For the next few months Nuada practiced daily with his new silver arm. At first, practice was very difficult and he endured numerous mockery-laden sessions with Miach. Though, with the gentle touch and support of the healer and his once-legendary dedication slowly returning, Nuada made steady progress. When he was truly convinced that this arm wasn’t evil and wouldn’t just fall off, Nuada began pushing himself like he did in his younger days. He noticed that his reflexes, speed and power weren’t quite what they once were; yet he was still a fearsome sight to behold, even in practice. When Nuada was sparring with other warriors, they all seemed to be moving and reacting slower than him in every way. His opponents may have fought well but Nuada’s actions literally flowed from one to another as if this was all some part of a rhythmic dance ritual. Nuada seemed once again to be a being born of battle and not just one who excels at it due to constant practice. Each swing, block and parry seemed effortless and his silver arm moved as comfortably as did his arm of flesh. After three full pass-bys of the moons, Miach declared that Nuada was indeed ready to reemerge into the world.
As much as Nuada wanted to go back to The Depths, he knew he had other priorities as well. Over the next few years Nuada, Miach and the healer traveled the lands of the Tuatha Dé Danann searching for the scattered children of Danu. While they were at the head of an army, it was not one of conquest but rather, of restoration. Where they found their people oppressed, they restored the balance. Where they found need and want, they shared what resources they had. Where they found prosperity, they took what they needed, not in resources, but in knowledge. As they traveled, their army grew in number. Many Tuatha Dé Danann rallied to their banners and to the great golden armor that Miach mysteriously found time to craft while on the march. Everywhere they went they searched for word of Bres but none could say where he had taken refuge. They explored every rumor, hint or telltale sign and they covered vast swathes of territory but it was as if he had vanished from this land. They sent riders to the One True City and to the other capitals of the world but even after that, no sign of Bres or the treasures of their people could be unearthed. While Nuada and his ragtag army were succeeding in restoring the land, Nuada was beginning to become frustrated by Bres’s continued ability to remain hidden from him. On one particular frosty summer night Nuada sat by a roaring campfire, Miach and the healer by his side as always.
“You look particularly troubled tonight Nuada,” said Miach, “Cait Sith got your tongue?”
Nuada, being a bit inured to the crafter’s particularly annoying sense of humor, didn’t take the bait, at least not right away. Though the image of one rumored ways 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.”
“Why you annoying, rock-brained…”, said Nuada angrily, his old hair-trigger temper making a brief but triumphant return, “Wait. I’m sorry Miach, truly I am. Bres’s ability to hide from us is starting to get to me.”
“Starting? You’ve been stomping around for the last few months,” said Miach, “Some of my relatives in UnderHome can probably hear you.”
“Has it been that bad?” said Nuada who looked to the healer for 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 to complete no matter how long it takes to do so. Miach and I are here to help but it is up to you to determine the outcome,” said the healer without reproach.
“I know. Every attempt I make to find him fails. I’ve sent out enough riders to even find a tiny Luchorpán in a great forest but I can’t find that one damned soul,” said a visibly flustered Nuada.
Expecting a retort of some kind, Nuada was surprised that his friends said nothing to him in return. This puzzled him. It continued to puzzle him as he stomped off to his tent to spend the rest of the night honing his skill at fuming to a fine edge.
Before the phase of the moons known as Shadow’s Delight had passed, Nuada woke up suddenly. Not even bothering to put on his clothing, he ran out of the tent and into that of the healer whom, he was surprised to see, was apparently waiting for him.
“Curse me for a youngling,” said Nuada, “I know exactly where Bres is hiding.”
Nonplussed by Nuada’s nudity, the Hamadryad merely raised one eyebrow at him.
“That abomination is hiding in the only place he could hide,” said Nuada.
“And that is where?” questioned the healer.
“The Depths!” said Nuada triumphantly.
“Took you long enough to figure that out,” said the healer rather dryly.
“Wait? You already knew that?” said Nuada.
“Yes. Now go put on your pants for not everyone will be happy to see you so…excited. Raise the army and let’s get going, we’ve wasted enough time already,” she said.
Confused, happy, surprised and yes, excited, Nuada ran back to his tent, put on his pants and raised the siren’s call to his troops. Once assembled they began the long march to the last known entrance point to The Depths.
