Standing in the birthing room, surrounded by creatures that would give a nightmare, nightmares, Nuada was sure about one thing, he was not going to let anybody down again. Staring at the merchant, Nuada’s gaze pierced what passed for the merchant’s soul as deeply as the Spear of Victory, one of the four treasures that Nuada came here to reclaim, could pierce flesh. Within those soulless eyes, Nuada saw for the first time a flicker of hesitation as a tiny glimmer of doubt crossed the merchant’s face. It wasn’t much, yet it was enough to signal to Nuada that he and his companions had a fighter’s chance of surviving this inescapable encounter. Nuada didn’t care if he survived, so long this horrific place could be purged. Perhaps his death could ensure that his companions would emerge victorious.
Nuada, sensing that the time was right, leapt across the distance between himself and the merchant, his face contorted by a near-primal scream. The merchant’s surprise was plain and Nuada’s own expression spoke of a soul-rending pain. Landing a few feet in front of the merchant, Nuada’s sword easily cut through the young horrors who were protecting the merchant as if he was their mother. The merchant, nonplussed by Nuada’s skill, merely smiled and raised his arms toward Nuada. His hands transformed into grotesque tentacles and shot out to entangle Nuada’s silver arm, seeking to wrench it from its socket. Miach had done his work well, for no matter how vigorously the merchant pulled, the arm stayed firmly attached. As they battled, Nuada’s companions were similarly engaged, fighting not only for their lives, but also for their very souls.
As Nuada had suspected, the Hamadryad was more than a skilled healer, she was a veteran of many journeys to the StormLands and a victor in countless battles with abominations. Her staff whipped through the air as expertly as did Nuada’s sword as she clove the skulls of those creatures foolish enough to rise against her. She had a rather unpleasant surprise in store for those clever enough to sneak up behind her; her tail. The first creature that thought it had lined her up for the kill learned that a Hamadryad’s tail could be quite a potent weapon. As the horror sought to strike her unprotected back, her tail rose up like a cobra, swaying back and forth in front of the horror. The thing, mesmerized by her tail’s motions, simply stood there cooing to itself in a direful tone. Before the foul creature 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. It appeared that these creatures possessed some degree of higher cognitive function; that troubled the healer greatly.
Some of the other companions also found themselves besting these creatures. The HelBound woman had flung off her mask and was summoning the immense power of her ancestors to heighten the horror of her own visage. Up close she was as dangerous as any of them, she was literally scaring creatures to death. Wielding her dual-headed staff, she brought death to abominations while feeding life to her companions. For her, the battle was a mixture of joy, ecstasy and death. Her wild laughter echoed within the halls. This terrified the enemy and boosted the morale of her fellow travellers. Nuada heard her laughter and added his own; though at present the merchant still had the upper hand. The chamber continued to fill with unimaginable abominations. Many of them looked liked older versions of the freshly birthed creatures; others were made from parts of multiple races of this world. There were mind-bending combinations of male and female organs, teeth, feathers, claws and tentacles, lots of tentacles, present in this living, breathing nightmare of a room.
The Gargoyle mage proved to be a problem for the creatures as well. His fiery magic easily seared the skin of these horrors. They burned rapidly and their screams of pain lent some reassurance to the company. When enemies got too close to the Gargoyle, he transformed his skin, though only over the afflicted part of his body. He would transform just after they bit him, thus trapping the creatures. Attached to his skin they were unable to do anything except serve as targets for others of their kind. Unfortunately, his power was beginning to run out, despite his having been quite judicious in its use.
Not all of the companions fared so well. Already three of them were downed and unmoving. The first was a Stormrider fighter who had stripped off his armor and dared the creatures to attack him. Sadly, they did so in numbers that he couldn’t fight off and he was soon completely covered with them. Their combined weight brought him to his knees but still he fought on, his scars visibly lighting up with his efforts. Notwithstanding his encumbrance, he seemed almost able to ignore his physical injuries. When he lost his right arm, he simply switched his weapon to his left. His will was indomitable, yet he was mortal and eventually his body gave out.
