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The tale of Nuada Part 6

Deep within a green hill, surrounded by bog and foul, rotting odors, there stood another black monolith. Dark sentinel of the passage to another place, the living Depths of horror and madness.

As Nuada stood before it, he noticed the black stone was so dark that not even his flickering torchlight reflected off of it, leaving the monolith untouched by anything. All seemed identical to the last time he had come to The Depths, so many years ago. The fallen king of the Tuatha Dé Danann turned to the healer at his side. “I suppose this is when you tell me of my destiny, and how I must venture in there alone, right?” Nuada asked, breaking into a grin despite the grim surroundings.

The Hamadryad shrugged, barely willing to return his smile. “I was thinking that it would be better if we all go in together. I can certainly talk about destiny if you wish to play the role of legendary…”

“Sword fodder,” interrupted Miach.

Her tail twitched. “…hero…and we can wait outside for you. I have no great desire to visit there again,” said the healer.

“Again? You’ve been in The Depths before?” Nuada blinked in surprise. He had thought he was the only one tainted by its power. Perhaps there was more to this healer than he’d thought…

She waved her hand dismissively. Nuada knew he was stalling the inevitable, and grunted as he adjusted his armor. “Shall we go inside and find Bres?” said Nuada.

“I’ve got first rights on any forges we find. I can’t wait to see what creates such interesting…erm, I mean, vile things!” said Miach.

Nuada shook his head and sighed. With a motion, he called the rest of the Delvers they had collected toward the black monolith. All of them had already trained their minds to blankness, and had been warned of the multitude of dangers that lay below.

Pulled by the vortex of light from the monolith just like the last time Nuada had entered, the dozen of them marched into The Depths. Whirled through the dark, they found themselves at a new entranceway, one which Nuada had never seen before.

A glossy-black set of doors rose before them, inlaid with thin strands of gold that depicted strange images. Taking a closer look, all were horrified by what they saw. The doors were carved with images of women in various states of torture, slain through unspeakably vile acts. The group hesitated before the doors, revolted and enraged by the sight.

Nuada, for his part, nearly vomited. He recognized the faces of each of these women: they were all Nimue.

Trying to master himself, the Tuatha reached out a hand to push open the door, but snatched it back when he saw movement. The door came alive: Each of the women began to move, writhing in pain. Nuada choked as the tiny figures moaned his name accusingly: “Nuada.”

Along with the other Delvers, Miach gave him a strange look. “What happened here? What did you do to her?”

“Nothing! We were fighting our way out of The Depths. When she had run out of her magic resources, she sacrificed her life to save mine,” Nuada said angrily, “She left me no choice. She forced me to leave her.”

“Forced? Really? Our big, brave Tuatha was forced to leave by a naked, magically-exhausted woman?” said Miach, stony arms folded.

“She wasn’t naked at the time. And yes, she sacrificed her life for mine. I’ve had to think about it since… I wanted to go back for her, but I couldn’t,” Nuada’s face was burning as he seethed with anger and regret.

“Couldn’t…or wouldn’t, Nuada?” asked the Hamadryad quietly, staring at him while her tail twitched.

“Could…No, wouldn’t. She did plead for me to leave, but…perhaps I could have refused. Or perhaps I could have come back to The Depths before now. I should have come back before now! Instead of raising the army and marching back to Tír Na nÓg, I should have stormed this accursed place.”

Nuada dropped to his knees. Silence spread over the door as the carvings of Nimue stopped their cries of fear and pain, turning to stare at Nuada. “Forgive me, Nimue. I should have come back sooner. And if you can’t forgive me…take my life in The Depths. Just let us through, I implore you,” he begged. The other Delvers looked on in wonder at the still figures, their writhing stilled.

Nuada rose and gently pushed the doors. With the slightest hesitation, the massive stone portal swung silently open.

“The one thing certain about The Depths is that nothing is certain about them,” Nuada whispered as he led the way into the tunnel beyond.
Within, the first room they came to contained a scene of slaughter.

The walls, floor, and ceiling were stained crimson with pieces of living creatures that had been dismembered and scattered. Heads were stuck to walls as macabre trophies. In some places, a jigsaw puzzle of body parts were laid together, a mockery of a whole being.

But the subtlest, most disturbing thing about the room was how its walls expanded and contracted in a rhythmic pattern. As they walked through the room, the cycle of breathing suddenly stopped.

