Vail’s leap propelled him through the air and the dense forest around him thinned drastically, as if shrinking back from the spellwall shimmering dangerously a few feet away. He felt an incredible lightness for a second, as if his heavy shield and deadly weapons had evaporated, then gravity dragged him and his heavy equipment into a downward arc, an ineradicable reminder of his mortality. Before the pull got too strong, Vail tensed, and pitched to the left, angling toward a stout tree and its many branches. Catching hold of one easily, he let his momentum carry him higher, ascending ape-like by springing from branch to branch. He stopped when the thinner branches shuddered and bent with his weight. When he was steadied, he unclipped a small metal hook from his belt, spooled a thin braided line from a pouch at his side and tied the rope to the hook. He admired the workmanship of the grapple and line, the metal was heat-forged steel, yet delicately lined with intricate scroll-work. There were many such wonders on sale at the bazaar at Sung, that dusty southern marketplace he made certain to travel through on his way to Ulgbrook.
Vail let the hook’s weight draw the line down as he unspooled its slack. When he was happy with the length, he whipped it around once, twice, then let it fly toward the sunwall. His skillful hands, careful not to interrupt its momentum, guided the speeding line as it slipped from his pouch. When the grapple hit the spellwall it sparked, and with a crackling report it caromed off the magical barrier, sailing high, ripping through leaves and snapping small branches in half. The line lost momentum quickly, and dropped, but didn’t fall far. A cluster of tree branches high above where Vail stood caught the hook and line. High up near the top of the forest, where the topmost branches stretched pleading for the light of the sun. Vail stood slowly, making sure his stance was firm, and steadied his grip upon the line. With a swift tug he dragged the grapple down violently, causing it to shred weaker limbs, until it embedded itself into a stout crook.
Satisfied with the anchor, Vail launched his body directly at the spellwall, holding tight to the grapple line. He knew that if he miscalculated, even slightly, and he smashed into the wall, he’d be incinerated. Not instantly either; his clothes would burst into flames, any metal on his body would be repulsed violently, blasting him off into the forest. He would fall for a long time, cloaked in magical fire, suffocating, burning alive. He stayed focused as the wall drew near and just as he could feel the arcane pulse of heat, the line reached its full length and jerked taut.
Vail swung upward by the weight of his own body and the second he hit the apex of his swing he released his hold on the line, locked his legs and abdominal muscles tight, and twisted so that his feet pointed at the very top of the spellwall, hundreds of feet above the ground. If the old man was wrong about the opening at the top of the wall, Vail thought to himself, this was going to be a very painful demise.
Vail shut his eyes and coughed as he breathed in the dust from the book and the tabletop. The wizard grinned with a mouth full of yellow teeth.
“There have been many who have tried to kill the beast. It is the charge of the Wizard of Ulgbrook to keep the Sunwall powered. The sun’s light is the only thing that keeps the monster at bay. I have held the wall for twenty five years, powering its life with my own.” Vail studied the old man’s face; craggy, spotted with age and deep creases; the map of a long life.
“How old are you, master wizard?”
Another foul guffaw from the lungs of the old sage and his voice filled with venom.
“I have but forty-four years.”
Vail staggered at that, and all at once he realized the sacrifice made by the Wizard of Ulgbrook. The man before him just one in a line of magical champions who quite literally spent their lives to pen in a creature of destruction. A short life in defiance of a monster. Vail thought of them as kindred. He could release them of their duty. All he needed was to be willing to gamble his life.
He looked at the little girl, the next Wizard of Ulgbrook, and wondered how long she would meditate upon the spell wall. He imagined her at eighteen, young and vital, vibrant with magical energy. At twenty; already starting to grey. At thirty; hunched and lean. A crone at forty, training the next in line. Still staring at the young girl, who stared blank eyed back at him, Vail declared,
“I will kill this beast for you.” He turned and faced the wizard. “I will repay your stolen life in pain. I will enact humanity’s revenge.”
And the wizard laughed.
Time moved slowly for Vail as he shot upward like an arrow loosed from a bow, just like when in battle, his mind had time to pick out all manner of small details. The way the night sky became dulled as it hung above the summoned perimeter of light. The way the trees stood in a line around the valley, reverential. The way shining insects darted around him, their quick wings catching the glow from the magical wall. Everything else faded as he felt the heat of the spellwall grow intense and he could see the opening, just over the curved edge of the wall. There was a wide open space beyond.
The old man had spoken true, the wall was just that, not a dome as many thought, and Vail was nearly over it. But the wry victory that began to crawl across his face melted instantly when he realized his slight miscalculation. He hadn’t accounted for the curve at the top of the wall. He wouldn’t clear it completely and as he passed over it he jammed his cloak-wrapped forearm down into the scintillating wall, in an attempt to deflect his body away from it. There was a sizzling pop and a softness he hadn’t expected, but it worked. He cleared the wall, up and over, safely. His cloak however, caught fire.
Vail slung his arm out as he fell, unraveling the flaming cloak from around it, and with his other hand, unhooked the clasp at his neck to set the mantle free. Once released it fluttered lazily away from him, a wounded phoenix attempting to burn itself to ash before it hit the ground. Vail couldn’t appreciate the poetry of it with a wall of energy at his back and no option save kill or be killed. He grabbed a second hook, this one already tied to a line, and cast it toward the nearest tree.
The old man’s expression dropped. He cocked his head to the side and repeated the word again, expelling it as if it were a curse. “We have no need of revenge. This is a life we have chosen.”
Vail gazed into the wizard’s milk white eyes and caught his own reflection in them. He was haggard from many days travel, haggard and dark.
“Not only for you. I seek to avenge my brother. A Blue Tunic Knight of the Gold Eagle, Llassamir Vail. He set off ten years ago to this very place, to slay the beast. He never returned.”
The old man’s eyes narrowed.
“Llassamir? A Gold Eagle?”
He searched his memories as shadows played across his prematurely aged skin. “I do not recall a Gold Eagle coming to me, of course not everyone does. He may have burned to ash on the wall. Or have been torn to pieces by the beast.”
“I am certain he found a way through. He was clever and brave. I am certain he engaged the creature in combat. He was a clever warrior, and a decorated solider. He did not come back, I know what that may mean, but I must see for myself. Tell me how to best the wall.”
He got the line attached, swung wildly, and for a moment came very near to crashing directly into the wall. He was able to negotiate the slack and guide his fall. He spied full grass below, a few gnarled and blackened tree stumps nearer to the cave and dots of violet pitcher shaped flowers. Satisfaction caused him to let go of the line a bit early and, as he landed hard in the grass, he felt a painful tear in his ankle. Vail rolled to absorb the impact and came out of the roll in a low crouch facing the darkness that stood in the cave, despite the mystic light surrounding it. Vail winced as he tested his ankle. It wasn’t a broken bone; it wasn’t a torn muscle, so it was temporary. He surveyed the area; it was bright as noon here behind the spellwall. According to all legends, and affirmed by the wizard, he creature couldn’t come out into the light. The wall of death was summoned to cage death of another kind, and Salamar Vail stood between the two.
© 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)