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A Priceless Gift
As the Delvers crossed into the dark lair, warning behind them and shadows ahead, they sensed rather than saw the nearness of an exit, a thin place, where The Depths led at last upward and out. The message over the gate, however, weighed heavily upon their minds, revealed through blood and battle: The Price is One. None of them could have or would have said what it meant, but still it lingered in their minds like a ghost’s whisper.
Hidduk, alone, shivered as he pushed through the darkness. Whether it was something about this trip to The Depths or only his imagination, the black-on-black tunnel seemed to be getting clearer to his already-enhanced eyes. The tunnel seemed to widen and flatten out, the way forward growing easier. The whispers, though they rose in volume and flooded his ears, changed their form and seemed to propel him onward instead of presenting the physical barrier of sound as they had before. While the other Delvers slowed on the upper path, forced to push harder and harder against the sinister susurrus, Hidduk instead ran faster and faster, something itching in his soul.
The Cait Sith’s tail twitched as he ran, a tic that had begun when he had left The Depths behind, last time. He could remember the itchy feeling, that whisper in the back of his mind now drowned out in the deluge of whispering noises all around, annoying him whenever he cast his mind back and remembered. Oh, those foolish days and nights ill-spent, before… before he knew what real monsters were. The monsters of his youth, in that warm, sleepy city far from the war front of Arthur’s Realm, had taught him to become the quick, silent hunter that made his mother proud. As if summoned by his eyes searching for purchase in the frictionless dark, he began to see shapes from long ago.
The scorpions of the night. They came in at evening, scuttling for the dark warmth and safety of indoors. With all the doors and windows open for the summer’s humid heat, they scuttled inside, pausing on the sills, and the flickering lamplight made their purple shadows long and strange. The heat seemed only to make them more active, while the people became more sluggish, less aware of the placement of each footfall. Something about the heat was hypnotic; it made him feel half-asleep, even as he went about his chores or played in the streets, cobblestones still warm from soaking up the sun. The scorpions were half-nightmares, lurking in the cracks and waving their pincers in dark corners like imaginary monsters.
He learned to pierce them with his razor claws, lightning-quick and from a safe angle, so their poisonous stingers stabbed uselessly at nothing. The wriggly arachnid limbs raging, he’d watch to make sure they died, the danger past. That, too, added to the feeling that he was dreaming through the long summer months; heat and the writhing motion, hypnotizing him with surreal sensations.
Hidduk blinked, rubbing his furry face. For a moment, he had been far away. He peered into the dark, lit only by the occasional reddish luminescence through the walls of volcanic glass. The stealthy Cait Sith knew he was getting distracted, when any moment he might need all his senses razor focused. Perhaps, before anything could surprise him, he had better open the Veil and see if he could surprise an opponent, instead.
The hair along his ears and the back of his neck prickled, suddenly, and the light touch of strange wind along his whiskers brought Hidduk up short. There was a larger space up ahead; whatever lair lay there, whatever lurked in the hiding place that was to come, it needed more room than was afforded by this uncomfortable tunnel of whispers.
He pushed on, hoping for a glimpse of whatever dangers might lurk. No time for distractions now. Although, the whispers seemed to say to him, or as him, I am the true danger that waits in shadow.
These Delvers just didn’t get it. They reminded him of the last Raid he had joined. Not as a leader then, but a young Cait Sith new to his skills; not as the one carefully choosing companions, but hoping to be chosen. Nevertheless, he had been cautious, always; and everything that had happened then only pushed him to greater caution now.
He remembered the face of one Tuatha Dé Danann woman, flashing before his eyes in the darkness as he crept skillfully onward, ready to see what lay beyond. Her pale body, blood-specked and desperate, reaching out a hand as the feeding tubes writhed, attaching themselves to her as sucking orifices. He could do nothing for her. He could not save her… not with his eyes damaged by the acidic spittle of the creature that pursued them here. He could still feel the burning, more painful than her final scream, cut short as a wriggling tube clamped over her open mouth.
It had all gone to hell so quickly. No one ever listened to Hidduk then. He could not make them wait, he could not make them even pause when grinning Abominations appeared to challenge them. The others rushed in to attack, never noticing the metal and glass traps waiting above. The harvest was quick, and sweet, for The Depths.
