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The Depths rumbled in anticipation, sensing the violence about to break out in its Great Gullet. All throughout the twisting tunnels and weird chambers, its servants paused and listened, feeling a shake in the tunnels and caves; signs of the excitement. Laughter bubbled up from the deep places, carrying dread magic. It echoed through the empty hallways and rolled over the rooms crawling with life, a deep, booming laugh, a fiendish delight in the blood to be spilled.
The thunderous laughter rushed over Hidduk in midair, as he leapt off the wall to the top of the stairs, his daggers outstretched in a lethal pose, his teeth showing in a snarl. The rest of the Delvers, standing at the bottom of the stairs, opened their mouths in astonishment at the Cait Sith’s sudden appearance and fearsome rage.
The thing on the stairs turned, its improbable limbs shifting, the tortuous construction of interconnected tendons and skinless cords swaying as it braced for the attack. Hidduk’s twin weapons struck home, severing strands of straining flesh with audible snaps, ruining the weird, almost hexagonal shape of the main body mass. His furry form gracefully tucked and rolled as a long, thin limb swept up from below and swiped at him in response. From his stealthy position a moment ago, he had sensed the parts of the awful, twisted creature that lay within the Veil, and anticipated these movements and attacks perfectly, coming out of his roll on the bone-white stairs, panting.
Blood spurted from the wound he had dealt to the creature, and its visible insides roiled in surprise and anger. When it spoke, the sound felt like pressure popping in the ears, a crackling, grating voice that seemed to emerge from the vibrating tendons it was made of. “A hidden fool strikes from the shadows. You shall not leave the Great Gullet!”
Hidduk flicked the foul blood from his daggers, then glanced at his companions on the bottom stair, his bright, catlike eyes wild. “Well, come on, don’t leave me to fight alone!”
Spurred to action, the other Delvers raised their weapons and rushed up the wide staircase of bone, which swept toward a small archway, the only opening in the pulsating red walls of this place.
Her long blue-skinned legs pumping, the giant Fogja rushed to the front, bringing her mighty hammer down in a swing to stave off a long, spiny leg that came at her. With a grunt of effort, she smashed it against the stairs, cracking them as white sparks flashed from her eyes. Red blood spurted out of the smashed end of the limb, and the creature pulled back with unnatural speed, letting out a screech that she had to shout over. “Never fear, fuzzy little shorty. We’re coming!”
Determined not to give the awful, impossible creature the chance to recover, Jorvald rushed past his fellow Delver and into range, his axe held high. “Stones and bones, you’re ugly! You should have stayed in the body of that poor woman!” The Dvergr bounded over the limp remains of the disguise the creature had used, now a lifeless husk discarded on the steps.
When the beast lashed out with another long, pointed limb, Jorvald took the blow on the stone outcroppings that studded his shoulder, turning it aside. Though the stones did their job, he still felt the rest of his body creak and shudder with the impact. The Dvergr rushed on, aiming his axe blow at the main cluster of wriggling, disjointed legs where they clutched at the stairs. “Raaaargh! For the Ascended!”
The flashing blade cleaved through popping strands and stalks, showering the Dvergr with a fine mist of blood. The creature reeled, furious, and screeched loud enough to shatter eardrums. Jorvald stumbled back, his stones aching.
Lower down on the staircase, Xedric tried to duck out of the way as a long, pointed leg darted out of nowhere at him, coming through the Veil itself. The Human wasn’t quick enough. The deadly spine punctured him at the shoulder, eliciting a shout of surprise and pain, then ripped out, tiny hooks carrying bits of Xedric with it. The man slumped to one knee, groaning, as the creature whipped its limb through the air, whistling past the nimbler Hidduk.
Blood spurted from Xedric’s wound as fire flickered around his fingers. The Flame Warden felt something wrong, something unclean, coursing through his veins. He watched, hypnotized for a moment, as dribbles of crimson stained the unpleasantly white stair beneath him. Xedric didn’t even feel the pain; perhaps there was some sort of numbing agent in the creature’s skin? He was too distracted to notice the other attack coming swiftly down at his head.
