Author’s note: Although this short story was not published as intended, it found new life in an extensive school project concerning short story analysis.
Moonlight danced on the gentle waves brushing against the hull of the trading vessel. Bornt, the captain, looked on, as the little boat was lowered down into the water and his two passengers, both mercenaries and adventurers of the worst kind, climbed in.
„The gods be with you. I come past here again in two days. If I do not see you on the shore, I sail on.“
„We will be there, Bornt.“ the taller one answered. A black-maned beast of a man who went by the name of Gorth, with a chest like a bear and an ax slung over his back.
„The ghosts of the past won‘t scare us.“ declared the other one boldly. His short hair was the color of fire and fire was also the source of the scars on his hands and face. But it was no misfortune or cruel torture which had caused those scars. This man, who had never revealed his name to Bornt, was a rune-smith of Cyth. He bent fire and metal to his will to perform his magic, but fire always demanded a price to be paid.
And with that, the two started rowing towards the shore were Vairos, the fallen city of the slain witch-king Syrces, slumbered in the dusk, as it had done for the past three hundred years.
The two adventures did not wait for the break of dawn to enter the accursed city that had swallowed many an adventurer with its ghosts and traps but strode dauntlessly on into its night-shaded and bramble-choked streets, the moon‘s pale glare enough for them to find their way.
Whatever phantoms and beasts had claimed the lives and souls of others, they left Gorth and the Cythian rune-smith alone and they reached their destination unmolested by ghost and creature.
In the very center of the abandoned city stood an ancient watchtower of basalt, almost untouched by time. The pair climbed it swiftly and on its platform, high above the streets of scorpion-infested Vairos, they rested until the break of morning.
With the first beams of light reaching over the horizon, Gorth, who never slept more than two or three hours, woke his companion. They descended the tower and pressed on towards sprawling and scorched ruins they had seen clearly from the tower in the light of the new day: The palace of Syrces.
When the vile sorcerer had been slain three centuries ago, his palace had been plundered and razed and yet, there were some secrets left to be discovered in that place of dark magic. Secrets, which head led many brave souls to their doom.
When they had reached the outer wall of the palace, the rune-smith raised his hand, cautioning his companion to not make another step. „Something is waiting for us, here. It feels like a spider, lurking in her web.“ he declared.
„It is as we were expecting, friend. Some demon of the past still haunts this ruin.“ Gorth took his ax in one hand and traced the sigils in its head with his finger. Then he whispered to his weapon as one lover to the other: „You have slain many a foe in my hand, today, our greatest battle awaits.“ As if in answer, the sigils gave a faint, silver-blue shimmer.
„The web is closing around us, great Gorth.“ the Cythian announced with a wave of its hand, indicating the shambling forms that had appeared among the ruins. „Look, the ones who came here before us.“
They were dried-out, shriveled and gaunt things, still bearing the wounds which slew them. Some awkwardly brandished weapons and gave hollow and meaningless cries of challenge. Others rushed at the adventurers with their bare claws. Lesser men might have been frozen in shock of the sight of the undead horde, but not Gorth and the Cythian. They stood back to back, the Cythian‘s fire-magic scorching the first undead long before they came in reach of Gorth‘s mighty ax. The black-maned warrior rushed towards the shambling risen warriors and cleaved them with his mighty ax. It seemed as if a single blow of his ax was enough to relieve them of their pitiful unlife, yet, they kept coming at him. The Cythian burned them with his fire and let the flames jump from one withered husk to the next. They fell and yet, they kept coming.
„There are to many.“ said the rune-smith breathlessly, exhausted by the use of his magic.
„No, they are always the same, coming again and again. We cannot slay them for long.“ groaned Gorth, cleaving through yet three more shambling warriors.
„So it is the one your father has told us about controlling them.“ The Cythian reached into a pouch on his belt, drawing a small lump of iron inscribed with a single arcane rune. „This will buy us the time we need and you owe me for this, Gorth Black-Mane.“
„I swear by my lineage, I will repay you.“ the warrior hissed between yet more blows he struck with his ax, sundering bodies and smashing heads.
