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The Tilted Maze and the Tower
From the throat, to the gullet, pulsating blood-red; from there to the collected stars above the roaring river; and then through a tunnel of darkness to the tilted maze. So the Delvers had journeyed, fighting together, bleeding together, braving the mysteries and dangers of The Depths together. And now, like a black spike in their hearts, one of their number had fallen to darkness; their leader, the one who had gathered the Raid: Hidduk. Noble Cait Sith of the Arthurian Realm, now become a monstrous scorpion and catlike thing, a creature from his own nightmares.
All of this flashed through Fogja’s mind as she broke from her hesitation and rushed to help Sacriphisto, the Bean Sidhe healer who was screaming for aid. Her heavy boots pounded across the uneven floor of the maze, incongruous Viking leathers on a surface formed of curling metallic tendons and gleaming glass arteries. As she ran, the Jötunn opened her free hand, while the other held fast to her hammer. White-blue lightning crackled and swirled in her palm, and she thrust the energy into her weapon, which flashed and pulsed with the power of the thunder-god whose battle style she followed.
Fury in her step and her ice-blue eyes, Fogja rounded the corner, meeting Sacriphisto as he fled the other way. At that moment, the thing that had been Hidduk pounced.
The newly made Servant of The Depths had many mouths, which whispered to him as he ran and leapt through the air. “Come, come to my claws, for they shall rip you revelations. Come, come to my teeth, for they shall take you and keep you. Come, come to my tail my poisoned darling, and know the shaking and final white unknowing.”
Nearby, the shadows flickered and flowed like liquids as the rush of claws and pincer met an explosion of bright lightning. Furred and armored, Hidduk thrashed, his tall, arched tail striking down to pierce the armored Frost Giant. His swollen form dwarfed her now, but Fogja struck back, her hammer cracking claw and crushing chitin wherever she struck. The smell of burned hair filled the passage, along with the acrid miasma of poison as the enormous stinger gave her another near miss, penetrating the floor by her foot with a thunderous crack.
With a hiss and a roar, the monstrous scorpion-like creature unleashed a burst of dark power, blasting everything nearby with waves of the same thick, coagulated shadow that laid over the walls like curtains. The force flung Fogja down another side passage, though she kept her feet. Snarling, Hidduk rushed in to keep on the pressure.
As the blast hit him from behind, Sacriphisto stumbled, though he didn’t quite touch the ground; then kept running, barely slowed, to where Donnie shakily stood, leaning on Jorvald. The Dvergr stood firm with a grim expression, belying the jokes he periodically told to Donnie to keep up the injured Luchorpán’s spirits.
“Don’t pay any mind to that puddle of red from your leg, there. Makes a good crimson dye, I’ve heard!” His gruff voice fell on dull air, but that didn’t seem to deter Jorvald in the least.
Xedric straightened, the Arthurian Human’s eyes and fingers sparking as he looked up from his quick cauterizing of the Luchorpán’s wound, which was still smoking. “Ah good, the healer returns just in time.”
Donnie spoke through clenched teeth, trying to ignore the intense pain he clearly felt. “What’s going on?”
Sacriphisto, breathless, bent to examine Donnie’s injury. “It’s the Cait Sith. He’s become some monstrous thing of The Depths. You two should help Fogja while I heal this wound. And… be careful, he’s become enormous. And insane.”
Before the Bean Sidhe could finish speaking, Xedric and Jorvald were already on the move, rushing along the oddly angled maze to the flashes of lightning and searing trails of shadow that marked the shifting location of the raging fight. One trailed flame, preparing his new magics, enhanced by the laughter of The Depths themselves; the other grinned, his eyes alight with the joy of battle about to be joined.
A few moments away, the Servant of The Depths loomed over his prey, seeing the blue-skinned form mirrored through many new eyes. Though she was panting, and cut to ribbons by his righteous claws, still she stood, defiantly rejecting his Gift. It was time to try something else, the whispers told him. Attack Fogja in a new way.
Hidduk reared up to his full height, feeling the pain in pairs of his claws and dents in his shell where her crackling hammer had hit him. Once again, mouths opened like blisters across his front. Fogja watched in blank horror as from each mouth razors emerged, slicing open each tongue to reveal more tongues, wriggling as if reaching out to taste her flesh, her mind.
The mouths spoke in a hesitant chorus, as though still learning to speak. “O-oh, wrong w-way F-Fogja.”
