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The tale of Nuada Part II

The proud Nuada found himself forced to take any occupation that came his way, simply in order to make ends meet. Wherever he went, he asked after The Depths, seeking knowledge that might help him. At long last, while guarding a caravan on its journey to a tiny village, Nuada encountered a friendly merchant with more specific knowledge. The man was friendly, and he and Nuada spoke at length as they walked alongside the creaking wagons of the caravan. When the merchant told Nuada he had seen an entrance to The Depths, the one-armed warrior rounded on him, staring and focused. “Where?” he asked keenly.

Folding his fingers together, the merchant bobbed his hat and made an offer. “I will gladly tell you where the entrance lies, great warrior…in return for a promise.”

Nuada smiled. “What promise is that?”

“Simply that you share any spoils looted from the place. In addition, we can make another arrangement, once I have concluded my business in the village we are traveling toward. If you agree to lead a caravan to the entrance, I will enlist the aid of others in your quest. I know of a Dvergr who can craft a well-balanced sword and a set of armor worthy of such a warrior as yourself.”

Nuada’s smile turned into a frown. Something about the easy manner in which the merchant spoke made him doubt the full truth of the words. Nevertheless, it would be foolish to throw away such a chance. He found himself speaking agreement. “Well, I suppose I have little to lose. Besides, left-handed or not, there is a simple solution to betrayal.” He flexed the fingers of his remaining hand.

The merchant didn’t even flinch, and laughed pleasantly. “Indeed.”

With Nuada’s agreement to the bargain, the merchant was as good as his word. After their caravan reached the next town, he went and spoke at the local taverns, and sent out notices. In little time, the merchant had gathered a troop of mercenaries, tough-looking folk who seemed ready for just about anything.

Nuada didn’t particularly care to get to know them. He was focused on his goal. Talk was sparse as they made their way to the hidden ravine that the merchant indicated.

There, in a foul mire where mists made an eternal twilight, Nuada and the mercenaries stood before the black monolith that served as an entrance to The Depths. Standing in the shadow of the immense stone, Nuada felt a chill deeper than ice. He knew that the physical presence of the gateway was but an illusion. Passing through would take him to another place far away, to the true location of The Depths. It could be somewhere deep within this world, or even in an entirely different plane of existence.

There were even tales that the gate could transport you to another time, though Nuada gave little credence to such rumors. Bending time went far beyond any magic he’d ever heard of.

However, it would be foolish not to heed the rest of the legends. The merchant had told him the gateway was sentient, and could take on any appearance. Nuada would not rush into this; he had to be careful in seeking entrance.

A grumbling voice interrupted his thoughts. One of the mercenaries muttered from behind him, “The merchant said this gateway…can think. It can take on any appearance. Anger it, and the entrance changes form and vanishes.”

Nuada felt a rare spark of true fear within him. Before Bres, Nuada had never known the feeling. Now that he had experienced defeat, he understood fear. He didn’t like it. This wasn’t like the dungeons in the legends of his youth, whose doorway opened with a simple phrase or incantation. The Depths was a different sort of place, a vast enigma with a mind of its own.

Nuada walked up near the monolith, ignoring its cold shadow. He turned and 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.

One of the most eager, a Luchorpán, pushed past Nuada to try his luck with the hidden entrance. Nuada let the short man pass, and stood against a twisted swamp tree with his arms crossed.

He watched silently as the mercenaries tried to enter The Depths, one by one. Some summoned magical entities, others chanted ancient languages, and a few ended up slamming their heads against the monolith in frustration. All any of them got to show for it were bruised heads, parched throats, and the occasional mocking laughter of summoned beings.

Nuada began to realize that there was no way to force or trick the gateway. One legend told that the key to entering The Depths was to observe the form of the entrance, decipher any clues, and mirror them. This puzzled him, for the moment.

As the last bravo gave up their futile attempts to magically open the entrance, an idea dawned on Nuada. The monolith was smooth and featureless, without a scratch. It was a blank slate. The black surface of the stone suggested darkness… Smiling at his own cleverness, Nuada spoke to the grumbling crowd. “Wait for the next moonless night. Then, and only then, will I open the monolith. Rest, and prepare yourselves. I do not expect our path to be an easy one.”

The mouthiest of them scoffed at his assurances. Nevertheless, they all agreed to wait for several days.

The Gargoyle plucked at a small harp, humming a drinking song, while the Valkyrie played cards with some of the others. The Luchorpán seemed to always be in the middle of some outrageous story, so all in all the time was passed loudly and merrily by the group.

Two of the band stayed quiet, keeping mostly to themselves, and Nuada found himself drawn to them. The first was a stony-shouldered Dvergr named John BigBoote, who had an infectious good humor and a jovial air. The other was a Human woman named Nimue. Nuada sensed a great power emanating from this woman. Better that she was part of their company and not against them.

