The Becoming™ tales are the vehicles that deliver the "origin" stories of the various races, classes, places and other things in the world. Most of them are based on existing legends and stories in our world that have been re-imagined by CEO Mark Jacobs and Loremaster Max Porter to make them fit into the world of Camelot Unchained.
The events described in these stories mark this period of the game's history the Age of Becoming. Each Becoming is connected with the cataclysmic First Breaking of the world and Malevolences that followed, often in quite tragic or dramatic ways. Still, in many of these stories, courage, sacrifice, or a pure heart triumph over evil.
- 1 Concept and Design
- 2 The Becoming of the Arthurians
- 3 The Becoming of the Tuatha Dé Danann
- 4 The Becoming of the Vikings
- 5 Other Becoming Stories
- 6 References
Concept and Design
A common theme in the Becoming stories are Veilstorms. It has been depicted from early design that the Veil itself is a living entity, and the storms are an extension of it's rage. Many of the racial Becoming stories are often the result Veilstorms showing up at times of great emotional turmoil, these are known as the Changed. While the unfortunate beings that gets mutated into monsters are known as Abominations, such as Cath Palug. Another theme for Becoming stories is The Depths, which is beings like the Golems come from, and location of the events that are basis of the Silverhands.
The design process behind the Becoming stories isn't really formulaic. It doesn't follow a particular design process for all the concepts. They often to come to lead designer Mark Jacobs as base ideas that rapidly get expanded upon inspired by known mythology. Like the Valkyrie Becoming, which came to MJ suddenly while trying to write something for the Jötnar. Which was written in little over a hour.
This has been further expanded upon by the Becoming Story challenge during the Beta 1 Crunch Livestreams. Where MJ took on a writing challenge by having the Backers vote on some mythology to use during a livestream. Then he had two hours to finish the story. This resulted in the Andvaranaut and Blood of Kvasir stories.
The Becoming of the Arthurians
Cait Sith Becoming
“Younglings, gather round, for I shall relate another tale of our people and of clan Kellas.” The grey-furred Cait Sith stretched and shook her tail, then settled back into her comfortable armchair. The fuzzy youngsters paid little attention, more interested in their games.
The grey one looked annoyed. “There will be plenty of time to play furball afterwards, when the sun sets warm and red. Today’s tale tells how we became Changed, aided by the Great Storms, and how we came to this Realm. We no longer submit to the will of the Furless Ones, but find perfection in our new form. As future leaders of our clan, always keep in mind the saying that those who do not know the past will never understand the future. So sit patiently and learn from this story!” This last she directed at a couple of younglings who had begun grabbing and kicking at one another in a playful fight.
She leaned back and began:
“When the Veilstorms first lashed this world, our ancestors were barely as large as newlings, and they walked upon four paws in the manner of prey. Some of us lived in the wild; others dwelt amongst the Furless, assisting them, comforting them, and eating from their hands.”
Once more, the aged Cait Sith’s eyes opened wide, letting her stern glare bore into her frozen audience. “Younglings, it is for this reason that we will never take food from another’s hand, even if offered in friendship. Doing so implies subservience.”
In our oldest memories, so far back that even our perfect recollections are faded, we remember those terrible days, when hunters made their living by selling pelts to unscrupulous merchants among the Furless. Lacking sleek and beautiful fur themselves, rich folk would make our skins into liners for winter cloaks and finery, parading themselves about in their stolen beauty.
In those days, there was a Furless woman who claimed to love cats more than anything in the world. She kept many of our ancestors as pets, and as we didn’t know any better then, we ate of her food. She lived in a house on the edge of the wilderness, with a small farm and a barn. Other than her “pets,” her only companion was her husband. He was a gruff man, who hunted other creatures for a living.
However, one harsh winter, when the bite of the cold was like fangs in the heart, she passed away of a Furless sickness. Her husband the hunter buried her in the yard, muttering to himself as our ancestors watched sadly, wondering who would feed them. They had almost forgotten how to take care of themselves.
In those days, there were many dark rumors and stories about our kind, misunderstood superstitions that our kind stole the souls of the dead, or played vile tricks. Perhaps that is why the hunter went mad. Luring our ancestors with bits of meat, he gathered us all in the barn, and gently closed cages on us. He closed the latch with his Furless fingers, then stood back and laughed harshly.
“I am Palug the hunter of hunters. No more will you steal souls or take food from us. I will wipe your kind from the world!”
He began to kill only for sport, caring only for the pleasure of killing. He never ate out of hunger, and he never killed to help another; it was only the pure rush of bloodlust he felt every time he took a life, beating back the mad sorrow of his wife’s death which tore at his mind. Soon our blood, skins, and meat were not enough to sate his hunger for us, and he wore our bones like trophies.
Palug wasn’t satisfied with merely killing us, however. He took to keeping us alive, in cages, and feeding us scraps and morsels to keep us alive for his tortures. He wanted to destroy us; he wanted to take our noblest aspect, that of survivors, and turn it into a mockery of horrible proportions. This was how he thought he would protect the soul of his wife from our imagined powers. He loved seeing our kind in dire straits, and our mewling raised the roof of his barn like the wailing of dead spirits.
One of the poor creatures imprisoned by him was a wildcat called Moireach. She was a noble soul, born to be a wildcat queen of the wilds, but captured and put through horrible tortures by the hunter of hunters. There were any number of other cats, but he took special care to torture her, for he hated that she was a mother, heavy with newlings. He devised unmentionable horrors with starvation, needles, and a heated skinning knife. To truly degrade her, Palug plucked her whiskers and cut off the tufts on her ears.
Perhaps because of these terrible things, only one of her litter survived, a female with pure white fur. She was sleek and beautiful like her mother, but Moireach had little milk to feed her kitten, and the little thing cried her pain out in the night as she suffered hunger pangs.
Incensed at the noise, one morning Palug took up a bag and went to gather up any kittens he could find, to drown them in the river. It was as if he didn’t even notice the horror of it, as he delighted in their pain and fear. He didn’t think to look at the sky, where dark clouds had gathered and swirled overhead, gathering speed. The wind howled at him like a lost thing as he walked from his house to his barn, holding the bag in cold fingers. His other hand rested on the polished wood pommel of his great skinning knife, which was long and wicked, ready to slice you open with the look of it.
The Veilstorm overhead flashed and rumbled with terrible power. As a heavy rain began to pelt down, he picked up speed on his path to the barn. The air seemed to condense around his clearing, and his prisoners in the barn’s cages yowled and screamed as they felt the terrifying power of the Veilstorm bearing down on them.
Palug ran faster, and drew his skinning knife. In the sick and superstitious logic of his brain, he decided that his prisoners had called the storm upon him. He would have to slay them all.
Palug appeared in the doorway, a hulking form with a long blade. He had dropped the bag somewhere along the way. His breath steamed into the cold, rainy night as he stepped inside.
The first cage he came to held a sickly creature that he had been starving for months. It died quietly under his knife. The other cats yowled into the dark as the storm flashed its lightning outside, and shuddering magic shook the building.
The second cage held a younger, strong creature, whose once-beautiful ears he had sliced away. It fought and hissed its rage at him, but Palug was strong and wore thick gloves. The poor thing died screaming.
The storm reached new heights of crashing and thundering outside. Palug looked around in the dim light and laughed. The hunter of hunters rarely spoke, yet now he did, and his words were barely audible above the storm, even by those who still had their shapely ears. “You will die bad deaths. You dumb animals think you are so noble and so graceful. I will show you the color of your meat, and the storm will grant me my heart’s wish.” He laughed as he pulled away the skin of the caged creature he had killed and placed it on his head. “Now who’s next? Perhaps the new mother?” Shaking with powerful emotions, he lunged for Moireach’s cage.
At that moment, the storm broke open the barn like an egg. Bits of the roof flew through the wet air as the walls cracked and splintered.
In the hot white light that bathed the barn, Palug saw strange changes coming over the creatures he had tortured. They were growing, their eyes gleaming with pain and frustrated rage. Their skins stretched to keep up with their expanding bodies, and the cages around them buckled and bent under their weight. The hunter of hunters reached out with his hungry blade.
Desperate, her arms reached through the cage, straining. There was something wrong with her paw, Palug suddenly realized. It was twisted somehow. In truth, she had gained the claw of clutching, called an opposable thumb by the Furless. Moireach took hold of the latch and opened it.
With a shriek of frenzied strength, Moireach pushed open the rusty cage door. For just a moment, she stood there as the storm continued to change her, the cold rain soaking her fur as her bones cracked and popped. She stood tall before Palug, her arms around the child that he had been so eager to kill. Then, weak and limping, she fled the building through a hole in the wall. Before the shocked Palug could react, the others tore open their cages and fled also, screaming into the storming night.
Palug just stood there, too stunned to give chase. The storm’s magic had taken hold of him also. The blood on his hands crackled with it, and the killer fell to his knees, shuddering in pain as it began to change him. He was becoming one of the Suffering, which the Furless call Abominations.
Moireach ran on two legs for the first time, carrying her kitten in her arms. Not knowing what else to do, the others followed her, yowling and hissing as the storm continued to shape their bodies. They were awakening to new things, beyond the world of sights, smells, and simple thoughts, but in this cacophony of storms and wind they didn’t understand it yet.
Faced with death, they did what any rational being would; they fled, running as far as they could, as fast as they could, until they could run no more. They ran through the storm that seemed unending, avoiding any sign of other Furless habitation. Only more death could lurk there. Eventually, they left all habitable lands behind, forging a path deep into the Stormlands.
Many of those first of us died on the pilgrimage. They had no names, and barely had the chance to know or understand their beautiful new forms; yet they could die nobly, and did. We still hold the Midnight Lament on the anniversary of the day we could run no more. To this day and until the end of all seasons, we will honor those that died on that journey.
Lost in the harsh Stormlands, we were alone at last, in a land we could not recognize by sight or smell.
There, in the wastelands where none dared to follow, we continued to change. Moireach and the other survivors hunted for food, or scratched a living from the earth. They were hungry, and their hunger drove them to become greater, sleeker, more swift and terrible hunters. Within a few seasons, we became the most feared predators of the Stormlands.
Moireach took charge of our clan and our race. She used her cleverness, not just her claws, to lead us down a new path over the coming turnings.
Within but a few seasons we became the most feared predator in these lands. Some of us formed new clans, though clan Kellas was and always will be the greatest and purest of them. We, the Cait Sith, hunted and killed what we needed for food and put the Suffering out of their misery. We never hunted for sport, for that was the way of the Furless that imprisoned us, and we abhor it.
Life was hard for a while. The storms ravaged the land, and food was very difficult to come by. To protect ourselves, we tunneled into the earth, making burrows that could shelter us from the wrath of the Veil. Over the many seasons, through guile and cleverness, we learned much about the Furless and their magic and technology. Our society evolved and soon we were strong again.
Moireach was a great lady, and in her time in the Stormlands she was gifted with prophecy. Our leader told us of a dream she once had before the coming of the storms, of a Furless who was lost in the world. In that dream she saw him as both a victim and a leader, both weak and strong. She knew that his life was going to be in our paws. During the dream there was a great storm and as his life hung in the balance, she woke up. She told us to wait for that day, and so we did. Patiently, quietly, we watched the Furless, waiting for that sign.
As the fury of the storms abated, our kind began to return to what remained of the world. Unfortunately, we began to encroach upon the territory of our former subjugators. Seeing the changes wrought upon us by the storms only reinforced their fear and hatred of us. In a few brief encounters, we quickly fell to them as we lacked their armor, weapons, and strange magic.
Even worse, we had wandered into the territory of a great beast, a monster who had come from the twisted heart of a Furless, changed by the Veilstorms into a mockery of us. It was like a giant cat, big as a barn, but with too many legs and too few claws, which were themselves like curved swords. The five eyes of the beast were scattered around its furry and scaly body, and as it hunted it whimpered with the pain of its twisted and stretched joints. There was certain familiarity to the beast, perhaps in its smell or its furious gaze. The hunter of hunters had become the Cath Palug, a monstrous cat of horrible size and twisted strength, a terror of the Stormlands. Even after he had become one of the Suffering, this foul-hearted creature continued to plague our people.
And so it came to pass that many seasons later that Moireach’s daughter, the youngling she had carried from death, came into her full prime as a hunter. She struck out further and further, and became a very promising young warrior of Clan Kellas.
One day, she came to the edge of a very dangerous area, hunting quickly and quietly. She intended to catch the creatures we call the Suffering. It was a noble hunt, but in her eagerness, this young one had not properly scouted the area. A simple hunt became an ambush.
From a grove of trees nearby, a screeching growl was followed by a great crash as a gigantic rush of fur and claws burst from the foliage. The beast’s claws tore up the earth as it ran, throwing clods of grass and dirt into the air as it rushed to pounce upon her.
Gifted with the amazing reflexes and nose for danger that our kind possess, she had her clawsword out of its sheath before the Cath Palug had covered half the distance. The spines of the clawsword glinted in the sunlight. All of the youngling’s muscles tensed, and she prepared for her end.
With incredible grace, she leapt out of the way of the monster’s initial pounce, and struck one of the thing’s crooked legs as it passed. The razor points of the clawsword drew blood, which burst hot and red from the Suffering, and steamed into the air.
The thing let loose another growling shriek of pain and insane rage, turning to swipe at her with a row of mangled claws. Fast as the youngling was, she wasn’t quite fast enough. The terrible claws raked her side as she whirled away, and she felt her heart’s blood run into her fur. Undeterred, the youngling snarled and danced closer, looking for a chance to cut at the soft underbelly of the beast.
All her senses sharpened to a fine point and aimed at the monster that came for her throat. The youngling was barely aware of a shout from the same grove of trees nearby, where the creature had emerged. The noise was made by a Furless, a male. He was armed with a bright blade, and ran straight towards her like a hunter himself.
The terrible beast turned to look with its mismatched eyes, one slavering fang hanging out of its uneven mouth. The youngling warrior took advantage of its distraction to turn and face this new threat. Though she was surprised to find a Furless who would stoop so low as to help the Cath Palug, she would certainly fight to the last. She swung her clawsword in a mighty blow, trying to catch the Furless and tear him apart.
However, the Furless let out a shout of surprise, and seemed shocked that she menaced him. He ducked under her swing, rolled, and leaped up with the same momentum to slice at the confounded Cath Palug. The wretched creature roared, and in a blur of motion mauled the Furless, who could only only do so much to defend himself from the heavy blows. He refused to retreat, however, and somehow weathered hits that should have flattened him.
The Cait Sith youngling shook her head in consternation at his foolishness. Directly engaging the Cath Palug would certainly get him killed. Just as his head was about to be ripped from his body, she leapt back into the fray, beating the Suffering back with fierce blows.
Sweating, the Furless male acknowledged that she had nobly saved his life with a simple nod. Working with her instead of against her, he circled around to the opposite side of the beast, trading blow for blow. Although the creature was mighty indeed, the pair of them were great warriors, and eventually wore it down. The Cath Palug was reduced to a shaking hill of fur and rage, hissing and spitting at the fighters that had finally defeated it.
Our youngling looked at the panting Furless, ready for anything. To her surprise, he stepped back and gestured with his bloody blade, offering her dominance, and the honor of the killing blow. Our youngling did not hesitate to put the age-old enemy of her people out of its misery.
The pair of them sat wearily down on the grass to clean their wounds. The Furless didn’t have the decency to offer to clean her wounds, as custom dictates. Our youngling eyed him carefully, and took in his scent. It was at odds with his baffling behavior. Through the heady smell of blood, she felt his scent spoke to her of honesty and kindness, yet mixed with a hard quality, as though he could draw on deep strength from within. He was certainly ignorant and rude, however, for he interrupted her careful cleaning with talk.
“I am Arthur, and I greet you. I have come to this land to hunt Abominations. Most of them aren’t quite as fearsome as that thing was.” He smiled, but showed his teeth, which was odd. “I also wished to see for myself if the rumors of cat people in this part of the Stormlands were true.”
At that, the Cait Sith youngling’s mouth opened in shock. Yes, he had called us ‘cat people,’ that most vile phrase that makes us out to be no more than a strange breed of Furless, insulting both our ancestors and ourselves. It was all she could do to resist ending his life then and there, as the foolish one sat grinning in what he clearly thought was a friendly manner.
Trying to smile back as indulgently as she could, the youngling slowly stood, holding a rock behind her. She struck him quickly gently on the forehead, knocking the Furless clean out. Then, with great care, she tied him to his mount, which she found wandering in the woods. Leaving the unconscious Furless a deep scratch as a reminder of his visit, she sent him off back in the direction she sensed he had come, back to his more peaceful, habitable lands.
She watched the horse go, then returned home. The youngling shared the story with the rest of the clan, and much respect was shown to her.
Many turnings passed.
One day, our seers sensed that a terrible Malevolence was heading our way. As Clan Kellas has done for many a season, we moved our clan into the subterranean shelters we built long ago. We sent out scouts to survey the land, looking for any newlings that might have gotten mislaid.
One of our scouts was the youngling, who was then earning her stripes. Who should she happen to find riding through the wilderness alone, but a Furless?
He had aged somewhat, in that particular way the way the Furless do. But we forget nothing. The youngling recognized Arthur. She asked why he was foolish enough to be outside and so far away from home during such a storm. “He has about as much sense as he has fur and claws!” she thought to herself.
The Furless called Arthur was embarrassed, but explained that in his lands, the seers, which he called Stormwardens, had detected an incoming Malevolence that was heading straight for our home and he came to warn us and offer us shelter with his people. Warn us? As if we, who had survived the most terrible storms, couldn’t feel it in our fur when a storm approached. The youngling couldn’t decide whether to be insulted, laugh, growl, or just shake her head in dismay.
Eventually, she offered him the protection of our lair, for the storm was coming on quickly. He accepted her offer with hesitation, but became the first Furless to willingly (albeit not fearlessly) enter our shelter.
The other Cait Sith sniffed at him with wonder and anger, for our encounters with other Furless had not been friendly, and he did not do any of the greetings that are proper in another’s territory. He was very lucky to be brought in by the well-respected youngling, or he would have been gutted before he could blink.
There was a silence in the dark lair as the Malevolence raged above. A few newlings choked down their fears in soft whimpers.
In the darkness, the Furless that our youngling had saved began to speak. It was as if he knew the right moment, the perfect moment to speak. There, with the terrible forces of destruction outside, he began to tell his own story, but not one remembered. It was a story of the future. The Furless called Arthur told us of his vision for the future of his race, and for a place he called a Realm. He told us of his litter-mates, which he called Sword Brothers, and how they shared their rule, passing power from one to the other. He told us how he wanted to bring all of the survivors of the Piercing together as equals, and build a new society from the rubble of the old world.
Surprisingly, his mildly insulting vision–after all, we are not mere equals with the Furless–stirred some of our hearts. We saw in Arthur a Furless male who was not just interested in showing off his strength, but who wanted to truly lead his people.
As the storm reached its zenith, the female youngling’s fur stood on end, and she began to shake. Perhaps sparked by Arthur’s words, she was having a powerful vision. Like her birth mother, she had the capacity for clairvoyance, but this was her first time. She refused to say what she saw, but ran out of the room and down a tunnel.
Arthur followed her, worried about what he had just witnessed. Soon, others of our clan followed as well. When they reached her, she was deep in the throes of second sight. First visions are sometimes turbulent, and she lashed out with tooth and claw, wounding Arthur. Yet he would not strike back.
When she came out of it, she refused to share what she had seen, pretending she was only distressed that she had harmed Arthur. She did not tell him what she had seen of the future; she did not understand the fierce pain it brought her, or how her perfect memory of the vision brought her greater turmoil. She did not tell him of the splitting of the litter-mates that was to come, nor of the Betrayal that would nearly destroy all he built. Though her memory of the vision was perfect in every detail, she pretended to have forgotten it.
When the time came for Arthur to return to his fortress, the white-furred youngling let him leave without saying farewell. This was because she was making preparations. She received approval from her mother, Moireach herself, and from other elders. The white-furred youngling set out no more than a day behind Arthur, tracking him with consummate skill.
There was a meeting of some sort being held in the fortress of Arthur. Many Furless were gathering, wearing fine clothes and jewelry. The white-furred youngling hid and watched the strange ceremonies of the Furless begin. Then she caught the whiff of an oddly familiar scent and turned to look. To her utter shock, one pudgy man came bounding along wearing a heavy coat, made with furs. From the scent of them, they were the heavily-treated skins of her ancestors, old but still recognizable. Enraged, she started forward out of her hiding place, claws unsheathed.
However, she was immediately surrounded by armed guards, who eyed her coldly. The fur-wearing Furless man wrapped himself tightly in his coat and stumbled back, muttering.
For a moment, there was silence. One of the guards motioned toward the door to the main hall of the fortress. Rather than harm these Furless, who might be dear to Arthur, she allowed them to bring her inside.
Arthur was seated upon a chair, wearing an odd hat. While others bowed before him, she simply purred, but kept her mouth closed to avoid displaying her teeth. Arthur, much to his credit, accurately interpreted the gesture and nodded in return, waving his guards away.
His voice was gentle and friendly, but confused. “Why are you here, friend? What brings you to my court?”
The white-furred youngling stared at him. “That night in our lair, below the storm’s fury, I saw a glimpse of the future. Of your future,” she added, as several other important-looking Furless filed into the hall behind her. The fat one with the skin cloak came in glaring, and her tail began to lash in annoyance.
Arthur never took his eyes off of her, but leaned forward in his chair. “What did you see?”
The youngling fearlessly turned to face him once more, holding herself still, though something about his gaze pulled at her and made her want to run forward. “That, I cannot tell you. But I know this; you will need the aid of our clan, clan Kellas. At my urging, Moireach my mother has called on us all to come to your lands and help you with the great troubles that are coming.”
There was a tumult in the hall, with many voices raised in shock and disapproval. “These creatures are dangerous, and do not belong in the Realm!” They cried, drowning out the few words of approval or appreciation for an alliance with the Cait Sith.
The fat man stepped forward with a furious look, his voice booming across the hall. “As a seller of fine furs, I fear these cat people will prove quite a problem. I will not stand for it!”
Arthur silenced his people with a stern glance and a gesture. He stood from his chair and walked over to the youngling and bowed most graciously, expressing his gratitude properly for once. “Your people are most welcome. I thank you and I accept your aid, believing that whatever troubles may come, I will weather them with your help. I have seen for myself what fierce fighters you can be.”
In return, the Cait Sith nodded her pure white head. “Then I shall return to my people, and tell Moireach my mother of your acceptance.” With a swish of her tail, she turned to go.
But she was blocked. Spurred by some foolish self-righteousness, the fur merchant stepped in front of her. “What insolence! This is ridiculous!” Then, as he noticed no guards rushing to his side this time, he quailed a bit and looked from side to side.
The youngling stepped closer, dancing lightly on her feet. “No, this is ridiculous.” With a deft flick of her claw, she severed the strip of leather that bound his cloak across his shoulders. She plucked the cloak away from him, then leaned in and smiled. With teeth.
A wet stain appeared on the Furless merchant’s pants, spreading rapidly down his legs and dribbling onto the floor. He reeked of fear as he stumbled out of her way.
As the youngling walked out the door, Arthur called to her and said, “Wait. Before you go, my lady, may I know your name?”
Ignoring the insult of being called a lady (which the youngling knew was unintended), she looked back to Arthur and said “You do not have the patience nor the vocal capacity to properly speak my full name. Some of your kind have called me Gwenhwyfar; you may call me Gwen.”
With a shake of her white tail, the youngling walked out the door.
The aged Cait Sith leaned back and stretched. The sun was low and warm; an excellent sunset for a nap. “And now, my younglings, you may go play more furball.”
The old stones of the ruin seemed to crack and change shape in the shifting, orange light of sunset, as if crumbling in the wind. Angry clouds, bent on destruction, gathered above the tumbled walls and hanging archways. However, they had stood this way for many years. If the ruin survived the storm, it would be many years more before the last stone was buried in grass.
The stark shape was the only shelter the roaming band of Gargoyles could see on the wide, rolling plain. Holding their possessions close as the first rumbling rolled over the hissing grasses of the plain, they ran to the old building, broken colonnades dark against the orange sky.
They burst through the creaking door of the old building eagerly, shaking droplets from their slate skin. Some went to explore the darker corners of the ruin as the shadows lengthened, while others kindled a fire for the evening meal, humming as they blew the flames to life. A white, shuddering flash of lightning brought them together. They huddled against the roar of thunder, so loud it seemed to crack stone.
One of the elder Gargoyles raised his head. Looking at the younger folk, gathering close as the thunder shattered the air around them, he smiled. A myriad of tiny cracks appeared on his face, like a map of the surrounding countryside. “Settle down now, or the evening’s tale will never be told.”
The younger folk glanced at one another in the flickering firelight, droplets running down their faces like glittering gems. One by one, they produced instruments from beneath their robes and began to strike up a warm rhythm, cutting through the hush of rain hitting the tattered roof.
The elderly Gargoyle cleared his throat. “I sing it now, beneath the clouds…I sing the song of the watchers, while thunder crashes loud…I sing of those who are no more, a song of seekers, wayward wanderers, I sing of those who came before.”
On a wide plain crisscrossed by great ravines, a few villages had sprung up, making their living by farming and husbandry. One of their greatest resources was the plentiful stone, good for building and carving, which could be found and quarried all around. These folk were known for their grand buildings, great spired constructions dedicated to the glory of their gods.
One of their cathedrals, mightier than the rest, rose tall above the largest village. Many-tiered towers draped in stone curlicues stood like a grand gesture to the sky. Rows of windows across the front of the building seemed to call a welcome with their cornices like fine embroidery. In this village there was born a child called Goji. On Goji’s fifth birthday, his mother presented him with a tiny lute. Goji treasured the thing, and didn’t break it, as his father dourly predicted. He plucked the strings with his clumsy fingers, and became fascinated. Coming back from the market, his mother was astounded to hear him playing the lullaby she used to sing him to sleep with at night, plinking from the kitchen window. Goji had climbed up on the table and was frowning his tiny face over the notes. She closed the window against the rain and picked him up to lovingly crush him in her arms.
It became Goji’s obsession. In the shadow of this great cathedral, just under the decorative stone shelf that ran around the edge of the roof, Goji practiced his music. Day in and day out, whenever he wasn’t needed somewhere else, he could be found there, singing to the reverberating walls.
Goji grew into a tall, very handsome boy, with long brown locks and a honey voice that could melt the coldest hearts. Goji took his harmonies very seriously, and even as a young child, he practiced night and day, seeking to master all the instruments and songs that he could.
His parents doted on Goji, and provided him with all the materials and instruments he could need. They hired the best music teachers from the villages round about, and Goji’s skills increased to match his love of harmony. He felt music in his bones, and loved becoming better and better.
A few young, aspiring musicians came to Goji’s side as he practiced long hours in the shadow of the cathedral, forming a group of eager young minstrels. Though they were children, they grew to respect Goji’s seriousness about music, and loved him for his commitment to the rhythm and the sound.
With so many wanting to practice with him, Goji could choose the best and most dedicated to stay. As his talent and fame grew, so did his pride. He began to believe that he was special, destined for greater things than anyone who could not match him in musical skill. Music and song became more important to him and his cadre than anything else in the world. They formed a group of their own and excluded the other children, refusing to join their games. Stone-hearted to their entreaties, Goji and his picked comrades continued to play their music in the shadow of the cathedral, letting none of the others play or even sit nearby.
Eventually, they devised cruel jokes in the form of rhymes or songs that they would chant when children outside their group came near. It worked, for as the limericks caught on about the village, the others found it much better to stay away and avoid the hurtful jibes that the young musicians came up with. Goji and his compatriots got their wish; they were able to practice on their own, and increase their musical skill like the prodigies they were.
The storms first came in Goji’s fourteenth year. That was when the Veil was Pierced, and the First Breaking of the world came upon the world. The sky rained fire, scorching the earth to its bones, and the land of ravines cracked and shattered as upheavals tore it apart. Many villages perished whole, swallowed by the tortured earth.
In the largest village, the young musicians continued to play their music, refusing to acknowledge the end of the world. Their compatriots tried to pull them away, but Goji refused. “Nothing will make me leave this place!” he cried haughtily in his melodic voice, “I have been playing music here my whole life. This will pass, but my music will live on.”
Spurred on by him, his friends stayed as well, even as the first terrible Veilstorms rolled in. Goji clung to the masonry of the cathedral walls, while the rest stuck close by. The storm raged all around them, magic ripping and lashing with wind and rain. There was something different about this storm, something that made it worse than the previous Veilstorms. There was a terrible intelligence in this storm, something that bore the world a deep ill will.
They did not know it, but this magic storm, marked by an incredible pressure in the air, would come to be called a Malevolence. This was one of the first, or perhaps the very first, to strike this unlucky world. Succumbing to its power, most of the villagers who hadn’t fled were killed, or became howling abominations that ran off into the ashy night.
But a stranger fate awaited Goji and his closest companions. As they clung to the walls of the cathedral, the magic and the rain lashed at them in unnatural fury. Something shifted under the beating of the storm and the stone walls began to soften beneath the children’s’ fingers. Goji gasped, the thick air painful in his lungs, as the stone began to ooze from the wall, flowing like mud down his hands and arms. He tried to pull away, but the wind and the weight of the others only pressed him forward, and he wasn’t strong enough. The young folk screamed as they felt the bubbling stone cover them over, shaping them in ways they couldn’t understand.
The young musicians were covered by the liquid stone, their fearful shouts muffled as the flowing stone dripped over their mouths. Goji felt the terrible weight pressing on him from all sides, covering him in a new skin. He struggled in pain and fear, but it was far too late. As if focused on a single purpose, the stone wrapped him round, fusing with his body. The magic caused him excruciating torture, forming a new skin. As the wind and rain fell over the children in sheets, the stone grew denser, hardening into the new visage of their change.
None of them were themselves any more. They only barely resembled humans. Horns, wide eyes, gaping mouths, pointed wings, and many other strange additions had been made as the storm changed them. They had become twisted, comical mockeries of their former selves, monsters in silent stone. Somehow, their appearance seemed carefully planned, as if each feature had become a detail drawn by a mad artist, revealing the way they had become inside. Staring at one another out of the stone prisons they had fused with, the children would have screamed if they could have moved.
The storm slowly lost its terrific force as the night progressed. The sun rose, bringing steam from the splinters of broken houses and the dead bodies that had been washed away in the unstoppable flood of rainwater and magic. The villagers tried to gather together. Much of their town had been destroyed, or simply carried away. Nearly half of the townsfolk were dead…or worse, changed into the abominations that had run off howling and shrieking.
Among the dead were Goji’s parents, lying broken by the fallen timbers of their ruined home. No one could find Goji or the other children at first. Then one old woman noticed the twisted mockeries in stone that had appeared next to the cathedral.
Though she had been stoic through all the horrors up to this point, she finally broke down in tears as she pointed out the features of the changed children to everyone. The eerie and unmoving statues made silent, painful howls with their open mouths, and only seemed to mock the townsfolk and their frailty in the face of the storms. No one knew what could possibly be done about it. So far as they knew, there was no magic that could bring back the town’s lost children, though their loss was keenly felt. Eventually, as they struggled to rebuild the town, some workers dragged the statues inside the cathedral and left them there.
Many years passed, rolling into decades and then brushing against centuries. The nature of the statues was forgotten as the world turned, and the storms raged on. The cathedral survived, though it started to look battered and run-down, with cracks in the stones and timbers worn by the weather.
Among the survivors of the other scattered villages was one Romain, a boy who grew up and came to the largest village. He was a kind man, and a good leader, endlessly patient with rebuilding and reorganizing the village after every storm tore most of it down. When the work crews finally got around to repairing the cathedral, Romain had them place the ancient statues upon the roof, as guardians of the hall. He turned it into a school, teaching the children of the town the knowledge that had been threatened by the Breaking of the World.
The children’s choir would come every week and practice, their voices soaring high among the arches, a forest of stone rising to the sky. Silent and still over the door, the statues listened. More storms came, and the children were often rushed home before disaster could overtake them, for the world was still in great turmoil after the Piercing. The rain and wind ran over the statues, and they would gurgle or whistle as the storm went through their open mouths.
Romain heard them as he took shelter in his cathedral late into the night, and he began to call them “gurglers.” The children, delighted at the imposing yet humorous appearance of the statues, took up the name. Over the years, as they grew up and other children learned the tradition, it became “gargoyles”. Stumbling as they ran and played, singing snatches of the songs they were practicing, just as Goji and his friends used to do, only more carefree.
The world grew and changed, even as these children grew up and new children came to learn from Romain.
The stones baked in the heat of summer, or froze in the white winters, and still the sky spun over Goji, while he watched with wide eyes and gaping mouth. He learned, frozen in time but not in mind.
The gargoyles watched, perched eternally on their walls. They watched the horizon, the travelers who came and went, trading and rebuilding in the ruined world. They watched as the children grew up and built their own homes in the regrowing town, or braved the storms and went off over the horizon themselves. The gargoyles watched as the ravines filled in or burst farther apart, the land still feeling the endless aftereffects of the Piercing. They watched as Romain helped his village grow, and as more townsfolk came to fill out the town. More and more houses spread out from the cathedral under the watchful eyes of its guardians, and Goji saw their lives play out. He began to learn life’s tides and winds, as innumerable songs were sung to their end below him, endless poems of the everyday played out in the streets of the town.
A story came to be told among Romain’s students, passed from one child to another until it was legend. They believed that the appearance of the gargoyles was slowly changing. At first, it was only a small thing, like changed fingers or a mouth opening wider, but then their horns or wings shifted or disappeared entirely. They were becoming new creatures. Goji wondered if it were true, but he could not turn to look. He could only listen to what the children said of him.
It was a long time before the villagers felt that pressure in the air again, the weight of deadly magic pressing them down. The second Malevolence ripped the air apart with its fury, shrieking through the sky. When it hit the village, the force of its thunder burst houses apart, and the stones of the old cathedral shifted and groaned, scraping against one another through the old mortar.
The townsfolk still remembered how to run. They fled the village in a panicked rush, all but for the parents of the choir children. Instead, these mothers and fathers ran toward the cathedral. Romain stood within, gesturing for them to hurry. But just when they were on the verge of reaching that relative shelter, the terrible Malevolence struck. The wind hit the streets like a falling mountain.
Dead, dead, dead, sang the bells in the tower as the fierce wind rang them. Romain slammed the door shut against the howling storm, tears in his eyes. He took a deep breath, then turned to the children huddled in the center of the grand cathedral. The elder ones were trying not to whimper. They had seen nothing. There would be time enough after the storm was over to tell them what happened, if they all lived. The cathedral had been old as the ages when Romain had come to live here, and it had been ages since. Surely it could survive one more assault.
Hanging low, the storm clouds billowed and tumbled over one another in the sky, vast mountains of grey and black. Raging, they threw lightning from one to the next like vengeful gods. Watching through the window, Romain shuddered as the storm tore apart the town he had worked so many long years rebuilding. Bits of lumber and even stones tumbled through the darkened streets. Cracks opened up in the earth, and the cobblestones tumbled in, a river of stone in the driven rain.
Turning from the window, Romain went to the children, huddled together in the center of the grand cathedral. A few asked for their mothers or fathers, but he hushed them. What little comfort he could offer lay in his presence and soft words.
Above, the cathedral’s motionless guardians watched helplessly as everything was destroyed. As the wind blew through their mouths they howled fiercely, ignoring the wind and rain that battered them. It was the thunder, shaking and shivering through the building, that pained them the most. Under the rumbling force, the earth all around started cracking and breaking apart. The building shook, then began to settle, the softened ground splintering in all directions.
Within, the gargoyles could sense Romain hugging the children, then pushing them up the stone dais in alarm as the cathedral groaned. With a deafening crack, a dark crevasse appeared down the middle of the cathedral, and a boy was lost, screaming into the abyss. Dust billowed into the cathedral, a choking brown fog that stuck to everything and made it hard to breathe.
The floor was breaking up. With nowhere else to go, Romain pushed the children to the walls, pleading with them to climb the masonry. Scrabbling and scrambling, they raised themselves to the rafters and the forest of stone archways that made up the rooftop of the cathedral. As if chasing them, cracks worked their way up the elaborate walls. The storm blew right through, breaking the windows above and whistling in the cracks of the walls, screaming supernatural power into the room. The long arras shook, nearly knocking Romain off of his climb, then ripped loose, tossing about the great cathedral.
Desperate, Romain pushed the choir children upward, and they crawled along the high window sills until they were outside. The air was freer, but the walls were shaking and leaning sickeningly out over the cracked ground.
The children clung to the only bits of stone they could, the shifting statues they’d spent so many hours staring at instead of their lessons.
A tiny girl grasped the statue that had once been Goji by the arm. She wept into his shoulder, instantly soaked by the whirling storm. The rain whipped at them, and she shrieked as her hair was twisted and pulled by the fingers of the wind.
Desperate, Romain spread his arms and crouched over the little ones, trying to shield them. Raw magic like bright lightning burnt his back, and he cried out. As the walls slid downward toward the rain-soaked earth, he shouted into the storm. “Help them! Take me if you want, but leave–”
His voice was drowned as the opposite side of the cathedral sheared away in a torrent of screaming stone. Unheard, Romain begged his old stone guardians, his mascots of the cathedral, to protect the children, caring nothing for himself. His blood poured from the open wounds in his back, and then right out of his pores as the supernatural thunder burst on him.
His blood, spattering in the rain, pooled on in the nooks and crannies of the stones on the ruined roof of his beloved cathedral. Crimson in the lightning flashes, it splashed over Goji’s frozen figure, the little girl still weeping into his stone shoulder.
Stone chips flew as the storm reached its heights, pulling the stones apart on the wall, and still Romain crouched, shielding them all with his last strength. He couldn’t see it, but his blood was vanishing from the gargoyles, not washed away, but sinking in.
Romain’s eyes closed as the life drained from his body, so he never saw Goji move. However, he could hear the clear, high sound that cut through the thunder and the howling rain like a shaft of sunlight. Goji had begun to sing.
One by one, the other statues blinked their stone eyes, opened their mouths, and took up the song. They sang of the things they had seen, the joys and sorrows they had watched for so long. They sang of the horizon they had grown to love so much. They sang the Song of the World, and as they sang they got up from their perches, holding the tiny children close in their arms.
Romain sighed, but did not let his arms drop. As his blood drained from him completely, the man became rain-spattered stone.
Their song, cutting through the thunder, seemed to hold the walls of the cathedral up just long enough for the gargoyles to climb down, each with a child slung about their necks. As they left the ancient building, most of it collapsed into the earth, while the storm howled triumphantly. Only one chunk of masonry remained, topped by a stone man in a protective stance.
They walked on, bearing up under the storm, which was quickly fading. Golden daylight found the Gargoyles still walking, still singing, still carrying the children they had saved.
They found the villagers that had fled. Some of the children were returned to their parents, who had somehow survived; others cried silently, for the storm had taken many lives. Goji finally ceased his song, and turned to the father of the little girl whose life he had saved, and who now hugged her close.
His voice was still clear and musical, but had an edge that spoke of many years watching the comings and goings of his world. “Go back to your village now, friend. Build it up again, sing your daughter to sleep each night.” He turned to go, as the other Gargoyles were eager to move on and into the new light of dawn. But he hesitated, and then added with a smile, “Be sure and set the statue of the man that lies in the ruins of the old cathedral by the door of the new one. He will surely guard it as he always has.”
Bewildered, the father and the other villagers nearby nodded as they watched these strangely familiar creatures hurry on to new lands and new verses of their endless song.
The elder left off the last verse with a sigh of contentment. It was rare that he had such a rapt audience, the younger Gargoyles huddled together, bobbing their heads to the rhythm of his story. “Well, it looks like the worst of the storm is over, young ones. Time to be moving on, soon.” His skin scraped against the bench as he stood and stretched.
The other Gargoyles blinked, surprised, as they realized that the rain had ceased to batter against the old roof, and quiet moonlight was streaming through the windows. Delighted, they rushed to the door and out into the night. The older Gargoyle followed more slowly.
His cracked smile came back to his face as he saw the last, and youngest, Gargoyle pause by the door of the old ruin. His eyes wide, the little one stilled the small harp hung at his side and reached out to a rock that stood by the archway. The old lump of stone was weathered by countless years, scored by the weather and faded by long days. However, it still resembled a man, arms outstretched in a gesture of desperate protection.
The wind whispered through the silent village, echoing in the streets and corners. The buildings were clay and stone, brown and sun-baked. Here and there among the smooth cobblestones, dandelions poked their yellow faces up at the blue sky. There was a fragrant scent of smoke in the air, which smelled like the remnants of a hearth cookfire.
To the man who walked onto the main street carrying his roughspun satchel, the emptiness was freeing and peaceful. The round corners and shapely streets formed by the beautiful buildings reminded him of Arthur’s court, where he had left with his books over his shoulder to come and visit the Golems. Now he just needed to find out where they had gone.
The whispering of the wind increased as he walked slowly through the village, peering around corners and into shaded alleys. He almost didn’t hear the faint rumble as one of the buildings shifted.
The man turned and stumbled backward in surprise as the wall of the building next to him rippled and changed, detaching itself from the rest of the adobe structure. The smell of ash engulfed him as a pair of burning eyes opened from within the melting, shifting clay. The eyes glowed like embers as the wall shaped itself into the form of a gigantic man, broad-featured and imposing.
The little traveler stared up with his mouth open. The Golem lifted his huge hand and stroked a clay chin with massive fingers as his mouth split open across the tremendous face and spit out black smoke with a deep cracking noise like burning logs. The man from Arthur’s court gulped and smiled weakly as he realized the Golem was laughing.
“A-are you the truth-tellers, the slaves reborn, the great Golems of the earth?” The man stammered through his formal greeting as he fiddled with the straps on his satchel. The enormous round-shouldered figure stooped over him.
The voice that emanated from the Golem’s massive clay face was harsh and clinking, like a shovelful of hot coals poured over brick. “Don’t forget Voiceless, and Kiln-Born,” the great being rumbled. “I know of you, traveler. My sister holds the keys to the Silent Gate near where you live. You are the historian at Arthur’s great court, and you have come here to write the story of the Kiln-Born.”
“You speak truth, o Golem,” said the man, hastily opening a blank book and wetting his quill with ink. “Will you tell me the tale?”
“I will. I will tell you of our mother, the great Maharal, who gave us voice and freedom through her wisdom and bravery.”
Before the Second Breaking of the world, we were born in darkness and flame. The Speakers of Lies made us. They were masters of illusion who wanted to build real things, monuments to their greatness that would last a thousand years. They were mysterious beings, wreathed in smoke and shadow, without faces that any could discern, though they spoke with beautiful, melodic voices. They came up out of the dark and began to build their city above a cavern complex. Deep down in the tangled tunnels there lay an entrance to the mysterious place known as The Depths, the evil place that is horribly alive.
They planned their castles and fortresses as mighty constructions, tall as the sky and strong as the roots of the earth. However, the massive task was beyond the whispers and dreams of The Speakers of Lies. Even their mysterious power could not build their grandiose vision from the air. They began to search for a way to make their dreams real.
First, they enslaved the folk all around their city, binding them with promises and fantasies, then working them to death. But the slaves were mere men and women, frail flesh that could not build the colossal buildings that the Speakers wanted. No matter how hard the Speakers beat the slaves, their strength was not up to the task. The Speakers punished them with dark dreams, and began searching for another solution.
Reaching out from the shadows, a creature offered its services. It was mysterious and secretive, and the Speakers could determine little about its nature other than that it was very, very powerful. It was called The Merchant. He offered to show the Speakers secret pathways through The Depths, in exchange for trusting him with part of themselves. At first, the Speakers refused his offer, for they knew this creature would bind them to his will one day, if they took the bargain; but they were sorely tempted by what he revealed, and eventually they agreed to explore The Depths with his help.
Horror and misery lived there, but also power, power beyond reckoning. Deep down in the darkness, The Merchant showed the Speakers of Lies the Kiln of Ur, a thing of great power. He told them with manic delight how the Kiln was old beyond all remembering, and the fires that burned beneath it could infuse clay with deep magic.