„Your lineage is what brought us here“ the rune-smith commented dryly. He cupped the lump between his palms, then chocked in pain as the iron glowed red hot before he hurled it into the air. It turned into a giant ball of flame that burst with the heat of a thousand bonfires, scorching everything around except for the warrior and the spellcaster and in doing so, also created a wall of fire, encircling the two and shielding them from the undead haunting the city.
They hurried deeper into the ruins of the palace to a place that had been described to them by Gorth‘s father. Their path was littered with charred husks, scorched by the elemental fire the Cythian had summoned. They would never rise again, but other ones were sure to rise in their stead.
Behind a half-crumbled wall, they found the remains of an iron table. The top was supported by three beasts: An elephant, a horse and a rhinoceros.
Gorth quickly knelt down and pressed the eyes of the elephant. Mechanical groans could be heard from beneath their feet, then, the ground shuddered slightly and the table turned aside, revealing a hole in the ground,
„This was far too easy.“ observed Gorth.
„Yes.“ agreed the rune-smith. „This passage was meant to be found. Something below wants us to descent.“
„It would be rude to keep it waiting.“ declared the black-haired warrior, then lit a torch and threw it into the darkness below. It hit the ground after only a short fall. The tunnel below was only slightly higher then Gorth himself, he now saw, and jumped down. The Cythian followed more cautiously.
The dank passage wound its way deep into the rock Vairos was built on. It was devoid of any signs of unfortunate adventurers having met their end here. They had all crawled out again in unlife to guard this place or herd others here. The air was stale and tasted of old death. Still, Gorth Black-Mane and his friend who never spoke his name pressed on. They had not come for treasure or for arcane knowledge hidden among the ruins. Theirs was a different goal. Gorth had now drawn a short sword and held a small round shield in his left. His ax was on his back, but the passage was to narrow to use it. The Cythian held the torch, his magic making it brighter, so they could see clearly.
„This leads to his lair, this is the path to Syrces‘ inner sanctum.“ Gorth observed.
„Just like your father said it would be.“ The Cythian added.
Soon, the passage split into two, both still leading further down but away from each other. The Cythian muttered something under his breath, than approached the left tunnel. The torch suddenly flared brightly for an instant.
„That tunnel is a death-trap.“ he declared, turning his attention to the left. Here, too, the torch flared.
„So they are both death traps.“ Gorth observed.
„In deed, friend. Another secret passage is what we have to find.“
Following an instinct hone by years of experience, the Cythian ran his hand along the sides of the tunnel they had come down and sure enough, his fingers found a gap in the wall. He traced it, ran the torch along, it did not flare. This was the save path.
„Stand back, Cythian.“ Gorth demanded, then drove the edge of is ax into the gap, pushing it deep with all his might and with a groan and the sound of tortured metal, levered the secret door open. It swung inward, revealing another passage.
The burnt sorcerer took an iron coin and flipped it. It glowed as it spun in the air and hit the ground with the side showing a skeleton facing up.
„Our adversary awaits at the end of this passage.“ he declared with a grin.
Gorth hefted his ax in both hands ans grinned back at the rune-smith: „Let‘s go friend.“
The newly discovered passage soon led them into a chamber, so vast, the light of the torch could not reach the end, even with the Cythian‘s magic.
„Death is waiting.“ the sorcerer whispered.
„No, not death, friend. Something older, darker.“
There was a sound, something shambled in the darkness.
„He is here, let us see him.“ Gorth told his friend.
The Cythian lit another torch on the one he was holding and hurled it beyond the ring of light they were standing in. Guided by magic it found its mark and surrounded it with a faint red glow. It was a hulking, misshapen thing, formed from the bodies of many unfortunate mortals fused into one. It was the final thing, the witch-king Syrces had summoned before the final battle when this city and his palace fell. The demon had never left this chamber, instead using the undead thralls above to do its bidding.
