Published January 8th, 2014: Source
Walking alone through the deserted capital city of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Nuada felt his anger almost devouring him from within. He had ordered his troops to stay outside the city’s walls and claimed he would kill any who sought to despoil what was left of the city. Seeing the desolation here, for which he bore more than a fair portion of responsibility, was almost too much for him to bear. The city was not just empty; it was devoid of any sign of life. The ubiquitous vermin that have plagued cities for centuries untold were missing from the streets, as were their insect counterparts. The vaunted Watch Towers stood silent and empty, as even their watchers had abandoned them, a crime punishable by exile and or death in the harsh code of the Tuatha Dé Danann. While corpses did not litter the streets as he expected, the few he saw at first were enough to quickly drive him into a near frenzy. He felt his blood literally boiling. This time though he knew that it was the influence of his spider’s arm and the obsidian sword that were amplifying his anger and fueling his desire to wreak a terrible vengeance upon Bres and others. The Hamadryad (he still had forgotten to ask her name) explained to him that while those foul creations didn’t make his thoughts evil, they focused any dark emotion as a magnifying glass could focus the beams of the sun. They concentrated it, honed it to a point where it blocked out any other emotions. Now freed of some of the spells he was under, he could feel the evil intent of all his treasures as a cold fire that ran through his body. No wonder the Hamadryad could see this darkness in him! It must be obvious to anyone who could see into another realm and beyond the mere physical plane.
As he neared the city’s main public space, he saw warning signs and graffiti dotting the thoroughfares. There were references to Balor, to himself and to Bres. Some were rather obscene in nature and as he came ever closer to the main circle, he saw increasingly disturbing signs that he was entering a place where multiple battles had been waged. There were charred corpses of warriors, mages, healers and archers in the street. The strange part was that all of them appeared to be cut in half and then burned. Judging by the dust and other detritus around them, the bodies, armor and weapons had laid here long undisturbed, as if nothing dared to touch them. While the sight of this alone would have been terrifying for most sentient beings, for Nuada it was just another debt that he owed to Bres, Balor and to his people. With each step through the ruins he promised that one day he would repay that debt, no matter the cost to himself. As Nuada turned left onto a street that was fittingly named after one of the first wielders of fire magic in the land, he saw that someone had erected a barricade made out of whatever was at hand, including the charred bodies of Tuatha Dé Danann soldiers. He came to a sudden stop and beheld a slightly familiar sight in the distance, that of the statue of Balor. However, unlike the last time he beheld the statue, it had grown in size, his head topping the buildings around him, his one eye firmly shut. His stone skin was smooth and grey and he looked like a creature covered in skin-tight stone armor, with his body’s joints barely visible. Nuada stood at the barricade for several minutes, assessing both the change in his city and of Balor when he felt a familiar touch upon his shoulders.
“I thought I’d find you here,” said the Hamadryad, “It is a terrible thing that was wrought here Nuada.”
“Yes. It was all my fault wasn’t it?” said Nuada, “I was so damned sure of myself back then. I rushed in battle unthinkingly, as a young fool not as a true leader. When I lost to Bres, I was as quick to desert my people.”
“If you are looking for me to help heal your body, that I can do,” said the Hamadryad, “Your guilt is a burden you have to heal yourself. I can tell you this much, among honest souls rarely are a person’s deeds as good or bad as they are in their own mind.”
“That is comforting,” said Nuada.
“However, in your case, your arrogance cost your people much,” she said, “But, it is not too late for you and our people to rise from the rubble once again.”
“I understand. What should I do next? I’m lost…”
“Look within yourself Nuada and decide how best to serve your people and yourself. I have walked these lands for far too many years to encourage self-pity, even among those hardest hit by tragedy. This world is as much under siege as is our realm. Those that are strong enough to help must do so or we will all perish.”
“I see. These bodies are strangely scarred by the battles that took place here. Let’s start at what happened here in my absence.”
“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 was awaiting them. As they neared the statue, its eye opened and a beam of black light emerged. This beam sliced through the people, cutting them cleanly in two, as a skilled butcher would slice a slab of meat from its source. As their bodies fell to the ground, they caught fire and burned.”