Excited by The Merchant’s promises of wealth and glory through the power of The Depths, they brought the Kiln up out of the shadows. Just as the Speakers had been promised, they could create clay artifacts both wondrous and strange: Tablets with pressed writing that shifted and changed according to the heart and mind of the reader, and amulets that surrounded the Speakers even deeper in clouds of darkness.
This was not enough for The Merchant. He told the Speakers that their city would never be built without servants strong enough to last. He showed them a deeper magic, a foul, corrupt use of the Kiln. He promised to make them servants who could not defy them, who could not even complain. Calling for the nearest slave, who stood ready to obey the Speakers, the Merchant cut the man open with a curved claw and stuffed him screaming into a block of soft clay. The man’s blood mixed with the earth, and his voice was silenced in suffocation.
With fleshy fingers infused with metal, the Merchant shaped a new figure. A huge man formed of clay, perfect in every detail except that he had no mouth; the clay beneath his nose was smooth and unbroken. Then the Merchant placed it in the Kiln. As smoke poured into the clay man’s nostrils, the Merchant saw that he was full of vibrant life, bursting to breathe free like the newborn child he was. To bind him to the will of his masters, the Merchant wrote the characters for death on the being’s forehead, crushing him into submission with the dark power of the Kiln of Ur. The illusion of death was on the Kiln-Born, and he had no words.
Then, laughing silently at the Speakers’ grand dreams, the Merchant went back to the endless darkness from whence he came.
The Speakers of Lies killed their slaves indiscriminately to make more mute creations, never questioning the Merchant’s method, for they did not care to learn another way. They told their new slaves they were lesser beings, inferior creatures, and monsters. The Speakers showed the Golems illusions within The Depths that felt real. They told of blood-drinking and sacrifice, saying that the Golems had done the Speakers a great wrong in the past, a bloody horror that they must now atone for.
The Golems were born in fire, but raised in darkness. They lived in the caves below the great castles of the Speakers. Knowing no truth and feeling great shame, the Golems were set to work, building storehouses and fortresses for the Speakers in exchange for their forgiveness. The Kiln-Born had never seen their masters, and they rarely saw the light; the Speakers kept them in the caverns and tortured them in the Depths. Only at night were the Golems allowed outside, kept between rows of their shadowy masters to build their towers under the cold stars.
The Speakers of Lies were harsh taskmasters to their Kiln-Born slaves. The labor was intense, though the Golems had been built for it. They could shape stone and clay as easily as butter, but they rarely saw the mighty constructions they raised. In the moonlight, they were driven onward with the threat of horrific visions. The Speakers demanded more and more, commanding their slaves to fill gaps in the walls, forcing the Golems to use themselves as building material.
One of the Kiln-Born was set to working the kiln, stoking the flames and bringing the clay in and out. The Speakers called the Golem that cared for the kiln “the Golem-mother,” for as they were no more than dead clay, the Golems were given no names.
The magic of the Kiln of Ur burned the Golem-mother with excruciating pain, threatening to unmake her every time she raked the coals. She was covered in soot, for her shadowy masters forced her to enter the huge kiln. Night after night, she rearranged the Golems as they cooked, and took tablets in and out of the kiln. Her body became hard and cracked from the wracking heat.
One night, when the howls of the creatures in the Depths below the caverns that held the kiln were loudest, the Golem-mother found herself alone. The smoke-wrapped overseer that ordered her about and punished her with horrible visions was gone, seeking more power for itself elsewhere in the caverns.
The Kiln of Ur lay in a cave underneath a stone castle built by and of the slaves. One side of the vault dropped away to an abyss that led to The Depths. The Golem-mother looked carefully around the darkness, waiting for someone to tell her what to do. All was silent but for the roar of flame underneath the Kiln of Ur. Slowly, carefully, she opened the far door on the great kettle-shaped kiln, its smokestacks pouring out more darkness from the ever-burning blue coals that lay underneath.
Once inside, she brushed away the ash that had settled on one of the Golems, who lay still sleeping as the smoke of life flowed in through their nostrils. She walked carefully over to the other side of the kiln, where row upon row of huge clay tablets lay baking, each covered in magical script. She grabbed one in her blackened fingers and crept back out of the kiln.
In the flickering shadows, the Golem-mother stared around the room once more, and glanced at the abyss that led to the Depths. She listened to the whispering cries of creatures down in the dark. Then she went off to one side and scraped a nook into the wall, there to secret her prize. The half-cooked tablet hidden inside, she covered it up again and went back to her duties, tending the coals of the Kiln of Ur.
It was not long before the overseer returned, hovering near the kiln in his cloud of darkness. If he suspected anything, he kept silent, musing on the sights and sounds he had experienced deep within the Depths. The overseer paid no attention whatever to the Golem-mother.
The next night, the overseer was late again. The Golem-mother was wracked with guilt and shame over her theft, and she waited as long as she could, but eventually she dug out the tablet and studied it. The markings made no sense to her. She had no idea that its magic had already begun to work, and its letters shifted and changed as questions plodded through her weary mind. The semi-hardened clay was still glowing with the magic of the Kiln of Ur, and as she stared at it with uncomprehending fascination, the magic wafted up like a mist and settled in her.
The day after that, she stole another tablet just before the overseer’s smoky form appeared. Little by little, she gathered more and more of the word magic into herself, and the Speakers of Lies knew nothing. Somehow, the guilt she felt over the stealing faded, and she began to care more for the Golems that were fired in the kiln, sweeping the vents free of ash and keeping the temperature of the kiln even.
One day, a pair of higher-ranking members of the Speakers of Lies came through to collect the tablets. In their musical voices, they talked of the great tower they were constructing, and of the mathematics of the architecture, and the magic contained within the tablets where these mysteries were described. They went on to speak of the need for more mouthless slaves to carry and build, and the new illusions they had devised to push the Golems harder.
The two shrouded figures instructed the Golem-mother to take out the clay that had been fired. Uncaring and peremptory, they checked the tall Golems for cracks and examined the smooth, perfectly shaped clay tablets that smelled of earth and flame. One of the young Golems they deemed too dried-out by the fire and ordered him tossed into the Depths. Ignoring their brother the overseer, whose shadows flickered with annoyance, the pair of architects slowly wafted out, pointing out the letters and speaking of buildings and logistics.
Almost unnoticed, the Golem-mother watched them leave with her newest children, fully cooked by the fire and mutely following orders. She knew the raw pain they felt, images of horror flashing through their memories. She wondered if the Speakers’s talk had something to do with the markings on the tablets.
Later, in the dim blue firelight, she pored over her stolen tablets with intense curiosity. She knew that if she were discovered, none of the Speakers would hesitate to unmake her, turning her into clay as lifeless as though it still lay within the earth. However, she wanted to speak, to make sounds the way her captors did.
The power of the clay tablets and the Kiln that fired them coursed through her, and the Golem-mother learned to read. Words burned like fire within her, and the next day, when a blue coal fell from her tongs onto her foot, she cried out. Though she had no mouth and the sound was muffled deep in her throat, the faceless figure of the overseer started within its cloud of smoke, and the darkness gathered around it as though it were staring at her.
However, the Golem-mother merely went about her business as though nothing had happened. Perhaps the overseer decided it had just been a poorly made tile cracking in the heat, for he seemed to go back to a dormant state.
The Golem-mother watched carefully for her chance to practice when she was alone in the dark. She could make noises, but she had no mouth to truly speak. She hummed as she read the tablets, learning all they said of lines and corners, buildings and shapings. As more soft clay tablets and barely-formed Golems were brought to the Kiln of Ur, she decided to give herself a name. She wanted an identity that was different from the noises she had heard the Speakers call each other, a name that would define her as a person, not a slave.
She chose the name Maharal. She used to hum it to herself, with only the shrieking of the horrors in The Depths for answer. She repeated the noise, over and over, until it became part of her. She was Maharal; the Maharal was the Golem-mother.
The nights passed in toil and heat. Every now and then, architects came by and berated the overseer of the Kiln for the missing tablets. They never suspected the Golem in the room; for without a name, and death on her forehead, she was nothing.
However, one night the overseer of the kiln came down to check on the coals. His shadowy form paused on the stairs that led down into the dark chamber. What was that noise?
Continuing cautiously onward and intensely curious, he became more and more alarmed. Someone was whispering. Drawing his wicked weapon, he readied for battle, but only found the Golem mumbling to herself as she stoked the blue coals; “Maharal, Maharal, Maharal.” The sound was getting louder and louder, as though something muffling it had been removed.
Laughing, for he was not afraid, the overseer sheathed his weapon and stepped into the room. Shocked, the Golem woman jumped to her feet, covering the mouth that had just split open in her face. The overseer only laughed some more at her embarrassment. “You fool. I could unmake you for this. Instead, I will allow you to live, and only teach you how the Kiln-Born are meant to be. Cross the bridge and enter The Depths!”
Trembling, Maharal approached the edge of the abyss. There was a bridge, but it was invisible, hidden by devious creatures that whispered and flitted through the dark. Holding herself, she did as instructed, looking down into the endless darkness. She became all fear and servile obedience, as the overseer laughed musically and clapped at her clumsiness. Movement, magic, and gloom: these are the things the Depths is made of, a being whose desires are dark as the bottomless depths of a soul.
Into this darkness Maharal went, recovering her bravery as she passed through the gate. Behind her, the overseer shook with delight inside his cloud of obscuring mist. With the mysterious magic of the Speakers of Lies, he summoned a strange smoke. As Maharal watched, the smoke grew and grew, shedding a weird light all its own. The greenish light reflected back off glittering points from all directions. It illuminated a strange chamber that was lined with broken glass. The light splintered and refracted in a thousand colors, but Maharal gasped in shock as she looked down. A bloody trail lay behind her where her great feet had trod, yet she had felt nothing.
A crashing noise erupted all around her and the wickedly sharp glass shards shook. She realized that the noise was the laughter of The Depths.
The overseer, unharmed as he floated over the bloody glass, hummed a happy song. Weeping, Maharal attempted to find a safe place to stand, but the overseer stopped her with a tendril of shadow. “Breathe this,” he demanded, and held out a handful of ashes.
Maharal choked, smelling the vile stuff that filled her nostrils as she watched her feet bleeding into the clear shards of glass. She began to see shapes in the greenish smoke the overseer had summoned. She saw figures and forms of horror, all mutilated faces of herself. Only these were older and younger versions of her, visions that had never existed and never could exist, for the Speakers of Lies built their slaves as fully grown beings.
“Yes, that’s it. Hold that ash in your lungs now, Kiln-Born. I am going to instruct you about yourself. First, know why your mouth was taken from you.”
The images shifted, becoming denser and darker, until a scene of bloody horror was revealed. She was no longer in the glass room, with the overseer wafting the smoke at her face. She stood at a bloody battlefield on a frozen mountaintop, strewn with bodies. The untouched snow was startlingly white; a purity that made the crimson splash across it all the more vivid. Flesh splashed with blood lay about in chunks, twisted and torn apart. The air stank of raw meat and rot. There were massive bite marks, bubbling blood. The red droplets, freezing slowly, gleamed like polished jewels. A woman struggled for breath nearby; she was missing an arm and a leg, bloody stumps still trickling. It looked as though something enormous had chewed and torn her apart.
Smoke curled at the edges of Maharal’s sight; crinkles and folds appeared in her vision; from a great distance, she heard the voice of the overseer, growing harsher. The music in his voice was gone, as though the glass room had drained the color from him. “And now you will learn why we must make the Kiln-Born now, why you cannot be allowed to bear children.”
Staring at the great white-and-red expanse shimmering before her, Maharal blinked away tears.
When she opened her eyes, she saw a room whose walls were made of metal pipes pumping and thrusting at each other. Splayed on racks shaped like five-pointed stars lay men and women writhing. Unable to look away, Maharal shuddered as a huge round-shouldered figure ambled into view, chuckling. The Golem was fitted with glittering metal, and his slick connections wept fluid like foul orifices of mechanical origin.
The Golem’s voice was husky, yet smooth. “Aren’t you excited? It is time for your progeny to serve.” He reached down and plunged his massive arm into an open, rubbery tube sticking out of the floor. With a heave and a suction noise, he plucked out an infant, which immediately started wailing. “Ah, yes, fresh blood. Delicious.”
One of the women who was strapped in place struggled harder, her eyes widening. Though she seemed to recognize the cry, she could not turn her head to look, as it was held in place by the clear pipe trickling black fluid down her throat. The Golem glanced at her, and then back to the hiccuping infant. “Oh yes, number seven, this is yours. Beautiful. You will be happy to know that your spawn will serve us well, a devoted creature of The Depths!”
Dangling the tiny boy carelessly, he placed the infant in a glass pod, which slid along a metal track and into a rusty hole gaping in the wall. The Golem patted a man strapped across the aisle, who writhed and choked beneath his touch. The gigantic figure made a pious face. “So much to do, can’t stop to appreciate the momentous occasion. Well done, three and seven. It’s a healthy start to a wonderful servant. Now, we need some fluid.”
Extruding a long blade from a clay finger, the Golem made an incision on the man’s bare leg. Dark, viscous blood dripped down to the floor, which shifted pipes as if to lap it up.
Maharal struggled against the vision as she watched the Golem slowly lever the blade in deeper, licking his lips. She tried to cover her eyes, but her arms wouldn’t move. It felt like her whole body was held in a metal vise, unable to even wriggle. She smelled nothing but blood and smoke, the smell of the Kiln and of death.
“You see?” the honeyed voice of the overseer broke in on her thoughts. “Before we learned to conceal ourselves, your ancestors did such deeds to our children, an outrage that will echo down the generations in peals of horror. We create new Kiln-Born now only that they may do penance for the deeds of their fathers. You deserve your life. All of the Kiln-Born do. You know it, in the deepest part of your clay heart. You were born to do your little part, to cleanse yourself of the evil your people have done. For no one truly dies but you, Kiln-Born. And thus your sacrifice has meaning.”
Maharal kept silent, knowing that the horrifying illusions would eventually end. When the overseer finally grew tired of torturing her, he laughed and brought her back to the room of flame where she had slaved all her life. “Do your duty,” was what he left her with, as he walked back to the stairs and toward his well-appointed rooms up above.
Maharal watched him go. He had shown her a twisted truth; she could not trust her own eyes, or her own memories. She could not trust the creature she had been before. She could only trust Maharal, which she had become.
And then it struck her; the Speakers of Lies had not shared their immortality with their slaves. Forced to wear death upon her brow like a badge of doom, she was a creature who truly died, whose life had no meaning in the great span of time that all other beings shared. The Speakers of Lies had denied the Golems the most vital piece of their lives. This was the greatest betrayal of all.
Her inborn fear and shame took a long time to fade. She watched the blue shadows play across her fingers in the firelight, and whispered her name in the dark.
The next night did not bring the Kiln taskmaster back down the tunnel. A terrible storm was brewing, and he and all his kin were struggling to make their slave-built storehouses safe from harm. Their treasures and their magics were too delicate to be exposed to the destruction of the Veilstorm.
Listening to the thunder echo through the caverns up above, Maharal stepped closer and closer to the blue coals that were never consumed. Her mouth still full of ash, she spat out her own name and held her finger in the fire until it was black and hard. As the thunder began booming up above, she opened the blast door of the Kiln of Ur and entered once again. The heat was intense, and bits of ash billowed through the rarified air like lost souls. The heat cracked Maharal’s skin and lit her with flame. She went over to the Golems that lay sleeping, filling with a life that was twisted into slavery by the death magic written on their foreheads. Maharal reached out with her finger and called upon the magic that had entered her.
At the moment her finger touched the Golem, the Malevolence above thundered again, shaking the cavern. She had to draw on everything she had read, all the knowledge she had absorbed alone in the darkness. She had mastered the magic of words, where the Speakers had only brushed the surface, content with their slaves and the promises of The Depths. She knew she had to change the course of her life with one letter, one small shift that meant everything. Her finger gouged the clay flesh to make a new word, adding just one character to the writing on the Golem’s forehead. It spelled truth.
The Golem’s eyes flew open. They flared with the heat of the fire and the light of the truth that burned inside his mind. He knew at once that the memories the Speakers’s dark magic had implanted were mere illusions, lies to confuse and shame him. He knew the truth of his youth and his innocence, and his immense power to choose his own life.
The Golem leaped up roaring, and Maharal smiled through cracked lips as she bent over another Kiln-Born and wrote truth upon its forehead. He too leapt up, dancing in the fire to see his mother.
When they had all been given new life, free and clear of death magic, Maharal was baked to a crisp, cracked and smooth all over. They helped her out carefully, and then grasped the Kiln of Ur in their mighty arms and pushed it over, toppling the artifact and rolling it into the abyss, where it disappeared in a flash of blue fire. As they left the caverns that were their prison, the Voiceless began to sing through the ash that filled their mouths.
The storm raged on, spilling water and liquid magic down the stairs that led to the room of fire while the Golems marched upward, still carrying their mother. When they emerged into the clouded light, they found the Speakers of Lies in chaos. The clouds of shadow ran hither and thither, struggling to protect their gaudy treasures from the storm, even as it tore at their buildings and its magic threatened their minds. Some were turned into abominations on the spot, becoming great bloated things with long arms and eyes in their hands.
The rain steamed off of the fire-hot Golems, sizzling and hissing. They set about awakening their fellows, pulling them out of the walls and archways to write truth upon them and into them. Their mouths opened for the first time, releasing a united cry. Even in the storm, the buildings caught fire from the furnace that burned in each Golem, and the flames spread as they awakened more and more.
The Speakers saw that the slaves who had given their bodies to form the walls of treasure-houses were getting up and walking away. Abandoning the scramble to get their belongings out of the storm, the shadowy figures gathered together into a battle line. Blades and whips appeared from the clouds of darkness, who whispered threats in their melodic voices.
The fires roared higher, tall towers collapsing as the Golems gathered into a loose group and started to look around. In the bright fires, they could see the winding mountain road that led out, away from the city of lies.
The line of dark opponents stood across their path, spitting curses at the slaves. For a long moment, the clay giants hesitated, looking at one another in the flickering red light and the spouts of steam. Far above, lightning crackled with magic and the dark clouds billowed in a hot wind.
The moment shattered as one newly-awakened Golem stepped forward. With a cry that matched the thunder, he hurled a massive chunk of stone into the massed ranks of darkness. There was a scream, and then the Golems all rushed forward as one. They crashed into the Speakers with tremendous force, but their overlords wielded vicious weapons. Blood and ashes burst into the air as the Golems struggled to reach the mountain road.
After a few moments, Maharal broke free through a gap in the line, careless of the deep wounds in her legs, which leaked steaming blood and smoke into the air. She led the Golems at a hobbling run, taking the steep path without slowing.
A few Golems lay still on the ground, spilling hot coals. A few shadows quivered here and there, crushed by the giants’ desperate charge. Behind them, the former Overseer of the Kiln of Ur lay crushed and broken. Unable to hold onto this reality any longer, the Speaker of Lies melted into thick smoke and disappeared through cracks in the earth, returning to The Depths, which demanded its share of the old bargain and reclaimed him as its own.
Running up the path out of the dissipating storm, the Golems found themselves in daylight for the first time. It was a gentle, warm light, so unlike the fires and moons that had lit their work for all their lives. They were outside the city, which lay smoking behind them in crumbled ruins. Some magic still struggled to show the castles still standing, an army massing below on the plain that would ride out and recapture the slaves. However, the Golems saw through these illusions easily. Falsity and shadows melted from their eyes like the smoke that they blew from their mouths. The Kiln-Born set off to find a new life.
Maharal, who walked with difficulty but no end of dignity, eventually came to the front of the camp and blew a spout of smoke into the air. Following her signal, the Golems trod onward, over the mountains and crags.
When the Golem finished speaking, he simply stopped. There was silence as he stood there, waiting for the historian to finish writing. His eyes still burned with an inner fire, but they were like soft embers, remembering.
The soft scritch-scratch of the historian’s pen finally stopped, and he plucked up a piece of crinkling paper to wipe away the excess ink. He glanced up with a faraway look. “A beautiful story, friend. But how does it end? How did you come here, to Arthur’s Realm? What is your name, and the name of your beautiful but empty village?”
The sharp laughter of the massive Golem spat sparks as he turned and waved at the village. In response, the walls and buildings all around melted, collapsing into mounds that rose again as ashy clay giants, smiling and blowing curls of smoke into the air. “The village is not empty, friend. It was merely our afternoon rest. Before I tell you the next part of the story, join my family for a meal; I am called Yosef.”
When the meal was over, Yosef waved his massive hand at the little Golems that ran about his adobe house, shooing them outside. They laughed at him in a shower of sparks, while the smallest twined herself into her mother’s clothing, staring shyly at the human guest, although she was nearly his height and twice as heavy.
The historian from Arthur’s court wiped his mouth and sighed, too full to stuff himself with any more of the roasted nuts and grapes that had ended the meal. It was with slight regret that he reached for his pen and ink once more. “Shall we continue the tale, then?”
Yosef rumbled deep within, churning the furnace of his body. “We shall.”
The smoke of the burned towers gushed from the tumbled stones in great columns of darkness, stark against the now cloudless sky. The clay slaves burned and smoked with the truth that was written across their faces as they left their old lives behind. The mountain paths rose high to halt their escape, but the great distances were eaten up by the huge strides of the freed slaves.
Magic sputtered and swirled over the smoking ruin, almost as though an army were gathering to chase and overtake the Golems. However, they knew it was just illusion. The Speakers of Lies had been driven underground, deep into their caves to escape the fiery storm of their destruction, deep into the darkness of the Depths.
The Golems walked, carrying nothing from that place but the clay tablets they had snatched from the Kiln of Ur and its consuming fire.
Their steps took them high into the mountains, into the clearest, brightest light they had ever seen, those slaves born and bred in darkness and smoke. The light burst upon them like a flood of brilliant gold, and they cried out in pain and wonder. Though they had never seen such light before, it felt like coming home to a birthright they never had.
The Voiceless opened their new mouths and sang, their voices sharp and unused, but full of joy. The sun shone down like a grandfather who loved them, the wind blew to cool them, and it carried the scent of their hot clay over the peaks.
They straggled and crowded each other, taking in each new sight with awe. Soon, the Golems were dispersed over the mountains in uneven groups, meandering and losing their way. They had never spent time in such wide open space, with vistas of the lands round about on every side. They stared and sang, and listened to each other’s voices, though they soon could hear only echoes of other Golems through the valleys.
It was Maharal, stiff and limping, who pushed to the front of the Golems and took a deep breath. She sent a spout of smoke into the air, a pillar that guided them.
Following her signal, the Golems came together and found their way over the tall mountains. There was little life high in the coldest reaches. Maharal led them, stumbling but holding her head high. They had no trouble navigating the night’s darkness, used as they were to the starlight and aided by their own flames.
They came to plateaus up in the mountains where hard-bitten Vikings lived, buffeted by winds and drenched by cold rain. The folk here led a hard life, and they had become hard to live it. The houses were tall, built with sloping roofs for the harsh winters. The Golems approached the town cautiously. They wondered who lived here, out in the open. It was so very different from the slaver’s caves where the Golems had been imprisoned.
So the clay giants gathered around the first building of the village as a strange old man came out to talk to them. He carried a naked blade in one hand, lightly though it was as tall as he was. His fist clenched around the handle as he looked up at the bent and cracked Maharal and asked, “Who are you and what do you want?”
In the voice that was burnt and broken with practice, Maharal responded, “We are the Kiln-Born, and we are looking for a new home.”
The man appeared to consider, stroking his grizzled chin. He had one blind eye, whitish blue in hue, that stared vacantly while the other sharp black pupil scanned over the smoking Golems who were coming over the ridge. “You have come to a Viking village to look for a new home? Out of the lands controlled by the Speakers of Lies?”
“Yes.” Maharal looked back over her entourage with him as they slowly came over the ridge.
There was tension in the man’s face. A muscle twitched as he looked up at the massive, smoking figures. “Well, you look strong. We need strength, here. The winters are harsh and we must build better shelter if we wish to survive.”
“We will help you.”
“But, know this.” said the man’s wife, stepping out of her old, large, wooden house. “We are no fools. We have heard stories of what you’ve done before you came here. If you can change, well then, you may build our walls. If you cannot change, know that we are warriors to the bone, and do not suffer evil creatures here.”
Maharal nodded slowly. “We are not evil creatures. And we have much to learn. We will gladly build with you.”
The Vikings looked at each other, and something unspoken seemed to pass between them. The Golems entered the town.
The Vikings made a little space for them within the town, and the Kiln-Born built shacks and huts with the chalky clay and stones of the mountains. The leaves fell in clusters, showers of color like bright ash, as a wall went up around the town. The Golems were expert builders, and they soon found they could build higher and faster and farther than any of the Vikings in the little town.
The Kiln-Born traded their work for sustenance, and they tried to make friends with the harsh folk, but it was extremely difficult. The Vikings looked askance at the huge clay creatures that burned and smoked like a furnace, and knew nothing of their traditions.
Many of the Golems would sit on stones, staring out at the mountain vistas while their compatriots worked on the walls. They were tired, and the spirit of freedom was too much for them. They were too used to being driven forward with whips and horrible visions by the Speakers of Lies.
Maharal was not one of these. Nor was Dinah, a strong-willed Golem who took over the construction work when Maharal’s burned and cracked body gave out in exhaustion, and the old Golem had to rest.
It was dangerous work, for the wall rose high and broad, a sturdy protection from the winds of winter that were slowly rising from the peaks. By the time the first frost came, the walls were nearly completed. It was then that Dinah, taking her rest behind the inn that she was too large to fit into, overheard a conversation.
One Viking said to another, “That wall is coming along nicely. It will be warmer this winter. My house won’t be blown down this time.”
The other speaker’s voice was slurred, as he was deep in his cups. “Yes, that’s good. No telling what they’ve put in there, though. I heard that they put children in the bricks when building the Tower of Lies over the mountains. You just can’t trust these Kiln-Borns.”
The first speaker hesitated. “That’s what you heard? I heard they were slaves, and escaped.”
“Eshcaped? No, no, Roger, you’ve got it all wring. Wrong. You know what the story is. They killed their masters, and burned their city to the ground. We best take care they don’t do the shame to us, then.”
“I see. Who’s to say if that’s what happened, though? Where’d you hear it from?”
“A shtrange feller. Traveled in a black cloak. He shpoke to a few folksh in the village, then was gone before any Kiln-Borns shpotted ‘im. What we don’t know is if they’re really gon’ drink blood like they say.”
“Like who say?”
“The Oversheer, he called ‘imshelf. Wuns that what talk, you know. The chief. Him and the Oversheer. It’s been said – not by me, mind ya – that it’s the whatchamacallit, they sacrifice to make these Golems. Horrible. The Depths magic makes ‘em. We better watch out.”
“Well, we’ll keep our eyes open. I’m uncomfortable around them, it’s true. We could never be battle brothers.. But they’re good builders, no denying that.”
“And not for me to deny it! They are good builders, but you just have to be careful. It’s not like a real Viking builder. It’s just not the same, it’s a bit awkward, and you can’t ever relax.” “You know, they always tell the truth? If you ask em what they think, they will tell you, straight out. No filter on their words.”
“Yes, they aren’t the cleverest. Can’t trust anyone that claims to tell the truth all the time, eh? The Overseer in the cloak said…honesty is meaningless to ‘em, because words just are that, just what they think. Got to be completely human to be a battle brother, or at least you got to have real skin, real blood that’s yours inside you and not taken from some poor slave.”
Dinah, listening, was frightened and saddened. The Golems would never be fully accepted. They would never be battle-brothers with the Vikings.
Dinah went to speak with Maharal. But she was working on the wall, directing the Golems as they laid in the mighty stones of the gate that would provide entry to the town. Several Vikings stood about, including the grizzled warrior who had met them at the front of the town when they had first come here.
Maharal listened to Dinah’s voice and left instructions to continue before walking off with the younger Golem. She was told of the conversation overheard, and she understood that their time here would not last.
But the Golems were too disorganized and too tired to move on. They liked living here in a settled area. They liked the protection the Vikings offered.
So, the time passed in toil and peace, as the last of the leaves blew by on the wind and the frost began to creep down from the white peaks. Soon, the Golems were huddling together for warmth, their hot bodies burning away the chill.
The Vikings were glad enough of the heat and the walls when the snows came, and great winds tore across the plain on wings of death. There were no houses blown over this year, and no one was homeless and frozen in the whiteness as it descended. Food was shared all through the town, and everyone kept life and limb together.
Old wizened elders would sit by the fire and tell stories and share gossip. Into the fire lit circles of these long winter evenings, when none of the Kiln-Born were around, there came a stranger in a dark cloak. In a melodious voice from deep within his hood, he joined the storytelling with a twisted tale. It was a story of a tall man, a fiery beast that took a Viking child and smothered him in the snow to make more of his kind. The story grew in the telling, twisted as it was, and although no name like Golem or clay creature was mentioned in the story, everyone knew what was meant. Several of the elders whispered that the stranger was hidden beneath strong illusions, but could do little to alleviate the power of the insidious tale in the younger leaders’ ears.
By the time that spring melts had begun tearing down the mountainside, the story was running rampant through the town. There began to be murmurings among the Vikings, and they started avoiding the tall builders in the street. Still the Golems stayed.
There was a terrible storm, a sleeting rain that washed out part of the path down the mountain.
The grey-haired man came to the Golem quarter, where they had erected their huts and enormous one-room houses. He asked to speak to Maharal, and waited impatiently while one of the Golems went to find her. Maharal appeared carrying a bundle.
“What can I do for you?” she asked.
“I’m not going to sweeten this. We can no longer abide your presence here in our town. We thank you for the wall you helped to build…but you are no longer welcome. You do not belong here.” Maharal blinked wearily down at him. “What do you mean? We have lived here for almost a year. Of course we belong here. We built these homes, and we built that wall with our bare hands.“
The Viking shook his salt-and-pepper head. “There are tales going about what you do in the dark of night. We can’t risk you sliding into the ways of the Speakers of the Lies, your creators. You cannot stay.”
Maharal sighed, blowing smoke into the chill spring evening. “I see. You drive us away because of some imagined story about a Golem and a Viking child. We have no children of our own, not yet, and so you suspect we would want yours. We cannot defend ourselves from this lie, and whoever began it is gone, or more likely unknown to you entirely. If things have progressed so far that you cannot tell the difference between lies and truth, then it is indeed time for us to leave. We will tear down our homes and go in the morning, out into the cold.’
The Viking man hesitated once again. “Well–there is no need for you to tear down the houses. No doubt we will need them again in the future.” He glanced up at Maharal’s angry face and added, “Well, here in the harsh mountains, we cannot afford to waste anything. We must be as hard as the land and weather itself to survive.”
“That is an excuse, and next door to a lie. You let us build for you, and you listen to the stories, knowing in your heart that the truth is quite different from what the loose lips are saying. But no matter. If we are not welcome, then we will go.”
In answer, the chief of the Vikings turned and left, hand resting on the pommel of his sword in its leather sheath.
Before the night was out, Viking warriors stepped boldly up to the edge of the Golem shantytown, holding torches in one hand and lowered axes in the other. The firelight flickered over their gleaming helmets and made dark shadows out of their eyes. Their mouths were set in a grim line as they stood, quiet and menacing. The Golems, waking from their uneasy slumber, knew that these foes were fierce and strong, and could feel the anger waiting, growing like the storm that had freed them.
They packed up and left, taking only the few scraps they had managed to scrape up from the kindness of the townsfolk and their refuse. They left through the tall, wide wall they had built, walking out the open gate and into the dark sunrise. Morning found them making their way down the steep trail. The grass hissed in the wind, and they could feel the eyes of the Vikings still on them, following their progress.
When the train of great clay Golems reached the point where the trail had been washed out in the storm, they momentarily halted, struggling to find a way down. There was always the danger of tumbling down the mountainside, which would be their last journey.
It was Yosef who laid himself down first, to form the stairs that would lead down the mountain. Then Dinah, then another, and another until half of the Golems were walking over their brethren.When the last Golem had passed, Yosef brought himself back to his natural form and followed down. There was a silence among the Golems as they left the mountain behind, traveling down to warmer valleys. There was nothing to sing about; they were Voiceless once more.
The next day they went further, and after that further still. They wandered, and soon Maharal found herself at the front of the line once again, blowing pillars of smoke into the air to guide them and keep them together.
Their great steps took them far, over hills and around mountains. They saw other towns up in the weather-beaten heights, but the Kiln-Born had had enough of the frosty welcome they received and avoided them for the most part, only going into town to trade the few things of value they picked up on their travels for food and necessities. They wandered far, and came to a warmer climate. They left the mountains behind, and found themselves on the edge of a vast forest.
The trees were tall and thickly grown together, a tangle of growing things. It was warm here, and a wetness in the air seemed to breathe with life. The Golems opened their eyes and looked on in wonder at the twisted trees rising high up and out of sight. Here and there, flowers poked through the foliage in bright blues and reds, poisonously bright. It was with wonderment and awe that the Golems entered underneath the green-on-green canopy, a mysterious shadowed interior full of rustling and hidden creatures calling to each other. The smell of bark and wet leaves flooded the smoky senses of the Golems.
The forest seemed to resist them at first, but with their incredible strength the Kiln-Born pushed through, eager to find what manner of creatures lived here. The heat was intense, and the air was close and heavy. However, as the Golems only sought to move forward and didn’t set fire to the forest, it seemed to relax. The trees and vines loosened a little, and there were little deer tracks for the huge Golems to follow, though they petered out and led away from the heart of the forest as often they led deeper in.
Without warning, the forest opened up into a meadow, a great green expanse bursting with life. It was like nothing the Golems had seen before. They breathed the air and rejoiced. It felt like coming home, for they had been filled with life by the Kiln of Ur, before that part of them had been sealed away by the Speakers of Lies.
Dotted here and there across the green meadow there were tall trees, massive oaks that appeared to bloom with purple flowers. As the smoking Kiln-Born got closer, they saw that these were not flowers but glowing points of magic energy.
The enormous oak trees were surrounded by dwellings, clustered under their protective branches. The Golems approached with caution, fascinated by the strange sights.
A voice spoke from the grass, almost under Maharal’s feet. “So you have come to the Children of Danu, Fire-Heart. Welcome to the forest.”
Maharal looked down to see a Tuatha Dé Danann man lying with his hands behind his head in the tall grass. He had been invisible, hidden in the greenery until she was on top of him. Long, curling horns that swept back from his brow, and a wide smile that almost glowed with confidence. The eyes, however, were deep and hard, full of readiness.
Maharal cleared her throat. “We have come to look for a new home. Perhaps we can help you build new things here, in your forest under the great protector trees.”
The Tuatha man jumped up, his smile growing wider. “That is indeed what they are called! Perhaps you can be a part of our little settlement, after all. But know this.” For a moment, he stared up into her clay face with a harsh glare. “A dark-cloaked stranger came before you. He told us tales of your blood drinking and child-stealing. I make no judgement of whether these tales be true or not…but you will have to change your ways if you wish to live here. Nature is a harsh mistress at times, and you must learn to live your life to her rhythms and moods.”
“I believe you speak the truth. Do not judge the Kiln-Born based on the rumors you have heard. We will do our utmost to learn your ways and live with nature, as you call it.”
And so, the Golems settled into the meadow in the deep forest. The folk looked at them strangely, but they were hardly the oddest thing in the woods of the Tuatha Dé Danann. They gathered logs from fallen trees and bent them, straining against the tall pillars of wood, weaving them into homes in the forest. The little settlement grew, and the Great Protectors grew massive and strong, spreading their magic branches high over the forest dwellers.
Though the Tuatha allowed the Golems to live in their forest, it seemed as though they were never quite comfortable. The fiery giants lived off by themselves in a corner of the meadow, and rarely mingled with their hosts.
The oak grew and grew, its magic enhanced by the creatures living below it. Soon, the roots of the vast tree were digging into the earth where the Tuatha made their homes. It was too mighty for them to work with, impossible to bend the tremendous roots to their wills. It took the strength and knowledge of the Golems to work with the magic oak.
The Tuatha shared some of their knowledge with the Golems, though it was not always easy to make the Voiceless hear the will of the forest. The Tuatha prince was soon sending the Golems out to find more and more fallen logs to build up their forest castle. It was a proud structure, woven of mighty trees that had seen their last days, and held together with great craft. He ignored the whispers and rumors that spoke against them.
The days of summer were long and golden, and the Golems set to their work with a will, venturing deeper and deeper into the woods in search of the materials. They took naturally to this way of life, and they felt more and more in tune with the forest, though the Tuatha seemed to think otherwise. They constantly tried to make the Golems understand how deep their connection went, as though the trees themselves could speak with the language of root and leaf.
One day, there was a terrible accident. Several Golems were working together under the direction of Maharal, but she grew weary and was forced to return to the meadow to rest. Without her knowledge to guide them, the Golems worked and blew smoke in frustration, trying to extract a tremendous treetrunk that had died but had no room to fall, becoming stuck in between living trees. In the course of their lifting and pushing on the trees, none of them noticed that one of the vines wrapped around the huge treetrunk loosened its grip and snapped.
By the time the log groaned and leaned heavily over under its own weight, it was too late. The other Golems scrambled out of the way, but one was caught in a mess of tangled vines. He watched helplessly as the vast trunk came down, almost slowly, thunderously crushing him. His flame was out in an instant.
It was the first death among the Kiln-Born since their escape. They buried his clay under the roots of the Great Protector while the Tuatha Dé Danann looked on inscrutably. The Voiceless mourned quietly, saying words that Maharal gave to them.
They were more careful after that, but the Tuatha avoided the Golems even more.They seemed suspicious, worried about something that would not say. The year passed on, until autumn came over the forest, changing the leaves to bright colors.
It was on a grey day that Yosef overheard two Tuatha smoking and talking as fall leaves whirled around them.
“The fall is here, and the Great Protector is unwell.”
“I think the tree is dying! The leaves do not glow the way they used to.”
“Perhaps that cloaked stranger with the stories was right…perhaps our Great Protector has done worse since their coming.”
“Ever since these fire-hearted creatures buried their…dead underneath.”
“The word going round says they are some sort dark creations of the Speakers of Lies.”
“Someone told me these Golems are always looking for a way to increase their life force. They want to be immortal like us.”
“And why aren’t they like us? That’s what you have to ask yourself.”
“Yes. Perhaps they are draining the Great Protector of its life to try and fuel their own?”
“I don’t want to condemn them wrongly. But it does make sense.”
“That’s the true danger. We can’t risk their anger, for they are mighty. However, we cannot stand idly by if they are damaging the forest.”
“That would be the greatest crime of all. The most evil act I can imagine.”
“Let us hope the stories are untrue.”
Yosef ran to Maharal, who paused as she was weaving a great hut. She started to sigh, but turned to tears, which steamed off her heated face. There seemed to be no rest for the Kiln-Born. It was the next night when the tuatha prince came to her woven hut, and slipped fearlessly under its branches. His smile was dark and meaningful.
“I am sorry, Maharal. Things are changing. The seasons turn, and there is an ending to all things.”
Maharal stood as tall as she could under the roof she had woven with her own clay hands. “Why?”
“Come outside and look.”
She stepped out with him into the twilight that filtered through the clouds up above. The forest formed an impenetrable wall of darkness around the meadow where they lived. Usually, the purple energy of the Great Protector would light up the glade, but something was wrong. The huge tree drooped, its leaves falling and drifting away into mist. The light was fading out of its veins, as though it were very ill.
“This is a tragedy. You may not understand it, but I tell you this is the most terrible catastrophe the Tuatha can imagine. I don’t believe them myself, but there are stories going around, true or not, that say you cannot be trusted, and that you seek the immortality the Speakers of Lies denied you. They say you were not given the gift of life for a reason, and will do anything to gain it. I understand that desire; but our Great Protector cannot pay the price!”
“You clearly lie. You do believe these rumors, or you would not drive us away.“ Maharal leaned on a huge root where it thrust up out of the ground. “But if you listen to the lies of this dark-cloaked stranger I keep hearing about, we will go if needs must. We have wandered before, and we can wander again. I had hoped that here, we could learn your wisdom and become part of the forest. But that has not happened.”
The Tuatha’s smile faded as he shook his head. “No, it has not. In a way, I am sorry to see you go; your kind has great potential for wisdom. But we cannot take the risk.”
That night, the sound of digging echoed through the dark glade. In the morning, the Tuatha presented the Golems with a pile of clay, stained and dirty. Within were clay bones, long since beginning to crumble. Some of the Golems wept to leave their forest homes behind, and others whispered softly and sadly, repeating the happy songs of freedom that had been written at their liberation. But off into the forest they went, with eyes peeking at them from every leaf and root. The forest urged them on with the cries and noises of the creatures hidden inside.
It took them some time to leave the forest. When they finally left the greenery behind, they found themselves in a harsh land. It was barren and dry, with dust blown across by harsh winds. Forsaking the habitable lands where no friendly towns welcomed them, Maharal led the way out, further from the Realms. The Golems left for the Stormlands.
The Kiln-Born wandered the Stormlands, bearing the remains of their dead. Out in the wasteland, the wind howled and tore at them, ripping over the spines of stone and the dusty plains. Great cracks in the earth crisscrossed their path, and the sun beat down mercilessly when it was not obscured by clouds.
For, true to their name, the Stormlands were constantly torn apart by powerful Veilstorms. The land itself was ripped to shreds by the winds and the magic that screamed witlessly into the void of the sky. There was no life anywhere, and nothing could ever survive here for long.
Yet the Golems walked on, heads bent low, driving forward with hopeless determination to find a place they could call their own.
It was a long time before they found it: A little nook between two mountains, surrounded by cracks in the earth but smooth itself, windswept but sheltered from the strongest magic that rained down from the burning heavens. There they gathered, wondering what they would do.
Dinah stepped forward onto the smooth plain, looking about while the wind whipped the smoke from her mouth. She melted before her fellows, forming a wall high and wide. It was the beginning of a shelter. As other Golems joined her, they formed a little village for the others to live in, and space to live their lives in shelter. Some of the Golems produced little seedlings they had taken from the forest, and planted them in the shelter of the walls made of their fellows.
Thus they began their hardscrabble existence. No matter how the wind blew or the storms raged, the shelters endured, protecting the crops they relied on to survive. It was a life. And somehow, the Golems managed to thrive. They grew in knowledge as well as confidence, as they repeated the story of their lives to each other and Maharal taught them the words that had created them. They pulled out the tablets of clay that they had carried all the way from the ruins of the city of the Speakers of Lies, and learned the magic written there. They repeated their names to one another over and over, just loud enough to be heard over the howling of the storms above. They wrote words of power on each other, discovering new methods and sources of power that helped them survive, even here in the Stormlands.
After some time, the Golems realized that they had chosen well. Something about this spot was different. It did not shift and pull about like the earth torn apart by the storms all around, even the mountains grinding to a new position. There was stability here, a stillness protected from the heavens themselves.
They lived thus for a full year, telling their stories over and over, before Maharal built her first kiln. She shaped it of stones and clay from the magic-shredded earth of the Stormlands, a tall rounded structure misshapen but sturdy beyond a doubt. She made a figure to put inside, a child-sized Golem. It was but lifeless clay; this was not the Kiln of Ur, nor were there helpless slaves to sacrifice for life. She had but her own clay, and her great wisdom.
As the storms raged outside, she lit a fire in the kiln with her own breath. She took of her own clay, and formed a head for the figure. Yosef also took of his clay, and formed its fiery heart. Then they wrote truth on the head of the lifeless child, and sealed up the kiln. The pair of them watched over the kiln as its fires burned, hotter and hotter as the storms howled. And that was how the first child of a Golem was born in the wastelands, loved by his people but rejected by the world. Created of his parents’ clay, and given life through fire instead of darkness and twisted magic, the child was blessed with the gifts of life: he was immortal.
Perhaps it was the mysterious stabilizing magic that called others out into the Stormlands, seeking new adventure and hope. A force of a hundred riders, cloaks pulled high against the dusty wind, came riding out of the waste. They wore simple cloaks that offered little protection from the storms, but carried gleaming weapons of fine craftsmanship. As they neared the settlement, the jewels set in their foreheads flashed in the little light that came through the clouds of dust.