It laughed with the sound of a thousand tortured souls and strode towards the intruders of his cave with long steps.
„Puny mortals. Have you come to meet your fate by my hands.“ it mocked. „Do you think so highly of yourselves as to be too good to be slain by my minions above? Then so be it. I will devour your souls like exquisite morsels. Fools like yourselves are hard to find.“
„Heed me Ayretheriar!“ Gorth bellowed and the beast shuddered upon hearing its true name. „I am Gorth Black-Mane of the accursed lineage of Syrces who summoned you from the black abysses between the world of the living and the realm of the dead. And I have come to destroy you for eternity!“
With a mighty battle-cry that echoed in the chamber, he lunged at the abomination, ax raised high, but the monstrosity, too, now rushed at him and caught the warriors ax in its vile paw, blocking the strike aimed at it.
Gorth stood firm, gripped the ax-handle tightly with one hand while he swiftly drew his short sword and cut the monster across its abdomen, but the monster paid this wound no heed.
Now, the Cythian joined the fight, holding the torch aloft, living flame snaked forth, reaching for Ayretheriar. The creature roared in pain, its other paw reaching for the Cythian with unnatural speed and knocking him aside. But this distraction was all Gorth Black-Mane had needed. He yanked his ax free, its runes and sigils now glowing brightly, and swung it with his might in a wide ark. It bit deep into the hip of the demon and its howl of pain and rage became almost too much to bear. In deed, as the creature stumbled and seemed to cower, Gorth was almost overcome with pity for it. He did not strike another blow, but instead lowered his weapon and approached cautiously.
„Gorth Black-Mane!“ the Cythian cried out. „Don‘t let it charm you! Don‘t let the demon charm you!“
The voice of his friend reached the warrior as from a vast distance. It was almost only a whisper. He blinked. All the pity he had just felt was gone, washed away by a rising tide of rage he now felt for the beast and for himself for almost falling pray to its vile magic.
Yet, this one instant of uncertainty which had engulfed Gorth was all Ayretheriar had needed. It threw its unholy form against the warrior, almost crushing him between itself and the chamber‘s wall. Gorth could feel all wind leaving his lungs and tasted blood in his mouth.
„Now, I shall feast on your soul and feeble flesh, mortal.“ it raged. „Your suffering for wounding me shall be legendary among my kind.“
„Not so, abomination.“ he replied between clenched teeth, a red fog of blood, pain, and rage clouding his vision, and drove the sharp tip at the end of his ax‘s handle into Ayretheriar flesh. The beast jerked back, giving Gorth enough space to free himself. Seeing his friend had gotten away from the beast‘s grip, the Cythian again conjured flame from the torch, this time searing the monstrosity‘s back. It howled once more and turned to face the rune-smith, but before it could do any more, its head was cleft asunder by Gorth‘s ax and the might of the blow felled it then and there.
„Ayretheriar, bane of Vairos, I, Gorth of the line of Syrces, banish you and destroy you forever.“ Gorth declared and now to hewed each limb from its body, before the Cythian burned it with his magic.
„Our quest here is finished Gorth, now it is time for the plunder.“
„There will be little in this chamber, but now that the demon is slain, it should be safe to search this cavern.“
The Cythian mumbled another incantation and drew a circle with the torch. Some sparks flew, but none found a mark. No other beast or demon was lurking in the darkness. Alas, the only treasure they found was a chain of silver on the skeleton of the only other hero who had ever found his way down here, but this one had succumbed to the might of Ayretheriar. So, with a mighty foe slain but little compensation for their pains, the pair of heroes left the vault and returned to the ruins of Vairos above.
The dead did not stir as they walked past wearily and sore from the battle they had fought. On the beach, they rested until late the following afternoon, the trading vessel returned. The captain was almost disappointed to see them, but the first mate was happy.
„Well, you made my first mate a richer man, but it is good to see you both survived this place. Did you find what you came for?“
„We did in deed.“ answered Gorth and left it at that.