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The tale of Nuada Part 5

The city was empty, devoid of life. Not even vermin crawled through the streets or ruined houses. The vaunted watchtowers stood silent and empty, as their watchers had abandoned them. Once, that had been a crime punishable by exile or death in the harsh code of the Tuatha Dé Danann. That seemed so ludicrous now.

A few corpses lay here and there in the streets, stripped of valuables. Nuada felt his blood boiling: the hot, itchy feeling descending upon him once more. His arm twitched to punish someone for this horror and humiliation.

He knew now that it was the influence of his spider’s arm and the strange bone sword he’d carried for far too long, amplifying his anger and feeding on his desire to wreak terrible vengeance upon Bres. The strange thoughts in his head, the uncontrollable impulses that ran through his body like a cold fire…they bubbled up from something dark within. He had become a corrupted being.

As he neared the city’s main square, he saw warning signs and graffiti dotting the walls of the collapsing buildings. There were obscene references to himself, Bres, and Balor. By the edge of the central square, charred corpses littered the street.  

Judging by the dust and scattered armor and weapons, the bodies had lain undisturbed for a long time, as if nothing dared to touch them.

As Nuada approached, keeping to the edge of the dusty street, he choked down disgust. There was something wrong with the bodies. They were too short, burned, and covered in ash. He was almost ankle-deep in the grey stuff. Short, and oddly flat on one side… finally, he understood. They had all been cut neatly in half. They must have also been torched: There was a dry, smoky miasma that hung in the air, the ash disturbed by his tread.

Nuada turned a corner and came to a halt. Blocking the entrance to the main square was a barricade. Someone had erected it out of whatever was at hand, including the charred half-bodies of Tuatha Dé Danann soldiers. Looming over the city square, he recognized a familiar silhouette in the sunny distance: The statue of Balor.

Somehow, it had grown in size over the years, rising taller than any of the surrounding buildings. The smooth grey statue’s one eye was firmly shut. Though gigantic and deformed, the statue called Balor was incredibly lifelike. It looked like a creature covered in stone armor, waiting for something. Nuada thought better of approaching the thing, and stood at the barricade of corpses for several minutes, watching dust and ash blow in the wind.

He heard a step behind him. “I thought I’d find you here,” said the Hamadryad. She had retrieved her sword, and it hung at her hip, while her tail tapped the scabbard. “You know, Nuada, among honest souls, rarely are a person’s deeds as good or as bad as they believe.”

“That is small comfort,” said Nuada, never taking his eyes from the barricade. “These soldiers trusted me and my decisions.”

“Your arrogance cost your people much,” she said, “Though it is not too late for us to rise from the rubble once again.”

“I don’t know if…if I can bring vengeance on our enemies. I am too easily deceived by myself.”

The healer stepped closer. “You think about yourself too often. Instead of swearing revenge, decide how best to serve our people. Don’t drown in self-pity now as you have been drowning in hatred for so long. This world is under siege, and those that are strong enough must help. Or the Tuatha Dé Danann shall perish.”

Nuada glanced at her, then back at the piles of the dead. “Can you tell me why these bodies are so strangely damaged?”

“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 black light emerged. This beam of light sliced through all who ventured into the square, cutting them cleanly in two, like a butcher slicing a slab of meat. As their bodies fell to the ground, they caught fire and burned.” The healer was matter of fact, watching his face.

Nuada shuddered. “How is such a thing possible? Our mages can summon powerful spells, but this is beyond the greatest of them.”

“Magic has advanced much in your absence. Even so, our scholars 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. Balor feasted on our deaths and grew to incredible size. Not much was gained, but…” She paused, weighing her words carefully.

“What? What is it?” Nuada asked urgently.

The healer sighed in resignation. “I did notice something: 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. Perhaps he studies us as we study him.”

“Have any tried to talk to the statue?”

“Yes, but he doesn’t react in any way. He simply watches, and sucks life from the earth. People withered and died. Those were very dark days, but when we realized that Bres was only helping Balor to feed, the few survivors fled the city. I had just discovered that his life-sucking tendrils had been retracted when your sentries captured me.” She smiled.

“This I must see for myself,” said Nuada, with a little bit of the old bravado returning to his voice.

“Perhaps that would be best. Be forewarned, however…any threat will awaken him.”

