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Deep in the bowels of the Depths, in the dim light of the rows of jars that lined the Collection Room, the Delvers were ready. Even as one of their number fell toward the deadly, churning waters below, the rest sprang to their places. Hidduk smiled grimly at the enemy, the Collector; a vision of grinding gears and twisted, stretched-out limbs. With more than one good battle already behind them, the members of this Raid knew what to do. Xedric, the Human mage who had lighted their way, would have his rescuers come to his aid.
In that breathless moment before they clashed with the Collector, Hidduk felt as though he could hear the rage pumping in the hearts of his allies, and sense the flashing of their eyes. Even as a fissure opened in the ground and writhing arms sprang out to clutch and grab at the Delvers, they were unperturbed. Only more tricks of this new creature of the Depths, another extension of his telescoping limbs; what more could surprise them now? As one, the Delvers rushed forward along the stone shelf, back to the cliff where the monstrous creature had pushed Xedric over the edge to an unknown fate, along with his fiery lights.
But then, the Collector smiled, a horrible expression that seemed to stretch over a mechanical interior. The half-man tilted his scarred, misshapen head, which bulged as though stuffed with gears and wires. Before the Delvers could even come close, he cried out, and the walls of his domain shifted in response. “Ssssorting time!”
Stone slid screaming over stone, and walls shot out at crazy angles, bursting from the shelves, the walkway, and the very ground beneath the Delver’s feet. For a moment, all was confusion, and the titanic shelves that held the row upon row of stars above could be heard to grind and rotate in the unquiet dark.
So unexpected and so powerful were the movements of the Collection Room itself, that none of the Delvers could react effectively. They were separated as the walls sprang up, lost in shadows suddenly shifting, and blocked off from one another. Fogja managed to shout, “Stand fast–!” before the Frost Giant was herself engulfed in the unpredictably sliding panels of solid rock. Suddenly, it was silent.
And Jorvald, Dvergr of the cold pine forests and the harsh mountain foothills, found himself alone. The maze of new pathways seemed to go everywhere and nowhere without end. The stony man ran along the shelves, glancing at the roaring river far below. Nothing made any sense, and nothing seemed to connect to anything else. He couldn’t even hear the shouts of the other Delvers.
Sweat. Cold and clammy in the wind from the river, it beaded and clung to his face, tickling him even as he hunted for the elusive foe in the cracks and corners of the impossibly twisted walls. Jorvald’s chest heaved as he turned his head to and fro, seeking a hint of the Collector among the glow of the rows of jars, their contents floating eerily in the luminescent liquid. Nearest him, scraps of parchment slowly turned and twisted past one another. A faded, crumbling label stuck to the stone plinth beneath the jar read “Memories – Madmen.”
The Dvergr tried not to look at the disturbing images, and focused his attention on finding something, someone, either his companions or a sign of the Collector. Licking his lips, Jorvald listened for the telltale noise, the clicking that would foretell of oncoming danger. The sound came from the twisted torso of the creature that lurked here rolling along a metal track on gears that had replaced its legs in some unspeakable operation long ago.
Then he heard it. Not a click, nor a hum, but a whisper, a breath of something sliding on the smooth stone floor. “Fascinating,” came a voice, “The things we–”
Jorvald spun, axe up in a ready position, to cut down his strange opponent. He was confronted by a ghostly visage, pale, with dark eyes. It seemed to be reaching out, in Jorvald’s direction or the jar behind him. Startled, the Dvergr took the swing, and his axe bit deeply into the creature’s shoulder with a satisfying thunk.
“Arg! What! Why!?” Sacriphisto sprang back, fear and horror rushing across his face. The Bean Sidhe Delver had faithfully accompanied the Raid to lend his healing powers to their band, and had helped them all on more than one occasion.
Jorvald stared, aghast. “Sorry! Sorry, I didn’t realize! I thought you were that creature… What… what were you saying about something being fascinating…?” His voice trailed off as the Dvergr realized this might yet be a trick, and he held his father’s axe close.
Sacriphisto glared, then narrowed his eyes. The Bean Sidhe raised his hand over the wound, and green light flickered there, rapidly healing his injury. “They say a good warrior knows the difference between friend and foe.”
For a moment, Jorvald remained motionless. “They say a lot of things about good warriors, but the oldest warriors tend to be the quickest and the strongest.” Finally, he lowered his weapon. “I am sorry, but please tell me, Sacriphisto. What is so fascinating here, in the Collection Room?”
The Bean Sidhe’s dark eyes slid away, then back to Jorvald’s face, still narrowed in suspicion. “I was going to say that it is fascinating, how the objects we collect, the things we have, can define us. I wonder if this Collector was not like us, once. A Delver, seeking things within the Depths, who became… enamored of it. I find all life fascinating, in all of its many forms.” As if to punctuate the idea, Sacriphisto gestured at himself, turning his cheek to show his pallid skin.
Jorvald ground his teeth and spat. “Hel’s bells, why would you go and say something as creepy as that? Why make me think you’ve got this place workin’ on your mind, corrupting you?”
