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“Your early trials have gone well, young one,” said the grizzled instructor to the male Silverhand. “Your training has been the best that I’ve seen in many decades. Be proud of yourself.” The trainee smiled broadly at this hard-won praise, for such a compliment was rarely given. “But not too proud,” cautioned the instructor, “For an excess of pride has led even the most honored among us to a terrible destiny. Recite the tale for me, as you have been taught.” With that, the old instructor lowered himself to the ground, his back now resting comfortably against the base of an ancient oak. The trainee, looking more nervous than he had during his trials, began to declaim the rhythmic lines.
Once there was a young warrior named Nuada who thought himself invincible on the battlefield. His sire had gifted him a magic sword. Nuada practiced with it, from the barest inkling of dawn’s light until it became so dark that moonlight reflected off the blade.
Nuada relished any opportunity to test his prowess. He sought out and challenged the greatest warriors in the known lands. The blood and destruction that accompanied these fights rarely bothered him at all.
For decades, Nuada defended his people against all enemies, no matter their origin–even if they came from within the realm. Even after he was crowned King, Nuada always took the lead in battle, never relinquishing his place at the head of his army. His victories fed his confidence, and as our lands swelled so too did his pride.
Late one summer’s day, word came to Nuada that an old enemy had returned to menace the Tuatha Dé Danann. He had defeated this enemy once before, and it angered the king that they should waste his time; for he would surely defeat them again. He scoffed at their threats, shirking the advice of the High Courts leaders who urged caution.
The Courts warned Nuada that the enemy must have found a new ally or weapon, for they wouldn’t be so brazen otherwise. Stories had reached their ears of a place called “The Depths,” and of the strange and powerful creatures therein. The leaders believed that their enemies had visited that place and returned strangely empowered. Nuada was unimpressed by such rumors; he vowed to cleanse The Depths once his foes relinquished their lives to his blade. He had ever kept his lands clear of abominations, and he thought these “Depths” would be no exception.
As the days passed, the Tuatha Dé Danann prepared for the invasion. As the first night-frosts settled upon their land, an enemy force was spotted far offshore by the realm’s scouts. Summoning the Wild Hunt, Nuada vowed to descend upon the invaders and defeat their leader in single combat. He would then mercifully send the entire force back to their own lands, with a warning.
The Courts hadn’t a chance to reconvene before Nuada and the Hunt rode out. They raced to the shore, the fire-wreathed hooves of their steeds never seeming to touch the ground. After a few days and nights of hard riding, they reached a towering overlook from where they could watch the invaders come ashore under cover of night.
Never before had the Tuatha Dé Danann faced such a sizeable force. Even Nuada was surprised and troubled by their numbers. Nuada’s unease increased when, from within the camp of invaders, he sensed a traitor. A Tuatha Dé Danann man was down there, he was sure of it.
Standing tall in the middle of the invaders camp was a strange, one-eyed statue. Nuada had heard rumors of this statue; it was called Balor. Then he spotted Bres standing next to it, talking to the crowd of milling warriors. A former friend, Bres had left the Tuatha Dé Danann to seek power elsewhere, and now he stood on the shore with the enemy. Nuada’s swollen pride was hurt, and his face grew dark with anger. He vowed to slay Bres for this betrayal.
Flying down from the cliff with the Hunt at his back, Nuada called out a challenge, daring their leader to come out and face him in single combat. Much to his surprise, Bres bravely answered his challenge.
Striding out of the ranks of the enemy, Bres was greatly changed from the Tuatha Dé Danann youth Nuada had once called friend. His aura, which was once bright and true, radiated a cold, evil light. In his right hand, Bres bore a black obsidian blade. Seemingly alive, its shape shifted in the moonlight. At first, Nuada attributed the sword’s appearance to the flickering light thrown by torches. However, he could feel the sword’s aura, which was dark and misshapen. It was alive.
Bres, seeing that Nuada had noticed his sword, began to brag about how he had gone far into The Depths, and had emerged far more powerful. His sword was but one of the treasures that Bres boasted were more than a match for those pitiful trinkets held by the Tuatha Dé Danann, including Nuada’s magic blade. Bres charged Nuada without the customary bow or honorifics, and the battle began.
Taken aback by Bres’ lack of honor and respect, Nuada reacted slowly. However, his years of hard training afforded him enough time to regain his composure. Slowly but surely, Nuada got the upper hand on Bres, driving him ever backward toward the sea.
With each ringing blow, Nuada’s confidence grew, for he knew the battle was over. Yet it seemed Bres did not understand. As each attack thudded home and forced Bres to retreat, he smiled wider and wider. The smile turned to boisterous laughter as Bres felt the foam lap his sandaled feet.
Their duel continued for hours, Bres taking each blow from Nuada but not yielding any further land to him. Nuada began to feel as though he were striking one of the stout Ironwood trees that ringed Tír na nÓg, unyielding even in the face of Nuada’s furious storm of attacks.
The two warriors still battled ferociously as dawn broke. After landing a particularly strong blow, Nuada slipped: He was finally weakening. As if Bres had been waiting for this signal, his laughter became maniacal and he began taunting Nuada, daring him to try harder. Bres claimed he wasn’t even sweating yet. He laughed at Nuada’s weariness.
As Bres’ taunts grew harsher, Nuada fought all the more fiercely, but could not find an opening to strike a truly punishing blow. As the sun rose over the towering cliffs, Nuada’s fatigue became more evident. Bres took the offensive then, driving Nuada back to the cliffs, his blows passing through Nuada’s defenses. With each blow, Nuada felt a cold chill at the point of impact.
Within moments, Nuada found his back against the cliff walls. He saw that even the hardened warriors of the Wild Hunt were concerned about their leader, and Bres’ forces began cheering wildly for him to end the match. Just then, Nuada thought he saw Balor’s eye move, but he attributed it to his fatigue.
Desperate, he tried one last trick. It was something he had learned in his youth. When they used to spar, Nuada defeated Bres a number of times using this same technique. He prayed that it would work one more time. However, as Nuada began his attack, a thin smile curled around Bres’ lips. This is what he had been waiting for all night; he had trained years for this very moment. As Nuada spun, his sword moving so fast that it was nearly invisible in the bright sunlight, Bres blocked Nuada’s sword with his left hand. The sword cut through Bres’ armor and instead of severing flesh, it struck solid metal. On impact, a jolt of bone-chilling pain surged through Nuada’s right arm, though it quickly grew numb from an intense cold.
Bres then swung downward with his own weapon, destroying Nuada’s treasured sword. The blade split into several large pieces, each one tinged with ice and frost. For a moment, Nuada stood stunned before Bres, thunderstruck by the enormity of what had happened.
Before he could recover, Bres struck again, this time severing Nuada’s right hand. He followed with a fearsome kick to the legs, which dropped Nuada to his knees. “You have lost, oh mighty King, and as custom dictates, these lands are now mine to rule! Return to Tír na nÓg and tell our people that their true King has arrived,” Bres roared.
Despite shock and grave injury, Nuada was not ready to lose. Pushing up with the last of his strength, he charged Bres like a bull. Predicting his movement, Bres smoothly stepped aside. As Nuada flew past, Bres keenly sliced off the rest of Nuada’s right arm. “I can keep this up longer than you can, brother. It seems you want a reminder of who is King now,” sneered Bres as he turned to face his troops. “Kill them all, but leave the cripple alive.”
The invaders fell eagerly upon the Wild Hunt, destroying them with frightening ease. Bres’ troops continued their butchery until the last of the Tuatha Dé Danann lay dead, their bodies scattered piecemeal on the blood-stained sand. Bres ordered his men to collect their heads in a sack that appeared to be made of human skin. Lighting a torch, Bres grabbed Nuada and burned him at the shoulder, sealing the wound. Bres then placed the unconscious Nuada and the dripping sack of heads on his own Phouka, and directed the steed to ride to their former home in Tír na nÓg, unload his burden, and then return to the fleet.
The Phouka was delighted at these orders. The horse made quite a job of it. Leaping about excessively, it sought out the most uneven terrain, made multiple unnecessary stream crossings and generally made sure that that ride was as painful as possible for his passenger. The horse apparently measured success in moans of pain elicited from its living cargo, its joy increasing at each grunt of displeasure.
Reaching the capital city of Tír na nÓg, the Phouka paused outside the ornate golden gates, reared up on its hind legs, and abruptly dropped Nuada and the sack of heads on the stone walkway. Assuming the form of an attractive woman, the Phouka proceeded to the gate and announced to the city that their new King was on his way. She claimed that they would have seven passings of the sun to prepare a suitable welcome. Not waiting for a response, she saucily strode away from the city, daring those within to shoot her in the back.
When they found Nuada and the sack of heads, the folk crumpled to their knees and wept, felled in place as surely as if struck dead.
A Hamadryad healer tended to Nuada, who did not awaken even when he was carried into the city. When he regained consciousness later, he shamefully related the entire tale to the High Courts. Most of the leaders of the Courts rebuked and chastised him, saying that he should have listened to their advice and used caution.
None of their censures hurt him quite so much as his beloved granddaughter Morrigan. Rather than speak, she simply changed her form to that of a crow, flew over his head three times and then out of the court. What remained of Nuada’s pride melted as quickly as snow in a hot fire.
Over the next seven days, the Courts met and debated how to react to the sudden change in their fate. Some argued for resistance, wanting to ignore the pact that Nuada had made at the beginning of that fateful duel. They argued that Bres had broken many traditions, and besides, Nuada hadn’t received the blessing of the Courts beforehand. Other members of the Courts argued for the importance of their honor and urged surrender.
While the healer was able to speed the overall healing process, she could not restore Nuada’s arm. All the while Nuada was in and out of consciousness, but he found that even in his sleep he could not escape from this disaster of his own making. His dreams were torture.
He saw many things. He saw his people failing, their bright lives cut short. He saw darkness, and chasms that went on forever. He saw the strange architecture and caves of what he thought were The Depths, and he saw the foul creatures that dwelt within. Each night ended with the same nightmare: His arm flew off his shoulder and landed on the sand, blood flowing from it until it formed a river. The river then passed through a hole in the sand and vanished. His arm lay twitching, surrounded by the broken pieces of his father’s sword.
On the sixth day, Nuada managed to stay awake longer. He was a shell of his former self. His confidence had been replaced by humiliation and a seething anger. He was not angry for losing the Kingdom, or even his friends in the Hunt, but because he lost the fight.
Disgusted with himself, he decided to flee the city, vowing to one day return and kill Bres. He knew where he had to go. The same place that Bres had gone: The Depths. Grabbing the broken pieces of his sword, he left without a word to anyone. As he set off on his quest, Bres’ army descended upon the now unguarded city, which swiftly surrendered to its new master.
For years, Nuada travelled the land, searching for the entrance to The Depths. Many folk had heard of the place, but none could even guess at the location. Like a dog on the hunt, Nuada followed every lead. Rather than diminish with time, his anger strengthened, and each time he felt the loss of his arm, he renewed his vow to kill Bres. He wandered from realm to realm, seeing many unusual and even moving sights, though none quelled his anger.
Nuada resumed a modified yet rigorous version of his training regimen. He knew he would need to be ready to fight once he found The Depths. He practiced fighting with his left arm. He relearned proper balance and footwork, and though all he possessed was a mundane one-handed sword, he regained a little of his former confidence as his skills improved.
Over the years, Nuada was often forced to take petty jobs to earn money for his travels, though he continually sought knowledge concerning his quarry. After completing what seemed to him an endless chain of caravan guarding, he encountered a merchant who told him that he had seen an entrance to The Depths. He offered to tell Nuada the location in exchange for a promise to share any spoils looted from the place. In addition, if he would agree to lead a caravan there, he would enlist a Dvergr who would craft for Nuada a properly balanced sword and a set of armor to aid him in his quest.
Nuada was more than a bit mistrustful, but decided he hadn’t much to lose. Besides, left-handed or not, there was a simple solution to betrayal if the merchant was lying. Nuada agreed to the bargain, and the merchant was as good as his word. Soon after, Nuada and a team of hired mercenaries stood before the black monolith that served as an entrance to The Depths.
Standing before the immense dark stone, Nuada could feel a coldness emanating from it. He paused to consider what he had learned over the last few years about this strange place. While the gateway was physically here, passing through it would take Nuada to another place far away, where The Depths were actually located. It could be somewhere deep within this world, or even in an entirely different plane of existence. There were tales that the gate could transport you to another time, though Nuada gave little credence to such rumors. Magic was one thing; bending time was something else.
He did believe that the gateway was sentient, and that it could take on any appearance. Someone seeking entrance had to convince the gateway to open. This wasn’t some dark dungeon of legend whose doorway opened with a simple phrase or incantation. It was a vast enigma with a mind of its own.
This knowledge sparked a rare sensation of true fear within Nuada. Before Bres, Nuada had never known the feeling. Now that he had experienced defeat, he understood fear and he didn’t like it. He believed his motives were pure, though nothing could quite quell the rage that threatened to tear open his chest when his thoughts dwelt on Bres. Nuada had no doubt that he would prove himself worthy and that The Depths would reward him handsomely, with treasures far greater than those bestowed upon Bres. He would then return home and reclaim his rightful place among his people. In addition, he would have a word or two in private council with certain members of the Courts, including his own granddaughter. They would learn the folly of doubting him. Or worse, publicly humiliating him.
Standing in front of the monolith with the rest of his companions, Nuada took stock of the strange assembly the merchant had thrown together. It was comprised of several races, including some from each of the three Realms. Most of them looked young, yet who knew if they might be great fighters. What was truly important was power, always power. He noted a few bright auras among the crew, though most of them seemed newly come into their strength.
