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The river thundered through that place of living nightmare called the Depths, its powerful waters rushing past lurking horrors unknown and unseen. The swirling liquid surely had an intelligence all its own, hurrying to an unpredictable destination deep below the world and its malevolent evils. The waters were dark, hiding secrets; and the river’s ferocious roar as it went along seemed to warn against anyone touching it, lest the sucking waters carry them off with irresistible force.
When the water came to the canopy of stars that were not stars, the stars that never were in the sky that never was, it strove to tear down the great metal sieve that filtered it. The current battered itself against the massive construction, thrusting on through before tumbling down a huge waterfall, to crash into an abyss below. It left behind any objects that it carried, and dashed the bodies of unfortunate creatures that fell in. The current was deep, and cold; so cold that even a Viking might shiver, and so strong that even an ancient giant might be swept away.
Fogja, for her part, was far from ancient. When the trap sprung, its hidden trapdoor mechanisms threw the Frost Giant from the narrow stone pathway, lined with the glowing jars that looked like stars. In the light of the strange jars, she twisted in midair, clutching at the edge for purchase. Her blue fingers caught a crack in the stone, and she hung on, powerful grip straining. One hand still clutched her massive hammer, and she refused to let go. However, as she kicked against the side of the cliff, part of her armor came loose, metal rings flashing in the starlight as it tumbled into the river below, leather straps fluttering.
Fogja’s view swung wildly, masses of uncaring lights wheeling above. “Help!”
A little way down the path they had been climbing, the other Delvers rushed up, alarmed. Fogja’s fellow Viking, the stone-boned Dvergr Jorvald, was the quickest, for once. His eyes adjusted far better to the cloying darkness of this place than anyone else’s, even the magically enhanced eyes of the sly Cait Sith Hidduk. In the faint light of the eerily glowing jars that lined the walls in gigantic shelved rows, he stomped up the path and threw himself down, his axe blade clanging on the uneven stone. Reaching out with his scratched and scarred hand, he cried, “Grab hold, quick!”
The giant woman grabbed the short man’s stone-studded fingers, and he let out a rush of breath as her weight slammed him to the ground. The sound of his straining stones as they scraped against the edge would have echoed, but could hardly be heard above the rush of the river below.
Jorvald strained and grunted. If his training would stand him in good stead now, perhaps they could both survive. Carefully, he swung his axe behind him, slamming it into a crack with heavy force. Then he pulled, so that the bottom of the axe caught in the stone. Feeling his muscles burn as though they might tear in half, he heaved on the giant’s oppressive weight. Fogja scrambled up, teeth gritted as she threw one blue-skinned leg up over the edge, then the other.
The orange flicker of flame illuminated the darkness of the chamber, and in a moment, Xedric’s thin hand was there, steadying her. The Arthurian Human was flanked on one side by the furry form of Hidduk, and on the other by the ghostly form of Sacriphisto. Balancing on the now sloped pathway, they took on the giant’s hefty weight, and pulled her to safety before she could slip back to the watery oblivion crashing below.
Jorvald let out a groan and collapsed, panting. The blue-skinned giant loomed over him, dusting herself off. “Thanks, Jorvald.” Lying on the ground, the Dvergr could hear the stilled shakiness in her husky voice. “You’re strong for your size, shorty.”
Without getting up, the Dvergr chuckled, deep in his chest. “You’re heavy for… uh…” He trailed off as the armored giant glared down at him, weighing her enormous hammer in her powerful hands. “…Ahem. Anyway, how about a hand up for your savior?”
In response, she leaned down and hoisted him up, stones, axe, and all. Jorvald grunted and shook his arm to loosen it. “That’s better. And now… hm, I don’t seem to recall your name…?”
The giant hesitated, glancing around the group. It was no accident she hadn’t told Jorvald her name. “Eh, um, you see…”
Sacriphisto put up one discolored hand. “If she does not wish to share her name, we should not press her.”
Hidduk eyed the giant with a yellow stare. “Although, as your fellow Delvers in The Depths, we may begin to wonder just exactly why…” To himself, he wondered if he had been wrong to suspect Xedric of corruption, first.
The Frost Giant looked away from Jorvald. “It’s all right. I, uh, I am called Fogja.”
There was a moment of silence. Eventually, Xedric spoke in a sarcastic tone. “Fascinating. Now, if we can get back to the business of trying to get up this–”
He was interrupted by a shout of laughter from Jorvald. The short, stone-studded man doubled over, laying a hand on his knee, and howled, tears coming to his eyes. “Ahaha! That Fogja! I get it now! I get it!”