Sacriphisto pressed his lips together in anger. “I think it a far stronger sign of corruption to strike at one’s allies with an axe.”
In the silence before Jorvald could retort, they both heard the sound. The telltale hum, a series of clicks often too fast to distinguish, approaching at speed.
Both of them turned and ran along the walkway, their quarrel forgotten for the moment in the interest of survival. Neither of them wanted to face the Collector alone.
Xedric slid down, bumping and scraping on the stone as he went. He twisted wildly and reached out, his hand bleeding as he tried to catch on the tiny cracks in the nearly vertical cliff. Time seemed to slow, and he could see the shiny streaks of the blood from his fingers on the stone as he plummeted. The wind battered him against the cliff, blown by the tumbling waterfall.
His breath had stopped. Through the howl of air past his ears, he could make out the sounds of battle above, which also seemed slowed and almost ritualized. As though the beating of weapons against armor were metallic drums, the back and forth blows were rhythmic, loud in his head as he bounced and tumbled, too surprised to feel pain.
Until he hit a solid sliding panel of rock, shooting out of the side of the cliff. Then, the pain hit Xedric from all sides like blunt needles, penetrating deep into his bones and muscles, and he cried out. The Senior Flame Warden rolled twice on the slanted surface and collapsed, panting. Warm blood trickled from his forehead and his fingers, and he could feel sharp pains in his abdomen as he struggled to breathe. Something was definitely broken.
Squinting into the shadows, Xedric tried to get his bearings. He could hear the river beneath him, louder than ever; above him, the sound of the battle was completely muffled, or too far away to hear. All around, more stone panels had emerged from the cliff at all angles, blocking out the orderly rows of stars stretching upward.
It would be difficult to find his companions again, in the labyrinthine passages that had been formed by the new stone walls. Xedric sighed, and called upon the fire that always burned within him, inexhaustible. He blew fire from his mouth, the orange flicker hanging in the air. Then he doubled over, coughing up blood. He had better find the healer, and fast. Stumbling and wheezing, the Arthurian moved off, seeking a path upward and hoping to find the other Delvers before he was found himself.
Up above, Jorvald and Sacriphisto found their steps slowed by freakish openings in the stone, as metallic limbs erupted out to grab at them. The pair ran and changed direction constantly, forcing the Collector to find or create a new metal track for him to ride on by manipulating the room. At last, Fogja spotted them through an opening in the crisscrossed walls.
The Jötnar woman bellowed at her fellow Delvers. “This way! There’s an open space where we can fight!”
In response, the Bean Sidhe and Dvergr directed their steps up over one leaning stone panel and down another, trying not to stumble in their haste. A long, long metal arm telescoped out of the dark and slammed into the stone they ran upon, sending cracks spiderwebbing across the surface. As the walkway shook under the sudden blow, Sacriphisto laid a hand on Jorvald to steady himself, for the Dvergr ran solidly on, heavy and surefooted.
They met Fogja on a broad shelf of stone, having made their way across the vast dark cavern. Looking back, Sacriphisto marveled at the mad path they had followed to Fogja, through the shifting stone bridges. Here, the shelves followed the pattern they had originally seen, switchbacking up past the endless rows of sealed jars. The blue-skinned giant greeted them with a grin, but had to jump back as another metal arm shot past, threatening to snap her leg with its force. The Collector was coming on fast.
A fissure opened in the rock behind the Delvers, and a cluster of metallic tentacles thrust out, thrashing and clacking together. There was no time to form a proper battle line, and the Delvers ran up the shelf, while the twisted form of the Collector appeared in the light of his many jars, speeding up his track from below. His lidless eyes were wide, and gleamed with fixated madness.
The Delver’s lives hung by a thread. Dodging and ducking beneath the springing arms of the Collector, Jorvald tried to get in close to land a cut with his axe, but one of the Collector’s extended arms caught him a glancing blow, knocking the breath out of the Dvergr. Glancing up, Jorvald managed to roll out of the way just in time to avoid the massive stone panel that came slamming down from above, a grey wall of rock that would have crushed him to a powder. Instead, just one of his own protruding stones at his shoulder was caught and scraped along the falling trap, cracking and breaking off painfully.
Jorvald tried to ignore the injury and struggled to remain on his feet, his balance lost as he teetered on the edge of the stone pathway. He watched his faint shadow slip over, and was about to follow it into the lethal fall himself, when he felt a sharp pull on his elbow.
From the shadows, a streak of fur emerged from nowhere and tugged Jorvald back with sharp claws extended. “Be careful, there are traps everywhere,” Hidduk hissed between his teeth as he ran toward another cluster of telescoping limbs emerging from a fissure in the ground.
Fogja pushed past in a rush of blue-skinned fury. With an icy snapping noise and the loud crash of metal on rock, she flung herself into the wall that had appeared. The sheet of stone cracked and crumbled, breaking apart under her onslaught. There was no time for Jorvald to marvel at the Frost Giant’s power and strength, as a click-click-click warned of the Collector’s swift approach. Whirling his axe, Jorvald knocked away the gnarled fist that came at him, almost too fast to see. Though his father’s blade struck sparks from the elongated metal wrist that telescoped past, the Dvergr’s blow did not seem to damage the surface. He had no time to follow up, as another far-too-long limb struck at his torso, seeking to toss him into the river, and the valiant Viking found himself forced to give ground, again.
