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The stone pathways that wound and twisted through the heavy dark of the Collection Room seemed to have a will of their own, a desire to lead Xedric astray. Every step he took led to confusing falls and deadly endings. The Senior Flame Warden had little idea where he was going, and as he pulled out a torch to light his way, he wondered if he would ever see his companions again.
His light bounced off the water below, making patterns on the stone walls and jutting bridges, movement without sense or logic, like an alien laughter in visual form. The reflected light shifted and flickered along with his flames, and his torch kindled bright, throwing the madding shadows all over and around him. He had to watch his step carefully and ignore his bruised and broken body, and the distracting ringing in his ears, for any loss of balance would be impossible to recover from. And off the edge he’d go again; probably not lucky enough to be caught by a shifting wall, this time.
Sighing, Xedric reached up one hand and dragged it along the stone wall where the yellow light passed, trailing a bit of blood. His light made the shadows in the cracks between stones seem even darker. After the Collector pushed him, he could only imagine that it had appeared as though he’d fallen to his death. Xedric could only hope that the Delvers had not gone on without him; he could not hear the sounds of battle above any longer. Of course, it would have been difficult to hear anything at all over the roar of the river below, separated from him by the occasional crisscrossing stone bridge that had grown unexpectedly from the wall. He would have to concentrate to hear the clicking of the Collector, should that creature find a metal track that ran this way.
He felt cold and heavy. It was hard to breathe, or even move, with what he was sure must be more than one broken rib. His only chance was to find that Bean Sidhe healer, Sacriphisto, before meeting the weird master of this place again.
Though the fire in his soul kept him deceptively full of energy, Xedric felt his age. At times, as the waves of pain washed over him, the Senior Flame Warden could not help but close his eyes, clenching his teeth to keep from crying out when he stumbled. The pain was like something alive in itself, pushing him and moving him, thrumming through his body and taking control of his muscles. With the pain and the lack of air, not to mention the white noise of the water echoing all around him, he found his mind wandering occasionally, dragged to distant places and adventures.
As he ran his hand along the wall, feeling the strange smoothness of the stone, the reflected light made him remember something. He’d watched light like this in a moment he’d had long ago, a memory of an afternoon in childhood.
A snake wound its way along a branch, far away in a tree in a field, golden in his memory. Its scales glinted like glass, a mirror for the sleepy sun that was soon going to rest in the distant mountains. This tree was a loner that had wandered from the crowd, as the forest swept away in the other direction like ranked soldiers, their green banners waving in the wind.
Standing beside him, also enjoying the shade beneath the tree, stood the smiling man that had come to Xedric’s little village, full of news and tales from the big city. A merchant, selling fine wares that his mother greatly appreciated, and his father yearned to purchase. With a big, friendly grin, he too watched the snake climbing along the branch. In a low voice, almost a whisper, the merchant began to speak, spinning a tale of a place below the earth, yet apart from it…
Xedric could barely hear him over the sound of the wind in the tree overhead. Above, the branches rattled and clacked against one another. A gentle wind picked up, and the creaking branches made more noise, louder and faster. Perhaps a storm was coming. Or perhaps… Something… else…
Shaking his head, Xedric blinked and looked around. He was dizzy, and the pain made it hard to think. However, if he listened, the sound of the wind in his memory was actually the rushing of the river through the Depths below him, while the rattle of the tree branches was actually a rapid click-click-click sound, coming swiftly closer. It took another moment before his distracted mind shot him through with fear, and he realized what that sound meant. Limping and holding his side awkwardly, Xedric pushed himself onward, rushing around corners and over the interlaced bridges, hurling himself away from the oncoming sound with a burst of speed.
His stumbling footsteps brought him to a wide stone shelf that looked almost familiar. It appeared that he had made his way across the gulf over the river, and had found the jars again. Their weird glow poured over the stone walls and floor with a steady yellow-white, cold and utterly unlike his flickering torchlight. No matter how much he blinked, Xedric’s eyes refused to focus properly; he could hear his rasping breaths, each one wracking his body with agony.
Stumbling, his hand out in front of his face, the Flame Warden’s vision blurred as he rushed on. The walls swam, and he could barely make out the labels on the jars that he passed. “Delvers – Clothing” stood next to “Delvers – Bones”, and Xedric brushed by, trying to listen for his pursuer over his own painful breathing. He never saw the crack in the stone floor until his foot slammed into it.