“How is such a thing possible? Our mages can summon powerful spells but a beam like that would be beyond them, at least when I left our lands.”
“Magic has advanced much in your absence but even still, our scholars studied the bodies and could not come up with an explanation for such power. Over the next few years many different assaults were launched against Balor and none succeeded. Death then took a mighty toll on our people Nuada and we learned only one thing. 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?” said Nuada more than a little bit puzzled by not only the power of Balor but also this strange behavior.
“As long as a being poses no threat to him, Balor simply watches. It seems that he studies us as we study him.”
“Have any tried to talk to him?”
“Yes and he doesn’t react in any way. He simply watches and, when this city was still inhabited, he slowly drained the life force of those creatures that remained within the city. Those were very dark days within the city but when we realized what was really going on, the few that survived fled the city. Now that everybody with an ounce of wisdom has left, his life-sucking tendrils have been retracted.”
“This I must see for myself,” said Nuada with a little bit of the old bravado returning to his voice.
“I was hoping you would say that. Be forewarned though, any threat from you will awaken him.”
Nuada stripped off his armor and placed the obsidian sword on top of the pile but he found that letting go of it was becoming ever more difficult. Stripped down to his cloth undergarments, the former king of the Tuatha Dé Danann felt truly naked as he climbed over the barricade and made his way slowly towards the resting place of Balor. As if he crossed an invisible line, the energy in the area began to flow toward Balor as though being sucked in by a whirlpool of standing granite. Nuada continued to walk forward as Balor began to stir and slowly, inexorably, the eye opened and shifted its focus to Nuada. For a brief moment, Nuada’s right arm tingled and he felt a connection to the statue but that quickly faded as Nuada continued his approach. Fighting back the first risings of fear that Nuada had felt since he left The Depths, he stood before the statue and eyed it as surely as Balor was eyeing him in return. Reaching out with all his senses he knew that Balor was more than a mere statue but no matter how hard he tried, he could not connect with the intelligence inside it. He then tried to communicate verbally with it, speaking in any language he knew, whether from the world’s past or present but still there was no response from Balor.
Standing before the statue Nuada wondered if he should just end this charade and attack the statue. While he knew it would be futile, at least his suffering would end quickly. Stripped of any vestments and objects of power, Nuada would be no challenge for Balor’s raw power. He would die a hero and the tale of his bravery would unite his people and they, not he, would bring about victory. Yes, that is what he must do; die. As Nuada began to lift his arms in preparation for an attack, a stray thought crossed the intertwined lines of both anger and despair in his brain. No, this is a coward’s way out. True, death would be quick but what mattered now was not the quickness of his death but its true meaning. Dying here would be no different than when he deserted his people before, this time though it would be permanent. He wouldn’t give in this time to these emotions. He might not be able to defeat Balor now but he swore that no matter the price, he would pay the butcher’s bill to restore his people. His mind firmly set upon a new path, Nuada made his way back to the Hamadryad (he must ask her name, he must!). As he once again crossed an unseen line Balor’s eye closed but this time it lingered on Nuada just a little longer than it did the first time.
“I see you have returned intact,” said the Hamadryad, a small smile curving her lips.
“Yes… but I almost didn’t,” said Nuada flatly.
“I know. Your thoughts were as evident to me as Balor’s eye,” she said, Nuada’s right eyebrow lifting in response, “I have seen you at your best and worst and I did not need to read your mind to know what you were thinking. Part of being a healer is the ability to read people’s symptoms; it is not just magic, as some believe. When you left me you were a man whose faith was shattered. Your life was without purpose and meaning. When you walked back, your stride was confident and your eyes glowed once again with true purpose. So, unless a new spell was cast on you, I can only assume that you came to an understanding with yourself out there. Am I correct?”
“Yes, you are correct. I know what I must do now,” said Nuada.
“And what is that?”
“I must rid myself of this accursed arm, sword and other tainted treasures from The Depths and then I must confront and defeat Bres and regain our treasures,” said Nuada as confidently as if he was simply listing a number of household errands that needed to be done.
“Is that all?” said the Hamadryad.
