The Beast of Ulgbrook - pt. I

     Salamar Vail’s boots hammered into the wet grass of the night dark forest, kicking up clods of mud as he ran with steady speed. The blade at his hip, with each step, knocked into his thigh, and he could hear the cadence of the equipment hooked to his belt jangling over the steady inhale-exhale of his breath. He kept his dark eyes fixed straight ahead as he pulled at his trailing cloak and started wrapping it around his left forearm. The edge of the forest was quickly approaching. A weak light began to filter through the trees, dispelling the gloom, and soon he could see a dim transparent glow. A wall of light. The wall grew larger as Vail pounded closer to it. It flickered and faded in places, turning a few feet of surrounding night into day. It allowed Vail to clearly see the sudden edge of the cliff that ended the forest plateau, helped him imagine the murderous drop into the a deep valley below. Vail pushed himself, pumped his legs faster, coursed forward, and leaped off the edge of the cliff.

      Vail brought the cloth napkin up to his nose, pretending to wipe his mouth after eating, but in actuality he was shielding his senses from the foul breath of the old man sitting before him. The old sage laughed a wheezing gust of fetid air across the table, and Salamar was glad he’d accidentally dipped the napkin in his wine earlier. He cast a glance to the wizard’s young ward, a girl with a clear, intelligent stare, barely out of diapers; her hair a rat’s nest, her arms wiry and strong, her eyes calm. Vail cocked an eyebrow at her, but received only an impassive blue-eyed gaze in return. The wizard’s laugh turned into a cough, a chopping hack that didn’t cease until he’d slurped down a quarter flagon of water. At least for the moment, Salamar dropped the napkin and repeated the statement that had made the sage so mirthful.

“I’m here to kill your monster.”
Half in his drink, the wizard hiccuped with laughter, which splashed the stale water across the table. Salamar leaned forward.
“I don’t understand why this is so funny. I’m offering to do you a service.”

     The wizard grinned vacantly; his watery milk-white eyes took in Salamar’s face. When he was satisfied, he snapped his fingers at the girl who immediately set off into the other room, silently. Vail watched her scurry out of the main room where he and the sage sat. Between them a large round table carved from a wide, hoary tree stump that served as a table. Vail pushed away his plate, filled with chicken bones and the remnants of whatever tough, leafy vegetable the old wizard had served him. It was tasty enough; Vail was sated, but anxious to continue his travels. The wizard, waiting for his apprentice, eyed the knight and picked at the remains of his chicken. Rather than watch the old man’s long teeth working upon the soft flesh, Vail scanned the room. Shelves held jars of powders, bundled roots hung from the ceiling, a fireplace blazed, snapping warmth throughout the room. A bone dropped, the wizard spoke, his voice thick with grease, but naturally reedy.
“I mean no offence, good knight.”
“Knight-Squire, still. It is my hope to slay your beast and gain my knighthood.”

     The old man nodded, and then continued. “It is just that you are not the first adventurous soul to try. There have been many during my lifetime, and many more before me I’m told. It cannot be killed. If set free, it cannot be stopped. Only sunlight will it cease its marauding.”

     When the girl returned she carried a diminutive leather bound book, heavy with thickness. She placed it on the table and pushed it over to the wizard. Vail’s forehead wrinkled and he opened his mouth, but the wizard hooked the wordless space between them, enforcing silence. Digits like twigs opened the creaking leather and turned pages the color of autumn leaves. Dark masterful text covered each page, and occasionally Vail could spot the color of an illustration, but could discern no details. Once the old sage found the page he was looking for he spun the tome so Vail could see it. The page he stopped on was filled with a color illustration, the text surrounding it clean, but sparse.

      The image was of a cave. Brown rock ringing a dark opening. A green field with a spray of violet wildflowers, black mud, and a yawning cave mouth. As Vail stared at the drawing the flowers swayed repetitively in the breeze, the sunlight dappled across the rocks. Entranced, his eyes danced around the image as it lived and breathed on the page. When his gaze settled on the black of the cave mouth, one of the logs hissed in the fire behind him. The hiss changed, protracted, wafted through the air. It seemed to settle on the dark ink. The hiss turned into a low growl. The dark of the cave gave way for a brief second and Salamar Vail recoiled as if struck by a viper. The after-image of bones crowded his vision. Above the bones, eyes that burned like coals housed in a face that resembled his own. Before he could look again the old wizard snapped the book shut, his grin vanished, his eyes reflecting firelight.

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© Tim Mucci, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Tim Mucci with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Illustration by: Mike Mucci (@monsterrrmooch on IG)