This was confirmed when Nuada stood against a nearby tree and watched silently as some of the mercenaries tried to enter The Depths. One by one, they walked up to the monolith and summoned magical entities or chanted ancient languages. All they had to show for it were bruised heads, parched throats, and the occasional mocking laughter of a summoned being. Nuada understood that there was no way to force or trick the gateway. During his travels he had heard that the key was to observe the form of the gateway, decipher any clues, and mirror them. That part puzzled him.
For several days his companions continued with their futile and feeble attempts to open the monolith. Suddenly an idea dawned on Nuada. The monolith was smooth and featureless, without a scratch. It was a blank slate. The black stone suggested darkness to him. Smiling at his own cleverness, Nuada told the mercenaries that they needed to rest and wait for a moonless night and that he would then open the monolith.
Scoffing at his presumption, they nevertheless agreed to wait for several days. Most of the mercenaries passed their time playing cards, gambling, and telling outrageous stories. Two of them stayed quiet, and Nuada found himself drawn to them. The first was a Dvergar named John BigBoote who had an infectious nature and jovial outlook. The other was a human female named Nimue. He sensed a great power emanating from this woman, and he was glad she was part of their company. Over the next three days, while the others wasted time, these three began to bond and make plans. During this brief respite, Nuada learned a lot about Nimue and John.
Nimue was considered a promising young mage within the inner circle of her realm’s most prestigious school of magic, known simply as The Academy. She had excelled in her early training and her physical appearance had won her the attention of several rather prominent individuals within the school.
While she was not ignorant of her effect on such people, she had no interest in any of their attentions. She wanted to become a tremendously powerful wielder of magic and she considered all other activities a distraction. Like many people her age, she was drawn to Arthur’s vision for a new world. Nimue longed to stand beside him and pave the way for a better and brighter future. She was neither strident nor preachy in her views and beliefs, but her eyes were full of the ardor and passion of youth. She was strengthened by the same conviction and need to excel that had possessed Nuada when he was young. He couldn’t help but feel a fatherly attachment to her.
John, on the other hand, was a Dvergar who enjoyed life to its fullest. He was full of wild tales about life underground. He talked endlessly about his people, his family, and the beauty, wonders and danger that lurked deep within the earth. John liked to drink a fair bit, and by the end of the first night, he had exhausted his small (by Dvergr standards) stockpile of liquid refreshments. He began searching for any private caches that his companions might have secreted away. He also boasted about the battles that he had fought but Nuada didn’t take offense at his words for John told the story in a way that minimized his own worth while constantly praising those who fought at his side. Nuada too found that he was forming a positive attraction to John, despite the tendency of Nuada’s people to look down at Dvergr both literally and figuratively.
After a perfectly cloudless day, a rainstorm swept in at twilight. Even when the moon reached its apex there was no hint of light, even for the keenest of senses. Waiting until the darkest part of the night was upon them, Nuada directed his companions to stand perfectly still before the monolith. They must clear their minds of any thoughts and emulate, to the best of their abilities, the unmoving and perfectly smooth structure of the monolith. Reluctantly, all of the mercenaries tried their best to do as Nuada directed but it was difficult for some to clear their minds. They lacked Nuada’s discipline. Of course, Nuada and his newfound friends had already prepared for this so it was quite easy for them. After a number of failed attempts, the mercenaries eventually managed to settle down and clear their minds.
Nothing happened at first, and some immediately decided that this was another futile attempt. Then suddenly, the monolith lit up the sky with a blinding red light. The light focused down to a scarlet beam and one by one the beam touched each of the adventurers. On some it lingered, on others it barely visited their foreheads. When all of the adventurers had been so touched, the beam became pure white and its shape began to change, taking on the appearance of a whirlpool that had been turned on its side. Before they could react, the whirlpool pulled the adventures into it.
The next thing they knew, they were standing before a set of golden doors with strange carvings. The carvings had the appearance of actually having grown there, rather than being carved by some skilled hand. Whether abominations or legend, or some creations of a severely twisted mind, the images on the doors were unknown to any among the adventurers.
Nuada shrugged off all remaining caution. If Bres could survive here, surely he could. He simply strode up to the immense doors and pulled the giant golden handles. Surprisingly, the doors opened without a sound, gliding smoothly over the polished stone surface. Summoning some of his old confidence, Nuada called out to The Depths, telling whatever manner of creature inhabited this place that he was here, and revealing his name to his fellow adventurers.
The revelation of his true identity came as a shock to many of the mercenaries, for Nuada’s name and deeds were well-known throughout the land. Nuada laughed at their reactions. He promised them all power and glory if they would but follow his lead. All of the mercenaries agreed. They couldn’t decide what they feared more, this place or Nuada’s legendary wrath.
John and Nimue had suspected that their companion was more than he seemed, though the revelation that he was Nuada did come as a surprise to them as well. Nuada led them all through the entryway into the first cavern, a place that would one day be called the Cavern of Lost Souls.
The mercenaries followed a surprisingly well-worn path through the cavern, but the light from their torches couldn’t penetrate the darkness that enveloped them. Even the famed underground eyesight of the Dvergr couldn’t penetrate the unnatural darkness of this chamber. Judging by the echoes of their footfalls upon the stone floor, Nuada knew that this room was quite large.
Frustrated by his inability to see more than a hand’s breadth ahead, Nuada called upon the party’s magic users to summon light. The weakest of the group’s mages summoned a ball of light but as he cast it into the darkness, it was instantly swallowed as if it had entered the maw of some gigantic creature. Nimue tried as well, though she had no better success than her counterpart. Nuada instructed them to work together.
After a few failed attempts they managed to create a more powerful effect. As a ball of light spread throughout the chamber, it revealed a vast cavern with statues whose numbers were too great to count. As the orb continued to illuminate the chamber, it became clear that several statues were wearing very high-quality armor and ornaments, and carrying weapons that appeared legendary in quality. As best as they could tell, the statues represented all the known races of the world, as well as others that none of them could identify. Some of these statues were twisted into horrific shapes that made a mockery of what they once were. Others looked as if they were simply standing still, waiting to come alive.
One member of the group, a young Luchorpán, clothed in a red jerkin and bright gold breeches, could barely control his excitement. His eyes were glowing and shifting color as riches became apparent to him. Without waiting for Nuada’s approval, he leapt from the path, nimbly landing next to one of the statues.
Nuada shouted a warning to him and was surprised when nothing happened as the Leprechaun carefully lifted a golden torc from the statue. Snickering at Nuada’s caution, the Leprechaun clicked his heels and skipped about giddily, urging his companions to join in some looting. Loading a bag with as many riches as he could manage and mocking his companions for their timidity, the Luchorpán ambled back to the path.
As soon as his feet touched the path he froze, mid-stride: He was turned to stone. Some gasped, yet Nuada felt no remorse over the lost Luchorpán, for he had been warned. If anything, Nuada felt slightly vindicated by this death, and he ordered the mercenaries forward down the path and out of this accursed cavern as he used to do when he was King.
As the last mercenary left the room, Nuada turned back to look for the frozen Luchorpán. He could no longer see the statue. In later days Nuada swore that he had seen it move out of the corner of his eye, as if the statue was being carried away by some invisible entity.
Nuada swiftly led the mercenaries down the path, towards what appeared to be a three-way intersection of tunnels. As they walked, they noticed that the well-polished stone path began to feel uneven. Several of them looked down to see body parts embedded in the path, apparently merged with the path itself. One look was enough to convince all of them that looking down was something that they didn’t wish to do again. Drawing their weapons, their steps slowed to a cautious pace as they crossed a high stone bridge over a black chasm to reach the intersection.
Reaching the center, they stood before a statue with a raised platform above it, from which a great flame of ever-shifting colors erupted. The statue seemed to radiate a silent, palpable malice. The flame didn’t resemble a “normal” fire; gems seemed to dance among the flames.
Unbeknownst to the travelers, the statue altered its appearance depending on who looked at it. For the Luchorpán, it appeared as a voluptuous female of his race but with a skull for a head, blood-drenched claws for hands, and feet that looked more like the writhing tentacles of some sea-creature. To Nimue, the statue was a woman with spears penetrating her body from every angle as she writhed in great pain. For Nuada, it was himself with stumps for arms, swallowing a sword whose tip emerged from his rear. As the group stood transfixed by the statue’s power, its shape-shifting became more and more horrific. Each alteration showed the victim suffering greater agony.
The youngest male caster lost whatever good sense he had and began to bring forth his most powerful fire spell to destroy the personalized abomination staring him in the face. As soon as the mage initiated his summoning, Nuada told everyone to scatter.
When the spell struck the statue, it instantly became obvious that a magical attack was not a good idea. The statue began to change shape once more, and this time it took the form of a fiery colussus, columns of flame erupting from every orifice. Freed of its imprisonment, the elemental turned to its liberator and bowed in mock gratitude. Then it stepped on him, burning his body to a cinder.
Several of the other mercenaries broke and ran for their very lives. Nimue held fast and prepared a spell with a blue glow. Nuada guessed it was water or ice-based magic. John, who was the only other remaining mercenary, stood in front of the mage and thrust his heavy arms into the ground like two hammers, which caused the ground to shake and tremble. Nuada, appreciating the pair’s bravery, rushed to their side and drew his sword.
As the elemental approached them, it hurled fireballs with effortless accuracy. Nimue had foreseen this attack, and countered by summoning a massive wall of foggy ice. The wall blocked the fiery attacks and completely obscured the monster’s vision. This enraged the elemental, and its anger served to intensify its attacks.
Nimue did her best to maintain the wall, but her magical reserves were already straining. Nuada and John knew they had to act fast. John wanted to charge the monster, claiming that his stone-etched skin would protect him. He shouted that Nuada should stay back, look for an opening, and then strike hard.
Nuada had his own idea. He asked John to use his stony arms to begin weakening the bridge. Acknowledging the cleverness of this idea, John nodded and began hammering away.
When the bridge was near crumbling, Nuada instructed John to stop. Nuada then asked Nimue to cast a thin sheet of ice over the weakened bridge. Plan in place, all three of them ran across and stepped back to watch what would happen.
Predictably, the elemental broke through Nimue’s wall and approached the weakened bridge. He was about to step on it, but paused, looked down and began to laugh.
The horrible, choking laughter sickened the listeners. This creature was not some unthinking brute; it was sentient and evil. The elemental pointed skyward, gestured to the group, and then pounded one fist into the other. The massive, fiery being took a few steps backward and prepared to jump over the damaged section.
Seeing this, John turned to Nuada and gave him a nod. The Dvergar crouched and summoned power from the earth for a mighty leap of his own. As the elemental sprang into the air, John shot up and met it. They crashed in mid-air with a terrible noise that echoed deeply within the caverns.
John grasped the elemental’s legs and clung tightly, dragging it down toward the crumbling bridge. The monster quickly realized what was about to happen, but it was too late to change the outcome. As the bridge collapsed beneath them, the creature’s roar of anger was all but drowned out by booming laughter from the brave Dvergar.
They fell into the darkness, and Nuada could hear John still battling the elemental, yelling that he needed a “bit of a warm up anyway.” Eventually, the sound of John’s voice and the ongoing battle drifted away, leaving Nimue and Nuada alone.
Nuada marveled at the Dvergar’s sacrifice for those he barely knew. The former king wasn’t sure what to make of it. After a few moments’ respite, Nuada and Nimue stepped away from the edge of the broken bridge.
With their band’s numbers abruptly reduced to just two, even Nuada thought that turning back was a wise idea, and Nimue readily agreed. Retracing their steps in the hopes of returning to the gate, they quickly discovered that the entrance to the Cavern of Lost Souls was no longer there. In its place was a tunnel that was covered in what looked like misshapen tree limbs. Nuada took this for a good omen, for after all trees, no matter their shape, were well-known to him.
When Nuada entered the passage, he quickly discovered that his initial optimism was misplaced and it was a harbinger of an even more horrific scene. The tunnel was suddenly lit by a sickly green glow that emanated from diseased moss and lichen. These growths covered every inch of the tunnel’s inner surface, and pulsated in a pattern that resembled the breathing of a living creature.
Feeling ill at ease, Nimue summoned a seeing eye to send ahead of them as they moved through the tunnel. The eye made it no more than a stone’s throw down the tunnel before a green tendril reached out from the ceiling, grabbed the eye, and crushed it in a burst of magic blood. As the eye’s mush fell to the ground, the moss sucked it in with a greedy, slurping sound.
Knowing that they had no choice but to keep going, Nuada gently pressed Nimue’s shoulder. Together, they moved slowly forward with Nuada in front. He kept his left hand on his sword’s hilt, ready to draw at any moment.
As they neared the center of the passage, Nimue called upon her ice magic to try to freeze the ceiling. She did not wish to discover if her head would make as impressive a squelch as that seeing eye had. Her spell worked: The tendril was frozen solid and did not strike out.
However, as they continued walking down the tunnel, they saw creatures emerging from the green pods that clustered on the walls and ceiling. These things were part humanoid, part plant, and all nightmare. They were short in stature but with huge eyes and misshapen arms and legs. Their feet were formed of twisting roots, and with each step they left a trail on the ground like a snail. Their small, powerfully built arms looked like they belonged on a blacksmith.
Nimue began casting spells furiously, firing off small bursts of ice magic as Nuada once again drew his sword. Charging the creatures, he began trying to hack them to pieces. He soon discovered that for every creature he cut down, two more would take its place. Nimue had better success: Her spells froze the creatures, so that no new ones would spawn. Powerful though she was, she began to tire quickly. Nimue was quite young and this was only her second stint as a mercenary and she had neither the practice nor the magical reserves that older, more experienced mages develop over the course of generations.