Across the room a pair of Luchopans was fighting back-to-back trying to hold back the tidal wave of creatures that was threatening to engulf them. They weren’t great fighters, yet they had an almost limitless “bag o’tricks” to distract, delay and damage the creatures. At one point they maneuvered themselves behind a pool of acid and taunted the horrors to come at them. They waited until the creatures rushed them, and then vanished. Dozens of abominations ran headfirst into the pool and were painfully dissolved alive; their screams adding to the cacophony of suffering. When the victorious Luchopans reappeared, they congratulated themselves, turned to face their enemies but were overwhelmed before they could even react. Physically inferior to these horrors, they were easily knocked back and a gruesome but thankfully short-lived feast began.
The horrors kept coming. No matter how many they destroyed there were always more. Scanning the battlefield Nuada saw that they were holding their own, yet whenever one creature was slain, two more were eager to fill the ranks. Nuada felt that too-familiar feeling of regret but fought it off and continued to fight. He felt a sudden swell of hope when he noticed the Valkyrie and a young Tuatha Dé Danann fighting abominations near John and Nimue. The Valkyrie was in full bloom, her wings outlined in a vibrant blue fire; a fire that does not burn in the way of “normal” fire. She was armed with two spears; each one of them radiated that blue flame. She swiftly destroyed scores of creatures with each steady blow. She was a magnificent vision, taunting the creatures to attack, pulling them to battle by sheer force of will. Covered in blood, she seemed to be growing stronger with each swing and the horrors began to fall back as the devastation that she capable of causing became evident. At times her spears were so full of creatures that they looked as though they belonged above a flaming pit, the spears slowly turning in the heat, cooking flesh.
The young Tuatha Dé Danann man was just as effective as his winged “battle sister.” His sword, though not as well crafted as Nuada’s, tore through creatures in a great arc, slicing them in half in the same manner as Balor’s eye. He was a serious man and though he did not appear to enjoy battle, his skill was formidable, despite his youth. When the battle was over, Nuada made a mental note to talk to the young man and get to know him better. Thinking about the situation, Nuada knew that both Nimue and John were in good hands and so he turned all of his attention to the merchant.
Freeing himself from the merchant’s tentacles was no easy task. The outer skin of the tentacles was well armored and it took all of his might to hack through them. His sword now loosed, Nuada cut through the horrors that had come to protect the merchant. One advantage of a magical silver arm was that it didn’t easily tire and little by little he forced his way closer to the merchant who was apparently unconcerned the mass destruction of his creations. This incongruence must have shown on Nuada’s face for the merchant acknowledged the look.
“You wonder why I am so calm?” sneered the merchant, “You really don’t understand a single thing about our home do you? We are legion within The Depths. Sure, you may kill some of us now, you may even defeat me but we are as one and we will always return.”
“I will destroy you. Even if it takes the remainder of my life,” said Nuada, “Even if it means dying. And if I die, others will rise to destroy this place of horror. Of that you may be certain.”
“So sweet, so naïve and so stupid,” said the merchant, “Your people won’t destroy this place! They will fight to learn its secrets and when they discover them, they will want to learn more. This is but our first dance Nuada, there are many yet to come,” cackled the merchant.
With that, the merchant began another transformation, this time into the form of Nimue. Nuada was briefly taken aback and indeed so pre-occupied that he didn’t see a pouncing horror until it leapt upon his neck. Nuada grabbed at the creature but before he could stop it, it bit him deeply across his neck, tearing flesh and opening a deep, bloody wound while injecting some kind of venom into him. The faux Nimue advanced on Nuada. He knelt down to look more closely at Nuada, who was desperately trying to staunch his wounds, and then he heard a strange sound.