“It is for now,” said Nuada.
“Excellent. I can help you with that. Return to what remains of your army and wait for me, I have a few tasks to take care of and I will then return to you,” she said.
“I will do as you ask,” said Nuada as he put his armor back on and as much as he hated to do so, took back the sword.
As the Hamadryad walked off through the city Nuada realized that he once again forgot to ask her name.
Nuada waited patiently at the outskirts of the capital city of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Much of his army had already melted into the countryside when they found that they were not going to be allowed to strip the city of whatever riches it had left, though some loyal Tuatha Dé Danann remained with Nuada. During this time Nuada steeled himself for his coming trials knowing that they would not be easy to accomplish even if he was made whole again. He refused to take up the obsidian sword except when necessary and each time he did so he felt almost dirty for doing so. When almost a year had passed, a familiar figure rode into town accompanied by a young crafter. 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, not in healing. Nuada clasped her hands warmly, as if 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?” said the Hamadryad playfully.
“No, I did not. How could you resist the opportunity to patch me up again?” said Nuada, the Hamadryad laughing in response, “And I see you have brought another to join us. Who are you young sir?”
As the crafter drew closer, he saw that the crafter was a Dvergr.
“Greeting Nuada. My proper name is too long for even you to say but I am known as Miach, son of Dian The Smith. I suspect I am also older than you,” said the Dvergr, “I’ve been told that you have been to The Depths and have returned greatly changed and bearing powerful artifacts from that place.”
“Yes to all that you say. My arm is that of a spider, my sword is forged of some strange metal and there are some other treasures which I dare not touch,” said Nuada.
“Well, I could remove your arm quite easily but I’ll leave that task to one who will do so with less pain. I do want to study your sword as well as the other treasures,” said Miach, “Give me the sword and the treasures and show me where the nearest crafter guild is in this barren city and I will be about my work. When I learn their true nature we will talk again.”
Nuada ordered the other treasures to be brought to Miach but as he tried to hand the crafter the sword, he found it difficult to let go.
“You must let go of the sword 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 holding it,” said Miach, “but if you insist, I’ll be happy to try, that might be fun for me!”
Try as he must Nuada found that he could not let go of the sword and that the anger that he had kept in check for the past year was returning.
“Nuada. Think about what you said to me when last we stood here together,” said the Hamadryad gently.
As Nuada thought about her words, the anger slowly left him and he found he could now let go, albeit reluctantly, of the sword.
“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. You have my sympathy Nuada. What you are about to go through might make you wish you had not let go of the sword.”
These words echoed deeply in Nuada’s soul and he could feel his right arm tingling as if in response. He looked plaintively at the healer and words began to form on his slightly trembling lips.
“Before you say anything Nuada, remember how I feel about self-pity,” she said to which Nuada quickly commanded his lips to stop moving, “Now that’s a good king. Let’s go remove that accursed arm of yours. Your tent will do nicely.”
Nuada and the healer walked off to his tent. As he opened the flap for her, he felt her familiar touch on his shoulder. Though no words were exchanged, they both understood the significance of the gesture and Nuada was reassured.
Nobody but Nuada and the healer knew what happened that night other than the dawn was far too slow in coming and the now normally quiet city was filled with screams of pain from Nuada and surprisingly, of a battle. As dawn’s first light finally made its way across the horizon, the healer emerged covered in blood and ichor. In her hands she carried the spidery phantasm of Nuada’s arm that still twitched as if alive. Walking to camp’s main fire, she threw it angrily into the fire and uttered a quick spell or prayer after the arm felt heat from the flames. After a few minutes of burning and one or two escape attempts, the arm stopped moving and was 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 to leave the tent on his own but by the time he did he looked like one who has come through a crucible of suffering and emerged stronger for it. Even without an arm he seemed more like the old Nuada but without the folly of overconfidence and youth. For you see, the Nuada who now stood before his people had aged but was not frail or weak. He was one whose eyes reflected his purpose as surely as his sword arm once reflected his love for battle. One 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!” he said.
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 who raised an eyebrow apparently mocking Nuada, “Never mind.”