Nimue and Nuada continued to press on and soon reached a point where there were no more creatures in front of them. Yet behind them, a host of these monstrosities pursued as quickly as their plant-like legs would move. As the creatures ran through the tunnel en masse, the squelching noises and smells threatened to overwhelm the adventurers.
Nuada felt helpless as the host neared them. He knew that his skills and weapon were not up to the challenge of defeating them all. Nuada, instead of cleaving them, wisely decided to use his sword more like a mace by holding it on its blade and swinging its hilt to and fro. His hands bloodied by this effort, at least he was no longer generating multiple new creatures every time he swung his sword. Nimue too fought them off, casting her spells more slowly than before but even at that reduced rate, her efforts continued to drain her power. Nuada could see that her aura was weakening and she had little time before she would simply run out of magical energy. Nimue felt this as well. As they continued to move through the tunnel, a faint hope flickered as they saw another portal at the end of the Tunnel of Green Doom. Yet they would not reach it before they were overrun at their current pace. Nuada thought of simply picking up Nimue with his good arm and running for the exit but he knew that would be futile. The creatures would move much faster once Nimue stopped her casting.
As if she could read his mind, Nimue turned to Nuada. The look in her eyes spoke volumes. She knew that they had but one chance: One of them must sacrifice themselves to save the other.
Before Nuada could even speak, she told him that there was no point in arguing. She was already near death herself, having used some of her life force to empower her magic. Even if Nuada’s death could buy her time, she soon would be as helpless as a newborn babe in a Veilstorm.
If she sacrificed her life, Nuada could continue on with their mission or at the least, escape. Nuada felt a touch of sadness at her words but he agreed, it was the only thing that they could do. He wanted to say something else, something poignant and heroic, but before he could she added, “Run.”
So he did, turning back only when he reached the end of the tunnel. He saw that Nimue had used the last of her magical energy to cover the tunnel near her in ice. As the creatures froze, slipped, or slid around her, she cursed them. With her words, she foreswore renewal in exchange for causing the destruction of them all.
Nuada was shocked, for her death curse was the strongest he had ever witnessed. As her life force was expended, she transformed into a being of pure, cold energy. While her aura had been strong before, it was now blinding. Nuada had never felt this much power in his long life and for the second time ever he felt fear.
He had no reason to fear her, however; Nimue’s power was directed at the monstrosities that still mobbed her, looking for what they thought would be an easy kill. When the first one touched her, it was instantly frozen and collapsed at her feet, shattering into shards of ice. The chunks of ice exploded, striking every single creature in the tunnel, save only Nuada.
The tunnel became a winter tableau of icicles, frozen creatures, and a powerful and brave woman standing in the middle of what had just been a chaotic scene. As the last of the creatures died Nimue turned to Nuada. She smiled at him. A small icy tear fell from her eye and as it touched the ground Nimue froze, joining the now eerily silent scene. Nuada was overwhelmed by regret as he walked through the tunnel’s exit.
As the door silently closed behind him, Nuada found himself standing in a cold meadow. The Tuatha reeled as he realized that there were no blades of green grass in the field, but tiny body parts that waved in a non-existent wind. The field had hills and valleys and these were also composed of severed body parts.
As the sheer horror of this place assaulted his senses, Nuada felt a strange presence in the air around him. He was sure it was a living being, though he couldn’t see or touch anything. He then heard peals of maniacal laughter. Was it coming from his own lips, or The Depths itself?
He felt thoughts creeping into his brain in tendrils, trying to take control of his mind. In the distance, he saw what looked like an open mouth. He decided to run toward it.
As he ran, the cadaver grass came alive. Hands grabbed at him, legs tried to trip him and the steady stream of foreign thoughts in his head began to tell him to lay down and rest. Everything would be alright.
Nuada fought these thoughts, drawing his sword to cut his way through the living nightmares that attacked him. Covered in black blood, guts, and gore, he ran up the the hill that lay between him and that beckoning mouth. As he slipped down the opposite slope, he realized that the “hill” was a woman’s massive breast.
He was sliding down fast now, and when he reached the mouth at the bottom he saw that it was attached to a face that lay on the ground. The twisted visage was Nimue’s. His sanity began to crack. Nuada stood there, laughing uncontrollably as the grass began to pull him down into the ground.
Rest, he thought, that would be good. Just a short nap. As he began to lie down, one of his own thoughts pushed through his mental haze. It was a memory: Nimue’s voice commanded him to run.
Trying desperately to shake off both the ennui and the cadaver grass, Nuada rose slowly from the ground and leapt through the open mouth.
As the doppelganger of Nimue’s mouth snapped shut behind him, Nuada fell and rolled on what felt like the soft forest loam of his beloved homeland.
When he stood up he saw a fire nearby, the light from which illuminated what appeared to be a strand of trees circling a great forge. As he approached the forge, he felt uneasy. Was this another nightmare apparition in this ever-changing sea of horrors?
Drawing close, he saw that what he had thought were trees were actually gigantic, stout fingers. Pausing, he once again employed his Veilsight. Sure enough, the forge itself was alive! Moreover, it seemed hungry, as if waiting to devour anyone who came too near. He drew his sword and called out to The Depths, daring it to do its worst.
He closed the remaining distance between himself and the forge. The thing flared with power. Tendrils, legs, and some hideous combination of living and dead flesh exploded out of the forge to attack Nuada. This was not the fight that Nuada wanted: It was the fight he needed. As he hacked pieces off the creature, joy surged through him. He was in his element now, and he didn’t care what this creature was, he was going to destroy it utterly.
Their battle raged for hours as Nuada grew stronger, not weaker, with each sword thrust. He felt the power of the The Depths surround him and he embraced it, drawing on it, using the power to attack the creature. At one point in the battle Nuada noticed that the fingers were slowly beginning to close around him like the fronds of a vine. This brought another smile to his face, and he laughed at the creature.
Nuada gracefully danced from finger to finger, slicing each one off at the base. As each digit fell, he noticed once again that these creatures were not made solely of animal flesh but also some other substance. Nuada didn’t care. As their titanic struggle continued, Nuada could sense another presence in this foul place. This presence was watching and judging him Nuada thought. “Well,” Nuada mused inwardly, “I should really give it something to watch!”
Nuada then summoned one of his many gifts and his attacks suddenly gained strength and his motions became so agile that he seemed to move more slowly when in actuality he was moving much faster. He was now the lead performer in a dance of death and he was the living embodiment of grace, strength and power. The forge-creature seemed to sense this change and tried retreating from Nuada but there was nowhere to go. As slowly as the battle unfolded matched the swiftness with which it ended. Nuada slipped through the remaining defenses of the creature and he struck his sword through the anvil’s top. With that blow the creature stopped fighting. As its brains and ichor flowed, Nuada screamed at it and the strange world that he had entered. After a few moments the creature lay still, though Nuada swore he heard clapping in the distance.
As Nuada sat and cleaned his sword, he felt the familiar presence of something nearby. This time, his keen ears detected footsteps just on the edge of hearing. In a few moments, Nuada made out a humanoid form walking (or perhaps gliding) slowly towards him through the darkness. Nuada stood up, his sword in its familiar ready position, and the shadows parted. A familiar face was revealed. It was the merchant who had bargained with Nuada for the entrance to The Depths. Nuada was stunned at this sudden and unexpected appearance, and his first thought was that it must be another apparition come to trick him.
“Stand where you are,” said Nuada, holding his sword higher, “Look at how I dealt with the last creature that tried to trick me.”
“Trick you, my friend? Not hardly. You have proven to be a most powerful warrior,” observed the merchant unctuously, “You are even better than I expected when I hired you.”
“What do you want from me?” asked Nuada with a touch of anger in his words.
“Actually, I want nothing from you,” replied the merchant, “I just want you to get what your heart desires. A new arm; a repaired sword; and other treasures that can help you reclaim your rightful place among your people.”
“No man gives away such things without expecting something in return,” said Nuada bitterly, “Why would you?”
“You have already given me much, oh former king,” said the merchant, “First, you entertained me, and that has rarely happened. Second, you have opened the way to this place, and dealt with some of its worst horrors. Finally, you have given me the chance to use something that I have wanted for a long time, one of the forges here.”
“I see no real forge here!” replied Nuada, “That creature was false.”
“Yes but look carefully now at what remains of the beast,” said the merchant.
Nuada turned back to the creature and saw that buried under all the body parts there was a golden forge. Once again using his Veilsight, he could tell that this was indeed a forge and not some other creature in disguise. Nuada nodded to the merchant.
“Now it is my turn. If you would please help me clear away this garbage, I can begin my work,” said the merchant. Once again nodding his assent, Nuada helped the merchant clear the forge and the surrounding area. The merchant used a fine magically charged wand to burn away all the non-living flesh. Once that was done, he set about his work.
“Take some time to rest, Nuada. Then feel free to explore this place. You never know what you may find here,” said the merchant, as he unpacked some bags that Nuada hadn’t noticed before. “Walk carefully and don’t stray too far. I will make you a great gift, but it will take some time. Days, perhaps.”
Nuada explored the area around the forge, then expanded his search to other passageways, always making sure to mark his route in some manner. Sometimes he carved his initials into stone, flesh, or other substances that he knew nothing of. Other times, he left something on the ground to remind him. Once, he lit a torch that was sitting in a wall sconce and the torch came alive and attacked him. He cut it to pieces easily, and most of his burns weren’t serious.
Nuada spent several days wandering through the nearby passages, and while he found a number of interesting artifacts, he did not uncover anything particularly powerful or deadly. As his small supply of food was running out, Nuada returned to the forge to find the merchant gone. However, several items were waiting for him, along with a note. The note said simply “For Nuada.”
The first item to catch his attention was a black obsidian sword, much like the one Bres carried. The note upon it read “Wield me, if you can.” This weapon was larger than Bres’ blade and it radiated an aura that was surely tainted by this place. Instead of the cold aura of Bres’ sword, this blade radiated a bright red glow.
Nuada went to pick up the sword, but it was too heavy to wield with his left arm. No matter how hard he tried, he could barely lift the sword from its resting place on the forge. Angry and frustrated, Nuada tried again and again and as his anger grew it found he could lift it a little more but still not enough to use it as a weapon. Placing it back down on the anvil with a resounding clang he turned to the next treasure, a golden arm.
The arm that the crafter had created was magnificent. Shapely and smooth, and set with an intricate filigree, it looked almost too good to be true. On the arm was a note that read “Touch me, if you dare.” A little taken aback, Nuada did indeed touch the arm and much to his surprise, nothing happened. He picked it up in his left hand, yet still nothing happened. Once again he grew angry, and as his anger increased, the arm twitched in response. Yet there was still nothing truly wondrous. As his frustration neared the point of explosion, Nuada placed the golden arm back in its place and turned to the final treasure, a large wooden box.
While not particularly interesting to look at, the box had its own aura. On the box was a note that read “Eat me, if you are man enough.” His hand trembling, Nuada opened the box and inside it was a velvety, blood-red spider.
Revolted, Nuada slammed the lid of the box shut, picked it up and was about to throw it into the fire when he stopped. It’s only a spider after all, he thought. Surely he had eaten worse on a dare as a youth. There was something strange about that spider though, and after all, he was in The Depths.
Many thoughts spun through his head. Thoughts of Nimue, John, and the people of Tir na nÒg. After a brief reflection, he put the box back down on the ground and sat beside it. When he was ready, Nuada threw the box open, grabbed the live spider though it struggled to bite him, then shoved it in his mouth and swallowed. He instantly regretted his choice. The creature was still alive as it made its way down his throat, prickly legs kicking.
With the spider in his stomach, Nuada felt his anger rise again. He had been tricked by the merchant, betrayed by his own people, while John and Nimue had been fools. Nobody in the world truly cared about him. He was tired of it.
As the spider continued moving around in his stomach, apparently still alive, he felt a surge of something else. Power.
“Yes,” Nuada thought to himself, “Power is the key, and I have it now. I’ll make that damned arm work, take the sword, kill Bres, and make my people bleed to take me back.”
Once again, Nuada grasped the golden arm. This time, it responded to him. The limb flew from his hand and attached itself to his stump. Tendrils of gold emerged and latched on to his shoulder. Nuada could feel his flesh merging with the arm, becoming one. He flexed his fingers. The arm felt completely his own.
Nuada reached for the obsidian sword and found he could heft it easily. He was as giddy as a child; the sword felt as light as a feather in his golden arm. As for the spider, Nuada didn’t feel it any longer.
His mind filled with newfound knowledge: He suddenly knew how to leave The Depths. A hidden passage would lead him to a tunnel that could get him back to his homeland far quicker than he had come. He laughed aloud and thanked The Depths as he ran for the passage. As he swung the sword triumphantly overhead, he could feel the life within it calling out for more life. Blood.
When he left The Depths, it became deathly silent. The only sound that echoed through the dark halls was the crooning laughter of a lone merchant, who tenderly caressed the new-budded green tendrils of the Golden Forge as they caressed him in turn.
When Nuada emerged from The Depths, it was into a very different world from the one he had left. Back then, the passage of time had little meaning in The Depths. When he made his way out of the first ley tunnel, Nuada discovered that what had been a small settlement of the Tuatha Dé Danann outside the tunnel had grown up into a proper town. Many of the people there had no idea of who he was, except as a vague legendary figure.
