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The Tale of Nuada Part III
Nuada led the Delvers swiftly away from the Chamber of Lost Souls. The stone pathway led down through a tunnel and toward a large intersection.
As the group walked on, the path began to change, the worn stones giving way to an uneven surface. John glanced down and choked, disgusted. The rest of the mercenaries had a similar reaction, eyes widening in the magelight.
They could now see that body parts were embedded in the path: hands, legs and heads of every imaginable race, size, and description. This frozen flesh had merged with the stone path itself, making it uneven. Wearing queasy looks on their faces, most avoided another look downward.
Nuada drew his sword, and the rest followed suit. Their steps slowed to a cautious pace as they crossed a high stone bridge. Nimue frowned at the black chasm that dropped away out of all sight. Beyond, the mercenaries came to the intersection of three tunnels. The stone walls were aglow with reflected colors, emanating from a strange flame held by an even stranger statue.
Reaching the center of the open space, the remaining adventurers stood before an enormous statue that radiated a silent, palpable malice. Above it, there hung a great brazier, from which a burning conflagration of ever-shifting colors erupted. The fire was strange and supernatural; gems seemed to dance among the flames.
Unbeknownst to the travelers, the mysterious statue altered its appearance depending on who looked at it. To John, 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 appeared to writhe in great pain. For Nuada, it was himself with stumps for arms, swallowing a sword whose tip emerged from his rear. The rest saw other horrors, each believing they saw the true monstrous form. As the group stood transfixed by the statue’s menace, it shifted before their eyes. Every alteration showed the victim suffering greater agony.
Frightened to the point of losing all caution, one of the young mages who had worked to light the cavern of statues began to call forth his most powerful fire magic. Nuada tore his gaze away from the image of his own tortures to see the madness in the young man’s eyes, the crazed desire to destroy the personalized abomination that loomed overhead.
Instead of wasting his breath as he had with the Luchorpán, Nuada shouted to the others, “Scatter! Get away from the statue!”
When the spell struck the tall carven thing, it became very clear that a magical attack was not a good idea. The statue began to change shape once more, and finally everyone saw the same thing. Instead of a twisted, tortured creature, the statue now took the form of a powerfully built, terrifying colossus, wreathed in flame. Freed of its imprisonment, the elemental turned to its liberator and bowed in mock gratitude. Then it stepped on him, burning his crushed body to a cinder.
As the mage’s bones snapped and crunched, his screams cut off by crackling flames, most of the mercenaries broke and ran. Only Nimue and John held fast, looking to Nuada. A blue glow spread over Nimue’s hands as she prepared a spell, which Nuada guessed was water or ice-based magic. The Dvergr John stepped in front of her. He raised his heavy stone-studded arms, then slammed them to the ground like two hammers. The stone floor shook and trembled, as if ready to erupt at his command.
The bravery of these two deserved better companions than these other mercenaries. Nuada drew his sword with his one hand and rushed to their side.
The elemental approached the steady trio with thunderous footsteps. Raising one enormous hand, it hurled a great fireball. Spitting and roaring, the orb of flame swept through the air, coming to erase them into ash.
But Nimue had foreseen this attack. Her counter was to summon a massive wall of ice. Cloudy and frosted, the great blue-white wall blocked the fiery attack and completely obscured the monster’s vision. From the other side of the ice, they could hear it blazing with rage, smashing stone and fire against the wall, sending cracks across its cloudy surface.
Nimue did her best to maintain the barrier, reforming the ice as chunks of it shattered and melted away, but her magical reserves were already straining. Watching the mage grit her teeth, Nuada and John glanced at one another. “We must do something quickly,” Nuada shouted over the crash of hot stone on ice.
John responded, “I will charge the monster. My stones are sturdy, and I will be protected. You stay back, find an opening, and strike hard!”
Nuada shook his head. “I have a better idea. Use your stony arms to weaken the bridge!”
John grinned and nodded. Rising from his crouch, he ran to the bridge and began hammering at the stone base.
The colossus broke a larger crack through the ice wall, which spewed fire and steam.
“Nimue, leave the wall. I need you to hold up the bridge with frost.” The woman turned and obliged, throwing a thin sheet over the weakened bridge. Nuada tapped her elbow and added, “Let’s go!” The three of them ran over the crumbling bridge as the frozen wall was blasted apart.
Through the broken chunks of tumbling ice, the tremendous creature came. With mighty stone hands clenched into fists, the fiery elemental lumbered toward them, orange flames streaming behind its massive stone limbs. All three waited on the other side of the chasm, eyes darting between the bridge and the enemy.
