Published December 23rd, 2013: Source
Standing before the immense, cold, black monolith that served as a gateway to The Depths, Nuada paused to consider what he had learned over the last few years about this strange place. While the gateway was physically here, passing through it would take Nuada to where The Depths actually were located. It could be somewhere deep within this or possibly another world, or in an entirely different plane of existence. There were even tales that the gate could transport you to another time, though Nuada put little credence in such rumors. Magic, was one thing; bending time was another thing altogether. He did believe that the entrance was sentient, and that it could take on any appearance. Someone seeking entrance had to convince the gateway to open. This wasn’t some deep, dark dungeon of legends whose doorway opened with a simple phrase or incantation; it was a vast enigma that literally had a mind of its own.
This knowledge sparked a rare sensation of true fear within Nuada. Before Bres, Nuada had never known fear but now he knew both defeat and fear and didn’t like either one. He believed his motives were pure, though nothing could quite quell the rage that threatened to tear open his chest when his thoughts dwelt on Bres. Nuada held no doubt that he would prove himself worthy and that The Depths would reward him handsomely; with treasures far greater than those bestowed upon Bres. He would then return home and reclaim his rightful place among his people. In addition, he would have a word or two in private council with certain members of the Courts, including his own granddaughter. They would learn the folly of doubting him and worse, of humiliating him publicly.
Standing in front of the monolith with the rest of his companions, Nuada took stock of the strange assemblage the merchant had thrown together. It was comprised of races representing each of the three Realms. Most of them looked young, yet trusting appearance for a bellwether was a sure way to fail, especially in this changed world. What was truly important was experience and power, always power. He noted a few bright auras among the crew, though most of them seemed newly come into their strength. This was confirmed as Nuada stood against a nearby tree and watched silently as some tried to enter The Depths. One by one they walked into the monolith and summoned magical entities or chanted ancient languages. All they had to show for it were bruised heads, parched throats and the occasional mocking laughter of a summoned being. Nuada understood that there was no way to force or trick the gateway. During his travels he had heard that the key was to observe the form of the gateway, decipher any clues and mirror them. That part puzzled him.
For several days his companions continued with their futile, and Nuada thought, feeble attempts to open the monolith. Suddenly an idea dawned on him, the monolith was smooth and featureless, without a mar on it. It was a blank slate. The blackness of its surface suggested, of course, darkness to him. Smiling at his own cleverness, Nuada told the mercenaries that they needed to rest and wait for a moonless night and that he would then open the monolith. Scoffing at his presumption, they agreed to wait for several days. Most of the mercenaries passed their time playing cards, gambling and telling outrageous stories. Two of them did not and Nuada found himself gravitating toward them. The first was a Dvergar named John BigBoote who had an infectious nature and jovial outlook. The other was a human female named Nimue. He sensed a great power emanating from this woman and he was glad that she was part of their company. Over the next three days while the others spent time on trivial pursuits, these three began to bond and plan for the future.
During this brief respite, Nuada learned a lot about Nimue and John. Nimue was considered a promising young mage within the inner circle of her realm’s most prestigious school of magic, known simply as The Academy. She had excelled in her early training and her physical appearance had won her the attention of several rather prominent individuals within the school. While she was not ignorant of her effects on such people, she had no interest in any of their attentions. She wanted to learn to be a powerful wielder of magic and she considered all other activities a distraction. Like many people her age, she was drawn to Arthur’s vision for a new world. Nimue longed to stand beside him and pave the way for a better and brighter future. She was neither strident nor preachy in her views and beliefs but her eyes were full of the ardor and passion of youth; strengthened by the same conviction and need to excel that had possessed Nuada in his youth. He couldn’t help but feel a fatherly attachment to her, even in his current state.
John, on the other hand, was a Dvergar who enjoyed life to its fullest. He was full of wild tales about life underground. He talked endlessly about his people, his family and the beauty, wonders and danger that were lurking deep within the earth. John liked to drink a fair bit and by the end of the first night, he had exhausted his small (by Dvergr standards) stockpile of liquid refreshments and was constantly searching for any private caches that his companions might have secreted away. He also boasted about the battles that he had fought but Nuada didn’t take offense at his words for John told the story in a way that minimized his own worth while constantly praising those who fought at his side. Nuada too found that he was forming a positive attraction to John, despite the tendency of Nuada’s people to look down at Dvergr both literally and figuratively.