“I don’t think this is a good sign. Keep moving,” said Nuada, resting his silver hand on the pommel of his weapon.

“I agree,” said Miach, “As one of our deepsheep herders would say, let’s get the flock out of here.” He hustled on more swiftly than his heavy stone-fused limbs would seem to allow.
Quickening their pace, the companions avoided the gore as best they could. As they approached the far end of the chamber, the breathing started again.

They were all out into the next tunnel, and Nuada was just about to congratulate his followers on passing through unscathed, when the trap sprung. It caught the final two rearguards, a pair of Tuatha from the Realm Nuada had once ruled.

“Ugh!” they both cried, as the ceiling opened above them with a sudden squelch. A tidal wave of blood and guts fell from above. Covered in gore, they shook and retched in disgust, while those nearby shook off some of the spattered blood with a laugh.

Then they noticed that the welter of crimson guts contained large leeches.

The two Tuatha began plucking off the creatures, but shouted in pain. The things had barbed teeth, and they ripped out a chunk of flesh as they came away. Shuddering, the Tuathan men hesitated, looking from one to the other and over at the other Delvers.

“Get them off!” Nuada shouted too late from the other end of the hall.

The creatures had another surprise ready. After a moment, the bloated leeches rapidly shrank, expelling eggs and implanting them in their victims. Before the two Delvers could do anything more than scream and collapse to the ground, hideous larvae had burrowed deeply into their bodies. Then, the things began devouring flesh from the inside.

Helpless, the other companions looked on in horror as the hungry larvae chewed through the bodies in mere seconds. Nothing but bits of gore stuck to bones remained in empty suits of armor. Swollen and sated, the larvae rolled out. They posed no further threat as the remaining adventurers fled.

Nuada crossed a threshold and blinked in darkness. He peered around the next room, wondering how large it might be. Then a flickering light was kindled, and he recognized the shape of a building, a fire, and a mighty anvil. It was that selfsame forge he had visited with the Merchant.

Miach let out a cry of joy and ran past before Nuada could even shout a warning. However, there seemed to be no creature lying in wait. Nothing attacked the Dvergr as he examined the gleaming anvil from all angles.

Mumbling to himself, Miach began testing the forge with his instruments, both magical and mundane. “This is great! So exciting! This forge has properties I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world! I could happily spend decades studying this beauty,” he chuckled, giving the hunk of metal a hearty slap.

Nuada shook his head. “We need to move on. We’ll come back after we find Bres.”

“Nuada, I’m a crafter, not a fighter. I can train your arm, even spar with you a bit, but in a true fight, well, I am about as useful as an angry Valkyrie in a brothel. Leave me here with one of the warriors, and let me do what I do so well,” Miach held on to the anvil as if daring Nuada to drag him away.

After a moment, Nuada sighed. “I suppose you’re right.”

“Good. I’ll ask the other Dvergr to stay with me. He’s got a round shield I can work on,” said Miach.

As the rest of them continued down the path, Nuada looked over his shoulder to see Miach already laying out his equipment.

“Miach,” Nuada called out, making the other look up. “Stay safe, you maddening little man.”

“Ah, such a sweet boy,” said Miach in his mocking way. “You, too.”

Leaving the forge and the Dvergr behind, Nuada and his companions continued down a narrow path that overlooked a gigantic open mouth, filled with teeth like blades. It made him nervous: the very presence of the blade-studded mouth was menacing in a way that chilled the spine.

Almost without realizing it, the group gradually quickened the pace, until they were running across the stone shelf over the hungry chasm.

After crossing, they came to a wide, impressive hallway lined with imposing pillars. About halfway along, the stone floor was covered in a thick, purple carpet. It did very little to dampen their echoing footsteps, which bounced back and forth between the great pillared walls.

Leaving the enormous maw behind, they could see something gleaming in the distance. As they approached with torches and magelights held high, the shadows fled, and the sight became clear: It was an enormous golden throne, and a smiling king was seated upon it.

Nuada recognized Bres. Drawing his father’s sword in his strong silver hand, Nuada rushed forward, oblivious to the warning shouts from the Hamadryad as his river of hatred came to an instant boil. Nimue, John, Tír Na nÓg, his arm, Balor’s evil eye… these images flooded his brain.