The mighty creature came right up to the edge of the bridge and raised a flame-wrapped foot. The elemental glanced down at the sheet of ice, paused, and set its foot back on sturdy ground without touching the bridge. It began to laugh, a horrible, choking sound that echoed down the chasm and sickened the listeners.
Nuada stared at it, flickering flames dancing before his eyes. This creature was not some unthinking brute. The elemental gestured to the trio, and then pounded one fist into the other, spraying out sparks between its fingers. The massive, fiery being took a few steps backward and bent its knees, preparing to jump over the damaged section.
John grunted. He looked at Nuada and smiled. Then he crouched with fists clenched, summoning power from the earth. Nuada stepped back as John sprang into the air. At the same moment, the elemental’s stone knees screeched as it leapt from the other side of the bridge.
Nuada and Nimue could do nothing but watch as the solid little Dvergr and the massive elemental met in midair, amid an explosion of fire and cracking stone. The terrible noise echoed within the caverns, booming back through the chasms and tunnels.
John bounced off of the thing’s head as it was still rising, but tumbled down and grasped the elemental’s fiery legs, shouting unintelligibly. Its momentum interrupted, the creature crashed down upon the bridge, which shattered beneath them.
As the pair fell, streaming fire into the chasm, the elemental roar of anger was all but drowned out by booming laughter from the brave Dvergr. “I needed a bit of a warmup, anyway!”
The noise faded to a distant rumble and the glow of flickering flame disappeared, leaving Nimue and Nuada alone.
Nuada walked quietly to the dark edge of the chasm. There was nothing to be seen but the long dark, plunging downward. “He sacrificed himself for us…those he barely knew. I don’t know what to make of it.”
After a few moments, Nuada and Nimue left the broken bridge. Nimue spoke up at last: “With our band’s numbers reduced to just two…perhaps turning back would be wise.”
“Agreed,” Nuada grunted. They began to retrace their path back toward the gate, footsteps echoing through the empty stone halls. The dim light of their one remaining torch flickered across the walls and to the smaller tunnel mouth where they had emerged from the Cavern of Lost Souls.
However, peering through the opening in the smoke of his torch, Nuada did not see the dark cavern. Instead of the ranks of stone statues there was a tunnel full of green, growing things, like misshapen tree limbs. Though the changed room made him nervous, Nuada felt more comfortable among trees, no matter how twisted.
As he stepped into the tunnel, a sickly green glow spread from his foot, emanating from the diseased moss and lichen. In the phosphorescent glimmer, Nuada could see how the growths covered every inch of the tunnel’s inner surface, slowly pulsating like the breathing of a gigantic creature.
“Just a moment.” Nimue looked ill at ease as she stepped in behind Nuada and light rippled from her feet. She summoned a seeing eye to scout ahead, her fingers weaving a pattern and calling the spell out of nothing. The small orb went whizzing off as she came up beside Nuada.
The eye made it no more than a stone’s throw down the tunnel before a green tendril reached out from the ceiling. Moving like a snapped tendon, it grabbed the floating eye and crushed it in a burst of magic blood. Nimue and Nuada watched with open mouths as the eye’s mush fell to the ground. The thick moss that covered everything sucked in the remains with a greedy slurping sound.
Nuada shook himself and hesitated to speak, lest he alarm this strange, living place any further. They had no choice but to keep going, so he gently pressed Nimue’s shoulder before moving in front. Together, they walked slowly forward, sinking to their ankles in the soft moss with each step. With the strange bulbous shapes made by the moss on the walls, it felt like anything could be hiding, ready to leap out. Nuada kept his left hand on his sword’s hilt, tensed to draw at any moment.
As they neared the midpoint of the passage, Nimue whispered, “I do not wish to discover if that thing can kill me.” Calling up her ice magic once more, she froze the hidden tendril in place so that it could not strike.
Nuada smiled grimly at her success, but as they continued down the tunnel, he spotted something move within the thick layers of green moss. The Tuatha stopped in place, and Nimue peered around him in the phosphorescent glow to see little pods swelling, growing from both sides of the tunnel. As the pods stretched to their limit, they began to burst, releasing deformed creatures that skittered over the walls, still attached to their pods by a long green vine. They had plantlike limbs and nightmarish faces, with fungus hanging from them in flaps around their huge eyes. As they crawled with thick arms or ran towards Nuada and Nimue with feet of twisting roots, they left a glistening trail with each step, like snails with legs.
