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No matter how the Delvers scratched, slammed, or slashed at the thing that gulped them down, the glowing faces behind the semi-transparent walls merely laughed. Mocking the Delvers silently, it seemed, for their helpless tumble into the Great Gullet.
The thunderous swallowing threw the six of them into that strange place, a place that stank of something unknown. It was a harsh odor; acidic and metallic, yet oddly sweet; a pungent scent of something once delicious, now rotting. Like pillars lining a grand hallway, ridges of white material like bone lined the walls at regular intervals. Between these, the crimson walls stretched and strained rhythmically with a unpleasant rippling sound. Above, crisscrossing bridges arched, woven of pulsating, straining cords like tendons. Everything appeared to be in motion, ever so slightly, making it seem as though something always lurked at the corner of the eye.
Ahead of the rest, Donnie took all of this in with a brief smile, then hopped out of the way, sensing his larger companions close behind. Unless he missed his guess, the big Frost Giant woman would be next, eager to prove her bravery. She might be a good one to have along when he finally discovered his treasure; she looked like she could carry a mountain of gold!
This time, he hoped, most of the Delvers were prepared for the sudden disorientation of being expelled into another room. The circular exit from the infinite stair should allow them to tumble, roll, and come to stand on this small platform of smooth, pale material that overlooked the eerie hall. That is, if they were as nimble as a Luchorpán. He wanted to see how they handled it.
Just as Donnie had expected, the first one through was the big Jötnar woman, struggling to maintain her balance as she was shot out of the valve. She stumbled with a crash, then picked herself up and came to stand next to the Luchorpán, looming over him as she peered into the murky hallway, all straining tendons and twisted bone.
“Well, that’s quite a sight,” she grunted thoughtfully, and glanced at the ancient runes that were carved around the porous edge of the platform. As she translated the words in her mind, she could hear others arriving behind her, from Jorvald’s heavy thud to Hidduk’s nimble patter. “What do you think we’ll find in this place…this Great Gullet, my little Donnie?”
The Luchorpán turned, then reached up and patted her knee. “Hoping for treasure or a clue to it, my big, uh, hmm…” He scratched the side of his face for a moment, then lit up with a new smile. “I don’t know your name!”
The big woman glanced nervously back at where the others were getting their bearings, then muttered, “That’s no accident; I didn’t want Jorvald to hear my true name. He might not…react well. But you may call me Fogja.”
Donnie laughed aloud, then stifled himself with both long-fingered hands as he attracted the attention of the others. “Alright, my big Fogja. Now let’s really get moving. See that bridge just below us, that continues into the gullet? I’m pretty sure I could jump to that, and from there…” As if struck by another thought, he looked up at her and added, “Does Fogja mean something in the common tongue? Like ‘lumbering loudmouth’? I heard you coming up the valley outside from miles away!”
The Frost Giant rolled her eyes. “No, but when it comes to being a loudmouth, I think you’ve got that role mastered perfectly.”
“Right, are we all here?” said Hidduk, counting the Delvers off as he rearranged his cloak over his fur. Though the stealthy Cait Sith kept his voice even, his irritation with something or someone could be seen in the twitching of his tail. “Xedrik, Sacriphisto…good. Now, can we at least try to stay together as a group and proceed in an orderly manner?”
Hovering just above the floor, the Bean Sidhe Sacriphisto began to agree with Hidduk, but was interrupted as a loud snap came from below them, shaking the platform. Alarmed, the Delvers looked at one another, while Donnie attempted to lean over the edge and ascertain what was going on. Fogja grabbed onto the back of his shirt to steady the Luchorpán, but he was already backing away in alarm.
While the Delvers had been collecting themselves on the platform, the denizens of the Great Gullet had not been idle. Scurrying, crawling, or pulling themselves to the base of the twisted tendon pillar that held the platform in place, they had begun chewing, their disjointed mouths open wide. There was something wrong with their faces, as well…
As he reeled back onto the shaking platform, it was all Donnie could do to yell “Their faces! They’ve grown our… faces! Brace yourselves!” before another loud snap screamed across the Great Gullet. The platform they stood on shuddered, twisted…and dropped.
It was a sickening fall, made more so as the platform bounced on the spongy floor of the Great Gullet, scattering the group. They tumbled or rolled into the fight, now standing on an uneven, perforated surface, red and rippling like the walls. Along with everything else in this place, the floor shifted and moved unexpectedly, like a living thing.