Nuada swung high as he ran up the golden steps, then hesitated. Bres hadn’t reacted at all. Standing over his enemy, Nuada brought the edge of his blade to Bres’ throat. However, the traitor sat completely still, head held high under the weight of his large gold crown. Not even his eyes moved to look at Nuada.

Frowning, Nuada saw his own arm trembling slightly with excitement. “It is your time now. For all the deaths you caused,” he said loudly, as his companions came up behind him.
Still there was no reaction from Bres.

Nuada gritted his teeth and tried to hold his sword steady. “Say something!”

No reaction.

“Anything,” he whispered desperately.

Still nothing.

“Nuada, he can’t,” said the healer, touching him on the shoulder.

“Is he dead?” said Nuada without lowering his weapon.

“No. He is alive. Look at the forefinger on his right hand,” said the healer.

At first, Nuada could see nothing. However, after a moment, Bres’ finger twitched, almost imperceptibly.

“What is going on here?” asked Nuada. His Veilsight revealed nothing.

“I sense that Bres is here, but is also…away,” said the healer, looking from side to side with some magical vision of her own. “He’s in his own place within this place…a different bubble of existence.”

“I have no idea what you are talking about,” Nuada ground out, finally lowering his weapon.

“I’m not sure I do, either. I just know that wherever he is, he is experiencing something totally different than we are now,” said the healer, rubbing her eyes. “It is confusing.”

“Then let me clear up your confusion,” said an oily voice, far too familiar for comfort.

Turning towards the sound of the voice, the companions saw the man that Nuada had called the Merchant, strolling casually along a hidden path behind the great throne. Nuada’s blood ran hot and his fingers flexed, itching for revenge.

“Now now Nuada, calm down. I know you must have dreamt about killing me for years by now, but hear me out. I can explain everything. I can even show you where your friends John and Nimue are, and before you ask…yes, they are alive and doing quite well.” The Merchant folded his hands over his belly and beamed at them all.

“Hear him out,” said the healer, holding up her hand. Her voice was gentle, but her eyes were hard.

“Thank you. First, you were right, Bres is in a different time. He came here asking for my help. It was his truest wish to sit forever upon the throne of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and, as you see, that is what he is doing now. For as long as this world survives, Bres will sit upon this throne,” said the Merchant.

“You vile, disgusting monster…” started Nuada, beginning to raise his weapon.

“Not at all. Bres made his wish clear to me and we made it happen. The same thing applies to you, Nuada. We simply carried out your wishes.” The Merchant fixed him with a blank stare.

Fuming, Nuada shouted back, “I never said I wanted a damned spider arm! That disgusting thing sucked my own life from me!”

“That’s true, but then again, you made it clear you would stop at nothing to get what you wanted: power. I was quite proud of the work we did on your arm. It’s a shame that it isn’t still attached…you were so helpful to us,” said the Merchant.

“Us?” The Hamadryad took a step forward.

“Of course. The Depths are truly a ‘we’ not an ‘I’,” said the Merchant, “Bres is now part of us, just as Nuada was, for too short a time. The power that your arm and your sword drew from their food was wonderful! We put it to good use here. We are doing so well, now!” The Merchant raised his short arms in joy.

Not knowing how to react to the Merchant’s words, the companions simply stood there and stared at the strange servant of The Depths with his arms in the air.

“Nothing to say? Good.” The Merchant lowered his arms and gestured back the way he had come. “Let’s move on, then. I want to reunite Nuada with his brave friends. They are just down this path.” With that, he turned and walked down a tunnel that lay hidden behind the golden throne.

“I don’t have a good feeling about this,” said Nuada to the healer.

“Miach was right. You do have a tendency to state the obvious,” said the healer. “Steel yourself for the worst, Nuada.”

Following the entity called the Merchant, the Delvers felt strange air blowing across them. It smelled metallic, and felt both hot and cold at the same time, laden with a strange impersonal magic. After a moment, they came to a metal door that was plain and unadorned. The Merchant walked up to it without pausing, and the door slid silently into the roof.

In the dark room beyond, an intense feeling of wrongness filled the Delvers. The room smelled unpleasant; musky, yet somehow mechanical.

“Illuminate!” said the Merchant.

A blinding white light flashed into being. Infantile screams filled the room, as though this were a nursery full of children.

As his eyes recovered, Nuada saw that the Merchant had told part of the truth about John and Nimue: They were indeed alive. But it was not a life worth living.