After a perfectly cloudless day, a rainstorm swept in at twilight. Even when the moon reached its apex there was no light to be spied even with the keenest of senses. Waiting until the darkest part of the night was upon them, Nuada directed his companions to stand before the monolith, perfectly still. They must clear their minds of any thoughts and emulate, to the best of their abilities, the unmoving and perfectly smooth structure of the monolith. Reluctantly all of the mercenaries tried their best to do as Nuada directed but it was difficult for some to clear their minds. They lacked Nuada’s discipline. Of course, Nuada and his newfound friends had already prepared for this so it was quite easy for them. After a number of failed attempts, the mercenaries eventually managed to settle down and clear their minds. However, nothing happened at first and they decided that this was another futile attempt. Then suddenly, the monolith lit up the sky with a blinding red light. The light focused down to a scarlet beam and one by one the beam touched each of the adventurers. On some it lingered, on others it barely visited their foreheads. When all of the adventurers had been so touched, the beam became pure white and its shape began to change, taking on the appearance of a whirlpool that had been turned on its side. Before they could react, the whirlpool pulled the adventures into it. The next thing they knew they were standing before a set of golden doors with strange carvings. The carvings had the appearance of actually having grown there, rather than being carved by some skilled hand.
Whether abominations or legend, or some creations of a severely twisted mind, the images on the doors were unknown to any among the adventurers. Nuada shrugged off all remaining caution. If Bres could survive here, surely he could. He simply strode up to the immense doors and pulled the giant golden handles. Surprisingly the doors opened without a sound, smoothly gliding over the polished stone surface. Summoning some of his old confidence, Nuada called out to The Depths, telling whatever manner of creature inhabited this place that he was here; revealing his name to his fellow adventurers. The revelation of his true identity came as a shock to many of the mercenaries, for Nuada’s name and deeds were well known throughout the land. Nuada laughed at their reactions. He promised them all power and glory if they would but follow his lead. All of the mercenaries agreed to this, including their leader. Quite frankly they couldn’t decide what they feared more, this place or Nuada’s legendary wrath. John and Nimue had suspected that their companion was more than he seemed though the fact that he was Nuada did come as a bit of a surprise to them as well. Nuada led them through the entryway into the first cavern, a place that would one day be called the Stone Cavern of Lost Souls.
The mercenaries followed a surprisingly well-worn path through the cavern but the light from their torches couldn’t penetrate the darkness that enveloped them. Even the famed underground eyesight of the Dvergr couldn’t penetrate the unnatural darkness of this chamber. Judging by the echoes of their footfalls upon the stone floor, Nuada knew that this room was quite large. Frustrated by his inability to see more than a hand’s breadth ahead, he called upon the party’s magic users to summon light. The weaker of the group’s mages summoned a ball of light but as he cast it into the darkness, it was instantly swallowed as if it had entered the maw of some gigantic creature. Nimue tried as well though she had no better success than her counterpart. Nuada instructed them to work together. After a few failed attempts they managed to create sufficient light to reveal that the chamber was filled with large statues. As best as they could tell, the statues represented all the known races of this world as well as others that none of them could identify. Some of these statues were twisted into horrific shapes that made a mockery of what they once were. Others looked as if they were simply standing still, waiting to come alive. As the ball of light spread throughout the chamber, it revealed a vast cavern with statues whose numbers were too great to count. As the orb continued to illuminate the chamber, it became clear that several statues were wearing very high quality armor and ornaments and carrying weapons that appeared legendary in quality.
One member of the group, a young Leprechaun, clothed in a red jerkin and bright gold breeches, could barely control his excitement. His eyes were glowing and shifting color as riches became apparent to him. Without waiting for Nuada’s approval, he leapt from the path, nimbly landing next to one of the statues. Nuada shouted a warning to him and was surprised when nothing happened as the Leprechaun stealthily lifted a golden torc from the statue. Snickering at Nuada’s caution, the Leprechaun clicked his heels and skipped about giddily urging his companions to join in some looting. Loading a bag with as many riches as he could manage and mocking his companions for their timidity, the Leprechaun ambled back to the path, loot sack overflowing. As soon as his feet touched the path he froze, mid-stride; he was turned to stone. Some gasped, yet Nuada felt no remorse over the lost Leprechaun, for he had been warned. If anything Nuada felt slightly vindicated by this death and he ordered the mercenaries forward down the path and out of this accursed cavern as he used to order those who served him as King. As the last mercenary left the room Nuada turned back to look for the frozen Leprechaun. He could no longer see the statue but in later days Nuada swore that, out of the corner of his eye, he had seen it move, as if the statue was being carried away by some unseen entity.
