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The tale of Nuada Part 4
It was a strangely quiet time for Nuada, waiting for the being called the Merchant to finish his work. It seemed to take days, but the passage of the sun had no meaning at all here in the endless darkness and strange shadows of The Depths. The evil place seemed almost dormant, sleepy, rather than focused on him.
It wasn’t long before Nuada set off to look around. He explored the area around the forge, then expanded his search to other empty passageways. He made sure to mark the walls with his initials as he went, to avoid getting lost in the shifting tunnels. Sometimes he found himself carving the letters into stone, flesh, or other substances of which he knew nothing. If he had to, he left something on the ground as a reminder instead. Once, he lit a torch that was sitting in a wall sconce and the torch came alive and attacked him. He easily cut it to pieces. It almost seemed as though The Depths was holding back, waiting until the time was right to unleash its full horror. The thought chilled him.
Nuada spent the long period of quiet darkness wandering through nearby passages. While he found a number of interesting baubles, he did not uncover what he was looking for: powerful or deadly artifacts. He did, however, manage to find a hidden passage that seemed to lead out. Carefully, ensuring it couldn’t disappear on him at any point, he took note of its location in every form of sight he could. As his small supply of food ran out, Nuada followed his markings to return to the monstrous forge.
However, the Merchant was gone. In his place, there were several glittering objects laid out on the massive anvil. As Nuada approached, he also noticed several parchment notes, the nearest of which simply read, “For Nuada.”
The first item to catch his attention was a black chunk of obsidian, a sword much like the one that Bres had 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. Unlike the cold aura of Bres’ sword, this blade shone with a bright red glow.
Nuada grasped the leather-wrapped pommel of the sword, but the weapon was too heavy to wield with his left arm. He could barely lift the blade from its resting place on the forge. Angry and frustrated, Nuada tried again and again to swing the sword. As his anger grew, he found he could lift it a little further…but still, not enough to use it as a weapon. Dropping the sharp obsidian 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 muscular, it was decorated with an intricate filigree, and 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 brushed his fingers over the smooth gold elbow. Somewhat to his surprise, nothing happened. The Tuatha picked it up in his left hand. It was heavy, yet still lighter than he expected. However, still nothing happened. Hot-tempered as ever, Nuada felt his frustration and anger growing once more. What was he supposed to do with this? Was the Merchant mocking him?
As his anger increased, the arm twitched in his grasp…but that was hardly wondrous. These puzzles were too much. His frustration near the point of explosion, Nuada dropped the golden arm back in its place and turned to the final treasure: a plain, modest wooden box.
While not particularly interesting to look at on the outside, the box had its own aura. On the box was a note that read “Eat me, if you are man enough.” Slowly, Nuada lifted the lid. Inside, he discovered a velvety, blood-red spider. It twitched its legs, ready to leap out.
Revolted, Nuada slammed the lid of the box shut. He snatched it up and raised his arm, about to throw it into the hot coals of the forge. Then he hesitated.
It’s only a spider after all, he thought. Surely he had eaten worse on a dare as a youth. Then again, there was something strange about that spider…after all, he was in The Depths. Perhaps this was more than a foolish prank. Could it be some sort of rite of passage?
Many thoughts spun through his head as he stood there, left arm raised over the fires that crackled and muttered to themselves in the hot forge. He remembered the sacrifices of Nimue, of John, and the people of Tír na nÒg. After a moment, he put the box back down on the ground and sat beside it, leaning against the warm metal of the great anvil.
When he was ready, Nuada flipped the box open. Before it could react, he grabbed the crimson spider, shoved the struggling thing in his mouth, and swallowed.
The Tuatha 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. Nuada was tired of them all.
As the spider continued moving around in his stomach, apparently still alive, he felt a surge of something else. Power, perhaps?
“Yes,” Nuada muttered, “Power is the key to everything. 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, rage and determination in his heart. This time, it responded to him. Of its own accord, the limb flew from his hand and attached itself to his stump. Tendrils of gold emerged and latched onto his shoulder.
There was an uncomfortable wriggling sensation, not painful but very strange. Nuada could feel his flesh merging with the arm, becoming one. He flexed his new golden 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, it seemed to be resting easy inside; Nuada didn’t feel it any longer.
Thinking back to his exploration, the Tuatha ran to the hidden passage he had marked earlier, flipping between his forms of sight. He called out to The Depths themselves as he ran, laughing: “Thank you for all your gifts! I will use them well.”
As he swung the sword triumphantly overhead, he could feel the life within it calling out for more life, hissing its hunger for blood.
