Rush of Shadows
The looming, awful tower watched unmoving as the tiny figures of the Delvers began to make their way through the titled maze. It had seen many come this way, but very few that managed to climb its stairs and leave this place behind. The other presence here, one of gleeful destruction and horror and service to this place, made sure of that. The newest servant now crawled, scuttled, and ran invisibly through the shadows of the labyrinth that surrounded the tower. Beneath the dark eye of its upper window, the scene spread out with a byzantine poetry of horror, creatures converging in the murky brown light that had always been here, closed loop of eternal evening spiraling on forever.
Creeping along cautiously, Xedric curbed his natural desire to run headlong down any pathway that seemed to lead toward the awful leaning tower that overlooked them all. His years of training, and yes, years of mistakes as well, had taught him to redirect his desperate eagerness into the bright twisting flame that now brightened the insufficiently lit corridors. Hanging tapestries of shadow that curled over the walls shimmered and wriggled in the light, but refused to fade or disappear.
The Arthurian Human looked over his shoulder, his eyes aglow with an amber light, watching for his companions. He was not sure if they yet understood what was going to happen, what the whispers had meant when they tempted them, what the blood script meant when it spoke of the Price. When he spoke, he kept his harsh voice soft, though it rasped at the edges with the fire that burned inside the Flame Warden. “No enemies around this corner. Approach quietly, friends, for I don’t like–”
“Coming, flame-man!” Fogja called, lifting her enormous hammer in her powerful Jötunn’s hands. “Ah, the secrets we’ve seen this day… or night… or whatever time means here…”
“Breath of the frost dragon!” Xedric swore, spooling the long streamer of flame between his fingers. “Don’t you have any concept of stealth?”
The giant looked down at him disdainfully. “That’d be Hidduk’s job, not mine. And where is that furry shortie, anyway? Shouldn’t he have rejoined us by now?”
Sacriphisto answered her, floating around the corner with his hands ready to mount a defense against sudden attack. It could come from anywhere in this strange and tilted labyrinth, where the eye was constantly baffled and deceived by living shadows. “Perhaps there is something that blocked his egress by a tunnel similar to our own; however, before our noble leader left us, didn’t he say something about his tactics requiring stealth?” The Bean Sidhe paused, waiting while Xedric sent forth his twisting streamer of flame to light the way once more. “I think he meant to join us just in time to ambush our enemies.”
“Ha! Noble leader indeed.” Jorvald thumped heavily forward. Though the Dvergr warrior had many cracks and chips in his stones from his battles here, those would soon be renewed. “I consider him no leader at all, just a…gatherer, of sorts, getting all of us Delvers together. And here we are, ready to fight our way out! Cracks and grime to that Merchant, wherever he may be.” And with exaggerated bravado to show the shadows he was unafraid, Jorvald tossed his axe up, spinning in the dull brown light.
“Gathering us? Ah, like one might gather finery and gold…” The mellow, pleasant voice was amazingly relaxed and surprisingly… high up. Jorvald stopped in his tracks and looked up to see Donnie high overhead, watching as the axe spun its way back down to the Dvergr. The little Luchorpán was walking along the top of one of the high walls, picking his way with a soft jingle over the twisted metallic tendons and cables. Nonchalant, Donnie paused to examine the heavy rings on his long fingers in the dull brown light that seemed to have no source.
Xedric stared up as well, his mouth a little open. “How did you…? How did you even get up there? Why did you get up there?”
Donnie shot him a disdainful look, although at that height it was a bit difficult to tell. “In answer to your first question, practice and skill. In answer to your second…” The Luchorpán spread his arms, making his bracelets jingle, and looked around him. “I have all the advantages, up here! I can see the other passages, into places you cannot.” For a moment, Donnie’s face blanched, and he gave a little skip to avoid a writhing mass of shadowy membrane that lay over the top of the wall and threatened to block his path. Then he pointed with one long index finger toward the junction where Sacriphisto now hesitated, his Tuatha Dé Danann robe swinging. “For example, I can now see that the left-hand path leads to a dead end. Hoi, healer! Turn right, there.”
Xedric ground his teeth. “Without the Cait Sith, we seem to have turned into a troop of fools.”
“Ha, he was too cautious anyway. Slowed us down,” Jorvald snorted, having caught his axe expertly once more, without gaining any new scars from it. He thumbed the edge of the fine weapon, its surface now marred a little, scratched and slightly nicked by the Collector’s weird metal. He’d have to see if he could find a Crafter who might experiment a bit with that when he got out. The Dvergr looked up at the fuming Xedric and grinned. “A Viking’s way is better. You, Human, told us the Merchant brought us here… let’s get on out, then!”
Sacriphisto turned and smiled wryly before taking the right-hand passageway, narrowly avoiding some trailing strands of shadow. “Come, Xedric. We all needed a moment of levity to relax. Donnie, you’d best get down from there. You’re going to bring every creature here on us.”