Mystified, the folk from other Realms glanced at one another, then back at the two Vikings, one turning a deeper sapphire color in her cheeks, the other barely able to breathe with his intense merriment.
Jorvald gasped out, “Right, well… no need to dwell on… it’s a Viking thing… a while ago…” before he slowly descended into laughter once again.
Fogja raised her head and shrugged. “Well, time to be moving on.” She strode up the long stone pathway without looking back, focused only on watching for more traps.
Shaking their heads, the others followed, climbing after her. Jorvald brought up the rear, trying to catch his breath and wiping his face. “Ahhh, if my father could but see me now.”
As they continued their journey, following a strange metal track that ran along the shelf past the jars, silence and the sound of the river’s thunder began to take over their hearing once again. Hidduk raised his ears and pointed them in all directions, but that strange series of clicks he had heard earlier, hinting at some sort of enemy, were either too distant to hear, or had been covered by the sound of the water. He was just resolving to call for silence if he caught the noise again, when Sacriphisto, just ahead of him, started and came to a halt.
The Bean Sidhe turned and whispered, so that only Hidduk and Fogja could hear him. “Look, up ahead. It’s another one of those openings, like the little one went through.”
Waving his hand at the other two, Hidduk came up the steep section of pathway and looked. His eyes slowly adjusted to the different lighting while he struggled to see what Sacriphisto was talking about. There was a plateau where the shelf of stone, and its ever-present metal track on one side, went past another row of glowing jars with a series of labels. In the strange glow that seemed to come from the jars themselves, these labels were legible, as opposed to the unreadably ancient, crawling letters on the jars on lower shelves. The first enormous jar on Hidduk’s right seemed to hold lifeless fish heads, and the label read “Last meals – Fishermen.” The next, which seemed to contain more frightening faces, was labeled “Assorted Leavings – Great Gullet”. Hidduk quelled a shiver as he thought of his own face, forever preserved in this awful way. He forced his eyes to focus past the floating things and toward the end of the flat area, where Sacriphisto was still pointing.
There, just before another switchback that led up to the next tier of the freakish collection, a darker spot in the dark wall told of a mysterious opening. Previously, these cracks had disappeared before Hidduk could get a close look. Now, he hesitated a moment, while his companions gathered and stared as well. This was The Depths, after all. Such an opening could lead to escape… or death. He should regroup, use his powers to safely scout ahead, perhaps gain a clue–
Before the Cait Sith could finish his thought, a plume of orange swept across his vision and hung in the air, lighting up the path. Xedric said, “That’s better.”
Hidduk turned on the Flame Warden, hissing through his teeth. “What are you doing, you fool? Do you want whatever lurks here to find us that easily? What if someone was there? What if…” He trailed off as he glanced back at the path and saw that someone was indeed there.
Eager for another fight, both Jorvald and Fogja rushed forward, weapons raised. The extremely short, hunched shape of the stranger started, then held out a hand in a warning motion.
This time, the giant reacted quickest. Sweeping out a huge hand, she stopped the motion of her fellow Viking, making the Dvergr skid to a stop. Jorvald blinked down at his feet, where they had halted just before the telltale hairline crack in the stone pathway. It told of another trap to drop unwary Delvers into the drink.
Sacriphisto came up behind them as the two Vikings panted, staring into the dim light that barely touched the hem of the stranger’s crimson clothing. “Let us not judge too quickly, friends. It is always worth waiting to see if a living being means us harm.” He glanced back at the figure, but not without a hesitant look in his dark Bean Sidhe’s eyes.
The glow that emanated from the jars served only to outline the stranger, rather than illuminate it. As if sensing this, the unknown one moved toward Xedric’s flickering light.
The diminutive figure was draped in some kind of heavy cloth, and glittering points of light hung over it, swinging heavily. As the figure stepped forward, these points of light jangled together, making tinkling metallic sounds. The voice that emerged from within the heavy brocaded robes was surprisingly clear and calm. “So, you caught up at last. I hope you aren’t expecting me to share…” As the hunched stranger walked into the light, the jewelry he wore glinted and glittered, as though he were covered in fireflies. It was Donnie.
The Luchorpán’s face was drawn and weary, with strange new shadows under his eyes. Nevertheless, he wore a delighted smile, and managed to wave one long-fingered hand in a grand gesture, causing his gems and finery to clink together musically. “Greetings, friends! I hope you’re all duly impressed. This stuff is heavy!”