Even as he was tossed into the air, Hidduk snarled and lashed out, making a thickly tentacled Abomination nearby leap backward. He needed some space to slip into hiding.
Xedric kept his feet, calling up a burst of fire to rip apart the Abomination that rose up before him. Then he hesitated; he saw himself. Well, it had his face, but all wrong, stretched over mandibles and an insect-like exterior. His own face, grinning madly, as though he’d found the power he had been looking for, after all these years. His feet, unconsciously finding the best purchase for combat from decades of training, slowed their pace. Though it was attached to a thing of horror, he found his resolve to destroy his own face weakening, caught as it was in a joyous expression of satisfaction.
Oddly enough, the insect-like Abomination with Xedric’s face didn’t immediately pounce upon the fire mage. Even as his steps slowed with a deadly lethargy, it didn’t snap its mandibles shut around him. It didn’t try to devour his flesh and bones. Instead, as his own mouth opened, a weird ripple of faintly gleaming energy began to flow from him to the creature. Still he hesitated, feeling as though he had forgotten something…
Xedric blinked in surprise as thunder rose from the dark corners of the Great Gullet. It was as though the gigantic hallway was laughing. Although it seemed he could do nothing with the knowledge, Xedric began to realize that the true power of the place was the lethargic feeling its magic induced; a sense of complacency that crept up the feet, through the legs, and into the back. Xedric quickly glanced around, and noticed that heads were already nodding on Donnie and the stone-studded Dvergr Jorvald, while even the massive Fogja moved more slowly, shaking herself to try and remain awake. For some reason, though he wanted to help them, he couldn’t quite remember why he should bother. What did any of this have to do with him, again? There had been something that he dreamed of having, but what was it? The Dream Eater had taken it, for the Great Gullet was hungry.
As the strange thunder rolled over them, everything began to feel more confused. Sacriphisto took up position behind the others, shaking his head to clear it. It was as though everything was out of focus. The Bean Sidhe healer rushed to Xedric and called up some power, trying to cure the fire mage of this deadly effect that slowed him and left him open to the hungry Abomination.
Meanwhile, Jorvald struck forward, cutting a wriggling Abomination in half before it could hope to pierce him with its many long stingers. Spraying ichor from his axe, the Dvergr whirled, stepping from the wreckage of the tendon pillar onto the spongy red surface of the hallway floor. He was ready for the next one; an otherworldly, twisted thing that wore his face, as though a poor crafter had half-finished his likeness in flesh. Jorvald turned so that the Abomination’s claws would bounce off his stone studs. He hefted his gleaming axe as the claws scratched at him, ready to cut this monster that wore a mockery of his face…and then, suddenly, his thoughts stopped making sense.
It started at the Dvergr’s feet, and spread up his stone-studded legs; fear, washing over him like a freezing ocean. Thunder vibrated in his stone bones like a storm in the deep part of his mind. There had never been anything like this in his thoughts before; an empty place where his courage should be. He watched with nothing but mind-blanking horror as the warped, fleshy thing grinned at him, almost choking on the flood of energy that poured like ephemeral gas from the shallow scratches that had missed his stones and hit his skin. The courage that he relied upon to take action was draining away.
Internally, Jorvald fought the feeling, struggling to attack again. He had always been brave. He only needed to find the next wordless movement of his own thoughts, the next action that his strong right arm could take. He couldn’t move, couldn’t speak, couldn’t act, not because he was physically prevented but because he didn’t want to; not simply because he felt fear, but because he could not find the will to move. It was painfully strange to be missing his main motivating force, the desires that he had always kept close to his heart; to survive and thrive through his bravery and boldness, out in this world full of adventure. Ever since his father had told him to behave himself and watch the tournament of champions that wielded axe and hammer so well, ever since he had been a small Dvergr all wide-eyed and unknowing, he had wanted to achieve things through his bravery. Whether it was beer, food, women, gold, or simply life, all of those concerns, wants, and needs were quite distant from him now, impossibilities. He could not find the courage to break the hold this thing had on him.
Even his natural competitive nature did not push him onward, for the Dvergr only the fear of losing and none of the courage he needed to show his prowess. He felt empty now. So much of his life depended on this one thing, this one element of his character. He could do nothing, even as the deformed creature wearing his face drew nearer and nearer. The Courage Eater would not let go. The Great Gullet was devouring him.