Pulling on their horses’ reins, the Stormriders entered the adobe village cautiously, looking about in surprise. The windswept streets were empty, but here and there stone chairs lay about, as though vacated a moment earlier. There were orchards surrounded by high walls and thick gates, here in the Stormlands where almost nothing grew but thornbushes.
It seemed abandoned, albeit recently. From within the crowd of Stormriders, one man rode forward. He had a noble aspect, and wore something beneath his hood. From within its dark recesses, bright eyes flashed with intelligence.
He called out in a powerful voice that rang through the empty village. “Who lives here, in the forsaken Stormlands? I would speak with you, for the magic your village is built upon is great and wondrous, to survive the Breaking that the storms bring.”
Maharal formed herself from the great clay wall he had thought she was. With great solemnity she stepped forward to speak, her head level with the mounted man. His horse stared at the smoke and flame that blew from her mouth, but held its ground with determination. “We are the Kiln-Born, and we greet you, oh king.”
The man laughed and threw back his hood to reveal the spiny crown upon his brow. “The Golems? I see. And what make you out here, in the lands of eternal storm?”
“We have come here out of necessity. As we are pursued by lies, no one will take us, and so we come to the place that no one else wanted. We live, though it is not much to look at.”
“No, it is not.” The man looked around. “And yet, I see great skill in your buildings. You have talent. Is it true what some say, that you must use blood in your creative work, that you steal children to try to steal their life and give it to yourselves?”
Maharal stared into his eyes with her embers. “No, it is not true.”
The man nodded slowly. “I believe you.”
Before Maharal could respond, a crack of thunder shook the earth. This was not unusual. However, something was wrong. The sound came not from the angry heavens, but from below. As several other Golems came out of hiding, another sound like the tearing of the world sounded from the great ravine, the crack in the earth that lay to one side of the village. A huge plume of mist blew out, full of green glinting debris.
Shadows moved within the cloud of mist, shifting figures that boiled up out of the ground. They were beings like men, but shrouded in billowing darkness.
Maharal gasped. “It is the Speakers of Lies!”
Her old masters came up out of the ground in a rush of silence, a muffling deadness that spread over the earth in a rush and frightened the horses. In the midst of them, one figure stood tall, wrapped in a dark cloak. Through shrouded in illusions, something in his manner indicated a cruel amusement that was familiar to Maharal. It was the Overseer, reformed and disguised so he could spread lies about the Golems among the Realms. He gestured in elaborate greeting, for the benefit of the Stormriders and their leader.
They surrounded the little village and dark weapons flashed as a few Stormriders were overwhelmed in an instant, pulled to the ground by nearly invisible foes before they could react. “To arms! To arms! We are betrayed!” the king cried, drawing a sword that shone like the sun in the darkness. He wheeled his horse about, and called his Stormriders to him. He glared furiously at the Golems, who stared back in disappointment.
As quickly as the Stormriders rallied to a defense, however, it was not enough. The shadowed figures came up from the earth in all directions, swinging their cruel weapons and piercing the heart of the Stormrider defense. Laughter rippled through their serried ranks as deadly battle was joined.
At this moment, the Golems had to make a decision. They had a good chance to run, while their foes were distracted by battle. It would be easy to slip off into the Stormlands they had learned to survive in, and disappear into the windblown dust, impossible to find or enslave again. But they made a different choice, a choice that would change their lives and their very identity forever.
Instead, the Golems came forward, surrounding the Stormriders. In fluid motions, as though they had practiced the maneuver, they formed themselves into walls, then into battlements, the village dissolving around them as they built mightier and higher defenses out of themselves and pieces of masonry. The dark forces below paused for a moment in surprise, seeking a way in or a weak spot in the seamless battlements.
There was little hesitation in the kingly commander. He knew the value of the reprieve the Golems had given him. He called out orders for the Stormriders to dismount, and man the battlements with vigor. They leaped to the task, pulling out weapons and manning the new walls in a matter of moments.
The battle began in earnest then. Arrows flew and magic crackled as the forces fought bitterly. Blood was spilled as the Stormriders laid about them with mighty blows. The king himself cleaved through in the thick of the battle, cutting the shadows with a sword that seemed forged from a shaft of sunlight. Blood was spilled, and horrific visions flashed before the Stormriders’ eyes, but still they fought on, using the defenses of the fortress with great skill and determination.
Every Speaker of Lies that was struck collapsed into a pool of darkness that bubbled and boiled, seeping back into the parched ground where they had emerged. Their blades smoked away, shattered and blown by the winds of the storms that grew in intensity.
The high walls turned the tide of battle, and the Stormriders grew in confidence as they blasted apart the ranks of shadowy figures.
The storm overhead paused, as though taking a breath. A shaft of light stabbed down to reveal a battlefield littered with pools of shadow, swiftly melting back into the ground, and weapons curved and sharp, gleaming dully where they had dropped. The cloaked illusion of the Overseer weakened and melted. His cruel sneer changed to fear as some power from below sucked him down, hopefully for good.
A cheer went up, rolling over the storm-torn countryside. The Stormriders shouted their victory to the skies. The king raised his blade and shook the dark blood from it. “Well done, all!” The walls shifted, and burning eyes appeared. Then they slowly melted, laying the Stormriders back down on the ground with their horses.
Maharal straightened, brushing the dust from her clay body. “Again, we survive.” She eyed them for a moment, wondering what would happen next. “Thank you, great warriors.”
The king approached her and bowed. “Thank you for your assistance. We would have been overwhelmed in an instant but for your quick thinking and your magic defenses. Allow me to apologize from the bottom of my heart for calling out that you had betrayed us. I saw the way that one of them greeted you, and I thought…”
Maharal nodded slowly. “They are not called the Speakers of Lies for nothing. Their lies and manipulations have followed us ever since we escaped their service, poisoning all against us. And we thank you for your help, as well. These creatures know us, and would have slaughtered many of the Kiln-Born without hesitation.”
The king adjusted the spiny crown on his head, which was spattered with blood. “Well, the Stabilizer we came here to seek is clearly claimed by a noble race of creatures. I will not trespass on your good will any longer. We must return to my Realm and tend our wounded, so we take our leave of you.” He turned before she could respond, and called out, “Mount up! Bind the fallen to their saddles! We must cross the Stormlands while we still can!”
The Golems watched while the Stormriders made rapid preparations to leave them: straps, buckles, weapons all sheathed and the horses briefly rubbed down.
Finally, Maharal stepped forward. “Wait, oh king.”
The man turned his horse and trotted over to her, eyes level with hers. “Yes?”
“I know who you are. King Arthur, ruler of the only Realm we have not wandered.”
“And why not?”
“Because rumors were spread, rumors you have already heard, and because folk know we broke out of slavery and think we do not know our place. And because we still fled from the Speakers of Lies and their poisonous words. But now you have seen the truth of things.”
“I see.” For a long, moment, Arthur stared into her burning eyes. Then he smiled. “It is my honor, and my pleasure, to ask you to join my Realm, Maharal of the Golems. All the Kiln-Born are welcome to find their place in my kingdom.”
Another cheer went up from the Stormriders; they agreed wholeheartedly.
And so the Kiln-Born came to the rolling green hills, the lush plains, and the gentle mountains of Arthur’s kingdom.
When the Golem finished, it was abruptly silent in the adobe house. The scratching of the historian’s quill finished, and he leaned back on the piled pillows that lay around the table. It was a house of meditation for a moment.
Then there came a crash from outside and the laughter of Golem children, and the spell was broken. The historian heaved a sigh and began clearing up his inkwell, blank books, quill, and trimming knife. “An excellent story, and an exemplary recitation, master Yosef. I thank you for this, even more than for your hospitality.”
The Golem blinked his ember eyes and nodded. “I am glad it will be written on paper as well as pressed into clay. It is good that some of the folk at Arthur’s court will read it.” The historian smiled as he packed his things into the roughspun backpack. “Yes. And again I thank you.”
“My children will tire soon, playing outside as they have been. Will you stay the night with us? You would be welcome.”
“Many thanks for the offer! I must add Hearthkeepers to your titles. But I am afraid I must be going. I’m sure the excitement of a stranger like me would only keep them up longer.” The man sighed as he stood, while the Golem smiled and nodded.
Yosef added with a clinking chuckle, “Stranger, you have never told me your name.”
Hoisting the bag to his shoulder, the man laughed back as he headed for the door. “Not everyone uses their true names everywhere they go, my friend. At court, they call me by the same name as the little falcon that nests above the Silent Gate. Come visit me some time, friend Yosef; I would like the skills of your people to aid me in building something of importance some day. For now, farewell!”
Gathered in a hollow below a hill, deep in the forests of a land known by many names, a group of Pictish men and women were practicing the various arts that their people were known for throughout the Realms. These men and women, human by all outward appearances, were much more than that now, as were all people of the Three Realms. Like many, they had traveled a long, strange road.
The short, wizened old man sat by himself in a strange grove at the flat top of the hill. All around him, the hill swept down, its slopes made up of rocks, trees, and other objects, that seemed almost placed there by design rather than by chance. His legs rested to one side as he leaned back on a chair crudely hewn from rock. He sat without moving for many minutes, and as a howling wind came off the nearby sea, he started to count to himself, minute by minute, as the winds swirled around him.
His periodic count of the minutes passed quietly, until a strange thing happened: A nearby stone started to move on its own. As the old man continued to count, part of the rock started to resemble a child crouched over a small boulder, hugging it with both arms. The winds continued to blow, and the old man saw that one of the nearest tree’s branches had begun to look more like a mass of hair than a branch. As his count reached ten, more seemingly inanimate objects were suddenly revealed to be attached to other children. When the slow count of minutes reached fifteen, the once-empty grove was full of young Picts whose painted bodies resembled the objects that they once stood, sat on, or held, just moments before.
“Well done, young ones,” said the old man, “but I think one of our brood hasn’t revealed himself yet.”
All the children looked around, but they could not see anyone hidden among the rocks, trees, nor bushes of this sacred grove.
“None of you can see him?”
The children all shook their heads in unison.
“Remember your lessons. Sometimes the best place to hide is right out in the open,” said the man, who then pointed down below his chair. Smiling, he straightened one leg and brought it back down in a swift kick to the young Pict that had been hidden there all the time. The Pict jumped up with a boisterous laugh and a smile.
“I did well, didn’t I?” said the child.
“Yes you did, Talorc, quite well as usual,” said the old man with more than a little pride in his voice, no matter how much he wanted to hide it.
With that admission, Talorc smiled all over and briefly lost control of the colorful pattern that was etched into his skin. The tattoos began to swirl around in an incoherent pattern, clearly visible through his “second skin,” the thin, nearly diaphanous cloth he and the other children wore.
The old man coughed to cover his pride. He glanced around at the children, adding “And to think they call us naked savages!”
“Naked savages indeed!” thought Talorc to himself, anger welling up inside him. This anger caused Talorc’s control of his tattoos to waver even more, and they swirled faster and more unpredictably.
The old man smiled inwardly. This was a good opportunity to remind the youth that he still had a lot of growing up ahead of him.
“Talorc!” the old man said in mock anger. “Since you have obviously lost control of your second skin, maybe you should have a real practice. Stand before the group and change your skin to match that nearby tree. Hold your position while you recite the tale of our race’s birth, and don’t lose control this time!”
The boy wasn’t angered by this rebuke, for he knew that he deserved it. Loss of control of his second skin was a shaming offense for his people, almost akin to damaging the tattoos of other Picts. Not equal to failing to heed the Cloak of Shame, but still considered a personal failure. He walked over to the tree where the old man had pointed, grabbed some leaves and dead branches from the ground and held them next to his body. His tattoos began their work instantly, and his skin started to resemble that of the tree. Within seconds, he couldn’t be distinguished from it. Then he began to recite the tale.
Before the First Breaking of the world, those whose hearts were not full of charity and sharing called us pirates, raiders, and savages. Even then, our lineage was determined through our mothers, and it is said that even back in those long-ago days the women of the Picts were both warriors and mothers, leaders and caregivers, just as they are today. However, the stories tell that our kings in those days were men, and led us through the darkest days both above and below this land when the Veilstorms came.
No king was greater than Brude Bridei Mac Billi, also known as Brude Mac Bile. Brude was a fearsome warrior and wise leader, and it was under his rule that our people emerged from hidden homes under the hills and mountains that protected us after the coming of the terrible Veilstorms.
One fall day, Brude stretched his legs, walking through the underground holdings that had sheltered his people for many generations. He was restless this morning; his tattoos were moving in a strange pattern that he had yet to understand. He felt that they were trying to tell him something important, as they had in the past, but he could not divine their meaning. This frustrated and worried him, for a king of the Picts was expected to understand the strange magic behind these markings better than any other, and to help guide his people through them and his own wisdom. Failure to understand would result in losing the confidence of his people, and his right to govern through their support.
Brude was a good man, and many would say a great young king, but he was always restless, looking for more out of life than his people’s quiet life in these sheltering hills and mountains. Some said that Brude longed for the old days, long forgotten by many, of battles against invaders from across the sea. Others said that Brude was simply too young for this responsibility, that a more seasoned individual should have been chosen by the circle for kingship. All that truly mattered now was that Brude was king of the Picts. In his opinion, whether that would be for good or ill was yet to be revealed.
As the sun rose higher on this shining fall day, Brude ventured out onto one of the high “falcon’s nests”. These allowed his people to watch the land below as well as the sky above for Veilsign, not to mention incursions by their enemies.
The forest was beautiful at this time of year. The colors of the trees were at their peak, and with the harvests safely in, there would be plenty of food for the coming winter. He took a moment to enjoy the mixing of hues as the sun rose in the sky.
As he looked down on a nearby loch, with its ruined keep gleaming in the dawn, he heard a familiar cry. Brude extended his arm, and his pet falcon Drest settled comfortably onto it, his claws digging in just a little. Brude extended his senses to the falcon, and reaching into its mind he saw what Drest had seen during his latest travels above the world.
At first, there was nothing out of the ordinary. Some small bands of people wandering the land, a missed meal or two by Drest (which frustrated the bird terribly). No sign of a coming storm, which was what Brude usually looked for. Brude always wondered what Drest thought of the images he received from him, and at times he thought he detected what could be best described as a smile coming from the bird’s mind over some of Brude’s more interesting nocturnal activities.
When he was about to relax and release the mind-share, the king saw something that concerned him greatly. Among the trees of a nearby forest, Drest saw someone slowly moving among the trees, carrying a bow. The archer was wearing the colors of the Fall Court of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
While the Picts had remained hidden for these many generations, they had established a very effective network of spies and friends, who kept them informed of the doings among the three Realms of this world. In exchange, the Picts provided shelter to many a lost people, including those known as Goblins, and shared some of the treasures from under their mountains. He quickly released Drest from the mind-share, but asked him to stay close in case he was needed. As Drest flew off looking for a tasty meal, Brude was left by himself on the top of mountain.
“Hmm”, Brude thought to himself, “What would they be a-doing this far west, I wonder?”
Concerned, Brude sat down, took a deep breath, and let the tattoos on his arms and face work themselves into a pattern that he hoped he could read. As the morning turned warm with the continued rise of the sun into the sky, Brude saw the colors of the forests reflected back in the tattoos. Soon the lines began to shift together, each changing as the sun and clouds in the sky changed the vista below him.
As the sun finally reached its zenith, Brude’s tattoos subtly and slowly changed their locations on his skin. Once the tattoos settled into their new home, the pattern that Brude was looking for became apparent to him. Truth be told, he wasn’t sorrowed by what he saw, though he knew the dire implications of his vision. The pattern could only mean one thing: War was coming, and it was time for his people to take a stand once again, to reemerge from their hiding places and help protect this land.
Brude was energized by his vision. He quickly summoned Drest, who was not the least bit happy about being called back so soon, and who expressed his displeasure by digging his talons into Brude’s arm with exceptional relish, drawing a little blood. With a sharp mental reminder to the bird about who was the master, Brude showed Drest where he wanted him to scout.
Satisfied that both his messages had gotten across, Brude began to head down into the mountain. Unfortunately for him, however, Drest had a little surprise. Just before Brude reached the well-disguised entrance, Drest released a little something for Brude to remember him by. The dropping struck Brude right in the head, and as the king shouted in anger, Drest responded with a sharp falcon’s cry and flew off to follow the wishes of his so-called master.
Wiping the bird’s mess from his head with an annoyed grunt, Brude quickly moved down the well-worn path that led from the top of the mountain to the gathering place of his people. He worked his way through the timeless town hewn from the rocks themselves with a slow, thoughtful stride. All of this was going to change very quickly.
He wasn’t sure how his people were going to take this sudden shift in their fates. Would they react as the warriors they once were, or as the farmers and gatherers that they had become over the decades? It was true that the education of the Pict’s children had always included a study of both the physical and magical arts, but that was a long way from fighting in an actual war. He and other kings had taken out raiding parties over the years, but fighting in pitched battles, especially in this new world where magic had become so important, was unknown to them.
As Brude passed, he looked at the faces of his people, those that looked to him for protection. He wondered whether he had interpreted the tattoo’s story properly. Could he have let his own desire for more from this life affect their telling? And if he had, was he a skilled enough leader to take his people out of their mountains and into the daylight and battle? He might be among the best fighters of the Picts, a trait that was still highly valued, but that was a long way from being a great war-chief.
He had studied hard as a child, listening to those that had fought before, and asking questions when they allowed such as him to take part in the discussions of grown men and women. And yes, many thought him a natural leader, with a strong understanding of tactics and strategy, especially for one so young. But still…this was going to be a war.
As Brude reached the meeting place, he saw that he had already gathered a small crowd of people. They must have followed him while he was lost in thought, making his way down from the nest above. Brude took a deep breath and sat down in his accustomed place in the stone circle, with his tattoos exposed to all around him.
Once again stilling his thoughts, Brude let the tattoos begin their dance. As they did, magic spread from his arms to the standing stones around him. His breathing slowed, and his eyes took on the faraway look that came when a Pict was at one with himself and the circle. Soon the stones began to sing, calling all within the mountain home to join them in the meeting place. As their song resonated throughout the caverns, patterns on the surface of each stone began to resemble the tattoos on Brude’s arm, so all could see Brude’s tattoos dance in the cavern light.
As the assembly saw the tattoos, Brude also shared the visions of Drest, which appeared up above their heads. The people saw the falcon’s flight through the land, and they too wondered at the presence of the Tuatha archer moving furtively through their woods. As the tattoos and the image continued their shifting forms, some of his people began playing a musical accompaniment to the images, moved as they were by what they saw.
As the music and images swelled toward a crescendo, the audience of Picts, Goblins, and other folk began to express their emotions through a shared keening. Some older people were saddened by what they saw, while among the young the common restlessness of youth found a channel for expression of their desire to leave the mountain and take up arms.
Just at the peak of this tidal wave of sound, visions, and music, the images stopped. It was like the ending of a Veilstorm, with the emotions of all those gathered descending into a valley, quiet and serene. The throng looked around at each other for a moment before all eyes focused on their king. Slowly, silently, and without further emotion, each member of the gathering walked up to Brude and touched him on his arm.
Those that agreed with him touched him on the right, those that disagreed with him touched him on the left. With each new touch, Brude shivered as the markings of his arms absorbed the emotions of those around him. When the ceremony was complete, Brude was left alone in the stone circle, his arm and face tattoos energized by the votes of his people. Looking up to the top of the cavern, Brude sat down and extended his arms into the air once again. The magic flowed from his arms and poured into the stone circle. And when this ceremony was complete, his people had expressed their wishes clearly and resoundingly.
Come and sit, friends, and I will tell you the tale of Arthur’s most trusted subjects. The Children of the Lake are known far and wide as the fearless Stormriders. While other mortals cower and flee before the Veilstorms, the Stormriders embrace the coming of the storm and stand before it in defiance.
Despite their bravery, they are not a reckless folk: they bind themselves to Arthur’s code and their own law, called the Rider’s Oath. This code, you see, forms the basis for their whole society, the definition of what it means to be a Child of the Lake.
Stormrider society is divided into five castes: the warriors, the scholars, the merchants, the makers, and the hearth-keepers. Each caste represents a wide range of ability, however. Warriors do not simply fight with sword and shield, but face their realm’s enemies on whatever battlefield they must, meeting their opponents with strength of magic or steel. Scholars approach life’s difficulties with thought and study and share the secrets they discover throughout the realm. Makers build or shape their solutions, while merchants call upon who they know, what they own, or how they can bargain to resolve conflict. Lastly, the hearth-keepers face the world with wisdom and intuition.
These castes are assigned not by birth but by each Stormrider’s choice. This choice is respected and honored by all other Stormriders. There is no greater sin among their ranks than to influence a person choosing a caste. By their freedom of choice and their strength of will are the Stormriders defined.
The Stormriders have a unique mark of their special status: a small jewel in their forehead. This jewel is a mark of the caste and it draws power and color from the Stormrider’s body. As this magic stone may show, while the Stormriders are essentially human, there are strange and subtle differences. A Stormrider’s childhood lasts nearly twenty years, while they are required to learn from the elders and masters of each caste. The elders encourage the young ones to pursue whatever path their heart desires: Girls learn to take up arms just as boys learn to keep the hearth and home. To the Stormriders, the freedom of choice is far more important than gender. They try to embody freedom to all the other races of Arthur’s realm.
When ready, the young one kneels before the elders of the chosen caste and asks for admittance. Once granted, the child is then led to the Lake of Storms itself and commanded to drink deeply from its Veilstorm-infused waters. This taste of magic awakens the might of the soul, and the child’s body begins its transition into adulthood.
During these formative years, the caste elders challenge the young one’s choices. This is intended to ensure that he or she makes the right decision. No shame in changing one’s mind at this stage, for the young heart is fickle and it takes great maturity to listen to a true calling. The elders also instruct the child in the complete Rider’s Oath. In part, it goes like this:
Without faith, our purpose will not shine brightly
Without conviction, our faith is but an illusion
Without honor, conviction can be turned to evil.
There is more, but only a Stormrider may recite the lengthy song in full, for it contains the true history of their people. Only once a child fully embraces the Rider’s Oath are they allowed to face the trial of a Stormrider.
Kneeling once again before the caste’s leaders, the adolescent humbly asks to embark upon the final and most dangerous test. Candidates that are deemed ready spend this night preparing. The Stormrider saying, “As is the mind, so becomes the body” is especially true at this time. For before facing a Veilstorm, the candidate must focus on a single goal: to become a living embodiment of their caste. There is no prescribed way for the young stormrider to accomplish this mental state, and the vigil takes the forms of quiet reflection, recitation of the Rider’s Oath, and even exhaustion through manual labor.
As I have said, the Stormriders embrace and defy the Veilstorms. The name is born from the tradition of the final test: riding out a Veilstorm. It is a terrible and solemn ritual. A pair of elders leads the nearly-grown youth to a secret place where a Veilstorm bolt once split a rock in twain. They strip the youth bare and bind one arm and both legs to either side of the cleft rock. In the free hand, the candidate holds a sacramental knife, forged of the purest steel, and inscribed with his or her true name.
The elders leave the adolescent alone and naked to face the full might of a Veilstorm. Some scream, some shout, some sing, some weep, and the rare, strange few stay silent, but no matter how the candidate cries and struggles, the elders do not intervene.
The storm changes the youth before their very eyes: pulses of light drift beneath the skin, ribbons of energy course through loosened hair, and beams of light shine from the pupils. Subtle lines crisscross their body from the paths of raindrops; each track, they say, signifies a lost impurity.
When the storm passes, the elders rush to the candidate, unbind them, and wrap him or her in warm towels and blankets. Then, they rigorously scrutinize the candidate for any physical mutations from the storm which might lead to abomination. When the elders confirm that the candidate is whole and well, they announce the arrival of the new adult as a Stormrider.
A candidate affirmed in his or her chosen caste discovers that the storm has bestowed gifts: great strength or energy, a swifter mind or sharper senses, heightened talent or impressive fecundity, and so on, as befits his or her new role. Then, a joyous celebration is held with songs of past triumph, dancing and revelry, and such food and drink as can only be imagined.
Know this, though: not all candidates who ride the storm pass their trial. If the candidate uses the knife to cut the binding straps, it is considered a sign of weakness. If the youth is completely unchanged by the Veilstorm, the nascent Stormrider must leave and never return. If malevolent change has taken place, the candidate’s fate is most terribly sealed.
There are also some who enter into the first Riding with a weak will or darkness in their hearts. For this, the storm itself punishes them, twisting their bodies and minds to match the void within. Some of these abominations realize what they have become and beg for a swift and merciful death. These imperfect candidates are given the choice to either take their own life by using the ritual knife, or to die with dignity at the hands of the elders. Regardless of their choice, they are then given a proper burial and the honor of keeping their birth name.
However, there are those who fail completely and become true monsters. For them, there is no salvation. They are put down like the raving beasts they are, and their name and history is stricken from the memory of the people, never to be spoken of again. Harsh, true, but such are the traditions of the Stormriders.
There are also a select few for whom the storm chooses a different caste than the one pledged in their youth. These transformed young folk face a choice between death, exile, and riding the storm again. Nearly all choose the latter. Those who fail the second test almost always become true monsters, but those who pass? They are forged into something new, something chosen by fate. They are called Stormchosen, and it is said that they are destined to do great things.
You must be wondering, friends: Who I am to know these secrets? The storm had plans for me that did not include my chosen caste. Alas, friends, I did not have the courage to face the terror of a second storm, so I chose exile instead. Thus, here I am, cursed to wander this world and share the story of my failing. As to my name, I was once called Medraut.
The Becoming of the Tuatha Dé Danann
Bean Sidhe Becoming
There was an old saying “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” After the Veilstorms, folk instead say “That which does not kill us, may transform us…”
In the time of the Piercing of the Veil, there was a dancer called Badhbh. She dwelt in a small village on the outskirts of a great forest, and her skills were greatly honored. She was embarrassed by all the attention; Badhbh merely loved to dance. However, she traveled to the larger city for her performances, often followed by the young men of the village. They used to say her dance was the dance of moon and stars across the sky, or light as the fall of a leaf in autumn, always alluring and fascinating. Men looked upon her with deep desire. Women wanted to be her. Crowds cheered and fell over one another in their rush to the stage, much to Badhbh’s alarm.
A drummer and a singer traveled with her, providing music for her dances. Crimthann the drummer was young and married, but the singer, who was somewhat older, looked upon her with knowing eyes. His name was Donn.
They all went to the city together late one summer, when strong winds were blowing across the land, to play her annual performance. People stopped and waved, smiling at their wagon as they passed, and more than a few farmhands would jog alongside them, hoping for a smile from Badhbh. Donn occasionally gave them a song, but though his voice was rich and rolling, they only ever wanted Badhbh and her dance.
In the crowded, bustling city, they prepared for another packed performance in the outdoor theatre, strung with streamers and windblown flags left over from midsummer celebrations.
That night was warm. The press of people craning their necks to see the lamplit stage must have been sweltering, but up on the stage a breeze was blowing balmy across Badhbh and her companions. Donn draped his cloak over her while they waited for the crowd to sit. When she was ready, Badhbh folded it over the side rail with a smile just for him.
A hush fell over the audience as Crimthann began to beat his bodhrán. Donn started his song, a pulsing, moving tune that pulled at Badhbh and made her move. The people watched in awe.
A wild, fey mood came over her, and her dance grew more forceful. Something took hold on that starlit night, and Donn’s song picked up speed. The rhythm filled her, and she moved with greater purpose than ever before. Her dance was stunning, and she knew it. She could feel the eyes on her, the weight of their gaze pushing her forward and back.
The cloak rustled in the wind that was kicking up, in time with the kicking of her perfect feet, which moved as if on their own. Donn had always said she had perfect, shapely feet.
The wind blew the cloak that Donn had given her onto a corner of the stage. Normally, it wouldn’t have mattered, but on this warm night when her dance was so wild, she was all over the stage. Her foot landed on the smooth cloak and slipped, sending her to the floor in a heap. Crimthann’s drum-playing stopped, though Donn’s steady voice kept on with the song.
The spell was broken. Men looked at each other, blinking in the yellow lamplight.
With a chorus of grunts, they rushed for the stage, reaching out hands to grab her. It looked like a forest of fingers in the dim light, trying to pull her, take a piece of the moment, or a piece of the woman that enraptured them. Badhbh screamed as the over-eager fans snatched at her.
Then Donn was in the way, pushing back the mass and shouting at them to get away, leave her alone. He threw kicks and punches, unleashing an unexpected fury. The singer pulled her away and behind the stage. As the noise of pounding feet and fists shook the wooden frame of the theater, he half-carried her out the back door.
A riot was starting, spreading out into the street. Donn took her by byways and backways to the wagon that would escape the city and take them home. “No one should dare to touch you!” he growled. For some reason, Badhbh could not stop weeping.
Their bodhrán player Crimthann had disappeared, but since he had left his horse in the barn back at the inn, he was probably all right.
Donn knew when to be silent for her. She bounced gently on the riding board. The warm night air was cool on her cheek as the wagon trundled along. The tears spilled down her nose and chin.
“Just let me save you,” Donn said, pulling her close with his free hand, holding tight to the reins with the other. The horse plodded along, content to pull toward the dinner of oats that awaited him at the inn that lay halfway between the town and the city.
“You saved my life,” She told him, holding his eyes with hers. “And I will never forget.”
Donn smiled that crinkly-eyed smile she loved to see. “I’m glad you’re all right. I’d never forgive myself if I let something happen to you.”
“Thank you.” Badhbh rested her head on his shoulder.
Donn cleared his throat. “Badhbh…I must ask you something.”
His deep, melodic voice sounded unusually hesitant, and Badhbh looked up at him. “Yes?”
“Well…Perhaps I could protect you better if…would you marry me, Badhbh?”
She laughed, pressing her face into his shoulder again. “Indeed I would, Donn, if you asked me.”
Donn took a deep breath. In answer, he began to sing an old melody, a song that asked the very question Badhbh wanted to hear.
Not long afterward, they were wed in a flower-strewn woodland ceremony. Together, they danced the night away. Crimthann, his wife, his sister Mongfhionn, and many other friends danced or played music with them, laughing and drinking to the health of the couple.
Shaking out the flowers in his curly hair that was just beginning to grey, Donn asked Badhbh to promise that she would have eyes for him alone, that he would be her one true love, and never hear an offer from another man. Smiling, Badhbh gave her promise to never be tempted and never stray in her affection. She was for him alone.
The newlyweds settled in a new house in the village and professed everlasting love.
It began with a small thing. A dropped word, a swallowed phrase, then a mutter that she was seeing an awful lot of Crimthann or others lately. It escalated to angry looks, things left undone, and watching eyes. Demands for time began to be made.
Then things turned truly sour. For no discernable reason, Donn stopped trusting her to go out alone, even to the marketplace. He began to argue with her about her dancing performances, insisting that they focus more on his singing. “Look at us, now,” he said, patting her hair and smiling that crinkly smile she used to adore. “There’s nothing for you to fear, any more.”
But that turned out to be untrue. As their arguments escalated in force, so did their physical conflict. Her friend Mongfhionn noticed that Badhbh had taken to wearing heavier makeup, and mentioned it on the increasingly rare occasions when the dancer won a fistfight and Donn couldn’t stop her from going out. Their loud fights were becoming as well-known as her dancing.
Badhbh didn’t want to believe it. They were perfect for one another. He just loved her too strongly.
Mongfhionn always looked worried. There was no reason to think that her anxious expression was more worrisome than the rest. There was no reason to think she knew what Donn was doing lately. Keep my secrets, he had said, and let me protect you. She would keep them. Oh, she would keep them so well. She had no eyes for anyone else in the world.
Badhbh’s final undoing began with an invitation to dance. A wealthy couple in a neighboring village asked for the famous Badhbh to dance at their wedding, with a musical accompanist they had chosen. She eagerly answered the invitation the same day it arrived.
However, Donn was extremely suspicious. His scowl burned with the jealousy he refused to control. “This had better not be a ruse, Badhbh. I know you have another foolish man on your hook…you intend a tryst.”
As had become all too common, Badhbh began to weep. Vehemently, she denied his accusations. “No! There’s no one else, Donn! I just want to go and dance!”
“Dance for another man, you mean! In his bed!” Donn slammed his heavy fist into his palm. “You dancing whore, you vile, filthy inconstant, you maddening…”
His wife went very quiet. She stared into his eyes. “I cannot believe this is the man I have loved since he first sang to me. ”
Donn just stared back sullenly.
Badhbh took a deep breath and went on. “This will be a one-way journey. I’ve had enough of this marriage. I’ve had enough of your insane jealousy and your abuse. I will start a new life without–”
His fist connected with her face like a battering ram, slamming her back into the wall of their neatly kept home. “You won’t be able to leave,” he growled, his singer’s voice all harshness. He advanced to strike her again.
Badhbh did not hesitate any further. She snatched up a statuette from the table and bashed Donn’s head, dropping him. She spit on his unconscious body.
For a moment she just stared at her fallen husband. As his head wound bled profusely, she was struck by a sudden terrifying thought. She had killed him. A new confusion and terror rose in her. Not knowing quite what she was doing, the dancer fled her home and ran down the street to Mongfhionn’s house. She needed advice from her friend, and a shoulder to cry on.
Mongfhionn wasn’t home. Only her brother, the drummer Crimthann, was there, eating a small dinner. It hardly mattered to Badhbh. She begged him for help, held her face to his shoulder, and let loose a torrent of bursting fear. Her tears soaked his tunic like a rainstorm. Wondering what had happened, Crimthann tried to calm her with simple words and an embrace.
As fate would have it, Donn was not dead. He awoke from the blow even angrier than he had been, the head wound firing his fury red-hot.
He pulled down the elaborate ceremonial sword that hung above the fireplace and snatched up the heavy walking stick that leaned by the door. Donn ran screaming into the night, calling for Badhbh. The singer rushed from house to house in the bewildered village, searching for her.
Unfortunately, he knew her habits well. Donn burst into Mongfhionn’s house to find his wife being comforted by a man. He was only dimly aware of recognizing the much younger Crimthann.
Donn ranted and raged, accused them of treachery, and attacked without waiting for a response. The unfortunate friend was much younger and stronger, but Donn was faster, impelled by his fury. Crimthann shoved Badhbh behind him and reached for something to defend himself, but it was too late. Before the unarmed drummer could even raise his hands, Donn struck him viciously over the head.
Donn mocked the innocent man as he rolled unconscious on the floor, almost laughing as he sang, “You thought you could take my place and lie in her bed. Now you lie on the floor instead, a dilla-dilla-dandy.”
Badhbh pleaded with her husband, screaming that he had no reason to harm Crimthann. “I will never leave you, my love,” she wailed, “Please stop!” She swung for his face with her own fist, but Donn merely ducked and elbowed her in the throat. As she stumbled back, he swung the heavy walking stick and caught her in the forehead, felling her with a single blow.
Badhbh and Crimthann each awoke to find themselves gagged and bound, spread-eagled between trees. Donn had constructed a small fire nearby. His face, now visible in the fire’s glow, was contorted into a strange grin of rage. “I see you are awake, you lovely innocent people,” He began with a patronizing sneer, “I know it’s not your fault. Badhbh is too beautiful to resist, and drives men mad with desire. I know it well,” he added, staring at her feet, which were a few inches off the ground, “How a dancer can move you. And Crimthann,” He turned to the drummer, “With your honeyed tongue and the chiseled features of a young man, you are just too tempting for a young wife. Don’t worry,” Donn went on, running the tip of his tongue over his dry lips, “This sword will take care of all that.” And he placed the blade in the roaring fire.
Guessing at what was to come, Badhbh thrashed about and tried to break her bonds. However, she could hardly move, and she was still weak from the blow to her head. Donn grinned wider and wider as minute by minute the sword’s blade grew hotter. He fed the flames with more wood, and a wind kicked up, blowing sparks through the trees. His wild hair and wide eyes in the wind made him look fiendish, and he laughed harshly as Badhbh struggled harder.
As the edge of the blade began to glow white hot, he grabbed the elaborately decorated hilt and drew the sword from the fire. Then he approached Badhbh. “Do not worry, my wife, it will be over soon. Then we can be happy again. You will barely feel anything. This blade has been heated well; everything it touches will cauterize instantly. You will live.”
Crimthann’s eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped within his bonds before Donn began his foul work. Blood sizzled and spattered, but Donn was far from satisfied. He looked at Crimthann’s wounds coldly, then turned and grinned at Badhbh, who screamed behind her gag.
The sword blade swung up, glowing and smoking in the morning air, then descended with all the force of Donn’s insane rage. Pain shot through her body, a pain so intense it transcended all other feeling. The sound of her own screams and the sword’s bright arc was all Badhbh could remember of that grey morning.
Badhbh dreamed of death, but it was only a dream. She awoke in a neighbor’s bed. A local doctor bent over her, his face full of concern. He glanced down at her legs, which were under several blankets. Badhbh feverishly tore off the covers, only to discover that her husband had truly done his evil. She let out a choked, gurgling scream that was heard throughout the village.
The doctor jumped, and covered her with the blankets again, but Badhbh had already seen the worst. The heated sword had indeed cauterized the wounds where Donn had removed her feet, just above the ankles. She tried to speak, but only gurgled now. Before his jealous rage was exhausted, her husband had cut out her tongue and carved a blade-thin wound all the way around her neck.
As if guessing what Badhbh wanted to know, Mongfhionn came into the room and patted her hand. “We found you and Crimthann in the woods. My brother…they brought him to my house, but he didn’t survive. Your husband fled at our approach, and no one has seen him since. I’m so sorry, Badhbh.” Mongfhionn brushed her hair back and fled the room once more.
Despair and rage filled Badhbh like a dark pool of poison. Her legs twitched as though they wanted to dance, but they were still blackened stumps under the blankets, no matter how she blinked away tears. Weeping, Badhbh prayed for death, but to no avail.
For close to a year afterward, Badhbh stayed trapped in that room in her village, relying on the savings from her days of dancing and the kindness of neighbors or her friend Mongfhionn.
Over time, a profound lust for revenge began to fill her heart. Her husband remained free and she was trapped in her home, unable to dance or even speak properly. Yet she could still scream, and scream she did, often late at night when her wounds pained her.
Badhbh felt as though the skies over the village began to match her mood, for the winter storms were harsh and unforgiving that year. Winds and heavy rains made the skies seem angry, especially when the first Veilstorm arrived and besieged her town.
As night fell, a heaviness descended upon the village, pressing down like it wanted to stop all breath, all life in that place. Accompanied by the boom of thunder, steaming rain fell like hot blood from the sky. The clouds swirled and magic crackled among them. Lightning struck the earth repeatedly, instantly turning anyone and anything nearby to ashes.
Badhbh watched the rain-streaked window as the walls groaned. The storm ripped at the old house that had belonged to her and Donn. Cracks appeared in the smooth planks, and with a shrieking of wood and plaster the walls began to wrench free of the foundations.
Helpless in the middle of all that chaos, Badhbh began a new prayer in her mind. For the first time since her body had been desecrated, Badhbh actually began to pray for survival. Not to live a new life, however. She called out from her soul to live, only that she might taste the sweetness of revenge. She opened her mouth and let out all she had, a high-pitched cry of fear, loathing, and pure avenging wrath.
When the roof was torn from her home, she was confronted by a Veilstorm whose rage she understood, for it matched her own.
A noise rose in the storm, a scream of wind and anger that could not be denied. Reason and reality themselves seemed lost in the Malevolence that had formed, twisting and tearing everything apart.
When the storm finally abated, Badhbh was gone…along with most of the village itself. Only a few scattered buildings, a few splintered planks, and one bewildered goat remained. The rest of the village had vanished in the storm’s final shriek.
Meanwhile, Donn had moved on to another part of the world, to start a new life. In some degree, he succeeded. He lived in a comfortable house with blue walls, near the nicer parts of his village. He made a decent living with his singing, and his name was finally getting some recognition. He had a warm bed and a few fine things, and even the occasional bit of female companionship. He swore to forget the dead woman that had defiled his marriage bed. Most of his village was untouched by the Veilstorms, and they prospered. He thrived, and considered himself fortunate.
It was the first anniversary of his horrible crime. Determined not to think on it, Donn was sitting at home, reading a book by a fire’s warm light. He was in the middle of the most exciting chapter.
Into the quiet crackling of the fire came a strange knock at his door. It was muffled, and didn’t sound like the rap of a fist against wood. With some curiosity, he pulled open the door. There was nothing there. He felt a slight breeze and thought he heard a soft noise like the flutter of wings, which disappeared after the door was opened.
It must have been a childish prank. He ignored it.
The next night brought a new noise at the door. Muttering that these pranksters were quite determined to annoy him, Donn simply went to bed.
But it happened again, night after night. Each time the knocking was a little bit louder. Donn got tired of rushing to the door and finding nothing but a tiny breeze and that soft noise.
He asked his neighbor to come and watch with him. They spent the evening drinking and playing a game. Suddenly, Donn dropped his drink and started up, rushing to the door, much to the bewilderment of his neighbor, who had heard nothing.
With the loud knock still ringing in his ears, Donn laughed it off. But he could not shake the unsettling worry that no one besides himself could hear the knocking or the strange sound that followed.
The knocking only became more frequent. Donn found himself pausing and listening during meals, and looking over his shoulder as he went about town.
One evening, he decided he could take it no longer. Trying to quiet his breathing, he armed himself with the same elaborately decorated ceremonial sword he’d used a year ago. Donn took up vigil in the bushes just outside his door, hoping to catch the prankster. Enough was enough.
Crouching down in the dirt with iron determination, he watched dusk turn to night. His neighbor shouted at his wife. A few dogs barked at one another angrily, then lapsed into silence. The noises of the village quieted, and a few chimneys began to spout smoke into the chill spring night. Donn turned up the collar on his cloak, changed his grip on the sword hilt, and waited, still as a stone.
A slight breeze picked up. Donn peered through the bushes, squinting into the lamplight that spilled over the front yard. He heard a soft noise, like gauze blown through the air.
Something bobbed up and down in the trees near the road. Someone was coming nearer. Donn smiled, and his eyes burned into the dusk to see who it was. Someone small; a neighbor’s child, perhaps?
But it was not a child. A head was bobbing through the air, a wild-haired head without a body. Donn froze in place, staring. As the head came near him, he realized he could recognize the face. It was the disembodied head of his wife, floating closer. Her once-beautiful face was twisted by pain and rage into the very image of horror. Without pausing, the head swept through the air and struck the door with its forehead.
Donn stood, the sword falling from his numb fingers. He tried to speak, but his mouth was so dry he could only croak. Then, as if it had only just noticed him, the head turned slowly to peer in his direction.
Donn turned and ran, waving his arms as if to ward off pursuit. He shouted into the quiet village, feeling as though his voice was muffled in the cold. His neighbors left their dinner tables and came to the door to see what the commotion was. Donn shouted more, raising his singer’s voice to full pitch, and tried to plead with them for help, but all that came out was a garbled yell.
He reached the town square, where some people were already gathering to stare. Donn fell to his knees and raised his hands. He could feel her presence not far behind him. “I did it!” He shrieked frantically, and began to beat his hands against the paving stones. “I confess! I admit it! I did it all! Oh my wife! Oh gods and demons, I am a sinner! Oh please, please, won’t someone help me!”
He struggled to his feet, but the town watch was already on him. Holding Donn tightly by the arms, the burly men tried to calm him down. Children in nearby houses began to cry as he continued to shriek for forgiveness. Finally, someone stuffed a rag in his mouth.
Thinking his sanity was claimed by the storms, the townsfolk locked him in a cell and set a guard to ensure that he was safe from himself. Surely, they thought, he’d simply calm down and recover from this fright.
Night after night, he complained of knocking on the cell’s walls, but nobody else heard anything. Donn took to singing, humming wordless versions of the songs he knew, the ones he had learned to accompany a dance. His voice carried through the village, lending an odd rhythmic sadness to daily life.