Nuada was perplexed, and the answer he received when he asked about the preceding years left him speechless. Apparently, he had been gone over a hundred years, yet when he looked at his own reflection he hadn’t aged a day. He was enraged by this unexpected news, but his anger truly boiled over when an unlucky passerby told him of “Bres the Blessed” and his successful rule over their realm. It took all of what little remained of Nuada’s self-control not to behead that person for merely delivering this news. Instead, Nuada merely took him by the throat and almost squeezed the life out of the man before he caught himself.
Stalking off violently as a frustrated predator might after missing his prey, Nuada again swore to kill Bres. Once that was done, he would return to The Depths and teach that damned merchant that Nuada was not to be trifled with. He would then conquer The Depths and use its power to lead his people to an even greater standing within the realms of this world and of course, earn more personal glory at the same time. And after that, who knew? With the full power of The Depths at his command, anything was possible!
Over the next decade, Nuada traveled the land of the Tuatha Dé Danann and stirred up discontent among its people. Truth be told, while things seemed fine on the surface, a cauldron of anger was slowly boiling and Nuada had no qualms about raising the heat a few more degrees.
There was much talk of trouble between the three realms of this world. The unity that had been built over many a generation was beginning to show signs of fraying at the edges. Nobody knew the cause of this disharmony, but as best as Nuada could discover, it had started around the time he and his companions had entered The Depths.
Putting these thoughts aside, he gradually gathered a small army made up of the dregs of Tuatha Dé Danann society. Drawn from all the known races of this realm, he trained them without mercy, forging them into as powerful a weapon as his obsidian sword.
Word quickly spread about Nuada’s return throughout the land, along with tales, many exaggerated, of his army and the “treasures” he’d somehow earned in The Depths. For you see, during the time that Nuada was in that foul place, it had gained a truly fearsome reputation. Few who went in exited with enough left of their mental faculties intact to tell the tale of their misadventures and survival.
What was talked about even more than The Depths was the sword that Nuada carried and wielded in battle. Tales sprung up like the flowers of spring of this sword sucking men’s souls as one would suck the marrow out of a bone, of it being intelligent, of it mastering Nuada. Nuada not only welcomed such rumors, he encouraged them by staging events for the masses during his travels. If he had to put on a bit of a show to gain more support, he was more than willing. All that mattered to him was achieving his oaths. Only a few trusted companions, if they could even be called that, knew the truth.
As Nuada and his army neared Tír na nÓg, the land itself seemed to recognize the coming storm and grew quiet. It was as if all the living things in his path simply decided to go somewhere else as he continued his relentless march to the capital city of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
One glorious day, Nuada and his army reached the object of his obsession. They stood before the sealed gates of his former city just as the colors of the fall season were reaching their zenith. With his army encamped before the great golden gates, Nuada sat astride a newly acquired black Phouka, obsidian sword in his right arm. Around him, the nearby trees blossomed with their brightest and darkest reds while great golden leaves floated through the crisp morning air in a scene worthy of a fine artist’s skill.
On the battlements of the city, Nuada could see the deadly archers of his Realm watching him as one would a wild animal that needed killing. He felt a mixture of pity and fear. His sword seemed to pick up on these emotions, and it hummed in his hands in the expectation of battle as he raised it high above his head. Nuada called out to Bres, challenging him to meet in single combat to decide the future of their people. Unfortunately for both Nuada and the sword, there was no response from the city.
For days, the gates remained closed and not even a messenger was sent from the city to Nuada. As the siege of Tír na nÓg began nobody could have imagined how it all would unfold.
Over the next few months, Nuada became increasingly frustrated. The siege seemed to have very little effect on the city and its inhabitants. The capital city of the Realm of the Tuatha Dé Danann had been built to be difficult to siege. Over the centuries, new and more powerful enchantments had been laid on it by the city’s mages, strengthening the defenses. Nuada knew that only time and patience would carry the day. Even if that day was years in length, he was prepared to wait as long as necessary to accomplish his goals.
While his army’s ranks were slowly growing, the people within the city seemed to be carrying on their daily lives without interruption. The Festival of the Winter Court was held right on schedule and the sounds of much revelry and merrymaking were heard from within the city’s walls. While none of the usual scrying spells could look into the city, Nuada was sure that his siege was failing.
Privately, he began to think of defeat. But whenever he did, a quick glance at either his new arm or his sword would replace that feeling with anger towards Bres and even his own people. How could they treat him this way, he thought. He was their first king! He had fought many battles and slain countless abominations to keep them safe. And now, they swore allegiance to a being that was unworthy of anything save death. When he was triumphant, he would gather the Courts and discover those that had betrayed him to make them all pay. He didn’t care where his investigations would lead him, even if it was to his own family.
As winter’s grasp tightened on the city and his army, there were no signs that the resolve of either the city’s inhabitants or of Nuada was going to slacken anytime soon. Months later, when the last of the winter’s snows began to melt, Nuada was still standing by the gates of his city, no closer to walking through them.
With the coming of spring, his anger bloomed like the buds on the trees, and he took out his anger on those around him. As morale within his army began to fray, there came the first sign of a break in the interminable stalemate; someone from inside the city was captured upon leaving. It was a Hamadryad healer.
When she was brought to Nuada’s tent, he immediately recognized her as the one who had treated him so long ago. For the first time in more than a century (at least in this world), Nuada experienced a truly soft emotion: A remembrance of what she had once done for him. He walked to her with arms open as if to embrace a long-lost relative, but she recoiled in horror. He saw her antennae twitch in warning and her tail move to a defensive position.
“Don’t come near me. You are not Nuada, you are an abomination!” said the Hamadryad.
Thunderstruck by her words, Nuada responded angrily. In his mind, he looked no different than he always had. He told her that he was still Nuada, and other than his golden arm he hadn’t changed all that much. A little bit wiser perhaps, but not truly different from the Tuatha Dé Danann he was before Bres’ betrayal.
“You truly don’t see it?” she said, shaking her head so violently from side to side that Nuada thought she would harm herself.
“See what?” he said, “I see nothing but the one true king of this land and all its people. It is you who are seeing things.”
“Your arm. It is the limb of a spider. And that sword you carry radiates such evil that it lit up the sky for a day before your approach.”
“What has happened to you in my absence? My arm is made of metal, true, but it golden and serves me well. As for my sword, it is not evil but simply a tool. A tool I will use to take back my city and rule it as I see fit,” said Nuada.
“You will rule what city?” asked the Hamadryad. “There is no city left for you to rule.”
“You truly are insane,” said Nuada, with a touch of pity in his words. “I stand before the great capital city of Tír na nÓg, while its people foolishly resist me. Their king is a coward who skulks in the city, as befits the traitorous rat he has become.”
The Hamadryad was surprised at his words, once again shaking her head.
“Please, my lord and king,” she said, adopting a new and softer tone, “What do you see before you?”
“If this is a game,” said Nuada, “I warn you, I am in no state for such frivolity.”
“Humor a poor healer who once saved your life,” she said, “Please tell me what you see.”
In the resigned tone usually reserved for parents with difficult children, he said, “I see the great gates of this city. Etched in the purest gold, inlaid with the finest jewels, they stand proudly before us. I see men and women on the city’s battlements, wearing the finest armor of our people and carrying our unique bows.”
“I understand,” said the Hamadryad, “Do you see or hear anything else?”
“I hear the laughter of a people reveling in the new season. These people should be starving by now, yet they celebrate as if at the peak of the harvest season. I have searched for months for the hidden tunnels through which the city must get its supplies and have found nothing. Will you tell me where they are?” he replied.
“I promise you I will answer that question if you will do one simple thing for me,” said the Hamadryad.
“Ask,” replied Nuada quickly, for he was anxious to discover these hidden routes. Once revealed, he could cut off the supplies into the city and the siege would end much more quickly.
“Let me touch you with healing, as I once did,” she said, gently as a mother to a scared child.
“Is that all? Of course you may touch me. Know that if you try to trick me, my touch upon your throat will be the last thing you feel,” said Nuada with an evil smile.
The Hamadryad reached toward Nuada and placed her right hand upon Nuada’s head, not his arm as he expected. He remembered that she had done the same thing to him when he was first taken to her, many decades ago. He relaxed as she began a chant in the magical tongue of healers. Power immediately answered her words and flowed through her. Her skin glowed from its effects as she worked her spell. His eyes started to close as a globe of purest light enveloped his head.
As it swirled around Nuada, he suddenly felt as though his head were stabbed by hundreds of daggers. The former king screamed and threw the kindly healer across the tent. Nuada held his head, trying to rein in his screams but failing utterly.
Rising from the ground, the healer summoned great power, which spread throughout the men surrounding the tent and then through Nuada’s entire army. The screams reached their zenith in a cacophony of pain and suffering that hadn’t been seen in this land for many generations.
After a few moments, the pain and the screaming ended as quickly and as violently as they started. Shaking off the effects, Nuada strode purposely across the tent towards the healer, his storm-crossed face betraying the only thought in his mind: kill. The healer knew what was comingg put out her right hand to Nuada as she kneeled before him.
“Strike my arm off if I have offended you Nuada, but before you do, look to your own right arm,” she said.
Without thinking, Nuada glanced down at this arm and what he saw horrified him. It was not a beautiful golden arm. Instead, in its place was a huge, hairy spider’s leg. Worse, the black sword that had been a thing of pride for him was a jagged creation of blades, spikes, and bone. Refusing to believe what he saw, he raised his weapon to strike the healer.
“What have you done to me?” he demanded.
“Nothing but removed the spell you were under, my lord,” she said without fear. “If you don’t believe me, go outside the tent and show your men.”
Nuada stepped outside and looked around the tent. His followers looked at him as if for the first time. They were frightened.
“This is impossible. It simply cannot be,” he said.
“It is so, though I wish it were not,” she replied sadly.
Nuada ran through the camp, looking for anybody who could see the truth, and not this distorted vision of him that the healer must be responsible for creating. Yes, he thought to himself, it was her fault. This must be a trick. Nuada was about to return to the tent to slay the healer and break the supposed enchantment, when he saw that he was again before the gates of city. He had been horrified by his arm and blade, but what he saw now chilled him to the core.
The city’s gates were not golden, and had been stripped of any façade of wealth. Far from being shut tight, they weren’t even closed, but hung open for all to see. He had been sieging an open city? He looked upon the battlements and instead of the troops he expected he saw skeletons of dead men and women.
“This cannot be. I refuse this false vision,” he screamed.
“It is true, Nuada, refuse it though you may,” said the healer who had silently crept up behind him and now stood behind him.
“What am I seeing?” he said imploringly.
“The truth, nothing more,” she said.
“What has happened here? To me, to our world?” he said.
“You are under a terrible spell, Nuada. One of such power that I could only undo a part of it. And I can only hold the lies at bay a short time longer. As for our city, it has been deserted for decades,” she said, “There are none of our people left alive in there. There is a but an evil statue of a one-eyed god named Balor.”
“I remember that statue from the battle against Bres,” replied Nuada.
“Yes, the statue was there, but at the time we didn’t know Balor was a living creature. Now he is a malevolent being that drains the life from our land and our people. His influence has spread throughout the land, his corruption working its way from town to town through the ground itself,” answered the healer.
“And Bres?” said Nuada.
“He stole the treasures from the city and deserted the city long ago with a band of his followers. The people he left as payment to Balor. The one-eyed creature has been repaid in full for helping Bres defeat you.”
“I will avenge myself against Balor, and then I will find Bres and recapture our treasures,” said Nuada, true anger welling up in him.
“As much as I wish you to succeed, I cannot lie to you. You are not the king you once were.”
“Not so! I feel better than ever. This arm may look like a nightmare but it fights like a dream.”
“It is illusion, my lord. I can see the damage that the arm and sword have done to your body, and it is considerable. You are nearing your end, for the arm and sword are draining your life away.”
“You lie!” said Nuada, but this time, with little conviction.
The healer shook her head sadly and once again took a knee before him. She drew her own weapon and handed it to Nuada.
“If you truly believe that, strike me down. But I pray you, use my weapon. I wish to cause you no more pain than I already have this day,” said the healer.
Nuada raised her weapon as if about to kill her, but he stopped in mid-stroke and looked deeply into her eyes. She was full of pity, not for herself but for him. He saw the same face that tended him for so many difficult days and the hands that brought him back to life. As much as he wanted to believe he was the champion with a golden arm, he had always known that something was wrong with the deal he had been given. He didn’t want to believe the truth; the lie was so much more pleasant and easy to accept.
He raised his Veilsight, as he had in The Depths. When he saw his own aura’s power gathered around him, Nuada hung his head sadly.
“No, I cannot. I know that you are right. About me… About this accursed weapon… I have failed again.”
“No Nuada, it is not over yet. There may still be hope for you and our people.”
Deeply saddened, Nuada took his leave to think on what he must do.
Walking alone through the deserted capital city of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Nuada felt his anger almost devouring him from within. He ordered his troops to stay outside the city’s walls and threatened to kill any who sought to despoil what was left of the city. Seeing the desolation for which he bore responsibility, was almost too much for him to bear.
The city was not just empty; it was devoid of any sign of life. Even the vermin that have always plagued cities were missing from the streets. The vaunted Watchtowers stood silent and empty, as even their watchers had abandoned them, a crime punishable by exile and or death in the harsh code of the Tuatha Dé Danann. While corpses did not litter the streets as he expected, the few he saw at first were enough to quickly drive him into a near frenzy. He felt his blood boiling.
This time however, he knew that it was the influence of his spider’s arm and the obsidian sword that amplified his anger and fueled his desire to wreak a terrible vengeance upon Bres. The hamadryad (whose name he had still forgotten to ask) explained to him that while those foul creations didn’t make his thoughts evil, they focused any dark emotion as a glass could focus the beams of the sun. They concentrated his hatred, honed it to a point where that feeling blocked out any other thought.