At the same moment, Sacriphisto completed the flickering magic that freed Xedric from the curse of this place. Snapping awake, the Flame Warden ripped the thing that faced him in twain with a gout of fire that blazed as hot as his sudden anger. The halves toppled to the ground, leaking the dreams that the creature had pulled from him, but Xedric had no time to look at the disconcerting images the energy was forming.
He had remembered his dreams of power, and muttered a quick thanks to Sacriphisto as he stepped back. Xedric had a new idea, a thought lighting up inside him; it would take him a moment to prepare something powerful enough, but with all the magic the Great Gullet was throwing around, he might be able to redirect that power, and try something new. A smile played across the Flame Warden’s lips as the burning runes formed in his mind. Yes, this could work.
For his part, Sacriphisto nodded an acknowledgement, and panted, holding up a hand. He definitely felt the effects of his efforts in taking Xedric’s hurts on himself.
Panting, he glanced around to see most of his fellow Delvers trapped by these hungry Abominations. Suddenly, as mysterious thunder like laughter rolled through the shaking, rippling Great Gullet, it all seemed hopeless. It was hopeless. As the feeling crept up his hovering legs and through his back, the Bean Sidhe let his arms fall to his sides. He could not heal these people, who had no hope of survival.
It was not that the Bean Sidhe felt despair, something his people had long ago forsworn; he simply could not see a reason to continue his healing work. They had been caught too early, and too well; there was nothing he could do. Inside his mind, there was an empty space where his hope had been. Pointless, pointless to continue struggling against a trap sprung so well. Shaking his head sadly, Sacriphisto turned around–right into his own face, grinning madly back at him, though surrounded by a halo of wriggling eyestalks. A current of shimmering energy was flowing straight from a numbed wound in his back into the mouth of the thing that wore his face. For a moment, he struggled to reach out and fight back against this thing, but then with a kind of half-shrug, he stopped. When he had no hope of beating it, he wondered why he should bother. He simply turned back around, merely out of curiosity, to see how the others would give their lives. The Hope Eater had him, and the Great Gullet laughed and laughed, the sound thrumming through its victims.
The Bean Sidhe felt a flicker of surprise in the growing hole of his emotions when he saw that somehow, by dint of quick attacks and mean strength, both Donnie and the giantess had fought their way to Xedric. A pair of gutted Abominations lay on the quivering floor, their fleshy masks dissolving.
While the Jötnar stood guard, Donnie seemed to be aiding Xedric with his magic somehow. Flickering sparks appeared in the air around the previously unremarkable Human, whose eyes glowed with the words of power that he spoke. Sacriphisto couldn’t even muster a shrug at their pathetic attempt to fight back.
The sparks began to spin, streaking hot orange around Xedric’s head. For another long moment, his fiery crown whirled in time with the fierce conflagration he held in his hands. He seemed to be waiting for something.
When the rolling laughter of the Great Gullet rumbled up the hallway once more, carrying the deadly magic of the Depths, the Senior Flame Warden was ready. He grinned, his teeth flashing white in the flickering light. With a roar that built upon the echoing laughter of this place, the sparks burst and flew out, streaking bright through the air. The hot missiles thrummed with power, glowing brighter and brighter as they arrowed in toward their targets.
As the nearby Abominations were struck, they cried out in shock and pain, the fire catching hold. Flesh sizzled and charred away, and the creature’s cries became horrific screams, rising higher and higher to the point of pain.
Sacriphisto and Jorvald shook themselves and looked on in surprise, blinking at the writhing monsters. Something began to emerge from the twisted things, spewing from their pores like mist. From the thing that appeared to wear Jorvald’s face, the glowing energy formed another visage in the air, with stern eyes that stared down at him. The Dvergr shuddered, shaken to his core; this was the face of his father. As it faded, the energy flowed back into him. Jorvald felt his courage return, yet dirtied somehow, as if he were not quite whole. He gritted his teeth and clutched his axe, promising himself never to let that happen again.
For his part, Sacriphisto could only stare at the thing that had tried to consume him. As the energy swirled from the burning, twitching thing, the glow coalesced into a woman’s visage. He looked away as she stared at him, the shimmering mist flowing back to the Bean Sidhe. Donnie heard him whisper, “No. Not her.”
The fires burned hotter and hotter, feeding off the Depths magic that Xedric had used. The flickering energies released by the Abominations’ deaths faded like smoke, leaving cinders and ash behind.