When Nuada left The Depths, the great empty caverns grew nearly silent. The only sound that echoed through the dark halls was the crooning laughter of the lone Merchant. He tenderly caressed the new-budded tendrils of the Golden Forge. Regrowing, they caressed him in turn.
When he made his way out of the ley tunnel, Nuada found himself near the small settlement where the mercenaries had joined him. However, it was no longer the tiny hamlet it had once been. It had grown into a proper town, sprawling over the hillside. Many of the people there had no idea who he was, except as a vague legendary figure.
It was a very different world from the one he had left. It seemed the passage of time had little meaning in that mysterious and deadly place.
Nuada was perplexed, and felt sorrow staining his triumphant return. When he asked about the years he had been gone, he finally understood why The Depths had been so quiet, why it had lulled him into a sense of security. A subtle trick had been played on him.
Apparently, he had been gone over a century. Fully a hundred years and more had passed since the day when he had led a troop of mercenaries into the black monolith. Yet, when he looked at his own reflection in the village well, he hadn’t aged a day.
“That damn Merchant didn’t care to mention this…” Nuada mumbled to himself as he trudged through the town. “It seems I was wrong about magic and time…”
A friendly passerby told him to cheer up. “Feel better, friend! The reign of Bres the Blessed is a joyous time, a golden age of the Tuatha Dé Danann!” The man tipped his hat, about to continue on his way.
Enraged, Nuada grasped the little man by the throat and threw him against a nearby wall. The golden arm pinning him effortlessly, Nuada hissed, “What are you talking about? Bres the Blessed? I should remove your offending head from your shoulders!”
Choking, the man raised trembling hands. “Easy, easy! I did not invent the name. Please, let me go!”
Nuada released his grip and did not spare the stumbling man a second look. Stalking off like a frustrated predator, Nuada repeated his oath to kill Bres in his mind. “And once that is done, I will return to The Depths to teach that damned Merchant that I am not to be trifled with. By all that lives, I will conquer The Depths and use its power to lead my people to glory. Long indeed shall be the reign of Nuada the Mighty! After that, who knows? With the full power of The Depths at my command…anything is possible!”
As the tall, powerful man with a golden arm left the settlement, mumbling to himself, the fearful folk closed the gate behind him. They hoped he would not come back.
Bearing his new arm and his obsidian blade, Nuada traveled the land of the Tuatha Dé Danann, asking questions and trying to learn the truth of what had happened in his absence. Not everyone liked Bres as king. There was much talk of trouble between the three Realms of this world. The unity that had been built over many generations was fraying at the edges. Nobody knew how the disharmony started, but as best as Nuada could discover, it had begun around the same time that he and the mercenaries had entered The Depths.
A cauldron of anger was slowly boiling in the Realm under Bres’ rule. Many felt ignored by King Bres, sitting safe in his capital city with no care for the people. They remembered the old King Nuada with fondness, even if they didn’t remember his true glory very well.
Wherever he found sympathetic ears, Nuada stirred up discontent among the people. Gradually, he gathered a small army made up of the disaffected malcontents, the dregs of Tuatha Dé Danann society. His troops were drawn from all the known races of his Realm, but he forced them to work together, within the same rules of combat. He trained them hard, forging them into a weapon he could wield against Bres.
Word spread quickly about Nuada’s return, along with exaggerated tales of his army and the “treasures” he’d somehow earned in The Depths. As the tales grew in the telling, others tried to follow his example, becoming Delvers themselves. As far as Nuada heard, they emerged with nothing but madness.
Rumors sprang up of his strong golden arm and unstoppable sword. Some said his gifts sucked out men’s souls as one would suck the marrow out of a bone. Nuada encouraged the stories so that more people would flock to his banner. He even held public duels to show his power and help the rumors grow.
As Nuada and his army neared Tír na nÓg, the land itself seemed to recognize the coming storm. It grew quiet. The woodland creatures crept away to hide, and the wind dropped to dry gusts that barely brushed the trees. Though he saw the land suffering, Nuada forged onward, continuing his relentless march to the capital city of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
It was a gloriously sunny day when 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.
While his army made camp before the great golden gates, Nuada sat astride a newly acquired black Phouka, obsidian sword in his right hand, glinting gold in the sunlight. All around him, the trees showed off their deepest reds and brightest yellows, while colorful leaves floated through the crisp morning air in a scene worthy of a fine artist’s skill.