Fortunately, Sacriphisto was ready. The sight of his ally’s blood pushed the healer into action, and he rushed forward, magic already curling up his arms. With an effort, he pulled Xedric from danger, lifting him and bringing him a safe distance away.
“Sorry, my friend. I hesitated to attack a living creature, and now you have been hurt. I will help you.” The Bean Sidhe hovered by Xedric, and promised himself to be quicker in the future. After all, the Flame Warden had already saved him once. Although the source of the deadly power that had earlier flowed into the Human’s magic was yet to be identified… Shaking that thought from his mind, Sacriphisto used his power to pull away the blood and take the Human’s injuries onto himself instead, ignoring the lashing tentacle that smashed the stairs just out of reach.
The beast wasted no time at all in following up its attacks on the Delvers. Fogja smashed aside another of its swiftly growing limbs, while Jorvald slashed his way in deeper, both fighters battered by counterattacks. Meanwhile, Hidduk circled, dodging and weaving. Though the beast appeared to have no front or back, to not even fully inhabit this reality, the stealthy Cait Sith felt sure he had noticed a crack in its armor, an area not fully defended by its flurry of attacks…
Noticing Hidduk’s attempts to reposition, Fogja gave a shout. “Oh, ho! You want more of my hammer, beast? Take this! And that!” The powerful Jötunn laid about her with her hammer, pushing her way up the steps amid a mist of the creature’s blood.
In response, the twisted thing thrust its main body mass down toward her, jagged bones outstretched. It snapped them together like horrible teeth, and one gored the Jötnar on her side, while another dented her helmet, tossing her back. Defiant, her muscles straining, Fogja kept her feet. “That the best you can do? My little brother hits harder than that!” She shouted boldly, but her glance back at Sacriphisto belied her words, showing how much the chiseled edges of those mismatched bones hurt.
As the terrible creature leaned down to bite, Hidduk spotted the rip in its impossibly proportioned form: tendons and red, raw cords hung loosely where his daggers had slashed it open. However, even with most of its limbs occupied with other Delvers, the faceless monster could still defend itself, growing spare limbs as necessary and striking at all angles, even from within the Veil. As the Frost Giant shouted again, this time in pain, Hidduk ducked and dodged, desperate to get closer.
The Cait Sith was so intent on his target, he didn’t see the spiny limb that came out of nowhere, piercing the air and aiming straight down at him.
From the bottom of the stairs, Sacriphisto hesitated no longer. Stepping up from his human ally, the healer drew himself up to his full height, drew a deep breath, and opened his mouth. Jorvald saw what was coming and covered his ears.
The scream that erupted from the Bean Sidhe’s mouth reverberated and echoed through the hall, growing louder and louder, even drowning out the monster’s own noises. Everything was shaking, vibrating with sound, waves of it crawling over skin and humming in bones. It was a full-throated, overwhelming wail, the most powerful Dire Scream that Sacriphisto had ever produced.
The monster reeled back, shouting but unheard. Fogja stumbled on the steps, trying to stay upright, Jorvald rolled from the beast’s thrashing spines, and Xedric turned away with his arms cradling his head.
Hidduk, however, was ready. The Cait Sith winced, but he knew this was the right moment. Again he leapt, diving toward the weak spot.
He carved his way right into the opening made earlier…and through it, ending up inside the creature itself. Instantly, the beast reared up, rising to its tremendous height and shaking, crying out, “The Depths shall have you yet!”
But it was too late. Covering himself in gore, Hidduk spun, his blades shimmering as they ripped through the center of the creature’s mass. Desperately, Jorvald slammed his axe upward, severing the final cords as the beast fell.
The Dvergr let out a cheer as the thing crunched and splattered down the steps, bouncing and breaking apart. The ragged cheer was taken up by his fellows, raising their weapons and fists as the enemy was laid low and their hearing slowly returned. His Dire Scream ended, Sacriphisto simply smiled and clapped, not ready to use his throat again so soon.
