got in the way,” Hidduk said to the gathered Delvers, “For I think he could have flown to the next valley over!” Tension left faces, and hands loosened their grip on weapons as they all laughed. A space was made for Hidduk, and they continued their meal, calling for Donnie to return to their camp.
Thus ends Part I.
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