Now freed of some of the spells he was under, he could feel the evil intent of all his treasures as a cold fire that ran through his body. No wonder the hamadryad had recoiled from his embrace! The darkness in him must be obvious to anyone who could see beyond the physical plane.
As he neared the city’s main square, he saw warning signs and graffiti dotting the streets. There were obscene references to Balor, to himself, and to Bres. As he came ever closer to the main circle, he saw increasingly disturbing signs that many battles had been waged here. There were charred corpses of warriors, mages, healers, and archers in the street.
The strangest part was how all of them appeared to have been cut in half and then burned. Judging by the dust and other detritus around them, the bodies, armor and weapons had laid here long undisturbed, as if nothing dared to touch them. Though the sights should have terrified him, Nuada felt this was just another debt that he owed Bres, Balor, and his people. With each step through the ruins, Nuada renewed his promise that one day he would repay that debt, no matter the cost to himself.
As Nuada turned onto a street that was fittingly named after one of the first wielders of fire magic in the land, he saw that someone had erected a barricade made out of whatever was at hand, including the charred bodies of Tuatha Dé Danann soldiers. He came to a sudden stop when he spotted a familiar silhouette in the distance: The statue of Balor.
However it had grown in size, head topping the buildings around, with the one eye firmly shut. Balor’s stone skin was smooth and grey. He looked like a creature covered in skin-tight stone armor with the joints barely visible. Nuada stood at the barricade for several minutes, assessing both the change in his city and the threat of Balor when he felt a familiar touch upon his shoulders.
“I thought I’d find you here,” said the hamadryad. “It was a terrible thing that was wrought, Nuada.”
“Yes. It was all my fault wasn’t it?” said Nuada, “I was so damned sure of myself back then. I rushed into battle quick and unthinking, more like a young fool than a true leader. And when I lost to Bres, I was just as quick to desert my people.”
“If you wish me to heal your body, that I can do,” said the Hamadryad, “Your guilt is a burden you have to heal yourself. I can tell you this much: Among honest souls, rarely are a person’s deeds as good or as bad as in they believe.”
“That is comforting,” said Nuada.
“In your case, your arrogance cost your people much,” she said, “Though it is not too late for us to rise from the rubble once again.”
“I understand. What should I do next? I’m lost…”
“Instead of swearing revenge, look within and decide how best to serve your people. Don’t drown in self-pity now as you have been drowning in hatred for so long. This world is under siege. Those that are strong enough to help must do so, or we shall all perish.”
Nuada nodded slowly. “Yes. So tell me more of what I missed. These bodies are strangely scarred by the battles that took place. Let’s start there.”
“You see before you the handiwork of the one-eyed horror that is Balor. When your people first learned of the treachery of Bres, they took up arms and stormed his tower, not expecting what lay within. As they neared the statue, its eye opened and a beam of black light emerged. This beam sliced through the people, cutting them cleanly in two, as a skilled butcher would slice a slab of meat. As their bodies fell to the ground, they caught fire and burned.”
“How is such a thing possible? Our mages can summon powerful spells, but a beam like that would be beyond them.”
“Magic has advanced much in your absence. Even still, our scholars studied the bodies and could not come up with an explanation for such power. Over the next few years, many different assaults were launched against Balor, but none succeeded. Death took a mighty toll on our people, Nuada. We learned only one thing: If Balor is approached by a single warrior, his eye will open but no beam will emerge.”
“He will let us walk right up to him?” Nuada was puzzled.
“As long as a being poses no threat to him, Balor simply watches. It seems that he studies us as we study him.”
“Have any tried to talk to him?”
“Yes, but he doesn’t react in any way. He simply watches. When this city was still inhabited, he slowly drained the life force of those creatures that remained within the city. Those were very dark days, but when we realized what was really going on, the few survivors fled the city. Now that everyone with an ounce of wisdom has left, his life-sucking tendrils have been retracted.”
“This I must see for myself,” said Nuada, with a little bit of the old bravado returning to his voice.
“I was hoping you would say that. Be forewarned though, any threat from you will awaken him.”
Nuada stripped off his armor and placed the obsidian sword on top of the pile. He let go with hesitation, for releasing the sword was becoming ever more difficult. Stripped down to his cloth undergarments, the former king of the Tuatha Dé Danann felt naked as he climbed over the barricade and made his way slowly towards the resting place of Balor.
As if Nuada had crossed an invisible line, the energy in the area began to flow toward Balor. It felt like being sucked in by a whirlpool of standing granite. Nuada continued to walk forward as Balor began to stir. Slowly, inexorably, the eye opened and shifted its focus to Nuada. For a brief moment, Nuada’s right arm tingled and he felt a connection to the statue, but that quickly faded as Nuada continued his approach.
Fighting back the first risings of fear that Nuada had felt since he left The Depths, he stood before the statue and met its eye with his own. Reaching out with all his senses, he knew that Balor was more than a mere statue. No matter how hard he tried, he could not connect with the intelligence inside it. He then tried to communicate verbally, speaking in every language he knew from the world’s past and present, but still there was no response.
Standing before the statue, Nuada wondered if he should just end this charade and attack. However, stripped of any vestments and magic objects, Nuada knew he would be no challenge for Balor’s raw power. He would die a hero though. Tales of his bravery would unite his people and they would rebuild.
Yes, that was what he must do; die. As Nuada began to lift his arms in preparation for an attack, he glimsped the hamadryad shaking her tail back by the barricade. He realized suddenly that this was a coward’s way out. True, death would be swift relief to his shame and guilt, but what mattered now was not the quickness of his death but its true meaning. Dying here would be no different than when he deserted his people before, this time though it would be permanent.
Nuada didn’t give in to his emotions this time. He might not be able to defeat Balor now, but he swore that no matter the price, he would pay the butcher’s bill to restore his people. His mind firmly set upon a new path, Nuada made his way back to the hamadryad. As he once again crossed an unseen line, Balor’s eye closed, though it lingered on Nuada just a little longer than before.
“I see you have returned intact,” said the Hamadryad, a small smile curving her lips.
“Yes… but I almost didn’t,” said Nuada flatly.
“I know. Your thoughts were as evident to me as Balor’s eye.” she said. Nuada’s right eyebrow lifted in response. “I have seen you at your best and worst and I did not need to read your mind to know what you were thinking. Part of being a healer is the ability to read people’s symptoms; it is not just magic, as some believe. When you left me, you were a man whose faith was shattered. Your life was without purpose and meaning. When you walked back, your stride was confident and your eyes glowed once again with true purpose. So, unless a new spell was cast on you, I can only assume that you came to an understanding with yourself out there. Am I correct?”
“Yes, you are correct. I know what I must do,” said Nuada.
“And what is that?”
“I must rid myself of this accursed arm, sword, and other tainted treasures from The Depths. Then I must confront and defeat Bres to regain the treasures of our people,” said Nuada, as confidently as if he was simply listing a number of household errands that needed to be done.
“Is that all?” said the Hamadryad.
“It is for now,” Nuada declared.
“Excellent. I can help you with that. Return to what remains of your army and wait for me. I have a few tasks to take care of, and will then return to you,” she said.
“I will do as you ask,” said Nuada as he put his armor back on and reluctantly took up the sword again.
As the hamadryad walked off through the city, Nuada realized that he had once again forgotten to ask her name.
Nuada waited patiently at the outskirts of Tir na nÒg. Much of his army had already melted into the countryside. It seemed they lost interest when they found that they were not going to be allowed to strip the city of whatever riches it had left. Only a few loyal Tuatha Dé Danann remained to wait with Nuada.
During this time, Nuada steeled himself for his coming trials, knowing that they would not be easy to accomplish even if he were whole. He refused to take up the obsidian sword except when absolutely necessary, and each time he felt the foulness in his hands.
Almost a year passed before a familiar figure rode into town, accompanied by a young Dvergar who carried the tools of a crafter. Reaching Nuada’s camp, the hamadryad gracefully dismounted her phouka, the crafter trailing behind her.
“Greetings Nuada, it is good to see you again,” said the hamadryad, extending her hands in friendship. Nuada clasped them warmly, greeting a long-lost friend.
“It is good to see you again. I was wondering when you would return,” said Nuada.
“When. Not if? You did not doubt my return?” asked the hamadryad with a smile.
“No, I did not. How could you resist the opportunity to patch me up again?” Nuada returned, and she laughed in response. “And I see you have brought another to join us. Who are you, young sir?”
As the Dvergar drew closer, Nuada saw that the tools he carried were beautiful objects, likely crafted with magical mastery.
“Greetings, Nuada. My proper name is too long for even you to say, but I am known as Miach, son of Dian The Smith. Not that I’m offended, but I suspect I am older than you,” said the Dvergar. “So. I’ve been told that you have been to The Depths, and have returned greatly changed, bearing powerful artifacts from that place.”
“Yes, to all that you say. My arm is that of a spider, my sword is forged of some strange metal, and there are some other treasures which I dare not touch,” said Nuada.
“Well, I could remove your arm quite easily, but I’ll leave that task to one who can do so with less pain. I do want to study your sword, as well as the other treasures,” said Miach, “Give them to me, and show me where the nearest crafter guild is in this barren city and I will be about my work. When I learn their true nature, we will talk again.”
Nuada ordered the other treasures to be brought to Miach, but as he tried to hand the crafter the sword, he found he couldn’t release it.
“You must let go of the weapon if you wish me to study it, Nuada. It will be much more difficult if I have to hammer at it with your hand still hanging on,” said Miach, “But if you insist, I’ll be happy to try. That might be fun for me!”
Try as he might, Nuada found that he could not let go of the sword. It felt as though the anger that he had kept in check for the past year was returning.
“Nuada. Think about what you said to me when last we stood here together,” said the hamadryad gently.
As Nuada thought about her words, the anger slowly left him. He found he could now let go, albeit reluctantly, of the sword.
“Well. That was a bit of a sticky situation, wasn’t it?” said Miach, laughing as he took the sword from Nuada. “Now comes the fun part, at least for me. You have my sympathy, Nuada. What you are about to go through might make you wish you had not let go of the sword.”
These words echoed deeply in Nuada’s soul and he could feel his right arm tingling as if in response. Its dark magic took root in his hesitation, amplifying his feelings to fear. He looked plaintively at the healer and words began to form on his slightly trembling lips.
“Before you say anything Nuada, remember how I feel about self-pity,” she said, which made Nuada quickly command his lips to stop moving. “Now there’s a good king. Let’s go find somewhere to remove that accursed arm of yours. Your tent will do nicely.”
Nuada and the healer walked off to his tent. As he opened the flap for her, he felt her familiar touch on his shoulder. Though no words were exchanged, they both understood the significance of the gesture and Nuada was reassured.
Nobody but Nuada and the healer knew what happened that night, though the dawn was far too slow in coming and the silent city was filled with screams of pain from Nuada, and oddly enough, the sounds of battle.
As dawn’s first light finally made its way across the horizon, the healer emerged, covered in blood and ichor. In her hands she carried the spidery phantasm of Nuada’s arm, that still twitched as if alive. Walking to the camp’s central fire, she threw the limb angrily into the flames and uttered a quick spell or prayer. After a few minutes of burning and one or two escape attempts, the arm stopped moving and was reduced to ash. Sighing, the healer went back to the tent to continue her treatment on Nuada.
It was months before Nuada was strong enough to leave the tent on his own, but by the time he did, he looked like one who has come through the crucible of suffering and emerged stronger. For the Nuada who now stood before his people had aged, but was not frail or weak. Even without an arm, he seemed more like the old Nuada, but without the folly and overconfidence of youth. He was one whose eyes reflected his purpose as surely as his sword arm once reflected his love for battle.
One fine spring morning, as Nuada and the healer were eating their breakfast, Miach ran up to them excitedly.
“Stop stuffing your faces, I have something to show you. Follow me!” he said.
Without even waiting for a response, the crafter ran back to his tent.
“He is a strange fellow,” said Nuada, which earned him a familiar look from the healer, who raised an eyebrow in apparent mockery. “Never mind,” he sighed.
Upon entering Miach’s tent, Nuada found it didn’t look anything like he expected. There was no littering of the living space with tools of Miach’s trade and life. Instead, everything was neatly arranged, with only a few hints of Miach’s profession. In the middle of the tent, on a great stone table that had been raised from the earth itself, sat three items: The black obsidian sword, his father’s old magic sword, and a silver arm. Nuada was overjoyed at the sight. His heart and mind were filled with as much joy as they had been filled with anger.
“How did you… What are… I…” said Nuada, barely able to move his lips.
“You are quite eloquent when you want to be, aren’t you?” quipped Miach, “You really have the gift of words!”
“Miach!” said the healer, trying not to laugh herself.
“Oh, he’s a big, grown up Tuatha! He can take a joke, can’t he?” said Miach.
“Yes I can, sir Dvergar. My cup overflows with joy at seeing this magnificent handiwork of yours! You are truly a master craftsman. A Dvergr without peer,” said Nuada to Miach, who accepted this compliment as his due.
“An amazing Dvergr, a powerful Dvergr. I could see that the first time you came in our camp,” continued Nuada.
“Thank you!” said Miach.
“Your prowess shall be sung among all the peoples of the realms. I will spend the rest of my life telling all of your mighty work,” continued Nuada, a sly smile crossing his face. “Those in the one true city will also sing your praise. They will bring you laurels and give you hearty handshakes in return for what you have done here!” continued Nuada.
“Umm…” said Miach.
“No, even more. I will contact the Emissaries and tell them of your prowess, of your greatness, of your…” continued Nuada, barely keeping laughter from taking over. All the while, the healer stood by and grinned at the joke.