Hidduk rolled from the destruction, ending up a couple stairs down. He tried to wipe some of the foulness from his armor and cloak, but it was little use. He sighed, hoping one of the magic wielders might be able to help him, and looked about. To the Cait Sith’s critical eye, none of them were doing all that well. Xedric was no longer leaning on the healer for support, but his face was drawn and pale, little wonder considering the power he had thrown around and the bright stain that still marred the shoulder of his robe. Fogja was hale but for the cut in her side, although her armor was heavily damaged, while Jorvald’s cheer and brave face did little to disguise the deep scratches and marks on his skin and stone protrusions.
Then again, they were all still alive, which was a lot more than could be said for the last raid he’d come with… “Hang on a moment with your cheering,” the Cait Sith said out loud, his nostrils flaring as he panted. “Where’s Donnie?”
Their enthusiasm faded as the Delvers glanced at one another. Xedric shook his head angrily. “Silly little fellow said he saw treasure. Went running off down some side passage, which closed up after him. No way to follow, nothing we could do, especially with you gone as well.”
Hidduk hissed out his teeth, more to calm his breathing than at Xedric. “Should have known you wouldn’t recognize my tactics, Furless. To be most effective, I need to attack unseen, alright? Don’t expect to see me all the time.” He glanced back at the enormous hall they had come through; the Great Gullet. It was eerily empty, with no sign of the twisted Abominations that had pursued them to this point. “We had better get moving, while this exit is still an option for us. Hopefully, Donnie’s tunnel will lead him to the same place. I don’t doubt the Luchorpán will come to his senses and find us.”
Jorvald grunted, then began wiping gore from his axe. “Can’t you do your thing, before we jump on through that door?”
“My thing?” The Cait Sith eyed the Dvergr quizzically, wide yellow eyes a stark contrast to his red-soaked face.
“You know, checking for danger on ahead. Your careful, cautious, Arthurian thing.” Jorvald grinned.
“I can’t just scan the Veil constantly. I need a moment to rest right now, just as you do. However, I don’t think we can afford to stay in the Great Gullet any longer, so let us hurry blindly onward… in the manner of your people.” Hidduk hid a grin as he slipped up the grand stairs. The massive, pulsating walls framed the archway at the top in a mess of hanging tendons and bone struts.
The Cait Sith’s smile faded as he read the ominous words above the archway, which had been hidden by a fold in the flesh-like walls, making them invisible until one stood upon the platform at the top of the stairs. The jagged writing looked as though it had been emblazoned with a branding iron, and read: The Collection Room.
As the other Delvers came up behind him, cleaning themselves or quickly bandaging their injuries, a small hush fell over the group. Beyond the archway there was only darkness; not even the keenest eyes among them could penetrate it. Xedric tossed forward some sparks to brighten the opening, but it seemed as though it would take more effort to lighten the place, and he wasn’t prepared to expend that much power again, just yet.
Fogja gave up trying to push out the dent in her helmet and placed it back on her head. “Well? Shall I take the lead once more?”
Jorvald grunted, pinging the side of his axe blade against one of the stones that emerged from his knee. “Hum. You might as well, big lady. I’ll take the position of ‘true danger,’ as you call it, and follow at the back.”
Fogja stifled a laugh, but stepped forward to the edge of the thick darkness that filled the other side of the archway. Without glancing back, she added, “Follow me closely. Don’t want what happened with the little one happening again.” And with that, she stepped forward and was swallowed by the dark.
The first thing she noticed was the sound. Like a crash of thunder in her ears, the Frost Giant felt rather than heard the tremendous noise of a waterfall. Though all seemed black at first, compared with the ever-present light that filled the Great Gullet, she began to see white froth and glittering dots as she stepped forward. Small droplets of water spattered the front of her armor.
She seemed to stand upon a great stone walkway, which sloped upward toward towering…somethings. Fogja reached back to steady her companions as they stumbled through the darkness to join her on the narrow stone. She looked up, and her mouth opened in wonder.