Falling heavily, his arm crashed into something smooth and hard, bumping it off of its stand. The large jar crashed to the floor, and shattered. Shards of glass flew into the air, spinning and tumbling in the white light. As when he had been pushed, Xedric felt as though time was slowing. He could see a shard of thick glass turning, glinting in the light before it bounced away and dropped out of sight over the edge to join the rushing river below, reflecting the light of a thousand stars.
He barely had time to glimpse the label of the jar he’d broken, crumbling and peeling off the grey stone: Delvers – Memories. Then, as Xedric’s head hit the floor, splashing in the jar’s contents, his world became exploding stars and the rush of white sound for a long moment. However, he stayed conscious. And he began to see things.
Past lives seemed to stretch before him, laid out and divided into pieces, discrete chunks of images and thoughts once experienced, feelings and discoveries. Xedric felt the strangest sensation of rummaging, of examination. A cold, prurient desire to take only the best, most interesting memories coursed through his consciousness as he opened and examined them, like peeling pieces of a sliced fruit.
A bright spring day, with a remembrance of winter’s chill in the air, and he was going to see his grandmother in the high mountains. He carried a basket and a walking stick, given to him by his father. Though Xedric knew his hair was short, he felt as though long tresses of hair hung down his back, fluttering in the wind like the leaves all around. There were ribbons waving as well, woven in by his mother’s gentle hands. She had bought them from a talkative merchant, who had paid many compliments to the goodwife’s quiet daughter. With her quick thinking and sharp insight, he’d flattered her, she might one day be worthy of the greatest adventures.
It took Xedric a moment, but he realized this memory was not his own. This was something the Collector had taken from some poor Delver that had met a nasty end here long ago. Xedric felt dirty, used, disgusted at the hallucinatory sensations stolen from someone else. Yet at the same time, he could feel the pull of such things on his mind, like whispers: the interest in seeing through another’s eyes, and in keeping and storing such precious things away forever.
Xedric’s eyelids fluttered as he tried to force himself to get up, to stand. His head was swimming, making his arms tremble in the attempt to rise from the wet floor. The preserving liquid trickled over the uneven surface, running down through cracks and channels in the hewn stone. In the eerie light, it looked like blood.
A golden mote floated by, carried by the liquid; a strange glowing orb. Before Xedric could move his weakening hand, another mote of light touched his fingers.
Instantly, he was in a another place, another time. Although Xedric knew it was a hallucination, he couldn’t seem to stop the flow of events, or snap out of it. He could barely feel his injuries: not the broken ribs, but the cut on his cheek, dealt to him when the mighty blow of an Arthurian’s sword had smashed aside his shield. It lay on the battlefield among so many bodies, another broken thing. To speak Forseti’s truth, he had expected more of the equipment he had purchased from that friendly merchant who had sung his praises in the mead-hall. Mighty enough to venture into the dark places, the oddly charming little man had said.
Then again, he thought as he hefted the heavy war-axe in his strong right hand, this weapon seemed to do its bloody work with almost supernatural power. Much death he had seen already this day, and much death he must still mete out to the enemy. Already he could hear their weapons crashing on their shields, beating out a distant marching rhythm as they came closer over the hills, closer and closer with the cracking sound of metal…
Moments away, the Collector rushed along in a frenzy. The sound of breaking glass played upon the creature’s nerves, the strands of his well-organized web now snapped. To defend the collection, and harvest the remains of the one responsible for damaging it, was his sole thought. He leaned his large, pale torso forward, fused at the base with mechanical gears and pistons. He balanced perfectly on the small set of wheels on his metal track, humming along in a paroxysm of obsessive rage.
Just in time as always, Hidduk dropped from a stone bridge above and into a menacing stance, daggers at the ready. As he stood in front of Xedric, his fur and twin blades were tinged with light, lit from below by the glowing liquid that pooled around his Arthurian companion. The Cait Sith looked like a demon from another world.
However, the Collector didn’t hesitate. With incredible speed, his telescoping arms shot forth, making Hidduk leap to avoid them. Stone chips flew as the reinforced fists crashed into the wall, and Hidduk landed in a crouch, visibly panting. That was much too close.
But the Collector was master of this place, and a vile grin spread across his misshapen face as he called upon the Collection Room’s power once again. A crack opened silently behind his opponent, a dark space in the wall. Stone spikes shot out, long needlelike spines reaching to penetrate and puncture. Hidduk leaped again, but he wasn’t quick enough; one of the points pierced the back of his leg in a spurt of blood.
“Agh!” The Cait Sith cried out, rolling to his knees as the Collector came closer. “Xedric, wake up! Delvers, attack now!”