The young Hidduk ran, darting away as fast as his limbs could move, gracefully twisting and bounding past the lurking traps and dangers that now attempted to seal him as well. He left her behind, did not even attempt to slice open the pulsating sacs that webbed their way over the mage. What could he do in the face of such things?
A few others ran too. There could be no recriminations between them. The Depths had eaten that as well. As they were picked off, one by one, he felt first sorrow, then fear, and was finally overtaken by desperation, seeing only a few more precious seconds of life. There was so much more, so many more things to hunt and skills to improve. But just then, all of that, his whole world, depended on how fast he could run.
As he rushed on, remembering that speed, the older, wiser, more cautious Hidduk felt the first beginnings of a change. It was not the change of his ancestors, Moireach and the noble Caits of clan Kellas, in a barn in a storm; instead, this was a darker, stranger change, that seemed to come not from the outside but from within, a push outward that filled out his features and indeed his whole body with a painful, yet pleasing release of force. It was like pulling off a scab, or rather, pushing it out from inside, that moment of satisfaction at the transformation of not-skin into new skin, revealed beneath.
Yes, he felt a howling wind now on his flesh. His fur, curling out and growing thicker, took on the loveliest shade of sleek black, yet stood out in stunning contrast with the gleaming black chitin beneath. A vision of black on black.
He ran now on more than two legs, unnaturally fast, the swiftest hunter. Mother had taught him the importance of speed. He was a silent rush that brought death.
He saw now with more than two eyes, better even than those gifted to him by The Depths that burned out his old ones. He had not known, then, what that meant. He had not understood the gift.
Now, as a good hunter, no, the greatest of hunters, he must pass on his gifts to his followers. With love, always with love.
The things he knew slipped out of place. There were no more hatreds, and no more kings or leaders. There were no more summer evenings or dark things skittering unknown. There were no more pathways back to light or peace or happiness or rightness. There was no more anything. Only void, the unknown, and emptiness. Taunting, grinning reality was over. Push it aside, let the new life come in, a malleable thing that could be shaped and changed eternally. Delight filled the air, pregnant with possibility and the thousand tiny joys of creation. Silence. Shadow.
Abandon that weak film called sanity, the thing dragging down and keeping the border between here and the Veil, impatient lover always waiting. As he went into those familiar, gentle arms, Hidduk said farewell to the last bonds that held things–everything–together. He could smell his prey on the strange wind.
His prey, at that moment, crept in nervous wonder to a different part of the labyrinth that formed this lair. Out in front, leading the way out of the tunnel made of darkness, Jorvald the Dvergr came out and caught his breath at the sight before him, now lit with a dull, angry glow. He stood upon a strange promontory, a protrusion of black glass that stood out from the organic shapes of metal that wrapped and layered themselves to form this strange terrain suspended in midair. Like a bridge, the black glass arched downward to what seemed to be a shifting maze. Laid out on a vast tilted disc, pulsing veins of metal corded their way in an impossibly intricate maze of twisting corridors. In the center of the disc, puncturing it like the handle of a spinning top, stood an ancient tower. Meanwhile, a wind whipped across this place, breath of something foul.
As the other Delvers emerged from the swiftly-closing tunnel and squinted in the ugly brown light, each made the same twisted face in sudden aversion. Something about the enormous tower’s proportions was distinctly off, a planned mockery of architecture. Pointing with its spindly roof, the whole thing leaned at an angle, with bulbous stones and irregular protrusions along the structure. Something seemed to be rotting on the top floor; foul mess leaked from the uppermost window of the leaning tower, stringy stuff reaching for the ground.
Sacriphisto was the first to break the silence, uncomfortable and breathless as if he’d just run up a mountain. “What is this light? Where does it come from?”
Peering around, none of them could find an answer. The vast chamber, open as they had felt it was before, seemed to stretch its sourceless dull glow toward infinity, but faded into a dirty brown obscurity before it got there.
The top of the tower, where the roof tapered to a point, appeared to pierce the brown film that formed the overarching dome. The distant silhouette of a tilted spiral stairway ascending into the tan luminescence confirmed their earlier sense that escape was near, yet reachable only through the trials that lay below.
