It was perhaps not a location one would expect to find an initiate and a servant of the gods, but then Gable Lay was not typical of those who usually chose to take holy orders. A youth spent on the streets and wharfs of Theel had initially steered the young man’s life in an entirely different path. It was only after he had completed a particular dark and appalling contract that Lay had found himself needing the aid of the priesthood, and they had needed him. But that was an episode he wished to leave behind him, and he was pleased that the ministers of the gods had encouraged him to join their number and welcomed his less than priestly talents. His foot kicked out into emptiness as the well bottled out into a chamber. The former thief’s feet skilfully locked themselves onto the rope and he scurried down to the well bottom with the dexterity of a rat. Stone, his feet told him. The floor was paved. Most unusual. He retrieved the burning torch from where it lay and surveyed the chamber that expanded around him.
It had been some days earlier when Lay had been summoned to the study of his mentor, the learned and ancient high priest Henrill Bau. The old, but lively minded scholar cheerfully welcomed him to his chambers in the heart of the Cathedral of Death with bright eyed enthusiasm and an eager smile.
‘Your studies are progressing well, Gable’ he said as he waved Lay to a seat before his desk.
‘Thank you, sir’ He replied.
'Now, tell me, what do you make of this?'
The old priest slid a piece of parchment across the desk towards Lay.
'A map?' Lay ventured, running a hand through his close cropped dark hair.
'Indeed, of a fashion at least. And the writing? What do you make of that?'
Lay read 'The sleeping place of Osteroth, keeper of the Bone Blade, killer of death. Those who would consider themselves worthy may attempt to claim it, but may win death'.
Lay's reading had made the name Osteroth familiar to him. Osteroth had been one of the Old Kings who had ruled the part of the land that was now Aara before it was one nation. In legend Osteroth had wielded the sword Wraith-Raker – the Death Killer, the Bone Blade – and had eventually died at the hands of some great demon. He related what he knew to Bau, who nodded approvingly at his student's knowledge and then added:
'Yes, yes. And the king was reputed to have been buried with his sword after he had been slain by the great and terrible Mother of Sorrows. He lies, it is said, with the blade waiting a new champion to claim it. But, it is also said, that the Mother of Sorrows herself placed curses or evil creatures in Osteroth's tomb, to prevent Wraith-Raker from being recovered and used against her'.
The Mother of Sorrows was a great but empty name in the myths of Aara. The great beast was alluded to and referred to many times, but only in the vaguest and oblique ways.
'This map has just been discovered?' Lay surmised.
'Oh no. It has been in the library for generations. We have even figured out the very place it refers to'.
'Because, in my dreams last night I wrote this'.
Bau passed Lay another piece of parchment. On it, in scrawling black ink it read:
'The Mother of Sorrows returns'.
But that had been several days ago. Now Lay was in the tomb of Osteroth, there to retrieve Wraith-Raker, if he could. Surveying the round well bottom in the torchlight he could see an arched passageway marked at its apex by a crude and ancient device: a griffin, which was fabled to be the insignia of the ancient king. There was no stench of death here; the tomb was too old by far to by marked by such things. The air was cold and damp, lichens and fungi were abundant on the masonry of the tomb. Lay cautiously made his way down the passageway before him. All was still, there was – reason would have suggested – no cause for fear. The tunnel was part of a crypt-complex that had lain neglected for over a thousand years. But legend said otherwise. What guardians and horrors had The Mother of Sorrows placed in here to prevent the recovery of the sword she feared?
Ahead of him Lay see the passage ended in a large brass door, onto which was moulded the image of a stern and sombre face. As he moved closer lay gave a start; the eyes on the face opened and gazed upon him like they were a living thing. Then the mouth moved, and from it a deep and resonant voice boomed out.
'Approach you the tomb of Osteroth?' the voice rang out 'Think you to take the sword Wraith-Raker from its resting place? Think you of might and wit to succeed where many mightier have failed and met only doom? Flee now mortal, while you may.'
Lay shuddered, he had expected to face magic such as this, but confronting it in reality was terrifying in a way expecting it hypothetically was not. He steeled himself and told himself that it was a mere sorcerous trifle, not beyond the capabilities of his masters the priests. It was an illusion, one meant to put fear into the hearts of intruders, but posed no actual threat in itself. Still, even with this knowledge, Lay's heart trembled as he opened the door and passed through.
Now Lay found himself in a large chamber, about the size of a large barn. As he cast his light around he could see bones were strewn on the floor. They were the remains of humans and horses and many weapons and pieces of armour were visible among the scattered dead. Lay knew that in ancient times it was tradition for a great king to be buried with his honour guard. This must be who these men had been: men who had not only served the king faithfully in life, but willingly joining him in death. Lay's fear caused him to imagine that the bones might reform into dead warriors that he would have to face, but as he picked his way through the macabre detritus nothing stirred.
'Sir, sir, oh welcome sir!' another voice blurted out. This time the voice was unctuous and servile.
It was another brass door that addressed him, this one faced with a far more positive disposition.
'Do come in, oh do come in, sir! It pleaded 'So good of you to come. Beyond me, sir, are incalculable riches, all for the taking. Rubies the size of your fist, diamonds as large as hen's eggs and such gold, sir, as you would not imagine.'
If anything, Lay found this door more disturbing than the first. What tricks the architects of the tomb had in mind, he could not guess. Deciding that confusion and bewilderment had been the tomb-maker's motive he did his best to ignore the door other than to pass through it.
