There can only be one
“I HAVE COME FOR THE LIFE OF ONE!” a strange warbling displaced voiced seemed to screech not from the head but from the hip of the rider. -“BUT I WILL TAKE ALL IF YOU DO NOT SEND OUT THE CREATOR!” The figure was tall and seemed abnormally proportioned under a set of tuathan mail. His head and neck were stiff and motionless as if carved from wood and wax to look like that of the former king of the Tuatha; Nuada Airgetlám. The waxen face glinting ominously in the light of the magical flame sword and the torches around him.
The imposter had taken Bres’s thrown and what was left of his army. Now he marched on the last living souls that knew he was not truly Nuada. Not the Nuada that had taken this isle and renamed it so but a crude copy that nevertheless shared his flesh and would seize it by force.
“YOU HAVE ONE HOUR BEFORE I BURN THIS KEEP TO ASHES!” The hideous guttural displaced voice screeched.
Bres walked for what felt like hours towards the cyclopean spire. In a trance it seemed his march in time to some tune that no human ears could hear. A steady heartbeat exuded from the tower. Before he could fully process his surroundings he was in a throng of strange creatures some not unlike those from the ship. But others far more hideous and monstrous in aspect. So much so he didn’t care to look at them at all and just pushed forward through them to the base of the spire.
As he approached it he could make out faintly, what sounded like blades clashes. Or perhaps teeth gnashing and inhuman warbling of a crowd made up of the denizens of this eldritch keep of unknown aeons.
The base of the spire consisted of a gaping oval maw that seemed much too large an entrance for the squat toad like creatures he had encountered so far. Were they perhaps not the original inhabitants he mused to himself dreamily as he approached the sounds of combat in a daze. Drawn to the dreaming spire as if the waves themselves propelled him.
He was slowly swallowed by the grand maw, inside the keep it was large and cavernous, sounds billowing off every unevenly cragged wall. The inside was half castle half cave but also seemed almost living like it was part of a reef of coral. Or perhaps the inside of some strange prehistoric beast all bones and cartilage fossilized for a thousand years or more.
Inside there were more of those toad like creatures but from then on the mass was more inconsistent. There seemed not to be one race down here but a collection of malformed denizens that seemed to ooze from the very walls. Some on two legs, some on just one, some even crawled on their bellies like vipers or eels. Every one of them was a vile experiment not of nature but of some twisted intellect beyond man’s comprehension.
Their attention was drawn to a crude yet well adorned arena. Constructed from what looked like bones and skin of some never before seen sea creature.
Inside the arena an amorphous mass of grey shapeless flesh bubbled like porridge in a pot. Something vaguely humanoid sinking into the mass as it gurgled and belched. The crowd gibbering louder as whatever it was sunk deeper into the mass until it was completely devoured.
Immediately after that the crowd swelled once more and suddenly the former king felt a sinister energy amassing around him. As if a million bulbous eyes were focused on him alone. Instantly he could feel their slimy appendages gripping him. Forcing him closer to the hideous bubbling mass of unnameable horror.
He struggled against the horde but their collective force was as crushing as the tide itself, immovable and irresistible. Before he could cry out in protest he was himself in the arena face to indescribable mass congealing in front of him.
Panicked the former king cried out “I am Bres, King of the Tuatha, I come to seek an audience with my father!” He rose his hand into the air to display the ring his mother had given him, the ring that he was meant to present to his father so he would know him. But the ring was gone. Undoubtedly snatched up by one of the many slimy sticky appendages that thrust him into the uncertain doom he now faced.
He had turned his back to the creature to display his now empty hand, he could hear it; it’s vile belching, as it shifted and changed. Bres turned, his body stiff with fear, standing before him was an exact duplicate of himself.
“We are besieged” Ogma said dryly as he entered the tower.
“I am aware of that” Miach hissed.
“Who comes, what defences does the keep hold?”
“I do not know and this is a retreat for study not battle, the only defence I had was discretion, the castle was hidden from the world, I have no warriors.”
“Then there is only I.” Ogma said almost to himself as he cast a sideways glance at the princess who looked almost like a ghost. She stared out of the small opening that let in the cold winter wind.
“May your silver tongue prevail” Miach said sarcastically. Holding his head over his descheveled desk contemplating eternity.
In the dark of the lowest keep glowed a sudden painful flash of light. Visceral heat flaring as the silver arm fused with the newly made stump at the barbarians shoulder. A crude and hateful wound created by his own hand. The arm sealed it, seared it with it’s blasphemous magic of a God foreign to this land, the Goddess of the sky. The magic burned the Firbolg. His scars seamed to glow with pain, a familiar warming pain that sent burning blood coursing through his dead cold veins.