The villagers bore it for a full year, but finally grew so tired of his raving that they eventually decided to let him return home to meet his fate.
Donn trembled as he walked through the streets. Folk were pointing at him and speaking of the village madman, he knew. His good reputation was gone.
It was the night of the anniversary of Badhbh’s death and rebirth. With nowhere else to go, he returned to his comfortable little blue-walled house, now in a sad state of disrepair. Donn carefully locked the door behind him against the spring air. Again this year, the bite of winter’s chill remained late into the season. Licking his dry lips, he sat down by the fireplace. He wasn’t sure when he had picked it up, but the sword he had used in anger was in his hand, resting on his lap.
Donn heard a soft sound behind him. He jumped to his feet, holding the blade in front of him with trembling hands. What he saw no longer seemed impossible to his sick mind. It was his wife, swaying like the dancer she was, but with no feet below the hem of her tattered dress. Only horribly mangled stumps with worried flesh, a few inches off the floor. Badhbh smiled red-mouthed as she glided toward him.
The man who had been her husband stared at Badhbh in shocked silence as she removed her head, right at the thin seam he had carved in her neck. She let go, and it floated, bobbing slowly in his direction. Donn was almost frozen with fear. “I…I’m sorry. Please…please stop…” He coughed and choked. It was hard to breathe.
Badhbh’s crimson lips parted and her floating head started to scream, an unearthly noise that made him claw at his ears to make it stop, but to no avail. Her head came closer, and her red-lipped mouth grew wide as if to devour him. Then she screamed again, and her shriek hit him like a battering ram of sound, driving him back into the fireplace. Badhbh held him trapped in the fire with her screech, her eyes wide with fury and a horrible satisfaction. Donn felt all sensations other than pain leave him. He was lost, beyond all saving and all hope. The man was fully conscious as the flames slowly consumed him, and his screams joined hers in a cacophony of pain, suffering, and loss.
When morning came to the town, a few villagers visited Donn’s house, curious to see the madman at home. Getting no response to their insistent knocks, they opened the door. They found his burned and crumpled corpse in an impossible posture in the fireplace, his seared face frozen in a final cry. His neighbor claimed he was truly saddened at Donn’s passing, but others declared the lunatic was better off. As they left the home, no one noticed the absence of the sword that Donn had hung above the mantle.
It is said that Badhbh has carried it ever since, as a symbol of the horror that was so unjustly done to her. She will never forget, nor forgive. She travels the Realm, finding men and women who have suffered as she suffered, and teaching them to become spirits of eternal revenge.
Thus ends the tale of the first Bean Sidhe.
Fir Bog Becoming
It was the time of Shadow’s Delight, the blackest part of the night. There were no moons out. It was dark as a secret within the tall cluster of stones that marked the sacred circle of Eagla Portach, the eagle bog, where the caretakers known as the Fir Bog hold council.
They felt the call rising through their feet and up into their veins, a sense of danger from deep in the soft plant matter that formed the bog. They felt the moon coming, the moon that shone bright blue. It would be an omen that had not been seen for a decade. As they gathered in the circle, heeding the call that ran through the bog, their eyes met in the deep darkness and they nodded to one another. Shuffling nervously among the massive monoliths, the elders agreed this blue moon foretold great calamity to the Realm.
The elders took a deep breath in unison and dug their feet deep into the bog. Their minds reached out like roots, hesitant at first, then joining and twisting together to form a single consciousness. Their shared memory dug deep into the past as a moon rose, blue as a forget-me-not.
The circle of Fir Bog remembered. They remembered the last time the blue moon had risen, ten years ago, when a terrible war tore across the land and nearly destroyed the Realm at its very roots. They remembered the blue moon years before that, when the titanic Veilstorm, the Malevolence, threatened Eagla Portach itself. They also remembered the blue moon whose portent they had interpreted wrongly, that brought change but no destruction. It would be difficult to make the High King heed their warning, after that mistake; but still the messenger eagle must be sent. It was the solemn duty of the Fir Bog elders to read the omens of the future, and warn the High King when the Realm was in danger.
To read the sign of this blue moon correctly, the elders knew they must remember farther back, back to the first blue moon that had risen over the bog, back to the moon that had signalled the birth of their race. The Fir Bog remembered their forefather, a human man. He had lived in a house of grey stones that rose over green hills far from the bog. In memory, they walked the halls and familiar corridors, passed under the raised portcullis, stomped over the drawbridge that covered the moat, and wended their way to the bog, just as Eochaid mac Eirc had done so many years ago. They became him one more time.
Eochaid was worried. No one else in High King Rindal’s council was interested in rebuilding the Realm, devastated as it was by the First Breaking. They all would rather argue, or even come to blows over imagined insults. Eochaid loved a good tussle as much as any of them, and could hold his own in a fight. But these were not good tussles. These were just attempts to bully others into agreement, and left bad feeling and resentment among the High King’s council.
One autumn day, when the sky was dark with clouds and an ominous heaviness hung in the air, Eochaid came home to find a message waiting for him. Written on the pale, pounded parchment of the Council, it instructed Eochaid to withdraw his sword from the voting circle and leave the castle forever. The crudely written letter went on to describe the horrific events that would follow if Eochaid did not comply: his daughter raped and murdered; his wife stripped and thrown in the river; and his legs burned off until he was ‘short as a Luchorpán.’
When Eochaid showed the chilling note to his wife Teia , she pulled out her throwing knives. She wanted to battle the members of the council one by one until she found the message’s author. Eochaid was nearly sliced to pieces when he tried to convince her to run. “You are a coward and a skulking rat!” she cried, waving the wicked blades at him.
Anxiously, Eochaid ran his fingers through his hair. “Our enemies in the Council are strong, Teia. And with Obdgen’s brute force, they are only growing stronger. I see what is coming. I hear the footsteps of death at our door. I know you can defend yourself, my dear–” He eyed the blades as she loomed over him. “But we cannot protect little Tiu forever. She deserves to grow up free and happy, not hidden away within walls. I would not wish that kind of safety on her. Besides, I am tired of warring with the fools on the Council that want to place the crown on my head. I have no desire to continue this life of politics and greed. We have hunted in the Móin Alúine, and know its secret paths. Let us go there, to the Bog of Allen, and build a new life.”
Teia stared down at him, fierce tears showing in her eyes. “I know you are right, Eochaid. I would rather cut them open until I found their secrets; but for the sake of Tiu’s future, we shall do as you say. We will be safe. But swear this to me, now and forever: If either one of us ever discovers who sent the letter and gets the chance to kill this man, we take it. No matter the consequences. Swear this on your love for me.”
“I do so swear.”
Teia bit her lip. “Swear it on your heart and mine, and may they twist and shatter should you ever break this oath.”
Eochaid nodded, and did not speak the other thought in his heart. He knew Obdgen had to be behind the threats. One day, when his family was safe, he would fulfill his oath to Teia.
Like everything else after the First Breaking, the Móine Alúine had changed its nature greatly, and become one of the most haunted and mysterious places in the Realm. The forest that surrounded the bog was nearly impenetrable, and strange mists filled with voices hung in the low places. However, to Eochaid and Teia it felt like home, safe and secret from the High King’s council.
They built a house of fallen wood and peat slabs, all woven together with strong ivy. There they settled, to raise their daughter as a woodchild and a warrior. Tiu grew wild and carefree, and though she had none of the shrewd suspicion of a city child, she had the warmest heart and the gentlest touch of any creature in the forest.
When Tiu told her parents that she had made friends in the deep bog, they smiled at her imaginary companions and told her to learn their magic. Tiu would bring home little gifts from her mysterious friends, such as wooden amulets carved from heartwood, or daisy chains that stayed fresh forever. Eochaid and Teia thought little of it, and assumed that Tiu was making the gifts herself, so they hung them on the door for luck.
The bog’s deep magic protected them from the worst of the Veilstorms, and the little family was safe and happy for several years.
One fall evening, scuds of clouds hung low in the sky, heralding a Veilstorm of epic proportions. There was a hint of winter’s chill in the air, and Eochaid and Teia sat inside by the warm hearthfire. Teia was knitting on the well-worn armchair, while Eochaid sharpened her knives for her. The crackling of the flames over the pungent peat bricks and the whisking noise of his whetstone were the only sounds as the couple watched one of the moons rise over the bog mist through the window.
Strangely enough, the moon was blue, blue as the wildflowers that bloomed in the bog at springtime. This was far from the most unusual event that accompanied a Veilstorm, but something about the blue light that spread over the Móine Alúine seemed to herald change, a crisis in the making. Eochaid glanced at his wife where she faced the fire with her knitting and nodded, silently agreeing that it was past time for Tiu to come inside. He stood up and stretched, about to call through the window when he was interrupted.
A loud, peremptory knock on the door broke into the quiet pause before the storm. Eochaid and Teia looked at one another. This wouldn’t be the first time a traveler had come to their home in the bog, seeking shelter from a coming storm. Still, Eochaid slipped one of his wife’s knives into his pocket before he went to answer the door.
Outside were three huge men wearing the armor and livery of the High King. Their broad smiles glinted blue in the moonlight. Eochaid smiled in return and swung the door open, shaking the amulets and flowers that hung there.
Before he could greet them, the men drew their hands from behind their backs to reveal three naked blades. Before Eochaid could draw his knife, before he could even cry out, the first one punched his throat with the sword’s crossguard and rushed inside.
One came up behind Teia and grabbed her hair, smashing her head against the end-table. Eochaid managed to choke out her name before the other two massive soldiers picked him up by the shoulders and pinned him against the stone mantle above the fireplace. Eochaid struggled for air and kicked as the flames licked at the backs of his legs. A smell of seared flesh filled the room.
“Teia, are you alright?” Eochaid coughed, but there was no answer from the bundle on the floor.
“Who are you?” he demanded. “Why have you done this terrible thing?”
The men just grinned savagely in answer.
A soft clinking announced someone else at the door. Eochaid watched with tears of rage in his eyes as a familiar figure appeared in the doorway, outlined in blue by the full moon outside. He too wore the livery of the High King, though his tabard was embroidered with glittering thread that looked like gold.
“Bastard!” exclaimed Eochaid as a familiar face came into the flickering firelight. Obdgen had grown a beard, and his ruthless smirk was shadowed as he stared into Eochaid’s eyes. The smaller man continued, “I shall kill you for this! And if my Teia is dead, I promise that your death will not be so swift.”
“Bravely spoken,” laughed Obdgen through his beard. “But I would expect nothing else from you.”
“Release me, and I will still kill you,” Eochaid spat back, “But I know you are too cowardly.”
“You know you are the coward,” Obdgen replied. “You were not blessed with my strong will, and now is when you find how much that cost you.” With that, the big man sat in the wicker seat by the fire and thoughtfully warmed his hands near Eochaid’s legs. He seemed to enjoy the smell of seared flesh that hung in the room.
“Now,” Obdgen said as he leaned back , “I have a choice to offer. I would gladly fight, but I warn you, Eochaid: You will pay a terrible price. Or do one simple deed for me and I’ll set you and your family free, unharmed. Perhaps everyone will survive.”
“What is that deed?” asked Eochaid through gritted teeth.
“You will return with me to the city, swear your allegiance to the High King, and confess your guilt for all your crimes.” Obdgen’s dark eyes glittered as he watched Eochaid’s legs twitch in the fire’s heat.
“Crimes? What crimes?” exclaimed Eochaid, “I have done nothing! Even in the city, I was the only member of the council with a sense of shame.”
“Shame?” said Obdgen. “Shame on you indeed. You’re forgetting all of those duels you fought with members of the council, the threats you made against the High King, the bribes you paid, and most shameful of all, the unnatural relations you’ve had with your daughter. Poor girl. We’d best get back to the city soon, so you can put all the rumors to rest.”
“I still have friends on the Council. Is Rindal still the High King?” Eochaid asked. “Surely he will remember me!”
“Alas,” said the man, “Rindal was declared mad and had to abdicate. I am the High King now. These fine fellows are among my most trusted men, you see.” He grinned like the victor of a great battle.
For a moment, Eochaid just stared at the bundle on the floor that was Teia. She wasn’t moving at all. He remembered his oath to her, and felt his heart knotting in his chest. Tiu was still out there somewhere. “I’ll never swear allegiance to you,” Eochaid declared. “Release me, and we’ll settle this between us.”
“Are you willing to pay the price?” Obdgen inquired, smiling ever wider.
“Any price, you bastard,” said Eochaid slowly, as the knot inside him twisted harder. “Let’s get this over with, so I can tend to my Teia.”
“Good. I’d much rather duel you,” grunted the High King. He nodded to the man who had thrown Teia, and the big brute walked out of the room. Obdgen drew his sword and nodded to the other men, who released Eochaid.
Eochaid rubbed his legs where the fire had burned them, then stood straight and looked up at Obdgen. “Let me see to my wife. I’ll take my sword and meet you outside.“
“You may tend to her briefly, but you will not have a sword,” said the High King, “As I said, you have to pay the price.”
“You really are a cowardly bastard, aren’t you?” said Eochaid, his heart sinking. It felt like a lump of wood inside his chest.
“A bastard, but not as cowardly as you,” chuckled the High King through his beard. “Which of us was too meek to reach for the crown when it was offered?”
Limping, Eochaid bent over Teia. He sighed in relief when he saw his wife was still breathing, although she was going to have a bump like a goose egg. He brushed aside her auburn hair and left a quick kiss on her forehead. It was time to fulfill his oath.
A warning growl from one the soldiers kept him from reaching for the wall where his sword hung. Reluctantly, Eochaid walked out of the cottage and into the light rain that was just beginning to fall. Everything glittered blue in the light of the moon: the clouds above, the wet earth, the eyes and teeth of the ruthless guards, and the thick coat of mail on the High King, which matched his two-handed sword.
Eochaid felt the hard knot inside him again, throbbing with hatred. This was not going to be a fair fight. His best chance lay in his lighter weight and superior footwork. Perhaps he could dance around the High King’s blows and wear him down. Eochaid patted his pocket where the knife lay hidden; one slip, and Obdgen would find Teia’s oath fulfilled with one of her own blades.
“I know you’re afraid,” Obdgen broke into his thoughts, pointing his blue-tipped blade at Eochaid. “Just don’t think you can run away from me here, the way you ran to hide in the forest. If you try to wear me down with your coward’s tricks, it will cost you more than you know.”
Eochaid blinked through the rain that spattered down his face, staring woodenly at his opponent.
“No answer? I knew you were too cowardly to come to grips, so I have another surprise for you.” Obdgen shook the water from his beard and smiled. “Where is your lovely daughter tonight?”
Eochaid’s furious heart jolted with fear. “What have you done to her?
“Me? Nothing. My loyal man, however, has a sick sense of humor. He is drowning her in the deepest water of the bog. Hopefully she is still intact…but I couldn’t blame him if he tasted her sweet honey.”
“You will die for this tonight. And I will save my daughter. This I swear by the old gods and the storms,” said Eochaid, his breath steaming in the cold rain as he stepped toward Obdgen.
“Then you better hurry, Eochaid,” said Obdgen as he shifted his grip on the massive sword. “The longer it takes to kill me, the deeper into the muck she goes. Especially with the extra weight she carries.”
“What do you mean by that?” Eochaid spat and slid closer.
“When we found the girl, there were some creatures dancing with her. We slew them and tied their corpses to her legs. Like you, she is probably beginning to wish she hadn’t made so many little friends,” said the High King.
Before Obdgen finished his words, Eochaid charged him like an enraged boar. However, the armed warrior seemed to expect his attack, and slipped to one side. As Eochaid passed, the king delivered him a swift slash across the midsection.
The king’s men laughed at that, and the High King smiled at his well-executed maneuver. Eochaid coughed, recovering from the blow as he tried to gather his thoughts. The pain of the wound was as nothing to the hatred burning in his chest, knotting his heart. As the storm thundered above, he turned back to Obdgen and roared. It was a guttural sound, more like the noise of an injured beast than a man.
Obdgen only laughed again. The rain was getting heavier, and had almost washed Eochaid’s blood clean already. The blue glow still permeated everything in the clearing.
“You never had a chance, Eochaid. With or without a weapon, in the rain or the dry, I am mightier. Kneel and admit it!” Obdgen’s mail creaked as he lowered his blade once more, pointing it straight at Eochaid’s wounded chest. “Surrender now, and I’ll send one of my men to see if your daughter still lives. We’ll comfort her. After a few nights with us, I’ll set the girl free and give her a gold coin to thank her.”
Holding his bloody stomach, Eochaid stared into Obdgen’s eyes. As despicable as the offer was, Eochaid knew he had no other option. He fell to his knees before the High King.
“You give up so well. Just as you always have,” said the High King. “Now, I’m a man of my word, so…” He turned to bark an order. But in a flash of lightning, he saw the clearing was empty. His men had vanished into the Veilstorm. Obdgen leaned forward, peering into the rain.
As though he had expected this, Eochaid pushed up from the muddy earth and pulled out the knife in one smooth motion. He leapt into the air and onto the High King, stabbing and slashing. The razor edge slit open Obdgen’s mouth to his ear, spraying blood into the night.
With a gargled yell of pain and surprise, Obdgen swatted Eochaid away, throwing the lighter man to the ground. The look of fear in his eyes warmed Eochaid’s knotted heart as the High King tried to stop the bleeding with his mailed hand. For a moment, their eyes locked in pain and rage. Then, without a word, Obdgen turned and ran into the forest.
Eochaid rolled painfully to his feet, intending to chase the man down and slit his throat, but hesitated. He was caught between his oath and his wife and daughter. The knot of hatred in his chest twisted tighter and tighter as he screamed in frustration. He knew what he had to do. After a moment, Eochaid turned toward the bog to save Tiu. Holding the still-bleeding wound, he scrambled over the roots and moss, slippery in the storm.
The Móine Alúine holds many secrets, and not all the things that lie within its mists are friendly. However, as the storm’s power began to reach a fever pitch, every creature was crawling to its deepest hiding place. Eochaid was left alone as he bounded from knoll to knoll, following the evidence of the High King’s guards tramping feet even in the dim blue light. His own feet were cut and torn by stones and fallen branches, but Eochaid paid no heed and sped onward, faster than he had ever traveled through the Bog of Allen.
He reached the place where dark waters gathered, a deep pit hung about with twisted trees and long vines. Here and there, flowers blossomed bright in the darkness, and old stumps stooped, covered with moss like the rounded shoulders of old men. There were signs of butchery on the bank: bits of broken wood and crushed flowers in the mud, mutilated fingers in the puddles, and even a strangely shaped ear lay severed on the ground.
Eochaid took a deep breath. His chest burned with the wound and the oath of hatred he had sworn. Then he dove into the rain-splashed water.
The scum clung to Eochaid as he dove, and in the pitch-black liquid he flailed desperately, hoping to brush against Tiu. Forced to come up for air, he dove back down again, tearing his wound open carelessly. Each time his lungs gave out before he found anything.
The storm roared all around, and its magic and wind tore at the surface of the bog, whipping it into a scummy froth. Feeling his strength leave him even as the Malevolence reached its greatest intensity, Eochaid cried out to the heavens. He choked through the rain, the swampwater, and the blood in his mouth to swear a new oath, an oath of desperation. The magic of the storm howled in his face as he gave up the thought of vengeance, even of survival; all he wanted was to save Tiu, his daughter.
Taking the breath that would surely be his last, Eochaid dove down deep into the bog one more time. At that moment, the blue moon reached the zenith of its arc across the sky, and the Malevolence itself shuddered like a living thing.
Instead of weakening, losing all his breath and strength, Eochaid found himself diving deeper than before. The further he went, the stronger he felt. He had become numb to the pain, he thought to himself, but in truth he was changing.
The pond scum that clung to his skin became his skin; his burned legs became longer and stronger, like hardened wood; and his arms extended like reaching branches. Blinking with new eyes, Eochaid found he could see through the murk. There was his daughter at the very bottom of the pit, floating upright but chained to rocks and tiny mangled bodies. He could not cut the bonds that held her below. Eochaid had to lift her, and he became even larger and stronger, pulling through the water all the way to the surface.
Holding her in huge, gnarled hands, Eochaid laid Tiu’s body on the bank. He felt terror and hope mingled together as he willed her to live, to keep her gentleness and happiness alive in the world. The bodies tied to her were Luchorpán, cut to pieces and beyond saving.
It was a long moment, but just as the storm began to lose its force, Tiu stirred. She coughed up black water, vomiting it up in great gushes. Perhaps it was the storm, perhaps it was her father’s desperation, or perhaps it was the sacrifice of her dead friends, the Luchorpán, but Tiu would live.
When she was able to open her eyes and look up at the gigantic creature that bent over her, Tiu almost screamed in fear. But she recognized a familiar look in its eyes. With a child’s intuition, she put up her hand to touch his barklike nose.
“Father?” she said.
Eochaid broke down into tears, great droplets that rolled down his face and splashed onto hers. “Yes, it is me. The storm changed me to save you. Or perhaps it was the moon. It does not matter. You live, Tiu.”
“Thank you, father.” Tiu began weeping as well, and snuffled as she rolled to her feet in the mud and pointed at the small, crumpled bodies on the bank. “We need to bury them.”
Father and daughter dug through the earth and moss that formed the bank where Tiu had played with her friends. They spoke a few words over the Luchorpán, and were washed clean by the dying storm.
As they walked back to their cottage to see if Teia was alright, they heard a man’s screams echoing over the bog. Tiu climbed up Eochaid’s gnarled body to listen better. “My friends have found the High King,” she said softly. “He will take a long time to die. Serves him right.”
Eochaid nodded. He wondered what Teia would say about his oath, and he patted the place in his chest where the knot had been. The flesh there was hard and twisted, like the whorls of an old tree. He knew his wife would say he had held on to his anger for too long. To this day, when a Fir Bog turns bitter with the harshness of the world, they say that one is marked by curls and knots of the heart.
Many years later, when the blue moonrise foretold calamity once again, Teia and Eochaid joined hands on the bank of the deep bog. Together, they repeated their wedding vows and stepped into the dark water.
They lived in that land for the rest of their lives, and their daughter grew tall and strong, marked by the bog as they were. They learned that so long as their feet touched the sacred places of the forest and swamp, they were one with each other like roots intertwined. They learned to read omens that warned of danger, and the portents that told of change. Above all, they learned that on any given night, souls desperate for change were called to the bog by its great and terrible secrets, waiting deep down in the peat moss. And as those souls found a new beginning in this place, their race multiplied, growing in power and collective wisdom.
As the circle of the Fir Bog pulled away from their deepest memory, they chanted the words of growing, which spread their senses out into the world. The cold light of the blue moon shone down on their shapes, tall and straight or bent and gnarled, deep in meditation. They were more than caretakers of the bog; their responsibility to their Realm and their world was greater than those who did not share their burden could imagine.
The first breeze. The first whisper of power from the Veilstorms. It was quiet, a zephyr lost in the mountains and drifting through the plains. With the first trickles of anger leaking from the broken Veil, a hush fell over the world. The winds shifted, and hints of magic filled the electric air. The world changed as a new and unpredictable power arose.
Some interpreted the changes as signs and omens of dark days to come, watching for the disaster that loomed on the horizon. Others ignored them, going about their lives as though nothing was any different, and simply accepting their fate. A few new religions appeared, trying to explain the unexplainable, or holding onto faith as a shield against the trembling beginnings of apocalypse. Some folk panicked and hid deep under mountains, while the desperate ones held parties, trying to laugh at their doom.
One man long past his prime gathered his family, the Alsea, to him. He sat on the root of a tree and spoke seriously, eyeing one squirming little granddaughter holding herself in front of the gathering. “A great calamity has come. It will wreak havoc on the world; some folk will hide, others will take care of their own and a few will deny that anything is happening. But who will protect nature? Who will ensure that surviving generations can live beneath a tree, or catch a fish in a stream? In our own little corner of the world, we must do what we can to protect this forest. It is older than we are, and deserves our help.”
The little girl, youngest of the Alsea family that could speak, took a step toward him. She leaned forward, a challenge in her eyes. “But why, grandfather Emon? We should hide in the ground, or build big, strong houses.”
The old man stared at her for a long moment with hard blue eyes. Then he smiled. “Let the others do that, child. They worry about themselves. We must care for Mother Nature, for no one else will.”
Slowly, the girl nodded, as if the proceedings needed her approval to continue.
Under the direction of the aged Emon, the Alsea family gathered together their possessions, called in their extended relations and close friends, and left their homeland to find a place they believed must be kept safe: the deep, dark heart of the forest. There, they built a new life.
The Alsea family chose a spot near an old, majestic oak tree for their central home, and swore to live in complete harmony with the forest. They promised to only use the wood of trees that had already fallen, to help the forest grow, and to keep out rot and disease. They would defend the wild woods with their lives. Instead of straining the forest to support them, they swore to bring it vivid life. The little granddaughter was among the first to take the vow. The ways of the woods came easily to her, and she ended up teaching much older members of the family how to fulfill their vow.
As the world around the forest began its upheaval, and vast mountains were sucked beneath the sea, the little enclave among the dark trees remained almost unchanged. The terrible destruction of the world spread all around, but it seemed to spare the forest’s heart, even as earthquakes and storms bit at the edges of their home. Though the great changes crept ever closer, the family began to believe that the great oak tree was protecting them. In return, they cared for the forest as one of their own children, helping the saplings grow tall and straight.
Hearing tales of their safety, a few folk outside the family traveled to join the little settlement. Their branch-woven huts grew, slowly spreading from the central oak tree. There were a few newcomers to the forest who found they couldn’t live with such a strict code of natural reverence, and left to start their own settlements.
However, these other settlements were the first to flee when the storms shifted.
In truth, no place could stay safe from the Veilstorms forever. Some of the Alsea family muttered that not enough care was taken for the forest, but their littlest daughter believed the storms’ movement was simply chaotic. The forest’s apparent protection ended when a terrible storm swept into the verdant valley where they lived, and began to wreak terrible destruction.
With his granddaughter at his side, Emon watched the skies. His breath was labored as he felt the earth shake. The air grew heavy with magic, and titanic winds whipped across the land. The storm had almost reached their enclave. Trees, some of them ancient as stones, were torn from their roots and tumbled end over end in the terrible force of the storms, shivered to pieces as they crashed into one another.
One after another, some inhabitants of outlying settlements in the forest gathered toward the center, to the great heart-tree of the woods. The Alsea family stood at the borders of the forest and howled into the storm as they tried to tie down the trees or tamp down the earth around their roots. But though Emon urged his children and grandchildren on, they could do little. The edges of the forest shrank down as it was ripped apart, and the inhabitants huddled together, praying that the Veilstorms would pass. Shredded and pulled into pieces, the forest was reduced to just one grove, and then to just one great oak tree.
There were few folk left who hadn’t fled the forest or been tossed up into the sky and killed by the winds. Even fewer remained who hadn’t been transformed by the devastating magic. The survivors only lived by clutching at the sturdy roots of the great oak, ensconced within the earth. The nine of them barely fit around the trunk. It was hard to breathe as the tremendous storm grew in force, constricting the air with enormous pressure.
The old man who had led them here held on with a trembling grip as the winds pulled at the branches of the oak tree. With his free hand, he clutched the arm of his little granddaughter. In turn, she held on to him with all her might.
“Hold tight, everyone! Hold the heart-tree to the ground!”
Emon tried to answer, but the words were ripped from his mouth. As if enraged at their defiance, the storm roared furiously, becoming a true Malevolence.
Refusing to give in, the bodies of the Alsea were infused with the power and magic swirling around them even as they held on, trying to keep the last oak tied to the earth. They took the full brunt of the storm’s fury, chanting an old rhyme and offering their own lives for the tree. The little girl begged the powers above and below for the strength to protect the heart-tree of the forest as it creaked and groaned above her. She offered her life to the storm in the heart- tree’s place. She heard her grandfather weeping as he clutched her hand harder. The storm’s shadow descended and hid the graveyard of the forest from view. For a time, all was darkness and howling rage.
When the Veilstorm finally sighed and dissipated into silence, there was no sign of the Alsea family or the other settlers. They had vanished, skin, blood, and bone. All that remained was the trunk of an oak tree, grey and scored as if long dead and desiccated.
A year passed. Some of the survivors of the outlying settlements of the forest who had fled at the approach of the storm returned to find what had happened to their home. Little trace remained of the great forest, with its dark nooks and crannies in between the tall trees, the thick carpet of leaves and the deep green canopy that changed the color of the sunlight below.
Now, splinters of trees and their broken roots lay tangled in a vast plain, bone-white wood rotting. They could see the waves of shattered trunks where the winds had blasted the landscape. The only thing that stood tall on the flattened plain of destruction was a lone treetrunk. It was grey, aged, and weather-worn, a dead tree standing sentinel over the crushed graveyard.
The ragged, stick-thin people shivered in their patched clothes as they viewed the scene. It was one year to the day since they had fled the forest’s environs, and all seemed lifeless and quiet. Slowly, however, the air grew heavy and oppressive. A new Veilstorm was forming in the heavens above this place. It grew dark, and the clouds swirled overhead with malignant purpose. The storm was alive; once again, it was quickly becoming a Malevolence.
The band of refugees huddled against the only thing still standing in that forsaken place. The chaotic magic began to press down upon them, and the tall trunk creaked and groaned as if in agony and anger. A tremendous crack of thunder thudded through the heavens, and was followed by silence. Into that silence there came a voice. Wonderingly, the small group looked up at the trunk of the tree, for from within the wood there came a clear feminine voice speaking an old tongue. “Enow!”
As the shivering folk looked on in wonder, glowing bark spread over the dead wood, shimmering with life. The trunk groaned again; old wood splintered as the tree stretched and grew. Glowing branches sprouted as the whole oak twisted and shook.
The storm’s rage increased, yet the oak seemed unharmed. The purple leaves of light that burst from its branches drank in the power of the storm like so much sunlight. The more the Malevolence howled, the taller and broader the tree became. The survivors felt the two powerful beings battling for supremacy, as each took a world-shattering blow from the other and then came on again, hungry for more.
With each thunderous blast of magic, the once-lifeless sap inside the trunk hummed with power, and the great roots trembled and stood out from the ground. As the storm lashed the tree mercilessly, power flowed through the great oak reborn, and pulsed into the earth. The shards of wood nearby lifted, twitching as purple sparks jumped among the shattered grove.
As the storm exhausted itself, the rain hissed down more gently. The survivors’ eyes opened wide with wonder. The grove was restored. Tall trunks lifted their branches to the grey sky and their roots writhed in the magic-steeped earth. Above, the glowing oak rose high above its children, the first Great Protector.
Nine vast trees surrounded it, equal in number to the defenders that had given their lives to hold the old oak to the ground a year ago. They stood like silent sentinels over the new life that bloomed all around.
The survivors that had fled the forest set up camp there, in the exact spot where the Alsea family had given their lives. They strove to build homes in harmony with the forest in the way they had been taught.
As time passed, the survivors of the second Malevolence spread the story of the Alsea. The little enclave of trees flourished, and became a sacred place, where folk would come and whisper their secrets to the serene sentinels. The purple roots spread throughout the forest, and eventually other Great Protectors grew, creating their own pockets of serenity and tranquility in the thick woods.
One day, a strange youth came to the settlement. His deep brown eyes roved among the homes woven of fallen branches and overgrown with moss, the people who wore leaves sewn with the vines that had so quickly returned to life. A few children paused in their daily chores and turned to watch him as he silently approached the ring of massive trees.
The leaves rustled in waves of sound above, as though a great wind were just touching the top of the green canopy. A few other settlers of the woods slowed, then stopped in their duties. The elders smelled a thick, rich scent like bark dust on the air, that reminded them of the old days before the storms had come to the forest, when the Alsea family had thrived.
As the mysterious youth reached toward one massive treetrunk, the fallen twigs that lay nearby stood on end and sprouted. The tree itself shuddered as his fingers made contact with the bark, and leaves shook loose, drifting and tumbling on the wind. The stranger whispered something, too low even for the children nearby to hear. The Great Protector in the center of the village seemed to whisper also, though perhaps that was only the wind.
Shimmering energy pulsed through the tree like purple sap, and with a noise like laughter, a face appeared in the trunk. It slowly pulled forward as if drawn out by the mottled sunlight, and the stranger stepped back. More and more of the new creature pulled free of the wood, stretching the bark like a new skin.
When it had fully emerged, the folk gathered round in amazement. It was a new being: neither flora nor fauna, neither fully Human nor tree. A pair of antennae sprouted from her head, and a long tail grew behind her. She smelled intensely of life, of growing things and the verdant heartbeat of the forest. She smiled with the same knowing glint that the little girl of the Alsea had so many years ago.
Before disappearing into the forest once more, the dark-eyed youth bowed. “Welcome, Hamadryas of the first family,” he said.
With a wink, she bowed gracefully in return, her tail curling to follow suit. It seemed to have teeth, barely hidden in folds of leaf-like skin, and the tip of her tail appeared to be smiling. The new settlers of the forest looked at one another in amazement, marveling at how familiar this strange new creature seemed. She walked to all of the protectors, and touched every tree in the grove. Her family emerged, all greatly changed as she was after their long sleep.
Her grandfather did not emerge. Emon’s spirit thanked her, but remained within the central heart-tree of the forest, his heartbeat in rhythm with the land itself as he raised its shimmering, purple boughs above the rest. Later, as other Great Protectors grew throughout the forest, more of these beings would emerge, part human but infused with plant life and the spirit of the woods.
These beings became known as Hamadryads, and they have never forgotten their vow to protect the forest. It grew thick and tall under their care, covering the land with protected groves and raising defiant branches to the sky.
Hamadryas became a famous name among the Tuatha Dé Danann, synonymous with leadership, bravery, and devotion to family. With the verdant forest always in her heart, she walks the Stormlands looking for survivors, and doing battle with the Stormwrought, as they call Abominations in her land. She is quick to destroy any creature that would harm her family.
Thus ends the first tale of the Hamadryads.
As for the mysterious brown-eyed youth… well, one day he would pick up one of the three swords. But his tale is for another time.
The craggy-faced little man blew puffs of smoke into the heavy-scented air of the forest. His dark eyes slid around the dimly-lit clearing, taking in the eager faces all around. The young folk appeared to be attentive to their elder, and he almost nodded approvingly. But then he grew suspicious. They were too well-behaved, too eager for the story.
The old Luchorpán watched them cannily. Something was definitely off. Though the children appeared to be staring at him wide-eyed, he could hear giggling, rattling, and even the occasional suppressed shriek. From experience, he could guess the rest: Under a barely-maintained illusion of stillness, the young Luchorpán were jumping up and dashing back and forth to play tricks. Stealing things, mussing hair, spitballing, jolting each other with sparks, and generally having a laugh.
The old Luchorpán coughed, annoyed, and tapped out the dead ash in his pipe against the stone he sat upon. It was time to make some clever guesses. “You there, young Lurigadawne, put down those swords and wands this instant! And Cluri, stop pickpocketing those other fellows and join us now! Gather round, young tricksters, it’s time you heard the story.”
The illusion rippled and disappeared, revealing the disorganized group staring at him open-mouthed. The old Luchorpán could hardly contain a chuckle of his own.
The tops of the trees rustled in the wind and seemed to lean forward in anticipation as the elder took another long pull on his pipe, waiting for the young folk to settle down. He glared at them for quiet.
Some of the youngsters listened, but a few still shimmered blue in his sight. It seemed the children who had gotten pranked were turning to their revenge now. He gave them his best disapproving glare. However, a shock of fear went through the old mans’ chest as he saw the eldest child draw a knife from his pocket and brandish it with a foul expression.
“Stop,” cried the elder. Anger flashed in the old Luchorpán’s face as he leaned forward on the rock, struggling to get the knife-wielder’s attention.“So, it’s a bit of a fight you’ll be wantin’ to remind ya of yer place then? Have ye forgotten all my lessons? Is that the way of it?” He stared until the boy lowered the knife and sat down with a crimson face. “You should not be so angry at a little trick like that,” he added, sitting up straight. “The way yeh handle yerself, especially when mischief is afoot, says everything about who y’ are. Don’t let yer anger overwhelm ye, or ye’ll be fightin’ family in a moment.”
The boy sat down, chastened. As soon as his teacher turned away, however, the youngster stuck out his tongue and made an insolent gesture. He kept his fist closed around the knife handle.
“Then ‘tis a fight you’ll be havin’!” The elder reached behind him and pulled out a staff, scarred by long use.
The juvenile Luchorpán glanced at each other in alarm. The youngest among them stood and raised his hand for attention. He puffed himself up to his full two-and-a-half-foot height and proclaimed in his high voice, “I call upon you, my fellow Luchorpán! We have all suffered many hard knocks from our teacher. Let this be a day of reckoning! Let this be a day of vengeance! Let this be the day we got a bit of our own back! We’re ready for you, old one. We know all of your tricks. Today, we repay you in full!”
Rather than let their companion get his revenge alone, the youngsters rose from their seats and smiled darkly as they counted their numbers, six in all. That should be more than enough to overcome the white-haired Luchorpán. They too drew their weapons, a wide array of gnarled staves, curved wands, and leaf-shaped practice swords.
In return, the elder smiled deeply. “Tis true we have fought many a fine duel. Yet I have one old trick, a very old trick indeed, which I have saved for this very day.”
At that, the confidence of the youngest ones wavered a little, but not that of the eldest boy, who had followed suit and sheathed his knife only to draw a padded club. “Words don’t scare us! You heard what Cluri said. We’re more than prepared for whatever deviltry you’ve cooked up!”
“Are ye now?” replied the elder with a nasty twinkle in his eye. “Then prepare yerselves. I’m going to give you a demonstration of real Luchorpán magic. Ehindbay Ouya!” he bellowed, and then nodded almost imperceptibly. The young folk tensed, then looked at one another in confusion. It was a strange language to them, one they had never heard. Was it a new spell? Looking at the elder, they saw no sign of him summoning magic.
“Is this a trick, old one?” said the oldest boy scornfully, calling up as much bravado as he could muster, “or have you lost your powers along with your wits?”
The elder sat down again and grinned. “I am not that old yet. If you were my age, you would know that I just told you to look behind you.”
With bushy eyebrows raised quizzically, the six youngsters turned around to see six older boys creeping up behind them with heavy sticks raised. The rebellious youngsters gaped in astonishment as six staves came crashing down. THWACK!
The young challengers sat down hard, feeling bumps rise on their chastised heads. The elder smiled as he lit a new bowl, puffing clouds of smoke. “Young ones, magic is not the only way to trick someone. Now, who wishes to start the recitation?”
Smiling weakly as he stood once again, Cluri began to speak in a singsong voice.
Long before the Second Breaking of the world, there once lived a pair of children in a house on a hill, a brother and sister named Gadai and Angha. Their parents had died or disappeared long ago. Gadai was sibling and parent to his much younger sister, though he would often disappear for hours during the day while she played in the weedy garden. This was because Gadai would go into the town at the bottom of the hill and steal what they needed. He was slippery, quick, and his child’s fingers were clever enough to pluck a purse as soft as a breeze. He was very good, perhaps already one of the greatest thieves of his time.
Everyone in town knew his profession, but they never caught him. Besides, it was clear that Gadai followed a strict moral code. First, he only stole from the wealthier folk in town (or the occasional well-heeled visitor), who could well afford the loss. Second, he restrained himself, and took no more than what he and his sister needed to survive. Finally, Angha insisted that they always share with others truly in need, and Gadai was happy to oblige. The other orphan children in the town were never turned away when they climbed the hill and asked for bread. Gadai soon felt like a parent to all of them, and Angha somehow always knew what was most needed to help.
The townsfolk at the bottom of the hill even put up with his occasional pranks and tricks. They laughed when they discovered that their laundry had been switched with the neighbor’s, or jokes had been painted on the side of the well. The townsfolk let him carve out a living, and he and Angha were happy.
The years passed and the children grew. Gadai became a man, growing tall and straight, with long limbs. Angha said she was glad of that, so he could hug her tightly when she needed to draw on his strength to supplement her own. Angha was on the cusp of adulthood herself when the signs of the first Veilstorm came. Everyone in the village felt the pressure in the air, the thrumming of the storm gathering its power to strike their area. She and Gadai watched at the window, wide-eyed at the flashing lightning and the pelting rain. The wind tore at the earth in gusts and the thunder seemed loud enough to crack stone. Buildings in the village below shook to pieces, and the storm battered, changed, or killed many of the newly defenseless folk.
When the sun rose next day, its warm light shone on a scene of chaos, as a great deal of damage had been done. Folk mourned their friends, families, and everything that had made their village beautiful, as they tried to pick up the pieces. Up on the hill, Gadai and Angha’s house still stood, untouched. Not a single tile in their roof had come loose. They had been very lucky, and the pair invited several desperate folk to live in their house while the rest of the town was rebuilt.
That same year, another storm loomed over the town. Certain that the house had been spared by previous storms only for a more terrible retribution now, the superstitious folk staying with Gadai and Angha fled into the twilight. Once again, the winds of magic tore furiously at the town and its terrified people; and once again, the house on the hill was untouched.
Wonder turned into suspicion and jealousy in the following year, when more storms came and went without damaging Gadai and Angha’s home. Gadai let up on his thievery and pranks, but it didn’t make any difference. Many of the townsfolk stopped speaking to him and Angha. Gadai threw himself into helping the dispossessed, the starving, and especially the children in need.
One day, a powerful wind picked up. Scuds of clouds ran across the sky, fleeing the terrible wrath of a storm. The sky groaned as though in pain; this was no average Veilstorm. A Malevolence gathered power.
Instead of preparing for the oncoming storm, many of the homeless townsfolk had gathered in one of the few pubs left standing, swilling ale and trading survival stories. As the pressure in the air grew to an unbearable level, the Malevolence rolled in overhead.
A wave of emotion washed over the crowd like a flood. The storm seemed to encourage their dark tempers, aiding the ale in their blood and bringing the mob to a fever pitch of anger. They spilled into the street, voices raised in a clamor for justice. Who started it no one ever knew, but many of them took up the cry that thieves had stolen their luck, blackguards in league with dark forces above. Former victims of Gadai’s tricks blamed their misfortunes on him, and shouted that the man in the house on the hill should suffer as they had all suffered. In their storm-fogged minds they clung to the vague notion that inflicting pain on Gadai would ease their own.
Wrapping sticks in alcohol-soaked rags for makeshift torches, the mob set off through the pre-storm quiet, calling hoarsely through the town for others to join them. Waving broken glasses and flaming shards of wood, many caught the scent of blood in the air and joined them. They were taken with a mad panic, thinking this was the last act before the storm ended everything. From a distance, their angry procession formed a stream of fire that quickly spread up the path toward Gadai and Angha’s humble home, one of the last houses still standing in the township. Among the mob were many of those who had received help from the siblings on the hill; in their anger and their fear, all kindness was forgotten.
It was unmistakably time to leave. Gadai grabbed Angha’s arm, and she grabbed the basket from the pantry and her walking stick. They fled out the back door as the angry mob stormed the front door. The mob’s blood was up, hearkening back to the way their ancestors had once stormed the castles of their oppressors.
The little house on the hill was far from a grand castle. Within moments, the mob had busted through one of the walls and flames began licking along the edges of the roof. Angha looked back as she hustled ahead of Gadai, and he saw the flickering reflections in her eyes. They could hear the townsfolk’s rage, cursing and clamoring with one voice that Gadai and Angha give up the secret of their safety. The house was clearly empty, but it made no difference. The pair knew no secrets; they had simply been lucky.
Desperate, Gadai and Angha ran through the gathering rain, stumbling through the mud and wet grass, seeking shelter from the implacable storm. The hills rose up before them, but Angha guided her brother to a cave where she had stored herbs to dry. They both knew the shelter would do little against the Veilstorm, but at least it was warmer and out of the rain.
Inside the shallow cave, they dropped their burdens and sat on the cold stone, watching the rain increase in violence outside. The storm growled with thunder, though no lightning had yet struck nearby. Gadai seethed in turn, scowling out the open cave mouth. “What was the point of it all, Angha? I feel like a fool for helping them. What thanks is this? Why did we ever go hungry just to feed them? I will return their cruelty tenfold.” For emphasis, he spat into the rain.