The sound of her name emerging from such awful sources made Fogja shiver as the coldest of winters never could. “What? What do you want, you corrupt thing? What do you know of my story?”
“Oh, the story is a good one.” Hidduk’s largest mouth licked its lips, as if delighting in the taste of its truth. “The other V-Vikings all tell it, and laugh. That overbold, o-overgrown girl! Thinking she c-could lead a war-party. Too b-bold to consult with her m-maps, too foolish to stop when the scouts t-told her the layout of the land! To think, the v-victory we c-could have achieved… if only we’d g-gone the right way! Toward the en-enemy, fleeing with their lives, instead of away and into the woods! We had to return home in shame, and the b-beer was watery that night, tasting also of our own battle-brothers’ and sisters’ blood.”
Fogja’s blue eyes were wide beneath her dented helmet as she swayed a little, leaning against the tilted floor. “How do you know?”
Hidduk laughed, shaking as he did so. The sound was a horrible delight, like newly spawned kittens drowning. His speech seemed to clear as he babbled his madness, losing the stutter as he finally learned to speak with his new mouths. “How do I know! Ah, with my gift, I know so many things! The blood of innocents tickles my nostrils and delights my eyes. My hair pricks up at the thought of the excesses and violent celebrations to come. My love, my love is deep, I feel it tugging at my testes as this place, this home, calls to me. Time to settle down and make a hundred, no, a hundred thousand children, all weeping with joy at the crawling things they can spear with their freshly-grown claws, virtuous hunters all. They delight in their abilities, and follow their father, who leads them kindly to kill all their prey swift and silent and – erk!”
Pain! Burning pain in his back like the wicked blades of the little jumper he had flung from the walls. Hidduk whirled to see a trail of smoke in the air, leading back to the pointing fingers of the Flame Warden, his lined face set in a pleased smirk.
Just ahead of him, charging forward with axe at the ready, Jorvald roared a challenge. “You’ve changed a bit, kitty! Looks like an improvement!”
Fogja shook herself, smelling the burnt flesh of her opponent, her spirits lifting as she saw her companions coming to her defense. It would seem she had gone the wrong way, one more time… but now, it had allowed her to flank the enemy. She too charged forward, hammer raised once more.
Hidduk had no time to open the Veil carefully. A good hunter knew when to return to stalking his prey, and that time was now. His reaching claws, though hungry for flesh, instead scythed out in mysterious arcs, trailing lights that glittered and flickered but revealed nothing in the roiling blackness that gathered swiftly around him.
Yet he could not possibly get away fast enough to escape the charge from two directions. Jorvald’s axe slammed into the monster’s side, ducking under some of the claws that were not engaged in opening the invisible Veil.
Jorvald plunged his father’s axe in, grunting as the burning claws tore at him, ripping out chunks of stone and flesh in blood-red streaks. The blade bit, but shallowly, barely able to split the rough chitinous armor that encased his former friend, even weakened by Xedric’s flame. The Dvergr poured everything he had into the pressure of the attack, but Hidduk was was ripping, tearing; Jorvald knew he could not hold on forever.
Fortunately, Fogja’s attack arrived just a moment later. Her hammer came down, using the back of Jorvald’s battleaxe like the wide end of a wedge splitting a log. Fogja grinned, exulting, as the armor cracked open, snapping under the heavy blow. Ichor sprayed from the wound and painted her and the other Viking in dark brown. It was disgusting, a thick fluid that smelled awful, as though Hidduk’s blood had been replaced by something much worse.
There was an explosion of lightning, and Hidduk’s many-mouthed scream ripped through the brownish air in a wail of pain. Muscles rippled along his furry body, making the armored chitin shake. He leaped, snapping upward so fast it was hard to follow the motion, ripping free of Jorvald’s axe. The Dvergr growled as his arms were jerked upward, and he pulled, drawing the blade down as more foul ichor spilled over his armor and clothes.
Hidduk rose, raising his clawed fists, then came slamming down to the twisted metal floor. The ground shook under the blow, and the earthquake of force tore through the nearby Delvers, unstoppable in its power. They were tossed violently away, scrambling or rolling on the sloped surface.
With his many mouths grinning through the pain, Hidduk shuddered as he completed his violent ritual of opening. The Veil’s angry embrace would hurt almost as much as the smoking wound in his side. He cried out in a many-voiced farewell before he shimmered and faded away, “Everyone’s dying, my former friends and Delvers, and it is good sport to see!” And then he was gone, leaving more trails of the quivering darkness that refused to go away, even in the light of Xedric’s fires.
