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The gathered Delvers broke camp quickly the next morning, which dawned grey and cold, unlike the previous pleasant weather. Hidduk nodded his furry head in the direction they had to go; further up the valley and above the ridge, to the cave where he had found an entrance. A gateway into the Depths could prove hard or even impossible to find, but Hidduk had spent the time and the effort to seek this portal into darkness, and that was partly why these Delvers followed him. It had been a dangerous search, with many setbacks, ever since the last known entrance had disappeared; but the Cait Sith was not fool enough to expect it to be easy. He suspected that several of his companions that had joined the raid did not understand this, yet.
So Hidduk mused to himself as he silently led the way up the steep track. Jorvald followed close behind, pushing upward with his stone-infused legs. He didn’t mind the climb, as it was natural for him. Indeed, he was looking forward to the cave that Hidduk had mentioned over the fire last night. It would be good to get out of this fall air and into a place that felt a little more like home, whatever terrors might lie in the Depths.
One by one, the others followed. The slight Luchorpán Donnie bounded lightly up the trail, repeating his promises to himself from the day before. The odd-looking Human Xedric followed cautiously behind while chatting with the gliding Sacriphisto, and the tall, powerful Jötnar brought up the rear of the Delvers, looming over them all with her wide grin.
Once they had climbed for nearly an hour, Hidduk waved at them all to stop. The track had narrowed, and he clung to the rocky side of the mountain with his claws. “Hold, for a moment. I will check for dangers ahead and behind.”
The rest of the Delvers paused, watching him, or glancing down at the valley that now lay far below. They were not nervous–not for anything that lay outside the mysterious place of legendary horror that they were heading for.
Hidduk would have preferred not to have anyone looking when he did this, but at the moment it couldn’t be helped on the narrow trail. As before, he went into his meditations and sought safety of opening, gently tearing the Veil. He searched for signs of activity, or sources of pain in the Veil, but found only one. It was coming from the cave that he knew lay above.
Pulling away and closing the opening he had created, Hidduk nodded to his companions once more. “We are almost there, and it seems that we are alone, for now. Be ready, Delvers. We will soon come to the door.”
When they reached the cave, they found it dusty and disused. There was no sign of who might have hollowed it out, or carved the only path that reached this lonely place. Something about the air was foul, and filled with the dust kicked up by their entrance. Along the far wall of the cave, there was a smooth space like a wide stone step or a low altar, flanked by a pair of grinning statues. Even in the gloom, Sacriphisto could see that there was something off about the appearance of the statues. It looked like the sculptor had drawn from images of individuals that had been maimed by terrible torture, then healed. He hid it well, but even as a Bean Sidhe, the healer was unnerved. It was like a perversion of his art made into solid form.
Between the statues there was a tremendous door, rising from floor to ceiling of the cave. Dust and shadow made it difficult to see, but the door was heavily carved with shapes and images that could not quite be discerned at first, until the Delvers moved closer. Then it became much easier, as the eyes of the things carved on the door began to light up, one by one, in time with the footsteps of the Delvers that brought them closer.
Like the statues, the carvings on the door appeared ordinary at first, simply scenes of daily life covering a broad variation of races and creatures. However, every character depicted on the door wore a smile that was too wide, even as they walked into situations that were about to turn deadly–pits of spikes, hangman’s nooses, or a freakish slaughterhouse full of knives. Even as they stepped into death, the face-stretching grin never left the face of any creature, even animals that could not normally make such an expression.
The cavern lit up with the strange glow of the eyes of these many creatures carved into the mighty stone and metal door. It was an eerie sight, the mad joy on the faces of the creatures that were shown there. Their eyes focused their light on certain parts of the chamber, making Jorvald’s axe shine with their weird light. There was something hypnotic about the images. The glowing eyes seemed to shift under the viewer’s gaze, and made it hard to look away without feeling dizzy.
Hidduk watched the faces of the Delvers that had followed him here. He was looking for any alarming signs, for his life might well lie in the hands of these folk. The Jötnar woman stood staring over the heads of the others, her jaw set firmly as though she were wondering if she could smash down this eerie door. Hidduk saw no danger there. Little Donnie was smiling wryly, a gleam in his eye as though the more frightening the obstacle, the greater the reward that must lie beyond. Hidduk would have to do his best to keep that one from running off on his own. Xedric and Sacriphisto were enigmatic, impossible to read; while Jorvald, for his part, had turned from the door in defiance, and was examining the stonework of the statues.