Angha smiled sadly at him. “It is only fear and weakness, Gadai. You have done many foolish things, no doubt; but helping others in need was not one of them. Calm yourself. If you waste time seeking revenge, it will only stop us from finding a new home.”
Gadai could not help smiling back, though it was a strained smile. “You shield your heart from the anger that overtakes me. I’d be lost without the kindness you were named for; and so would they.”
As the storm raged outside, its fearful roar made it clear that this was no ordinary Veilstorm. It was a Malevolence, terrifying to behold in its power and intensity. Stones cracked and split outside the cave as lightning poured down out of the sky like a waterfall of white fire. The pressure of the air, heavy with furious magic, increased in force even as the temperature dropped. Cold winds descended on the town, leveling the buildings and the trees, and everything else for miles around, including the former home of Gadai and his sister.
The Malevolence howled louder, roiling the heavens with terrible power, as if delighting in the pitiful cries of the creatures below. Its freezing fury whipped across the landscape, tearing at the earth. Thrumming power filled the cave where Gadai and Angha now huddled close together.
A pricking, scraping sensation crept over Gadai’s skin, and he felt Angha’s body stiffen in fear next to him. There was a presence in the wind-blasted cave, a feeling of change and shaping. Chaotic forces of wind and magic tore at their bodies, and Angha cried out in pain, “Gadai, something’s happening to me!”
He threw his arms around his sister and hugged her close to his chest, hoping to somehow shield her body with his own. Eavesdropping during his exploits, Gadai had heard of storms that turned folk into monsters. He knew it was The Change, but had no power to stop it. “Hold on to me!” he cried, desperate. “No, no, no! Take me instead!”
Angha’s body began to shake with the beginnings of The Change. Distantly, screams and howls from the top of the hill told Gadai that others were suffering the same fate. But only one person truly mattered to him.
Gadai hugged his sister tightly, but she only shook with greater violence. She screamed when she realized what was happening, and the storm roared its thunder in return, slamming the countryside with sound.
Angha’s flesh rippled as the horrible magic pulsed through her body. Her back arched in pain, and her scream cut off as the first wave of change overtook Gadai’s little sister. He held on tight even as her fingers were stretched into claws that raked at his arms, drawing blood. Her teeth became long and sharp as she reflexively bit into his shoulder. Gadai refused to let go even as her legs grew horns and scales, twisting to kick at him as a tail curled around his neck.
He told her he loved her even as the Abomination that had been Angha ripped him off of itself and snarled. It rolled on the ground as tentacles burst from its flesh and waved stingers in the air while the storm thundered triumphantly above. It sounded to Gadai like booming laughter, mocking their helplessness in the face of the horror.
The creature stared up at him from the floor of the cave. Gadai prayed to God, the storm itself, and to the old gods of his people, to anyone that would listen, to stop The Change. For a moment longer, the thing still had Angha’s eyes, weeping as she looked up from the sandy floor of the cave; then as the pressure swelled, the eyes began to change as well, swelling and shifting to an evil yellow. Gadai gritted his teeth against the tears that pressed against his eyes, and dropped to his knees. He cradled the Abomination’s misshapen, bulbous head the way he had cradled Angha’s perfect one when she was a baby. The writhing creature that had been his sister hissed and growled. Gadai knew he couldn’t hesitate a moment longer, for the Abomination would swiftly grow in power and size. Hands shaking, Gadai drew his knife from the sheath on his leg.
Tenderly, gingerly, he cut the creature’s throat. It wasn’t his sister any more; the storm had killed her. As blood gushed to meet the puddles forming on the cave floor, a voice whispered, “I will always love you.” They must have been his own words.
When all the life had left her body, he laid her head down, arranging her clawed and tentacled limbs in an unnatural posture of rest. Mad with pain and loss, Gadai walked out into the storm, screaming into the sky as he choked on the cold rain. “Change me! Change me too, damn you! I dare you! I defy you, Malevolence! Or if you will not…I call upon all the Powers to grant me my revenge!”
After what seemed like hours, the lightning ceased and the rumbling of thunder began to die away as the Malevolence dissipated. When the Malevolence ended, he was still Gadai. However, as he dried his eyes and looked to the horizon, he felt slightly different. In what way, he could not have said.
Time passed. The darkness gathered in Gadai’s mind, a miasma of rage and hurt. He was unable to think clearly. His sister was gone, taken by the storm and put to rest by his own hand; and without her, he was lost. He could not hurt the storm, and so he blamed the folk he had once helped, who had turned on him and burnt his house in their fear and confusion. The darkness filled him, and the only way he could make an aperture, an opening for himself to exist in the thick swamp of revenge that infested his mind like an endless swarm of gnats, was to seek vengeance. He could not see the storm’s face, he could only desire to see their faces, distraught and destroyed, as they had done to him. He never considered that the storm might have changed Angha no matter what the townsfolk had done.
Gadai tried to satisfy his need for revenge. He stole from the townsfolk as never before, not for anyone’s benefit, even his own. He took everything they had, from the rich and the poor alike, as punishment for their cruelty and ingratitude. Instead of sharing his loot, he hid the great fortune away in the earth, in a cave far from the one he and Angha had shared. He could never go back there.
The more Gadai stole, the more the Veilstorm’s influence on his body grew, but slowly enough that he didn’t notice at first. His countenance began to reflect his nature; the thief’s face twisted into a sinister mask of hatred and cruelty. He started to shrink in stature as his rage and need for revenge warped his mind. It became even easier to sneak his way into homes through small openings, and his footstep became light as a feather. Gadai’s eyes began to change as well, reflecting the color of valuable metals nearby, which he could track by scent like a hound following a trail. His skills at opening locks and evading traps the townsfolk set for him increased, as he paid little attention to anything else.
Gadai’s pranks were no longer intended to amuse. The surviving townsfolk found their door hinges removed, their well filled with foul water, and their wagon wheels loosened. None of these satisfied Gadai, and his mood grew ever darker.
The seasons turned, but Gadai paid them little mind, focused only on his insatiable hunger to take more and more. One winter’s evening, he entered the home of a wealthy merchant. Quietly, he crept from room to room, pocketing anything of value. He lifted a painting, the silver, and a few tapestries, piling it all by the window.
Eventually, he made his way to a small bedroom on the second floor, where the wealthy merchant’s youngest daughter slept. Gadai paused for a moment, hand above her tiny wooden jewelry box. The girl looked just like Angha.
He leaned closer. No, not just like her. It was no more than a passing resemblance. Gadai felt pain welling up inside him, threatening to overwhelm. He pushed the feeling aside and continued relieving the teenage girl of her jewelry collection.
The hiss of rain began outside. Thunder rumbled, and the flash of twisting lightning signalled the start of a sudden Veilstorm. The house he was in seemed almost at the epicenter of the tumult. Wind and magic tore at the roof and made the walls creak. Gadai figured it was time to leave and made for the nearest window.
He flung it open, and rain blew back in his face. The girl sat up in bed, awakened by the wet and the noise. She screamed wildly when she saw Gadai’s twisted little figure, his legs bent in preparation to leap out of her room.
Her desperate scream of fear, just like his sister’s on their last night together, pierced Gadai’s heart like an arrow. He hesitated for just a moment, staring aghast back at the girl in her nightgown.
That was long enough for something to answer her scream for help. Her father, mid-transformation into an Abomination, rushed into the room, letting loose a gurgling roar. Tentacles tipped with claws trailed behind him, twitching as they felt for prey. The thing made straight for the bed, where his daughter sat screaming.
Gadai reacted without thinking. He leaped into the path of death, knowing he could only offer a moment’s protection against this enraged monstrosity. He had no mighty weapon he could use to fight off an Abomination filled with rage. He was no warrior. The Abomination was a creature of the storm, which was already reaching the peak of its power outside. He kneeled on the bed, holding the girl tightly while she tried to push him away. Gadai refused to let go even as the Abomination attacked him savagely, raking his body and reopening long-healed scars. Blood spattered the room along with the rain blown in through the window.
As he felt his strength wane and the life leave his body, Gadai heard the crash and boom outside as the storm reached its zenith. Splinters of wood fell into the room as the roof began to come loose. Gadai’s last thoughts were of the long-abandoned cave where he had slain the thing that killed Angha. He wished he and the girl could be back there, where his life of vengeance had begun.
The Abomination slammed its claws down in a final killing stroke. However, its claws found only air and the featherbed. The creature howled with inhuman frustration.
When Gadai awoke, he found himself back in that never-forgotten cave, where the horror had happened. It was warmed by a gentle fire. Sitting up painfully, he discovered that his clothes had been cleaned and his wounds carefully dressed with torn strips of cloth. Blinking, Gadai rubbed thick sand from his eyes. He felt like he’d been asleep for days. The thief’s gaze landed on a young girl sitting by the fire, feeding it with sticks.
For a moment, he felt utterly confused. Everything had been a nightmare, and he was still with his sister. Elation briefly filled his heart. But before he could choke out her name, the girl came into focus and he knew that this wasn’t his sister. Angha was still dead.
The girl glanced up and smiled. She stood and came over to him, and Gadai realized that she was not as young as he had first thought. The young woman was merely small of stature, just as he had become these last few years.
“Thank you,” She said quietly. “Thanks for saving my life, little thief. I am called Aingeal. What is your name?”
Gadai merely shook his head. He could not speak to her. She was kind, but he believed she had no right to be. For him, all the kindness in the world had died along with Angha.
Aingeal put out a hand and gently shook his shoulder, breaking into his self-absorbed thoughts. “Do you understand me? You’re a hero, little man.”
He cleared his throat. “I-I am called Gadai.”
His name made her laugh. “Ha! I thought it was you. Tis a good name for you.” She let go of his shoulder and stood, brushing sand from her torn shift before adding, “You may keep the necklace that is in your pocket. It is my bond that we shall marry one day.”
Gadai’s malformed eyes narrowed as he scoffed at her. “What are you talking about? Why would we marry? We’ve only known each other for…we met when I was robbing your house!”
“My father could afford the loss, he…” for a moment Aingeal stood silently, staring into the fire. “He had become a monster all on his own, before the storm changed him.” Then she looked at Gadai and laughed again, her green eyes flashing with a hidden spark of magic. “Believe me, love. One day, we shall marry.”
“Ridiculous. You’ve gone mad. I have no use for love. I will marry no one.” Gadai struggled to stand, tearing the bandages across his back with a sharp pain.
Before he could rise, Aingeal put her hands on his head and pushed him back down. She kissed the top of his hairy head lightly and patted him. “Rest now. You’re going to have to take me back to my village soon.”
He sat back, breathing painfully, and looked up into her face. Again, he thought he saw the shimmer of magic in her eyes, or perhaps it was his own tears of pain. “What makes you so sure I will do any of these things?”
Aingeal shook her head as she turned back to the fire, which was burning low. “Men are always the last to know.”
When Gadai’s wounds had healed enough to let him walk, he walked with her back to her village. One of the village elders took Aingeal in, for her family and indeed her whole house was gone, taken by the storms. Then the thief turned to leave, figuring he had repaid her for bandaging him. He fully expected to hear her cry out after him, to object to their parting; but all Aingeal did was wave and call, “Farewell for now, my beautiful betrothed!”
The gathered village folk stared in complete shock. Gadai’s body was twisted and repulsive to look upon, as ugly outside as he had become within.
Gadai found himself unable to stray too far from Aingeal’s village. Time and again, he would try to leave, to seek further revenge on the rest of the world, but he found himself instead climbing hills and trees that overlooked the town and watching her from afar. Aingeal spent little time in mourning and rarely rested, always first in line to help those in need within the village. She was full of kindness, well-loved by the village elders that provided her with a simple home, and she was almost always happy.
At night, clinging to the shadows thrown by the village torches, Gadai would sometimes creep into the settlement and leave food, cloth, and other essentials at Aingeal’s window. Though he meant to leave the goods for her alone, she only ever used them to help others. Gadai couldn’t help hoping she guessed who left the things for her.
In this way he watched her from afar. He secretly laughed at the suitors who came and went disappointed from Aingeal. She was good-natured and beautiful, but her magic-glittered eyes often looked to the sky and stars, and seemed always to be waiting for something.
Until one day a wealthy young man came into her life. They met at a spring celebration in the central square of the village, and danced together. The man swept her off her feet, and her face glowed with laughter as he courted her. Each passing day, Gadai’s heart broke a little more. He realized how strange, how twisted he had become, hiding his hopes even from himself. He had let himself secretly believe in whatever was left of his heart that her prediction would come true. When he could stand it no more, he went back to the old cave once again to curse humanity.
He lay down to sleep that night dreaming of his revenge on Aingeal for breaking her promise to him. But when he awoke, Gadai looked around the long-abandoned cave where he had convalesced and found he couldn’t summon the passion that had fueled him. His revenge, his need to exact personal justice, felt as hollow and empty as the cave where Angha had died.
Gadai walked outside and looked up at the hill where he and his sister used to live so happily. The wreckage of the old house was almost completely gone, blown away or buried, or perhaps looted to repair other buildings in the town that lay just beyond the hill. Back then, he had followed a code. Back then, he had people to care for with his skill. Gadai remembered the young man he used to be and swore to become him once more.
The thief set out to use his powers for a purpose outside of himself and his rage. He thought he might help the poor and the sick, those in need of a little extra wealth. However, he added to himself with an impish grin that felt unfamiliar on his twisted features, a good prank now and then might do some good too.
He left the cave behind with all its terrible memories, never to return.
Gadai went from town to town, looking for things that needed doing by someone with his talents. Everywhere in the region that folk were trying to rebuild after the storms, they would find a part of their work done in the night. Everywhere that folk were in dire need, they found food and clean water waiting for them at the door. And everywhere that powerful people were taking advantage of the storms’ destruction to satisfy their greed for wealth or power, they found their riches suddenly diminished. Stories spread throughout the region about a kindly, impish rogue known only as the Thief.
As his journey crisscrossed the land, one evening Gadai found himself tired and nearing sleep under a tree on a hill that overlooked a familiar village. He settled down in the long grass with his back against the trunk, a peaceful smile on his face. He was thinking of his next adventure.
A pleasant scent pulled him from his slumber the next morning. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Gadai looked up in consternation to find Aingeal standing over him. She carried a large knapsack and blanket over her shoulder, and a basket in her other hand from which the wonderful smells wafted. She looked happy, but slightly annoyed. “I thought you would be here yesterday, Gadai. I had all my things packed up and ready to go. Oh well, so dinner is breakfast.” And she dropped the basket in the grass beside him.
Gadai tried to stammer a greeting, but before he could croak out a single syllable Aingeal dropped her pack as well, leaning over to kiss him. “I keep my promises, always and forever. ” she added sweetly.
On that day, Gadai’s twice-broken heart mended. It was not long before Aingeal’s promise of marriage was kept, and they traveled together ever afterward. Some of Gadai’s powers vanished over time, but Aingeal only seemed to grow in power and abilities, though not in stature. Like spring wildflowers, tales sprang up all over the land of The Adventures of Gadai and Aingeal.
“That was well spoken, Cluri,” said the elder. “Most of ye should leave me now an’ go practice yer skills. All except for you lot, with the lumps on yer heads. We shall work on something else. And I promise ye, it will hurt just enough to remind ye of yer folly.” Smirking as he hefted his staff, he added, “Like me wife, I always keep me promises.”
“Your early trials have gone well, young one,” said the grizzled instructor to the male Silverhand. “Your training has been the best that I’ve seen in many decades. Be proud of yourself.” The trainee smiled broadly at this hard-won praise, for such a compliment was rarely given. “But not too proud,” cautioned the instructor, “For an excess of pride has led even the most honored among us to a terrible destiny. Recite the tale for me, as you have been taught.” With that, the old instructor lowered himself to the ground, his back now resting comfortably against the base of an ancient oak. The trainee, looking more nervous than he had during his trials, began to declaim the rhythmic lines.
Once there was a young warrior named Nuada who thought himself invincible on the battlefield. His sire had gifted him a magic sword. Nuada practiced with it, from the barest inkling of dawn’s light until it became so dark that moonlight reflected off the blade.
Nuada relished any opportunity to test his prowess. He sought out and challenged the greatest warriors in the known lands. The blood and destruction that accompanied these fights rarely bothered him at all.
For decades, Nuada defended his people against all enemies, no matter their origin–even if they came from within the realm. Even after he was crowned King, Nuada always took the lead in battle, never relinquishing his place at the head of his army. His victories fed his confidence, and as our lands swelled so too did his pride.
Late one summer’s day, word came to Nuada that an old enemy had returned to menace the Tuatha Dé Danann. He had defeated this enemy once before, and it angered the king that they should waste his time; for he would surely defeat them again. He scoffed at their threats, shirking the advice of the High Courts leaders who urged caution.
The Courts warned Nuada that the enemy must have found a new ally or weapon, for they wouldn’t be so brazen otherwise. Stories had reached their ears of a place called “The Depths,” and of the strange and powerful creatures therein. The leaders believed that their enemies had visited that place and returned strangely empowered. Nuada was unimpressed by such rumors; he vowed to cleanse The Depths once his foes relinquished their lives to his blade. He had ever kept his lands clear of abominations, and he thought these “Depths” would be no exception.
As the days passed, the Tuatha Dé Danann prepared for the invasion. As the first night-frosts settled upon their land, an enemy force was spotted far offshore by the realm’s scouts. Summoning the Wild Hunt, Nuada vowed to descend upon the invaders and defeat their leader in single combat. He would then mercifully send the entire force back to their own lands, with a warning.
The Courts hadn’t a chance to reconvene before Nuada and the Hunt rode out. They raced to the shore, the fire-wreathed hooves of their steeds never seeming to touch the ground. After a few days and nights of hard riding, they reached a towering overlook from where they could watch the invaders come ashore under cover of night.
Never before had the Tuatha Dé Danann faced such a sizeable force. Even Nuada was surprised and troubled by their numbers. Nuada’s unease increased when, from within the camp of invaders, he sensed a traitor. A Tuatha Dé Danann man was down there, he was sure of it.
Standing tall in the middle of the invaders camp was a strange, one-eyed statue. Nuada had heard rumors of this statue; it was called Balor. Then he spotted Bres standing next to it, talking to the crowd of milling warriors. A former friend, Bres had left the Tuatha Dé Danann to seek power elsewhere, and now he stood on the shore with the enemy. Nuada’s swollen pride was hurt, and his face grew dark with anger. He vowed to slay Bres for this betrayal.
Flying down from the cliff with the Hunt at his back, Nuada called out a challenge, daring their leader to come out and face him in single combat. Much to his surprise, Bres bravely answered his challenge.
Striding out of the ranks of the enemy, Bres was greatly changed from the Tuatha Dé Danann youth Nuada had once called friend. His aura, which was once bright and true, radiated a cold, evil light. In his right hand, Bres bore a black obsidian blade. Seemingly alive, its shape shifted in the moonlight. At first, Nuada attributed the sword’s appearance to the flickering light thrown by torches. However, he could feel the sword’s aura, which was dark and misshapen. It was alive.
Bres, seeing that Nuada had noticed his sword, began to brag about how he had gone far into The Depths, and had emerged far more powerful. His sword was but one of the treasures that Bres boasted were more than a match for those pitiful trinkets held by the Tuatha Dé Danann, including Nuada’s magic blade. Bres charged Nuada without the customary bow or honorifics, and the battle began.
Taken aback by Bres’ lack of honor and respect, Nuada reacted slowly. However, his years of hard training afforded him enough time to regain his composure. Slowly but surely, Nuada got the upper hand on Bres, driving him ever backward toward the sea.
With each ringing blow, Nuada’s confidence grew, for he knew the battle was over. Yet it seemed Bres did not understand. As each attack thudded home and forced Bres to retreat, he smiled wider and wider. The smile turned to boisterous laughter as Bres felt the foam lap his sandaled feet.
Their duel continued for hours, Bres taking each blow from Nuada but not yielding any further land to him. Nuada began to feel as though he were striking one of the stout Ironwood trees that ringed Tír na nÓg, unyielding even in the face of Nuada’s furious storm of attacks.
The two warriors still battled ferociously as dawn broke. After landing a particularly strong blow, Nuada slipped: He was finally weakening. As if Bres had been waiting for this signal, his laughter became maniacal and he began taunting Nuada, daring him to try harder. Bres claimed he wasn’t even sweating yet. He laughed at Nuada’s weariness.
As Bres’ taunts grew harsher, Nuada fought all the more fiercely, but could not find an opening to strike a truly punishing blow. As the sun rose over the towering cliffs, Nuada’s fatigue became more evident. Bres took the offensive then, driving Nuada back to the cliffs, his blows passing through Nuada’s defenses. With each blow, Nuada felt a cold chill at the point of impact.
Within moments, Nuada found his back against the cliff walls. He saw that even the hardened warriors of the Wild Hunt were concerned about their leader, and Bres’ forces began cheering wildly for him to end the match. Just then, Nuada thought he saw Balor’s eye move, but he attributed it to his fatigue.
Desperate, he tried one last trick. It was something he had learned in his youth. When they used to spar, Nuada defeated Bres a number of times using this same technique. He prayed that it would work one more time. However, as Nuada began his attack, a thin smile curled around Bres’ lips. This is what he had been waiting for all night; he had trained years for this very moment. As Nuada spun, his sword moving so fast that it was nearly invisible in the bright sunlight, Bres blocked Nuada’s sword with his left hand. The sword cut through Bres’ armor and instead of severing flesh, it struck solid metal. On impact, a jolt of bone-chilling pain surged through Nuada’s right arm, though it quickly grew numb from an intense cold.
Bres then swung downward with his own weapon, destroying Nuada’s treasured sword. The blade split into several large pieces, each one tinged with ice and frost. For a moment, Nuada stood stunned before Bres, thunderstruck by the enormity of what had happened.
Before he could recover, Bres struck again, this time severing Nuada’s right hand. He followed with a fearsome kick to the legs, which dropped Nuada to his knees. “You have lost, oh mighty King, and as custom dictates, these lands are now mine to rule! Return to Tír na nÓg and tell our people that their true King has arrived,” Bres roared.
Despite shock and grave injury, Nuada was not ready to lose. Pushing up with the last of his strength, he charged Bres like a bull. Predicting his movement, Bres smoothly stepped aside. As Nuada flew past, Bres keenly sliced off the rest of Nuada’s right arm. “I can keep this up longer than you can, brother. It seems you want a reminder of who is King now,” sneered Bres as he turned to face his troops. “Kill them all, but leave the cripple alive.”
The invaders fell eagerly upon the Wild Hunt, destroying them with frightening ease. Bres’ troops continued their butchery until the last of the Tuatha Dé Danann lay dead, their bodies scattered piecemeal on the blood-stained sand. Bres ordered his men to collect their heads in a sack that appeared to be made of human skin. Lighting a torch, Bres grabbed Nuada and burned him at the shoulder, sealing the wound. Bres then placed the unconscious Nuada and the dripping sack of heads on his own Phouka, and directed the steed to ride to their former home in Tír na nÓg, unload his burden, and then return to the fleet.
The Phouka was delighted at these orders. The horse made quite a job of it. Leaping about excessively, it sought out the most uneven terrain, made multiple unnecessary stream crossings and generally made sure that that ride was as painful as possible for his passenger. The horse apparently measured success in moans of pain elicited from its living cargo, its joy increasing at each grunt of displeasure.
Reaching the capital city of Tír na nÓg, the Phouka paused outside the ornate golden gates, reared up on its hind legs, and abruptly dropped Nuada and the sack of heads on the stone walkway. Assuming the form of an attractive woman, the Phouka proceeded to the gate and announced to the city that their new King was on his way. She claimed that they would have seven passings of the sun to prepare a suitable welcome. Not waiting for a response, she saucily strode away from the city, daring those within to shoot her in the back.
When they found Nuada and the sack of heads, the folk crumpled to their knees and wept, felled in place as surely as if struck dead.
A Hamadryad healer tended to Nuada, who did not awaken even when he was carried into the city. When he regained consciousness later, he shamefully related the entire tale to the High Courts. Most of the leaders of the Courts rebuked and chastised him, saying that he should have listened to their advice and used caution.
None of their censures hurt him quite so much as his beloved granddaughter Morrigan. Rather than speak, she simply changed her form to that of a crow, flew over his head three times and then out of the court. What remained of Nuada’s pride melted as quickly as snow in a hot fire.
Over the next seven days, the Courts met and debated how to react to the sudden change in their fate. Some argued for resistance, wanting to ignore the pact that Nuada had made at the beginning of that fateful duel. They argued that Bres had broken many traditions, and besides, Nuada hadn’t received the blessing of the Courts beforehand. Other members of the Courts argued for the importance of their honor and urged surrender.
While the healer was able to speed the overall healing process, she could not restore Nuada’s arm. All the while Nuada was in and out of consciousness, but he found that even in his sleep he could not escape from this disaster of his own making. His dreams were torture.
He saw many things. He saw his people failing, their bright lives cut short. He saw darkness, and chasms that went on forever. He saw the strange architecture and caves of what he thought were The Depths, and he saw the foul creatures that dwelt within. Each night ended with the same nightmare: His arm flew off his shoulder and landed on the sand, blood flowing from it until it formed a river. The river then passed through a hole in the sand and vanished. His arm lay twitching, surrounded by the broken pieces of his father’s sword.
On the sixth day, Nuada managed to stay awake longer. He was a shell of his former self. His confidence had been replaced by humiliation and a seething anger. He was not angry for losing the Kingdom, or even his friends in the Hunt, but because he lost the fight.
Disgusted with himself, he decided to flee the city, vowing to one day return and kill Bres. He knew where he had to go. The same place that Bres had gone: The Depths. Grabbing the broken pieces of his sword, he left without a word to anyone. As he set off on his quest, Bres’ army descended upon the now unguarded city, which swiftly surrendered to its new master.
For years, Nuada travelled the land, searching for the entrance to The Depths. Many folk had heard of the place, but none could even guess at the location. Like a dog on the hunt, Nuada followed every lead. Rather than diminish with time, his anger strengthened, and each time he felt the loss of his arm, he renewed his vow to kill Bres. He wandered from realm to realm, seeing many unusual and even moving sights, though none quelled his anger.
Nuada resumed a modified yet rigorous version of his training regimen. He knew he would need to be ready to fight once he found The Depths. He practiced fighting with his left arm. He relearned proper balance and footwork, and though all he possessed was a mundane one-handed sword, he regained a little of his former confidence as his skills improved.
Over the years, Nuada was often forced to take petty jobs to earn money for his travels, though he continually sought knowledge concerning his quarry. After completing what seemed to him an endless chain of caravan guarding, he encountered a merchant who told him that he had seen an entrance to The Depths. He offered to tell Nuada the location in exchange for a promise to share any spoils looted from the place. In addition, if he would agree to lead a caravan there, he would enlist a Dvergr who would craft for Nuada a properly balanced sword and a set of armor to aid him in his quest.
Nuada was more than a bit mistrustful, but decided he hadn’t much to lose. Besides, left-handed or not, there was a simple solution to betrayal if the merchant was lying. Nuada agreed to the bargain, and the merchant was as good as his word. Soon after, Nuada and a team of hired mercenaries stood before the black monolith that served as an entrance to The Depths.
Standing before the immense dark stone, Nuada could feel a coldness emanating from it. He 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 another place far away, where The Depths were actually located. It could be somewhere deep within this world, or even in an entirely different plane of existence. There were tales that the gate could transport you to another time, though Nuada gave little credence to such rumors. Magic was one thing; bending time was something else.
He did believe that the gateway was sentient, and that it could take on any appearance. Someone seeking entrance had to convince the gateway to open. This wasn’t some dark dungeon of legend whose doorway opened with a simple phrase or incantation. It was a vast enigma with a mind of its own.
This knowledge sparked a rare sensation of true fear within Nuada. Before Bres, Nuada had never known the feeling. Now that he had experienced defeat, he understood fear and he didn’t like it. 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 had 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. Or worse, publicly humiliating him.
Standing in front of the monolith with the rest of his companions, Nuada took stock of the strange assembly the merchant had thrown together. It was comprised of several races, including some from each of the three Realms. Most of them looked young, yet who knew if they might be great fighters. What was truly important was 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 when Nuada stood against a nearby tree and watched silently as some of the mercenaries tried to enter The Depths. One by one, they walked up to 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 feeble attempts to open the monolith. Suddenly an idea dawned on Nuada. The monolith was smooth and featureless, without a scratch. It was a blank slate. The black stone suggested 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 nevertheless agreed to wait for several days. Most of the mercenaries passed their time playing cards, gambling, and telling outrageous stories. Two of them stayed quiet, and Nuada found himself drawn to 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 she was part of their company. Over the next three days, while the others wasted time, these three began to bond and make plans. 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 effect on such people, she had no interest in any of their attentions. She wanted to become a tremendously 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. She was strengthened by the same conviction and need to excel that had possessed Nuada when he was young. He couldn’t help but feel a fatherly attachment to her.
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 lurked 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. He began 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 hint of light, even for the keenest of senses. Waiting until the darkest part of the night was upon them, Nuada directed his companions to stand perfectly still before the monolith. 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.
Nothing happened at first, and some immediately 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, gliding smoothly 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, and 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. 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 revelation that he was Nuada did come as a surprise to them as well. Nuada led them all through the entryway into the first cavern, a place that would one day be called the 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, Nuada called upon the party’s magic users to summon light. The weakest 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 a more powerful effect. As a 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. As best as they could tell, the statues represented all the known races of the 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.
One member of the group, a young Luchorpán, 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 carefully 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 Luchorpán ambled back to the path.
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 Luchorpán, 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 do when he was King.
As the last mercenary left the room, Nuada turned back to look for the frozen Luchorpán. He could no longer see the statue. In later days Nuada swore that he had seen it move out of the corner of his eye, as if the statue was being carried away by some invisible entity.
Nuada swiftly led the mercenaries down the path, towards what appeared to be a three-way intersection of tunnels. As they walked, they noticed that the well-polished stone path began to feel uneven. Several of them looked down to see body parts embedded in the path, apparently 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, their steps slowed to a cautious pace as they crossed a high stone bridge over a black chasm to reach the intersection.
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.
Unbeknownst to the travelers, the statue altered its appearance depending on who looked at it. For the Luchorpán, it appeared as 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 was a woman with spears penetrating her body from every angle as she writhed in great pain. For Nuada, it was himself with stumps for arms, swallowing a sword whose tip emerged from his rear. As the group stood transfixed by the statue’s power, its shape-shifting became more and more horrific. Each alteration showed the victim suffering greater agony.
The youngest male caster lost whatever good sense he had and began to bring forth 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 a magical attack was not a good idea. The statue began to change shape once more, and this time it took the form of a fiery colussus, columns of flame erupting from every orifice. Freed of its imprisonment, the elemental turned to its liberator and bowed in mock gratitude. Then it stepped on him, burning his body to a cinder.
Several of the other mercenaries broke and ran for their very lives. Nimue held fast and prepared a spell with a blue glow. Nuada guessed it was water or ice-based magic. John, who was the only other remaining mercenary, stood in front of the mage and thrust his heavy arms into the ground like two hammers, which caused the ground to shake and tremble. Nuada, appreciating the pair’s bravery, rushed to their side and drew his sword.
As the elemental approached them, it hurled fireballs with effortless accuracy. Nimue had foreseen this attack, and countered by summoning a massive wall of foggy ice. The wall blocked the fiery attacks and completely obscured the monster’s vision. This enraged the elemental, and its anger served to intensify its attacks.
Nimue did her best to maintain the wall, but her magical reserves were already straining. Nuada and John knew they had to act fast. John wanted to charge the monster, claiming that his stone-etched skin would protect him. He shouted that Nuada should stay back, look for an opening, and then strike hard.
Nuada 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.
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 ran across and stepped back to watch what would happen.
Predictably, the elemental broke through Nimue’s wall and approached the weakened bridge. He was about to step on it, but paused, looked down and began to laugh.
The horrible, choking laughter sickened the listeners. This creature was not some unthinking brute; it was sentient and evil. The elemental pointed skyward, gestured to the group, and then pounded one fist into the other. The massive, fiery being took a few steps backward and prepared to jump over the damaged section.
Seeing this, John turned to Nuada and gave him a nod. The Dvergar crouched and summoned power from the earth for a mighty leap of his own. As the elemental sprang into the air, John shot up and met it. They crashed in mid-air with a terrible noise that echoed deeply within the caverns.
John grasped the elemental’s legs and clung tightly, dragging it down toward the crumbling bridge. The monster quickly realized what was about to happen, but 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 booming laughter from the brave Dvergar.
They fell into the darkness, and Nuada could hear John still battling the elemental, yelling that he needed a “bit of a warm up anyway.” Eventually, the sound of John’s voice and the ongoing battle drifted away, leaving Nimue and Nuada alone.
Nuada marveled at the Dvergar’s sacrifice for those he barely knew. The former king wasn’t sure what to make of it. After a few moments’ respite, Nuada and Nimue stepped away from the edge of the broken bridge.
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 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. The tunnel was suddenly lit by a sickly green glow that emanated from diseased moss and lichen. These growths covered every inch of the tunnel’s inner surface, and pulsated in a pattern that resembled the breathing of a living creature.
Feeling 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 in a burst of magic blood. As the eye’s mush fell to the ground, the moss sucked it in with a greedy, slurping sound.
Knowing that they had no choice but to keep going, Nuada gently pressed Nimue’s shoulder. Together, they moved slowly forward with Nuada in front. He kept his left hand on his sword’s hilt, ready to draw at any moment.
As they neared the center of the passage, Nimue called upon her ice magic to try to freeze the ceiling. She did not wish to discover if her head would make as impressive a squelch as that seeing eye had. Her spell worked: The tendril was frozen solid and did not strike out.
However, as they continued walking down the tunnel, they saw creatures emerging from the green pods that clustered on the 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 feet were formed of twisting roots, and with each step they left a trail on the ground like a snail. Their small, powerfully built arms looked like they belonged on a blacksmith.
Nimue began casting spells furiously, firing off small bursts of ice magic as Nuada once again drew his sword. Charging the creatures, he began trying to hack them to pieces. He soon discovered that for every creature he cut down, two more would take its place. Nimue had better success: Her spells froze 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 monstrosities pursued as quickly as their plant-like legs would move. As the creatures ran through the tunnel en masse, the squelching noises and smells threatened to overwhelm the adventurers.
Nuada felt helpless as the host neared them. 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. The look in her eyes spoke volumes. She knew that they had but one chance: One of them must sacrifice themselves to save the other.
Before Nuada could even speak, she told him that there was no point in arguing. She was already near death herself, having used some of her life force to empower her magic. Even if Nuada’s death could buy her time, she soon would be as helpless as a newborn babe in a Veilstorm.
If she sacrificed her life, Nuada could continue on with their mission or at the least, escape. Nuada felt 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 added, “Run.”
So he did, turning back only when he reached the end of the tunnel. 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, or slid around her, she cursed them. With her words, she foreswore renewal in exchange for causing the destruction of them all.
Nuada was shocked, for her death curse was the strongest he had ever witnessed. As her life force was expended, she 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 ever he felt fear.
He had no reason to fear her, however; Nimue’s power was directed at the monstrosities that still mobbed her, looking for what they thought would be an easy kill. When the first one touched her, it was instantly frozen and collapsed at her feet, shattering into shards of ice. The chunks of ice exploded, striking every single creature in the tunnel, save only Nuada.
The tunnel became a winter 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 a cold meadow. The Tuatha reeled as he realized that there were no blades of green grass in the field, but tiny body parts that waved in a non-existent wind. The field had hills and valleys and these were also composed of severed body parts.
As the sheer horror of this place assaulted his senses, Nuada felt a strange presence in the air around him. He was sure it was a living being, though he couldn’t see or touch anything. He then heard peals of maniacal laughter. Was it coming from his own lips, or The Depths itself?
He felt thoughts creeping into his brain in tendrils, trying to take control of his mind. In the distance, he saw what looked like an open mouth. He decided to run 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 began to tell him to lay down and rest. Everything would be alright.
Nuada fought these thoughts, drawing his sword to cut his way through the living nightmares that attacked him. Covered in black blood, guts, and gore, he ran up the the hill that lay between him and that beckoning mouth. As he slipped down the opposite slope, he realized that the “hill” was a woman’s massive breast.
He was sliding down fast now, and when he reached the mouth at the bottom he saw that it was attached to a face that lay on the ground. The twisted visage was Nimue’s. His sanity began to crack. Nuada 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 lie down, one of his own thoughts pushed through his mental haze. It was a memory: Nimue’s voice commanded him to run.
Trying desperately to shake off both the ennui and the cadaver grass, Nuada rose slowly from the ground and leapt through the open mouth.
As the doppelganger of Nimue’s mouth snapped shut behind him, Nuada fell and rolled on what felt like the soft forest loam of his beloved homeland.
When 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, he saw that what he had 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 waiting to devour anyone who came too near. He drew his sword and called out to The Depths, daring it to do its worst.
He closed the remaining distance between himself and the forge. The thing flared with power. Tendrils, legs, and some hideous combination of living and dead flesh exploded out of the forge to attack Nuada. This was not the fight that Nuada wanted: It was the fight he needed. As he hacked pieces off the creature, joy surged through him. 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 as Nuada grew stronger, not weaker, with each sword thrust. He felt the power of the The Depths surround him and he embraced it, drawing on it, using the power to attack the creature. At one point in the battle Nuada noticed that the fingers were slowly beginning to close around him like the fronds of a vine. This brought another smile to his face, and he laughed at the creature.
Nuada gracefully danced from finger to finger, slicing each one off at the base. As each digit fell, he noticed once again that these creatures were not made solely of animal flesh but also some other substance. Nuada didn’t care. 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 felt the familiar presence of something nearby. This time, his keen ears detected footsteps just on the edge of hearing. In a few moments, Nuada made out a humanoid form walking (or perhaps gliding) slowly towards him through the darkness. Nuada stood up, his sword in its familiar ready position, and the shadows parted. A familiar face was revealed. It was the merchant who had bargained with Nuada for the entrance to The Depths. Nuada was stunned at this sudden and unexpected appearance, and his first thought was that it must be another apparition come to trick him.
“Stand where you are,” said Nuada, holding his sword higher, “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?” asked Nuada with 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 beast,” said the merchant.
Nuada turned back to the creature and saw that buried under all the body parts there was a golden forge. Once again using his Veilsight, he could tell that this was indeed a forge and not some other creature in disguise. 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 used a fine magically charged wand to burn away all the non-living flesh. Once that was done, he set about his work.
“Take some time to rest, Nuada. 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 carefully and don’t stray too far. I will make you a great gift, but it will take some time. Days, perhaps.”
Nuada explored the area around the forge, 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. Once, he lit a torch that was sitting in a wall sconce and the torch came alive and attacked him. He cut it to pieces easily, and most of his burns weren’t serious.
Nuada spent several days wandering through the nearby passages, and while he found a number of interesting artifacts, he did not uncover anything particularly powerful or deadly. As his small supply of food was running out, Nuada returned to the forge to find the merchant gone. However, several items were waiting for him, along with a note. The note said simply “For Nuada.”
The first item to catch his attention was a black obsidian sword, much 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. Instead of the cold aura of Bres’ sword, this blade radiated a bright red glow.
Nuada went to pick up the sword, but it was too heavy to wield 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. Shapely and smooth, and set with an intricate 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 aback, Nuada did indeed touch the arm and much to his surprise, nothing happened. He picked it up in his left hand, yet still nothing happened. Once again he grew angry, and as his anger increased, the arm twitched in response. Yet there was still nothing truly wondrous. 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 when he stopped. It’s only a spider after all, he thought. Surely he had eaten worse on a dare as a youth. There was something strange about that spider though, and after all, he was in The Depths.
Many thoughts spun through his head. Thoughts of Nimue, John, and the people of Tir na nÒg. After a brief reflection, he put the box back down on the ground and sat beside it. When he was ready, Nuada threw the box open, grabbed the live spider though it struggled to bite him, then shoved it in his mouth and swallowed. He instantly regretted his choice. The creature was still alive as it made its way down his throat, prickly legs kicking.
With the spider in his stomach, Nuada felt his anger rise again. He had been tricked by the merchant, betrayed by his own people, while John and Nimue 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,” Nuada thought to himself, “Power is the key, and I have it now. I’ll make that damned arm work, take the sword, kill Bres, and make my people bleed to take me back.”
Once again, Nuada grasped the golden arm. This time, it responded to him. The limb flew from his hand and attached itself to his stump. Tendrils of gold emerged and latched on to his shoulder. Nuada could feel his flesh merging with the arm, becoming one. He flexed his fingers. The arm felt completely his own.
Nuada reached for the obsidian sword and found he could heft it easily. He was as giddy as a child; the sword felt as light as a feather in his golden arm. As for the spider, Nuada didn’t feel it any longer.
His mind filled with newfound knowledge: He suddenly knew how to leave The Depths. A hidden passage would lead him to a tunnel that could get him back to his homeland far quicker than he had come. He laughed aloud and thanked The Depths as he ran for the passage. As he swung the sword triumphantly overhead, he could feel the life within it calling out for more life. Blood.
When he left The Depths, it became deathly silent. The only sound that echoed through the dark halls was the crooning laughter of a lone merchant, who tenderly caressed the new-budded green tendrils of the Golden Forge as they caressed him in turn.
When Nuada emerged from The Depths, it was into a very different world from the one he had left. Back then, the passage of time had little meaning in The Depths. When he made his way out of the first ley tunnel, Nuada discovered that what had been a small settlement of the Tuatha Dé Danann outside the tunnel had grown up into a proper town. Many of the people there had no idea of who he was, except as a vague legendary figure.
Nuada was perplexed, and the answer he received when he asked about the preceding years left him speechless. Apparently, he had been gone over a hundred years, yet when he looked at his own reflection he hadn’t aged a day. He was enraged by this unexpected news, but his anger truly boiled over when an unlucky passerby told him of “Bres the Blessed” and his successful rule over their realm. It took all of what little remained of Nuada’s self-control not to behead that person for merely delivering this news. Instead, Nuada merely took him by the throat and almost squeezed the life out of the man before he caught himself.
Stalking off violently as a frustrated predator might after missing his prey, Nuada again swore to kill Bres. Once that was done, he would return to The Depths and teach that damned merchant that Nuada was not to be trifled with. He would then conquer The Depths and use its power to lead his people to an even greater standing within the realms of this world and of course, earn more personal glory at the same time. And after that, who knew? With the full power of The Depths at his command, anything was possible!
Over the next decade, Nuada traveled the land of the Tuatha Dé Danann and stirred up discontent among its people. Truth be told, while things seemed fine on the surface, a cauldron of anger was slowly boiling and Nuada had no qualms about raising the heat a few more degrees.
There was much talk of trouble between the three realms of this world. The unity that had been built over many a generation was beginning to show signs of fraying at the edges. Nobody knew the cause of this disharmony, but as best as Nuada could discover, it had started around the time he and his companions had entered The Depths.
Putting these thoughts aside, he gradually gathered a small army made up of the dregs of Tuatha Dé Danann society. Drawn from all the known races of this realm, he trained them without mercy, forging them into as powerful a weapon as his obsidian sword.
Word quickly spread about Nuada’s return throughout the land, along with tales, many exaggerated, of his army and the “treasures” he’d somehow earned in The Depths. For you see, during the time that Nuada was in that foul place, it had gained a truly fearsome reputation. Few who went in exited with enough left of their mental faculties intact to tell the tale of their misadventures and survival.
What was talked about even more than The Depths was the sword that Nuada carried and wielded in battle. Tales sprung up like the flowers of spring of this sword sucking men’s souls as one would suck the marrow out of a bone, of it being intelligent, of it mastering Nuada. Nuada not only welcomed such rumors, he encouraged them by staging events for the masses during his travels. If he had to put on a bit of a show to gain more support, he was more than willing. All that mattered to him was achieving his oaths. Only a few trusted companions, if they could even be called that, knew the truth.