Sacriphisto and Donnie came limping into view, each with a nasty scar up one leg. It appeared that the Bean Sidhe had not been able to fully heal Donnie, any longer.
The Luchorpán’s voice was a little rough and ragged. He kept glancing down at the long tear in his kingly robes where the pale scar showed through. “What happened here? Did he get away again?”
Xedric nodded bitterly, quelling the flames that still licked over his wrists and forearms. “Somehow, even with all the horrible changes… it was still Hidduk. And I thought he was suspicious of me.”
“Heh.” Fogja picked herself slowly up from the corner where she’d tumbled down the sloped floor, leaning for support on the ridged wall of metal cables. She was battered all over, scratched and clawed. Some of her wounds leaked dark blood in lines, marking her like an unreadable page. “We were all suspicious of one or another at some point. I’m glad I… I’m glad it’s clear I wasn’t the one corrupted by the whispers.”
Jorvald snorted. “Wrong-way Fogja might make a mistake or three.” Then he grinned, showing a gap in his teeth where one of the fierce claws had caught him. “But she’d never willingly fall to corruption or madness.” He hefted his axe, now streaked with ichor. “And she hits hard, too!”
Xedric nodded, then swept past, pointing toward the next junction. “While we can, we must make progress toward that tower. Maybe we can escape before he attacks again.”
Donnie held up one hand covered in rings. “Wait a moment.” As Xedric paused, curious, the Luchorpán screwed up his face, deep in thought. Sacriphisto, meanwhile, moved to Fogja and Jorvald to see what could be done for their injuries.
As Xedric was opening his mouth to urge haste once again, Donnie spoke. “I think… no, I am fairly certain from the look I got atop the wall that we must turn right… and then left, and right again. It’s not that difficult of a maze, once you get a good look at it.”
Sacriphisto laughed, a rare, strange sound from a Bean Sidhe, as green energy flowed between his ghostly hands over Fogja’s arm. “Heh, as I often say, only the foolish underestimate the cleverness of the little folk of the Tuatha Dé Danann Realm.”
Jorvald grunted in assent, and led the way onward through the winding, tilted maze, stepping carefully over the streamers of shadow. They seemed to be getting more frequent, and darker, as the Delvers made their way closer to the awful tower that speared up from the center of the maze. It was hung with many dark shadows of its own, pouring from the oddly placed and shaped windows, as if they spilled from the stairwell that climbed out the top of the tower and through the brown sky.
Hidduk hunted them from the Veil, stalking through the maze by himself. “They deserve it, they deserve it,” the Veil whispered to him lovingly, or he whispered back. It was getting harder to tell. “They deserve it so well, so completely; this action is the poetry they need! I can smell the sharp scent of blood and guts, bowels clenching and loosening, saliva drying on cracked lips, fingers sweating and clutching, clutching the weapons that will do so little good when the time comes… You should know, you should know, and pay the Price!”
Wary, tense, wincing at their wounds, the Delvers reached the base of the tower, staying away from the shadows that spilled out to one side. There was clearly something odd, something wrong with the architecture, especially close up: the square doorway and the randomly-placed windows weren’t quite square after all, and seemed to stand straight up even through the tower leaned at such a crazy angle over the Tilted Maze. Above the entrance, there were words inscribed in a baffling language.
Fogja motioned Jorvald over, then wiped her hand with the ichor that still dripped from his axe blade. Stretching up with her giant’s height, she smeared the dark liquid over the stone-carved characters. As she expected, they bubbled and shifted beneath the blood, until the script changed to something readable. The Delvers frowned and glanced at one another, before quickly hurrying beneath the strange words and into the tower. The blood-script now read: “What do you hope to gain from your life, your existence, your knowledge, your understanding? You must consume in order to gain; you must ingest in order to live.”
Within the tower, there was a wide, awkwardly angled stairwell. Nothing else appeared to have been built: there were no landings, no living quarters, no apparent purpose to this place besides the tall stone stairs. Unless one counted the periodic windows, apparently made just to stare out into the dull brown light that seemed to go on forever in all directions, or to survey the labyrinth below. At each window there was a hook, tied with a number of shadowy streamers, hanging almost down to the ground like shrouds of long-forgotten dead.
An ominous presence filled the air inside the tower, layering over every surface like an invisible blanket of hungry dust.
