Holly had just slipped her right foot into the water-sealed canvas leg of the diving suit when she felt her boot come down atop something soft, wet, and squishy. Cringing, she shuddered involuntarily.
“Damnation, Ronald, I thought you said you cleaned the suit out!” she yelled across the floating platform at the barometrician, who had the glass cover off from one of his console’s many dials and was poking at its needle with a confused expression on his face.
“I did clean it out,” Ronald said. He didn’t bother to look up from his work.
“Well, you did a terrible job,” Holly said. “There are still bits of him down at the bottom.”
The barometrician’s shoulders shrugged. “I rinsed it out,” he said. “I didn’t scrub it down with a fine cloth. I figured that fixing the umbilicus was a more important use of my time.”
“I ought to make you climb into this thing. It’s disgusting,” Holly said.
But the apprentice salvager gritted her teeth and slid her other leg into the diving suit as well, trying doggedly to ignore the wetness which she felt seep up around the tops of her boots.
“I should get an extra share for this,” she said. “Especially after what happened to Ozborn.”
Until earlier that day, Ozborn had been the expedition’s salvage master. He had spent more time inside the half-mechanical, half-magical diving suit than any other man alive, and he had been training Holly to follow in his footsteps.
But then the umbilicus had sprung a catastrophic leak while Ozborn was down at depth among the old academy ruins. The suit had lost pressure, and, as the surrounding water collapsed the suit’s soft canvas body, it had forced the entirety of Ozborn’s soft, fleshy body up into the suit’s thick, riveted-brass helmet.
To call that a tight fit was an understatement.
Which meant that, now, Holly had spent more time in the diving suit than any other man alive. And she wasn’t so much following in Ozborn’s footsteps as she was standing in puddles of him.
This was not how she had envisioned graduating from apprentice salvager to master salvager.
She had wanted to call the dive off, but the artificer who headed the expedition had overruled her. They’d come too far, he’d said, and the rewards were too close. Besides, Ozborn had signed a contract which pledged him through to the job’s completion, with no loopholes for catastrophic decompression or being crushed into a red, soupy mush, or anything like that. And, as his employee at the time of signing, Holly was bound by the terms of the deal as well.
She’d demanded to see the contract – which, with a smirk, the artificer had provided. To her dismay, she’d found that the weasel-bearded man was right: there was no escape clause for death by crushing, or anything like it.
So, while she did not relish the thought of undertaking the dive she was about to make, she relished the thought of rotting away in debtor’s prison even less, and therefore she had resolved to take her chances with the suit.
“And you’re sure you fixed the umbilicus?” she said to Ronald. “Totally, one-hundred-percent sure?”
“Oh, absolutely,” the barometrician said. “I’m pretty sure.”
Holly swallowed. Her throat felt dry.
Well, there would be plenty of water where she was going.
“Let’s get this over with,” she said. “Seal me up.”
The barometrician’s assistants helped her to put on the suit’s great domed helmet – the thick crystal viewports of which did mercifully seem to have been scrubbed clean, although a faint, vaguely nauseating smell lingered unpleasantly around her nostrils. Through the tiny, circular viewport, Holly watched the assistants scurry around her as they fastened the helmet to the rest of the suit and checked all its various valves, gaskets, and seals. Finally, she saw the head assistant give the barometrician a thumbs-up.
At that signal, Ronald started the pressurizer running. Holly knew that the machine’s pumps and pistons made a powerfully loud racket when they were in operation, but, sealed-up inside the suit, the only noise she heard was the slow, steady hiss of air as it started to circulate in and out of the helmet through the umbilicus. Her ears hurt as the pressure inside the suit started to increase.
Then a crackle of static erupted inside the helmet, and she heard Ronald’s voice over the intercommunicator. His words sounded thin and distant – tinny, even. Like a mechanical fly buzzing around in her ear.
“Okay, let’s make this one quick,” the barometrician said. “Just get the powerstone and get out of there. No sightseeing. Yank on the tether when you’re ready to come back up. We’d all like to get out of here before sundown.”
“And here I was really hoping to make a leisurely dive out of this,” Holly said, not bothering to hide her sarcasm. “Just tell me when we’re at pressure. I want this over with worse than you do.”
A few minutes passed in uncomfortable silence. Finally, the barometrician’s voice crackled over the intercommunicator again.
“We’re at pressure,” he said. “You’re clear to dive.”
Without saying another word, Holly stepped over the edge of the floating platform and sank beneath the surface into the depths below.