“I understand.” Nuada stripped off his armor and daggers, placing the strange sword from The Depths on top of the pile. He let go with hesitation. Releasing the sword was becoming ever more difficult as it fought to regain its hold on him.

Stripped of his weapons, the former king of the Tuatha Dé Danann felt naked as he climbed over the barricade of corpses and slowly made his way to the thing called Balor.

As if Nuada had crossed an invisible line into the square, glowing energy began to flow toward the mighty stone edifice. Nuada could feel motion all around him, as if he were being sucked in by a whirlpool.

Nuada continued to walk across the flagstones 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 itched.

Feeling tiny, he stood before the statue and met its gaze with his own. Reaching out with all his senses, he tried to read Balor’s aura, but came up empty and confused. “Speak to me,” he whispered, repeating it in every language he knew, many of them forgotten by the world. However, there was no response but the occasional blink of that inscrutable eye.

Despair rose within him. This was pointless. All of his struggles in The Depths, gathering an army, pushing himself ever onward…and what had he accomplished? Dead companions, dead Tuatha Dé Danann, dead dreams.

Nuada made a fist with his left hand. The eye widened in anticipation. Watching it, Nuada thought he saw a hint of amusement there, a slight smirk at the corners of the statue’s twisted lips.

He looked back at the barricade. Desperately, the Hamadryad was waving her tail and shaking her head. Her whisper carried across the square: “No! This is the coward’s way out.”

Her last word echoed around the empty square as Nuada looked back up at Balor’s face and opened his fingers one by one. The swift relief of death would be too easy. It would be no more than deserting his people again, forever.

In a low voice, knowing it did not care and would not answer, Nuada spoke to the statue’s toes. “No matter the price, I will pay the butcher’s bill to restore my people.” Then he turned and simply walked away. Balor’s eye watched him climb back over the barricade and disappear, lingering a moment before closing.

“I see you have returned intact,” said the Hamadryad, a small smile curving her lips.

“Yes… but I almost didn’t.”

“I know. Your thoughts were as evident to me as the evil in Balor’s eye.”

Nuada raised an eyebrow. “How do you know my thoughts so well?”

The Hamadryad laughed. “Being a healer requires a talent for reading symptoms; it is not just magic, as some believe. Have you decided on your path?”

“Yes. 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 four mighty treasures of our people,” said Nuada, as confidently as if he were listing a number of household errands.

“Is that all?” laughed the Hamadryad.

“It is for now,” Nuada declared.

“Excellent. I can find those who can help you. Gather the remains of your army and wait for my return.” The healer fixed him with an icy glare. “You will have to be patient.”

Nuada grimaced as he strapped his armor back on and reluctantly picked up the evil sword. “I will do as you ask.”

As the Hamadryad walked off through the ruined city, Nuada realized that he had never bothered to ask her name.

It was a long wait for Nuada and his troops on the outskirts of Tír na nÒg. Much of his army had already melted into the countryside. Perhaps they lost interest when he forbade them to strip the city of whatever it had left, or perhaps they were too disgusted by their leader’s true appearance. Only a few loyal Tuatha Dé Danann remained to wait with Nuada.

Almost another year passed before a familiar figure rode into town, accompanied by a young Dvergr who carried the tools of a craftsman. 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. She only recoiled a tiny bit when Nuada clasped her 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, making her laugh. “And I see you have brought another to join us. Who are you, young sir?”
As the Dvergr drew closer, Nuada saw that the tools he carried were beautifully intricate objects, crafted with 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. Also…you call me young, but I feel very old and wise.” The Dvergr gave him a big wink like an old friend. “So. I’ve been told that you have been to The Depths, and have returned greatly changed, bearing powerful artifacts from that place.”

“Yes, Miach.” Nuada eyed him carefully. “My arm is that of a spider, my sword is forged of some strange material, and I have some other treasures which I dare not touch.”

“Well, I could remove your arm quite easily, but I’ll leave that task to another. I do want to study your sword carefully, as well as the other treasures,” said Miach. He had an oddly precise way of speaking. “Give them to me, and show me where the nearest crafter guild is in this barren city, so I can be about my work. When I learn their true nature, we will talk again.”