“It is the will of The Depths,” whispered Donnie, jumping onto the first stone slab, as brown as the light outside. “It doesn’t want us to leave.”
As they climbed the steps of the tower, panting and bleeding as wounds reopened with the efforts, each of the Delvers was prompted to a flash of memory. It was difficult to tell where it had come from, this power of remembrance; but like the oppressive atmosphere, it was inescapable. They remembered the man, the Merchant that had come to them, long ago. Something he had said had hooked them, pulled them to this place; and it would take all they had to escape.
Below, Hidduk hunted, following the trails they had left him. He came to the shadowed side of the leaning tower, where the black streams of shadow hung down from the strange windows. “I need to feel something… I am all alone,” said Hidduk to himself in his mind in the Veil. And so he reached out to touch something, and in touching, tried to destroy it; his closest companions, ones he had recruited to gain glory in this place that the wise old Merchant had so pleasantly suggested to him long ago.
The Delvers were more than halfway up the tower when the Servant of The Depths caught up to them. Fogja was in the lead, her long legs making quick work of the broad steps; Sacriphisto followed her closely, while Donnie and Xedric were in the middle of the line, with Jorvald bringing up the rear.
In the dull brown light, the Dvergr’s eyes caught a shadow at the window. Jorvald reacted instantly, hurtling up the steps and throwing himself in front of the healer and mage as a long black stinger burst in, its deadly arc descending. He tried to take the blow on his stones or even his axe, but there was only an eyeblink’s time to move in. Xedric threw up an arm and fell back shouting, while Donnie immediately jumped, making it up five steps in one bound. They both narrowly avoided the spray of blood and poison that painted the wall and floor.
Jorvald still stood, snarling even as he wobbled. For a moment, everything was still, but for the droplets falling down his face. Then the stinger ripped out of his eye in another stream of blood, as Hidduk chuckled in triumph and swung back on the dark vine of shadow his claws held onto, ready to plunge in for the final blow.
Fogja, at the next oddly-shaped window further up the stairs, heard Hidduk’s chuckle outside the tower and rushed to the opening to see what had happened, holding the edge of the wall to stop herself tumbling out. She could see Hidduk swinging, his great black form with too many arachnid limbs, like a spider on its web. He was hanging on one of the streamers of shadow that attached… to this very windowsill, spilling out like a black rope.
Without hesitation, she put aside her hammer and plunged her hands into the stuff. It was surprisingly solid, and felt like something slightly elastic, tied to a hook in the wall. Hidduk swung out, then back in, rushing claws open wide to rip out Jorvald’s throat. He cackled, his delight echoing through the tower and the passages below. It was so amusing, the sight of the Dvergr still standing and gripping his axe, grimly defending the other Delvers as he watched oncoming death through one good eye.
Nervous fingers fumbling, sweaty, she finally managed to undo the knot, and the thing dropped away. The rope slapped and zipped across the stone, pulled down by the great weight of the creature that clutched it. Shrieking and yowling all the way, Hidduk fell, landing on the hard floor of the labyrinth below the tower with a tremendous crack and a splintering explosion of shadows that mostly hid him from view. His shrieking and thrashing continued, but whether these were his death throes or an attempt to climb the tower again, it was hard to tell.
“Come on!” Sacriphisto shouted, pouring the last of his healing arts into the Dvergr to clear the poison from the gap in his skull. “Let’s climb, climb, climb!”
Jorvald turned, touching the leaking hole where his eye had been. “Can… can you heal it?”
As they pounded up the stairs, legs aching, Sacriphisto snorted. “No… but if my magic works and the poison doesn’t kill you, you’ll have quite a scar.”
Jorvald grinned, showing his new gap-tooth as they pushed into the open, where the stairwell continued into the brown atmosphere free of the tower, upward and out. “That’s good, then.”
His vision rapidly fading as he lay and twitched upon the ground, Hidduk watched the specks of the Delvers leaving him behind, climbing the tall spiraling stairs that pierced the endless brown above. He felt The Depths reclaim him, to be used and reused forever. The Depths wasted nothing, especially not a corrupt soul.
He recited the words that were whispered to him, that the Merchant had told to him when he left his fellow Delvers to be claimed in his first Raid. “This is existence, this is sex and gore and death and triumph. This is victory and blessed Gifts.” Metallic pipes sucked him down, making him one with the very fabric of this place.