“Odd work, this,” The Dvergr muttered through his beard. “This was not done with the tools I know. Oh well, I’m no craftsman, anyhow…hmm. Wish I had some nice mushroom beer to toast us good luck…”
Hidduk decided that Jorvald would probably be alright, for the most part. The Cait Sith scratched his furry face and cleared his throat. No one reacted. He tried again. Still, everyone was absorbed in the weird, almost beautiful, yet subtly disturbing images before them. Finally, Hidduk resorted to smashing his blade against a nearby stone. Everyone jumped.
“What–!” Cried Xedric, spinning and calling power to his fingertips. Crimson flames licked up his wrists and arms, flooding the cave with heat. Hidduk took a step back from his fellow Realm-mate. After a moment, Xedric dismissed the flames, leaving the smell of charcoal behind in the dry air. “Ah, I am sorry, friend. I was examining this strange door, and thinking of my…of what lies beyond it. Never fear, I shall save my power for my enemies, not allies.”
Hidduk nodded in response, but his ear twitched. This Flame Warden would be one to watch. “Very well. Let us then test our mettle. I have come this way before, and have solved the riddle of this dark place, for now.”
Sacriphisto stepped forward, eying the Cait Sith quizzically. “What do you mean?”
With a silent, swift flick of his wrist, Hidduk pulled out a small knife, plain but sharp-looking on its curved edge. “Like so many sources of power in this world, entering the Depths by this door requires a sacrifice.” Suiting action to his words, he sliced open the pad on his palm and allowed his blood to pool between his fingers, then pour onto the flat stone in front of the door, lit by the glowing eyes.
Hidduk passed the knife to Donnie, who took it with barely any hesitation. The little man chose the side of his wrist instead of his delicate hands, letting the blood flow. One by one, they each cut into their hand or arm, allowing blood to trickle from the wound. Where the crimson droplets fell, dust rose from the stone, twisting and writhing like living smoke.
A rumbling came from the door as the smoke rose before it, and a metallic smell flooded the cave. The lights flickered; the carvings on the door blinked, sending a cascade of rippling glitter through the dust that had risen. Then, the doors flew open, pulled inward with great force. A sucking wind roared, pulling the Delvers to the darkness beyond the doors. Tumbling and crashing, shouts lost in the howl of the wind, they were thrown helplessly through, and the doors slammed shut behind them like powerful jaws.
The faces of the carvings on the door seemed to laugh, though no one was there to see them in the empty cavern. Their brightly glowing eyes winked out, one by one.
Large and small Delvers were equally helpless in the torrent of wind that pummeled them through the dark. Then, just as suddenly as it had begun, the tornado stopped. They fell down some stairs, banging painfully on the edges. It was a narrow tunnel, plunging steeply downward.
The nimble Donnie was first on his feet. “Ow. Well, here we are. We have entered the Depths! Time to find some treasure!”
The others were far less lively, muttering and rubbing bruises as they dragged themselves to their feet. Though there was an odd, pale glow that came from the steps themselves, Xedric sparked a fire, and lit a torch that he produced from his pack. So, they had light, and were able to examine where they had ended up so painfully.
Outside, it had been a cold, wet day, that looked toward the coming winter; in here, it was strangely warm and uncomfortable, despite the wind that still tickled their heels from time to time, constantly reversing direction. Behind them there was darkness, where they had come from; ahead, the staircase plunged down, past where their eyes could reach.
The stairs themselves were bone-white, luminescent even in the light of Xedric’s torch. Perhaps it was the flickering flames, but the stairs seemed to bend and shift in a disturbing ripple motion. The walls were a crimson color, like the blood the Delvers had just spilled to enter. Hidduk pointed one claw from his dark cloak at the small scratches that lined the uneven walls. “Those were made by others who came before.”
His voice echoed down the hollow tunnel that plunged into the darkness like an open throat. No one answered, but it might have been because they were quickly binding their wounds and preparing to move on.
“I’ll take the lead, for the moment,” said Jorvald at last. “Never let it be said that a Dvergr who drinks first was loath to walk first!”
The Jötnar snorted. “Any of the Viking Realm would say the same, but I shall take the position of true danger, as I did on the trail coming here!” She stepped to the rear of the group and pushed her heavy helmet over her head. The gleaming hammer that she raised was massive.