Fortunately, that seemed to have been Fogja’s plan: by smashing apart the wall that had been intended to cut off escape, the fighters could retreat as far as the walkway would take them. He should have known that notorious Wrong-way Fogja would come up with something like this…
A quick glance upward confirmed the stratagem in Fogja’s answering grin, and the pair of fierce Viking fighters stood together, weathering blow after blow from the Collector as they backed up the path.
After a few more loud crashes of metal on metal, the Collector shivered all over, then glanced upward. Before Fogja and Jorvald could react, the twisted creature hopped up on his elongated arms, throwing himself in the air. He landed on another metal track, and spun click-click-click around a bend, vanishing past a jar that was labeled, “Caught Fishermen – Their Own Hooks.”
Hidduk and Sacriphisto, meanwhile, cut their way through clusters of strange waving limbs that seemed to spring up like mechanical plants serving a mad gardener. With just a few scratches for their trouble that the Bean Sidhe found easy to heal, they secured the path farther and farther for the heavy fighters to follow. The pair rounded a bend, and Hidduk’s enhanced eyes widened as he saw something that made him thrust out an arm to halt Sacriphisto.
They both stared for a moment, barely able to make out the pair of silhouettes perched on the edge of the precarious pathway, outlined against the glowing yellow jars that stood against the far wall. A torso in the center of a twisted tangle of extended mechanical limbs, the Collector clutched at the stone, holding himself just above one of his metal tracks, where he had pulled himself up from a lower path. Standing straight and unafraid before him was the diminutive Donnie, heavily wrapped in his new finery. The Luchorpán simply stared into the Collector’s bulbous, misshapen face, and the monstrous keeper of this place stared back with his too-wide eyes.
The small figure reached out a hand, but with a slow, almost tender gesture, his jewelry softly clinking. For a moment, it almost looked like he was caressing the monster’s shoulder.
Hidduk’s face twitched. Had the corruption spread? What had happened to the Luchorpán while he was separated from the other Delvers, seeking his treasure? “Donnie! What are you doing?”
Donnie started, and the infuriated Collector lunged forward with his mouth open, teeth rapidly extending. However, the Luchorpán recovered instantly, slapping the Collector’s head to one side and cutting across the monstrously twisted face with a wicked dagger.
His enemy let out a howl of pain and rage, shrinking from the blow with arms folding and retracting like rattling straws, speeding toward a crack in the wall that opened to accommodate the hideous form. Black ichor spewed forth in a fine spray that hung in the air as the Collector retreated into another hidden tunnel, and the dark chasm closed up behind him, nearly catching one long limb, shivering as it was withdrawn.
Donnie looked up at Hidduk as the Cait Sith came rushing to him. The Luchorpán was panting, but he managed a wry smile nonetheless. “Hypnotic, these awful creatures of the Depths, aren’t they? Did you like my… distraction technique, there?” To punctuate the sentence, he flicked some of the dark blood from his blade, eyeing Hidduk sidelong.
Hidduk stared down at the Luchorpán, his own daggers still clutched tightly in his hands. He let out a long breath, caution overruling his fear. “Certainly, I liked it. Perhaps you should consider letting our larger, stronger companions do close-up work such as that, however?”
Donnie laughed a little. “What do you think, Fogja and Jorvald? Should I run back behind you every time I see an enemy? Or should I claim my prize as bravest of us, first to mark the enemy with my weapon?”
“Ha,” Jorvald grunted hoarsely, joining them in the light of the jars, his stone-studded legs heaving him up the path, “And what prize would that be? You seem to have gathered yourself quite a bit of loot already.”
His fellow Viking, the tall, broad-shouldered Fogja, brought up the rear. “Can’t be expected to give up the opportunity to strike a blow on such an enemy. Well done, little one.”
Donnie smiled up at her, though he felt Hidduk’s piercing eyes still fixed on his face. “My thanks, Fogja. Now, hopefully we can follow this track or the bloodstains to find a way out of here. I’m fairly positive we’re near the ceiling by now…”
Hidduk’s eyes bored into him. “And leave our companion behind?”
Now it was Fogja and Jorvald’s turn to stare. “The human?” Jorvald shook his head. “There’s no way he could have survived that fall into the river, or being dashed against the sieve. Not with his brittle bones. I fear there is little doubt we have lost a Delver on this Raid, and with no time for mourning…”
Hidduk turned to Jorvald without lowering his daggers. “We don’t know what happened. No one saw him after he went over the edge, and the walls shifted. Even if he is a soft-skinned Furless, I will not go on and leave a fellow Arthurian behind to become part of this horrific collection. Something like ‘Human parts – Long Charred.’” The Cait Sith shook and stretched his shoulders, the powerful wiry muscles folding across one another beneath his dark cloak. “Come. I still hear the river, below. Let us see if we can find any sign of him.”
And with that, he set off back down the path, daggers glinting dully in the light of the endless rows of jars.
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