Another passageway extended before Lay, and he pressed on. He the air was colder; unnaturally so perhaps. The darkness seemed to have a thickness here too, and did not surrender to the torchlight as easily as it should. There was a darkness and a coldness here that came from somewhere else, a darkness and a coldness that were not just the absence of light and heat, but a presence in themselves. Now a preternatural dread was beginning to ooze it's way into Gable Lay's mind and heart. An animal and primitive fear of the realness and proximity of eldritch things. Shadowy impressions seemed to twitch and slither about him. Things seemed to giggle and whisper at the periphery of his hearing. There was something malign and dreadful here. A wilful evil that was the very spirit of wrongness.
The menacing passage now opened up into a circular chamber and it was obvious to Lay that he had come to the heart of the tomb. Severe looking statues of dour warriors ringed the chamber and at the centre lay a stone sarcophagus. Lay approached the granite encasement and scrutinised it under the torchlight. Carved upon the lid was a representation of the ancient and heroic king. In his hands the likeness of the mythic Wraith-Raker was sculpted crudely. Careful lay placed the torch upon the ground so that its flame would not be extinguished. He slid his pack from his back, and from it removed a chisel and hammer. The silence of the tomb was broken sharply as Lay set to work loosening the sarcophagus lid. He hurried as best he could. He did not want to be in this dismal and dreadful place any longer than he had to. His imagination did its best to taunt him with fanciful sounds of things creeping and shifting around him. He hammered away, his mouth dry with fear. Then he stopped. There was something shifting about him in the darkness. There was something slithering about him that was not produced by his fancies. Trembling, Lay placed the hammer and chisel upon the stone coffin lid, then drew his sword. The familiar weight and balance of it reassured him a little. Gulping dryly he turned himself about to face whatever it was that slinked behind him.
In the flickering light of the flames something glistened and wavered, moving with a sinister a compelling grace. He could not be sure of the size of the thing, the torchlight only illuminated a section of its body. Gristle winked wetly as the beast – some kind of serpent – squirmed hypnotically before him. It gave the impression of a writhing column of bone and cartilage, twitching obscenely before him. With the coldest of terrors, Lay realised what was before him. It was, or rather had been centuries ago, a colossal snake. Now it was a repugnant undead thing there with sole purpose of killing trespassers in the tomb. Bewitched by its loathsome undulations and vileness Lay was frozen before the creature. He could not move as the thing lowered its head to stare into his eyes from empty black sockets. The serpent opened its foul jaws to reveal alarming venom dripping fangs and issue a hiss that could well have been a fiendish laugh.
Perhaps the gods at that moment chose to cast their capricious gaze upon Gable Lay; or perhaps his own instinct for survival helped him snap himself from the monstrous fascination that held him, but as the dead snake drew its head back to strike Lay found the will to thrust his sword forward at the jaws that shot towards him. It was only a defensive blow that warded of the strike, but now Lay found himself able to move and act. He skipped to one side, and struck out with more aggression at the creature's head. His blade cut deep into the foul cartilage and gave the beast cause to pull back its savage head.
Lay braced himself, and assured himself that the thing could be beaten. Vast though it was, and gods knew how virulent its venom may be, it could be beaten. But it would not be easy. Undead though it was the monstrous serpent was as quick and lethal as any living snake. More so, no doubt. He slunk back and circled his way behind the sarcophagus, putting the stone structure between himself and the creature that appeared to be pondering the prey that it had thought in its antediluvian mind would have been a much easier kill. The snake did not hesitate for long, it propelled itself forward with the swiftness of an arrow to strike at Lay. One of its teeth struck Lay on the shoulder, and it was only by luck that fang skidded off the leather strap of his harness rather than penetrated deep into his flesh. Foregoing the opportunity to lash out himself, Lay sprang back to put more distance between h mself and the monster. A mistake perhaps, what good would that do? The dead snake coiled back upon itself preparing for another strike and vaulted its neck forward over the sarcophagus. Again, Lay put his efforts into dodging the terrible mouth rather than striking out. Luck was with him again: in its eagerness the dead snake caught itself on the sarcophagus and it brought the lid clattering to the floor as it fouled its own attack with its mis-strike.
A ghostly luminescence radiated up from the now open coffin. The snake hissed with fury and fear at whatever lay within. Instinct or swift thinking informed Lay's next actions. As the serpent quavered from the spectral light momentarily the young man leapt forward to the open casket. In the withered bones of Osteroth held the deadly and beautiful Wraith-Raker that blazed with unearthly and ominous light. Lay grasped the weapon hurriedly and raised it between himself and the coiling monstrosity that hissed at him with hate and now itself knew fear. The sword that was the slayer of dead things seemed to tremble with eagerness in the presence of the serpent. A warth and a calm and courage passed from it into Lay's heart. The hate filled creature struck out at Lay once more, but with a serenity and a grace that he had never known Lay raised the blade to meet the incoming jaws. Wraith-Raker caught the snake in the hinge of its jaws and cut, perhaps burning its way, deep into the ophidian head. The thing twitched, spasmed and contorted before Lay. The hissings from its dead throat were met with the hissings of its body which decayed into a noisome black ooze before Lay's eyes.
In the Cathedral of Death Henrill Bau was gladdened to hear of the safe return of his favoured protégée, Gable Lay. He hurried to great his pupil and disregarded any pretence of formality.
'Death gods be praised, young Gable. You have returned safe!'
'Yes, sir.' Wearied, harrowed, yet successful lay remained humble before his master. In his hands he held out the white Bone Blade, the slayer of death: Wraith-Raker.
'The sword, sir.'
Bau lifted his palm.
'On no, young Gable Lay.' he said 'The Bone Blade is for you to bear. You and it will be needed together. After all, The Mother of Sorrows returns.'
© April, 2015 Rick Hudson
Rick Hudson is a noted writer of literary fiction and a Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Manchester Metropolitan University, where he specializes in Fantasy, Science-Fiction, and Horror. His essay "Return to Hyboria" appeared in the March issue of Swords & Sorcery.