Upon entering Miach’s tent, Nuada was surprised that it didn’t look anything like he expected. There was no littering of the living space with tools of his trade and life. Rather, everything was neatly arranged with only a few things giving a hint as to Miach’s profession. In the middle of the tent on a great stone table that had literally been raised from the earth itself, sat three items, the obsidian black sword, his old sword and a silver arm. Nuada was overjoyed at the sight and as much as his anger used to overwhelm him, this time his heart and mind were filled with joy.
“How did you… What are… I…” said Nuada, these few words leaving his lips barely formed.
“You are quite eloquent when you want to be 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.
“Yes I can sir Dvergr. My cup overflows with joy at seeing this magnificent handiwork of yours! You are truly a master craftsman. A Dvergr without peer,” said Nuada to Miach, who accepted this compliment as his due.
“An amazing Dvergr, a powerful Dvergr. I could see that the first time you came in our camp,” continued Nuada.
“Thank you!” said Miach.
“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,” continued Nuada, a sly smile crossing his face.
“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 so. I will try to contact the Emissaries and tell them of your prowess, of your greatness of your…” said Nuada, barely keeping laughter from taking over. Meanwhile the healer understood the joke and smiled as well.
“Well…” said Miach.
“They will want to take you into their world to share the secrets of your abilities…” said Nuada.
“Enough!” said Miach angrily, “Stop! For the love of the Allfather, stop!”
At this, both the healer and Nuada lost whatever self-control they had and couldn’t stop laughing. Miach, realizing that he was victim of a sense of humor that he didn’t realize Nuada possessed, turned red and even some of the stones in his arms seemed to light up as well.
“Well done!” said Miach, “You stung me nicely!” said Miach, also now joining the laughter with his own, “Let me show you what she and I have been up to these past few months.”
Nuada, while a bit smug with satisfaction at having bested the master crafter, sat on a very uncomfortable stone chair next to the table that had obviously been left there for him.
“First, I re-forged your sword from the pieces you had been lugging around,” said Miach as if that were a simple feat 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 delicately but a bit unsteadily from the chair, for he still was not fully recovered and picked up his sword. It felt wrong in his left hand, but he still remembered the feel of it and it was good. He then 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 try to poison your soul. The silver in the metal has been treated with powerful spells by our friendly healer and she assures me that it will bond nicely with your body. Once this is done it may feel a little different than your natural arm but it will perform even better once you train it.”
“Train it?” said Nuada, “Is it alive?”
“Not really but you need to practice with it a while before you go out into the world and use it in combat,” said Miach.
“How long will that take?” questioned Nuada.
“Fifteen years,” said Miach, “Fourteen and a half if I cut some corners!”
“What?” said a quickly exasperate Nuada.
“Got you!” said Miach, “Never go against a Dvergr when humor is on the line!”
“Oh,” said 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 either I or she tells you to rest.”
“I agree. I’ll do as you ask,” said Nuada.
“Good. Now here’s what was truly challenging. This damned sword of yours,” said Miach, all levity being cast aside, “It was a truly evil piece of work.”
“How so?” said Nuada.
“Whoever made this sword 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,” said Miach with a chill in his voice.
“Feed it where? Asked Nuada.
“Can you not guess?” said the healer.
“The Depths!” said Nuada.
“Correct,” said Miach, “While you were using this sword, its foul gathering was being passed into The Depths. It is why you aged and why you were so weak at the end. “
“I didn’t feel weak?” questioned Nuada.
“No, that was part of its evil. You would have felt strong up to the time that your entire soul was drained and then you would have died. An empty shell of a body with no soul inside,” said Miach.
A shudder of horror went through Nuada as he realized how close he had come to true death and of the crime that was 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 should we do about that weapon?”
“Nothing,” said Miach, “I have rendered it harmless. I will study it some more and try to unlock some additional secrets from it but it will never harm anyone again, that much I promise.”
“That is 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 what I need to do to undo the damage that I have done.”
And they began their work. And when she was sure that neither Miach nor Nuada could see her, the Hamadryad smiled.
But deep within The Depths, the merchant was no longer laughing…
Thus ends Part V.