Published December 27th, 2013: Source
With their band’s numbers abruptly reduced to just two, even Nuada thought that turning back was a wise idea and Nimue readily agreed. Retracing their steps in the hopes of returning to the gate, they quickly discovered that the entrance to the Stone Cavern of Lost Souls was no longer there. In its place was a tunnel that was covered in what looked like misshapen tree limbs. Nuada took this for a good omen, for after all trees, no matter their shape, were well-known to him. When Nuada entered the passage, he quickly discovered that his initial optimism was misplaced and it was a harbinger of an even more horrific scene that quickly unfolded before his eyes. As Nimue and Nuada travelled through the tunnel they noticed that it was lit by a sickly green glow emanating from diseased moss and lichen that covered every inch of the tunnel’s inner surface and pulsated in a pattern that resembled the breathing of a living creature. Feeling more than a little ill at ease Nimue summoned a seeing eye to send ahead of them as they moved through the tunnel. The eye made it no more than a stone’s throw down the tunnel before a green tendril reached out from the ceiling, grabbed the eye and crushed it. As the eye’s physical parts fell to the ground, the moss that it landed upon literally sucked in those pieces with a greedy, slurping sound. Knowing that they had no choice but to keep going, Nuada gently pressed Nimue’s shoulder and together they moved slowly forward with Nuada walking in front of Nimue, his left hand on his sword’s hilt, ready to draw it without delay.
As they neared the center, Nimue called upon her ice magic to try to freeze the ceiling as she did not wish to discover if her head would make as impressive a squelch as that seeing eye did. It worked, the tendril did not strike out, it was frozen solid. However, as they continued walking down the tunnel, they saw creatures emerging from the green, pod-like masses that were attached to the inner walls and ceiling. These things were part humanoid, part plant and all nightmare. They were short in stature but with huge eyes and misshapen arms and legs. Their latter were like plants and each step they took left a trail on the ground behind them like that of a snail while their small, but powerfully built arms looked like they belonged on a blacksmith. Nimue began furiously casting spells, firing off small bursts of ice magic as Nuada once again drew his sword. Charging into these creatures he began hacking them to pieces but he soon discovered that for every creature he cut down, two or more would take its place. Nimue was having better success, her spells freezing the creatures so that no new ones would spawn. Powerful though she was, she began to tire quickly. Nimue was quite young and this was only her second stint as a mercenary and she had neither the practice nor the magical reserves that older, more experienced mages develop over the course of generations.
Nimue and Nuada continued to press on and soon reached a point where there were no more creatures in front of them; yet behind them, a host of these hellions was in pursuit as quickly as their plant-like legs would move them. As the creatures ran through the tunnel en masse, the sound that accompanied them insulted the adventurers’ hearing and their sense of smell. The relatively close confines of the tunnel echoed and magnified the sensual sensations that Nuada and Nimue were being assaulted with as they continued to fight for their very lives. Nuada felt helpless as the host neared them as he knew that his skills and weapon were not up to the challenge of defeating them all. Nuada, instead of cleaving them, wisely decided to use his sword more like a mace by holding it on its blade and swinging its hilt to and fro. His hands bloodied by this effort, at least he was no longer generating multiple new creatures every time he swung his sword. Nimue too fought them off, casting her spells more slowly than before but even at that reduced rate, her efforts continued to drain her power. Nuada could see that her aura was weakening and she had little time before she would simply run out of magical energy. Nimue felt this as well. As they continued to move through the tunnel, a faint hope flickered as they saw another portal at the end of the Tunnel of Green Doom. Yet they would not reach it before they were overrun at their current pace. Nuada thought of simply picking up Nimue with his good arm and running for the exit but he knew that would be futile. The creatures would move much faster once Nimue stopped her casting.
As if she could read his mind Nimue turned to Nuada and the look in her eyes spoke volumes. She knew that they had but one chance; one of them must sacrifice their life to save the other. Before Nuada could even speak she told him that his sacrifice would be pointless, that she was near death herself, having used some of her life force to power her recent casting. Even if Nuada’s death could buy her time, she soon would be as helpless as a newborn Stormrider exposed to the storms. However, if she sacrificed her life, Nuada could continue on with their mission or at the least, escape. Nuada felt more than a touch of sadness at her words but he agreed, it was the only thing that they could do. He wanted to say something else, something poignant and heroic but before he could she simply said, “Run” and he did, turning back only when he reached the end of the tunnel.
Looking back he saw that Nimue had used the last of her magical energy to cover the tunnel near her in ice. As the creatures froze, slipped and slid around her she cursed those who were about to cause her death. With her words, she foreswore renewal in exchange for causing the destruction of all of them. This shocked Nuada for her death curse was the strongest he had ever witnessed. She gave up her life force in exchange for the power to kill these creatures. She was instantly transformed into a being of pure, cold energy. While her aura had been strong before, it was now blinding. Nuada had never felt this much power in his long life and for the second time, he felt fear. He had no reason to fear however; her power was directed at the monstrosities that still mobbed her, looking for what they presumed would be an easy kill. As the first one touched her it was instantly frozen and it collapsed at her feet, shattering into shards of ice that spread and touched every single creature, save Nuada, in the tunnel. Soon the tunnel became a winter’s tableau of icicles, frozen creatures and a powerful and brave woman standing in the middle of what had just been a chaotic scene. As the last of the creatures died Nimue turned to Nuada. She smiled at him. A small icy tear fell from her eye and as it touched the ground Nimue froze, joining the now eerily silent scene. Nuada was overwhelmed by regret as he walked through the tunnel’s exit.