Nuada could see the deadly archers of his Realm on the battlements of the city, watching him as hunters watch a wild animal. He felt a mixture of pity and the thrill of battle about to be joined. His sword seemed to pick up on these emotions, and it hummed in his hands with expectation. He raised it high above his head. “Come out, Bres! I challenge you once more, vile traitor! Meet me in single combat to decide the future of our people!”
With no response from the city, the sword’s hum changed tone, and its aura flickered in annoyance.
For days, the gates remained closed. Not even a messenger was sent from the city. The siege of Tír na nÓg began in moody silence.
Nuada became increasingly frustrated, with little to do but wait. Knowing how powerful the defensive enchantments from ages past could be, he did not wish to risk his army on an assault of the walls. However, the siege seemed to have very little effect on the city and its inhabitants.
Months passed in waiting and uncertainty. The autumn leaves piled up on the tents of Nuada’s army and upon the mighty walls of Tir na nÓg.
Though new warriors came to join his army’s ranks day by day, the people within the city seemed to be carrying on their daily lives. Nuada could only watch from a distance as the Festival of the Winter Court was held right on schedule. He ground his teeth at the sounds of revelry and merrymaking from within the city’s walls. Though all of his scrying spells seemed to be blocked, Nuada was sure that his siege was failing.
However, he never wavered in his determination. Sitting in his tent, a quick glance at either his new arm or his sword reminded him of his cause for rage. Even his own people cared naught for him.
“How can they treat me this way?” he asked himself, alone in the quiet of his tent. “I was their first king! I have fought so many battles and slain countless abominations to keep them safe. And now they swear allegiance to a man that is so…unworthy. I will gather the Courts and discover those that have betrayed me. They will pay, and pay again for what they have done. Why have none of my family sent me a message?”
As winter’s grasp tightened on the city and his army, there were no signs that either side’s resolve would slacken. Through the winter Nuada waited, and found himself still standing by the city when the snows melted, no closer to opening the gates.
With the coming of spring, his anger bloomed with the buds on the trees. He began to look for someone to blame, punishing his soldiers for the smallest infractions. 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.
Though he was the general of the army that besieged her city, Nuada remembered what she had done for him. “You are no prisoner here,” he told the healer, walking to her with arms open to embrace a long-lost friend.
However, she recoiled in horror. He saw her antennae twitch in alarm, and her sharp-tipped tail moved to a defensive position. “Don’t come near me, abomination!” she snarled.
Nuada was thunderstruck.”As I have always been, I am your king. You will not speak to me this way. I am still Nuada, unchanged but for my golden arm. A little bit wiser perhaps, but no different…” he reached forward with his golden arm to show her.
“You truly don’t see it?” she cried, leaping back so violently that Nuada thought she would harm herself.
“See what?” he smiled, patting himself down. “I see nothing but the one true king of this land and all its people. It is you who are seeing things.”
“Your arm is not golden. It is the limb of a spider. And if you didn’t know it either… that sword you carry radiates such evil that it lit up the sky for a day before your approach.”
“What lies has Bres fooled you with? My arm is made of metal, a pure gold that serves me well. As for my sword, it is not evil but simply a tool. A very useful tool, to help me take back my city and rule it,” said Nuada.
“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 like the traitorous rat he has become.”
The Hamadryad shook her head slowly, her eyes wide. She cleared her throat and adopted a softer tone. “Please, my lord and king,” she said quietly, “What do you see before you?”
“I will not play games with you.” Nuada began to wonder if he should have made her a prisoner after all.
“Humor a poor healer who once saved your life,” she said, “Please tell me what you see.”
He looked around him, speaking in the resigned tone of a parent with a difficult child. “I see the great gates of the 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 powerful 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 merrily celebrate the peak of the harvest season.” He turned to her, his eyes red. “Will you tell me how they bring in their supplies? Secret tunnels, or some other method?”
“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 flowing into the city, and the siege would end much sooner.
“Let me touch you with healing, as I once did,” she said gently. Nuada wasn’t sure how to handle her tone; she sounded like a mother with a scared child.
“Is that all? Yes, you may touch me. But keep this in mind, healer. If you try to trick me, my touch upon your throat will be the last thing you feel,” Nuada smiled unpleasantly.
The Hamadryad gestured to a wooden crate that lay nearby, and Nuada sat, holding out his arm. She placed her right hand upon Nuada’s head, not his arm. He remembered that she had done the same thing to him when he was first taken to her, many decades ago.
Nuada relaxed as she began a chant in the magical tongue of healers. Power immediately answered her words, flowing through her skin, which glowed as she worked her spell. His eyes started to close as spinning specks of light gathered, forming a globe around his head.
