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Where does evil begin? In the heart, yearning for something it should not? In the hands, eager to do wrong? Or does the source lie in something else, somewhere else, a supernatural force that reaches out to clutch at the innocent, miring them and remaking them as Innocents — No Longer? In the Depths, the questions are one and the same, for to exist in its dark, twisted reality is to lose all innocence in the face of its malevolent evil.
The Delvers, pausing before the inscrutable gate with its mysterious, ancient writing, had begun to understand this truth. Transfixed beneath the Collector’s piercing, earsplitting screech from high above, they felt like wriggling, helpless insects skewered on a table.
Or so the Collector assumed. As it turned out, spending so much time in this dark, dangerous place had raised all the Delvers’ nerves to the highest pitch. Even as he launched forth his wriggling metal coils of limbs and the Depths erupted with answering tentacles below, the Delvers moved to counterattack.
With one furious glance at the plummeting enemy, Jorvald swept up his axe, scarred from the battles already fought here, holding it in readiness to connect with the Collector’s strange metallic parts once more. He was bolstered at the same moment by a swelling power, a glow that shimmered about him and his weapon, increasing his destructive potential.
The Human Xedric had already learned how far down he could fall and still be himself; there was nothing that could surprise him now. He sent curling flames hissing through the air, lighting the broad stone dais and the ancient, crumbling steps in a flare of orange fire.
The Collector saw all of this in but a moment as he fell. The foul air rushed with him, teeth exposed in points of light, a cloudlike tangle of arms reaching, crushing, grabbing, all the rage and twisted hate of his existence coiled into twin springs.
A twisting, metallic finger whistled by his head as Donnie leaned back to avoid the blow, eyes round and wide. He had attained what he had come for; now for the fun of escaping! The Luchorpán sent another hissing pulse of magic through the air toward Jorvald, as if to say, quicker than words, attack now! The magic rippled and expanded along Jorvald’s axe, making it shimmer. The Dvergr glanced down and grinned.
Using some power unknown to the others, he caused the stone to shift beneath his feet, throwing him upward even as the attacks came crashing down. His axe, swinging with terrific force, smashed into an uncoiling cluster of the Collector’s limbs, exploding in such a shower of vivid sparks that for a moment he was hidden from view.
Fogja, for her part, felt on the brink of understanding the secret she had sought in the Depths; that the mistakes of past battles meant nothing. Everything you know, everything you thought you understood, you have to let go; and in its place, you must write your soul anew, darker and harder, a shimmering gem through which the eye can view the truth.
The frost giant twisted, her hammer slamming through the air and crackling with lightning. A thunderous rumble sounded as she hit home on a writhing coil of metal limbs that had burst from the ground at the Collector’s call. Her attack sent shockwaves of lightning and sound that splintered the metal and nearly destroyed the cluster of deadly cables.
His way now clear, the Bean Sidhe Sacriphisto howled his own Dire Scream, and called forth the energies that kept his companions safe. He was finally certain; certain not of answers, but of his question. It was not the strength of their arms or their convictions that must be decided, but who they and the mysterious denizens of this place would become. Their identities and characters would be altered forever–but as servants of darkness, or its enemy?
Forcing his healing influence to reverse its flow, Sacriphisto sent a ripple of power through the nearest limb that stuck down like a bolt of steel lightning from above. Empowered by the gleeful chaos of the living Depths, it shot up and through the Collector’s torso, reacting with whatever blood was left in his mangled body. A discolored liquid burst from the screaming figure, splashing against the great stone archway as he continued to come crashing downward.
Hidduk slipped away, as if blown by the wind of the attacks into the shadows. He was far more used to being the ambusher than the ambushed, and he knew this quality of his alone had not changed; for it seemed that everything else about him had. This, he knew in his soul, is the darkest secret of the Depths. That through the horror, the touch of true, pure evil, a new and stronger soul can be made. Like hammers beating steel in a furnace, the thrumming heartbeat of our worst fears and desires forces a new shape, a new existence.
When the creature hit the dais, his fury split the stone, making a great crack appear, and threatening to tip the Delvers from their feet.
One of them, however, was steady enough on that surface to attack again. With a wordless roar in place of a battlecry, Jorvald lowered his head, and the stone along his shoulders and back lined up to form a battering ram shape, while he held the point of his axe forward to form a piercing nose. Then the Dvergr charged. Stone rippled and cracked where each foot fell, and as he rushed forward, stone seemed to rush forward with him like an oncoming wave, sweeping into a concentrated blow.