As the door silently closed behind him, Nuada found himself standing in what could be referred to as an empty lea. His sense reeled again as he quickly realized that there were no blades of green grass in this field but small body parts, waving in a non-existent wind. The field had hills and valleys and these were also composed of body parts. As the sheer horridness of this place assaulted his senses, Nuada felt a strange presence in the air around him. It was a living being he was sure, though he couldn’t see or touch anything. He then heard peels of maniacal laughter. Was it coming from his own lips, or The Depths itself? He felt tendrils of thoughts creeping into his brain, trying to take control of his mind. In the distance he saw what looked like an open mouth and he ran toward it. As he ran the Cadaver Grass came alive, hands grabbed at him, legs tried to trip him and the steady stream of foreign thoughts in his head told him to lay down and rest and everything would be alright.
Nuada fought these thoughts and drew his sword to cut his way through the living nightmares that attacked him. Covered in black blood, guts and gore he ran up the other obstacle, the hill that was in the way of him and that beckoning mouth, realizing as he slipped down the opposite slope that the “hill” had been a woman’s breast! He was sliding down fast now and when he reached the mouth at the bottom he saw that it was indeed surrounded by a face, that of Nimue. His sanity beginning to crack, he stood there laughing uncontrollably as the grass began to pull him down into the ground. Rest, he thought, that would be good. Just a short nap. As he began to lay down he heard a familiar voice in his head, it was Nimue’s and it once again said one word, “run.” Trying desperately to shake off both the ennui and grabbing arms, Nuada rose slowly from the ground and leapt through the open mouth.
As the doppelganger of Nimue’s mouth snapped shut behind him, Nuada rolled on to what felt like the soft forest loam of his beloved homeland. As he stood up he saw a fire nearby, the light from which illuminated what appeared to be a strand of trees circling a great forge. As he approached the forge he felt uneasy. Was this another nightmare apparition in this ever-changing sea of horrors? Drawing close to the forge, he saw that what he thought were trees were actually gigantic, stout fingers. Pausing, he once again employed his Veilsight. Sure enough, the forge itself was alive! Moreover, it seemed hungry as if it was waiting to devour anyone who came too near. He drew his sword and called out to The Depths, daring it to do its worst. Anger flowed out from every pore and as he closed the remaining distance between himself and the forge, it flared with power. Tendrils, legs, and some hideous combination of living and dead flesh exploded out of the forge, and attacked Nuada. This was the fight that Nuada wanted, not wanted, needed and as he hacked off pieces of the creature, joy surged through his body. He was in his element now and he didn’t care what this creature was, he was going to destroy it utterly.
Their battle raged for hours, Nuada seemingly growing stronger, not weaker, with each passing moment, each sword thrust. He felt the power of the The Depths surround him and he embraced it, drawing on it, using it to attack the creature. At one point in the battle Nuada noticed that the fingers were slowly beginning to close around him like certain plants were known to do. This brought another smile to his face as he laughed at the creature and gracefully danced from finger to finger slicing it off at the base. As each digit fell he noticed once again that these creatures were not made solely of animal flesh but of some other substance. Nuada didn’t care, all he knew was that he was killing things again and that made him happy. As their titanic struggle continued, Nuada could sense another presence in this foul place. This presence was watching and judging him Nuada thought. “Well,” Nuada mused inwardly, “I should really give it something to watch!”
Nuada then summoned one of his many gifts and his attacks suddenly gained strength and his motions became so agile that he seemed to move more slowly when in actuality he was moving much faster. He was now the lead performer in a dance of death and he was the living embodiment of grace, strength and power. The forge-creature seemed to sense this change and tried retreating from Nuada but there was nowhere to go. As slowly as the battle unfolded matched the swiftness with which it ended. Nuada slipped through the remaining defenses of the creature and he struck his sword through the anvil’s top. With that blow the creature stopped fighting. As its brains and ichor flowed, Nuada screamed at it and the strange world that he had entered. After a few moments the creature lay still, though Nuada swore he heard clapping in the distance.
As Nuada sat and cleaned his sword he once again felt the presence of something around him but this time it felt oddly familiar. He then detected barely audible footsteps. In a few moments Nuada could make out a humanoid form slowly walking (or perhaps gliding) towards him. Nuada stood up, his sword in its familiar ready position, when the shadows seemed to part to reveal a semi-familiar face, that of the merchant who had recruited Nuada. Nuada was stunned at this sudden and most unexpected appearance and his first thought was that it was another apparition come to trick him.
“Stand where you are,” said Nuada, standing as a predator might just before making a kill, “Look at how I dealt with the last creature that tried to trick me.”