The first to follow his order was Jorvald, crashing down from above with all the power and fury he had. His axe bit into the Collector’s bare left shoulder and wrenched free in a shower of sparks, as small gears shot out from within the flesh exterior, spinning madly into the shadows. The inhuman cry of pain that emerged from the Collector’s mouth was an attack in itself, and the Dvergr stumbled back a half-step, gritting his teeth as his bones were set ringing.
However, an answering cry from above drowned the Collector out, as Sacriphisto descended more slowly, ghostlike tendrils of his healer’s robes flapping around him. The Bean Sidhe’s mouth was open, letting forth a steady stream of sound that countered the Collector’s own cry perfectly. Modulating his Dire Scream to do so took most of Sacriphisto’s concentration, but the healer’s eyes widened as he saw Xedric, collapsed, and Hidduk’s leg spurting blood.
Fogja and Donnie leaped together, the giant’s hammer gaining incredible power on its downswing, somehow hitting harder through the Luchorpán’s magic. Donnie, for his part, rattled and clanked in his finery as he hit the ground and rolled, a mad grin on his face. Fogja’s massive hammer smashed into the Collector’s right shoulder like a falling mountain, sending out a crack that rippled through the monster’s body. The Frost Giant wore a grin to match Donnie’s, and she landed heavily, but solidly, on the stone walkway.
The Collector looked forward and back, mouth open in horror, revealing the twisted apparatus inside, clicking and whirling. His telescoping arms hung uselessly, dragging on the ground. The Delver’s ambush had worked.
Shaking with fury and fear, the creature leaned over… way out, over the dark edge. Infuriated, Jorvald reached out one stone-encrusted hand to grab hold of the thing, but with an ungainly wrench, the Collector freed its wheels from the metal track and toppled over, vanishing into the darkness.
For a moment, everyone was silent, listening for a splash in the rushing river below. Instead, they heard a clang and the ugly click-click-click fading as the Collector sped away.
Fogja let out a sigh of frustration. “Was sure we had it that time!”
Jorvald shook his head, examining the edge of his axe for nicks. He wasn’t sure what kind of metal the Collector was fused with, but it couldn’t stand up to true Viking craftsmanship. “Not yet, but we hurt him, and bad.”
Sacriphisto, silent now to protect his voice, rushed over to Hidduk and Xedric, floating just over the broken glass of the shattered jar. Motioning the Cait Sith to bind his wound for now, Sacriphisto called upon his healer’s magic and placed his hands on Xedric’s prone body. After a moment, the Senior Flame Warden coughed and opened one eye. “Ah. That’s good. Was afraid you wouldn’t come back for me.”
“Of course we did,” Hidduk growled through the pain as he applied pressure to the spike-wound in his leg. “Don’t think a single one of us would betray another Delver’s trust.”
“Exactly,” said Donnie as he came up the path, kingly robes brushing the floor. The Luchorpán stayed just outside the gleaming liquid rippling across the stone and dripping over the edge of the cliff that fell to the river. “And now, while the Collector is nursing its wounds, I’ll show you all some of the treasures here. I’m afraid I’ve already got most of the best stuff, but–”
“No!” Heedless of the shards of broken glass all around, Xedric pushed himself up, regaining strength as Sacriphisto’s healing magic flowed into him. “No!” The word was choked and harsh as his broken ribs knitted back together.
The other Delvers stared at the Human as he gasped for breath. Jorvald thought of the precious stones that might be here, waiting for him to add to his own. Fogja thought of the mysteries that she could bring back, the secrets of the Collection. As both the Vikings opened their mouths to argue, Xedric cut them off with a wave of his hand, trailing fire with a decisive crackle. “We leave now. This jar… it held memories. I know why we’re here. We need to get out.”
Hidduk wrinkled his furry brow, confused. “Out of the Collection Room? With as much blood as we’ve shed, we might as well take what we can.”
“No.” Xedric’s eyes burned with determination and magic. “Out of The Depths. We thought we came here by choice. But this place had us, long before. Tell me, fellow Delvers, think back. Think back to the first time you heard of the Depths. Do you remember a merchant?”
As he finished speaking the last word, a whispering echo of his voice bounced off of the stone walkways. The whisper rebounded from the walls and looming jars, testament to those many, many fools that had come here to serve, and to die. The Delvers looked at one another, and then stared out into the glittering points of light in the darkness, listening to the faint sound continue, losing form and sense, until the whispers began to sound like laughter.
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