He breathed out whole and in pieces once more, a weapon more than a man. A jagged arrow head without shaft, tumbling aimlessly through eternity.
Rising now from the cold slab, to march one more time to the familiar drum of war. The wound on his arm still glowing and sizzling with the profane foreign magic that was the bane of his people long ago.
The portcullis glowed orange and white as the imposter Nuada cut with his flaming sword. The steel bending and bubbling, becoming something new. His piecemeal army of rogues and deserters waited hungrily for the easy riches the castle surely held. The heat from the magical blade made the portcullis shrink in on itself, becoming like a thick honey as he cut it away.
As it fell the courtyard was empty and white with untrod snow. Empty but for a single man; Ogma the silver tongued waiting patiently kneeling in the snow. His hands on his hips, his sword and steel club laid out in front of him.
The creature had stolen Bres’ shape but it yet remained oddly gelatinus and shiney. It had copied him so completely the former king could see the blotches that marred his beauty and made him imperfect and unfit to rule. The creature now a cruel mirror of fate. Bres sneered at this mockery, his anger met by his trepidation, a fear of unknown danger welling in him. The creature and yet another set of eyes watching him from behind the mass of strange tenebrious limbs reaching out at him from the crowd.
At once a crude axe or pick of some sort made from shell and bone was forced in his hand by an unseen squamous appendage. A barbed net placed in his other hand. Propped up by these strange limbs he felt almost like a marionette or a childs toy. A toy about to be dashed upon the rocks of another greater toy for the amusement of an eldritch hand just out of his vantage.
The doppleganger was handed a barbed trident made of some kind of black stone or flint. Its uneven mottled shape made it look like something taken from a statue belonging to some long dead civilization, elegant in its crudity.
The creature twisted the weapon in its hand with practiced bravado, giving some hint of intellect or ego. Despite that, it’s eyes were hollow and dim, if that’s indeed what they were.
The thing sprang to life viciously projecting the trident forward. Bres struggled to get his footing barely repelling the strike by flailing the barbed net frantically. The being continued to attack, showing no sign of fatigue, no drop in speed. It moved effortless under the water, its body was firm but moved almost as a liquid itself.
Bres doubled back feverishly blocking and dodging relentless attacks. Without a moment of thought spared to launch his own. But there was some spark that rang in the back of his mind. Something odd about the way the creature moved, although it was fast, there was a slight delay. A split second of a pause between movements, when it had to change direction or do anything that wasn’t a repetitive motion. Something that took independent thought gave it brief pause.
Bres flailed the net trying to get some distance from the creature and maybe tangle the trident among its barbs. For a moment he had some breathing room, feeling the crowd behind him swell at his back.
Acting instinctively or rashly he flung the net at the strange being. For a split second there was that delay, as if by clockwork the creature swung the trident and sheared the thick net in twain. But that moment was all Bres needed. He rolled dexteriously underneath the swing intended for the net and not his skull and pinned the monsters foot with the pick.
The abomination let out some unhuman sound like an animal caught in a trap, but all together more disconcerting. It seemed not to come from anything like a voice box and certainly not from his doppelganger’s mouth, if it even was a mouth.
With lightning speed and merciless precision. In one fluid motion, leaving no moment for it to react; Bres snatched the trident from it’s hands. Spinning his whole body from his hips and shoulders one full turn. Bres sheered the immitations head from it’s shoulders.
The head hit the ground heavily but softly as if it were made of some dense liquid, the sound of it like a frog belching. The cut too felt like no flesh he’d ever wrent; elastic and sticky, it clung to the trident’s blade and almost still seemed to be alive in every sliver.
The hall was quiet now, a deafening deathly silence had befell the crowd. The crowd that was but a moment ago uproarious in blood thirsty chants, gibbering in some alien tongue, hitherto unknown to Bres.
And then out of the quietus, a haunting mocking sound; one man clapping, out of the darkness the sound crept, getting closer.
“Well done, I see you saw through my little parlor trick.” The voice appeared to be coming from above him but it echoed all around him and seemed too that it was inside his own head. The voice was jovial, warm almost, welcoming, smooth and melodious like sweet wine being poured into a silvery cup.
A tall figure stepped out of the crowd and the darkness as if stepping out of an unseen doorway or lifting a curtain.
The figure had long white hair and his skin too was the colour of bone, with eyes of glowing red. He wore a long black cloak that at one moment appeared to be made of hard shells and another to be whisps of pale smoke writhing in the darkness. The face was youthful, gaunt and almost uncomfortably beautiful. As if a sculptor had been crafting it for centuries and had lost all sense of beauty as a concept.
“I am Br-“
“-I know who you are” A long slim naked arm appeared from beneath the cloak, in between a long slender finger and thumb was the ring Bres’ mother had given to him. “And I know why you’ve come.”