He licked his dry, bloodied lips and spoke on until there was nothing left. “Slowly, my skin begins to melt off my body. My eyes weep tears that burn my exposed flesh, and where they fall upon the ground, there spawn wriggling, blind things, hungry for suffering. The black shell that protects me is thickening, filling with the blood I have spilled. The whispers that chased me now abhorrently egg me onward, imprecations and songs of lustful bloodletting. I am of The Depths, its Servant forever. To all else, an Eternal Adversary…”
The rest of the Delvers made good their escape. The stairwell led them to a cave on the edge of the Stormlands, and to true sunlight at last. Donnie jumped for joy, Jorvald coughed with relieved laughter, and even Xedric smiled as the heavy presence and influence of The Depths faded from his mind. Blinking in the strong wind, the five survivors watched the dark crevice where they had emerged quickly disappear in layers of blown sand. No one made an effort to try and mark the place.
They had come out on a hill of loose sand and scree, and in most directions there was nothing but the blasted landscape of the Stormlands, constantly torn apart by Veilstorms. However, on the horizon there was a clear green and blue line, marking the start of more habitable lands and the Realms that were their homes.
Xedric was the first to break the silence. “Well, we lived. Despite Hidduk’s betrayal. Breath of the Frost Dragon, we did it!”
Tossing one of his crowns into the air, Donnie jumped to catch it. “And we found our rewards! At least, I found mine.”
Jorvald gently touched the open wound where his eye had been. “Aye, and a wonderful reward it is.” He grinned wide, belying his sarcastic statement.
Fogja patted the Dvergr on the shoulder with one big blue hand. “Now, don’t be losing that famous humor of yours. I intend to tell everyone how you helped me discover secrets and destroy a great enemy! So, your glory will live on with mine.” Jorvald made an annoyed noise, and the Frost Giant laughed.
The pale Sacriphisto stood solemnly, watching the sand blow until the last sign of an opening was gone. “We learned much, and saw many wonders and horrors.” He glanced up at the others. “We delved into The Depths together, and though we part ways now, we can forever say one thing is true.”
“That it was definitely me who killed the biggest monsters?” Jorvald chuckled, wiping down his axe.
Sacriphisto smiled back. “That we went on a great Raid to the darkest of places, and yet we returned.”
Xedric nodded. “And there are very few who can say that.”
Examining her punctured, dented, and disheveled armor, Fogja sighed. “I just wish we could have learned more about what really happened. With the Merchant, and our memories, and why the Cait… Why Hidduk became that thing. Was he planning it all along?”
“I truly don’t think so.” Xedric looked troubled, frowning at the plumes of dust devils that looked like smoke coming over the hill. He spoke slowly in his raspy voice. “I’d hate to believe a true Arthurian could fall to evil like that, but I think… I think we all felt the corruption seeping into us. Hidduk had been on a Raid to The Depths before. Something happened then, something that stuck with him, some secret taint that made him fall to the corruption first.”
Donnie shrugged and made a sour face. “Or maybe he was just unlucky. I suppose I don’t think it needs to be so complicated. The way I see it, we had an adventure. We beat the dangers we could, escaped the ones we couldn’t, and got out with…whatever we managed to get out with.”
The Dvergr grunted. “Maybe he made a sacrifice. Maybe he paid the price for us.”
Sacriphisto pointed up at the swirling streaks of dust that Xedric had been staring at, siroccos blowing over the crest of the hill they stood upon. “There’s a storm coming. We have to get moving.” With that, he started toward the green horizon, and the others followed.
Donnie became a famous storyteller, as well-known for his enormous wealth as for his tall tales, not to mention winning every local competition for high jumping. Sacriphisto returned to his people with great knowledge, a scholar and builder of a vast cathedral and hall of learning for the healing arts. Xedric rose to become head of his order for a period of time, known as one of the greatest and most powerful Flame Wardens ever to walk the Realms. Jorvald took up with a great many ladyfolk and earned great glory as the One-eyed Warrior, while Fogja took up residence in the icy peaks as a sage and keeper of many secrets. The two Vikings often met in years to come, and spent much of their lives debating who truly deserved credit for the demise of the Servant. A good-natured debate between friends, and more often than not, one that led to a competition to prove a point.
Few of them spoke of The Depths; or if they did, it was always to call it a bad place, a wrong place, a place they would never go again… unless, of course, it was for a very good reason.
This concludes the tale of the Great Depths Raid.
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