The trip was supposed to take weeks but it was one full year before Nuada arrived at a different entrance to The Depths as the one he’d formerly used had moved in his absence. During this time he had released most of the army to go back to their homes while he and 11 supporters searched for where the current entrance to The Depths was hiding. Their journey was a difficult one, which is chronicled, in another tale. This time the entrance was not near a lake but encased in a green hill in the land of the Arthurians. Fitting, Nuada thought to himself, that he should return to The Depths while in the land of Nimue. His thoughts then wandered to her, not unpleasantly and he hoped that he would not find her there or if he did, that she would be dead. Anything else was too terrible to contemplate.
Standing once again before the monolith, Nuada turned to the healer.
“I suppose this is when you tell me of my destiny and how I must venture in there alone. Correct?” said Nuada.
“I can certainly say that if you wish but I was thinking that it would be better if we all go in together,” she said, “But if you want to play the role of legendary…”
“Cannon fodder,” interrupted Miach.
“…hero. We will wait outside for you. I have no great desire to visit there again,” said the healer.
“Again? You’ve been there before?” said Nuada.
She waved her hand dismissively and from past experience, Nuada knew that this was not something she was going to talk about with him, especially not now. There were many things in her life that were similarly not to be talked about.
“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 turns out such interesting…eh, I mean, vile things!” said Miach.
With a collective sigh, this tired and dirty dozen, heroes and heroines alike, marched into the monolith and into The Depths.
The monolith led to a different entranceway to The Depths itself than the last time Nuada was here. After a brief bit of disorientation, the team found itself standing before a glossy, black set of doors that were inlaid with depictions of women in various states of torture. The acts that were depicted were unspeakably vile and even the healer found herself taken aback by what she saw. All who stood before the door were jolted, revolted and enraged by the images in front of them; none more so than Nuada, who realized that each of these women resembled Nimue. What made matters even worse was that when they approached the door, it seemed to come alive with each of the women moving and writhing in pain and suffering. None could bear to touch the door and when Nuada tried, when he came almost close enough to touch it, each of the women moaned one word in pain, “Nuada.” Upon hearing that, the group turned to Nuada.
“What happened here?” said Miach, “What did you do to her?”
“Nothing! We were fighting our way out of her and she sacrificed her life to save mine when she was close to death,” Nuada said angrily, “She left me no choice. She forced me to leave her.”
“Forced? How? Big, brave Tuatha was forced to leave by a naked, magically exhausted woman?” said Miach.
“She wasn’t naked at the time. And yes, she sacrificed her life for mine and I’ve thought about that sacrifice every damned day of my damned life. I wanted to go back for her but I couldn’t,” he said.
“Couldn’t or wouldn’t Nuada,” said the healer gently.
“Could…No, wouldn’t. She did plead for me to leave but I could have said no or I could have come back here, before now. No, I should have come back before now! Instead of raising the army and marching back to our capitol I should have stormed this accursed place,” said Nuada.
As Nuada approached the door, this time he stopped and went down on his knees. Reacting to it, each of the faux-Nimue stopped their moaning and turned to stare at Nuada.
“Forgive me Nimue. I should have come back sooner. And if you can’t forgive me, take my life and let my companions do what they must do. I implore you,” he said.
When Nuada finished the writhing and moaning on the door ceased. Nuada rose and gently pushed the doors open. Like last time, they moved silently across the stone floor.
One thing certain about The Depths, is that nothing is certain about them, Nuada thought to himself. Although, as he looked around he noted that there were actually similarities to his prior visit. All around him life was merged with death, an incredible and frightening tableau of horror. The walls, floor and ceiling were blood red and strewn about were what looked like pieces of formerly living creatures that had been dismembered and scattered. Heads were sticking out of walls in a grotesque parody of the way trophies of their kills are kept by some hunters. A number of walls seemed to be a jigsaw puzzle of body parts that you could put together to form a whole being. Another strange thing about the room was that it seemed to expand slightly and contract in a rhythmic pattern. At first Nuada thought that they might be within the stomach of some gigantic creature but he knew better than that. As they walked through the room the cycle of breathing (for what else could they call it?), suddenly stopped.
“I don’t think this is a good sign. Keep moving,” said Nuada.
“I agree,” said Miach, “As one of our sheepherders would say, let’s get the flock out of here.”