“Well…” said Miach.
“They will want to take you into their world to share the secrets of your abilities…” said Nuada.
“Enough!” said Miach angrily, “Stop! For the love of the Allfather, stop!”
At this, both the healer and Nuada lost whatever self-control they had, and began laughing uncontrollably. Miach, realizing that he was victim of a sense of humor that he hadn’t known Nuada possessed, turned bright red. Some of the stones in his arms seemed to light up as well. “Well done!” said Miach, “You stung me nicely!” As he joined their laughter with his own, he added, “Let me show you what she and I have been up to these past few months.”
Nuada sat on a very uncomfortable stone chair next to the table still smug with satisfaction at having bested the master crafter with a jest.
“First, I re-forged your sword from the pieces you had been lugging around,” said Miach as if that were a simple feat that anyone could do. “It is as it was, no worse and maybe even a little bit better. I know that it will serve you well. Pick it up.”
Nuada rose a bit unsteadily from the chair, for he still was not fully recovered, and picked up his sword. It felt wrong in his left hand, but he still remembered the feel of it and it was good. He nodded to Miach in acknowledgment of a job well done.
“Next, I made you a new arm of silver,” continued the crafter, “Unlike your last arm, this one will not try to poison your soul. The metal has been treated with powerful spells by our friendly healer, and she assures me that it will bond nicely with your body. Once this is done, it may feel a little different than your natural arm, but it will perform even better once you train it.”
“Train it?” said Nuada, “Is it alive?”
“Not truly, but you need to practice a while, before you go out into the world and use it in combat,” said Miach.
“How long will that take?” questioned Nuada.
“Fifteen years,” said Miach, “Fourteen and a half if I cut some corners!”
“What?” exclaimed Nuada in exasperation.
“Got you!” said Miach, “Never go against a Dvergr in a battle of humor!”
“Oh,” said Nuada hanging his head in mock shame, “Truly, how long?”
“No more than three months if you work diligently and do as I say,” said Miach, “And that means resting when she or I tell you to rest.”
“I agree. I’ll do as you ask,” said Nuada.
“Good. Now here’s what was truly challenging. This damned sword of yours,” said Miach, casting aside all levity, “It was a truly evil piece of work.”
“How so?” said Nuada.
“Whoever made this sword is truly a legendary crafter. Insane and evil, yet his talent is undeniable. This sword was designed to drain your soul and the energy from your victims and feed it somewhere else,” said Miach, with a chill in his voice.
“Feed it where?” asked Nuada.
“Can you not guess?” said the healer.
“The Depths!” said Nuada.
“Correct,” said Miach, “While you were using this sword, its foul gathering was passed into The Depths. It is why you aged so swiftly, and why you were so weak at the end. “
“I didn’t feel weak,” Nuada began.
“No, that was part of its evil. You would have felt strong up to the time that your entire soul was drained, and then you would have died. An empty shell of a body with nothing inside,” said Miach.
A shudder of horror went through Nuada as he realized how close he had come to true death, and how deep was the crime committed against him by the merchant. He also wondered what had happened to the power that was passed into The Depths.
“And what about now?” asked Nuada, “What should we do about that weapon?”
“Nothing,” said Miach, “I have rendered it harmless. I will study it some more and try to unlock some additional secrets from it, but it will never harm anyone again, that much I promise.”
“That is good,” said Nuada.
“Now, let’s get to work,” said Miach, a very broad smile crossing his face, “We have a lot to do if you are going to be the savior of your people.”
“I am no savior,” said Nuada, “But I’ll do whatever is needed. I will erase the damage I have done.”
They began their work. When she was sure that neither Miach nor Nuada could see her, the Hamadryad smiled secretly, for she knew that deep within The Depths, the merchant was no longer laughing.
For the next few months, Nuada trained daily with his new silver arm. At first, practice was very difficult, and he endured numerous mockery-laden sessions with Miach. However, with the gentle touch and support of the healer, and the slow return of his once-legendary dedication, Nuada made steady progress.
When he was truly convinced that this arm wasn’t evil, and wouldn’t just fall off, Nuada began pushing himself as he had in his younger days. He noticed that his reflexes, speed, and power weren’t quite what they once were; yet he was still a fearsome sight to behold, even in practice.
When Nuada sparred with other warriors, they all seemed to be moving and reacting more and more slowly. His opponents may have fought well, but Nuada’s actions flowed from one to another as if it were all some part of a rhythmic dance.
Once again, Nuada felt like a being born of battle, and not just one who excels due to constant practice. Each swing, block, and parry was effortless, and his silver arm moved as comfortably as did his arm of flesh. After three full moons, Miach declared that Nuada was indeed ready to re-emerge.
As much as Nuada wanted to return to The Depths, he knew he had other priorities. Over the next few years, Nuada, Miach, and the healer traveled the lands of the Tuatha Dé Danann together, searching for the scattered children of Danu. Though they formed an army, it was not one of conquest but of restoration.
Where they found their people oppressed, they restored the balance. Where they found need and want, they shared what resources they had. Where they found prosperity, they took what they needed, not in treasure, but in knowledge. As they traveled, their army grew in number. Many Tuatha Dé Danann rallied to their banners, and cheered the great golden armor that Miach mysteriously found time to craft while on the march.
Everywhere they went they searched for word of Bres, but none could say where he had taken refuge. They explored every rumor, hint, or telltale sign, and they covered vast swathes of territory, but it was as if he had vanished from this land. They sent riders to the One True City and to the other capitals of the world but even after that, no sign of Bres or the treasures of their people could be unearthed. Though Nuada and his ragtag army gained some success, Nuada began to become enraged by Bres’ ability to remain hidden.
On one particular frosty summer night, Nuada sat by a roaring campfire, Miach and the healer by his side.
“You look particularly troubled tonight, Nuada,” said Miach, “Cait sith got your tongue?”
Nuada was inured to the crafter’s sense of humor and didn’t take the bait, at least not right away. However, the rumor of the way that the cait sith dealt with betrayal instantly leapt to mind, just as Miach had intended.
“Yes, I’m unable to form a whole sentence this evening,” said Nuada dryly.
“Still worrying about the elusive Bres?” asked Miach, “He can’t hide from us forever.”
“We don’t have forever,” countered Nuada, “We shouldn’t be lollygagging around here.”
“I don’t know who lolly is,” said Miach, “But sometimes you could use a gag.”
“Why you annoying, rock-brained…”, said Nuada angrily, his old hair-trigger temper making a brief but triumphant return. “Wait. I’m sorry, Miach, truly I am. Bres’ ability to hide from us is starting to frustrate me.”
“Starting? You’ve been stomping around for the last few months,” said Miach, “Some of my relatives in UnderHome can probably hear you.”
“Has it been that bad?” asked Nuada, looking to the healer for sign of support.
“You have been…difficult, these past two seasons. Your journey has been a challenging one so far, but this is still your journey to complete, no matter how long it takes to do so. Miach and I are here to help, but it is up to you to determine the outcome,” said the healer without reproach.
“I know. Every attempt I make to find him fails. I’ve sent out enough riders to even find a tiny luchorpán in a great forest but I can’t find that one damned soul,” said Nuada, growing red in the face.
Expecting a retort of some kind, Nuada was surprised that his friends said nothing to him in return. This puzzled him. It continued to puzzle him as he stomped off to his tent to spend the rest of the night honing his skill at fuming to a fine edge.
Deep in the phase of the moon known as Shadow’s Delight, Nuada woke up suddenly. Not even bothering to put on his clothing, he ran out of the tent and found the healer. He was surprised to find her waiting for him.
“Curse me for a blind fool,” said Nuada, “I know exactly where Bres is hiding.”
Nonplussed by Nuada’s nudity, the Hamadryad merely raised one eyebrow at him.
“That abomination is hiding in the only place he could hide,” said Nuada.
“And that is where?” questioned the healer.
“The Depths!” said Nuada triumphantly.
“Took you long enough to figure that out,” said the healer rather dryly.
“Wait. You already knew?” said Nuada.
“Yes. Now go put on your pants, as befits a king of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Raise the army and let’s get going. We’ve wasted enough time already,” she said.
Confused, happy, and excited, Nuada ran back to his tent, put on his pants and raised the Siren’s Call to his troops. Once assembled, they began the long march to the last known entrance point to The Depths.
The trip was supposed to take weeks but it was one full year before Nuada arrived at a different entrance to The Depths as the one he’d formerly used had moved in his absence. During this time he had released most of the army to go back to their homes while he and 11 supporters searched for where the current entrance to The Depths was hiding. Their journey was a difficult one, which is chronicled, in another tale. This time the entrance was not near a lake but encased in a green hill in the land of the Arthurians. Fitting, Nuada thought to himself, that he should return to The Depths while in the land of Nimue. His thoughts then wandered to her, not unpleasantly and he hoped that he would not find her there or if he did, that she would be dead. Anything else was too terrible to contemplate.
Standing once again before the monolith, Nuada turned to the healer.
“I suppose this is when you tell me of my destiny, and how I must venture in there alone. Correct?” said Nuada.
“I can certainly say that if you wish, but I was thinking that it would be better if we all go in together,” she said. “If you want to play the role of legendary…”
“Sword fodder,” interrupted Miach.
“…hero…we will wait outside for you. I have no great desire to visit there again,” said the healer.
“Again? You’ve been in The Depths before?” said Nuada.
She waved her hand dismissively. Nuada knew this was not something she was going to talk about with him.
“Shall we go inside and find Bres?” said Nuada.
“I’ve got first rights on any forges we find. I can’t wait to see what turns out such interesting…eh, I mean, vile things!” said Miach.
With a collective sigh, this tired and dirty dozen, heroes and heroines alike, marched into the monolith and into The Depths.
The monolith led to a new entranceway. After a brief bit of disorientation, the team found itself standing before a glossy-black set of doors that were inlaid with depictions of women in various states of torture. The acts that were depicted were unspeakably vile, and even the healer found herself taken aback by what she saw. All who stood before the door were revolted and enraged by the images in front of them; none more so than Nuada, who realized that each of these women resembled Nimue.
Making matters worse, when they approached the door, it seemed to come alive. Each of the women moved and writhed in pain and suffering. None could bear to touch the door. When Nuada came almost close enough to touch it, each of the women moaned one word his name accusingly: “Nuada.” Upon hearing that, the group turned to him.
“What happened here?” said Miach, “What did you do to her?”
“Nothing! We were fighting our way out of here and she sacrificed her life to save mine when she was close to death,” Nuada said angrily, “She left me no choice. She forced me to leave her.”
“Forced? How? Our big, brave Tuatha was forced to leave by a naked, magically exhausted woman?” said Miach.
“She wasn’t naked at the time. And yes, she sacrificed her life for mine and I’ve thought about that sacrifice every damn day of my damned life. I wanted to go back for her but I couldn’t,” he said.
“Couldn’t…or wouldn’t, Nuada?” asked the healer gently.
“Could…No, wouldn’t. She did plead for me to leave, but I could have refused, perhaps. Or perhaps I could have come back here before now. No, I should have come back before now! Instead of raising the army and marching back to our capitol, I should have stormed this accursed place,” said Nuada.
Nuada again approached the door, but this time he stopped and went down on his knees. Each of the faux-Nimue stopped their moaning and turned to stare at Nuada.
“Forgive me, Nimue. I should have come back sooner. And if you can’t forgive me, take my life and let my companions do what they must do. I implore you,” he said.
When Nuada finished, the writhing and moaning on the door ceased. Nuada rose and gently pushed the doors open. As they had so long ago, they swung silently open across the stone floor.
One thing certain about The Depths is that nothing is certain about them, Nuada thought to himself. However, as he looked around he noted some similarities to his prior visit. All around him, life was merged with death in an incredible and frightening tableau of horror.
The walls, floor and ceiling were blood red with pieces of living creatures that had been dismembered and scattered. Heads were stuck to walls like kill trophies. In some places, a jigsaw puzzle of body parts were put together as if to form a whole being.
But the subtlest, most disturbing thing about the room was how it expanded and contracted in a rhythmic pattern. At first, Nuada thought that they might be within the stomach of some gigantic creature, but he knew better. As they walked through the room, the cycle of breathing suddenly stopped.
“I don’t think this is a good sign. Keep moving,” said Nuada.
“I agree,” said Miach, “As one of our sheepherders would say, let’s get the flock out of here.”
Quickening their pace, the companions followed a path that was barely visible under the blood and ichor that covered it. As they approached the far end of the chamber, the breathing started again and when it did, the ceiling opened and a tidal wave of blood and guts fell from above. Covered now in gore, the companions weren’t sure whether to laugh or to be disgusted until they noticed that in the blood were creatures that resembled leeches but were much larger.
As they hurriedly plucked the creatures off, they noticed that they had barbed teeth and each creature took with it a chunk of flesh! Ignoring the pain and horror, all but two of the companions removed the foul creatures. Those two who didn’t, found that the creatures had another surprise for them. Unlike normal leeches, these weren’t solely interested in blood; their interest was in spawning. They were implanting eggs in their victims. As they did so, the leeches shrank in size, their hideous larvae laid into the unlucky companions. Before everyone realized what was happening, the two found their bodies being devoured from the inside as the hungry larvae chewed through them. Within moments they were devoured, with only bits and pieces of them contained in their armor. Now sated, these creatures fell to the floor, fat and content, posing no further threat to the companions as they fled the room.
Fleeing that terrible scene, Nuada realized that he was once again standing at the same anvil that he had seen long ago. Miach was excited by this and hurried over to it, eager to test his theories. Before Nuada could even shout out a warning, Miach was at the anvil’s base, inspecting it from all angles. Fortunately, this time there was no creature laying in wait for them. Happily mumbling to himself, Miach began testing the forge with his instruments, both magical and mundane.