As the light swirled closer to Nuada, he felt pinpricks all over his head. Suddenly, the pain grew in intensity, as though his head had been punctured by hundreds of daggers. He screamed and lashed out, landing a blow that threw the kindly healer into the side of his tent. Nuada held his head, shuddering helplessly.
Rising from the ground, the healer did not hesitate to cast her next spell. Great power spread from her, rippling through the cluster of tents and out into Nuada’s entire army where they lay camped before the city gates. The screams of others echoed back to Nuada’s ears. He could not move. All over the encampment, the screams rose to the heavens in a cacophony of pain and suffering that had not been heard in this place since the First Breaking of the world.
The pain was so intense that it seemed to last an excruciating eternity, but in truth, it began to fade after only a few moments. Shaking off the effects, Nuada brought himself upright. He strode purposefully across the tent towards the healer. The Hamadryad knew what was coming. Before he came close, she kneeled and held out her right hand.
“Strike off my arm if I have offended you, Nuada. But before you do, look to your own right arm,” she said.
Without thinking, Nuada glanced down at his arm and jerked to a halt. What he saw horrified him. His beautiful golden arm was gone. In its place was a huge, hairy spider’s leg. Worse, the obsidian sword that he had worn with pride was a jagged creation of blades, spikes, and bone.
“…No! This is a trick! It has to be! What have you done?” He raised his awful weapon to strike the healer.
“Nothing but removed the spell you were under, my lord,” she said calmly, without a trace of 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 stared 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,” the Hamadryad replied sadly, coming up behind him.
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. This must be her fault. This must be a trick.
Everything seemed confused, different than it had been for the past year. He spun around, determined to cut her in half. But then he saw that he stood before the gates of Tír Na nÓg.
The city’s gates were not golden. Twisted hulks of wood and metal, they hung open, swinging on a rotten breeze. He peered up at the battlements and saw only skeletons.
“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 followed him.
“What am I seeing?” he asked imploringly.
“The truth, nothing more,” she answered, folding her arms.
“What has happened here? To me, to our world?” he asked, feeling the ground begin to shift and spin.
“You are under a terrible spell, Nuada. One of such power that I could only undo a part of it… and my spell can only hold the lies at bay a short time longer. As for our city, it has been deserted for decades,” she said, gesturing at the ruined gateway. “There are none of our people left alive in there. There is nothing but an evil statue of a one-eyed god named Balor.”
“I remember–that statue,” Nuada was speaking in stops and starts, distracted but unable to stop himself. “At the battle with Bres.”
“Yes. 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,” The Hamadryad spread her arms and tail to indicate the whole Realm.
“And–Bres?” Nuada choked out.
“He and his followers stole the greatest treasures from the city and deserted it long ago. After establishing his rule, he simply left the people in the city, and the whole Realm of the Tuatha Dé Danann, 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,” Nuada spat, 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 with less conviction than before.
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 sword. I wish to cause you no more pain than I already have this day,” said the healer.
His fury boiling, Nuada grasped the weapon with his spider’s arm. He felt hot and itchy. It was difficult to think. Surely things would make more sense with her gone, along with her confusing pronouncements.
The arm raised her weapon as if about to kill her, but Nuada stopped himself as he looked into her eyes. It was so hard to think straight. That pity in her eyes…was it for herself or for him? This was the same face that had hovered over his as she tended him through the difficult days after Bres took his arm. Hers were the hands that had brought him back to life.
He raised his Veilsight, as he had in The Depths. When he saw his own aura’s dark, malignant power gathered around him, Nuada hung his head and dropped the Hamadryad’s blade in shame.
“No, I cannot. I know that you are right. About me… About this accursed weapon… I have failed again.”
The Hamadryad stood and fixed him with a stern look, even as she patted him on his left shoulder. “No Nuada, it is not over yet. There may still be hope for our people. Think of them, and not of yourself.”
Nuada could not look at her any longer, so he plucked up his twisted sword and walked through the creaking remains of the gate, dragging the evil weapon behind him. The Hamadryad stepped aside as a few brave soldiers followed their general inside.
Walking through the deserted capital city of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Nuada felt his anger devouring him from within. Looking back, he ordered what few troops had followed him to stay outside the city’s walls. “If any come to despoil what is left of Tír na nÓg…threaten to kill them. What happens after that is up to you to decide.”
He could hardly bear to force himself to look at the desolation of the city. Nuada felt guilt bearing down on him, crushing him as though all of Tír Na nÓg, city of desolation, had fallen on his head.
Thus ends the fourth part of the Silverhands Becoming story.
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