Over the few days until the next moonless night, while the others wasted time, these three began to bond and make a plan. During this brief respite, Nuada learned a lot about Nimue and John.

Nimue was considered a promising young mage, part of the inner circle of her Realm’s most prestigious school of magic, known simply as The Academy. She was not too modest to mention how she had excelled in her early training, and was aware that her physical appearance had won her the attention of several prominent folk.

Staring into the fire where the three of them sat, Nimue continued her story in her low, musical voice. “I am not ignorant of my effect on…certain people. It would have been easy, too easy, to rely on those connections. I chose differently. I want power.” She glanced up as Nuada smiled in understanding. “I want to become a tremendously powerful wielder of magic. All other activities are a distraction. I suppose I am not unlike many people my age, in a way…I am drawn to Arthur’s vision for a new world. I want to help pave the way for a better and brighter future.”

The unfamiliar smile stayed on Nuada’s lips as he watched her eyes, 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. It was only her second stint as a mercenary, however; she had much to learn. He decided not to ask how she had ended up among this band.

John, on the other hand, was a Dvergr 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 dangers 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 Dvergar standards) stockpile of liquid refreshments. He began searching for any private caches that his companions might have hidden away.

Sitting by the same campfire, the stony little man sipped at the liquor he had somehow extracted from a Gargoyle’s pack. John loved to tell improbable war stories. “You may not believe it, but that’s when my brother tossed me and I slammed into the ogre, knocking it end over end and into the sea!”

Though the Dvergr’s claims made him sound like a hero greater than any that had ever lived, even Nuada and his Brothers, the Tuatha didn’t take offense. John told all his stories in a way that minimized his own worth, while constantly praising those who fought at his side. It showed a big heart, and Nuada found himself becoming fast friends with the little man, despite the tendency of the Tuatha to “look down” at Dvergar.

Nuada explained his plan to open the entrance to The Depths, and advised the pair to practice.

After a perfectly cloudless day, a rainstorm swept in at twilight, clouds spreading across the sky like sludge.

The time of Shadow’s Delight, with neither the broken moon nor its companion in the sky, would last nearly the whole night. When it was so dark that no one could see but the Dvergar, Nuada quietly directed his companions to stand perfectly still before the monolith. “You must clear your minds of any thoughts, and emulate, to the best of your ability, the unmoving and perfectly smooth structure of the monolith. Become blank, and you will be able to enter.”

Reluctantly, all of the mercenaries tried their best to do as Nuada told them. Most lacked the necessary mental discipline, while Nuada, Nimue, and John had the benefit of practice.

All was quiet. Even the breathing of the group seemed softer, subdued. There was nothing to see, nothing to hear, little to touch. The sky was black, shrouded in the inky clouds, and not even starlight broke the endless nothing.

Finally, in the midst of the silence and the darkness, a light appeared. The mercenaries gasped in astonishment, their faces revealed wide-eyed in a crimson shimmer. The monolith now gleamed with a red light, growing brighter and brighter until it lit up the sky. Nuada blinked at the blinding glow as it focused down into a single scarlet beam, burning up into the black sky and then turning toward him.

One by one, the adventurers, now turned Delvers of The Depths, flinched as the beam touched each of them on the forehead. On some it lingered, on others it barely brushed by. When all present had been touched, the beam became pure white.

The light shifted, pulling in and pooling like bright water around the monolith. Moving like a living thing, the shimmer twisted, then spun, becoming a whirlpool of brightness that pulled at the adventurers. The vortex sucked them in with an irresistible magnetic power, far faster than they could react.

Next thing any of them knew, they were in a chamber of black stone, the same black stone of the monolith. On one wall stood a set of golden doors with strange carvings.

There was a moment of confusion, as the group sorted themselves out in this dark chamber. Nimue and Nuada both extricated themselves from the milling crowd, examining the strange stone walls.

John stepped forward to the imposing and mysterious doors, looking up in awe at the strange words and characters that appeared there. He ran a finger over the mysterious images of indescribable figures, his stony fingernail clicking on the metal. He spoke in a whisper. “These images in the stone…they look as though they actually grew here, rather than carved by some skilled hand. Anyone know what these creatures are? Abominations, or something out of legend?”

All present shook their heads, even the studious Nimue.

Nuada shrugged off all remaining caution. If the old Bres could survive here, it should be nothing for the true king of the Tuatha Dé Danann. He simply strode up to the immense doors and pulled one of the giant golden handles with his one hand. John jumped back in alarm.

Surprisingly, the door opened without a sound, gliding smoothly over the polished stone surface. Summoning his old confidence, Nuada called out into The Depths. “Greetings! I am here, Nuada of the Children of Danu, and I do not fear you!”

An audible gasp came from the group behind him. Nuada turned with a laugh at their surprised reaction. “Yes, it is I, Nuada. Follow me into this dark place, and I will show you the gratitude of a king. Power and glory, treasure and titles shall be yours if you but follow me.”