“Charge!” roared Miach who had apparently joined the battle. Looking up the merchant saw two Dvergars running at him at full speed. They were looking down and the top of their heads grew stonier as they ran and they soon looked like stone-covered battering rams. Before the merchant could think to react, they simultaneously struck him in the gut, hurling him backward and causing him to tumble, again and again. Seeing the state of Nuada, Miach sought out the healer.
“Hey you, come here and heal our fearless leader, he got quite a love bite from one of these nasties!” hollered Miach, squashing one of the creatures between his stony hands.
Hearing that, and seeing Nuada, she quickly dispatched the remaining creatures plaguing her and ran to help Nuada. Placing a healing hand on him, she was able to seal the wound.
“Relax Nuada,” she said soothingly, “The battle is over for you. We’ll take care of him.”
“Yeah. Now that the Dvergr are here, this won’t take long,” bragged Miach, brushing his hands together, “Besides, look at that winged beauty over there, why she’s barely bent a feather!”
“How long can a Viking fight?” yelled Miach to which all the Vikings in the room responded, “All the day and through the night!”
“The merchant is mine,” said Nuada weakly, “Healer, I know you can do something about this.”
“No Nuada, I can’t,” she said sadly.
“Don’t lie to me. I finally understand who you are,” said Nuada.
“Took you long enough,” muttered Miach.
“You are she, the mother of your people,” said Nuada, “Hamadryas.”
“Yes Nuada, I am she,” Hamadryas nodded.
“You have the power to restore me…don’t you?” said Nuada.
“Yes, though it comes at a terrible price,” said Hamadryas.
“I am prepared to pay any price,” he said.
“To what end Nuada?” she asked, “To kill and kill again?”
“To save my friends, our people and to begin to restore the balance… That is worth any price to me, even eternal oblivion,” said Nuada.
“I wish you hadn’t said that Nuada,” said Hamadryas, “Though I am proud of you. Miach, hold him down this will hurt, a lot.”
The battle raged around them, life and death flowed through the chamber, as it did in Nuada. Hamadryas called upon all of her powers. She healed the wound by taking it on herself and poured her power into Nuada. Fully draining herself, she managed to bestow Nuada with increased speed and great strength. Nuada felt intensely invigorated and he literally leapt up.
“Take care of her Miach,” said Nuada, “I will return as soon as I am able.”
Nuada charged the merchant who, upon seeing this resurrection and the immense strength now possessed by Nuada, decided that it was a good time to exit the chamber. As he did so, Nuada set off to follow him when he heard Miach’s voice.
“Wait! How about using some of that newfound strength to free Nimue and John,” said Miach, “Unless you’re just too busy?”
Lots of evil thoughts, including rolling a certain Dvergr down his favorite mountain, filled his mind, yet Nuada sped toward his imprisoned friends. As much as he wanted to kill that merchant, he had a choice to make and he made it.
“Valkyrie. Give me a boost!” he said.
When Nuada reached the Valkyrie, she formed her hands into cup and tossed Nuada up into the air toward Nimue. He landed on top of the tube that was causing the horrors to flow out of her. He wrenched the tube out of her mouth; its steady stream of some unknown substance now flowed to the ground harmlessly. He then freed her bonds and destroyed the birthing tube. He placed her gently upon the ground.
“Rest here Nimue,” said Nuada, “You will be healed soon. And thank you again for your bravery, I’m sorry you suffered so much for such a noble deed.”
He then bent down and gave her a gentle kiss on her forehead. He freed John and once again set off in search of the merchant. Nuada thought he had likely lost the man, but then he realized that he needed to be smart and think like his opponent. Where would he go? As soon as that thought crossed his mind, he ran for the most obvious place he could think of, the throne of Bres; the chamber that he hoped held the hidden treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
As he ran, his brain was consumed with thoughts of revenge on the merchant. No matter how wrong his or even Bres’s actions were, it was the merchant and his lies that caused all of this. It seemed like forever before Nuada reached the throne room. He was comforted by the fact that Bres was still on his throne, though that changed as he noticed that the merchant stood there beside him.
“Merchant!” yelled Nuada.