“Trick you, my friend? Not hardly. You have proven to be a most powerful warrior,” observed the merchant unctuously, “You are even better than I expected when I hired you.”
“What do you want from me?” said Nuada with more than a touch of anger in his words.
“Actually, I want nothing from you,” replied the merchant, “I just want you to get what your heart desires. A new arm; a repaired sword and other treasures that can help you reclaim your rightful place among your people.”
“No man gives away such things without expecting something in return,” said Nuada bitterly, “Why would you?”
“You have already given me much oh former king,” said the merchant, “First, you entertained me and that has rarely happened. Second, you have opened the way to this place and dealt with some of its worst horrors. Finally, you have given me the chance to use something that I have wanted for a long time, one of the forges here.”
“I see no real forge here!” replied Nuada, “That creature was false.”
“Yes but look carefully now at what remains of the creature,” said the merchant.
With that said, Nuada turned back to the creature and he saw that buried under all the body parts was a golden forge. Once again using his Veilsight he could see that this was indeed a forge and not some other creature disguised as a forge. Nuada nodded to the merchant.
“Now it is my turn. If you would please help me clear away this garbage I can begin my work,” said the merchant. Once again nodding his assent, Nuada helped the merchant clear the forge and the surrounding area. The merchant, using a fine magically-charged wand, then burned all the non-living flesh. Once that was done, he set about his work.
“Take some time to rest Nuada and then feel free to explore this place. You never know what you may find here,” said the merchant as he unpacked some bags that Nuada hadn’t noticed before, “Walk around but be prepared to fight and don’t stray far.”
Nuada began exploring the area around the forge and then expanded his search to other passageways, always making sure to mark his route in some manner. Sometimes he carved his initials into stone, flesh or other substances that he knew nothing of. Other times he left something on the ground to remind him. One time he lit a torch that was sitting in a wall sconce and the torch came alive and attacked him! Most of his burns were not serious, and they healed quickly. Nuada spent several days wandering through the nearby passages and while he had found a number of interesting artifacts, he had not uncovered anything particularly powerful or deadly. As his small supply of food was running out, Nuada returned to the forge to find the merchant gone but several items were waiting for him along with a note. The note said simply “For Nuada.” For some reason Nuada laughed at this and put no further thought to it.
The first item to catch his attention was a black obsidian sword like the one Bres 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. It was also different from the aura of Bres’ sword which was cold, this aura glowed bright red. Nuada went to pick up the sword and it was too heavy for him to lift with his left arm. No matter how hard he tried, he could barely lift the sword from its resting place on the forge. Angry and frustrated, Nuada tried again and again and as his anger grew it found he could lift it a little more but still not enough to use it as a weapon. Placing it 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. Set with an intricate and elegant filigree, it looked almost too good to be true. On the arm was a note that read “Touch me, if you dare.” A little taken back this this, Nuada did indeed touch the arm and much to his surprise nothing happen. He touched it again, picked it up in his left hand and still nothing happened. Once again he grew angry and as his anger increased the arm responded yet still not enough for anything else to happen. As his frustration neared the point of explosion, Nuada placed the golden arm back in its place and turned to the final treasure, a large wooden box.
While not particularly interesting to look at, the box had its own aura. On the box was a note that read “Eat me, if you are man enough.” His hand trembling, Nuada opened the box and inside it was a velvety blood red spider. Revolted, Nuada slammed the lid of the box shut, picked it up and was about to throw it into the fire and then stopped. It’s only a spider after all. Surely he had eaten worse, as a youth, on a dare. There was something strange about that spider though and after all, he was in The Depths. All manner of thoughts went through his head, Nimue, John, his people and after a brief reflection he put the box back down on the ground and sat beside it. He then opened the box, and grabbing the live spider that struggled to bite him, closed his eyes and ate it. He instantly regretted it. It made its way down his throat still alive, its prickly legs kicking as it made its way down into his stomach.
It was then that Nuada felt his anger rise again. He had been tricked by the merchant, betrayed by his own people and John and Nimue, well they had been fools. Nobody in the world truly cared about him. He was tired of it. As the spider continued moving around in his stomach, apparently still alive, he felt a surge of something else, power. “Yes,” he thought to himself, “Power is the key and I can get it. I’ll make that damned arm work, take the sword and kill Bres and I’ll make my people bleed to take me back.” He once again touched the arm and this time, it responded to him. It leapt from his hand and attached itself to his stump. Tendrils of gold emerged from one end and latched on to his shoulder. He could then feel his flesh merging with the arm, becoming one. He was able to move his fingers, the arm felt like his own arm. He went to pick up the sword and found he could heft it easily. As he swung it over his head he could feel the life within it calling out for more life, blood. He was as giddy as a child, the sword felt as light as a feather in his golden arm. As to the spider, he didn’t feel it any longer. He also realized that he suddenly knew how to leave The Depths. A hidden passage that would lead him to a tunnel which could get him back to his land faster than overland travel. He laughed allowed and thanked The Depths as he ran for the passage.
When he left The Depths it suddenly became silent. That is except for the sound of one merchant who, while tenderly caressing the newly budded green tendrils of the Golden Forge as they caressed him in turn, started to laugh.
Thus ends Part III.