As Nuada and his army neared Tír na nÓg, the land itself seemed to recognize the coming storm and grew quiet. It was as if all the living things in his path simply decided to go somewhere else as he continued his relentless march to the capital city of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
One glorious day, Nuada and his army reached the object of his obsession. They stood before the sealed gates of his former city just as the colors of the fall season were reaching their zenith. With his army encamped before the great golden gates, Nuada sat astride a newly acquired black Phouka, obsidian sword in his right arm. Around him, the nearby trees blossomed with their brightest and darkest reds while great golden leaves floated through the crisp morning air in a scene worthy of a fine artist’s skill.
On the battlements of the city, Nuada could see the deadly archers of his Realm watching him as one would a wild animal that needed killing. He felt a mixture of pity and fear. His sword seemed to pick up on these emotions, and it hummed in his hands in the expectation of battle as he raised it high above his head. Nuada called out to Bres, challenging him to meet in single combat to decide the future of their people. Unfortunately for both Nuada and the sword, there was no response from the city.
For days, the gates remained closed and not even a messenger was sent from the city to Nuada. As the siege of Tír na nÓg began nobody could have imagined how it all would unfold.
Over the next few months, Nuada became increasingly frustrated. The siege seemed to have very little effect on the city and its inhabitants. The capital city of the Realm of the Tuatha Dé Danann had been built to be difficult to siege. Over the centuries, new and more powerful enchantments had been laid on it by the city’s mages, strengthening the defenses. Nuada knew that only time and patience would carry the day. Even if that day was years in length, he was prepared to wait as long as necessary to accomplish his goals.
While his army’s ranks were slowly growing, the people within the city seemed to be carrying on their daily lives without interruption. The Festival of the Winter Court was held right on schedule and the sounds of much revelry and merrymaking were heard from within the city’s walls. While none of the usual scrying spells could look into the city, Nuada was sure that his siege was failing.
Privately, he began to think of defeat. But whenever he did, a quick glance at either his new arm or his sword would replace that feeling with anger towards Bres and even his own people. How could they treat him this way, he thought. He was their first king! He had fought many battles and slain countless abominations to keep them safe. And now, they swore allegiance to a being that was unworthy of anything save death. When he was triumphant, he would gather the Courts and discover those that had betrayed him to make them all pay. He didn’t care where his investigations would lead him, even if it was to his own family.
As winter’s grasp tightened on the city and his army, there were no signs that the resolve of either the city’s inhabitants or of Nuada was going to slacken anytime soon. Months later, when the last of the winter’s snows began to melt, Nuada was still standing by the gates of his city, no closer to walking through them.
With the coming of spring, his anger bloomed like the buds on the trees, and he took out his anger on those around him. As morale within his army began to fray, there came the first sign of a break in the interminable stalemate; someone from inside the city was captured upon leaving. It was a Hamadryad healer.
When she was brought to Nuada’s tent, he immediately recognized her as the one who had treated him so long ago. For the first time in more than a century (at least in this world), Nuada experienced a truly soft emotion: A remembrance of what she had once done for him. He walked to her with arms open as if to embrace a long-lost relative, but she recoiled in horror. He saw her antennae twitch in warning and her tail move to a defensive position.
“Don’t come near me. You are not Nuada, you are an abomination!” said the Hamadryad.
Thunderstruck by her words, Nuada responded angrily. In his mind, he looked no different than he always had. He told her that he was still Nuada, and other than his golden arm he hadn’t changed all that much. A little bit wiser perhaps, but not truly different from the Tuatha Dé Danann he was before Bres’ betrayal.
“You truly don’t see it?” she said, shaking her head so violently from side to side that Nuada thought she would harm herself.
“See what?” he said, “I see nothing but the one true king of this land and all its people. It is you who are seeing things.”
“Your arm. It is the limb of a spider. And that sword you carry radiates such evil that it lit up the sky for a day before your approach.”
“What has happened to you in my absence? My arm is made of metal, true, but it golden and serves me well. As for my sword, it is not evil but simply a tool. A tool I will use to take back my city and rule it as I see fit,” said Nuada.
“You will rule what city?” asked the Hamadryad. “There is no city left for you to rule.”
“You truly are insane,” said Nuada, with a touch of pity in his words. “I stand before the great capital city of Tír na nÓg, while its people foolishly resist me. Their king is a coward who skulks in the city, as befits the traitorous rat he has become.”
The Hamadryad was surprised at his words, once again shaking her head.
“Please, my lord and king,” she said, adopting a new and softer tone, “What do you see before you?”
“If this is a game,” said Nuada, “I warn you, I am in no state for such frivolity.”
“Humor a poor healer who once saved your life,” she said, “Please tell me what you see.”
In the resigned tone usually reserved for parents with difficult children, he said, “I see the great gates of this city. Etched in the purest gold, inlaid with the finest jewels, they stand proudly before us. I see men and women on the city’s battlements, wearing the finest armor of our people and carrying our unique bows.”
“I understand,” said the Hamadryad, “Do you see or hear anything else?”
“I hear the laughter of a people reveling in the new season. These people should be starving by now, yet they celebrate as if at the peak of the harvest season. I have searched for months for the hidden tunnels through which the city must get its supplies and have found nothing. Will you tell me where they are?” he replied.
“I promise you I will answer that question if you will do one simple thing for me,” said the Hamadryad.
“Ask,” replied Nuada quickly, for he was anxious to discover these hidden routes. Once revealed, he could cut off the supplies into the city and the siege would end much more quickly.
“Let me touch you with healing, as I once did,” she said, gently as a mother to a scared child.
“Is that all? Of course you may touch me. Know that if you try to trick me, my touch upon your throat will be the last thing you feel,” said Nuada with an evil smile.
The Hamadryad reached toward Nuada and placed her right hand upon Nuada’s head, not his arm as he expected. He remembered that she had done the same thing to him when he was first taken to her, many decades ago. He relaxed as she began a chant in the magical tongue of healers. Power immediately answered her words and flowed through her. Her skin glowed from its effects as she worked her spell. His eyes started to close as a globe of purest light enveloped his head.
As it swirled around Nuada, he suddenly felt as though his head were stabbed by hundreds of daggers. The former king screamed and threw the kindly healer across the tent. Nuada held his head, trying to rein in his screams but failing utterly.
Rising from the ground, the healer summoned great power, which spread throughout the men surrounding the tent and then through Nuada’s entire army. The screams reached their zenith in a cacophony of pain and suffering that hadn’t been seen in this land for many generations.
After a few moments, the pain and the screaming ended as quickly and as violently as they started. Shaking off the effects, Nuada strode purposely across the tent towards the healer, his storm-crossed face betraying the only thought in his mind: kill. The healer knew what was comingg put out her right hand to Nuada as she kneeled before him.
“Strike my arm off if I have offended you Nuada, but before you do, look to your own right arm,” she said.
Without thinking, Nuada glanced down at this arm and what he saw horrified him. It was not a beautiful golden arm. Instead, in its place was a huge, hairy spider’s leg. Worse, the black sword that had been a thing of pride for him was a jagged creation of blades, spikes, and bone. Refusing to believe what he saw, he raised his weapon to strike the healer.
“What have you done to me?” he demanded.
“Nothing but removed the spell you were under, my lord,” she said without fear. “If you don’t believe me, go outside the tent and show your men.”
Nuada stepped outside and looked around the tent. His followers looked at him as if for the first time. They were frightened.
“This is impossible. It simply cannot be,” he said.
“It is so, though I wish it were not,” she replied sadly.
Nuada ran through the camp, looking for anybody who could see the truth, and not this distorted vision of him that the healer must be responsible for creating. Yes, he thought to himself, it was her fault. This must be a trick. Nuada was about to return to the tent to slay the healer and break the supposed enchantment, when he saw that he was again before the gates of city. He had been horrified by his arm and blade, but what he saw now chilled him to the core.
The city’s gates were not golden, and had been stripped of any façade of wealth. Far from being shut tight, they weren’t even closed, but hung open for all to see. He had been sieging an open city? He looked upon the battlements and instead of the troops he expected he saw skeletons of dead men and women.
“This cannot be. I refuse this false vision,” he screamed.
“It is true, Nuada, refuse it though you may,” said the healer who had silently crept up behind him and now stood behind him.
“What am I seeing?” he said imploringly.
“The truth, nothing more,” she said.
“What has happened here? To me, to our world?” he said.
“You are under a terrible spell, Nuada. One of such power that I could only undo a part of it. And I can only hold the lies at bay a short time longer. As for our city, it has been deserted for decades,” she said, “There are none of our people left alive in there. There is a but an evil statue of a one-eyed god named Balor.”
“I remember that statue from the battle against Bres,” replied Nuada.
“Yes, the statue was there, but at the time we didn’t know Balor was a living creature. Now he is a malevolent being that drains the life from our land and our people. His influence has spread throughout the land, his corruption working its way from town to town through the ground itself,” answered the healer.
“And Bres?” said Nuada.
“He stole the treasures from the city and deserted the city long ago with a band of his followers. The people he left as payment to Balor. The one-eyed creature has been repaid in full for helping Bres defeat you.”
“I will avenge myself against Balor, and then I will find Bres and recapture our treasures,” said Nuada, true anger welling up in him.
“As much as I wish you to succeed, I cannot lie to you. You are not the king you once were.”
“Not so! I feel better than ever. This arm may look like a nightmare but it fights like a dream.”
“It is illusion, my lord. I can see the damage that the arm and sword have done to your body, and it is considerable. You are nearing your end, for the arm and sword are draining your life away.”
“You lie!” said Nuada, but this time, with little conviction.
The healer shook her head sadly and once again took a knee before him. She drew her own weapon and handed it to Nuada.
“If you truly believe that, strike me down. But I pray you, use my weapon. I wish to cause you no more pain than I already have this day,” said the healer.
Nuada raised her weapon as if about to kill her, but he stopped in mid-stroke and looked deeply into her eyes. She was full of pity, not for herself but for him. He saw the same face that tended him for so many difficult days and the hands that brought him back to life. As much as he wanted to believe he was the champion with a golden arm, he had always known that something was wrong with the deal he had been given. He didn’t want to believe the truth; the lie was so much more pleasant and easy to accept.
He raised his Veilsight, as he had in The Depths. When he saw his own aura’s power gathered around him, Nuada hung his head sadly.
“No, I cannot. I know that you are right. About me… About this accursed weapon… I have failed again.”
“No Nuada, it is not over yet. There may still be hope for you and our people.”
Deeply saddened, Nuada took his leave to think on what he must do.
Walking alone through the deserted capital city of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Nuada felt his anger almost devouring him from within. He ordered his troops to stay outside the city’s walls and threatened to kill any who sought to despoil what was left of the city. Seeing the desolation for which he bore responsibility, was almost too much for him to bear.
The city was not just empty; it was devoid of any sign of life. Even the vermin that have always plagued cities were missing from the streets. The vaunted Watchtowers 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 boiling.
This time however, he knew that it was the influence of his spider’s arm and the obsidian sword that amplified his anger and fueled his desire to wreak a terrible vengeance upon Bres. The hamadryad (whose name he had still forgotten to ask) explained to him that while those foul creations didn’t make his thoughts evil, they focused any dark emotion as a glass could focus the beams of the sun. They concentrated his hatred, honed it to a point where that feeling blocked out any other thought.
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 had recoiled from his embrace! The darkness in him must be obvious to anyone who could see beyond the physical plane.
As he neared the city’s main square, he saw warning signs and graffiti dotting the streets. There were obscene references to Balor, to himself, and to Bres. As he came ever closer to the main circle, he saw increasingly disturbing signs that many battles had been waged here. There were charred corpses of warriors, mages, healers, and archers in the street.
The strangest part was how all of them appeared to have been 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. Though the sights should have terrified him, Nuada felt this was just another debt that he owed Bres, Balor, and his people. With each step through the ruins, Nuada renewed his promise that one day he would repay that debt, no matter the cost to himself.
As Nuada turned 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 when he spotted a familiar silhouette in the distance: The statue of Balor.
However it had grown in size, head topping the buildings around, with the one eye firmly shut. Balor’s stone skin was smooth and grey. He looked like a creature covered in skin-tight stone armor with the joints barely visible. Nuada stood at the barricade for several minutes, assessing both the change in his city and the threat of Balor when he felt a familiar touch upon his shoulders.
“I thought I’d find you here,” said the hamadryad. “It was a terrible thing that was wrought, Nuada.”
“Yes. It was all my fault wasn’t it?” said Nuada, “I was so damned sure of myself back then. I rushed into battle quick and unthinking, more like a young fool than a true leader. And when I lost to Bres, I was just as quick to desert my people.”
“If you wish me to 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 as bad as in they believe.”
“That is comforting,” said Nuada.
“In your case, your arrogance cost your people much,” she said, “Though it is not too late for us to rise from the rubble once again.”
“I understand. What should I do next? I’m lost…”
“Instead of swearing revenge, look within and decide how best to serve your people. Don’t drown in self-pity now as you have been drowning in hatred for so long. This world is under siege. Those that are strong enough to help must do so, or we shall all perish.”
Nuada nodded slowly. “Yes. So tell me more of what I missed. These bodies are strangely scarred by the battles that took place. Let’s start there.”
“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 lay within. 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. 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.”
“Magic has advanced much in your absence. 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, but none succeeded. Death took a mighty toll on our people, Nuada. 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?” Nuada was puzzled.
“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, but he doesn’t react in any way. He simply watches. 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, but when we realized what was really going on, the few survivors fled the city. Now that everyone 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. He let go with hesitation, for releasing the sword was becoming ever more difficult. Stripped down to his cloth undergarments, the former king of the Tuatha Dé Danann felt naked as he climbed over the barricade and made his way slowly towards the resting place of Balor.
As if Nuada had crossed an invisible line, the energy in the area began to flow toward Balor. It felt like being sucked in by a whirlpool of standing granite. Nuada continued to walk forward as Balor began to stir. 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 met its eye with his own. Reaching out with all his senses, he knew that Balor was more than a mere statue. No matter how hard he tried, he could not connect with the intelligence inside it. He then tried to communicate verbally, speaking in every language he knew from the world’s past and present, but still there was no response.
Standing before the statue, Nuada wondered if he should just end this charade and attack. However, stripped of any vestments and magic objects, Nuada knew he would be no challenge for Balor’s raw power. He would die a hero though. Tales of his bravery would unite his people and they would rebuild.
Yes, that was what he must do; die. As Nuada began to lift his arms in preparation for an attack, he glimsped the hamadryad shaking her tail back by the barricade. He realized suddenly that this was a coward’s way out. True, death would be swift relief to his shame and guilt, 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.
Nuada didn’t give in to his emotions this time. 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. As he once again crossed an unseen line, Balor’s eye closed, though it lingered on Nuada just a little longer than before.
“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 lifted 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,” said Nuada.
“And what is that?”
“I must rid myself of this accursed arm, sword, and other tainted treasures from The Depths. Then I must confront and defeat Bres to regain the treasures of our people,” 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,” Nuada declared.
“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 will then return to you,” she said.
“I will do as you ask,” said Nuada as he put his armor back on and reluctantly took up the sword again.
As the hamadryad walked off through the city, Nuada realized that he had once again forgotten to ask her name.
Nuada waited patiently at the outskirts of Tir na nÒg. Much of his army had already melted into the countryside. It seemed they lost interest when they found that they were not going to be allowed to strip the city of whatever riches it had left. Only a few loyal Tuatha Dé Danann remained to wait with Nuada.
During this time, Nuada steeled himself for his coming trials, knowing that they would not be easy to accomplish even if he were whole. He refused to take up the obsidian sword except when absolutely necessary, and each time he felt the foulness in his hands.
Almost a year passed before a familiar figure rode into town, accompanied by a young Dvergar who carried the tools of a 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. Nuada clasped them warmly, 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?” asked the hamadryad with a smile.
“No, I did not. How could you resist the opportunity to patch me up again?” Nuada returned, and she laughed in response. “And I see you have brought another to join us. Who are you, young sir?”
As the Dvergar drew closer, Nuada saw that the tools he carried were beautiful objects, likely crafted with magical mastery.
“Greetings, Nuada. My proper name is too long for even you to say, but I am known as Miach, son of Dian The Smith. Not that I’m offended, but I suspect I am older than you,” said the Dvergar. “So. I’ve been told that you have been to The Depths, and have returned greatly changed, 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 can do so with less pain. I do want to study your sword, as well as the other treasures,” said Miach, “Give them to me, 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 he couldn’t release it.
“You must let go of the weapon 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 hanging on,” said Miach, “But if you insist, I’ll be happy to try. That might be fun for me!”
Try as he might, Nuada found that he could not let go of the sword. It felt as though 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. 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. Its dark magic took root in his hesitation, amplifying his feelings to fear. 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, which made Nuada quickly command his lips to stop moving. “Now there’s a good king. Let’s go find somewhere to 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, though the dawn was far too slow in coming and the silent city was filled with screams of pain from Nuada, and oddly enough, the sounds of 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 the camp’s central fire, she threw the limb angrily into the flames and uttered a quick spell or prayer. 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 on 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 the crucible of suffering and emerged stronger. For the Nuada who now stood before his people had aged, but was not frail or weak. Even without an arm, he seemed more like the old Nuada, but without the folly and overconfidence of youth. 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 in apparent mockery. “Never mind,” he sighed.
Upon entering Miach’s tent, Nuada found it didn’t look anything like he expected. There was no littering of the living space with tools of Miach’s trade and life. Instead, everything was neatly arranged, with only a few hints of Miach’s profession. In the middle of the tent, on a great stone table that had been raised from the earth itself, sat three items: The black obsidian sword, his father’s old magic sword, and a silver arm. Nuada was overjoyed at the sight. His heart and mind were filled with as much joy as they had been filled with anger.
“How did you… What are… I…” said Nuada, barely able to move his lips.
“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 Dvergar. 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. I will contact the Emissaries and tell them of your prowess, of your greatness, of your…” continued Nuada, barely keeping laughter from taking over. All the while, the healer stood by and grinned at the joke.
“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 began laughing uncontrollably. Miach, realizing that he was victim of a sense of humor that he hadn’t known Nuada possessed, turned bright red. Some of the stones in his arms seemed to light up as well. “Well done!” said Miach, “You stung me nicely!” As he joined their laughter with his own, he added, “Let me show you what she and I have been up to these past few months.”
Nuada sat on a very uncomfortable stone chair next to the table still smug with satisfaction at having bested the master crafter with a jest.
“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 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 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 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 truly, but you need to practice 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?” exclaimed Nuada in exasperation.
“Got you!” said Miach, “Never go against a Dvergr in a battle of humor!”
“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 she or I tell 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, casting aside all levity, “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 passed into The Depths. It is why you aged so swiftly, and why you were so weak at the end. “
“I didn’t feel weak,” Nuada began.
“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 nothing inside,” said Miach.
A shudder of horror went through Nuada as he realized how close he had come to true death, and how deep was the crime 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 whatever is needed. I will erase the damage I have done.”
They began their work. When she was sure that neither Miach nor Nuada could see her, the Hamadryad smiled secretly, for she knew that deep within The Depths, the merchant was no longer laughing.
For the next few months, Nuada trained daily with his new silver arm. At first, practice was very difficult, and he endured numerous mockery-laden sessions with Miach. However, with the gentle touch and support of the healer, and the slow return of his once-legendary dedication, 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 as he had 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 sparred with other warriors, they all seemed to be moving and reacting more and more slowly. His opponents may have fought well, but Nuada’s actions flowed from one to another as if it were all some part of a rhythmic dance.
Once again, Nuada felt like a being born of battle, and not just one who excels due to constant practice. Each swing, block, and parry was effortless, and his silver arm moved as comfortably as did his arm of flesh. After three full moons, Miach declared that Nuada was indeed ready to re-emerge.
As much as Nuada wanted to return to The Depths, he knew he had other priorities. Over the next few years, Nuada, Miach, and the healer traveled the lands of the Tuatha Dé Danann together, searching for the scattered children of Danu. Though they formed an army, it was not one of conquest but 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 treasure, but in knowledge. As they traveled, their army grew in number. Many Tuatha Dé Danann rallied to their banners, and cheered 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. Though Nuada and his ragtag army gained some success, Nuada began to become enraged by Bres’ ability to remain hidden.
On one particular frosty summer night, Nuada sat by a roaring campfire, Miach and the healer by his side.
“You look particularly troubled tonight, Nuada,” said Miach, “Cait sith got your tongue?”
Nuada was inured to the crafter’s sense of humor and didn’t take the bait, at least not right away. However, the rumor of the way 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’ ability to hide from us is starting to frustrate 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?” asked Nuada, looking 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 Nuada, growing red in the face.
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.
Deep in the phase of the moon known as Shadow’s Delight, Nuada woke up suddenly. Not even bothering to put on his clothing, he ran out of the tent and found the healer. He was surprised to find her waiting for him.
“Curse me for a blind fool,” 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?” said Nuada.
“Yes. Now go put on your pants, as befits a king of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Raise the army and let’s get going. We’ve wasted enough time already,” she said.
Confused, happy, and 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. “If you want to play the role of legendary…”
“Sword 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 in The Depths before?” said Nuada.
She waved her hand dismissively. Nuada knew this was not something she was going to talk about with him.
“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 new entranceway. 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 revolted and enraged by the images in front of them; none more so than Nuada, who realized that each of these women resembled Nimue.
Making matters worse, when they approached the door, it seemed to come alive. Each of the women moved and writhed in pain and suffering. None could bear to touch the door. When Nuada came almost close enough to touch it, each of the women moaned one word his name accusingly: “Nuada.” Upon hearing that, the group turned to him.
“What happened here?” said Miach, “What did you do to her?”
“Nothing! We were fighting our way out of here 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? Our 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 damn day of my damned life. I wanted to go back for her but I couldn’t,” he said.
“Couldn’t…or wouldn’t, Nuada?” asked the healer gently.
“Could…No, wouldn’t. She did plead for me to leave, but I could have refused, perhaps. Or perhaps 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.
Nuada again approached the door, but this time he stopped and went down on his knees. 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. As they had so long ago, they swung silently open across the stone floor.
One thing certain about The Depths is that nothing is certain about them, Nuada thought to himself. However, as he looked around he noted some similarities to his prior visit. All around him, life was merged with death in an incredible and frightening tableau of horror.
The walls, floor and ceiling were blood red with pieces of living creatures that had been dismembered and scattered. Heads were stuck to walls like kill trophies. In some places, a jigsaw puzzle of body parts were put together as if to form a whole being.
But the subtlest, most disturbing thing about the room was how it expanded and contracted in a rhythmic pattern. At first, Nuada thought that they might be within the stomach of some gigantic creature, but he knew better. As they walked through the room, the cycle of breathing 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 followed 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 roundshield 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, 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 anger rise from deep within. Drawing his sword, he rushed the throne, oblivious to the warning shouts from his companions and to 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. Then he noticed that Bres hadn’t reacted to what was happening. 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, holding his sword steady.
“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. After a moment, Bres’s finger moved almost imperceptibly.
“What is going on here?” asked 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 what you are talking about,” said Nuada in confusion.
“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.
“Then let me clear up your confusion,” said a voice far too familiar for 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, or needed, to kill.
“Now 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 came 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 it 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 made it clear you didn’t care your goals were met. 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 us,” said the merchant.
“Us?” 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.”
They continued down the path and came to a room that emanated heat and cold simultaneously. Unlike all the others, the door to this room was plain and unadorned. As the merchant casually walked up to it, the door opened, rising soundlessly from bottom to top. 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.
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 not to be. Each was naked, spread-eagled upon a three-pointed star. They had monstrous, living tubes in their mouths, and were secured to the star by spiny creatures whose embrace caused John and Nimue to sigh with pain.
John’s skin was covered with pustules that expanded and contracted. To Nuada’s horror, one of the pustules broke open and a small, twisted abomination with Dvergr-like parts 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 noticed that Nimue was giving birth. Her swollen belly began to contract as she screamed, muffled by the tube in her mouth. The newborn was immediately sucked out of her womb and into another living tube 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 them, I thought it would be interesting 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. Nuada continued, “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 formed head, “This is our world. You are fools for returning here, but we thank you for coming. I’m so glad you brought your friends, Nuada. For those that survive, we have countless decades to get to know each other. There are a lot of interesting combinations here for us to play with.”
At that the merchant snapped his fingers, and the pipes around the room boiled up with deformed infants of many races, swollen nearly to a man’s size. They wailed and gnashed mismatched teeth.
“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’s companions.
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 fighting chance of surviving this 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 primal scream. The Merchant’s surprise was plain, but Nuada’s face spoke of soul-rending pain. Landing a few feet in front of the merchant, Nuada’s sword easily cut through the young horrors, who protected the merchant as if he were their mother.
The Merchant 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 realized they were fighting not only for their lives, but 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 like Nuada’s sword as she expertly cracked the skulls of those creatures foolish enough to rise against her.
As one of the deformed horrors sought to strike her unprotected back, her tail rose up like a cobra, swaying back and forth. Mesmerized by her tail’s motions, the thing simply stood there cooing to itself. 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, which 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, although 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.
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 threatened to engulf them. They weren’t great fighters, yet they had an almost limitless bag of 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 down and a gruesome feast began.
The horrors kept coming. No matter how many the companions 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 did not burn in the way of normal fire. She was armed with two spears; each one of them radiated the same 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 spitted so many 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 like 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. It was clear that Nimue and John were in good hands, so Nuada 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 thick, and it took all of his might to hack through them. With his blade free of the entanglement, 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 by 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. 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 perish, 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. These are but our first steps, Nuada. There are many dances 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 was so pre-occupied that he didn’t see a pouncing horror until it leapt upon his neck. Nuada grabbed at the creatur,e but before he could stop it, it bit deep into his neck, tearing flesh and opening a deep, bloody wound. He felt its teeth injecting some kind of venom into him.
At the same time, the faux Nimue advanced on Nuada. She smiled eerily down at Nuada, who was keeling as he desperately tried to staunch his wounds. Then Nuada heard a strange sound.
“Charge!” roared Miach as he joined the battle. Looking up, the merchant saw two Dvergar running at him. They were looking down at their feet, heads pointed forward; their crowns grew stonier as they ran, and they soon looked like rock-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 end over end. Miach spotted Nuada crouching in pain, and called for the hamadryad.
“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, 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 Dvergar 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 tha,t 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 flowing 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 jumped to his feet.
“Take care of her, Miach,” said Nuada. “I will return as soon as I am able.”
Nuada charged the merchant. Upon seeing the resurrection and the immense strength Nuada now possessed, the merchant decided that it was a good time to exit the chamber. Nuada was about 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 a 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 set off in search of the merchant once again. Nuada thought he had likely lost the creature, 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 a wave of his hand, the merchant loosed the magical bond that held 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 knew that Bres was under an enchantment, and wanted to hold back until he knew the entire truth behind his former friend’s betrayal of their people. However, the fighting was fierce.
Bres fought bravely for a few moments, then suddenly collapsed to the ground. When Nuada bent over 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,” interrupted 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.” However, the merchant didn’t sound quite convinced.
“Where are your horrors now, merchant?” said Nuada, who picked up the spear from the ground, and drew closer. “It’s just you and me, this time.”
“Yet 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, where it stuck fast. Nuada thought that odd; for one of the spear’s magical properties was its ability to return to its true owner. Off balance, the merchant teetered, almost falling into the pit before setting his feet firmly. He raised his arms in triumph.
“Hah! I told you that you were stu…” said the merchant, just as Nuada hit him full force in his midsection. They both hurled 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 grasp the wall with suction cups.
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. 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. Both were in shock however, 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.
Miach comforted John, and tried to boost his spirits, but John was silent. The valkyrie took care of Nimue as best she could, but the mage, like John, was not ready for any sort of meaningful interaction with her rescuers. She did say “Nuada?” at some point, though nobody had the heart to say anything in return.
Hamadryas regained her strength. Nuada’s death 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 had 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’ 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 of the pit where 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 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 golden swords interlocked, 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.” As he walked away from the edge he couldn’t resist thinking of that giant maw and adding, “I hope that creature chokes 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 Nuada’s work and restored the Tuatha Dé Danann, that story 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.
“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. It would start 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 silver arms. As further thanks, 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. Once the adventurers left, its last known entrance disappeared and no new one could be found for many years. That is, until a new intelligence stirred deep within its bowels and opened a new entrance. Waiting at the entrance was Hamadryas.
The Becoming of the Vikings
Somewhere deep within the bowels of a dormant volcano, a cavernous room slowly filled with young Vikings dressed in the black and red robes of a HelBound initiate. As they took their places before a statue of Hel, the smells of ash, death, power, and a rich cocktail of pheromones washed over them. They could feel the nervous energy of the various races that had come to this place to take final vows.
Though the volcano’s fury hadn’t been seen since before the coming of the Veilstorms, the room was still too hot for most of the Vikings and many of them were tugging at their robes, visibly uncomfortable in their heavy garments. Once assembled, they waited for what seemed like hours. Some even succumbed to the heat or the noxious fumes, and had to be carried off by senior HelBound. Minutes turned to hours.
Without warning, the room became much colder, and the sulfuric fumes were replaced by the crisp air of the fjords on a fall morning. With that sudden change, some other young initiates also found themselves “kissing earth” and had to be carried off. The assembly, its ranks now shrunken, began to shuffle together for warmth and security, wondering what was going to come next. Slowly, the room’s temperature shifted again, to reach a point of balance between hot and cold, as even the smell of ash and death disappeared. With these changes came the booming of an instrument that was neither drum nor horn, defying all description. A man wearing the robes of the Speaker of Hel emerged from the base of the statue to stand before the depleted gathering.
“Attend me, supplicants of Hel, the true and most kindly Mother of The Nine Worlds,” thundered the deep baritone voice of the Speaker of Hel as the nervous supplicants moved closer to him. “You have chosen to follow the one true path, which is wise. However, if you think this path is an easy one, you are as mistaken as those fools in the Cursed Realms who think they can save our world from destruction. Listen carefully now as I relate our history and what it means to earn the right to be a HelBound.”
“Hel is not a goddess, as the ignorant would like to think, but one of the Greater Powers, beings so transformed by the Veilstorms that they have transcended humanity. The story of her change is too long for recitation here, but rest assured it was both powerful and painful, as the duality in her appearance can attest. Like many of the Greater Powers, it was her inner strength that both protected and transformed her. When her evolution was over, she was a being that simultaneously walked in multiple worlds. Wherever she passed, she could bring both life and death. She fed off of them, growing ever stronger. And one glorious day, she transcended mortality to become that which she is now.”
“Becoming a HelBound brings pain and joy, power and weakness. For we are as our mother, creatures with a dual nature. Once you take this vow you are forever bound to her, and you acknowledge that your existence in this world is temporary. On the day that your existence in this place ends, you will join our mother in her realm and assist her as she watches over the nine worlds. You will be marked by her, so that all who encounter you will know your true allegiance and fate. Wear her mark proudly, for you will be able to call on her gifts to further her purpose in this world.”
“As a HelBound, you can both heal and harm with magic. After you commit to our mother, you will choose the path that leads to your glorious future with Hel. If you choose the path of life, you will learn the runes of magic that heal those around you. If you choose the path of death, you will learn the runes that bring death upon your enemies. For us, blood is what opens the path to the Veil. Through the shedding of your own blood, you can summon and control the magic of your runes.”
“A HelBound is able to tap into the power of the Veil through the intervention of Hel herself. The bond with Hel is continually strengthened as the HelBound use their abilities fighting for our realm, whether with the skills of hands or of runes.”
“You newcomers will first have to go through the ceremony of rebirth, during which Hel will mark you as one of her own, granting you your first HelMark. Afterward, you will choose your path with Hel. This is a very important choice and you must choose wisely, for this choice is not symbolic: it determines the runes that you are given access to by Hel, as well as the way that you will carry Hel with you as you do battle with the enemies of the Realm. Additionally, while you are expected to learn other runes as well, these core runes will dictate the ebb and flow of how your magic functions in battle.”
“Your choice of path will also dictate your initial choice of weapon, and this weapon will be bonded with you. This bond can be transferred to another weapon in the future, but you may only have one bonded weapon at a time. However, you can also choose to use your hands as a weapon. While not as effective as using a crafted weapon, if you choose your hands a permanent rune of power will be etched on them. Over time, Hel will help harden your hands so that they take on the aspect of a weapon in more ways than one.”
“So, my little Helions, how does this all sound to you? Are you ready to take on the challenge of serving our most gracious mother? If you think you are, I have one other thing to show you before you make your decision.” The Speaker then slowly removed the finely etched, two-toned robes of a HelBound.
As he did so, there were gasps of horror from some of the supplicants. For only then did they see the price he paid for his devotion: His body was almost split in two. One side hung with dead flesh, while the other seemed all too alive and writhed with growths and strange organisms. It appeared as though his two separate halves were held together by sheer force of will. “This is the price I gladly pay for serving our lady and I would pay it again. Always remember, your choices matter.”
Standing before the assembled young men and women, the Speaker smiled inwardly, knowing that what he said was only mostly true. There were a few things about the choice that he wished weren’t part of his bargain with Hel. But he had learned a long time ago how much his choices mattered. Especially when dealing with a demigod who used to be his daughter.
Outside, the frost had stilled all but the rush of the wind, and deep drifts of snow had buried the meadow, leaving white mounds over the tops of the standing stones. On such a frozen winter night, even the stoic Dvergar were glad of thick walls and roaring fires.
Glancing out the window of the earthen building, the Dvergr child left his toys for a moment, watching the shadows move among the stones. The cold brushed against his nose like a memory, and the child snuffled.
“Come back over here by the fire, my boy. The warmth is good for your stone bones.” The aged one who peered at him from an oversized armchair was hoary as the frost outside, though the stone of his body was more dusky than ever.
The young Dvergr complied, climbing down from the window and tramping slowly over the packed-earth floor to the hearth where the fire blazed. “Grandfather, why are those stones outside in that shape? It looks like the ships the warriors go to battle in.”
His grandfather, or afi, raised his bushy eyebrows and leaned back in the solid chair, pulling from a stone mug for a long drink. The steam billowed around his face. “The saga of the stone ships is a long and momentous tale, my boy. Are certain you can sit in silence until it is finished?”
The young Dvergr sat by the fire, his eyes aglow with interest. “Yes, grandfather.”
“Good. Little one, have a sip; we will now tell the story of our Delving and Ascension, and how we came to Sigurd’s Realm.”
Long ago, in the time of the First Breaking of the world, there was a mining town called Sindri that had seen better days, nestled among the cold mountains. The men and women that lived there were grim, determined to eke out a life and rebuild their ramshackle town to its glory days.
The foreman of the mine served as a kind of leader among the townsfolk, a no-nonsense man called Durnir. However, he was not their greatest expert on the mine. No, that distinction belonged to the eccentric old man known as “Old Motty”, who often took a mug of the town’s famous mulled beer and went off by himself into the darkest nooks and crannies of the mine. They said that Old Motty had never gotten lost, not even once, though the mine was riddled with twisting tunnels and confusing caverns.
Both men loved the mine, but they were often at odds. Durnir wanted to keep a firm organization running to get the most out of the valuable ore they dug. He tried to keep the miners focused, achieving one goal after another, slowly and surely building up their town.
Old Motty was always searching for something, often alone, or with a few brave souls who hoped some of his expertise would rub off on them. The old miner was instrumental in keeping the main part of the mine running, but he constantly sought the next big find, a concentration of pure ore, the mythical mother lode. He always figured that if he could just find something better, the mining town would suddenly flourish once more.
Though the storms pelted the townsfolk with rain, wind, and magic, Durnir kept them organized, and they sent team after team into their cave-riddled mine, working through the dangers that other towns would not. But their resolve would come at a terrible price.
One day as dark as dusk, when a truly terrible Veilstorm tore at the earth with its thunderous fury, the stone and mud of the mountain shuddered under the assault. A massive promontory of the mountain shifted, as though it were trembling with fear.
Deeply alarmed, Durnir called for a team to retrieve the on-duty miners before a collapse could trap them. As he watched the volunteers gather around him with brave faces, Durnir realized they were mostly the rain-spattered wives, husbands, and children of the miners that were inside. He tried to dissuade them, but it was no use; the men and women of Sindri were fiercely brave and determined.
However, just as he entered the cave mouth at the head of the rescue team, the earth shook under the force of the storm, which had become a truly terrible Malevolence. Something screamed through the town behind him, probably the wind. Steadying the others, Durnir glanced back.
It was not the wind. As the Malevolence smote the town with its magic, people were changing. Through the driving rain, the miners could discern the people of Sindri twisting into strange shapes and horrific visages.
Behind, Old Motty emerged from the cave mouth, gasping with horror. Screaming rose on the wind, and the rescue team watched open mouthed and weeping as the fearful magic ran rampant through Sindri below. Durnir had to put out an arm to stop Old Motty from running headlong down the slope back to town.
“You can’t go back!” the younger man shouted over the roar of the storm, though his spirit nearly failed him. “They’re all becoming monsters!”
A tremendous rumble and crash made them both look up. A colossal piece of the mountain had sheared away above them, and was now sliding with a great shriek of stone on stone down toward the cavernous entrance to the mine.
As the rescue team dove past him to escape the landslide, Old Motty shouted to his family, his friends, and his neighbors, though there was no chance they could hear, even if their humanity hadn’t already perished under the Malevolence. At the last moment, Durnir reached out and yanked the old man inside the cave, away from the deadly fall of earth and stones. Monstrous shrieks and howls were the last the miners heard out of Sindri before the cave opening was buried in the crushing boulders and mud.
In the quiet dark, the only sound left was their own weeping.
The miners crouched low in the dark, covering their heads and choking on the damp dust that flooded the cave mouth. The walls cracked, and chunks of the roof fell among them. As water began pouring down the walls and pooling on the floor, many cried out. Fear took hold; complete panic was not far away. Even Durnir seemed to have lost all control of the situation.
Old Motty cleared his throat. His voice rose above the frightened people in the dark, holding their spirits up like a sturdy foundation. “We’ll be alright, everyone. Follow me.” Lighting the candle on his head, the old miner pushed through the crowd with the handle of his mattock. The light flicked and shimmered on wet faces and fearful, flashing eyes as people stepped aside unevenly, blinking at him.
Old Motty led the way down through one of the shafts to a dark part of the mine that was little used. There, by the light of his candle, he showed them where he had long ago broken through to a different part of the cave complex. “We should be able to find a good place to hole up—if you’ll pardon the pun—until this is over, yes?”
Some people laughed as the tension broke. Some shed tears for all that had just been lost, and at the terrible transformations they had witnessed. Some people noticed Old Motty didn’t say the words ‘escape,’ or ‘get back outside’. Even now, though he was shaking with strain and sorrow, Old Motty was as comfortable within the mine as most were in their homes. For his part, Durnir lit a torch from the candle and brought up the rear.
As the storms raged on outside, and the weight of the mountain seemed to press down on the cave mouth, they began to follow the crazy old miner, wandering through the cave complex to find shelter. Something behind them cracked again, and the mouth of the cave flooded with rain-soaked mud. They came upon a few shafts and openings to the outside, but inhuman roars and screams echoed down into the tunnels.
Feeling trapped, one of the younger members of the group spoke up. “What of our home? My mother, my friends, and my uncle, all still out there?”
Durnir answered him gravely. “Only be glad you’re alive. They have have been changed by the storm, but do not think on it right now. You have spoken of the loss that we all feel.”
Old Motty shook his head sadly. There was no going back. The howling of the Abominations that had been their loved ones seemed to chase them through the twisting tunnels. There was nothing to do but follow Old Motty, who led the way with a strange certainty. The old miner was the only comfort to be had in that dark place, which was getting ever darker as their lights burned low.
As the storm reached its highest pitch, Old Motty stumbled, looking confused for the first time. To the terror of the folk that followed him, he seemed to have lost his way. The thunder shook the earth so violently that cracks appeared in the smooth walls. The candle on his helmet guttered out, as did Durnir’s torch, and they were left in the pitch black.
The men and women of Sindri huddled together in fear. The storm would kill them soon, if they could not find a way deeper. They did not feel protected from the Malevolence at all. They felt the tumultuous shifting of the earth, wracked by the wrath of the Pierced Veil. Praying, Old Motty hoped desperately to find some way to survive, something to give them life in this dark place.
Gradually, as the magic of the Veil flowed through the stone around like blood through veins, and the ground hummed with energy, Old Motty felt his eyes begin to burn. At first, he thought it was from weeping at his loss; but then, in the pure darkness, he began to see. “What…fear not, friends, I can see Durnir’s warts again!”
Durnir, for his part, smiled wryly. “Oh, my eyes must be hurting at the sight of your wrinkles, Motsognir.”
Others felt their eyes burn, too; they saw light in the dark. They could wander on, their eyes weeping like the walls as the shifting magic changed them. They were becoming part of the earth, changed by the flow of magic through the cave walls into something else.
With his new sight, Old Motty could see that a large crack had opened in the side of the tunnel, leading downward. He stood, dusted himself off, and led the way once more, his strange certainty returning.
“Where are we going?” Durnir asked gruffly. Others blinked through hot tears and wondered whether it would be worse to crawl outside or to go deeper.
Old Motty shrugged and grinned. “Seems to me this is the best way to go. I don’t pretend to understand it, my friends, but I feel that we are meant to go this way.”
There was nothing to go back to but Abominations and certain death. So they walked, leaving the Malevolence behind.
All the tunnels, twists, and turns only seemed to lead further and further down, into the deep parts of the world that even the bravest miners had never delved. The power of the storms filtered through the land all around them and slowly, painfully, they continued to transform.
They ate the last of their food on the second day, still trekking down, trying not to think about the nagging feeling of loss, that they would never see those that they left behind.
It was Old Motty who found sustenance: a field of mushrooms in the crevices of the deep, richly flavored and plentiful. As the storm’s water seeped through, they picked and plucked the fragrant food. Wishing only to survive as part of the earth, they ate of the earth, and walked deeper, beyond where any of them could remember the paths they had trod.
Having long lost track of time and distance, the people of Sindri were brought to a halt when they came to a place where the tunnels narrowed, and even Old Motty paused.
Durnir spoke up. “We should stop here, Motsognir. We can go back to those mushrooms and survive on that for a while, or…”
Old Motty scowled back at him. “Nonsense! Are you miners for nothing? Get out your damn tools, and get to work! Or would you really rather go back, and all the way back, to the monsters and the storms above?”
The sound of picks and shovels echoed through the ancient caves rhythmically, bouncing back and forth off the stone until it became a jumbled roar. Eventually, they broke through, down to a vast series of caverns far below the surface of the world. There in the warm dark, a vaulted cave opened like an endless tomb of the gods. It was lined on the roof with shimmering crystal. Stars, here in the deepest reaches of the world.
Something about the great chamber made the people of Sindri feel safe. Sorrow and mourning burst free of the constraints put on them by the journey. Many broke down and wept at last, unable to hold back any longer. They had lost so much, so suddenly. The horror of the Malevolence had taken everything that made Sindri a home and changed or buried it.
Old Motty grunted, “Come on, up and at ‘em. Let’s see where these tunnels go. There’s lots of things to see. We may yet find a better place…” He trailed off, as no one was listening.
Durnir shook himself and stood before them all with raised hands. The keening quieted. “We have lost a great deal. We cannot ever return to the place that was our home, for storms and magic have destroyed it and changed our families and friends into…something else. But look.” He pointed at the high crystalline roof. “Here is a sky that has no sudden changes. No storms come here to wreak havoc. This is a place where we can allow ourselves, not to forget–no, never–but perhaps, to survive.”
Old Motty kept insisting that they should go further, but the folk of Sindri-that-was refused. They called this place the Dark Fields, and settled there.
They never forgot Sindri, where they had come from, and the loss stayed with them like a bleeding wound. On the other hand, Durnir pointed out that there was much to do. There were so many things to organize: caverns had to be hollowed, tunnels explored, fields of mushrooms farmed. A few brave souls began experimenting with different brews, trying to find a new recipe for their beloved, nourishing beer.
Far below the ground, they discovered bizarre magical flora and fauna, things unheard-of, beautiful and strange. Eventually, many of them were tamed and husbanded by the folk that had been born in Sindri, and Old Motty called the most plentiful ones “deepsheep.”