Nimue began casting spells furiously. Runes flared and faded, and frost crept up her arms as she fired off small bursts of ice magic.
Nuada drew his sword and charged. He hacked and spun, slicing the things to pieces. However, for every abomination he tore apart, two new pods would swell up from the spot where it fell. Sweating, he looked back at Nimue.
She was having better success. Her spells froze the creatures, so that no new ones would spawn. However, she was sweating too, droplets that froze in her dark hair as her ice magic flowed through her body. Powerful though she was, he could see at a glance that she was tiring after using a great deal of energy on the wall, the bridge, and now this fight. She was so young. Nuada knew she could have neither the practice nor the magical reserves that older, more experienced mages develop over the course of generations. But there was little he could do, other than hold off the horrible plant creatures.
They pushed through the tunnel, leaping over pods even as they destroyed the disgusting monsters that emerged from within. Finally past the mossy area, the pair took off running over bare stone. Behind them, a host of monstrosities followed in hot pursuit, squelching along on twisted limbs. They let forth wet gurgling cries of hunger, and an awful smell blew over the adventurers, threatening to overwhelm them.
Running as fast he could, Nuada felt helpless. Nimue was tiring fast, lagging behind. The reaching root-fingers were nearly grasping her feet. He knew he could not fight them all, especially if they spawned more every time he cut them. Desperate, he thought back to his long years of training, wondering if there was anything he had ever learned that could stem this tide.
Finally, an idea struck him. Nuada remembered a particular half-sword style, the murder strike, learned when he had two hands. Could he perform the technique with one?
Spinning around to face the oncoming tide of green horrors, Nuada grasped the blade of his sword. Instead of cleaving the things, he beat them with the hilt as though it were a mace. As he tightened his grip, the blade cut into his glove and bloodied his hand, but he slammed the horrors back, crushing them and breaking their bonelike roots. As the broken things still lived, no new monsters spawned.
Unable to run any longer, Nimue turned and threw more ice. However, she was casting more and more slowly as her efforts drained her of power.
As they backed away from the onrushing horde, Nuada could see her aura weakening. She had little time before she would simply run out of energy. He looked over his shoulder and spotted an opening. “There is a way out of this tunnel of green doom!”
Nimue gasped for breath, as she hurled more deadly magic, blasting a crowd of the creatures back. Then she fell to one knee in weariness. “I will not be able to reach it before we are overrun!”
The Tuatha ground his teeth, panting in the few moments of respite. “All right, I will simply carry you.” He made to sheathe his sword, but Nimue held up her hand.
“No, Nuada. That would be futile. One of us must sacrifice to save the other, or we will both die here. And don’t argue with me; even if your death bought me some time, I would soon be as helpless as a newborn babe in a Veilstorm.”
As he crushed another swift-moving monstrosity with the pommel of his weapon, Nuada felt an unfamiliar touch of sadness, as though he didn’t deserve her loyalty. But he was Nuada, Sword Brother, true king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and his story could not end here.
He wanted to say something else, something poignant and heroic, but before he could, she added, “Run.”
So he sprinted off along the stone floor, turning back only when he reached the end of the tunnel. He saw a white and blue island in a sea of green. 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 spat curses at them. “I forswear renewal!” she cried. “I will destroy you all!”
Nuada was shocked. His magic senses were blinded as she transformed herself into a being of pure, cold energy. As her life force was expended, her aura, which had already been strong, grew to a blinding flash. Nuada had never felt this much power, and for only the second time in his long life, he felt true fear seize him.
He had no reason to fear her, however; Nimue’s power was directed at the monstrosities that still surrounded her glowing body, looking for an opening. Finally, one dared to reach out and grab her arm.
The instant it touched her, the plant-like monstrosity froze. Stiff-limbed, it collapsed at her feet, and shattered into shards of ice. The chunks of ice exploded, covering everything in more frost. A chain reaction began, each splinter of ice causing more freezing explosions.
The tunnel became a winter tableau of icicles and frozen creatures, with Nimue standing tall in the center of the chaotic scene. As the last of the monsters died in the icy blast, Nimue turned toward where Nuada stood in the darkness, further down the tunnel. She smiled at him as a small blue tear fell from her eye. When it touched the ground, Nimue froze, joining the eerily silent scene.
Nuada felt something unfamiliar as he slipped out the tunnel’s exit, something he found difficult to name. Perhaps it was regret, or simple loneliness.