Quickening their pace the companions actually ran through the chamber, following a path that was barely visible under the blood and ichor that covered it. As they approached the far end of the chamber, the breathing started again and when it did, the ceiling opened and a tidal wave of blood and guts fell from above. Covered now in gore, the companions weren’t sure whether to laugh or to be disgusted until they noticed that in the blood were creatures that resembled leeches but were much larger. As they hurriedly plucked the creatures off, they noticed that they had barbed teeth and each creature took with it a chunk of flesh! Ignoring the pain and horror, all but two of the companions removed the foul creatures. Those two who didn’t, found that the creatures had another surprise for them. Unlike normal leeches, these weren’t solely interested in blood; their interest was in spawning. They were implanting eggs in their victims. As they did so, the leeches shrank in size, their hideous larvae laid into the unlucky companions. Before everyone realized what was happening, the two found their bodies being devoured from the inside as the hungry larvae chewed through them. Within moments they were devoured, with only bits and pieces of them contained in their armor. Now sated, these creatures fell to the floor, fat and content, posing no further threat to the companions as they fled the room.
Fleeing that terrible scene, Nuada realized that he was once again standing at the same anvil that he had seen long ago. Miach was excited by this and hurried over to it, eager to test his theories. Before Nuada could even shout out a warning, Miach was at the anvil’s base, inspecting it from all angles. Fortunately, this time there was no creature laying in wait for them. Happily 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,” said Miach, giving the hunk of metal a hearty slap.
“We need to move on,” said Nuada, “We’ll come back after we do what we came here to do.”
“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,” said Miach.
“I suppose you’re right,” said Nuada.
“Good. I’ll ask the other Dvergr to stay with me. He’s got a nice red shield I can work on,” said Miach.
As Nuada, and what remained of his companions, continued down the path he turned back to look at Miach, hoping that this wouldn’t be the last time he saw the maddening Dvergr.
“Miach,” said Nuada as Miach turned back to face him, “Stay safe.”
“Aww. Such a sweet boy,” said Miach in his mocking way, “You too.”
Leaving the forge and the Dvergrs behind them, Nuada continued down a narrow path that overlooked what could be best described as a giant open mouth surrounded by a row of nasty looking teeth. Not wanting to think about what would happen if anyone fell into that mouth, Nuada once again quickened the pace. About halfway across the mouth, the path suddenly widened and the stone floor was covered in a soft, purple carpet. As they continued to walk, in the distance they could see an enormous golden throne. Nearing the throne, they could see that it was Bres who sat upon it.
Upon seeing Bres, Nuada felt an overwhelming and deep anger rising within him. Drawing his sword, he rushed the throne, oblivious to the warning shouts from his companions and his own inner voice. As he approached, Nuada was overcome with thoughts of the losses and pain Bres had caused him to suffer. Thoughts of Nimue, John, Tír na nÓg, his arm and of Balor all flooded his brain. Wildly swinging his sword as he ran he prepared for a death stroke when he noticed that Bres hadn’t reacted to what was happening around him. Nobody could be that calm so close to death, thought Nuada! Stopping just before the throne, Nuada raised his sword, his arm trembling slightly with excitement and placed it at the side of Bres’ neck, lining up the killing blow.
“For all the deaths you caused, it’s your time now,” said Nuada.
Still there was no reaction from Bres.
“Say something,” said a visibly frustrated Nuada, still holding his sword aloft.
“Nuada, he can’t,” said the healer who had just reached him.
“Is he dead?” said Nuada.
“No. He is alive. Look at the forefinger on his right hand,” said the healer.
At first, Nuada could see nothing but after almost a minute, Nuada could see Bres’s finger move almost imperceptibly.
“What is going on here?” said Nuada.
“I sense that Bres is here but isn’t,” said the healer, “He’s in his own place within this place as well. A different bubble of existence as it were.”
“I have no idea of what you are talking about,” said Nuada, confusedly.
“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, “I am very unsure about all of this.”
“Then let me clear up your confusion,” said a voice far too familiar to Nuada for his own comfort.
Turning towards the sound of the voice, the companions saw the figure that Nuada had called the merchant walking towards them from a hidden path behind the throne. Seeing the merchant, Nuada’s blood ran hot and he wanted, no needed, to kill something, anything.
“Now Nuada, calm down. I know you must have dreamt about killing me for many years and even now you imagine my death but hear me out. I can explain everything. I can even show you where your friends John and Nimue are and yes, before you ask, they are alive and doing quite well,” said the merchant.