“This is great! So exciting! This forge has properties I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world! I could happily spend decades studying this beauty,” said Miach, giving the hunk of metal a hearty slap.
“We need to move on,” said Nuada, “We’ll come back after we do what we came here to do.”
“Nuada, I’m a crafter, not a fighter. I can train your arm, even spar with you a bit, but in a true fight, well, I am about as useful as an angry valkyrie in a brothel. Leave me here with one of the warriors and let me do what I do so well,” said Miach.
“I suppose you’re right,” said Nuada.
“Good. I’ll ask the other Dvergr to stay with me. He’s got a nice roundshield I can work on,” said Miach.
As Nuada and what remained of his companions continued down the path, he turned back to look at Miach, hoping that this wouldn’t be the last time he saw the maddening Dvergr.
“Miach,” said Nuada as Miach turned back to face him, “Stay safe.”
“Aww. Such a sweet boy,” said Miach in his mocking way. “You too.”
Leaving the forge and the Dvergrs behind, Nuada continued down a narrow path that overlooked what could be best described as a giant open mouth surrounded by a row of nasty looking teeth. Not wanting to think about what would happen if anyone fell into that mouth, Nuada once again quickened the pace. About halfway across the mouth, the path suddenly widened and the stone floor was covered in a soft, purple carpet. As they continued to walk, in the distance they could see an enormous golden throne. Nearing the throne, they could see that it was Bres who sat upon it.
Upon seeing Bres, Nuada felt an overwhelming anger rise from deep within. Drawing his sword, he rushed the throne, oblivious to the warning shouts from his companions and to his own inner voice. As he approached, Nuada was overcome with thoughts of the losses and pain Bres had caused him to suffer. Thoughts of Nimue, John, Tír na nÓg, his arm, and of Balor all flooded his brain.
Wildly swinging his sword as he ran, he prepared for a death stroke. Then he noticed that Bres hadn’t reacted to what was happening. Nobody could be that calm so close to death, thought Nuada. Stopping just before the throne, Nuada raised his sword, his arm trembling slightly with excitement, and placed it at the side of Bres’ neck, lining up the killing blow.
“For all the deaths you caused, it’s your time now,” said Nuada.
Still there was no reaction from Bres.
“Say something,” said a visibly frustrated Nuada, holding his sword steady.
“Nuada, he can’t,” said the healer who had just reached him.
“Is he dead?” said Nuada.
“No. He is alive. Look at the forefinger on his right hand,” said the healer.
At first, Nuada could see nothing. After a moment, Bres’s finger moved almost imperceptibly.
“What is going on here?” asked Nuada.
“I sense that Bres is here but isn’t,” said the healer, “He’s in his own place within this place as well. A different bubble of existence, as it were.”
“I have no idea what you are talking about,” said Nuada in confusion.
“I’m not sure I do either. I just know that wherever he is, he is experiencing something totally different than we are now,” said the healer.
“Then let me clear up your confusion,” said a voice far too familiar for comfort.
Turning towards the sound of the voice, the companions saw the figure that Nuada had called the merchant, walking towards them from a hidden path behind the throne. Seeing the merchant, Nuada’s blood ran hot and he wanted, or needed, to kill.
“Now now Nuada, calm down. I know you must have dreamt about killing me for many years, and even now you imagine my death, but hear me out. I can explain everything. I can even show you where your friends John and Nimue are, and yes, before you ask, they are alive and doing quite well,” said the merchant.
“Hear him out,” said the healer gently.
“Thank you. First, you were right, Bres is in a different time. He came here asking for help in making his truest wish come true: To sit forever upon the throne of the Tuatha Dé Danann. And that is what he is doing now. For as long as this world survives, Bres will sit upon this throne,” said the merchant.
“Monstrous!” said Nuada.
“Not at all. Bres made his wish clear to me and we made it happen. The same thing applies to you, Nuada. We simply carried out your wishes,” countered the merchant.
“I never said I wanted a damned spider arm! That disgusting thing sucked my own life from me!” said Nuada.
“That’s true, but then again, you made it clear you didn’t care your goals were met. I was quite proud of the work we did on your arm. It’s a shame that it isn’t still attached, you were so helpful to us,” said the merchant.
“Us?” said the healer.
“Of course. The Depths is a ‘we’ not an ‘I’,” said the merchant, “Bres is now part of us, just as Nuada was for a little while. The power that the sword drew from its food was put to good use here. We are doing so well, now.”
Not knowing how to react to the merchant’s words, the companions simply stood there and stared at the merchant-creature that stood in front of them.
“Good, nothing to say. Let’s move on, I want to reunite Nuada with his brave friends. They are just down this path,” said the merchant who immediately began a slow walk down the path behind the throne.
“I don’t have a good feeling about this,” said Nuada to the healer.
“Miach was right, you do have a tendency to state the obvious,” said the healer, “Steel yourself for the worst, Nuada.”
They continued down the path and came to a room that emanated heat and cold simultaneously. Unlike all the others, the door to this room was plain and unadorned. As the merchant casually walked up to it, the door opened, rising soundlessly from bottom to top. Everyone entered the dark room and were immediately overwhelmed by the sense of wrongness here. The room smelled musky, but also somehow mechanical. It was not a pleasant combination.
“Illuminate!” said the merchant.
A bright white light filled the room, temporarily blinding the companions. Other creatures in the room were equally not amused by this action as there were screams of pain that would have not been misplaced in a nursery.
As his eyes recovered, Nuada saw that the merchant was right about John and Nimue; they were indeed alive. However, both of them would have preferred not to be. Each was naked, spread-eagled upon a three-pointed star. They had monstrous, living tubes in their mouths, and were secured to the star by spiny creatures whose embrace caused John and Nimue to sigh with pain.
John’s skin was covered with pustules that expanded and contracted. To Nuada’s horror, one of the pustules broke open and a small, twisted abomination with Dvergr-like parts fell to the ground with a thud. The creature reacted as any newborn might and cried, a horrific sound that would haunt those who heard it forever. The Merchant walked up to the baby, took it in his arms and rocked it as gently as a mother would her child.
“See how cute this little fellow is?” said the merchant, “He’ll make a fine addition to our home.”
Thunderstruck, the companions noticed that Nimue was giving birth. Her swollen belly began to contract as she screamed, muffled by the tube in her mouth. The newborn was immediately sucked out of her womb and into another living tube attached to her body. As soon as the baby was ejected, she began to swell again as if pregnant.
Nuada couldn’t take any more, and he charged at the merchant.
“Oh dear, are you upset?” said the merchant, “Too bad, I thought you would be proud of what you helped bring about. I was just about to tell you the best part! We have decided that you will be with Nimue and John forever. After studying them, I thought it would be interesting to combine you three. Wouldn’t you like that?”
As the last word fell from the merchant’s lips, Nuada swung his sword and neatly separated the merchant’s head from his body.
“No, I wouldn’t,” said Nuada as the merchant’s head fell to the ground, followed quickly by the body. The newborn creature the merchant carried bounced upon the ground and then ran off to places unknown. Nuada continued, “Now, let’s free them and leave this terrible place.”
At his words, the companions walked towards the birthing place of John and Nimue.
“You really didn’t think it would be that easy, did you?” said the merchant.
At that everybody turned around to see that the merchant was standing up again, a new head emerging from his body.
“After all, this isn’t a fairy tale or some folk story,” said the merchant, shaking his newly formed head, “This is our world. You are fools for returning here, but we thank you for coming. I’m so glad you brought your friends, Nuada. For those that survive, we have countless decades to get to know each other. There are a lot of interesting combinations here for us to play with.”
At that the merchant snapped his fingers, and the pipes around the room boiled up with deformed infants of many races, swollen nearly to a man’s size. They wailed and gnashed mismatched teeth.
“Try to keep them alive, my darlings,” said the merchant to the creatures, “Especially the tall stupid one.”
So began the battle between the living horrors and Nuada’s companions.
Standing in the birthing room, surrounded by creatures that would give a nightmare, nightmares, Nuada was sure about one thing, he was not going to let anybody down again. Staring at the merchant, Nuada’s gaze pierced what passed for the merchant’s soul as deeply as the Spear of Victory, one of the four treasures that Nuada came here to reclaim, could pierce flesh.
Within those soulless eyes, Nuada saw for the first time a flicker of hesitation as a tiny glimmer of doubt crossed the merchant’s face. It wasn’t much, yet it was enough to signal to Nuada that he and his companions had a fighting chance of surviving this encounter. Nuada didn’t care if he survived, so long this horrific place could be purged. Perhaps his death could ensure that his companions would emerge victorious.
Nuada, sensing that the time was right, leapt across the distance between himself and the merchant, his face contorted by a primal scream. The Merchant’s surprise was plain, but Nuada’s face spoke of soul-rending pain. Landing a few feet in front of the merchant, Nuada’s sword easily cut through the young horrors, who protected the merchant as if he were their mother.
The Merchant merely smiled and raised his arms toward Nuada. His hands transformed into grotesque tentacles and shot out to entangle Nuada’s silver arm, seeking to wrench it from its socket. Miach had done his work well, for no matter how vigorously the merchant pulled, the arm stayed firmly attached.
As they battled, Nuada’s companions realized they were fighting not only for their lives, but for their very souls.
As Nuada had suspected, the Hamadryad was more than a skilled healer, she was a veteran of many journeys to the Stormlands, and a victor in countless battles with abominations. Her staff whipped through the air like Nuada’s sword as she expertly cracked the skulls of those creatures foolish enough to rise against her.
As one of the deformed horrors sought to strike her unprotected back, her tail rose up like a cobra, swaying back and forth. Mesmerized by her tail’s motions, the thing simply stood there cooing to itself. Before the foul creature could regain its senses, the fur on her tail receded backward to reveal a sharp set of teeth. The tail struck like a viper, attaching itself to the horror’s face and pumping in enough venom to kill it instantly. After a few more fell to her tail, the horrors seemed to decide that fighting the Hamadryad from the front was the more attractive option. It appeared that these creatures possessed some degree of higher cognitive function, which troubled the healer greatly.
Some of the other companions also found themselves besting these creatures. The HelBound woman had flung off her mask and was summoning the immense power of her ancestors to heighten the horror of her own visage. Up close she was as dangerous as any of them, she was literally scaring creatures to death. Wielding her dual-headed staff, she brought death to abominations while feeding life to her companions. For her, the battle was a mixture of joy, ecstasy and death. Her wild laughter echoed within the halls. This terrified the enemy and boosted the morale of her fellow travellers.
Nuada heard her laughter and added his own, although at present the merchant still had the upper hand. The chamber continued to fill with unimaginable abominations. Many of them looked liked older versions of the freshly-birthed creatures; others were made from parts of multiple races of this world. There were mind-bending combinations of male and female organs, teeth, feathers, claws and tentacles, lots of tentacles, present in this living, breathing nightmare of a room.
The gargoyle mage proved to be a problem for the creatures as well. His fiery magic easily seared the skin of these horrors. They burned rapidly, and their screams of pain lent some reassurance to the company. When enemies got too close to the gargoyle, he transformed his skin, though only over the afflicted part of his body. He would transform just after they bit him, thus trapping the creatures. Attached to his skin they were unable to do anything except serve as targets for others of their kind. Unfortunately, his power was beginning to run out.
Already three of them were downed and unmoving. The first was a Stormrider fighter who had stripped off his armor and dared the creatures to attack him. Sadly, they did so in numbers that he couldn’t fight off and he was soon completely covered with them. Their combined weight brought him to his knees, but still he fought on, his scars visibly lighting up with his efforts. Notwithstanding his encumbrance, he seemed almost able to ignore his physical injuries. When he lost his right arm, he simply switched his weapon to his left. His will was indomitable, yet he was mortal and eventually his body gave out.
Across the room a pair of Luchopans was fighting back-to-back, trying to hold back the tidal wave of creatures threatened to engulf them. They weren’t great fighters, yet they had an almost limitless bag of tricks to distract, delay, and damage the creatures. At one point they maneuvered themselves behind a pool of acid and taunted the horrors to come at them. They waited until the creatures rushed them, and then vanished. Dozens of abominations ran headfirst into the pool and were painfully dissolved alive; their screams adding to the cacophony of suffering. When the victorious Luchopans reappeared, they congratulated themselves, turned to face their enemies, but were overwhelmed before they could even react. Physically inferior to these horrors, they were easily knocked down and a gruesome feast began.
The horrors kept coming. No matter how many the companions destroyed, there were always more. Scanning the battlefield, Nuada saw that they were holding their own, yet whenever one creature was slain, two more were eager to fill the ranks. Nuada felt that too-familiar feeling of regret, but fought it off and continued to fight. He felt a sudden swell of hope when he noticed the Valkyrie and a young Tuatha Dé Danann fighting abominations near John and Nimue.
The Valkyrie was in full bloom, her wings outlined in a vibrant blue fire, a fire that did not burn in the way of normal fire. She was armed with two spears; each one of them radiated the same blue flame. She swiftly destroyed scores of creatures with each steady blow. She was a magnificent vision, taunting the creatures to attack, pulling them to battle by sheer force of will. Covered in blood, she seemed to be growing stronger with each swing and the horrors began to fall back as the devastation that she capable of causing became evident. At times, her spears spitted so many creatures that they looked as though they belonged above a flaming pit, the spears slowly turning in the heat, cooking flesh.