Ramming into the enemy, already damaged and off balance, Jorvald managed to send the awful creature skidding over the stone, striking sparks and clicking. Gears and ichor alike flew from his wounds, and the screaming attack was cut short as the Collector managed to stop himself at the brink of the dark abyss. He turned, just enough of his mangled visage left to express desperation.
The Collector’s torso teetered on the edge, shaking in twisted rage, shrieking and hissing without forming recognizable words. So loud was the cacophony that as his stone protections crumbled, Jorvald was forced to hold his hands over his ears, eyes almost crossing as the waves of vibrating noise washed over him.
Once again, Hidduk told himself, it was up to him to strike the finishing blow. The Cait Sith sprang from hiding and spread his arms wide. Still recovering from the onslaught of attacks, the Delvers looked up in surprise as a hiss escaped their companion’s lips, his eyes glittering as he flew through the air. The shadows seemed to cling to him and peel away in dark waves, while his tattered cloak billowed behind him like the wings of a misbegotten angel.
The Depths themselves seemed to propel Hidduk forward, and the howl of rage that burst from his throat, startling the enemy, covered the whistle of his daggers as they descended, flashing in the firelight. There was a shriek of metal on metal, and the click of gears rattling together.
Shivering, the Collector glanced at the his ruined arms. They fell from his slashed and crushed shoulders, twitching. Unbalanced at the edge of the utter dark and the fall to the river, he leaned back on his central wheel. He had not failed. He smiled, and would have winked at his destroyer but for the bright edge of the cliff that rushed up and whisked the scene from view as he let it all go. The Depths would swallow him up, take him into its dark heart once again, only to be reborn for more exquisite pains and horrific delights.
“There,” Hidduk grunted, panting with exertion as the Collector fell. “That’s the end of that. And now for new beginnings…” As he turned back to the others, there was a crash, far out in the shadows of the vast chamber, that echoed around and was met by further noises, whose source he could not yet see.
The other Delvers picked themselves up and began to examine their newest wounds. Both of the heavy fighters, Jorvald and Fogja, had taken serious damage, and looked weary. Xedric was pale, still not fully recovered, if he ever would. Sacriphisto seemed nearly spent, his ghostly appearance faded and frayed at the edges. Even Donnie had not escaped entirely unscathed: He wiped away blood where it trickled from beneath his piled crowns, still miraculously perched upon his head. If they still meant to leave this place, they would have to do so soon.
The tall, blue-skinned Frost Giant gasped and pointed upward. “Look!”
Across the top of the archway, a smear of brown-black blood across the stone glistened, the vile fluid of the Collector. It appeared to be bubbling, while the deeply carved letters that had presented such an inscrutable meaning shifted across the tremendous bulk of curved stone.
Another loud explosion of sound made them all look away, up at the columns of glowing jars, which stretched on forever, mockery of the infinite stars that lay outside this nightmare realm.
The stars began to fall. Not one by one but in streams, a flood of miniscule lights twinkling and tumbling down, growing larger. Some of the glowing jars collided in midair, dashing themselves and their contents to pieces, spreading and glittering in the dark. The flood of falling objects became a deluge, crashing and collapsing with a torrential noise as they fell down, down toward the watery abyss.
“Time to go through the door!” Sacriphisto shouted, and floated up a set of the cracked and crumbling stone stairs that still stood.
As if to punctuate his point, a jar crash-landed on the other side of the dais, exploding into glass, embalming fluid, and what seemed to be a torrent of small coins. Faces, grimacing or grinning, appeared from where each bit of old metal bounced and skidded on the stone. The faces were ghostly, flickering like flames. They howled and twitched in a macabre dance, mocking the poor lost souls. Then they stretched up, long long mouths wrenching in a silent scream, as, fading like smoke, the bits of memory contained in each collected item melted into nothing.
Fogja refocused her attention on the writing above the tremendous stone doors. The carved sigils were finally slowing their bubble and shift beneath the discolored splash of the Collector’s blood. Then the Frost Giant’s jaw dropped. “Of course!” She shouted over the cacophony of the collapsing room as her companions ran up be behind her. “I’ve never seen it before–it’s blood script! I will remember…”
“Is it the way out? Can you read it?” Hidduk shouted back, wondering if the doors would give way to a concerted push.