“Hmm. Maybe you’re not as stupid as I had imagined,” said the merchant, “On the other hand…” With that the merchant unloosed the magical bond that was holding Bres. Bres instantly turned to Nuada.
“Nuada!” yelled Bres, “How dare you invade my kingdom!”
“Bres,” said Nuada, “You’ve been tricked. Where do you think you are?”
“In my throne room in Tir Na nÓg, of course,” growled Bres.
“No, you are in The Depths,” said Nuada, “You’ve been tricked by the same creature that tricked me.”
“Nonsense,” said Bres, visibly irritated by this intrusion. Sweeping his hand he said, “I can see the seashore from this window. I smell the aromas from the marketplace and I see you standing on my beautiful loam carpet.”
At that Bres grabbed the Spear of Victory, whose hiding place was masked by a spell, and ran straight for Nuada. Nuada, knowing that Bres was under an enchantment, understood that this was not going to be an easy fight, yet he held back not wanting to kill Bres until he knew the entire truth behind his former friend’s betrayal of their people. Bres fought bravely for a few moments then suddenly, collapsed to the ground. When Nuada approached him he could see that Bres had aged greatly.
“Bres,” said Nuada.
“Nuada,” said Bres, “Where am I? What has happened to me?”
“You’re in The Depths,” said Nuada, “You’re dying and I can’t do anything to save you. That son of an abomination merchant tricked you as he did me!”
“Merchant?” said Bres, “I saw no merchant, or any man. The one who guided me was the kindest and most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. She told me that I had to save our people, our world. She warned me that you would be the destroyer of our people and that only with the help of Balor could we be saved. Did I do that? Did I save our people?”
“Yes Bres,” said Nuada, “You did.”
“I’m so glad,” Bres breathed, his frame collapsing further, the remaining tension now gone. “I’m sorry but I have to go…”
“How touching,” said the merchant mockingly, “It’s a shame he had to leave us so soon. You both fed so much power into us, we hate to see you go.” This time though, the merchant didn’t sound as convincing as last time.
“Where are your horrors now merchant?” said Nuada, who picked up the spear from the ground, and drew closer to him, “It’s just you and me this time.”
“And you are still outnumbered,” said the merchant with deep scorn. Nuada braced for the onslaught, but the merchant just turned and ran.
Instead of running, Nuada trailed slowly behind him and waited for the merchant to get close to the edge of path below in which the giant mouth sat waiting silently. The merchant neared the edge and Nuada hurled the spear at him.
“Merchant!” said Nuada.
As the merchant turned to face Nuada, the spear pierced his body and continued on to embed itself in one of the walls. Nuada thought that odd; for one of the spear’s magical properties was its ability to return to its true owner. Slightly off balance the merchant teetered, almost falling into the pit before finding his balance.
“Hah! I told you that you were stu…” said the merchant just as Nuada hit him full force in his midsection, hurling both of them into the pit.
“And I told you, that I would kill you,” said Nuada. As they fell into the great maw, the scream of the merchant matched that of the young horrors. The merchant’s arm morphed into tentacles again and he tried to slow their descent into the waiting teeth. Nuada kept attacking the tentacles, not allowing them to use their suction cups to grasp the wall. As their descent accelerated, Nuada screamed a death curse at the merchant and for the first time in his memory, the merchant was afraid. When the curse was uttered, Nuada, hero and fool, warrior and savior, died smiling. At the moment of his death, the connection between Hamadryas and Nuada was severed abruptly and permanently. Hamadryas, like the merchant, felt something she hadn’t felt in many centuries. A tear ran down her cheek.
Meanwhile, the remaining companions were still holding their own in the birthing chamber. With the death of the merchant, no new creatures were spawned and the tide of battle shifted in favor of the companions. The worst of the battle was over and the death toll among the horrors was beyond count, not that any of the surviving companions wanted to remain in the room to assess it.