As the suit’s heavy metal boots pulled her slowly, inevitably down towards the ocean floor, she watched the light around her steadily fade away, the clarity of the shallows replaced by the dark, inky stillness of the cold depths. Small schools of shiny, silver fish swam past her viewport and scattered away in all directions. A small stream of bubbles from the helmet’s one-way pressure valve floated up towards the surface.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity of sinking, she felt her feet touch the sandy bottom. The water at this depth was midnight black, so she switched on the luminescent crystal headlamp, which cast a thin, bluish light out in front of her. In the distance, she could see seaweed clinging to fallen marble arches, and barnacles growing atop toppled stone columns.
“Okay, I’m on the bottom,” she said. “I can see the ruins ahead of me.”
“Good,” Ronald’s voice crackled back. “Follow the mosaic.”
It was easier said than done, but Holly directed the headlamp’s thin beam down towards her feet, where the tiled remnants of a mosaic floor were visible in patches beneath a thin coating of white sand. Kneeling down as best she could, she used her thickly-gloved hands to wipe away some of the sediment, revealing an array of colored lines among the patterned tiles.
“Which path do I follow?” she asked.
“Red,” said the voice from the surface. “The red path should lead to the generator hall.”
With a little more sifting of sand, Holly found a trail of red tiles stretching off into the distance. She started to follow them, her steps slow and cumbersome. It was always a strange experience, moving slowly through the deep water, encased inside the small, sealed world of the diving suit, with no light but the headlamp to guide her, and no sound except for the hiss of the umbilicus and the steady rhythm of her own breathing.
She moved carefully and purposefully as she went, making sure to check every so often that her tether was still attached, and that the umbilicus had a clear and unobstructed path behind her. Sometimes she would have to stop to clear some small debris which blocked her path, or to wipe away sand which had obscured the colored tiles beneath her feet. But, otherwise, the ocean was dead and still around her, the only movement coming when startled crabs would scuttle away from her path, or when an eel would poke its head out from a gap in the ruins, regard her curiously with its beady green eyes, and then vanish back into its dark hole.
The water was too cold for sharks and too shallow for sea serpents, the artificer had assured her. She prayed that he was right.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity of picking her way through the crumbled walls and sunken hallways of the lost academy, she saw an imposing arched doorway appear in front of her. A few old, rotted boards hung limply from the gaping doorframe. The red line on the tiled floor vanished through the open doorway and into the dark water beyond.
“I found the generator hall,” Holly said through the intercommunicator.
“Good,” crackled the reply.
“How will I know this thing when I see it?”
“It’ll look like a big, shiny diamond. You’ll know it.”
“Big, shiny rock. Got it.”
Holly pulled down a soft, crumbling timber that lay across the doorway, then she stepped into the generator hall.
Inside, the room was vast and cavernous. She looked up, but the thin light from her headlamp did not penetrate far enough to reveal the ceiling. Various bits of rusting machinery littered the floor, and copper tubing snaked across the walls.
She switched off her lamp and swept her head around in wide arcs, searching for any other source of illumination. Finally, through the glass of the viewport, she spotted what looked like a faint light off in the distance.
“I think I’ve got it,” she said. “I can see a light.”
She started to move towards the distant shimmer, only to draw up short when a second light seemed to appear from nowhere, shimmering in the water just next to the first one.
“Wait, there’s two,” she said.
“Two what?” crackled the voice from the surface.
“Two lights,” she said.
“Can you tell what they are?”
“No. I’ll have to get closer.” And she started to walk again.
Suddenly, the lights vanished for a second, only to reappear a moment later. Like a flicker, almost.
Or a blink.
Suddenly, Holly had the very real, very disconcerting sensation of being watched.
The lights started to move on their own, started to draw closer to her. As they did, their shapes seemed to shift subtly to become less circular, and more horizontally oblong, with pointed corners, like the eyes of a cat in the black and blue.
Trembling a little bit, she switched the headlamp back on, and came face-to-face with what looked like a tiger. A metal-black and rust-brown tiger with two softly glowing eyes.
Her breath caught in her chest. “Oh, hells,” she said.
“What?” the intercom asked. “What is it?”
“It’s a tiger.”
“That’s not possible.”
“Believe me, it’s possible,” she said. She tried to stand stone still.
“You’ve been down too long. You’re seeing things.”
“I don’t think so,” Holly said, even as she hoped that Ronald might be right, that it might just be an imbalance in the air mixture which was affecting her mind.
“Nice kitty,” she said to herself, and she took a small step backward.
The tiger bared its fangs and lunged.
Cursing, she tried to dive to one side. She was slow and clumsy inside the suit, but the tiger had been some distance away when it leapt, and she just managed to half-swim, half-tumble out of its path. As the strange beast flashed past her, she caught a better glimpse of it in the light from her headlamp, and what she saw made her gasp audibly.