Sacriphisto shook his head, wondering if these two would bicker the entire time. Ever since last night, when one of the Vikings had challenged the other to an eating or drinking contest (he couldn’t remember which), the two fighters had been at odds to see who could best the other in a physical contest. To the Bean Sidhe, the question of the Depths’ nature was far more pressing…
Jorvald grunted, then set off down the eerie stairs, his hand hovering close to his axe. He was followed closely by the others, their dusty boots muddying the pristine white of the steps.
Occasionally, Hidduk reached out and marked the wall with a knifepoint, adding to the silent tally of Delvers that had come this way. It felt almost like a duty to him, a record of the lives risked in the Depths.
The stairs went down and down, gradually flaring out in organic shapes. They looked just like vertebrae that went on forever.
It wasn’t until they came to some muddy bootprints that Jorvald realized that it was going on forever. He let out a curse and held up his stone-encrusted hand for a halt. “These bootprints! Hel’s bells, we’ve been here before!”
Hidduk craned his neck around the wide Dvergr and took a look for himself. “Yes, I see…Those are our footprints, indeed. I’d recognize your heavy tread anywhere.”
Xedric let out an annoyed snort, sending a spiral of flame from one nostril. “Hm! So these stairs are looping back on one another, somehow. Strong magics.”
The Bean Sidhe hovered at his elbow. “That, or something subtle, something we aren’t noticing…”
“Ah, you sound like my granddad,” Donnie snorted, slipping between them. “If you’re going to chat and puzzle over this all year, we’ll look as old as he is before you’re done. I have a feeling there are far worse things waiting for us, further in. I say, let’s go and find ‘em, Donnie’s way!” And with that he jumped, far and high, right off the steep stairs and into empty space.
Gasps went up from the group as the small figure went sailing down into the blackness, his red hair streaming behind him. As he disappeared, there came a thunderous swallowing noise, and the walls of the stairwell rippled. A wind came up like a satisfied sigh, stinking of hot metal.
The other companions looked at one another. Xedric snapped his fingers, sending a shower of white sparks down the stairs after the Luchorpán, but the light revealed no sign of him.
Sacriphisto muttered, “So, this place… is swallowing us. It truly is alive.”
“Hel preserve us…” Jorvald muttered as he hefted his axe and stepped down a few stairs. He glanced over his shoulder at the rest.
The Jötnar at the rear grinned back at him. “Well, shorties, are you going to let the little one with the long fingers outdo us all? Clearly, we must venture deeper into this strange place if we are to find what we’re looking for. Hup!” She pushed her way to the front of the line and bent deeply at the knees.
“Just a moment, let us go in an orderly–” Cautious Hidduk tried to stop her, but there was simply no way he could. Straightening with a rush, the Jötnar woman flew into the air, a mighty leap into the unknown.
The darkness closed around them as the rest of the Delvers followed. As if in a strange dream, they found the walls closing in as they accelerated, slick with some sort of fluid, slowing and controlling their fall. The walls shifted as they continued on, and the pale, luminescent material of the stairs disappeared. Instead, the floor became endless mechanical pipes threaded like glistening metal intestines, but covered in smooth glass.
They were swallowed, squeezed down by the thrumming pipe that moved its transparent surface like flesh. Wherever it touched their bodies, it rippled as if in ecstatic pleasure. Xedric’s torch went out, and the only light came from grinning faces that appeared behind the rippling glass walls, watching. They flashed by as the Delvers fell, deeper and deeper, down and down into the Depths.
This wasn’t so bad, not so bad a start at all…for the Depths, Hidduk thought as he plunged downward. Certainly a less violent beginning than the last raid he had been part of. However, a fear gripped him. This tunnel they slid down would be impossible to climb back up. Once they each had what they came for, whether glory or treasure, secrets or something else…how were they going to leave?
As if sensing that Hidduk had begun to realize his plight, the glowing faces that were flashing by appeared to laugh, watching him wriggle and squirm.
And so they all fell toward the Great Gullet, one of the most dangerous locations they could have started, in this place of legendary horror. Though the Delvers did not know it, far down below there were Abominations already feeling their approach, quivering in bizarre anticipation. They began growing faces to match the Delvers that were approaching, familiar skin stretched over misshapen bodies. There, in the darkness, mouths devoured one another in endless cycles of eternal hunger, their excitement growing…
Thus ends Part 2.
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