The cool night air refreshed Vail as he stepped outside the wizard’s shack, glad to be rid of its scents and mysteries. His steed, Corendinal, nickered in the shadows, happy to see him emerge whole. The wizard and his ward stood in the doorway, lit red by the fire within. Unwilling to step out into the night.
“It is not a beast as you know it.”
Vail listened while he attended to Corendinal. He stroked the animal’s soft mane and fed him oats from his bare hand. If he failed, he would not see the horse again.
“It is from someplace else. I have communed with those across the seas and deep within the earth. None know this beast. Strange vegetation grows beyond the wall, in the tainted soil.”
“Can it be killed?”
“Many have tried. Yet still I heard the creature’s screams during the hooded moon, two nights ago.”
“The wall is surmountable.”
“I have told you what I know.”
With a pat to Corendinal’s flank Vail turned to face the doorway.
“Why do you wizards not try to slay the creature? You have power. Constrict the wall and burn the fiend to cinders.”
“We do not destroy that which we can contain.”
“At the cost of your life. Her life.”
The wizard of Ulgbrook took a step back to regard the girl at his side, and when she met her master's gaze, she smiled.
“Oh,” the old man cackled, “you think this life a punishment.”
Vail’s boots crunched loudly in the silence of the valley as he stalked toward the cave. There were few trees beyond the wall, the bleak rock of the cave rose up impenetrably craggy before him, and the cave mouth, like an eye, made him feel watched, and wary. He hugged the trees when he could, or else walked across the open grass with his shield held high. His blade shining and ready. The cave was a black hole punched deep in the rock, and a few yards from its opening the grass withered and died in dry lifeless soil. The scent of the purple flowers sweetened the air and glittering pollen hung in the magical light.
He froze as a gathering hiss, a protracted breath, broke the silence. It had the sound of a brisk wind through the trees, but there were not enough behind the wall. It climbed into a menacing hack, echoing from deep within the cave. It could only be the creature, watching from the darkness, watching and laughing. Vail’s heart hammered in his chest and he continued moving forward. This is what he planned for and he found that he was much less terrified than he thought he’d be. He focused on the sound and from behind his shield peered into the dark of the cave. He couldn’t help but think of the wizard’s magical drawing, and those bright eyes, but he saw nothing like that.
He wondered at the fate of his brother. None knew where Llassamir had met his end, it could very well have been here.
His brother, whose bones likely decorated the floor of that cave. He remembered the last time he spoke with Llassamir, just as he was gearing up to complete his knight’s training. Llassamir loved to tell stories about the great monster hunters of their age, and while he strapped packs to his horse, he spoke about Palar Santar, who sliced both heads off of Ganarax, the two-headed giant of Drake’s Woods. About Maladar Wyyn who battled for four days against the Tentys Minotaur, and how she eventually overcame the beast and fashioned a helm from its skull. He spoke with especial wonder about the immortal devastation that lived just east of the Shattersky. The beast of Ulgbrook. In legend the beast was once a statue, made by unknown hands and found by a band of treasure hunters deep in the Earthmaw forest, hanging from a thick alder, braced by vines and purple petals. The hunters cut the statue free with pecuniary intentions, and through some dread artistry, it awoke ravening. It hunted the forest by night, moving closer and closer to the wood's edge, toward the towns and villages that dotted the periphery.
It was the first wizard of Ulgbrook that drove the beast back, and trapped it with his life. Hundreds of years later, Salimar mused, here I stand. Breathing in the atmosphere of two decades of magical imprisonment. The legend made him feel bold, and he was emboldened still by the memory of his brother cantering off into the rising sun astride a white charger, his Gold Eagle armor flashing gay.
He recalled the letters his brother would send him as he climbed through the ranks of his knighthood. Some detailed his progress, warning Salamar of what he should expect once he enlisted. Others told of ribald merriment and camaraderie. Many more however were dispatches from the front. About fighting on the shores of strange lands across the Grey Sea. The final letter was congratulatory, praising his young brother on his induction in the noble knighthood. The letter also told of Llassamir’s return to the continent, and his plan to confront and kill the beast of Ulgbrook. He signed off with a promise: a round of ale upon his return.
The sweet smell of the purple pitcher-like flowers brought to Vail a memory of the breeze wafting off the field of tall yellow grass outside the Golden Eagle outpost. Of sitting atop the watchtower, reading his brother’s letters. So vivid was the pride he felt reflected in memory that he almost didn’t notice the pinch in his neck. His first thought was that of the hungry kiss of a insect, and focused on the cave instead. Then his shoulder spasmed and a deep ache rippled through his shield arm. His knees locked and he staunched a cry as a shooting pain rode his neck, arm and shoulders. So intense that he nearly struck his own nape with the naked blade in his hand.
Vail stabbed the sword into the ground, crouched defensively behind his shield, and raised a hand to his neck. He held back another cry as he plucked a long stinger from his skin. It was an opalescent purple needle, hollow, nearly as long as a finger.
His neck muscles went numb and his mind raced to figure out what was happening, an instant later he heard a quick rasp and a pop and felt another pinch in his upper arm, another needle, having slid effortlessly between the links in his armor, stuck out from his skin. He whirled his shield around, attempting to defend against unseen enemies. Another rasp and pop and this time he saw a flash of violet, he angled his shield to protect his face and heard a light ting as something bounced off of the hammered steel. It was another stinger.
He pulled his blade from the ground and backed toward the cave, watching, astonished, as one of the pitcher-like flowers tracked his movement. In a puff of pollen from its throat, it ejected a needle-like stamen at him. It plunked off his shield. Dizzy and confused Vail continued backwards. After they shot their stingers at him, the flowers turned back toward the Sunwall.
Gone was the wry pride that had welled within him as he thought about avenging his brother, in it's place rose a mounting dread. To his back, the open maw of the cave and certain death, in front of him, the venom of strange flowers.
With his choice of death, Vail stepped backward toward the cool shadows of the cave.
© 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)