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The Cautious Climb

The towering rows of jars looked on like pale yellow eyes, peering into the abyss. Though so much had been scavenged here over the years from so many lost and discarded souls dashed against the sieve and crushed by the mighty waters, this was the first time anyone had survived so long. Change had come to the Collection Room.

Before this new group arrived, everything had been in its proper place. The labels had slowly faded, while the collection endured. There was always more to collect from the sieve, always a new and interesting treasure to identify and put away. There seemed no end to the unfortunates drawn inexorably to the Depths, and the items in the collection were from a vast span of time. The older jars on the lower shelves bore crumbling labels in ancient scripts, which had been written by his predecessor. Yes, this was by no means the first Collector, keeper of odds and ends and mysterious things here in the deep places. The Depths hungered, and he was its vital force, forgetting nothing, organizing where chaos reigned, and making everything stay the same, instead of being lost.

Long ago, when the Collector had lived the life of an adventurer, things had been very different. In the brief moments of clarity after completing a collection, he could recall a time before now, before he had become this creature. He could remember sitting on his bedroll by his campfire outside the Depths, waiting for the moons to set, and for the time of Shadow’s Delight to begin. The door he’d found to the Depths would open then, and only then.

   His other companions sharpened their weapons or stared into the campfire, thinking of their homes or their dreams. Whatever they sought in the Depths, whatever had brought them together as part of this raid, they could not guess what lay in store. They could not know how swiftly this place would corrupt them, devour their minds and their bodies. He himself could not know that his heart’s yearning for treasure and riches, grown from a traveling merchant’s glorious stories and bright praise, would lead him to exactly what he wanted. All he had to do was serve this place.

   And serve he did, for years and years. He could still remember fighting the previous Collector. Fear and terror in the dark, stone cracking, the unreadable labels of row upon row of glowing jars bearing down on him like ever-watchful stars. Like eyes, observing and beckoning, begging for him to take ownership. Everything was treasure. He wanted all of it. Everything should be his, organized and understood.

Now, waiting for his moment, seething in the dark tunnel he’d opened for himself, the Collector repaired his body as quickly as he could. He might be heavily damaged, but he would not allow these Delvers to leave. Not with his things. Not with his Collection. Not after they broke it and changed it.

Below, Xedric did not wait for the eerie laughter to subside, echoes of his mention of the Merchant. He lurched to his feet, despite the protestation of his still-bruised ribs and wheezing lungs. He almost slipped on the mixture of broken glass and preserving liquid, but Sacriphisto reached out one pale hand and steadied the Senior Flame Warden.

As he scrambled up the walkway, ignoring the unsettling contents of the jars he passed, the whispered laughter lingered like a song of malice. In its wake was silence and the roar of water. Beginning to follow, reluctantly at first, the other Delvers glanced around, seeking the source of merriment in the shadows, but there was nothing. The sound permeated the air, and felt cloying, a thick sort of noise that clogged the senses. The feeling reminded Xedric of getting his teeth stuck together with something sweet but unpleasant.

   Fogja was the first to speak, rushing up to the front with big strides of her long blue legs, one now unarmored in the wake of the Collector’s traps. Carrying her impressive hammer in both hands, her fingers fizzed and crackled with lightning as her face was twisted in a pensive expression. She spoke  to Xedric over her shoulder, slowly, as though her words had to travel a long distance. “I remember… I remember when I was a small girl, a man came to our frozen village in the peaks… he spoke of old tomes, secrets to uncover, mysteries… I loved his talk. I suppose he might have been a merchant of some kind. He sold books with strange titles and thick pages, and he said…well, he told the whole village how impressed he was that I–”

She was cut off by the sound of creaking, cracking stone, as the entire walkway shook beneath their feet. Eyes wide, Donnie leaped from the back of the group, narrowly clearing the crevice that opened almost beneath his feet, threatening to cut him off from his companions. Hidduk reached out one hand to catch the small man, but the nimble Luchorpán shook him off, his rich robes clinking. “The Collector has triggered his traps! Time to really hurry.”