Nimue and John were surprisingly in good physical shape, it being in the best interest of The Depths to keep them so. Mentally though, both were in shock and didn’t have much to say to their rescuers. In truth, they weren’t even sure that what they were experiencing was real. During their captivity, the merchant had tortured them mentally and physically in order to break their sense of self and of reality. Miach comforted John and tried to boost his spirits but John was silent. The Valkyrie took care of Nimue the best she could but she, like John, was not ready for any sort of meaningful interaction with her rescuers. She did however say “Nuada?” at some point, though nobody had the heart to say anything in return.
Hamadryas had regained her strength. The death of Nuada restored some of the energy she had lent him to kill the merchant. The healer did the best she could, but another of their number, a female Cait Sith, succumbed to her wounds. Like the others, she fought bravely; at times moving so swiftly through the ranks of the horrors that she appeared to be nothing more than flashing teeth, daggers and claws. Before she died she begged Hamadryas to promise that she would be buried back at her home and that Arthur would be told of her bravery. Hamadryas readily agreed and assured her that she would preserve her body for the long trip home. Upon her passing, the remaining companions departed that terrible chamber.
When they returned to the throne room, they saw that Bres was still alive, though barely. They made attempts to heal him but he was too far-gone and they were still too weak from their own battles to help him any further. Before he died he told them of Nuada’s sacrifice and the location of the three remaining treasures. Hamadryas thanked him for that and Bres asked for her forgiveness. Before she could reply, Bres too joined the ranks of the dead.
Following Bres’s instructions, the young Tuatha Dé Danann warrior recovered the Spear of Victory from the wall and returned to his friends.
“This feels right in my hands,” said the warrior.
“Yes Lugh, it should,” said Hamadryas, “Use it well.” Lugh simply nodded.
The companions rested for a while. After gathering their dead, they recovered the treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Miach walked over to the edge from which Nuada had plunged to his death and looked down at the still gaping maw. In his hand he held a gift that he had crafted at the golden forge, it was for Nuada. It was not a weapon, nor was it armor; it was a simple piece of jewelry. It was made up of three unique interlocking, golden swords and in the middle was the symbol of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Miach looked down the ready mouth, thought of his friend and gently let his gift slip from his hand, saying “Safe journey my friend.” However, being Miach, as he walked away from the edge he couldn’t resist thinking of that giant maw and saying that he hoped “that creature would choke on it.”
As the companions left The Depths they thought long and hard about everything that had happened, lest they forget. They spread the word throughout the three Realms as they traveled homeward. Nuada was forever enshrined by our people as one of our greatest heroes. He was never seen again, not in this world, nor any other.
This adventure marked one of the last times that the three Realms would work in fellowship. It is said that the tale of Nuada spread through the Realms like a Veilstorm and in its wake it left hope, not devastation and helped delay events that would lead to the second breaking of the world.
As to how Lugh, the four treasures at his side, continued the work of Nuada and restored the Tuatha Dé Danann, that is for another day. It is said that Lugh learned much from Nuada’s mistakes. His leadership was crucial in rebuilding his Realm and in the survival of the second breaking of the world.
“Very good,” said the grizzled instructor, “That was an excellent recitation. One of the best I’ve heard.”
“Thank you,” said the trainee.
The trainee and the instructor walked off to the Room of Becoming, where the young trainee would make the final sacrifice that marks all Silverhands. For it was now time for his own story to begin, with a metal arm; replacing his arm of flesh.
Miach the Dvergr crafter had also survived The Depths, and in gratitude for all that he learned and for the friendship of Nuada, he gifted the Tuatha Dé Danann with the secret of making metal arms. As a further thank you, he had his memory of the secret permanently erased. Today, only a crafter of the Tuatha Dé Danann is able to craft such arms.
Thus ends the tale of the Silverhands.
As to The Depths itself, it was truly quiet there for a while and once the adventurers left, its last known entrance disappeared and no new one could be found for many a decade. That is, until a new intelligence stirred deep within its bowels. And with that stirring a new entrance opened up and waiting for it when it opened was Hamadryas.