Each was naked, spread-eagled upon a five-pointed star. They had monstrous tubes of living metal in their mouths, and were secured to the giant star by spiny creatures, wriggling in their flesh.

John’s skin was covered with pustules that expanded and contracted. To Nuada’s horror, one of the pustules broke open to expel a tiny, twisted abomination with Dvergr-like parts, and it fell to the ground with a thud. Like any newborn, the thing started to cry, a haunting gurgle from its pinched and misshapen throat.

The Merchant walked up to the tiny creature, took it in his arms, and rocked it gently. He crooned like a young mother, “See how cute this little fellow is? He’ll make a fine addition to our home.”

Too sickened to move, Nuada felt his eyes pulled inexorably to Nimue. Pinned to her five-pointed star, Nimue was giving birth. Her swollen belly began to contract as she screamed, muffled by a tube in her mouth. The newborn was immediately sucked out of her womb and into a pulsating glass tube attached to her body. As soon as the infant was ejected, her stomach began to swell again.

Nuada forced himself to take action. Whether it was real or illusory, he could take no more. The Tuatha charged at the Merchant with blade held high.

“Oh dear, are you upset?” said the Merchant, watching Nuada leap over tubes and freakish machines to come at him. “Too bad. I thought you would be proud of what you helped bring about. I was just about to tell you the best part! We have decided that you will be with Nimue and John forever. After studying them, I thought it would be interesting to combine you three. Wouldn’t you like that?”

As the last word fell from the Merchant’s lips, Nuada swung his sword. His father’s reforged blade bit into the Merchant’s neck and neatly separated head from body.

“No, I wouldn’t,” Nuada answered. The Merchant’s head bounced, while his body slumped over, gushing blood. The newborn creature the Merchant had held landed on three legs, then ran off to places unknown. Nuada continued, “Now let’s free them and leave this terrible place.” Wiping the blood from his blade, he turned away.

“You didn’t really think it would be that easy, did you?” said the Merchant.

Turning back in shock, the companions found the Merchant was standing up again, walking back as a new head slowly emerged from his body. “After all, this isn’t a fairy tale or some folk story,” said the Merchant, shaking his newly formed head, “This is our world. You are fools for returning here, but we thank you for coming. I’m so glad you brought your friends, Nuada. For those that survive, we have countless decades to get to know each other. There are a lot of interesting combinations here for us to play with.”

At that, the Merchant snapped his fingers, and the pipes around the room boiled up with hungry abominations, pushing their way out to attack. They looked like deformed infants of many races, but swollen until they were almost as large as their prey. Nuada stepped back as they wailed and gnashed mismatched teeth.

“Try to keep them alive, my darlings,” said the Merchant to the creatures, “Especially the tall, stupid one.”

So began the battle. For a long moment, as the horrors gathered between them, Nuada simply stared into the Merchant’s eyes. The Tuatha’s gaze burned like the Spear of Victory that he had come here to reclaim. At last, Nuada saw a flicker of hesitation in the other’s soulless eyes.
Just before the nearest abomination struck him with its dirty fingernails, Nuada jumped. It was a huge leap across the distance between himself and the Merchant. Nuada’s face contorted in a primal scream. Astounded, the Merchant backed away, and Nuada’s blade sliced through a mass of young horrors instead, spraying dark blood.

Recovering from his surprise, the Merchant smiled, confidence returning. He raised his arms toward Nuada, and his hands shifted, cracking and changing. Grotesque tentacles grew from his fingers and shot out to entangle Nuada’s silver arm. Nuada tried to leap away, but the tentacles squeezed and twisted, seeking to wrench the arm from its socket. Miach had done his work well, for though Nuada grunted in pain, the arm stayed firmly attached. His head pushed to the side as he wrestled with the tentacles, Nuada could see his friends fighting for their lives.

No, not just for their lives. The screeching wails of the abominations echoed through The Depths as they battled Nuada’s friends for their very souls.

The Hamadryad was far more than a skilled healer. A veteran of many journeys to the Stormlands, she had proven the victor in countless battles with abominations. Her staff whipped through the air like Nuada’s sword, as she expertly cracked the skulls of those creatures foolish enough to rise against her.