The cat – which was at least as big as she was, diving suit and all – seemed to be made from intertwined coils of razor-like wire. Some of the wires must have been iron, because they had turned largely to rust from years of saltwater corrosion, such that the tiger left a faintly red trail in the water behind it as it moved. But other bits of wire looked steely-black and sharp as the day they had been forged. And, as she thought about what the tiger’s black stripes could do if they caught the canvas of her suit, Holly felt a dry lump form at the base of her throat.
“I’m not imagining it!” she screamed into the intercommunicator. “It’s a giant wirecat, and it’s very alive – or whatever you’d call it – and it’s very not happy to see me!”
“Get away,” the barometrician called down to her. “Get away!”
“I’m trying!” she called back. But the tiger was between her and the door now. She could see the look in its eyes, and she knew it was mean.
Slowly, she started to step backwards, trying to back away from the wirecat, to buy herself time and space for maneuver. As she did, the tiger lowered its head. Its tail swished through the water behind it, leaving a billowing red wake, and it clawed at the sandy floor with one massive metallic paw.
As the beast moved, a large, rusty section of metal cracked and fell away from its side, and Holly was able to get a glimpse inside the creature’s wire frame. Bright, white light shone out through the newly-opened hole, and she saw a large, glowing stone pulsing away inside the creature, roughly where a real animal’s heart would have been.
It was the powerstone. It was what had kept the wirecat alive for years and years below the deep, dark sea. It had to be.
As she watched the tiger’s tail flick back and forth as it readied itself to pounce, an idea started to form in her mind. It was a bad idea. A terrible, horrible, desperate idea.
But, as she waited for a better idea to appear inside her head, nothing else came.
She took a hard, dry swallow and flexed her fingers. She hoped that the diving suit’s heavy leather gloves were really as thick as they seemed.
For a long, tense moment, she and the wirecat simply stared at each other through the dark, swirling water and the clear glass of the viewport.
Then, finally – just when Holly felt like she couldn’t take it any longer, like she would lose her nerve if she had to wait for even another second – the cat leapt again.
And, again, she pivoted out of the metal tiger’s path as nimbly as her diving suit would allow. But, this time, as the feline tangle of live wire sailed by her, she reached out after it, closed her hand around its bobbing tail, and held on for dear life.
She felt raised points beneath the thick leather of the glove, but the wire did not seem to pierce all the way through. Before she had much of a chance to be thankful for that, though, she was yanked off of her feet, and found herself being pulled through the water in the big tiger’s thrashing wake.
For a few horrible, stomach churning moments, she rode the tiger, terrified to hold on, but even more terrified to let go. The wirecat bucked and thrashed fiercely beneath her grip, and, with each shake and toss, she was terrified that the wire of its tail would tear through her glove, or that she would be pulled alongside it and raked across its clean, sharp stripes. She fought back as best she could, refusing to let go, trying to shift her body so as to keep the beast off-balance, trying to hang on long enough for the opportunity she knew she needed.
Then, in a flash, it came. The tiger tried to make a quick turn in order to bring her into its line of sight. And, as it did, it exposed its damaged side to her, and she saw the powerstone shining and pulsing within its core, less than an arm’s reach away.
Before she could think about the risk she was taking, she let go of the wirecat’s tail and shot her hand out, trying desperately to reach through the rusted-out gap in the beast’s side, grabbing blindly at the glowing powerstone with her outstretched hand while trying not to catch the suit’s canvas arm on any sharp points.
She felt her gloved fingertips brush something warm. She closed them around it and pulled as hard as she could.
There was a sudden, bright flash outside the viewport as the powerstone came free from its wire aperture. She felt the sharp edges of the opening scrape against the diving suit’s arm, but – somehow, someway – the fabric stayed whole, and, as she fell over backwards under the force of her own momentum, she did so with her diving suit intact, and with the warm, pulsing powerstone clutched in her hand. Just in front of her, the suddenly-lifeless wirecat collapsed noiselessly onto the sandy floor with a great billow of rust.
For a moment, she simply lay there on her back, gasping for breath, listening to the strange, hypnotic hiss of air from the umbilicus, and staring at the priceless artifact she now held in her gloved hand.
“Holly?” Even through the static of the intercommunicator, she could hear the panicked edge in Ronald’s voice. “Holly, are you there?”
“Yeah, I am,” she eventually said between long, ragged breaths.
“Are you alright?”
“Yeah, I’m alright.”
“What happened down there?”
“I rode the tiger,” she said.
“I’m not sure I see what you mean.”
Holly reached down with her free hand, found the suit’s tether, and gave it several short, sharp pulls. “I’ll explain it better when I’m on the surface,” she said.
But she knew that was a lie. Some things just need to be seen.
Magic: Expanded Multiverse is not associated with Wizards of the Coast. This is a transformative work of fanfiction, protected in the United States under the laws of Fair Use.
All works copyright their respective creators.