Nuada ordered his treasures to be brought to Miach, and tried to hand his dark sword to the crafter. However, every time he reached out, 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,” chuckled Miach, “But if you insist, I’ll be happy to try. That might be fun for me!”

Grunting and straining against his own grip, Nuada found that he could not let go of the sword. He began sweating, and his arm itched.

“Nuada. Think about what you said to me when last we stood here together,” said the Hamadryad gently.

Wordlessly, Nuada cast his mind back to the way he had felt, turning away from the statue. As his anger left him, he found he could let go of the pommel, though reluctantly.  

“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. Your part is a little less fun. You had better go with her and have that spider-limb removed.” He pointed at the Hamadryad.

Nuada glanced at her apprehensively, his arm twitching as it amplified his hesitation into fear. The healer clicked her teeth with disapproval. “Before you say anything, Nuada, remember how I feel about self-pity,” she said, and patted him on his left shoulder. “Let’s go find somewhere to remove that accursed arm of yours. Your tent will do.”

Just before he walked away, Miach grunted, “You have my sympathy, Nuada. What you are about to go through might make you wish you had not let go of the sword.”

The dawn was far too slow in coming, for the deserted city echoed with screams of pain and even the sounds of battle. No one dared go near the general’s tent to find out what was happening.

As the sun’s first light finally made its way across the horizon, the healer emerged from the tent flap, covered in blood and ichor. In her hands she carried the spidery phantasm of Nuada’s arm, which still twitched in her grasp. Walking to the camp’s central fire, she threw the limb into the angry flames and uttered a quick spell or prayer. The limb tried to escape, but she kicked it back in. The campfire flickered and roared as the soldiers nearby looked on in wonder. After a few minutes, the arm was finally reduced to ash. Sighing, the healer went back to the tent to continue her treatment of Nuada.

It was months before Nuada was strong enough walk on his own, but when he finally emerged from the tent, he had a new air of determination.

His most loyal followers gathered to see. The Nuada who now stood before his people had aged, but without frailty or weakness. His eyes reflected a hard purpose, eschewing folly and overconfidence.  

That 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!” 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. “Never mind,” he sighed.

Upon entering Miach’s tent, Nuada found it surprisingly tidy. The tools of Miach’s trade were neatly arranged on various shelves. In the middle of the tent, on a great stone table that had been raised right out of the earth, sat three items: The twisted blade of The Depths, his father’s old magic sword, and a gleaming silver arm.

Nuada’s eyes lit up. “How did you… What are… I…”

“You are quite eloquent when you’re excited, 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, grinning. “Can he handle my magnificent craftsmanship?”

Nuada raised his eyebrows. “Yes I can, sir Dvergr. My cup overflows with joy! You are truly a master craftsman. A Dvergr without peer.”

Miach bowed, accepting the compliment as his due.

“An amazing Dvergr, and a powerful crafter. I could see it the first time you came to our camp,” continued Nuada, a sly grin spreading across his face.

“Thank you!” said Miach, nodding and folding his arms as he looked over the items. “My hard work–”

“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,” Nuada interrupted, raising his hand. “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. The healer was holding her hands over her mouth as if she might burst.

“Well…” said Miach.

“They will want to take you into their world to share the secrets of your ‘magnificent craftsmanship,’ as you call it…” said Nuada.

“Enough!” said Miach angrily, “Stop! For the love of the Allfather, stop!”

At this, both the healer and Nuada began laughing uproariously. Miach turned bright red, and some of the stones in his arms lit up with a vivid glow. The Dvergr had to take a deep breath.

“Well done!” Miach finally burst out. “You stung me nicely!” As he joined their laughter with his own, he added, “I had no idea you possessed such a sense of humor. Now, enough. 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, but still looked 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 thing 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 unsteadily from the chair, for he still had not fully recovered, and picked up his sword. It felt wrong in his left hand, but he still remembered the feel of the handle. 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 poison your soul. The metal has been treated with powerful spells by our wonderful healer, and she assures me that it will bond nicely with your body. Once this is done, it may feel a little different from 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?” Nuada frowned.

“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 wits!” With exaggerated joy, he clenched his fist in triumph.

“Oh I see,” sighed 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’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, “Was a truly evil piece of work.”