He had an answer before she could respond. The writhing, scrambling characters froze, forming a new, short phrase beneath the stain of the Collector’s passing.
It now read, plain for all to see: The price is One.
There was nothing else. The stone doors swung inward of their own volition, revealing a shadow that Xedric’s flickering torchlight seemed unable to penetrate.
The Delvers stared in wonder, heedless of the falling stars breaking apart the platform behind them. Like the petals of a dark orchid blooming, layers of shadow within the gate unfolded into a slowly spinning portal into the unknown.
A long, glittering stream of stars threatened to crash upon the dais. Before the deadly projectiles could hit, the Delvers exchanged a quick glance. Then, they went in together through the broad doorway.
Beyond, there was a passage made of darkness. The steps they found themselves climbing, the struts holding up the roof of the tunnel, everything–it was all made of some utterly black material that lacked proper substance. It was barely visible but for the crimson sheen that reflected their flickering torchlight like volcanic glass.
“Well, this isn’t so bad… now, if that Merchant were to suddenly show up, I might get the creeps,” muttered Xedric, mostly to himself as he focused on lighting their way as best he could.
Then the whispers began.
They came up from the cracks in the floor like the voices of the damned and all their demons, smoky twists of sound and tempting words. There was something absolutely hypnotic about the whispers, something that invited the ear to bemusement and confusion, a desire for more desire, a yearning for cupidity. Each Delver saw their companions shift and bend beneath their eyes, along with the floor beneath their feet, a sea of choppy waves in the solidity that was supposed to be stone.
The whispers felt like an atmospheric force, a physical presence pressing in around them like tiny pinpricks insistently trying to seep through. The voices were speaking secrets, laughing to themselves, speaking in sibilant sounds of the many treasures left to find, the mighty riches and power still to be had within the Depths: songs of mistrust and misunderstanding.
Still the Delvers pushed on, following the winding tunnel of black on black. They came at length to a crossroads.
In the shifting, uncertain nature of the passage, it was hard to tell exactly how many tunnels branched from here; Hidduk counted five.
Jorvald stepped forward, peering down one branch and another with his silver eyes. His gruff voice could barely be heard over the rasping whispers. “It seems to me that all of these go to the same place. Also, this farthest path on the right leads upward, which is promising.”
Sacriphisto joined the Viking, blinking in the futile attempt to shake the shadowy haze from his eyes. “Come, friends. We have traveled this far together. Let us proceed the same way.” The Bean Sidhe motioned toward the right-hand path with one ghostly finger.
As most of the Delvers nodded and began to follow, Hidduk paused. “You are right as usual, good healer. However, my tactics rely on stealth; it would do no good for me to enter through the same path. I shall take this one.” As he indicated the central tunnel with his curved dagger, the swirling darkness all around appeared to coagulate into quivering, unreal shapes, weaving and melting as they inexplicably clustered around the Cait Sith. The whispers grew louder, rising to a deafening moan that sounded like pain and delight in one.
Fogja shook her head at the lithe, furry creature. “Come on, shorty. You don’t–you don’t want to end up going the wrong way.” She glanced away from Jorvald’s smirk, which in those conditions was hard to see in any case.
Donnie beckoned as well, the stack of bangles on his wrist rattling sharply above the whispers. “You don’t want to get lost, now.”
Hidduk snorted at the shorter man, rolling his yellow eyes. “Please. Have you forgotten who among us has braved the Depths before, and survived where others could not? If a little Luchorpán can find his way through a side path and steal some treasure to boot, then so can I. It is decided: I take the left-hand path.”
Hidduk glanced once more over his shoulder, eyes peering from within his hood, which in the strange light appeared to be leaking tendrils of shadow like tentacles. He nodded, and seemed to smile. Then he went through, vanishing in a moment. The rest of the Delvers were left to follow the upper path, together, and to arrive wherever it would take them.
It was an evil place, a wrong place. Even for the Depths, it was a place of dark hallucination and nightmare. Not the center, but a centerpoint; not real, but all too deadly; not truly alive, yet utterly malevolent and evil. The place itself was a presence, weighing heavily on all souls. The pressure of the whispers mounted higher and higher, pushing on through the mind and into the core of one’s being to ask: What is your pleasure? What is your pain? What is your corruption?
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