Slipping around the trap, Hidduk’s eyes popped as he examined the little jumper. Donnie’s clothes were embroidered with silver and gold, and a much-too-large red cape adorned with glittering jewels hung down his back to the floor. Several gilded belts, half of them in a feminine style, criss-crossed the Luchorpán’s little body, each sagging with the weight of valuable trinkets. His wrists and hands, in turn, were thickened with bracelets and rings of all sizes, glinting all the way down his extremely long fingers. Donnie grinned and struck a pose, with some difficulty. “Like what you see?”
Hidduk sighed. “Welcome back, Donnie. Where in the name of all furball did you get this… all this?”
“That’s easy.” Donnie jerked his thumb at the nearest jar, which held a mass of small yellow-white slivers, suspended in its gently glowing liquid. “One of these things, of course. I was not stealing; it said ‘Funeral Offerings – Still Attached.’” He glanced where he was pointing, and half-stepped away with an alarmed look as he read the label: Thieves’ Fingernails.
Meanwhile, the other Delvers were following the route that Hidduk had carefully traced around the trap. Xedric was first, and he strode straight up to the Luchorpán and leaned over him, cupidity flickering in his eyes. There was something about the Human’s face that made both Hidduk and Donnie lean back slightly; it was the same look that had come over the Senior Flame Warden when he had channeled The Depths’ laughter into a new fire spell. “Marvelous. Absolutely marvelous. But how did these get here? And what happened to the things you brought in with you?”
Donnie held his grin, but his eyes shifted away. “I can answer both of those at once.” He moved to the edge of the walkway and glanced over the precipice. He seemed about to say something flippant, but then his eyes widened and his smile vanished. “Oh. He’s back.”
“What do you mean?” Fogja asked as she strode up next to the Luchorpán, looming over him.
“Look,” he pointed. Far down below, where the huge sieve threw up a white wave glittering in the light, a weird thing stretched over the river, like a metallic spider with telescoping limbs. In the glow reflecting off the water, it fished with its springy, improbably thin arms, dipping into the furious torrent above the falls.
From that point, clutching at various outcroppings of rock and the giant sieve itself, the eye could follow the disturbing extensions to a central body. However, instead of a spider’s bulbous abdomen, a man’s torso bobbed in the middle of the splayed-out limbs. Concentrating intently, he scraped the side of the huge sieve with his thin, metallic arm, and came up with a dripping set of chain links and soggy leather straps. As his arm retracted, the distant figure appeared to lean forward intently, studying the item as he backed toward the shadows. Below the man’s midriff, there seemed to be a metallic construction, with a central wheel. This he fitted to a metal track, and paused. Then, as if suddenly becoming aware that he was watched, he started and looked up. His wheel spun, carrying the man backward, and he zipped through a crack and out of sight.
Fogja gasped, then growled in her throat. “Rrrr… that’s my armor!”
Jorvald chuckled, then cleared his throat. “Well, that was an odd sight, no mistake. How’d he get like that, anyhow?”
Donnie looked uncomfortable. “I may have an idea of how to answer that, too. However, we’d better get moving. The Collector definitely doesn’t like, uh…. Loiterers.” With a nimble twist made slightly awkward by the heavy finery he wore, he began to move up the path to the next switchback. The other Delvers followed quickly, all but for Xedric, who stayed to toss a fiery stone and watch it fall. He grinned suddenly as though he’d hit something, and grabbed another rock.
Hidduk heard it first; the rapid click-click-click that signalled the Collector’s movement, so quick that it sounded more like a metallic hum. The Cait Sith turned to shout a warning, but he was far too late.
From above, a long thin arm shot out, telescoping down toward Xedric, where he stood peering over the edge. The gnarled, strangely pale hand at the end of the arm gave him a swift, sharp push. With a shocked look, the Human dropped like the stones he had been throwing.
The voice that came to the shocked Delvers spoke with a sibilant grinding, as though the Collector’s larynx had been internally replaced with mechanical parts. The bulbous head that leaned over from the shelf above was too large for the torso, with wide eyes surrounded by wrinkles, suggesting they never closed. Lungs wheezing as they expelled breath into unfamiliar speech, the man’s attempt at precise syllables was marred by the extraneous noise. “Sso… dissorderly, sso… unssorted. I musst put you in your proper placse. Come, new…sspecimenss for the Collection.”
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