“Hear him out,” said the healer gently.
“Thank you. First, you were right, Bres is in a different time. He had come here asking for help in making his truest wish come true, to sit forever upon the throne of the Tuatha Dé Danann. And that is what he is doing now. For as long as this world survives, Bres will sit upon this throne,” said the merchant.
“Monstrous!” said Nuada.
“Not at all. Bres made his wish clear to me and we made this happen. The same thing applies to you Nuada. We simply carried out your wishes,” countered the merchant.
“I never said I wanted a damned spider arm! That disgusting thing sucked my own life from me!” said Nuada.
“That’s true but then again, you never said you cared how your goals were met either. 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 it and therefore, to us,” said the merchant.
“We?” said the healer.
“Of course. The Depths is a ‘we’ not an ‘I’,” said the merchant, “Bres is now part of us just as Nuada was for a little while. The power that the sword drew from its food was put to good use here. We are doing so well now.”
Not knowing how to react to the merchant’s words, the companions simply stood there and stared at the merchant-creature that stood in front of them.
“Good, nothing to say. Let’s move on, I want to reunite Nuada with his brave friends, they are just down this path,” said the merchant who immediately began a slow walk down the path behind the 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.”
As they continued down the path they came to a room that seemed to emanate both cold and warmth simultaneously. The door to this room, unlike the others that they had seen, was plain and unadorned. As the merchant casually walked up to it, the door opened, rising from the bottom to the top, soundlessly as always. Everyone entered the dark room and were immediately overwhelmed by the sense of wrongness here. The room smelled musky but also somehow mechanical. It was not a pleasant combination.
“Illuminate!” said the merchant.
Immediately a bright white light filled the room, temporarily blinding the companions. Other creatures in the room were equally not amused by this action as there were screams of pain that would have not been misplaced in a nursery. As his eyes recovered, Nuada saw that the merchant was right about John and Nimue, they were indeed alive! However, both of them would have preferred otherwise for each was spread-eagled, naked, and mounted upon a three-pointed star. They had monstrous, living tubes in their mouths and they were secured to the star by living creatures whose embrace caused John and Nimue to sigh with pain. John’s skin was covered with what looked like pustules that expanded and contracted. To Nuada’s horror, one of those pustules broke open and a small creature, part Dvergr, part abomination, fell to the ground with a thud. The creature reacted as any newborn might and cried, a horrific sound that would haunt those who heard it forever. The merchant walked up to the baby, took it in his arms and rocked it as gently as a mother would her child.
“See how cute this little fellow is?” said the merchant, “He’ll make a fine addition to our home.”
Thunderstruck, the companions also noticed that Nimue was also giving birth, though in the way of most females of this world. Her swollen belly began to contract as she experienced the pain of giving birth. This baby was immediately sucked out of her womb and into what looked like another living tube that was attached to her body. As soon as the baby was ejected, she began to swell again as if pregnant. Nuada couldn’t take any more and he charged at the merchant.
“Oh dear, are you upset?” said the merchant, “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 her, I thought it would be fun to combine you three. Wouldn’t you like that?”
As the last word fell from the merchant’s lips, Nuada swung his sword and neatly separated the merchant’s head from his body.
“No, I wouldn’t,” said Nuada as the merchant’s head fell to the ground followed quickly by the body. The newborn creature the merchant carried bounced upon the ground and then ran off to places unknown, “Now, let’s free them and leave this terrible place.”
At his words the companions walked towards the birthing place of John and Nimue.
“You really didn’t think it would be that easy, did you?” said the merchant.
At that everybody turned around to see that the merchant was standing up again, a new head emerging from his body.
“After all, this isn’t a fairy tale or some folk story,” said the merchant, shaking his newly re-formed head, “This is our world and you are fools for returning here but we thank you for doing so. For those that survive, we will have countless decades to get to know each other. I’m so glad you brought your friends Nuada, there are a lot of interesting combinations here for us to play with here.”
At that the merchant snapped his fingers and the room was suddenly filled with older versions of the creatures whose births they had just seen.
“Try to keep them alive my darlings,” said the merchant to the creatures, “Especially the tall stupid one.” So began the battle between the living horrors and Nuada and his companions.
Thus ends Part VI.