A canopy of stars, with every dot of light in a neatly spaced row. It was eerie, a star field in oppressively perfect organization, stretching up and up in tier after tier of lights.
Jorvald pushed his way forward from the back. His eyes glinted silver, able to see in this near blackness. The thunder of the falls was deafening, and he had to shout in order to be heard through the mist and mad spray. “Stay close, friends! It’s a sheer drop to the river!”
Xedric cleared his throat. It was cold: he sensed rather than saw his breath going up in a mist. “How about a little more light?” It was difficult to make a fire in here, but he called upon the heat in his chest, exhaling a stream of flickering orange that hung in the air, slowly fading.
The waterfall shimmered, droplets catching the light as they hung in the air for a moment before plunging down into the reflective pool below. The light played over the surface of the water, which seemed like a substance not quite of this world.
Xedric’s light revealed a strange place: a vast cavern filled with uncountable tiers of great shelves of stone. Down the center of the cavern, between the endlessly towering walls, an enormous underground river swept swiftly along, crashing into a giant sieve before tumbling into a dark abyss. The great sieve filtered the water, which shot through roughly, throwing up a white plume of wave as it tried to carry all along with its powerful rush. In the ever-rippling surface of the river, the stars were reflected like rows of eternal eyes, always shifting as they watched the water.
Staying together, the group of Delvers moved up the ramp, following the main pathway, which was lined with some sort of odd metal track. It led up to the shelves, where the rows of stars glittered in eternal perfection. The members of the subdued group stayed quiet as they went, but for the streamers of flame that Xedric used to light their way. All they could hear was the thunder of the deep places, where sound echoed and re-echoed until it was nothing but a thrumming mess of noise, with no beginning and no end, a wordless growling hum.
As they came close to the lowest shelf, Fogja let out a gasp of surprise. Of the Delvers, only her breath didn’t mist in the frigid air; she seemed not even to notice it. “Look! They aren’t stars at all! They’re…what are they?”
Trying to control a shiver, Hidduk pressed forward and peered at the shimmer. He saw glass, a glint of light, and something floating. “They’re jars. Enormous jars. Full of… strange things.” He looked down the row; each large jar seemed to contain a random object. Pins, eyes, limbs, a broken plank, a gleaming crown…and far enough down, was that a face, like the creatures had worn earlier? Did the things eaten in the Great Gullet end up here in the Collection Room? And who brought them here?
Sacriphisto spotted a dark opening on the wall ahead, but even as the Bean Sidhe pointed at it, the crack shriveled and shrank away. “Look! That opening was like the one Donnie went through! Perhaps the treasure he thought he saw was in here, after all?”
Jorvald sighed. “Let’s hope so. Little man shouldn’t be wandering this place by his lonesome, even if he is quick.”
As the Delvers pressed on, trying not to look too closely at the neat rows of glowing jars, Hidduk’s ear twitched. Above the roar of the water below, he thought he heard another sound, something with a mysterious source overhead. It was an odd noise…was it a hum or a series of clicks, too fast for the ear to distinguish? Hidduk stood up straight, ears high, listening intently. The sound was coming back closer, but also moving laterally, side to side… Almost like something moving along the shelves up there. Sorting and choosing, curating the massive collection.
“Hold, friends,” he whispered, furry hand held high. The other Delvers stopped, looking at the Cait Sith. “There’s something up there.”
Hidduk was right. There, in the dark, the Collector waited, but not idly. No, the Collector was never still; constantly rearranging, cataloguing, organizing the endless containers and obsessing over them. Perhaps he had once been a Delver, seeker of curios, now become a slave to the Depths, a guardian forever trapped in his treasure house. Perhaps he was simply an expression of this place, a vestige of a soul that kept track of things lost within its living bowels. Whatever the truth, as the Collector rolled along his track, the gears that had replaced his abdomen spinning madly, he mused upon his latest acquisitions. With one long, spindly arm, he sorted, labeled, and catalogued the small dagger, discarded clothing, and little shoes he had collected from the small creature that had come here, trying to make off with some of the gold and silver. Quite a jumper, that one…
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