As a stone door slid quietly shut behind him, Nuada found himself standing in a cold meadow, with a strange sky whose color he found difficult to name. Blinking, the Tuatha tried to get his bearings. There was no way he was truly outside. This was another trick of The Depths, a sudden change of scene meant to confuse and distract. His last companion gone, there was no one else to turn to, no one else to notice what he might overlook. Yet there was definitely something wrong here, something off about this rolling meadow…
Already chilled, his heart froze within him, and Nuada reeled as he realized that there were no blades of green grass in the field. These were tiny severed fingers, twitching in a non-existent wind. The ground beneath seemed to be made up of piles of other body parts, corpses heaped up endlessly to form hills and valleys, stretching as far as he could see. It was a vision out of a nightmare, surreal in its oppressive horror.
As sheer revulsion 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 saw nothing as he spun around. Even the stone door that had led out of the Tunnel of Green Doom was gone. Peals of maniacal laughter rang out from thin air. Was the sound coming from his own lips, or The Depths itself?
It was all just like a bad dream. Nothing made sense. He felt the tendrils of thoughts creeping into his brain, trying to take control of his mind. In the distance, he saw what looked like an enormous open mouth. Unsure if the decision was truly his own, he began to run toward it.
As he ran, the cadaver grass came alive. Hands burst up from the ground to grab at his feet, and the steady stream of foreign thoughts in his head began to tell him to lay down and rest. Everything would be alright.
Nuada pushed against the thoughts, even as he drew his sword to cut his way through the living nightmares that tried to hold him in place. Splattered in bits of 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, and bumps along the slope of the hill hit him with a sickening crunch of snapped fingers. When he reached the vast mouth that opened below, he finally looked at the face that rose above the cadaver grass behind it. The twisted visage was Nimue’s. His sanity cracking, Nuada slowed to a stop on the hill and then just sat there, laughing uncontrollably as the corpse 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 recent memory: Nimue’s voice commanding him to “Run!”
Trying desperately to shake off both the ennui and the cadaver grass, Nuada tore himself from the ground in a hail of breaking fingers and leapt through the huge, open mouth.
As the giant white teeth snapped shut behind him, Nuada fell and rolled on something soft. Shuddering, he closed his eyes in the dim shafts of light that followed him between the teeth. The experienced hero told himself it wasn’t a tongue he had fallen upon, it was the soft loam on the forest floor of his beloved homeland. For a few moments, all he could do was lie there, panting, as the dreamlike revulsion of the corpse grass fields slowly left him.
When he forced himself to stand up and open his eyes, he saw a fire nearby. Everything else was darkness, impenetrable even to his magical sight. The flickering light of the fire illuminated a stand of trees circling a great forge, walls and roof of sturdy stone. The orange flame burned within, waiting. As he approached the fiery forge, he felt uneasy. It might be no more than another nightmare apparition in this ever-changing sea of horrors.
Drawing close, he saw that what he had thought were trees were actually gigantic fingers. Nuada paused. Hesitantly, he employed his Veilsight. An aura shimmered in his vision; the stone forge itself was alive and hungry, waiting to devour anyone that came near. “I am sick of this,” Nuada’s voice cracked. “Come on, Depths! Do your worst to me!” In one swift motion, he drew his sword and charged forward.
As he closed the distance, the thing flared with power. The whole structure rose up on quivering legs, and tendrils of rotting flesh burst out, striking at Nuada like snakes.
Nuada twisted and slashed, dancing back and forth and between the blows. The thing’s limbs fell away as he cut them, writhing and disappearing. He grinned in concentration. This was a fight he could win.
Joy surged through him, eliminating fatigue. He was in his element now, finally able to harm his opponent. Whatever this thing was, he would destroy it utterly.
Their battle seemed to rage for hours. Nuada felt himself growing stronger, not weaker, with each sword thrust. He felt the power of the The Depths, laughing as it surrounded him, but instead of shaking it off, he embraced it, dancing his battle in the near-darkness. He drew on that power, using it to attack the strange, mystic forge with greater force.
Eventually, Nuada noticed that the tall, treelike fingers were much closer than they had been. They were slowly, subtly beginning to close around him. This only brought a fresh smile to his face. “Come on!” he laughed at the creature, “You can do better!”
Nuada whirled gracefully from finger to finger, slicing each one off at the base with little effort. As each giant digit fell, he noticed once again that these creatures were not made solely of flesh but also some other substance, something softer. Nuada didn’t much care to look any closer.