“How so?” Nuada asked, staring at the smaller, stone-studded man. In a matter of moments, Miach’s whole posture and aspect had changed from jovial to somber and critical.

Miach’s voice was cold and matter-of-fact. “Whoever made this sword, the Merchant you spoke of, 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.”

“Feed it where?” asked Nuada.

“Can you not guess?” said the healer, raising an eyebrow.

“The Depths… it has to be” said Nuada, feeling a cold touch in his stomach. He had been so thoroughly fooled.

“Correct,” said Miach, “While you were using this sword, its foul tithe was passed into The Depths. It is why you aged so swiftly, and why you became so weak.”

“I didn’t feel weak,” Nuada began.

“No, that was part of its evil. You would have felt strong up to the moment your entire soul was drained, and then your body would have died. An empty shell with nothing inside,” said Miach, his face twisting slightly into an expression of revulsion.

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 must I do with this weapon?”

“Nothing,” said Miach. “I have rendered it harmless. I will study it further and try to unlock its secrets, but it will never harm anyone’s soul again, that much I promise.”

“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. 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 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.

When he was truly convinced that this arm wasn’t evil, nor would it just fall off, Nuada began pushing himself as he had in his younger days. His silver arm brought him new strength and grace, opening a whole new world of combat to him.

When Nuada sparred with other warriors, they seemed to move and react more and more slowly. Nuada’s actions flowed from one to another as if it were all some part of a rhythmic dance. Each swing, block, and parry was effortless, and his silver arm moved as comfortably as his arm of flesh. After three full moons, Miach declared that Nuada was ready.

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 forested 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 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 the banner, and cheered for Nuada’s great golden armor that Miach mysteriously found time to craft while on the march.

Everywhere they went they searched for word of Bres, but it was as if he had vanished. They sent riders to the One True City and to the other capitals of the world, but there was no sign of Bres or the four great treasures of their people. Though Nuada and his ragtag army gained some success, Nuada knew it was not enough. In order to rebuild after a century of damage, they needed to bring Bres to justice and find the lost treasures .

On one particularly frosty winter night, Nuada sat by a roaring campfire, while Miach and the Hamadryad laughed over a joke.

“You look troubled tonight, Nuada,” said Miach, “Cait Sith got your tongue?”

The unpleasant 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.”

“That’s enough, you annoying, rock-brained…”, Nuada growled before he could stop himself. “Wait. That was the old me. 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 the Inner World can probably hear you.”

“Has it been that bad?” asked Nuada, looking to the healer for a 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, no matter how long it takes. Miach and I are here to help, but it is up to you to determine the outcome,” said the healer, her voice neutral.

“I know. Every attempt I make to find him fails. I’ve sent out enough riders to find a tiny Luchorpán in a great forest, but they come back empty-handed.” Nuada began to grow red.

Miach shook his head and sighed. “You’re not listening to her, Nuada. She just said it was up to you.”

Nuada was about to snap back at him, but managed to swallow it this time. He let out a long breath and stared up at the sky instead of letting his anger take hold. The night was dark and moonless, for it was the time of Shadow’s Delight. There was no light but for the distant stars. It was like staring into an abyss. “…Oh,” Nuada snorted. “Curse me for a blind fool.”

“Hmm?” The Hamadryad answered, as if absentmindedly. She was engrossed in organizing some of her healer’s herbs and tools.

“That traitor is hiding in the only place he could hide. The Depths!”

“Where you wanted to go originally,” Miach chuckled dryly.

Nuada jumped up, ran to his tent and put on his golden armor. He raised the Siren’s Call to his troops, and the ground began to tremble with the sound of marching feet.

In seeking the entrance to The Depths, they found that it had moved, and the monolith in the ravine could no longer take them there. As the army traveled, Nuada chose eleven of his most loyal Tuatha Dé Danann to accompany him into the dark place he would go.

It took a full year, but Nuada finally sent all the rest of the soldiers back to their homes and entered the land of the Arthurians. He and his chosen companions sought an entrance encased in a green hill by a lake.  

Walking through the lands of his Sword Brother reminded Nuada of Nimue, who had spoken so fondly of her homeland and its leader. Nuada hoped he would find no sign of her in The Depths. He prayed that she was truly dead, for the other possibilities made him shudder.

Read more in part VI

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