As one of the deformed horrors sought to strike her unprotected back, her tail rose up like a cobra, swaying back and forth. Mesmerized by her tail’s motions, the thing lowered its hands and simply stood there, cooing to itself while she battled three others before her. Before the foul creature at her back could regain its senses, the fur on her tail receded backward to reveal a sharp set of teeth. The tail struck like a viper, attaching itself to the horror’s face and pumping in enough venom to kill it instantly. After a few more fell to her tail, the horrors seemed to decide that fighting the Hamadryad from the front was the more attractive option, despite her vicious staff. As she fought them, it became clear that these creatures possessed some degree of higher thought, which troubled her greatly.

Another of the Delvers, a HelBound Viking woman, had flung off her mask and was summoning the immense power of her ancestors to heighten the horror of her own visage. She thrust her face at the overgrown infants, and supernatural terror killed them where they stood. Meanwhile, she whirled her dual-headed staff high overhead, sending life to her companions even as she brought death to the abominations. For her, the battle was a mixture of ecstasy in life and death. Her riotous laughter echoed through the halls, sending abominations reeling in terror even as her fellow adventurers took heart at the wild sound.

Shoving off one tentacle only to be ensnared by another, Nuada added his laughter to the cacophony. All around, the chamber continued to fill with unimaginable abominations. Some were growing further, becoming older versions of their fellows, made up of many parts. Twisted combinations of male and female organs, teeth, feathers, claws, and tentacles made the room a living, screaming nightmare.

A Gargoyle among the Delvers proved to be a mighty mage. His blasts of magic lit enemies on fire, burning them like logs in a hearth. Somehow, their screams of pain reassured his companions. If one of the monsters got too close, the Gargoyle would transform his skin to true stone just after he was bitten, trapping them as a shield against further attacks. However, overwhelmed by the abominations, he was beginning to tire.

Kicking at abominations that tried to take advantage of his entanglement, Nuada gritted his teeth, realizing that most of the Delvers were already going down. A Stormrider warrior stripped off his armor and dared the creatures to attack him. They leaped at him with hungry glee, and he was completely covered in their bestial forms. Their combined weight brought him to his knees, clawing and biting, but the warrior fought on, his scars aglow with his efforts. He seemed able to almost ignore his physical injuries. When the Stormrider’s right hand was bitten off, he simply switched his weapon to his left. His will was indomitable, but his body eventually gave out and collapsed to the shifting metal floor.

Across the room, a pair of Luchopáns were fighting back-to-back, fiercely defending against the tidal wave of creatures that threatened to engulf them. These two weren’t great warriors, but seemed to possess a limitless bag of tricks to distract, delay, and damage the enemy creatures. Nuada watched the pair maneuver near a vat of acid and taunt the horrors to come. When the abominations charged, howling with strange cries, the two Luchorpáns vanished. Dozens of mad creatures ran headfirst into the pool, then screamed as they dissolved.

When the victorious Luchopáns reappeared, they congratulated themselves and turned to face their enemies as one. However, they could not see the vat itself coming alive behind them; it became a metal mouth, vomiting up the abominations as smoking, acid-infused things. Overwhelmed by the sudden attack, the pair of Luchorpáns were knocked to the floor and a gruesome feast began.

Fighting to get his silver arm free, Nuada felt the all-too-familiar prickling of despair. The horrors kept coming. No matter how many the companions destroyed, there were always more, a supply as infinite as the evil of The Depths. The only hopeful sights were in another part of the room, near John and Nimue, where a Valkyrie and a young Tuatha Dé Danann warrior were ripping through the abominations.

The Valkyrie was in full bloom. Her wings burned with vibrant blue fire, which ran down her arms and over each of her two spears, searing the enemy with each blow. Scores of the creatures lay burning and dying at her feet as she taunted more to come for her. Blood spattered the woman as she seemed to grow stronger with each attack, spitting them two or three at a time like skewers through meat.

The young Tuatha Dé Danann man was even more dangerous. Though his sword was not so well crafted, he tore through creatures in a great arc, slicing them in half like Balor’s eye. Through all the horror and welter of dark blood, his face remained impassive, taking no pleasure in the battle. A supernal warrior, but one controlled in his actions and choices.

Despite his youth, the man’s skill was incredible, perhaps approaching Nuada’s own. If anyone else could rescue Nimue and John from this horror, Nuada believed it would be this young Tuathan.

Read more in Part VII

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