Nodding, the shocked mercenaries exchanged looks of amazement. Nuada’s name and deeds were well known throughout the Realms…along with his legendary wrath. It was difficult to decide whether The Depths was more dangerous.

John and Nimue winked at one another. They had suspected that their companion was more than he seemed.

Nuada raised his hand and led the way in through the entryway.

He entered the first dark cavern, a place that would one day be called the Cavern of Lost Souls. The mercenaries found themselves following a stone path, strangely well-worn, that wound down into the earth. Around them, the darkness stretched, waiting as if hungry. The light from their torches flickered and faded, unable to pierce this black. They were mere halos of firelight, a dim glow that illuminated nothing more than the torches themselves and the hands that held them.

Even John found himself blinking, amazed that the famous underground eyesight of the Dvergar couldn’t penetrate the unnatural obscurity 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 halted on the path and cleared his throat. “Magic users…summon light for us!”

Twitching, eyes fearful, a mage stepped forward. He pulled a ball of light into the air between his fingers, then cast it into the darkness. They all watched as it faded, then disappeared, as if swallowed by some gigantic creature, invisible in the dark.

Nimue peered at Nuada in the struggling light of their torches. “I could do the same, but I do not think I would have any better success. Whatever magic is making this darkness, it is very strong here.”

“I see.” Nuada scratched his head with his one hand thoughtfully, peering uselessly at the path he could feel beneath him, but not see. The mercenaries behind him shuffled their feet. Then the Tuathan straightened. “Mages! Work together. Combine your power to create stronger light.”

Nuada listened intently. He heard the scuffing of feet, a few spoken words. Nimue murmured as she felt for the hands of a few others along the pathway. A few words of power were mumbled or chanted. Something shifted in the darkness as one person coughed.

Finally, Nuada saw something: Sparks of magic flew, shimmering as they spun from one mage to the next. He could see their heads and shoulders outlined by the sparks as they concentrated. The chanting grew, and with it, the swirl of sparks and the scent of power. Finally, a ball of yellow light swelled, lighting the crew with an outpouring of magic. Some delighted laughter from the Gargoyle and the Luchorpán rang out as the warm mage-light spread throughout the chamber, banishing the darkness.

A vast cavern was revealed. Below the raised stone path, the floor and walls were lined with a horde of silent statues. Their numbers were too great to count, and as with the golden doors that had led here, every race of the Realms was represented, though some of these statues were twisted into horrific shapes that made a mockery of what they once were. Many unnatural, disturbing creatures that were of no race he’d ever heard of made an appearance as well. Some statues looked as if they were simply standing still, waiting to come alive. The stonework was immaculate, perfectly carved; one could almost see the weird figures breathing.

As the orb swelled to illuminate the entire chamber, Nuada’s eye was caught by the sparkle and gleam of treasure. Some of the statues were wearing extraordinarily beautiful armor and ornaments, and others carried weapons of kingly quality, weapons out of legend.

One member of the group, a young Luchorpán, could barely control his excitement. He puffed himself up in his red jerkin and peered at the glittering baubles, his eyes shifting color and glowing as he stared at the riches. Nuada put out a hand to warn him, but only brushed the Luchorpán’s bright gold breeches as the little man leapt from the raised path.

“No!” Nuada shouted. “Stop!”

Landing nimbly between two of the statues, the Luchorpán laughed merrily up at him. “I don’t need your approval, great one. Look!” He turned and carefully lifted a golden torc from the neck of a stone figure in the shape of a Valkyrie, eyes staring blankly.

And then…nothing happened. Nuada was shocked, though the rest of the mercenaries still heeded his warning and watched from above.

Snickering at their caution, the Luchorpán clicked his heels and skipped about giddily. “Come on, join me! There’s plenty for all!” He avoided looking at Nuada’s stern face as he urged them all to join the looting. Everyone watched as he loaded a bag with as many riches as he could manage. “What mighty, brave warriors you all are! Surely, your rewards will be great for such boldness.” The Luchorpán’s teeth flashed brighter than his breeches as he ambled back to the path. Still, the rest of the group watched, breathless.

The moment his feet touched the worn stone walkway, he froze, mid-stride. Everything turned grey and black, everything from the tip of his head to his toes. The Luchorpán had been turned to stone. Only the torc and other baubles he’d collected still glittered gold and silver; only the treasures had not transformed.

Some gasped. Nuada shook his head, unwilling to spend any more time or energy than was necessary. “What a waste. He was warned.” The Tuatha gestured down the path with his hand. “Forward! Down this path and out of this accursed cavern.”

As the last mercenary left the room, Nuada glanced back. A movement at the edge of his gaze had pulled his attention. However, he could no longer see the frozen little man, laden with treasures. A prickling uncertainty passed over Nuada, a sense that the statue was being carried away by some invisible entity. Although he had just witnessed a death, this place felt very much alive…

Read more in Part III

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