   Jorvald shrugged his stone-studded shoulders, and turned from craning his neck at the towering shelves that loomed in the dark. He raised his voice over the grinding noises that had begun to echo from all around, and peered at his fellow Viking with silver eyes beneath his stony brows. “Hrm. Your merchant sounds the same as mine. He came to us in late autumn, I remember that now!” As he ran, his heavy feet thudding along behind Xedric, the Dvergr thumbed the edge of his axe thoughtfully, as though it would jog his memory. “I recall it was followed by a hard winter, even for us Vikings; and his stories ‘round the fire were most welcome. Full of glorious deeds, the legendary heroes, and their great rewards…”  

The stone wall that loomed over them shook, buckling and bending as stone was not meant to do. Cracks appeared, and splinters of stone spat out, tumbling and skipping over the sloped walkway, rattling knucklebones of the Collection Room spilling down toward the angry river.

    “Stick close,” Muttered Hidduk, his deep voice barely audible over the rumbling. “Whatever that creature is doing to this place, we must not get separated again.” He skirted the edge of a cluster of spikes that emerged from the wall, threatening to pierce him a second time.

Still struggling to heal the Cait Sith’s wounds, Sacriphisto leaned forward slightly, pulling away the glass that had lodged in his ally’s legs with magic. The Bean Sidhe’s pale face looked thinner, more drawn than usual. “I, too, remember a traveler who first told me of the Depths. It was a long time ago, and the forest halls of the Hamadryads were changing color, so it must have been autumn… he made the place below the earth sound wondrous, full of strange sights and new life…” The Bean Sidhe shook his head. “I don’t understand. How did this come to be? Who is this person, or creature, that we all seem to have met? Who is the Merchant?”

He couldn’t hear it over the sound of grinding stone, but in the pause after his words, the whispering came again, softer this time, and drifting into a quiet chuckle that drifted among the glowing jars.

Xedric found it impossible to answer Sacriphisto’s question as he hurried upward, turning along the switchbacks. His head was still spinning a bit from his injuries, and now, the exertion of keeping up with the significantly younger Delvers. He thought of the things he’d seen or hallucinated as he had stumbled alone in the dark, crashing into a jar. On the stone plinth that held the glowing object, a parchment label had been slowly fading with time, though the words could still be read as “Delvers – Memories.” No words could describe what he’d felt, living as others, feeling their doomed lives… His robe still dripped with the strange-smelling liquid of the jar he’d broken. Snapping the fingers of his free hand, Xedric kindled a second flickering flame, and examined his front as he ran, illuminating the soaked garment with orange glints. Here and there in the stains of the drying fluid were golden motes still stuck to him, each one shimmering and blinking.

Donnie sped up and passed Hidduk and Sacriphisto, jumping over rocks that fell in his path. Then one of the jars caught Donnie’s eye as he sprinted past, and he paused to push one of his crowns back up his head, peering at the label. “Delver’s Clothes. That’s creepy. Not in a run-away-now kind of way, but more of a I-hope-don’t-end-up-like-that way. Like how Niall did, when he was playing hide and seek in the meadows back home.” The Luchorpán scrunched up his pointed face in an unfamiliar, thoughtful frown. “It was the same day Niall disappeared that the strange man came to us, hands overflowing with jewels and gold. He told us where it came from, and my brother asked him all sorts of questions. I started to dream of yellow metal…” He glanced nervously around as Hidduk and Sacriphisto came up to pass him again. “Why… why are we–”

The end of his sentence was masked by the incredibly loud popping sound of one of the stone bridges breaking in half. The gigantic column of stone shelves that they were climbing had begun to rotate, twisting around to a new position. With a cracking and rumbling that drowned out all other hearing, the rest of the bridges tore away from its side. They saw the jars of another column go rushing past, streaks of pale yellow light in the darkness of grinding stone. The labels flashed in Xedric’s flickering firelights, their weird writing barely legible, yet hypnotic: Knives – Bone, Glass Eyes, Loose Lips–on and on, a collection without end or apparent meaning.

About to leap onward, Donnie glanced back at the jar, and thought he saw an all-too-familiar belt, shoes, and jerkin, floating amongst the other clothing. The place had a piece of him, now. Perhaps that meant he, too, had a piece of the Depths in him. The Luchorpán shuddered and glanced up at the hurrying Delvers, but no one else had noticed. He kept it to himself.

Still they pressed on, and upward, climbing past the point where Xedric had been pushed, past where they had reunited with Donnie, and past where Hidduk had made the other Delvers turn back. All the while, the scraping column of stone shuddered along on its axis, changing the shape of the room even as they traversed it vertically.

The Delvers felt their memories weighing heavily on them. Whatever this Raid had become, it had begun outside, in a very different place and time. The dark tendrils of corruption had reached out to touch them, and, somehow, pulled them here. Everything seemed suspect; if they could not trust their own desires, there was nothing in their whole histories they could believe.