The young Tuatha Dé Danann man was just as effective as his winged “battle sister.” His sword, though not as well crafted as Nuada’s, tore through creatures in a great arc, slicing them in half like Balor’s eye. He was a serious man, and though he did not appear to enjoy battle, his skill was formidable despite his youth. When the battle was over, Nuada made a mental note to talk to the young man and get to know him better. It was clear that Nimue and John were in good hands, so Nuada turned all of his attention to the merchant.
Freeing himself from the merchant’s tentacles was no easy task. The outer skin of the tentacles was thick, and it took all of his might to hack through them. With his blade free of the entanglement, Nuada cut through the horrors that had come to protect the merchant. One advantage of a magical silver arm was that it didn’t easily tire, and little by little he forced his way closer to the merchant, who was apparently unconcerned by the mass destruction of his creations. This incongruence must have shown on Nuada’s face, for the merchant acknowledged the look.
“You wonder why I am so calm?” sneered the merchant, “You really don’t understand a single thing about our home, do you? We are legion within The Depths. You may kill some of us now, you may even defeat me, but we are as one and we will always return.”
“I will destroy you. Even if it takes the remainder of my life,” said Nuada, “Even if it means dying. And if I perish, others will rise to destroy this place of horror. Of that you may be certain.”
“So sweet, so naïve, and so stupid,” said the merchant. “Your people won’t destroy this place! They will fight to learn its secrets and when they discover them, they will want to learn more. These are but our first steps, Nuada. There are many dances yet to come,” cackled the merchant.
With that, the merchant began another transformation, this time into the form of Nimue. Nuada was briefly taken aback, and was so pre-occupied that he didn’t see a pouncing horror until it leapt upon his neck. Nuada grabbed at the creatur,e but before he could stop it, it bit deep into his neck, tearing flesh and opening a deep, bloody wound. He felt its teeth injecting some kind of venom into him.
At the same time, the faux Nimue advanced on Nuada. She smiled eerily down at Nuada, who was keeling as he desperately tried to staunch his wounds. Then Nuada heard a strange sound.
“Charge!” roared Miach as he joined the battle. Looking up, the merchant saw two Dvergar running at him. They were looking down at their feet, heads pointed forward; their crowns grew stonier as they ran, and they soon looked like rock-covered battering rams. Before the merchant could think to react, they simultaneously struck him in the gut, hurling him backward and causing him to tumble end over end. Miach spotted Nuada crouching in pain, and called for the hamadryad.
“Hey you, come here and heal our fearless leader, he got quite a love bite from one of these nasties!” hollered Miach, squashing one of the creatures between his stony hands.
Hearing that, she quickly dispatched the remaining creatures plaguing her and ran to help Nuada. Placing a healing hand on him, she was able to seal the wound.
“Relax, Nuada,” she said soothingly, “The battle is over for you. We’ll take care of him.”
“Yeah. Now that the Dvergar are here, this won’t take long,” bragged Miach, brushing his hands together, “Besides, look at that winged beauty over there, why she’s barely bent a feather!”
“How long can a Viking fight?” yelled Miach, to which all the Vikings in the room responded, “All the day and through the night!”
“The Merchant is mine,” said Nuada weakly, “Healer, I know you can do something about this.”
“No Nuada, I can’t,” she said sadly.
“Don’t lie to me. I finally understand who you are,” said Nuada.
“Took you long enough,” muttered Miach.
“You are she, the mother of your people,” said Nuada, “Hamadryas.”
“Yes Nuada, I am she,” Hamadryas nodded.
“You have the power to restore me…don’t you?” said Nuada.
“Yes, though it comes at a terrible price,” said Hamadryas.
“I am prepared to pay any price,” he said.
“To what end, Nuada?” she asked, “To kill, and kill again?”
“To save my friends, our people and to begin to restore the balance… That is worth any price to me, even eternal oblivion,” said Nuada.
“I wish you hadn’t said tha,t Nuada,” said Hamadryas. “Though I am proud of you. Miach, hold him down. This will hurt a lot.”
The battle raged around them, life and death flowing through the chamber as it did in Nuada. Hamadryas called upon all of her powers. She healed the wound by taking it on herself and poured her power into Nuada. Fully draining herself, she managed to bestow Nuada with increased speed and great strength. Nuada felt intensely invigorated, and he jumped to his feet.
“Take care of her, Miach,” said Nuada. “I will return as soon as I am able.”
Nuada charged the merchant. Upon seeing the resurrection and the immense strength Nuada now possessed, the merchant decided that it was a good time to exit the chamber. Nuada was about to follow him when he heard Miach’s voice.
“Wait! How about using some of that newfound strength to free Nimue and John,” said Miach, “Unless you’re just too busy?”
Lots of evil thoughts, including rolling a certain Dvergr down his favorite mountain, filled his mind, yet Nuada sped toward his imprisoned friends. As much as he wanted to kill that merchant, he had a choice to make and he made it.
“Valkyrie. Give me a boost!” he said.
When Nuada reached the valkyrie, she formed her hands into cup and tossed Nuada up into the air toward Nimue. He landed on top of the tube that was causing the horrors to flow out of her. He wrenched a tube out of her mouth; its steady stream of some unknown substance now flowed to the ground harmlessly. He then freed her bonds and destroyed the birthing tube. He placed her gently upon the ground.
“Rest here Nimue,” said Nuada, “You will be healed soon. And thank you again for your bravery, I’m sorry you suffered so much for such a noble deed.”
He then bent down and gave her a gentle kiss on her forehead. He freed John and set off in search of the merchant once again. Nuada thought he had likely lost the creature, but then he realized that he needed to be smart and think like his opponent. Where would he go? As soon as that thought crossed his mind, he ran for the most obvious place he could think of, the throne of Bres; the chamber that he hoped held the hidden treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
As he ran, his brain was consumed with thoughts of revenge on the merchant. No matter how wrong his or even Bres’s actions were, it was the merchant and his lies that caused all of this. It seemed like forever before Nuada reached the throne room. He was comforted by the fact that Bres was still on his throne, though that changed as he noticed that the merchant stood there beside him.
“Merchant!” yelled Nuada.
“Hmm. Maybe you’re not as stupid as I had imagined,” said the merchant, “On the other hand…” With a wave of his hand, the merchant loosed the magical bond that held Bres. Bres instantly turned to Nuada.
“Nuada!” yelled Bres, “How dare you invade my kingdom!”
“Bres,” said Nuada, “You’ve been tricked. Where do you think you are?”
“In my throne room in Tir Na nÓg, of course,” growled Bres.
“No, you are in The Depths,” said Nuada, “You’ve been tricked by the same creature that tricked me.”
“Nonsense,” said Bres, visibly irritated by this intrusion. Sweeping his hand he said, “I can see the seashore from this window. I smell the aromas from the marketplace and I see you standing on my beautiful loam carpet.”
At that Bres grabbed the Spear of Victory, whose hiding place was masked by a spell, and ran straight for Nuada. Nuada knew that Bres was under an enchantment, and wanted to hold back until he knew the entire truth behind his former friend’s betrayal of their people. However, the fighting was fierce.
Bres fought bravely for a few moments, then suddenly collapsed to the ground. When Nuada bent over him, he could see that Bres had aged greatly.
“Bres,” said Nuada.
“Nuada,” said Bres, “Where am I? What has happened to me?”
“You’re in The Depths,” said Nuada, “You’re dying and I can’t do anything to save you. That son of an abomination merchant tricked you as he did me!”
“Merchant?” said Bres, “I saw no merchant, or any man. The one who guided me was the kindest and most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. She told me that I had to save our people, our world. She warned me that you would be the destroyer of our people, and that only with the help of Balor could we be saved. Did I do that? Did I save our people?”
“Yes Bres,” said Nuada, “You did.”
“I’m so glad,” Bres breathed, his frame collapsing further, the remaining tension now gone. “I’m sorry, but I have to go…”
“How touching,” interrupted the merchant mockingly. “It’s a shame he had to leave us so soon. You both fed so much power into us, we hate to see you go.” However, the merchant didn’t sound quite convinced.
“Where are your horrors now, merchant?” said Nuada, who picked up the spear from the ground, and drew closer. “It’s just you and me, this time.”
“Yet you are still outnumbered,” said the merchant with deep scorn. Nuada braced for the onslaught, but the merchant just turned and ran.
Instead of running, Nuada trailed slowly behind him and waited for the merchant to get close to the edge of path below in which the giant mouth sat waiting silently. The Merchant neared the edge and Nuada hurled the spear at him.
“Merchant!” said Nuada.
As the merchant turned to face Nuada, the spear pierced his body, where it stuck fast. Nuada thought that odd; for one of the spear’s magical properties was its ability to return to its true owner. Off balance, the merchant teetered, almost falling into the pit before setting his feet firmly. He raised his arms in triumph.
“Hah! I told you that you were stu…” said the merchant, just as Nuada hit him full force in his midsection. They both hurled into the pit.
“And I told you that I would kill you,” said Nuada. As they fell into the great maw, the scream of the merchant matched that of the young horrors. The Merchant’s arm morphed into tentacles again, and he tried to slow their descent into the waiting teeth. Nuada kept attacking the tentacles, not allowing them to grasp the wall with suction cups.
As their descent accelerated, Nuada screamed a death curse at the merchant and for the first time in his memory, the merchant was afraid. When the curse was uttered, Nuada, hero and fool, warrior and savior, died smiling. At the moment of his death, the connection between Hamadryas and Nuada was severed abruptly and permanently.
Hamadryas, like the merchant, felt something she hadn’t felt in many centuries. A tear ran down her cheek.
Meanwhile, the remaining companions were still holding their own in the birthing chamber. With the death of the merchant, no new creatures were spawned, and the tide of battle shifted in favor of the companions. The worst of the battle was over. The death toll among the horrors was beyond count, not that any of the surviving companions wanted to remain in the room to assess it.
Nimue and John were surprisingly in good physical shape, it being in the best interest of The Depths to keep them so. Both were in shock however, and didn’t have much to say to their rescuers. In truth, they weren’t even sure that what they were experiencing was real. During their captivity, the merchant had tortured them mentally and physically.
Miach comforted John, and tried to boost his spirits, but John was silent. The valkyrie took care of Nimue as best she could, but the mage, like John, was not ready for any sort of meaningful interaction with her rescuers. She did say “Nuada?” at some point, though nobody had the heart to say anything in return.
Hamadryas regained her strength. Nuada’s death restored some of the energy she had lent him to kill the merchant. The healer did the best she could, but another of their number, a female Cait Sith, succumbed to her wounds. Like the others, she had fought bravely; at times moving so swiftly through the ranks of the horrors that she appeared to be nothing more than flashing teeth, daggers and claws. Before she died she begged Hamadryas to promise that she would be buried back at her home and that Arthur would be told of her bravery. Hamadryas readily agreed, and assured her that she would preserve her body for the long trip home. Upon her passing, the remaining companions departed that terrible chamber.
When they returned to the throne room, they saw that Bres was still alive, though barely. They made attempts to heal him but he was too far gone and they were still too weak from their own battles to help him any further. Before he died, he told them of Nuada’s sacrifice and the location of the three remaining treasures. Hamadryas thanked him for that, and Bres asked for her forgiveness. Before she could reply, Bres too joined the ranks of the dead.
Following Bres’ instructions, the young Tuatha Dé Danann warrior recovered the Spear of Victory from the wall and returned to his friends.
“This feels right in my hands,” said the warrior.
“Yes Lugh, it should,” said Hamadryas, “Use it well.”
Lugh simply nodded.
The companions rested for a while. After gathering their dead, they recovered the treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Miach walked over to the edge of the pit where Nuada had plunged to his death, and looked down at the still gaping maw. In his hand, he held a gift that he had crafted at the golden forge for Nuada. It was not a weapon, nor was it armor; it was a simple piece of jewelry. It was made up of three unique golden swords interlocked, and in the middle was the symbol of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Miach looked down the ready mouth, thought of his friend and gently let his gift slip from his hand, saying “Safe journey my friend.” As he walked away from the edge he couldn’t resist thinking of that giant maw and adding, “I hope that creature chokes on it.”
As the companions left The Depths, they thought long and hard about everything that had happened, lest they forget. They spread the word throughout the three Realms as they traveled homeward. Nuada was forever enshrined by our people as one of our greatest heroes. He was never seen again, not in this world, nor any other.
This adventure marked one of the last times that the three Realms would work in fellowship. It is said that the tale of Nuada spread through the Realms like a Veilstorm, and in its wake it left hope, not devastation, and helped delay events that would lead to the Second Breaking of the world.
As to how Lugh, the four treasures at his side, continued Nuada’s work and restored the Tuatha Dé Danann, that story is for another day. It is said that Lugh learned much from Nuada’s mistakes. His leadership was crucial in rebuilding his Realm and in the survival of the Second Breaking.
“Very good,” said the grizzled instructor, “That was an excellent recitation. One of the best I’ve heard.”
“Thank you,” said the trainee.
The trainee and the instructor walked off to the Room of Becoming, where the young trainee would make the final sacrifice that marks all Silverhands. For it was now time for his own story to begin. It would start with a metal arm, replacing his arm of flesh.
Miach the Dvergr crafter had also survived The Depths, and in gratitude for all that he learned, and for the friendship of Nuada, he gifted the Tuatha Dé Danann with the secret of making silver arms. As further thanks, he had his memory of the secret permanently erased. Today, only a crafter of the Tuatha Dé Danann is able to craft such arms.
Thus ends the tale of the Silverhands.
As to The Depths itself, it was truly quiet there for a while. Once the adventurers left, its last known entrance disappeared and no new one could be found for many years. That is, until a new intelligence stirred deep within its bowels and opened a new entrance. Waiting at the entrance was Hamadryas.
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