“Or up to me, right?” Donnie stifled a laugh at his own joke, and continued to pick his way along the top of the wall, above the tunnels that the others had to crawl through. He paused, about to make another joke, as he noticed the tendrils of shadow quivering. Not shaking in Xedric’s illuminating firelight, but trembling as if in fear or excitement at his approach. Or perhaps the approach of something else. “Uh, everyone? I think something’s–”
The Luchorpán would never finish his sentence, as something shadowy rushed up the side of the wall on silent limbs and smote him a terrible blow. He was barely aware of an awful hissing sound, a muted clicking, sharp pain down his side, and then he was falling, falling to the floor. The Luchorpán landed with an audible thump, and bounced, awkwardly trying to roll with his quick reflexes on the uneven floor.
“Agh!” Donnie clutched at his leg and side, feeling damp staining through his fine clothes, now slashed ragged.
Jorvald, who was nearest, stepped forward and lifted his axe. “Come on, then!” he shouted, but his challenge seemed to go nowhere in the heavy, brown-laden air. Whatever it was that had attacked had become visible at the moment of its strike, but had dropped back down behind the wall again before the Dvergr’s silvery eyes could detect more than a furry mass.
Donnie shuddered, clenching his teeth as he clenched his hands over the long wound. “Ach, sorry brother… I’ve let you down…”
Jorvald glanced briefly at the Luchorpán, but maintained his stance as Xedric and Fogja both whirled at the end of the hall, just before the turn, and began to rush back. The stone-boned man kept his harsh voice quiet. “Well, I suppose there’s one reason not to walk atop the walls… What was it?”
The Luchorpán glanced up, then back down. “I don’t know just how it happened…I let down my guard… He came from the shadows.” Donnie felt a bit mesmerized by the sight of his injury. Blood trickled from the wound, a warm gush over his skin. It flowed in a stream down to the floor, which rippled with faint dark smoke and gobbled up the crimson liquid.
Seeing the red blood, Fogja paused in her run to return, electric power crackling over her knuckles and forearms. “Hold a moment. We need the healer. Sacriphisto…? She looked back, her helmeted head swiveling to where the Bean Sidhe had turned the corner.
Xedric didn’t pause, pushing past the massive Frost Giant in his hurry. “Find and protect him. I’ll cauterize the wound if need be…”
At that moment, Sacriphisto was only barely aware of the sounds of his companions. He was more focused on the strange new life he had discovered. These quivering shadows seemed to react to his presence. The Bean Sidhe was just reaching out one ghostly finger to touch, when a strange noise made him pause and look up. “Who’s there?”
The thing rounded another corner of this weird maze, scuttling to maintain its grip on the slanted floor as it heaved its strangely sleek bulk onward. The black, furry thing made ever more disturbing noises as it came closer, a long black tail curved high overhead.
For a moment, Sacriphisto, Bean Sidhe and survivor of great terrors and tortures, was frozen in horror himself. This was new life… but twisted and wrong, so wrong and and so frighteningly fitted to the motions and atmosphere of this place. So fast was the thing that it stood before him and reared up on a pair of its far too numerous legs before the healer could do more than gape in frozen astonishment.
The smell hit him first, a musky reek of fur, shell, blood, and an unnatural, chemical miasma. In appearance, once it was visibly distinct from the shadows that constantly trickled and edged toward it, the thing was immediately recognizable as twisted from the form of some other creature, a true servant of The Depths. In shape, it was something like a cat and a scorpion… yet, awfully, so much more than that. To look at this creature was to taste madness.
He saw rows of eyes, nipples, pierced and encircled by strange metals, lips that moved constantly as though muttering strange curses struggling, grasping fingers, a hundred putrid sores leaking their fluids along his heaving musculature. The slickness helped the segmented limbs wriggle silently through, bulk scraping past the thrumming shadows, which themselves urged the creature onward. Sleek black fur, oily-looking and matted, stuck out from rigid segments, gleaming black chitin that appeared to have pushed through the skin, armoring the body all the way up the tail. This piece of anatomy curled high overhead, full of tension and deadly power, ending in a lump and a long, cruel stinger.
As if to show itself off, the creature spread multiple arms full of claws that clicked and scraped together, apparently still changing before Sacriphisto’s gaze. The eyes all blinked in unison, and stared down at the Bean Sidhe with a frightening sort of affection.
At last, Sacriphisto caught his breath. Floating just above the ground, he tried to inch back toward the turn, keenly aware of his allies just around the corner. “Is that… Hidduk? You… you of the noble Cait Sith?” His voice quavered slightly at the end of the question, and the Bean Sidhe’s normally inscrutable face, reacting slowly, took on an expression of shock and horror.
Pulling themselves open like wounds, new mouths spread over the thing’s armored abdomen, gushing crimson before they spoke. The thing’s voice was freakish, incongruously high-pitched like the caterwaul of a lost thing in the night. It stuttered, hesitating as it aped Hidduk’s voice, yet now not at all like the elegant speech or powerful grace of a Cait Sith of Arthur’s Realm. “At l-last, you can join us, friend! It-it’s wonderful, a b-blessing. Give in, g-give The Depths what it n-needs, pay the One Price, and you can at last g-gain the G-Gift.”
To punctuate these words, the highly-tensed tail struck down in a blink. But Sacriphisto was already running, speeding to the turn that led back to the other Delvers. Desperately he cried, “It’s Hidduk! He’s–horrible–he serves The Depths!”
Hearing this, Fogja was torn, caught between rushing to help one friend or another. “How did we come to this so quickly? What has rushed us from the shadows?”
Read The Great Depths Raid – Part XII