With a final lurch and a boom, the column whose shelves they were ascending found its resting place. All the Delvers stumbled forward, the momentum carrying them on as the final splinters of stone fell around them. Whatever new configuration the maddening Collection room was now in, it seemed the cruel Depths was momentarily satisfied. The silence that followed was deep, and made the Delvers feel the emptiness all around.  

Agile as ever, Donnie was first to look up and gasp. “There it is! The way out. Told you I saw something when I was in the tunnels.”

They had reached a platform on the apparently endless column of stone. A completely different stonework was in evidence here, as if some ancient ruin had been swallowed up by the Depths; curling stairways in concentric circles appeared to ripple out from a raised dais, which was carved with an intricate network of crisscrossing lines. It made one’s eyes cross to stare too long at the pattern, which always seemed on the verge of forming a definite shape, but somehow never quite showed a complete image. On the far side of the semicircular dais was a massive archway and stone door. A series of illegible characters were carved into its surface, in a language too ancient–or too secret–even for Fogja to translate.

Despite their better judgement, the weary Delvers spread out to look at the strangeness of it all, listening carefully for the telltale click of the Collector’s approach. Hidden among the confusing curlicues of stone the metal track continued, clear sign that the master of this place could come here if he chose.

Panting, Xedric looked at Hidduk, whose impenetrable eyes were studying the strange writing. “And what, heh, what of you, Hidduk?”

The Cait Sith turned and glanced at him with a quizzical look. “What of me?”

“Do you, ah, do you also recall a… a merchant?” The others glanced over, beginning to listen in. “A man who…told you of the Depths?”

Hidduk glanced down, nodding as he considered, and began to pace back and forth. “I…wait.” The Cait Sith stopped his tracks, fur standing on end. He held up one hand and cocked his head, listening. “I think… give me a moment, I must look in the Veil.” As always, he stepped into the shadows, away from Xedric’s lights, to perform his ritual of opening.

The other Delvers chose to look away, giving the Raid’s leader his privacy. There were more interesting things to look at here, anyway. Climbing the stairs, they stood before the mighty door in a loose semicircle, conferring quietly over the meaning of the inscription upon the door and its massive archway.

Hidduk slipped around a corner, a tall fold in the stone that stood up like a ruined tooth. He needed a clear mind to see what was going on, and well… sometimes he felt like the Veil missed him. Or maybe it was the other way around.

He saw the dangers shifting, swirling. There were definitely malevolent forces here, things so evil and so wrong that they were beyond his understanding. And there was one thing, one danger that loomed over the rest… Exiting the Veil, Hidduk stepped into the semicircle, startling the other Delvers with his sudden appearance, just as he had back in the valley outside, which seemed so far away. “He’s coming. We’re hurt, and we need to recuperate; let’s press on.”

With quick nods of agreement, the Delvers fell into their now-familiar marching order, with the heavy fighters before and behind, keeping a sharp lookout for falling stones, spiny traps, or sliding walls. The entire group was listening with dread for the clicking of the Collector, ready to strike if the creature showed his face. Unperturbed by the darkness (or by anything else, he would claim, had anyone asked him), Jorvald stepped forward with axe held high, about to push on the mysterious door.

   When the Collector finally attacked, he came silently, invisible in his hiding place. His long arms emerged first, pulling him from a crevice that opened high on the wall, a black slash in the obscure cliff above the ruins. Then came his head and torso, badly mangled from the injuries he’d sustained, yet repaired to functionality. Sparks still occasionally sprang from the whirling, twisting gears that had been exposed by axe, hammer, and dagger wounds. There was no clicking sound, for he held himself aloft using his powerful arms. Balancing carefully, he lowered his body from one shelf of rock to the next, straining to keep his metal parts from knocking against the stone. It had taken the last of his resources to create this perfect ambush spot. However, these breakers of things, these disturbers of his organized existence, these greedy agents of chaos… they had to be stopped. Or made to join him.

   With a hiss that sounded more like a scream, the Collector dropped from his perch on the cliff above. He fell with arms outstretched and metal-bound jaws wide, teeth telescoping outward into long needlelike points. In service to his obsessions, he had long ago discarded his humanoid guise: he now resembled a huge, twisted spider, falling upon its unknowing prey.

Read The Great Depths Raid – Part IX

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