“Ha! Well done!” Fogja roared her appreciation and slapped Xedric on the shoulder, nearly knocking him prone. “Those things are done for, and the way is clear! Now, where did that shorty with the fur go off to?”
Sacriphisto cleared his throat. “I don’t know, but we need to move quickly. There are more of them coming.” He glanced upward, and the others followed his gaze to see long tentacles emerging from high on the wall where the platform had been. Sacs of straining organic material rose, peeling away from ill-formed heads and creating new masks that looked like the Delvers. “It’s only a question of which direction. Down the hallway?”
Kicking at the smoldering ash pile which was all that remained of the thing that had nearly devoured him, Jorvald started to mutter something about how he’d been about to break out of it, then added, “Come on then. Down we go, along…what did those runes say at the entrance? Down the Great Gullet we go.”
With that, he turned and began to hustle away, closely followed by the other Delvers. However, as they crossed into a deeper section of this place, Donnie’s voice rang out.
“Wait…look!” Heads turned in the Luchorpán’s direction. Donnie’s eyes were as round as coins, wide and staring in shock and delight. “The gold…the silver! Hahaha! I’m going to be rich. Come on, before they get away!” And off he ran, bounding easily over some sharp white spines that clustered near the path.
“Hang on a moment, Donnie!” Fogja called after him, but the little man hurled himself into a shadowy doorway and was gone. Before anyone could follow, the archway folded in on itself and disappeared.
“Breath of the ice dragon, what’s going on here!?” Xedric growled, his voice still hoarse from speaking the burning words of power that had blasted their enemies. “We can’t be losing members at this rate!”
“No time,” Sacriphisto reminded him. The Bean Sidhe glanced back at the horde of Abominations regrowing from the walls, floor, and roof of the Great Gullet. “More of those disgusting tentacles and pincers. They are coming to consume us again!”
So they ran on, hoping to find both missing Delvers in another passage.
The hallway narrowed and came to a final dark archway. An exit, it seemed, from this awful place of devouring Abominations.
Leading up to it was a broad staircase of bone, rising with macabre elegance and startling white contrast from the red, writhing floor of the Gullet. In the center of the sweeping staircase stood a Human woman in a red dress, eyes downcast.
“Hello there! Be you friend or foe?” Called Fogja hopefully, but there was no response to her or the approach of the Delvers. The woman only bent forward further, her long hair trailing.
The Delvers paused, uncertain. Xedric stepped forward onto the bottom stair. “Well, at least she isn’t waving tentacles or pincers at us.” He glanced back and smirked. “I know that’ll make the healer more comfortable.”
As if in response, the woman doubled over still further, coughing and choking. Something began to grow from her bare neck, a long spire of bone that was quickly joined by others. Like the empty husk that it was, the woman’s corpse began to drop to the ground as the impossibly large thing emerged with strangely ponderous grace.
As Xedric’s mouth went wide, Sacriphisto swept forward past his companions with an annoyed glance at the Human. “I do not fear you, creature! Beware, for in the defense of my friends I shall wreak terrible destruction upon you!”
Though it seemed slow because of its size, the beast that came forth actually moved with deadly speed. Before anyone could do more than ready their weapons, it had burst out.
The thing made no sense in this reality. Though built of raw, twisted ropes of skinless flesh, its main body mass was shaped almost like a hexagon, standing upon far too many long, sharp legs and spines. It hurt the eyes to look at; parts of it seemed to lie within the Veil entirely, extensions of the interconnected struts and tendons of the structure that hummed with uncomfortable life. It was simply incomprehensible, except in the only way that anything here was comprehensible; as a living embodiment of horror. As it walked or hustled up the stairs to block the archway, it rocked from side to side, almost bounding on its awkward corners. Though it had no face or even a recognizable front, it thrust what must have been its maw forward, showing jagged bones that passed for teeth.
Sacriphisto watched, eyes wide with horror, as the repulsive thing hoisted itself upward, dribbling unnameable fluid onto the pristine white steps.
The noise it made when it spoke was awful, a grinding wet growl barely within the threshold of hearing. “No, you won’t, Sacriphisto. I know you. I am, after all, alive.”
Unseen by all in the shadows to the side of the stairs, Hidduk sighed silently. He gripped his daggers tight, preparing himself. This moment had come far sooner than he would have liked, but he could delay no longer. It was time to make his move.
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