Donnie, his fellow member of the Tuatha Dé Danann Realm, finally responded to Sacriphisto. His voice was uncharacteristically hushed, as though the tunnel full of whispers had infected him. “It’s not the source of the light that worries me, my friend.” He scratched under the crowns piled atop his head and began shuffling down the path, steps cut by an unknown architect to lead down the obsidian bridge. “It’s the source of the shadows that has my fear.” And he pointed one ring-heavy finger at something near the base of the bridge he walked upon.
Xedric shuddered, extinguishing the flames that he had caused to fight against the tunnel’s mysteries so valiantly, their light now faint and weak in the broad glow. “I see it. Something flows through there.” Like tattered streamers, curls of darkness flowed over the walls of the labyrinth and over the edge of the disc, thinning to spray and then nothing, as if carrying mysterious messages from the tower’s pinnacle.
“It looks like a drunken soldier.” Fogja grunted as she changed her stance, shifting her dented helmet from her eyes. She stared at the looming tower, and did not add how its appearance, tier after tier of strange terraces and designs, gave her a sharp sense of foreboding.
Jorvald turned and laughed, but the sound was flat, his gruff voice heavy as though the dull, muted air had pressed the short Dvergr further down. Yet he bravely tried for levity anyway. “Oh for a drink meself, it’d be easier to look at your ugly face!”
Sacriphisto sighed, but his normally hard-to-read pale face twisted in what might have been a smile. As he floated on, down the etched steps carved out of the semi-transparent stone, he muttered, “One ugly face I’d like to see right now is that of our fearless leader. He’d better not fail to show up when the Abominations do…”
Shaking their heads, the Delvers continued down the path to enter the maze upon the enormous leaning disc. Through the brown murk to his right and left, Jorvald noted other sloping arches of black glass. Each led down from a dark spot, gaping tunnel mouths that confirmed the Dvergr’s earlier guess at the branching paths. So Hidduk would indeed be joining them…
The old Arthurian Human seemed suspicious too. “Keep your eyes and ears open, Delvers. Friend or foe, I don’t particularly like being surprised.” He teased out a bit of the fire that burned in his soul and twisted it between his fingers, a glowing thread of orange inferno that spat and curled over his skin. In its small but furious little light, the flowing shadows of the labyrinth twitched and shook, but did not retreat.
Wondering, the Delvers walked between the walls, formed of curling tendons and veins of metal, draped in this quivering shadowstuff. Lighting a bauble of his own, Donnie came closer to one of the walls, inspecting it. The shadows moved and flickered with life, a sensation on the eyes that baffled and confused them, the immaterial given form and consciousness. He plucked his hand back before his glowing ring brushed against a wavering tendril. “Right, eyes open,” he muttered as he jogged back to Fogja’s side.
The Frost Giant thumped along, her footsteps loud as ever while her companions attempted to be stealthy on their way toward the central tower. She just grinned at the little man below. “Stick close, and keep your magics ready. My hammer is eager to hit something!” She ignored Xedric’s shushing motion as he held his flame higher and peered around an adjoining corridor.
At this moment, the Depth’s servant could not be seen. Would not be heard, smelt, or touched while he crept masterfully through the Veil. Its touch was different now, rippling and wrathful, a stranger passion that he instantly recognized. This little pocket of existence was angry, hurting. He had not been gentle as he entered the Veil’s embrace.
Hidduk could feel the song of salvation and doom thrumming in his blood. He was going to meet his friends. They would speak together, using the most ancient language. His Cait Sith’s tail was stiff with excitement for their sake, eager as he was to share the understanding and the gift he had received. So energetic, so full of motion was he, that his tail was almost curling over his head, newly armored and segmented, with a sharp end. He could see his friends now, in his mind’s eye, which was so hard to tell from reality here in the Veil, see them as he had been when young, as he had been but moments ago:
A fearful glance over one shoulder to see if the others were coming. One trembling step forward. A tightened grip on a weapon. At any moment, they would be off, the general melee descending like thunder in a metal storm. Still alive for the moment, but surely not forever; it was a dance, the greatest dance of all. So much danger in every movement, it was certain to catch someone unexpectedly. Death awaited at every breath. Each beat of their red hearts hovering at the edge of the end.
Any moment now, you will meet, said the whispers. An exchange of gifts, said the Merchant.
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