His senses grew more alert as he dodged and struck, cutting the thing apart piece by piece. Nuada began to feel another presence, something watching, perhaps judging him, in this foul place. The palpable malevolence was becoming familiar here. “Well,” Nuada muttered, “I should give you something to watch!”
Nuada called upon one of his many gifts. He summoned strength to him, and began to move with greater agility. Caught in this dance of death with his opponent, he performed wondrous feats so swiftly that he seemed to hang in midair as he spun and slashed, the living embodiment of a warrior.
The forge-creature seemed to sense this change and tried to retreat, scuttling backward on its ungainly legs, but there was nowhere to go. In seconds, the battle was over. Nuada slipped between two tentacles, bypassing the remaining defenses of the creature, and entered the structure. The anvil in the center of the forge had the brightest aura to his Veilsight, so he struck it with his blade. His sword sliced deep through the anvil’s top and stuck there. Brains and ichor spewed from within the iron anvil, making Nuada stumble back in disgust.
“What is this place? What strange world have I entered?” Nuada spoke aloud, but there was no one to answer, only the crash of the monstrous, living forge falling to the ground. The pure joy of battle faded, and Nuada let his hand drop. He could feel rumbling, shifting, as the fallen creature settled and lay still beneath him. Somewhere out in the darkness, he heard a sound like clapping.
Unsure of what else to do, Nuada wrested his sword from the anvil with another spurt of ichor, then sat on the steps of the forge. He pulled out a rag and began to clean the weapon.
Holding it between his legs, Nuada ran the cloth up and down the blade with well-practiced, easy motions. The familiarity of the task calmed him, until his senses flared back to life and he felt a familiar presence nearby. His keen ears picked up footsteps just on the edge of hearing.
A few moments later, peering into the dark, he could barely make out a humanoid figure moving around out there. It was coming closer with a strange gait, almost gliding over the stone floor.
Nuada grasped the pommel of his sword and stood up, bring the weapon back to a defensive position.
The shadows parted to reveal a familiar face. It was the merchant who had bargained with Nuada for the entrance to The Depths.
Stunned, Nuada held his sword a little higher. “Stand where you are, apparition.” His mouth felt dry at the thought of how easily The Depths could fool his eyes with illusions. “Look at how I dealt with the last creature that tried to trick me.”
The merchant gave him an unctuous smile. “Trick you, my friend? Not hardly. You have proven to be a most powerful warrior, and one who is rapidly improving. You are even better than I expected when I hired you!”
“What do you want from me?” asked Nuada hotly.
“Actually, I want nothing from you,” replied the merchant with another smile. He gestured toward Nuada with a gentle hand. “I only want you to get what your heart desires, my friend. 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. “What more do you want from me?”
“You have already given me much, oh former king,” said the merchant, “First, you have truly entertained me, and that happens…very seldom. 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!” Nuada shot him a confused look. “That creature was false.”
“Yes…but look carefully now at what remains of the beast,” said the merchant.
Nuada turned part way around, so as to keep one eye on the grinning merchant. The weird limbs of the iron forge-thing were quietly melting away like hot glass, leaving a golden forge behind. With his Veilsight, he confirmed for himself that this was indeed a real forge, with a true anvil and hot coals. It was no longer a creature in disguise. Nuada turned back to the merchant and nodded, trying not to show his surprise. With a blank face, he answered, “I see what you say is true, then. I have done my part, and slain the horrors of The Depths.”
The merchant spread his arms and bowed. “Now it is my turn. If you would please help me clear away this garbage, I can begin my work.”
Once again nodding his assent, Nuada helped the merchant clear the forge and the surrounding area of the large chunks of giant fingers and tentacles that remained.
Pulling out a finely-made wand, the merchant waved it to spew forth a stream of fire, burning away the last of the dead flesh. He talked casually over the bubbling and crackling. “With that all done, I shall set about my work. Take some time to rest, Nuada. Then feel free to explore this place. You never know what you may find here,” added the merchant, as he unpacked some bags that Nuada hadn’t noticed before. “So walk carefully, and don’t stray too far. I will make you a great gift! But it will take some time. Days, perhaps.”
Nuada didn’t need to be told that there was more power to be found…and if the entity calling itself the Merchant was correct, Nuada had slain the worst of the horrors, and only a short rest was necessary. He took it sitting on a stone by the anvil, staring off into the dark.
Read more in Part IV
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