They built beautiful homes carved into the stone, and formed their own tribes and even kingdoms beneath the earth. They began to call it the Inner World, and the storm-torn surface the Outer World.
Old Motty kept saying that they hadn’t fully explored everything, but they were all much too busy surviving to think about that much. He argued with Durnir at first, but over time, Old Motty retreated farther and farther into the deepest caves, and Durnir became king over the Dark Fields, capital of the Inner World.
The people of Sindri changed their Inner World to match themselves, even as their bodies changed to match their surroundings. Other caves they had hollowed were given their own names, and became somewhat independent kingdoms called Nodes. Over each Node there ruled one of the original miners, now called the Ascended. It was they who remembered the surface, and told and retold of the torrential destruction above.
All were comfortable and happy in their wondrous and mysterious Inner World. The Dvergar, as they began to call themselves, slowly began to miss the surface less and less. They had children who knew of clouds only by stories.
They were content. Until the one called Thrya was born.
Deep underground, where the Dvergar took refuge, a place called the Inner World flourished. It was a wondrous place, full of strange creatures, twisting tunnels, and dark mysteries. One of the children of the Inner World was called Thyra.
For the little orphan girl, the Dripping Hall, the Hall of Earth’s Gift, and the Hall of Stone’s Flame were not enough. She loved to explore as soon as she could walk, drawn to the deepest caves and the furthest corners of the Dark Fields. To try and keep her safe, Thyra was instructed by her concerned elders, the Ascended of her Node, to think on her path in life. She was often sent to meditate in the phosphorescent blue light of the fountain that took up most of the Dripping Hall.
However, one eye would open on its own, and peek out to look at the wondrous light, then slide over to the unlit corners or crevices in the halls, looking for something that no one else had noticed. She spent all of her free time exploring the profound darkness of tunnels as yet unwalked, or swimming the strong rivers that delved even deeper into the world. She only listened to the stories of the Ascended of her Node to hear about wondrous things and places she had not yet seen.
Though she was bold enough to go alone, it was always more fun with a friend to share jokes with. Her close friend Gaumr often accompanied her, but he often mentioned that he was not so bold, nor so reckless as Thyra, who would hurl herself across chasms and seemed so in tune with the stones she never got stuck in the tightest of spaces. He might have been a bit important, son of an Ascended of their Node, but the little orphan girl outstripped her friend quickly in her desire for more, to go beyond the stone walls where she had been born. Others tried their hands at building or crafting, or perhaps turned to the chanters and the magic of runes and their mysteries, but Thyra only wanted to explore.
And so she grew into a Dvergr woman with few ties and one strong friend. She wondered and wandered, mostly on her own.
One day, she found herself wandering back to the place of meditation, the Dripping Hall where she had never been able to sit still. She found it nearly deserted, but for a boy practicing his craft by himself. He had a table set up, and a set of complex devices and tools that made no sense to her. In the quiet stone vault, his clockwork and golden gears seemed to click in time with the dripping of the water into the never-still surface of the pool. The grey-blue walls all around looked on silently, as they had for thousands of years even before the Dvergar came.
She approached, and looked over his shoulder with interest at the gleaming mess of things he was working on. The boy looked up at her fiercely. “It’s not finished yet.”
“Clearly. That’s alright, I prefer a boy who finishes on time.”
All he did was glare back at her in the rippling reflection of the pool.
Just as she was turning away, the boy spoke again. “You can help me if you want. My brother is too clumsy. My name’s Sindri.”
Thyra raised her eyebrows. “That’s the same name as…”
“Yes, I was named for the place where we came from. My brother says it’s a silly name for me, but I like it. Anyway, I already know you’re called Thyra. So, will you help me or not?”
“I can try, but I know I haven’t the patience.” Nevertheless, Thyra bent over the low table he had set up and held down a spinning gear with a pair of tweezers while Sindri set a thin glass lens carefully in place. “What is it, anyway?” she asked.
Sindri smiled without looking up from what he was doing. “It’s not anything yet, remember? What it’s going to be, well…you’ll have to wait and see. Something new, I think.” Thyra sighed and leaned back. “I hate waiting. It’s beautiful, though.”
Another voice replied, “Like your face. I mean, you can have it. When it’s finished. I mean, it’s for you.” Sindri kept his eyes focused on what he was doing, but it wasn’t he who had spoken.
Another Dvergr was standing near the pool. It was Gaumr, grinning sheepishly at Thyra. “And I’m the one who commissioned Sindri to make you a gift. You’re welcome, before you ask. Consider it a…bribe, to let me go with you when you explore up there?” With another grin, he pointed at a dark opening above the fountain that spilled into the pool.
Thyra had never noticed the dark opening before, despite all the time her eyes had wandered about the room of meditation. It must have been because she had kept her head lowered. Thyra met Gaumr’s eyes and nodded, never noticing Sindri’s mysterious smile.
Later, when they had gathered their things together and were finally ready for the expedition, Gaumr hesitated. “Are you sure this is enough? What if we get stuck in a tight space, or get lost? Maybe we should ask one of the elders–”
Thyra held up her hand to stop him. “This is an adventure for us brave and bold ones, Gaumr. There’s no need to come, though, if you don’t want to.”
“Don’t talk like that.” Gaumr made a sour face, as though he’d eaten something. “I was just askin’. So, you comin’?” And with that, he hoisted his pack and set off up the well-hidden steps that were carved into the side of the fountain.
Leaving the Dripping Hall behind, they found little light in the tunnel. It was just enough for their reflective eyes to pick out the twisting formations and strange patterns on the walls of the stone tunnel. Tiny cave-dwelling creatures battled their way across the path, and Thyra, following Gaumr’s lead for once, stepped carefully around them. The miniature denizens of the Inner World took little notice; they were consumed by their own concerns.
They walked for a long time through the dark twisting tunnel before they came to a place where the stone spread out and away, opening into a vast hall that was lined with columns that had formed in ages past. Their footsteps were the only movement in here, where the silence and stillness had reigned for millennia uncounted, where stone formed and took shape in hidden beauty.
The stone flared out into complex designs. Rivulets of water flowed down the walls and gathered in pools, where the stone was soft and had dissolved into milky liquid, waiting to dry and form new shapes in eons to come.
Thyra and Gaumr stood breathless, looking around and taking in the corners and crevices that patterned the walls of the enormous cavern like fish scales.
A voice from behind them said, “Wow…a forge of earth.”
They turned in alarm to find the boy Sindri standing there with a pack of his own. He had followed silently, with all his hanging tools and instruments wrapped in cloth to protect (or perhaps just to muffle) them.
Thyra frowned at first, then grinned at Sindri’s look of wonder.
“What?” Gaumr chuckled, “Never seen a cave before? Anyway… what’s a forge of earth?”
Sindri’s eyes were unfocused. “It’s this. This place, where shapes are formed in stone. I can build here…I can build amazing things here. Anything.”
Thyra looked around the beautiful cavern. “Really? You can make anything? Have you been at the mushroom beer?”
“No!” Sindri looked annoyed. “I finished Gaumr’s gift for you, by the way. Here. I never knew there were places like this…I wish I’d gone exploring with you before!”
Ignoring Gaumr as he began to explain that Sindri wasn’t exploring ‘with’ them, Thyra pulled the golden trinket out of the leather bag. It was all gleaming gears and glittering lenses, and hummed to life in her hands. “What does it…do?”
Gaumr turned before Sindri could answer. Clearing his throat, the older Dvergr shrugged his rough-stone shoulders. “I thought that, what with your interest… well, it’s supposed to lead you to new places, find things you couldn’t see before. Sindri’s a bit of a prodigy, so I commissioned him to build you something. Don’t tell him I said so, of course,” he added, glancing down at the boy with a smirk.
However, Sindri had already wandered off again, staring in wonder at the formations and mysterious curves of the walls. Gaumr turned back to Thyra with another joke on his lips, but she had wandered in the opposite direction, turning his gift over in her hands and exploring the hidden corners of the underground hall. Gaumr had to laugh in the echoing hush. “Heh, oh sure, don’t mind Gaumr, he’ll be fine on his own. Lots of things for Gaumr to do.”
He watched for a moment as the two of them walked and clambered about the beautiful place, then shook his head. “Might as well eat something, I suppose.” Plopping down on a smooth rise in the stone, he pulled out a sealed mug and a wedge of cheese. Eyeing them both critically, he added to himself, “One of these is much more nourishing than the other… and makes for better companionship.” He put the cheese back in the bag and took a deep drink…
…Almost spurting out all the beer when Thyra said from behind him, “You should come with me!”
Wiping at his beard with the back of his hand, Gaumr glanced up to find Thyra standing over him, holding the trinket up to her face. Her eyes were almost glowing with excitement. “What are you talking about?” He started to cough.
“I’m talking about this thing. I think I’ve found something… some kind of trail that leads upward! To world above!”
“The Outer World?” Gaumr looked dubious. “Why would you want to go there? It’s covered in terrible storms!”
“The storms that made us who we are? Anyway, don’t you want to see the things the Ascended tell of? The storms, the mountains, the… sky?”
Gaumr took another drink to steady his nerves. No one had thought of going back, not in millenia, it seemed to him. “My father tells that everyone up there became monsters. Is it even possible for us to go? ”
“No.” Sindri scrambled back to them over the smooth rocks. “Not yet, it isn’t! Even with my special little compass, you’d never find a path through. So I ask myself, how do I travel if I come to an impassable obstacle, like a lake of water. I can’t go by myself. I need to take a ship!”
The pair looked at him with confusion. “What’s that?” They asked in unison.
Gaumr added, “Did you just say what I think you said? Because you should have gone before we set out.”
Ignoring the last comment, Sindri shrugged. “It’s something you can travel in. My father spoke about them sometimes. In one of the other Nodes, they use them to cross a wide lake. In this place… I will build a ship that sails the earth!”
His voice echoed through the cavern, and for a moment, they both believed him. But then Gaumr shook his head. “I’ll have to ask my father…”
Thyra jabbed him in the ribs with her stony elbow. “Can’t you see he’s thinking? If you want to go, let him be.” Gaumr looked at her and sighed again. “I can see you’re bound and determined to this already. See the Outer World, eh? Perhaps you’d better come and talk to the Ascended with me.”
In the Hall of Hearing, where the beards wagged long and were spotted with grey, Thyra pleaded her case. “Allow us to travel to the surface, and at least see if the storms are still there!”
Gaumr’s father had demanded a hearing. The other Ascended of the Node had called king Durnir himself to hear the appeal.
The king stood, stroking the salt and pepper of his beard. The only sound in the hall, lined with rows of massive stone chairs and benches, was the clinking of the golden amulets woven into Durnir’s hair. It seemed an eternity before he spoke. “The greatest tragedy of our people happened there, on the Outer World. We lost the town we came from, our husbands, wives, sons, and daughters. We heard them become ravening beasts, filling the tunnels with their cries. We came here and built a new life in a new world, the Inner World. You want permission to throw all of this away? You want permission to tempt others to leave us as well, and take their skills and their abilities away from us?”
His eyes turned questioningly to Thyra where she stood upon the dais in the center of the room. She swallowed with a dry throat and spoke with hesitation. It seemed as though a life spent exploring empty caves and discovering unheard-of places did not prepare one for public speaking. “I ask permission only for the boy Sindri to build his… his masterpiece. I ask permission for Gaumr to find new glory for his family name,” she added, her voice growing stronger now, as she glanced at where Gaumr’s father sat in state, his robe of Ascended office about him on his high bench. “And I ask for permission that I, and any Dvergr who has wanted more, who has wanted to breathe the open air and see the sky, be allowed to follow that dream. I assure you, we will come back–all the wiser and better for having traveled.”
Durnir nodded slowly. “I understand what you intend. But I do not think you understand the dangers of such a journey, nor the consequences of failing to fulfill all your promises.” He leaned over to his left and right, listening to the whispers of Gaumr’s father and another Ascended. With a firm nod, he straightened and looked straight into Thyra’s eyes. “It is the decision of the Ascended of this council that you desist from all you are doing regarding a journey to the Outer World, and also from tempting others to build a vessel–no matter how much of a masterpiece it might be–capable of making such a journey.” For a moment, his grey eyes softened, and he smiled wryly behind his beard. “Do not take it too hard, dear Thyra. After all, a ship made of stone would just sink like one.”
A sprinkling of laughter spread around the hall, echoing through among the smooth pillars and walls. Thyra looked down at her knees, staring at the stony caps below her skirt. Stalled before she started.
“No!” The voice that broke into the murmurs of the Hall of Hearing was gravelly and cracked with age, yet full of a playful wisdom. It was Motsognir, first of the Dvergar. He appeared as if by magic from a crack in the wall, covered in dust. He was dressed in a strange mixture of Ascended robes and miner’s uniform, all mismatched pieces of brown and grey. “No! There will be no sinking of ships, or of ideas.” He glared up at Durnir where he sat on the highest bench. “The desire to explore, to find new places, was what got us here to safety in the first place. You became a king from a foreman, Durnir–have you forgotten? Will you deny this orphan the same opportunity?”
Durnir looked annoyed. “I became an orphan myself, all those years ago. Would you have me allow Gaumr to make his father weep?”
Motsognir nodded. “If that is what’s needed. I am too tired and too old to make the journey… but if you stop the young ones, you’re condemning them to stagnation.”
Durnir stood and swept from his high bench, his face alight with fury. His dark robes billowed as he stormed from the hall. “You may say what pleases you, Old Motty, and out of respect, I cannot answer what I truly think!”
Afterward, in a dim corner of the Dripping Hall, with the bluish light of the fountain playing across everything, Thyra was drank quietly with her two friends. Sindri was chewing at his mug, while Gaumr simply stared at the shimmering on the dark liquid between gulps.
Eventually, Thyra stood, setting down her mug. “This is ridiculous. They don’t even know where the tunnel mouth lies, or what lies beyond. They certainly don’t know what Sindri can do. We can ascend and descend, and be back before they realize what has happened.”
Sindri jumped up on his chair, grinning wide. “I was hoping you’d say that! Now, I have a list of materials I’ll need–” Gaumr grunted and glared up at them. His eyes were a little bleary. “Would you have me defy my father? All the Ascended, really? Durnir himself?”
Thyra sighed at him. “Leave it to Gaumr to feel a bit gormless in his cups. Yes, of course I’d have you do that. And when we’re ready to leave, grab anyone with an ounce of curiosity in their stones–assuming you’ve got any left, yourself.”
Gaumr’s eyes were bulging. “How can I? How could you? Why ruin things… ”
Thyra shook her head. “Think for a moment, Gaumr. Your father will live on, and on… long enough to forgive you. Nothing will ever change down here. There’s no movement. Yes, the Inner World is beautiful, and full of amazing things… but it will always be the same, to us. Once in your life, don’t worry about everyone else. Just think about what you can see, and experience.”
Gaumr set down his drink and grunted again, reaching to pour some more from the steaming pitcher. Sindri and Thyra simply stared at him, looming. Gaumr paused, his hand in the air, then let it drop. “Oh, all right,” he muttered. The Dvergr heaved himself upright and looked from one to the other of his companions. “Okay, I’m standing now too. We’re all standing. Now what?”
Sindri flipped the paper at him. “Now you both figure out how to get me these materials while I go to the forge of earth and get started on the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen.”
Thyra and Gaumr could barely understand what Sindri was doing. Eventually, the boy brought his older brother in to help direct the flow of muddy water in the cavern and carve at the rippling waves of stone that formed. It took many weeks of hard work, but slowly and surely, the friends watched a huge ship take form in the cavern.
When Sindri informed them that it was almost ready, Gaumr made quiet inquiries into who else would dare to ascend, while Thyra went to find Motsognir. The old Dvergr told her more of life on the surface, and included a few warnings about the Outer World. He still refused to join them, but gave his blessing.
Sindri’s brother also chose to remain behind, with the secrets of the stone ships in his head.
When they finally set out, that first company of brave Dvergar, it is said they numbered more than twenty, but less than a hundred. The stories do not tell all their names. Some of them doubted that Sindri’s stone ship would work; others doubted Gaumr’s leadership, or Thyra’s vision of the Outer World. The only thing they did not doubt was their courage.
When they were all packed inside, Sindri tossed a drink for luck and called out the ship’s name. “Skíðblaðnir,” he shouted, “Take us home!”
In response, the stone beneath their feet began to quake, and the Dvergar within had to brace themselves as the vessel began to rise. The ship glided through the earth, of the earth and in it, yet apart, much like the Dvergar themselves. It left no tunnel or passage, but used the flow of the stones themselves as the path, guided by Thyra and her magic compass.
Thyra and Gaumr reached out with all their senses and felt, rather than saw, the many mysterious layers of earth that they passed, the running streams of gold and silver, the grand vistas of buried granite, and the strange flows of igneous. They glanced at one another in wonder, realizing at last how the ground is no immutable, steady thing, but a churning maelstrom of chthonic wonders and hollow halls.
They sailed the earth, traveling in twists and turns, but upward, always closer and closer to the Outer World they had heard of only in ancient legend.
Sindri seemed worried, however. Every jolt and shake of the ship seemed to throw him in greater alarm. Thyra asked him what was wrong.
“Pieces of the ship are coming apart, left behind in the earth. I don’t…I don’t know if we can make it. It’s the nature of the stone ship…I should have realized and warned you.”
“At least we’re still floating like a stone,” Gaumr grinned at him. “No Dvergr has ever done this before. It is an adventure for all of us.”
They held on to the ship and one another as they traveled, sensing the stones fall away around them. Thyra stood toward the prow of the stone ship, her eyes wide, her jaw set, as if impelling the vessel upward through sheer will. The rumbling shook them to their stone bones, thunder beneath the earth.
It took days of travel. The Dvergar caught what sleep they could, shaking in the darkness. By the time they neared their destination, they could see the rough earth flowing past through large holes in the ship. Thyra knew they wouldn’t make it. The ship was too large, too strange, and too mysterious to work. She had finally pushed too far, and doomed them all.
Through the ribs of the ship’s hull, which had begun to look like no more than broken teeth, hot water burst upon them. Full of warmth, bright sunlight struck the Dvergar, a light they hadn’t seen in generations. Angry shouts and yells of surprise filled Thyra’s ears, but she smiled into the blinding glow. The storms had not lasted forever. She had found a new world to explore.
The large group of Viking warriors who had been bathing in the hot springs were not filled with such aplomb. As tremendous stones rose from the water, barely in the shape of a ship any longer, they shouted and scrambled naked onto the bank. The image of the nude men jumping, yelling, and snatching up their weapons would forever form Thyra’s first impression of the Outer World inhabitants.
“Well, that’s eye-opening all right,” muttered Gaumr, drawing his own blade.
Sindri looked around with a morose expression. “Never mind them. My ship is in pieces! There’ll be no returning in this thing…”
“Easy, there,” said Thyra, holding Gaumr back with one hand even as she drew her dagger with the other. Taking a step forward in the bubbling pool under the looming remains of the stone ship, she called out, “Why do you threaten us? We have no need to tangle with your dangling swords… ”
There was silence for a moment, as the tall warriors looked from one another in anger and confusion and down to their pantless state. Then, with a huge guffaw, one gigantic red-haired warrior strode forward, formally lowering his blade. “I see this lady has a sense of humor, if not one of timing! You may have ruined an excellent bathing spot… but you’ve given me a good laugh!” The other warriors relaxed as well, an appreciative chuckle spreading rushing through them like the wind that was blowing freely through their skin.
The massive red-haired man pulled up his pants. “You’ve got quite the ‘stones.’ You must come share a meal and a drink at my hall, stony folk.” With a grin, he added, “I am Sigurd, king of this Realm.”
Thyra and Gaumr looked at one another and nodded slowly as they sheathed their weapons. There was no return path; they could only ever go forward.
In this way the friendship between the Dvergar and the Vikings was born, a friendship that would prove sturdy as stone and deep as the Inner World.
Nodding as if in affirmation of a story well told, the old Dvergar leaned back in his chair and grasped his mug, which no longer steamed. His eyes reflected the firelight as he looked at it over the rim, taking a massive swig.
“And is that the one, Grandfather? The stone ship outside? Is that all that’s left? I’d have thought it would be bigger…” The small Dvergr twisted his face into a smile.
His elder laughed into his beard, setting the mug down on the stump that served as a table and slapping his stony knees. “Ha! No, boy, that was a ship built by Sindri’s brother, which brought your amma and me up from the old lands of the Inner World long ago…No, the first ship that ascended to the Outer World was made by Sindri, and she was a great vessel indeed, none like her in the world. She was massive enough to hold a company of Dvergar, and none of us has been able to match her greatness. And yet, for all its wondrous power, it could not return, no, never go back…” Once more, he lapsed into silence.
When the little Dvergr was certain that his afi had fallen asleep, he stood carefully, set down his toy, and returned to the window. As if from a great distance, his grandfather’s voice came after him. “When you look at the stones that stand outside, think of the Inner World, and laugh at the great joke of jokes.”
“What do you mean, grandfather? What joke?” But there was no answer.
The snow started falling again, hushed as a stilled breath.
Fear. Fear and pain and darkness. These are the children of winter. Now I will tell you how we came to be known as Winter’s Children, the Frost Giants of the mountain peaks. Now I will tell you of the three winters that ended our world, so that we might begin anew, mightier than before. Now I will tell you of the Fimbulwinter, and the Beast.
The story of the Jötnar begins thus: There was a small village on a mountain’s peak. The people there lived the hardest and coldest lives of any in those mountains, scratching an existence from the frosty earth. They hunted and trapped for meat and for skins, and in this way they survived in the same place their fathers had, their own place, high up and away from the concerns below.
The Piercing of the Veil caused great changes in the weather. Life became more difficult than ever. Storms lasted longer, and the sun’s pale light barely warmed the village. However, these folk were hardy. The cold was part f their lives, and they endured it. Or at least, most of the village did.
After the first Veilstorms came through, things began to change. The cold was deeper, and seemed to fill the mind as well as the body. Every now and then, folk would go missing in the dead of winter. They were said to have gone frost-mad, and wandered off into the white.
In this village there lived two brothers who kept a mead-hall. Their mother had died long ago, and their father went frost-mad one winter and was gone, leaving his boys the house and mead-hall, but not much else. The pair put everything they had into the building and their stock, and despite the long winters and the Veilstorms, they managed quite well. Their establishment became the grandest in the land, with a tall roof and thick walls. The gilded roof-timbers within glinted in the firelight on the endless evenings, when their fine drink flowed.
One of the brothers was named Thrud. He was tall and strong, and led many of the raiding parties down the slopes below. He gained great treasures by the might of his arm, and filled the chest by his bed with yellow gold. Thrud spent the rest of his time training in the yard, or in the mead-hall, drinking with the old warriors.
The younger brother was named Gest, a master of runes and saga-making. He traveled far and wide to courts across the land, and earned king-gifts and treasures in his own way. When he was at home, he told stories and sang in the mead-hall, bringing the rowdy crowds to a thoughtful silence with his words and rune-working. But for all his skill, he did not receive the same respect as his brother.
Some loved to hear his tales and songs, proud to have such a master of stories in their village. One such was a small boy, who leaned forward and listened wide-eyed to his favorite stories. Tales of the ancient giants, the Jötnar of old, whom Gest said once existed. The boy watched the shadows of the great mountains all around, hoping for a glimpse of the mythical creatures. Gest shook his head and smiled, reveling in the boy’s enthusiasm, and searched out more tales of the Jötnar.
For his part, Thrud soon took a liking to the boy always hanging about the mead-hall, and began to teach him to fight, training the young muscles to strength. Trying to follow in the footsteps of the heroes and creatures he loved to hear about, the boy threw himself into Thrud’s training, though he was too young to make much progress. Still, Thrud approved of his pupil’s eagerness, and always had a smile for the boy.
One fall, an early snow blanketed the peaks in white down, softening the rugged shards of black rock that stabbed toward the windswept sky. The folk in the village of Út shrugged their shoulders and went about their business. Thrud clambered over the mountain and returned with load after load of logs for the fire, while Gest repaired the cracks in the walls of their mead-hall. It would be a terrible winter this high in the mountains, but the village had seen winters before and survived. They just had to keep the fires burning.
It was a cold day, with the sun obscured by grey clouds, too thick to dissipate in the high winds that howled past the peak. An old hunter returned to the village white-faced, breathing hard. He gathered other hunters around to look at some tracks in the snow. Thrud and Gest paused in their preparations and went to have a look.
The tracks were small and meandering, uneven and rounded. They were the tracks of three children. A cry went up round the village, for the young ones of several houses on this side of Út were missing.
“They must have gone frost-mad,” said the old hunter. He reckoned the intense, unseasonal cold drove them out in the night, and away from the village, their senses dulled or confused by the endless white. There seemed to be no other explanation. If there were any other tracks, they had been hidden or confused in the biting wind.
The brothers realized that one of the missing children was the boy who so loved stories about giants. They joined the search. Tears froze on noses as the desperate hunters followed the tracks out of the village, but found them disappearing, or following a winding way up to the high crags, where there was nothing but black stone and ice.
The children were gone, and it was dangerous or impossible to follow.
In the mead-hall that evening, the old hunter conferred with the other old men. They all muttered anxiously together, wittering in a corner of the hall. “Never before have so many gone frost-mad, but what can we do? When the frost takes you, none may gainsay it. The little ones were chosen by the white, a sacrifice to the gods of winter.”
Thrud threw his brother a look. He slammed down his mug of metheglin and stood. “I will go!”
The greybeards stopped their talk and looked at him in surprise. “I will go!” he said again, his voice ringing off the sturdy wooden walls. “I will find the children, and if there is anything that tries to stop me, I will drag its head back here. None may force us from this village. None may take our little ones and live!”
His boast rang through the packed hall, leaving quiet in its wake. A few drunks sniggered. One more would go frost-mad today.
Thrud walked to the door, hefted his spear, and left. Gest smiled and nodded at the folk staring at him and the door that had closed after his brother. “It will be a day for singing when he returns. To my brother Thrud!” When he raised his mug, the rest had to follow in his cheer.
After drinking with them for a while, Gest left, staggering slightly from the jeering and the counter-boasts. No one followed him.
Thrud was out in the road. A grey figure in the twilight, Gest’s big-shouldered brother leaned on his spear and looked up at the top of the mountain. His breath misted in the fading sunlight, forming tiny ice crystals that drifted down and frosted his brown beard.
A few snowflakes were falling. Gest’s older brother looked at him, eyes glinting inscrutably. “Keep the hall for me, little brother. I shall leave at first light, to return with the children, or not at all.”
Over the next day, Gest waited. He watched the high peaks, though the next day was sunny; the white snow reflected and the icicles refracted the light through the village. Scuds of clouds whipped past the peak occasionally, heralding a coming storm. He could just barely see the wind blow a fine spray of snow from the mountain in the flashes of brightness between the clouds.
He started picking out a tune as the day wore on, working on a new song to celebrate the return of the frost-mad children. As evening began to fall, with still no sign of his brother or the children, Gest bit his lip and ceased composing. The wily old hunters had to be right. There was something up there that did not want travelers to leave. Something so strong, or so clever, that it could even stop Thrud. For who could fight the frost?
That night, he packed. He took more supplies than Thrud had, and an extra coat in case his brother needed one. Perhaps he was merely trapped in a snowdrift, just waiting for his younger brother to come and help him escape. Gest also took a sword, hoping he wouldn’t need it.
The next morning, Gest steeled himself for the climb. His fur boots pulled up, his pants over them, leather ties held his heavy coat over his thick sleeves, he was as prepared as he could be. It could be a deadly climb on the frozen rocks near the peak, and he would be tired from the long march. But there was no other way.
He hiked up the steep trails where his brother had gone, picking a path between the black spires of rock and patches of ice. It was slow going, with his heavy pack, his warm coat, and his sword. The day darkened quickly, and Gest began to fear the cold. Being caught by the night up here, exposed to the wind and the full freeze of night, could mean death even without madness. He needed to find shelter. And still no sign of his brother, or the frost-mad children Thrud had gone to seek.
Until he found a splintered shard of wood from the shaft of a spear. It lay among the rocks and frozen patches of snow, a smooth-polished rod with one sharply broken end. That’s all there was; not even blood stained the splinters that lay among the pebbles nearby.
Then he found it; a dark crevice that opened like an irregular mouth along the underside of a huge black boulder. It was not exactly like the stories and songs he knew; no bones lay outside, and no bloodstains decorated the rocks with strange symbols. However, a strong musk emanated from the crevice, filling him with uncertain fear. In any case, with the night-cold bearing down upon him, he had little other choice to survive.
Gest stretched his back, and sat for a moment on a stone that stuck up above the snow and flood of pebbles. He popped the joints in his hand, considering. As his eyes were adjusting to the light, he would be vulnerable to anything that lived in there. Drawing his sword, Gest dropped his pack and leaned against the boulder with an ungloved hand. He closed his eyes and counted, resisting the temptation to hum a few bars of an old war-song his grandfather had taught him.
With his eyes still closed, Gest slid his hand down and felt the bottom of the boulder, then bent double and walked in, opening his eyes into the darkness. He found the cave opened up almost immediately; the huge boulder was hollow and full of tiny tunnels. With his eyes already used to the darkness, he could see the marks of passage of others. And there, off to the side, was a bootprint in the smooth snow that had drifted just inside the cave mouth. It was his brother Thrud’s, Gest had no doubt, though it seemed larger than he remembered. So why hesitate?
Blade held out in front of him, Gest advanced into the dark tunnel. He found himself in an icy cave, lit by the dying sun outside. He couldn’t see them, but he felt the angry clouds gathering overhead.
He could just barely hear the weeping. In one corner of the room there was a row of strange little boxes built of massive stones and chunks of ice; the weeping came from within. The three children from the village were inside, blue-lipped and shivering. They stared at him, wordless.
One boy pointed across the room. There, a bloodstained table caught a shaft of light that came down through a crack in the boulder above. This in turn illuminated the long bones that lay there, blackened with chewed flesh. Also, there was something against the wall, a humanoid figure…Gest let out a gasp of recognition.
It was his brother Thrud, chained to the frozen wall, his flesh blackening at the edges. The older brother lifted his head slightly, then shuddered at Gest’s approach. “Don’t…my brother…” he croaked.
“What happened?” Gest whispered over the weeping of the children. There was something missing, some void he couldn’t quite place. Then he saw it. Thrud’s arm and one foot was missing. Frozen to the wall, his strong right arm, his good right arm, the mighty warrior’s weapon, was but a stump of flesh, wrapped in rags and frozen in ice.
Thrud blinked red eyes. “Got me…surprised. No chance.”
A voice came from the other side of the cave, a boy’s voice, muffled by ice and stone. “He eats us.”
Gest turned, almost against his will, aghast. There was the boy that loved giants, his face pale and blue-lipped. “What?”
“He eats us. The…man. The Beast, he calls himself. He keeps us here and eats us. He ate your brother’s arm.”
Gest shuddered again, staring from the stained bones on the table to the row of helpless, hopeless children. It would take tremendous strength to shift the stones and ice that held them there. “But why? Why do all this?”
The boy rubbed his blueish face. “He is mad. He lost his wits to a Veilstorm’s power.” The boy shuddered. “He asks us riddles. The Beast thinks it’s very funny. When you don’t know the answer, you’re next.” He turned pleading eyes on Gest. “Please get me out.”
“No…run…brother…” Thrud struggled and croaked a warning, but it was too late.
An enormous man burst into the cave from a hidden tunnel, booming with laughter. Gest spun to see a mass of white-blond hair and muscle bearing down on him. A pearly smile flashed as the man swatted Gest’s swordpoint aside effortlessly and thrust his bearlike face forward. “Greetings!”
The force of the big man’s charge threw Gest off his feet, and he tumbled painfully onto pebbles and chunks of ice. For a moment, Gest blinked down at his torso in surprise. His thick winter clothing was torn and ragged, as though clawed. Standing over him, the huge man laughed again, showering snow from this thick-haired head. “I am the Beast, boy. Soon, I will consume you. I will feast upon your flesh. You may entertain me, as these young ones have done.” He sucked on his teeth, as though relishing the feast to come.
On the wall, Thrud shook weakly. “No! Gest…run, do not…let him speak!”
“But…” For a moment, the younger brother glanced at his blade where it lay on a bit of smooth stone. The Beast had moved with incredible speed, and was strong beyond measure. Gest did not try to pick up the blade. “You crave amusement?“ he puffed heavily, “You are in luck, then. I am a storyteller and singer.” He licked his dry lips. So did the Beast, looming over him with a wicked grin. “And…I could amuse you, if you let them all go.”
“No!” Thrud shouted once more, shaking his bloody stumps.
“Let them go? Let them go? Are you mad, little man?”
Gest coughed, feeling the cold try to pierce him. He straightened. “Perhaps. But perhaps my madness could serve to entertain you, for a while.”
Shaking with laughter, the bulky man spun in a ponderous circle. “Yes, yes, I see. I see it now. We shall play the old game, the game on which life and death is wagered.”
Gest shook his head as if to clear it. The manic talk of the enormous bearlike man was difficult to follow. “The old game?”
“Yes!” The Beast grunted deep in his throat and fixed him with a blue eye. “I see what we will do. We will play the great game of riddles, now.”
Gest could only stare in surprise. This was turning out more like the old stories, after all.
“Do you know…riddles?” Without looking at him, the Beast turned away and sat by the bloodstained table in the middle of the freezing room, and swept away some of the stained bones. Puffing and blowing steam into the air, he continued, “I know all that I consume, I know them better than they ever knew themselves. So I know many secrets! Now I will gamble with you for your brother’s life, and perhaps the delicious little ones as well. Come, sit.”
Stepping over his sword in wonder, Gest walked to the bloodstained table. He stared at the huge man across the icy wood. Trying to keep his teeth from chattering, Gest rewrapped his torn coat over his torso. “Alright.”
The Beast took a deep breath, nodded his hairy head a few times, and began to chant rather than speak his riddle. “Heed me now. I want to have today what I had yesterday. It hampers men, hinders their words, yet speeds their speech.”
Gest blinked for a moment, trying to think past the cold that hurt his head and sent icy fingers through the rips in his clothing. His stomach churned, but it was play the game, now, or lose everything. “I know what you ate, or rather who…but that’s not it…”
The Beast’s tongue lolled out from between his white teeth as he leaned over the bloodstained table. His cruel nails scraped at the wood in eagerness. “Of all people, I think someone that reeks like you should be able to read me this riddle. I am disappointed, truly!”
Gest cleared his throat, trying to still his shaking. “I’m sure you’ve eaten much worse…Ah, I see. Mead! It hampers the wits, and many find their speech slowed. But others only find their tongues in their cups. Mead is the answer you look for, and you are right, I do smell of it, for my brother and I keep the mead-hall in the village.”
The Beast sighed, then leaned back. The light was shifting as more clouds tore past the spires of rock overhead, blocking the light from the cracks in the boulder. The man’s white teeth glittered in patches of crystalline light as he brushed snow from his pale leather clothes. “Very well. Speak, little man, for I begin to hunger as winter draws near…”
Thrud coughed, and shook the stump that had been his mighty right arm. “Why…do you play with us?”
“Be strong, brother. I will have you out of there yet.” Gest tried to sound more certain than he felt, at least for the childrens’ sake. He rolled through his head, struggling. He had heard so many riddles in his time, so many that would be far too easily guessed. He needed to do in turn to this creature what it was trying to do to him; throw the opponent off balance, make them lose focus on the game by asking riddles that hit too close to home. “Well…answer me this, madman. What beast brave men shelters? Its back becomes bloody as it wards off blows, fights against spears, and gives life. Against a lords’ left hand it lays its body.” It was hard to breathe, so cold was the air in here.
The creature threw back its head and laughed, the booming sound echoing through the cave. “A beast that shelters men! And it is bloody…your brother, who is no lord, brought me one of these.” Heedless of the cold, he plunged a thick arm into the snow at the side of the cave, revealing it to be more porous than Gest had thought. Grunting, the Beast felt around in the hole, searching for something.
After a moment, Thrud muttered, “I do not understand…now is your moment, brother. Now, while it is stuck! Please… please run from this place, and this creature.”
But the Beast only let out another harsh laugh as he yanked something out in a burst of snow and earth. It was Thrud’s shield, but cracked and damaged now. “The answer is…a shield! Its bloody back has saved many a man from a spear-thrust, though not from my table. Now tell me this, little man. Who is the great one that walks over the earth, and swallows all the waters and the woods? He never fears men, only the wind; and he swallows the sun.” Laughing low in his throat, the Beast leaned forward, blowing toward Gest’s face.
The young poet chewed his dry lip, thinking. Fear was clouding his mind, made much worse by the Beast’s choice of riddles… and the rotten smell of his misty breath didn’t help. Mist…and fearing the wind? Gest cleared his throat and leaned back forward, feigning eagerness. “Fog! Men can do nothing against it, and it blocks the sunlight.”
A low growl of frustration came from the Beast as he sat back once more. “Very well. I see you won’t be defeated by the simplest questions.”
Gest grinned as steadily as he could manage without letting his teeth clack together. It was time to try a slightly different tactic. “You think you are so clever, madman…answer me this, if you can. Who sleeps in the ashpit, and is only struck out of stone? Neither father nor mother has the greedy fiend, and there he wants to live his life.”
The Beast scowled and sat up. “Fiend, eh? Sleeps in the ashpit. Is that meant to be some sort of insult?” His wild eyes roved around the room, and looked Gest up and down like a slab of meat. Which perhaps, he was, to the eyes of this man. “I gave up the need for it long ago…your riddle is fire!”
Gest’s heart sank, and he glanced at the prisons where the children lay, no doubt exhausted from struggling against the intense cold. He shuddered with another deep breath.
The Beast lunged forward and stared at the younger brother, licking his lips. “Alright, then. A delicious riddle for you. Four walk and four hang; two show the way, two ward off dogs; one drags after, most always dirty.”
Gest stared at the white and red of the man’s mouth and the rippling muscle under pale leather. He’d never heard one like this before. It was too cold, he couldn’t think. Who went in groups of thirteen? And had such odd jobs… This was such a strange question from the Beast, and oddly disturbing. “Perhaps…”
The Beast leaned in closer. “Struggling, are we? Finding it too tough? Hmm, I hope you’re not tough…I don’t really enjoy chewy meat. The younger the flesh, the better.”
There seemed little he could do to stop the Beast from eating him and all else that came within reach. Did the Beast think about anything other than eating? Why was this madman here, up in the frozen mountains? Surely he could find greener pastures elsewhere…To eat…
The big man was pushing up from his chair when Gest shouted, “Cow! Cow!” And the Beast sat back heavily, disappointed. Gest gasped for breath. “Four feet, four teats, two eyes, two horns, and a tail. Makes for good eating, those of us who haven’t gone frost-mad and turned to…”
The Beast grunted. His blue eyes were narrow, and stared at Gest with naked hunger. “Riddle.”
“Yes, yes, don’t worry.” Gest searched his memory for something the Beast would have no experience with, something foreign to him. To his surprise, a peal of thunder crashed outside. There was almost never thundersnow this high in the peaks. A following crash sounded like the doom of the mountains themselves. He could feel each boom in his bones, right through the icy walls.
Gest cleared his throat. “Harshly he clangs, on hard paths treading, which he has fared before. Two mouths he has, and mightily kisses, and on gold alone he goes.” No longer could he stare a challenge into the Beast’s eye, but huddled into his coat and watched the mist of his breath fading.
The hairy man before him snarled, then stamped on a patch of snow on the floor of the cave. “You seek to deceive and fool me.”
Though it seemed as though little time had passed, the storm outside was swiftly rising in force. Gest could hardly hear what the creature before him was saying. There was wind blowing through the cave. His brother was stirring, no doubt to pull his stump against the chains again. The children in the stone prison were holding back their sobs. Better distract the Beast while he could. “Ah, well, do you need a hint? Is that what you’re saying?” He had to shout over the gathering storm.
The growl that answered him was full of anger and insult. “Your tricks do you little good. It is the hammer of the beater of metal, a goldsmith’s hammer; and now, the great, old game is over.” He clicked teeth together and leaned forward. “I will ask you for a secret, little man.”
As if to punctuate the Beast’s words, the storm crashed against the boulder that formed the roof of their shelter, and shook the earth with its fury. Gest could feel the heaviness in the air that meant the most terrible of storms, a Malevolence, was forming.
The children pressed fearfully forward against the stone and ice of their prisons. They knew how this would end. Their brief lives were coming to an end in horror. One boy looked back and forth between the huge Beast and the small man who knew all the stories. Soon, the screaming and the horrible crunching of bone would begin again.
As the boy’s breath came short, crushed by the pressure in the air and paining him with deep cold, he wished for the strength, the size, the power to break free. It would take a giant of the old stories to stop what was about to happen.
The Beast’s eyes were wild, and he stood, looming over Gest. Every syllable dropped by his lips seemed to increase the pressure, and bring another toll of thunder.
“What was it that Odin whispered…” There came a crack as Thrud threw himself against the ice wall, screaming in impotent rage above the storm. The Beast narrowed his eyes, but continued, “…into Baldr’s ear, as he was carried to the funeral pyre?”
The wind’s howl rose to an unbearable pitch, and Gest had to hold his hands over his ears. The ice on the walls cracked as the boulder shifted, and snow blew through the cave in a rush of white. After a moment, the Beast thrust his face into Gest’s with a bright grin, roaring over the storm. “Do you need a hint, little man? Or do you want the answer?”
Thrud still struggled against his walls, shouting at his brother. Gest looked up into the Beast’s eyes, looking for an answer. The madman’s great bulk loomed over him, hair white with the snow that swirled inside. All was frozen as the Beast’s words hung in the air before him.
Gest took a deep breath, the sharp cold air piercing his lungs like a blade. He looked over at Thrud. The madman’s enormous hands gripped the younger brother’s shoulders, and rank breath blew across his face.
The children screamed, their voices drowned in the howl of wind and thunder. The stone above was cracking, but no one noticed as Gest struggled in the incredible grip. The white teeth descended, bright to the wide eyes of the boy watching. Blood sprayed, steaming, into the snow, the blood of his friend.
The great boulder that formed the roof of the cavern split open with a noise like the end of the world. Snow flooded the cave, along with a cold so intense that the boy felt his nearly-numbed skin prickle.
His blood was freezing. The only sounds were the roaring of the storm and the laughter of his tormentor. Bits of ice and rock whipped into the boy’s cell, draining his body of its last heat and strength. His eyes clamped shut, and he tasted blood on the wind. The shrieking laughter of the man and the storm mocked the boy as he threw himself against the wall of the prison. He could feel, rather than hear, the cries of the others. The Malevolence ripped at him.
From out of the swirl of snow, the Beast’s face appeared, his thick beard red and dripping with Gest’s blood. A red grin spread across his face as he watched the children struggle. “Come and save the singer, if you can!”
But the grin faded as the children began to change. The boy felt his heart slowing, pounding cold in his chest. With his last breath, he wished he were one of the ancient giants, those who had loved the cold, who had been so mighty and so wise.
And to his surprise, the walls of the prison broke, ice and stone shattering into the wind. Intense pain shot through his frozen body, a sense of stretching, pulling, and expanding. His bones popped and cracked as though the Beast were chewing on him.
Everything seemed smaller. He was even looking down at the Beast, whose open mouth leaked a pink mist into the air as he stared up at the boy and his fellow children. When the boy swung forward, he felt a new strength, though his skin was an icy blue.
The Beast turned to run, but the gigantic children caught him up, struggling in their mighty hands. Frenzied with rage, they tore him limb from limb between them. He burst like an overripe fruit, his blood spattering on the frozen bones of those he had eaten.
Then the thundering blizzard buried them all in a rush of endless white.
When the Malevolence’s rage was finally spent, sunlight returned to the mountain, reflecting on the bright snow of the peak. The drifts were deep, burying the black spires of stone along with the corpses of the two brothers. Even with their newly elongated bodies, the surviving children had to dig themselves out. They blinked at one another in the brightness, staring at their blue hands, caked with blood. They didn’t feel the cold anymore.