Nuada swiftly led the mercenaries down the path towards what appeared to be a three-way intersection. As they walked, they noticed that the well-polished stone path began to feel uneven. Several of them looked down to see what appeared body parts randomly embedded in the path; seemingly merged with the path itself. One look was enough to convince all of them that looking down was something that they didn’t wish to do again. Drawing their weapons as they neared the intersection, their pace slowed either out of fear or simply anticipation of meeting resistance.
Reaching the center, they stood before a statue with a raised platform above it, from which a great flame of ever-shifting colors erupted. The statue seemed to radiate a silent, palpable malice. The flame didn’t resemble a “normal” fire, gems seemed to dance among the flames. The oddest thing was that the statue altered its appearance depending on who looked at it! For one of the males, it appeared as the body of 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 appeared as a woman whose body was being penetrated by spears from every angle and was clearly in great pain. For Nuada, it was himself, minus arms, swallowing a sword that then emerged where one might expect. As they stood transfixed by the statue’s power, its shape-shifting became more and more horrific. Each alteration had the victim suffering greater agony.
The youngest male caster lost whatever good sense he had and began to materialize his most powerful fire spell to destroy the personalized abomination staring him in the face. As soon as the mage initiated his summoning, Nuada told everyone to scatter. When the spell struck the statue, it instantly became obvious that magical attacks were not a good idea. The statue began to change shape and this time it took the form of a fire elemental. Freed of its imprisonment, the elemental turned to its liberator and in mock gratitude and then stepped on him, burning him to a cinder. Several of the other mercenaries broke and ran for their very lives. Nimue held fast and prepared a spell whose blue glow suggested to Nuada that it was a water or ice-based spell. The only other remaining mercenary, John, stood in front of the mage and thrust his heavy arms into the ground like two hammers; causing the ground to shake and tremble. Nuada, appreciating the bravery of this duo rushed to their side and drew his sword.
As the elemental approached them, it hurled fireballs at the trio effortlessly and with unsettling accuracy. Nimue had foreseen this and planned to counter by summoning a wall of ice to block the fire-based attacks and the creature’s vision of the group. This enraged the elemental and his anger served to intensify his attacks. Nimue did her best to maintain the wall, but her magical reserves were fading, rapidly. Nuada and John knew they had to act fast. John, as is typical for his people, wanted to charge the monster, claiming that his stone-etched skin would protect him. He said Nuada should stay back, look for an opening and then strike hard. Nuada, as usual, had his own idea. He asked John to use his stony arms to begin weakening the bridge. Acknowledging the cleverness of this idea, John nodded and began hammering away at the bridge. When the bridge was near crumbling, Nuada instructed John to stop. Nuada then asked Nimue to cast a thin sheet of ice over the weakened bridge. Plan in place, all three of them stepped back to watch what would happen.
Predictably, the elemental broke through the wall and approached the weakened bridge. He was about to step on it, but paused, looked down and began to laugh. The laughter was horrible, it sickened the listeners. This creature was not some unthinking brute, it was a sentient and evil. The elemental pointed skyward, gestured to the group and then pounded one fist into the other. He then took a few steps backward and prepared to jump over the broken section. Seeing this, John followed suit and as the elemental leapt into the air, John charged him and they crashed in mid-air, over the weakened part of the bridge. When their impact brought them together, the sound of this epic crash echoed deeply within the caverns. As John clung tightly to the elemental’s legs, the elemental quickly realized what was about to happen but also knowing it was too late to change the outcome. As the bridge collapsed beneath them, the creature’s roar of anger was all but drowned out by the laughter of John. As they fell into the darkness Nuada could hear John battling the elemental and yelling that he needed a “bit of a warm up anyway.” The sound of John’s voice and the still ongoing battle between him and the elemental slowly drifted away as Nimue and Nuada moved away from the edge of the bridge.
Nuada marveled at the Dvergar’s sacrifice for those he barely knew and wasn’t sure what to make of it. After a few seconds respite, Nuada and Nimue retraced their steps and tried to find a way around the now broken bridge.
And thus ends Part II.
P.S. Sorry about the John BigBoote name for our Dvergar, I couldn’t resist a Buckaroo Banzai reference for The Depths.