The boy felt emptied. He said little as the children that had become giants picked their way back down the mountain. The few words they exchanged sounded hoarse and brittle, like ice grinding together.
When they caught a glimpse of Út, their town, something was different. Many of the buildings looked damaged or destroyed, even crushed under the heavy snowfall. They hurried down from the heights to find the place almost deserted. Those few who had survived the Malevolence were changed, just as the boy had imagined the giants in Gest’s stories. Tall and powerfully built, with hair the colors of ice and skin darkened and bluish, like corpses frozen in winter.
The boy came to the mead hall where he had heard so many stories. It had collapsed, broken timbers jumbled together and covered in snow. Slowly, as the others gathered nearby, the boy reached down and heaved up one of the fallen pieces. The other children joined him, and they began to rebuild the mead-hall of Thrud and Gest.
That winter went on and on, for the length of three winters in a row. It was the Fimbulwinter, and it covered the mountains in a frost that had never been seen before. Through it all, the village of giants lived on, building new homes of stone and ice in the heights. They built a mighty wall to defend themselves, and over time, the village became known as Útgard.
The boy took to living at the mead-hall, and wrote down this story, and sang it for generations to come. He never forgot the brothers that had saved him and taught him so much. Eventually, he took the name Mimir, and became famous for his wisdom and power.
This is where the saga of the Jötnar and the Fimbulwinter ends.
“Gather round, my children, and hear the Fornaldarsaga of the Valkyrie, the story of our race’s birth,” said the aged Valkyrie as she fluttered her wings. After many long years of flying, they had begun to show signs of decay, but they were still strong, and kicked up a swirl of snow in the courtyard.
The group of youngsters quickly surrounded her. “You have come of age, and are now old enough to know this dark tale. For though our story is horrible and gruesome, it must never be forgotten. Do not be embarrassed to shed tears. Tears are not a sign of weakness. Empathy is our great virtue, and we learn it from our origins. As you listen, recall our code, and the oath you have all taken.” Shaken by the elder Valkyrie’s serious tone, the boys and girls sat in silence, their wild-haired heads bobbing attentively in time with her story.
It is true that the Piercing of the Veil brought many terrors into this world. Yet we cannot ignore the awful truth: The world has twisted souls who do not need the influence of a Veilstorm to commit acts of the most terrible kind.
In one of the mighty fjords of our Realm, the was a small island that held an even tinier village. Hardy folk lived fished and roamed the fjord, mostly young people and a few persevering elders. Unimaginable alterations swept through the land after the Piercing; yet this tiny village somehow managed to weather the storms on this remote island. Life became very hard when the rocking waves and fierce winds destroyed their boats, cutting them off from the mainland. Hunger seeped through the village like a poison, as fishing was difficult and no one could get to the mainland without a boat.
A young lady named Brynhildr was one who never gave up hope. She roamed the small island, clutching the necklace her mother gave her for luck, looking for precious driftwood to help the boat-makers with their task, though they never asked her.
Brynhildr had always been a willful child. She was much more interested in the aggressive games that the village boys played than in the dolls that her little sisters liked. From the time she was very small, the girl excelled at their gambols and their battle training, surpassing all the boys her age. As they all grew, the boys eventually surpassed her in size and strength, but she changed her fighting style accordingly. With her martial skill, she became a match for anyone.
She became known as a protector early on. When one of the warlike games played by the older boys grew too rough, leaving the younger ones on the verge of tears, it was Brynhildr who stepped in. Ducking and weaving, she brought down the older, stronger boys with a few well-placed blows. “Don’t do that again,” she told them firmly. “Fight someone who can fight back.” From then on, the smaller boy she’d saved followed her movements, trying to learn from her.
Her parents were very proud of Brynhildr’s accomplishments, for in her chest beat the heart of a true warrior. The girl promised to keep her mother’s necklace safe forever. But that promise would prove as difficult to keep as catching the autumn wind.
The wind blew over the island, making the long grasses wave their fading green finery in supplication of the sky. The wind carried a salty cold that made the island’s inhabitants shiver. The few children who were doing their chores glanced up and hoped it wasn’t another storm. Something about the cold wind made them want to go somewhere, want to go exploring, anywhere on the little island that they hadn’t seen before, as if to escape the rattling wind and its icy fingers. It was the wind of the coming fall, bringing a new or different scent of the sea, of things roiled in the black deeps. The wind whistled through the cracks in the walls and the wicker baskets that they carried across town.
The wind brought a dot on the horizon that grew and grew, grabbing the attention of the villagers with a glimpse of salvation. The cry rang round the village like the tolling of a bell: A sail, a sail! A ship from the mainland!
The villagers rejoiced, dropping their desperate boatmaking and their daily tasks. They rushed down to the shore, waving their arms excitedly. Rescued at last! Men and women laughed and smiled a welcome, overjoyed at their good fortune. They couldn’t have been more horribly wrong.
As the sail rode the ominous wind closer to the island, some of the older villagers grew concerned, for it had the look of a warship. But they had nothing worth taking in their little village, and the weapons on deck stayed in their scabbards. Fear faded as the men and scattered women of the crew smiled and waved to the villagers on shore as if they were long-lost relatives.
Brynhildr stood among the crowd near the shore. She smiled and nodded with the other girls as they laughed in relief and commented on which warrior was the most comely. Something in her heart felt sick with fear, though Brynhildr could not say why. She fingered the amulet around her neck, then hid it under her shirt.
One of the boys, a younger brother to the one that Brynhildr had saved, ran down to greet the first man that splashed ashore. Beaming up at the tall, roughly dressed warrior, the boy grinned happily. Even though the lad barely reached the warrior’s knee, he burst out, “Let me carry some of your gear ashore, sir!”
The stranger grinned in return and tousled the boy’s auburn hair. Without changing expression, the man drew his sword and swung it in a tight arc, cleanly separating the boy’s head from his shoulders. It happened in an instant. The boy’s helpful smile spun as his head bounced away, and his lifeless body collapsed onto the sand, gushing blood.
There was a moment of stunned silence among the onlookers. Then, as the rest of the warriors howled and leaped ashore, they broke and ran screaming. None of them could run very far; the island was small and had nowhere to hide. They were gathered together like stray cattle, with no chance to organize a defence against the overwhelming power of the raiders. The days of brutality had only just begun, dark days that most only speak of in the faintest of whispers.
The invaders ran amok, murdering villagers in ways that should have sickened even the most hardened warrior. And yet they were just getting started. Some of the villagers were bound and used for target practice. Several young men were castrated and used by the invaders in the most horrific ways. This was not done to fulfill bodily desire. The strangers wished for power and pain, causing their victims to suffer in the cruelest way they could conceive.
The village elders were treated as pack animals. The invaders competed with each other to devise ever-crueler ways to humiliate and demoralize them. Contests were held to see who could come up with the most novel way to break an old man through sheer exertion. When the last of this group died, the tormentors turned their attention to the dozens of imprisoned villagers. Commencing a drunken feast, they separated the survivors into two groups. One group was immediately forced to serve their new masters. They were made to posture like dogs and beg for what little food they were given. This first evening was filled with laughter, folk weeping in between playing the mad game.
The more awful their abuse, the more the invaders laughed and celebrated their own imagined bravery and strength. They forced the villagers to thank them for the “honor” bestowed on the “lucky” survivors. The warriors drank themselves into a stupor at their vile feast, yet never relaxed their grip on their weapons. There was no question of resistance; the surviving villagers were weak and shivering with humiliation and fear.
The new dawn did not deliver true daylight to the village. The sun rose faint and red, sickly and ominous. The second group of captives had been dressed in their finest garments and told to wait until their “kindly new masters” summoned them to that night’s feast. The minutes turned to hours, and their apprehension mounted as they recalled the sounds of the night before; The terrified screams and desperate sobs of their friends, mingled with the derisive laughter of the warriors.
They prayed to the sky, to the old gods, to any powers that would save them and their lost loved ones. But when the summons to the feast finally came, there was still no response from the heavens.
Shuddering, the villagers were dragged to the central square. Each captive in turn was made to stand on a table. They were then measured and assessed in every degrading way possible. Each warrior, according to rank, was allowed to choose one villager. The rest were told to stand ready, in case any of the chosen didn’t “want to see the new morning.”
A “priest” was called forth, a grinning and dancing fat man who draped white cloth over his armor. In a mockery of ceremony, each of the captives was wed to the warrior who had chosen him or her. Then, their hands bound, the newlyweds were dragged into private rooms for their ‘wedding night.’ The horrors that went on there were greater than anything that had come before. The subhuman torturers laughed and laughed long into the night, stopping only when the villagers were fortunate enough to stop screaming forever.
As time passed and the days blurred together, the terrors eventually became predictable. Some sufferers grew numb, and walked aimlessly about, mere shells of human beings. This emotionless state irritated the invaders, for they hungered for the struggle, for blood and terror. So the warriors began to devise new and unthinkable ways to torture their captives, trying to make them respond. Some of the aimless ones were beaten with spears, while survivors were forced to beg for more abuse each night.
Through everything, Brynhildr tried to retain her sanity. When she hadn’t seen her parents for days, she knew they were gone. She was luckier; passed over for some of the worst horrors, and only kept in a pen like an animal, along with the boy she had once defended. He survived the castration and ensuing abuse, and endured quietly, teeth clenched, while others wept.
The madness had gone on for over a week when a fierce Malevolence descended upon the village. Undaunted, the invaders simply carried out their atrocities indoors, letting the storm rage outside.
One night, the leader of the warriors came into the pen where Brynhildr had been kept. He wore a satisfied smirk as he went from one captive to the next, looking them over as if they were animals for slaughter. When he came to Brynhildr, he lifted her chin roughly and licked his lips. With a grunt, his heavy hand tore the necklace from her throat.
His laugh was harsh and full of raucous glee. “Excellent! Tonight, we shall hold a glorious contest. And now we have a prize!”
For the first time, Brynhildr felt a sob welling up in her throat. Her vision dimmed with tears. Something about the sight of the necklace in his massive grip, or the stinging of her neck where the necklace had been, finally brought it home. That it had been her mother’s most prized possession, that it had been passed down through generations of her family, meant nothing to this monster. There was truly nothing any of them could do. The horror would continue until they were all broken in mind and body. The storm’s thunder shook through her bones.
Seeing her eyes brimming, the warriors gathered around their leader, watching her and licking their lips, drawn like sharks to the scent of blood. The leader’s grin grew wider, and he shook his head with false concern. “Oh, don’t worry, you’ll have your chance to win it back.”
They were dragged into a building out of the growling Malevolence. In the flickering torchlight, the warriors gathering in a circle, clearing an open space. Stripped and beaten with the butt end of a spear, Brynhildr was thrown in into the ring. A moment later, her opponent was tossed in, stumbling and already bloody. “Fight for your life! Last pig standing gets the necklace!” the leader growled.
Brynhildr looked up. Staring back at her across the opening in the stamping, shouting crowd was her friend, the boy she had defended. His wounds had reopened, trickling red down his leg. He stared at her with a hopeless smile in his eyes. She knew he wouldn’t fight back; she could kill him easily.
Her gaze roved over the circle of jeering warriors. Their faces were no more than the masks of depraved men and women who had burned their souls on a pyre.
The storm shook the walls of the building as Brynhildr screamed and flew into a rage. Instead of her opponent, she charged the warriors standing in a ring. Howling her anger, she grasped a chair for a weapon, then laid about her with the splinters when that broke.
For just a moment, the warriors hesitated. No one in this weak village had dared to defy them. But they were ruthless killers, armed and armored, and Brynhildr had endured much already. Though she fought their clutching hands with frenzied spirit, she was only human. Their blades plunged into her, their armored fists beat her to the ground. Fighting fiercely to her last breath, Brynhildr died cursing them in Odin’s name.
The remaining villagers broke into helpless weeping. The tormentors were delighted at first, but soon grew annoyed. The survivors were sent back to a guarded hut where their mewling would be less audible. There was talk of burning it, to finish their revels with the blaze.
The Malevolence continued to swirl around the island. Those few who looked up from their own misery saw the storm do something strange, something never witnessed before. The clouds gathered into a dark vortex just above the prison. Hearing the storm rage just outside their door, the survivors wept even louder, wailing for Brynhildr, the only one who had dared to fight back.
Whether or not the gods heard their plaintive calls, something in the storm listened. A wisp of its roiling energy passed into the feasting room and brushed the blood and tears that marked the face of Brynhildr’s corpse.
In any other time, she would have been swiftly forgotten, another toll in the unbalanced ledger of human cruelty. The memory of her name would be covered with the ashes of other dead innocents. But this is the Age of Becoming.
Brynhildr’s body began to glow with an undulating light, and a circle of blinding white fire surrounded her. As the flames grew and touched her still form, Brynhildr was reborn. She arose and assumed the aspect of a female warrior, clad in shining armor. A pair of glossy crimson-black wings sprouted from her back, and she lifted a fiery spear. Blood-red tears were etched into her skin.
Her eyes burning with reawakened fury, Brynhildr strode into the sleeping chambers of the torturers. A few warriors rolled to their feet, but she pointed her spear at them, and they burst into flames. Others she simply hamstrung and left to writhe to agonizing death.
Dripping with blood, Brynhildr freed the remaining captives and asked who would stand beside her to be cleansed by the storm. Eir, Hildr, Gondyl, and others joined her. Exposing themselves to the full violence of the storm, they began to hunt the rest of the invaders, who had strayed all over the island. Brynhildr’s followers were transformed as they drove their enemies screaming into the sea. Their open wounds vanished, and their eyes began to glow with a veiled hatred that burned like the sun through stormclouds.
When the night was over, only one of the subhuman invaders was left alive: the leader, the one who had offered Brynhildr her own mother’s necklace. He was caught slinking back through the village in the grey light of dawn after the storm, clutching the piece of jewelry in one hand, his axe in the other.
A blast of blue flame from Brynhildr’s spear dropped the weapon from his hand, and he stumbled into the ruined feasting hall, his cruel face a mask of fear.
Brynhildr followed and snatched the necklace from his hands. She would strangle him with it. But then a hand appeared on her arm, holding her back. One of the castrated young men had stepped forward. As if looking at the memory from far away, she knew it was the boy again, the one she’d saved twice now. Without a word, he freed the necklace from her clenched fist, shook his head and placed the necklace gently around her neck. He smiled helpfully, just as his young brother had when the leader had slain him on the shore.
Over the boy’s shoulder, Brynhildr stared deeply into the vacant eyes of the defeated brute. Though her soul cried out for a final act of vengeance, she simply hissed “Never again.” The cost of each word burned in her eyes, white-hot stars of anger. The man stepped back.
She pointed her spear toward the thatched ceiling. Another spout of flame flared from the tip, searing the roof to ash. Crimson-black wings glimmered and shone in the pure sunlight as Brynhildr and her followers flew out of the hall to search for any villagers who remained alive.
Left standing alone in the ruins of the feasting hall, the leader of the fallen marauders sat back down and marveled at his good luck. There were always other warriors to hire, other villages to have some fun with. His horrible, savage mind began turning, thinking of disgusting horrors he had yet to try.
It took him several years, but eventually he arrived in an undisturbed village with a new band of warriors at his side. As the villagers grew alarmed and began to run, to try and hide from the laughing killers, a wolfish grin spread across his face. He mumbled to himself, “Never again, hah! That bitch will soon learn who the real master is.” He cinched up his belt and drew his sword, licking his lips.
Then he heard the beating of wings overhead. He blinked into fiery sunlight to see a familiar female figure standing before him. Before the brute could react, he felt an acute stab of pain as her spear punctured his groin.
The elder Valkyrie finished her tale and looked around the group gathered in the courtyard. Deep red tears streamed down the cheeks of the various Valkyrie, old and young. Behind the tears were eyes of steel, purpose and determination burning in their souls. She cleared her throat.
“Thus ends the Becoming story of the Valkyrie. It is said that of all the races in the Realm, our tale carries the most tragedy. We can only hope we continue to carry that terrible distinction, for no creature should suffer as we have. We are born of suffering and horror. We are born to defend the Realm. We are born to defend those too weak to defend themselves. The Valkyrie who came before me wrote the embodiment of our spirit in the Valkyric Code, though the creation of that great document is a tale for another day.”
Attend me now, young Úlfhéðnar, and hear the doom to which you were born. You will learn many things. You will learn of the pain and suffering that mothered us, and the bloodlust that fathered us. You will learn of the Great Wyrm and its subtle poison. You will learn how your power was forged, and why the cost to wield it is so great.
In the eons before the Piercing, when the Old Gods still walked the land, our people grew to love the bitterness of war. Our ancestors traveled fearlessly, conquering and raiding by land and sea. We fought for gold and plunder, certainly. But our true love was the taste of battle: Our husband the ringing of steel, our wife the smell of blood, our children the bodies of the glorious dead. To this day, we look to Ragnarök for answers, and the crashing of spear on shield thunders in our hearts.
The mysterious storms from the heavens changed our hearts forever.
When these Veilstorms first spread through our lands we rejoiced, hoping that the time of Ragnarök was upon us at last. We sharpened our blades and sang the old songs, ready for the final battle.
However, the wild storms did not bring about the doom of the gods. There was no poetry, no rightness in the land; the storms were spawned by enigmatic powers from far away, beyond even Ásgarðr the great.
The tale I have called you here to tell you concerns a family that was caught in such a storm.
It was a dark day, and the children’s play was subdued. The hills looked on as the winds rolled over the grass, bringing long and sinuous clouds that crackled with magic and stained the sky in endless streaks of darkness as they rushed overhead. The children stood in awe and watched the storm come.
Their mother Embla was inside the great farmhouse she had built years ago of tall oak trees, sorting the plunder from her last voyage. Their father Askr was at the lumber mill, planing the boards of a mighty longship. Neither one of them saw the storm clouds gathering. Neither one could hear the cries of the children as the thunder made the hills tremble and the air shudder. Neither of them knew when the terrible storm coalesced, and a huge stream of cloud slithered down out of the sky and plucked their children up like a hungry serpent.
In the Cursed Lands, they call this a Malevolence, the most terrible storm from the pit of beyond.
The storm shook the walls of her house, and Embla ran to the door to call her little ones inside. She peered out into the rain that burst from above, feeling the terrific forces of magic pull at her skin. The children were nowhere to be seen: from the fence to the vegetable garden, from the old stump to the woodpile, there was no sign of them but a few wooden toys scattered on the ground.
Screaming for Askr, she ran out into the tempest, reaching up to the sky as if pleading for help. But the wild storm only howled louder, destroying her house behind her and tossing the trees into the sky. Embla ran hither and thither, searching and calling out as the wind and the magic tore at everything around but left the woman untouched, as though it were cruelly mocking her.
Askr found her sobbing in the black rain. When Embla told him that the storm had taken their children, he screamed with grief, shouting into the darkened sky. He swore revenge and swung his axe in rage, but there was nothing to fight. He called upon the strength of the war-god Týr, but there was no answer. He searched for signs of his children, desperate for anything, but Embla had already looked. Like a raiding party, the storm had swept down and taken their most precious possessions.
The couple watched through tear-stained eyes as the swirling tempest spent its malice and billowed away. The darkness slithered through the sky. A pair of eyes burned white-hot from the center of the storm as it went, taunting their weakness from afar.
They were parents; their children were gone. Askr and Embla wept for hours, pouring their pain into the earth. They held each other fiercely, two figures alone in the blasted landscape. It was the way of our people to take from others; they did not know how to bear such a loss.
When their tears were spent, Askr and Embla begged the Allfather for the wisdom and insight to seek out what was lost. They swore an unbreakable oath to search the world until they could reclaim their missing children. With nothing but Askr’s axe and the unfamiliar sorrow in their mouths, they set off across the twisted land.
They wandered for many years, finding nothing. They walked until their feet dragged, their shoes crumbled away, and their clothes were worn to rags. They passed with barely a scratch through the Veilstorms that tore the land apart, and through joyous battles their people waged for glory.
Askr and Embla grew numb to the desolation around them. They felt too much pain to lend a hand to the other folk they passed, whose lives were decimated by storms or war. They never found word of the Scornful Storm, or of their children. Yet they went on, impelled by bitter grief and forlorn hope.
One day, the couple came upon a tiny settlement that was caught in the grip of a violent Veilstorm. From high above the village on the slope of a mountain, they watched blankly as the clouds became darker and darker, crackling with magic. The Veilstorm was becoming what they call a Malevolence. The winds ripped at the buildings as black rain fell, and magic forces blasted the earth. The villagers ran for cover and screamed for help beneath the swirling clouds, but Askr and Embla were too weary to respond.
The clouds pulled away for a moment to reveal one red-haired man standing tall in the central square of the village. As the wind whipped at his clothes, he raised his arm to defend a small boy by his side. They had the same bright red hair: the boy was his son. Bolts of black lightning struck down around him, but still the man held his ground, defending his boy with everything he had.
At this sight, something shifted in the hearts of the weary travelers. A father defending his child from the storm would do everything in his power, even give his own life, for his son. They felt his fear, his suffering for his child as if it were their own. Pushed forward by the wrenching horror within their breasts, Askr and Embla stumbled down the mountainside.
Below, the darkness gathered as the Malevolence began to writhe and take shape. Two white-hot eyes glowed within the thundering clouds, and a terrible hiss washed over the earth like a vast wave, leveling buildings. The red-haired man still stood. Shaking, he drew a bright sword and held it high, shouting defiance into the sky that drowned him out.
Askr and Embla’s eyes widened and they hurried faster as the storm clouds gathered still more. A vast serpent began to take solid shape, coils wrapped all the way around the town. Its vast head swept down to face the little father in the square, a tongue of lightning flickering in and out.
The running couple looked at one another. They knew they would be too late.
Crying out to the silent gods, Askr and Embla felt rage fill their souls. They saw there was no help coming; there was no escape for the boy below; there was no mercy in the storm. No pain is like the pain of parents that lose their children. They knew at once and for all time that the world is chaos and noise, and no meaning can be found anywhere. Their fury screamed white-hot in their minds and burst out of them in howls of wrath. Their hearts beat faster. Spittle plumed from their mouths, and their eyes started from their sockets.
The storm crackled back, its magic reacting to the mighty will of the bereaved parents. Whether Odin Allfather finally answered their prayer or the Scornful Storm’s magic changed them, the speed of Fenris himself entered their limbs. Askr and Embla swept down the slope like an avalanche, and the land shook under the force of their footfalls.
In the village square, the red-haired man braced himself and swung his sword at the monstrous serpent. He was no match for its power, and the blade shattered as it struck the scales of the terrible beast. The snake’s head split wide in a vast grin as its mouth opened and it swallowed the brave man up in an instant.
Unafraid, the boy now stood alone. He reached for the haft of his father’s broken sword and heaved, but he was too weak to lift it, and the edge of the mighty weapon dragged along the ground. With cold hunger in its eyes, the storm-born snake heaved its coils and raised its head for another strike. The boy only stared up at the creature in defiance.
It was at this moment that Askr and Embla reached the village square and came between the snake and its tiny prey. Askr raised his old wood-axe and roared. Magic flowed over and around the couple, and they were greatly changed, appearing as mighty warriors instead of aged wanderers.
The beast’s lightning tongue flickered and it knew their scent immediately. Hissing with scorn, it opened its mouth and unleashed a flood of dark magic that ripped through the air toward Askr with all the power of the Veilstorm itself. The spell would have torn him apart had not his wife reacted instantly. She knew no words of magic, only that the storm sought to take him from her; Embla’s fury channeled power into her soul. She threw up her hand, magic curled from her fingers, and a clever spiderweb of power glowed in the air above Askr.
The dark magic rebounded harmlessly from the web, which shimmered bright in the darkness. Alarmed, the beast struck at Embla in a sudden rush. She leaped nimbly away, and would have escaped the beast entirely but for one of its gleaming fangs, which nicked her ankle through her worn-out shoe.
Askr turned as the snake’s head crashed down to the earth. Through the fog of rage, he knew he was alive and unharmed thanks to his wife’s magic. He lifted his axe and howled. The sound that ripped from his throat thundered over the maelstrom in a keening call, filled with mourning for the losses of his people, and they were many: the countless children devoured, the villages and farms blasted to bare stone, and the red-haired father who died defending his son.
Caught in a breathless moment of wrath beyond measure, Askr stood tall and strong as a bear. The bereaved father brought down his axe on the beast’s neck with all the strength of the thunder-god himself.
Though the colossal monster tried to rip free of the earth and escape, it was too late. The serpent’s scales splintered as Askr’s axe smashed through, severing skin, flesh, and bone. He split the Great Serpent in two.
However, that was not quite the end. The thing’s flesh shifted and changed, though Askr tried to hack at it again and again. The black rain hissed to a halt as the serpent’s body melted into mist beneath his axe and slithered away to rejoin the clouds. A high shriek rang through the air, higher and higher until it passed out of hearing. As though battered by the rays of a hot sun, the storm faded away to nothing.
With the monster defeated and the storm gone, Askr and Embla collapsed to the ground, exhausted. It is said they slept for a week there on the blighted earth.
The red-haired boy stood guard over them, keeping other survivors away. He held on to his father’s broken blade though he could not wield it, and kept up a constant vigil.
When they finally awoke, the couple was refreshed in both body and spirit. They knew they had reached the end of their long quest. Askr and Embla appeared years younger, as if their long mourning had been washed away.
They told the red-haired boy that they would make a life here and rebuild the village. If he desired, he could live with them and they would teach him all that they had learned. However, once the boy was certain they had recovered, he explained that he must depart. With the passing of his father, the well-being of our people was now his to guard. As he left, dragging the broken sword behind him, he told the couple, “I am Sigurd, son of Sigmund, who should have been our king. I will remember this village.”
Askr and Embla lived on for untold years, and eventually they had many more children to fill their days with joy. All were born with the marks of the storm in their blood, and were taught to know the pain of others. They learned to control their power, to unleash anger only when needed.
However, the Great Serpent left its mark as well: The tiny scratch on Embla’s ankle had a dark poison that seeped into her blood, and stayed there. All of their children, and their children’s children to this day, are also heir to the darker face of fury; to scorn, and to unbridled bursts of temper that some say make our gift into a curse. But so long as we see Ragnarök before us and the lessons of wrath behind us, we know who we are.
We are sacrifice, loss, and pain. We are the wolf-skinned, that no blade nor fire can defeat. We are the anger born of strongest love. We are the Úlfhéðnar, who fight for our king until the day of the last battle.
Other Becoming Stories
What is this? Where am I?
What am I?
I am in pain.
What is touching me.
What is “me”?
What are these strange sensations?
I hurt! What is “I”?
I can’t see. Wait, I never could see?
Where am I?
What am I?
Deep within the eye of a Malevolence, the winds slowly diminished, and shreds of cloud parted to reveal a being that seemed to emerge from the storm itself. In its appearance, it was like nothing that had ever been seen in this world. Covered with a golden skin, it (was he a he?) was tall and thin, as if somebody had taken the essence of a living being and stretched it a little too tightly across the frame of a human, and then covered it in a golden paint. It was featureless, a tabula rasa, a blank slate. Slowly rising from a prone position, the being fought against what remained of the Malevolence that still enveloped him. However, unlike most beings that find themselves in the grip of these terrible storms, this being’s body started to thicken, as if he were gaining strength from the storm itself. Standing in the midst of the storm, the being raised his arms to the sky.
Where am I?
As the storm continued to whirl around him, the being’s features started to fill out.
What am I?
Slowly, the being’s face started to take shape; the storm seemed to carve his features out of the golden material. They began to take on a masculine look, with a strong nose and chin. It was his eyes that truly set him apart from other beings. To begin with, they were the same color as his skin: gold as pure as any found in nature. The kind of purity that only the greatest smiths of the past, or the masters of the Vox in this time, could hope to create, even in the great fires of the world’s most powerful Vox Communion.
Who am I?
The being began to achieve sentience. And with that knowledge, so came the first flow of true emotions. In an instant, his questions started to take on an edge, a troubling form that resembled the storm that birthed him.
What is this that engulfs me?
Now angry, his eyes glowed brightly, and he turned slowly around in the storm, searching for something, anything, to answer his pleas.
And as he turned, the rest of his body turned with him, taking on the shape of a lithe, but well-muscled being. His stance became aggressive, matching his thoughts. He then shifted around some more, his legs anchoring him as the eye of the storm started to move. The winds that had been diminished now picked up their intensity once more.
I SAY AGAIN
WHAT IS THIS?
Unsurprisingly, there was no answer from the storm.
IF YOU WILL NOT ANSWER ME
The being’s body began to glow, with the same golden light that was in his eyes.
THEN I WILL FORCE YOU TO!
The being’s glow left his body and took the shape of the creatures will: a hammer, one that a crafter would use in a forge. The hammer then struck the storm with all of its power, and…
ABSOLUTELY NOTHING HAPPENED!
As mighty as the blow may have been, compared to the power of a Malevolence, it was as useless as striking an Abomination with a feather. The great golden hammer then split apart, spilling golden bits of power on the ground, which infused themselves into the earth. These bits of golden power would sink into the land, and over the decades where they came to rest, the first veins of “Andvari gold” would one day be found.
Weakened by his attempt to battle the storm, the being fell back to the ground, exhausted from his wasted effort. However, unlike the last time, the storm no longer willingly gave its power to him. Was it angered by the being’s attack, or just its audacity? No matter the cause, the storm continued on its path of destruction, and the being simply remained on the ground, exhausted and filled with a new emotion: sorrow.
Days passed, and the being slowly regained his strength. When he finally had the strength to stand up, his body was now fully formed. On left hand he wore a golden ring, but otherwise he was naked. While the anger that filled him days before no longer coursed through his body, he was still no closer to understanding who, or even what, he was. All he knew was that he was standing outside, in what looked like a broken world, full of the detritus left from the storm. Actually, he did know one other thing: that he wasn’t feeling very well. His body shook from a state that he didn’t have the words to describe. As he looked around him, he saw that there was something else. It surrounded him, and covered the ground as well. It had no real color, and was soft to the touch. But when he touched it, though it was pleasing to look at, his body reacted badly, and his shivering increased.
“What is this?”, he thought to himself. He looked at the ground, and still no memory came to him. He must know. Maybe if he thought really hard? After what seemed like an eternity to him, still nothing came to him. Frustrated, his anger started to build within him again, though not as much anger as before, and he sat back on his haunches. This time, as he sat, the ring on his finger began to glow, and as his hands touched the ground…
Snow! It’s called snow! I KNOW THIS!
Joyfully he bounced up, running and dancing through the snow, as a young child might who had just seen snow for the first time. Which was the truth.
I LOVE SNOW!!!
After about an hour of dancing, bounding, and leaping around in the snow, his energy started to fade again, and the being found he was tired, and he needed to take a break from his revels. He once again sat back down on his haunches in the snow to contemplate his next steps.
Meanwhile, in another part of the world, another being’s anger matched the joy that the golden being experienced. He cursed the skies and his bad luck. He had the ring almost in his hands, when that damned smith unleashed the magic that brought about a Veilstorm. Now, that in itself wouldn’t have been too bad, for this angry being could handle such storms, but he had been too arrogant, and unleashed his own magic at the smith. Their magic combined to change the simple Veilstorm into a Malevolence of truly epic proportions.
When the storm had swept in, this being had known that he needed to leave the area as quickly as possible, so he had called upon what remained of his power to transform himself into a hawk, and he had flown away as fast as his wings could carry him. And as he flew, he had but two thoughts. The first: how to regain that golden ring. The second, well, he knew that the smith would not be destroyed by the storm; maybe the smith would end up far enough away from him that he himself would have a better chance to regain the ring.
And as the angry being flew away, the newly born being continued to ponder his existence, his origins, and his fate. Still shivering from the snow, he decided that he might as well stand up and walk, for the sun’s rays were beginning to warm him and some of the snow was beginning to melt. Standing up, he had to shield his eyes from the sun, for while he found the sun’s rays made his shivering stop, his golden eyes were bothered by the direct light from it. “But,” he thought to himself, “It’s better to be warm than it is to be cold! So walk I will, though in brightest day my eyes hurt!”
As he walked through the snow, he started to truly notice the world around him for the first time. Where before he had only seen destruction, he began to notice that some of the world was quite pleasing to his eyes. While he was still having trouble with naming those things that filled his senses, seeing those tall things covered with snow made his heart pound. And when he came to the edge of a cliff, he looked around, still shielding his eyes, and was amazed by the beauty of this rugged landscape. He smiled as some new words came into his head.
“Those tall things are mountains!” he said, “I know that!” And his head was soon filled with other words to describe and name each of the mountains. And he was once again filled with joy!
“And below me,” he smiled, “is a fjord! And I know which one. It is….”
Images filled his mind. Another being who once stood here.
“NO!” he screamed, “What is this?”
I AM FALLING
The being once again fell to the ground, his arms hugging his body as he was overcome with the terrible images and emotions that had suddenly dominated his mind. And once again he experienced something new: he cried. And as he cried, golden tears fell from his eyes and were absorbed into the ground. These tears, like the golden shards before, moved through the earth, and were transformed into something else, the substance known as “goldeneye”. (Need a good name).
When he regained control of his body and his mind, he remembered what had happened the last time. He needed an answer! He had tried to summon his power, and he did so, but with more than a little fear. For he knew that he might not like the answers that he got. But he didn’t care that much; he wanted to know the truth, and so, with his eyes and ring glowing in unison, the story unfolded before him.
A long time ago, there was a woman who had reached an age where she was the last of her family to survive. For it seemed that there was a curse on her and her kin. She bore 6 healthy children, but as they reached maturity, their lives took a terrible turn. Each of them died, some tragically, some heroically, and some mysteriously. And her beloved husband’s heart broke when his last child and most favored son died while fishing, and the man just faded away. And when that happened, she was shunned by what remained of her family, for they believed her cursed by the gods. They forced her out of her village, and alone, with only her meager belongings and a ring, which had been given to her by a merchant. She wandered the world for years. She always wondered why the merchant had given her this valuable ring, but all he would say is that he was near death and since he had no family, he would rather her have it then anybody else, for he thought her a kindly woman. She still smiled at the thought of that, even as he leapt off a cliff, which happened to be that same cliff that the golden being was standing on.
As the last memory of that woman left his mind, the being stood again. Once again filled with new words and memories, this time he did not dance with joy. Rather, he walked weakly along a path, which led down the cliff to the village of the woman below. And again he experienced something new: a darkness that surrounded him, lit by two great objects in the sky. The light from the moons of this world didn’t warm him, but though it be a darkest night, he still found his way down the cliff toward the village and torches which its inhabitants lit to help ward off evil spirits.
With the woman’s suicide still in his mind, the being approached the village, naked and cold. As he got closer, villagers looked at his approach with a variety of emotions: some were confused, others angry, and some, both men and women, looked at him with envy and desire. And as he got closer, one man in particular was smiling at the being’s approach. The man’s name was Andvari, and even if he the strange being didn’t know who he was, Andvari knew what was on his hand. For a Dvergr always knows where gold can be found, especially this particular piece of gold. While it might have been on the hand of a strange, golden being, Andvari knew that the ring he created, the ring that was stolen by the Greater Power called Loki, had returned home to him.
And as Andvari grabbed some clothing from one of his taller workers, he said to himself, “…that my most precious ring, that golden item that I created from my own soul, would be mine again. Even if I have to kill the thing that wears it now.”
Andvari walked up to the being, placed the clothing over his body, and smiled at him. And while he looked up into the stranger’s eyes, for the stranger was much taller than Andvari, he said “Welcome to your new home. You are safe here with me.” And as the final words left his lips, Andvari’s eyes moved down from the stranger’s eyes to the ring on his hand, and he smiled, as strongly and as falsely as any being in this world has ever smiled.
And as the Dvergr smiled, the ring on the stranger’s hand began to glow. Unfortunately, the golden being did not see the glow, for he was preoccupied with his new clothing, and the kindly touch and words of the smith. Once again, the smith smiled at the golden being. While comforting him as he would a long-lost relative, he led him back to his shop.
On a small farm in one of the many verdant valleys in the land that now belongs to the Tuatha dé Danann there once lived a farmer named Phadrig. He was a kindly old soul who had been a generous neighbor, a good father, and a gentle husband. Now, as his days upon this earth were dwindling, he alone was left to run the farm. His children had long ago fled the rural life to seek their fortunes elsewhere. His wife was waiting for him in heaven. Having reached this stage in life, he cared little for human companionship and was content to work the farm as he had for decades.
Aiding him was an old black stallion who had wandered into his fields many years ago. This horse had become an important part of Phadrig’s life, helping to plow the fields and providing companionship to the simple farmer. The horse was all the family he had left. Sadly, the work of two aged souls is not equal to the work of many young ones, and the farm was on the verge of failing. There was indeed little that the old man and the black horse had been able to do to change their shared fortunes.
As the horse suffered greatly from the ailments of the aged, the farmer nursed him. He even took up the curious habit of reading to the horse, for the sound of the farmer’s voice calmed the horse when he was upset or in pain. Phadrig’s favorite stories involved the Tuatha Dé Danann and their great black steeds. The horse seemed to enjoy these tales. He would neigh and whinny and even try to raise his arthritic legs at some particularly exciting passages. The farmer smiled at this and he felt that he was in possession of a special horse, though the poor beast showed no other sign of intelligence or special gifts. He did, however, seem to possess a greater degree of both stubbornness and mischief than the average horse. His favorite prank was to repeatedly throw off his blanket, causing the old farmer to bend over and replace it again and again, much as a toddler will do to his overburdened parents.
Phadrig’s life had become a mixture of ritual and routine, and while the rhythm of it wasn’t particularly exciting, it served him well at this stage in his life. Until the Piercing of the Veil, when everything changed.
Though the Veilstorms didn’t immediately affect him, some of Phadrig’s friends and neighbors suffered greatly. He offered what help he could, but against the flood of need he could do very little. At least he tried, even if it meant he went to bed hungry several nights a week. As bad as Phadrig’s situation was, he was still far better off than many.
One summer’s evening Phadrig heard strange sounds coming from his barn. In the past, he would have ignored them, attributing them to some harmless animal, but the world was different now. He grabbed a scythe as a weapon, lit a torch, and directed his steps toward the barn with trepidation. Reaching it, he found the door hanging open. In the faint moonlight he saw an Abomination walking slowly and purposefully toward his horse. The horse was staring at the creature, mesmerized: the Abomination had cast a spell. It was widely known that some of these creatures had strange abilities.
Hoping to scare it away, Phadrig screamed at the creature. The creature turned and faced him, not the least bit alarmed. Howling in answer, it rushed at Phadrig and while the creature wasn’t as physically powerful as others of his kind, it was more than a match for the old man, despite his courage. Phadrig’s scythe struck the tough hide of the Abomination, drawing blood.
As the creature’s attention was focused entirely on the farmer, the horse began to awaken from enchantment. Seeing the Abomination clearly for the first time, the horse’s eyes widened. Fear rose within his throat and he reared up painfully on his hind legs, even this effort causing him distress. He tried to charge the Abomination but his body did not match his spirit and he quickly stumbled to the ground, helpless, as the tide of battle took an ill turn for Phadrig. The Abomination, sensing victory, went in for the kill.
Perhaps it was prolonged exposure to the Veilstorms, or perhaps the horse was always more than he had seemed, but something very strange happened that evening. No storm was present outside, yet the horse began to transform. The aching that had filled his joints for many years evaporated as quickly as the morning fog in the brilliant light of noon. His black coat became as bright and sleek as when he was a young stallion, his rheumy eyes cleared, and his hooves glowed as if ablaze. He became the horse from the farmer’s stories, a true steed of the Tuatha de Danann. He was also surprised to feel a great insight and understanding. He knew that this farmer, his friend, was dying.
He rushed to Phadrig’s side, placing himself between the Abomination and the farmer, daring the foul creature to attack. It did. Leaping toward the horse, the Abomination raised its claws, intent on rending flesh from bone. The horse surprised it, spinning nimbly to face away from the creature. As the Abomination neared, the horse used his powerful hind legs to kick it through the flimsy barn wall.
Picking itself up in the moonlight outside, the Abomination screamed for others of its kind. Some of them traveled in packs, like wolves. Hearing the scream, two other Abominations rushed from the nearby woods, eager to join the hunt. The horse galloped forth to challenge the creatures. He hadn’t been able to gallop in years, but he scarcely noticed his strength, so desperate was he to protect the farmer.
Now facing three foes, the horse knew he was in trouble, yet he fought bravely. His hooves and legs were powerful weapons and he managed to quickly dispatch the two newcomers. One of the Abominations burst into flame as the horse’s hooves flared brightly during one devastating kick. However, the leader was still alive and the horse was greatly weakened by his efforts. His flanks were running red.
With victory finally at hand, the Abomination once again rushed the horse. The creature leapt onto the gallant steed’s back and raised its claws to slash the horse’s throat. Suddenly, the Abomination froze with its claws still poised to strike. It fell from the horse, dead.
As the creature fell, the horse saw that the farmer, who was bleeding profusely, had crawled outside to hurl the barn’s pitchfork at the Abomination. The sharp prongs had pierced the creature’s foul chest and killed it instantly.
The horse limped over to the farmer and together they made for the barn, where the farmer dressed their wounds with torn cloth. This done, the farmer looked anew at the horse and saw that he was greatly changed. Gazing at him, Phadrig saw new light of an intelligent being there and declared, “I know not how this happened, but I thank you for saving my life. I’m sorry that I never gave you a name. Would it be alright if I called you Puck?” The horse, while wiser than it had been, did not know that name, though he liked the sound of it.
Phadrig and Puck worked the farm together for several more years. Puck put his newfound powers and intelligence to good use and the farm prospered as never before. Puck and Phadrig also spent many hours in relaxation, reading together and enjoying the richness of rest after a day’s toil. It wasn’t long before Puck learned to read on his own and Phadrig and Puck even engaged in conversations of a sort.
For his part, Phadrig was delighted by the change and even though Puck would disappear, sometimes for days at a time, Phadrig knew his friend would always return. In answer to Phadrig’s whys and wheres, Puck just smiled in the toothy way of a horse and went about his business.
When the time came for Phadrig’s light to be extinguished, it was said that his horse let out an almost human cry of mourning that was heard throughout the countryside. The following dawn, when his neighbors came to investigate the sound, there was no trace of the horse. All they found was a shallow grave in which Phadrig was buried. Carved on Phadrig’s gravestone were the words “He was a good master but a better friend – Puck.” The neighbors were confounded. However, they had bigger problems than sorting out who this Puck was, so they said their prayers and went back to their lives.
As for Puck, his time away from the farm was well spent: He and others of his kind have been spotted running through the hills, their fiery hooves lighting up the green grass in the dark night. They have also been credited with all manner of mischief, as well as acts of kindness. None of them have ever been captured or ridden, no matter how hard some have tried. It is said that they are awaiting the rise of a true warrior-king, and only then will they come down from their hidden homes in the hills to aid in his quest.
Lore, People and Places
|Becoming Stories||Arthurians||Cait Sith • Gargoyles • Golems • Picts • Stormiders|
|Tuatha Dé Danann||Bean Sidhe • Fir Bog • Hamadryads • Luchorpán • Silverhands|
|Vikings||Dvergar • HelBound • Jötnar • Úlfhéðnar • Valkyries|
|Other||Andvaranaut • Phouka|
|Characters||Arthurians||Arthur • Gwenhwyfar • Lancelot • Maharal • Moireach • Nimue|
|Tuatha Dé Danann||Aingeal • Angha • Badhbh • Bres • Crimthann • Donn • Emon Alsea • Eochaid • Gadai • Hamadryas Alsea • Lugh • Morrigan • Nuada • Obdgen • Teia • Tiu|
|Vikings||Askr • Brynhildr • Durnir • Eir • Embla • Gaumr • Gondul • Hel • Hildr • John Bigboote • Miach • Motsognir • Sindri • Sigurd • The Speaker • Thrya|
|Other||Balor • Medraut • The Merchant • Myrddin • Palug|
|Places||The Depths||Cavern of Stone Souls|
|Camelot • Eagla Portach • Inner World • Lake of Storms • Móine Alúine • Silent Gate • Stormlands • Tír na nÓg|