Lanric ducked, his heart racing even as his ear burned, scalded by the erupting steam suddenly hissing forth from a new crack. He turned around so as to avoid the next one spraying into his eyes. He was lucky… if you could call any part of his situation lucky.
Careful to keep his weight firmly on the lever he glanced nervously above him. Was it his imagination, or was the enormous stone wall bulging, the relentless pressure finally taking its toll? Certainly the searing steam now appeared in a dozen places or more.
“What am I doing here?” he asked himself. “I knew it was a bad idea to come.”
But it had been quiet for so long. They needed to be checked on, right? He had to be sure.
Now he was paying the price for his naivety. And if the wall burst it wouldn’t be only he who felt the consequences. The whole town in the valley below would suffer.
Lanric the brave. Lanric the hero. Lanric the eccentric. Lanric the weirdo. Of all the names he had been called through the years, only one came to his mind now, surely the truest of them all – Lanric the fool.
But maybe, just maybe, only he would die. The creatures on the other side of this barrier, trapped there for so long by a powerful magic, would wreak their havoc on Hustmill and its inhabitants. But they surely would not dwell there long. No, they would be free, and would quickly disperse to relish in their fresh liberation. Many in the town would escape the worst.
“Please,” he cried to a silent god above, “Please let them live.”
Aliara didn’t even know he had left her bedside, creeping out as he had during the early hours of the morning, before the first hint of light touched the eastern sky. He had to believe she would live. Still, droplets formed in the corners of his eyes for her. The life she would have to live raising their only child. Oh, it would be so, so hard.
But he steeled himself. Tears would divert his strength. And he needed every last ounce of his to delay the inevitable.
As if sensing his need to refocus on the task at hand, the wall suddenly burst above him, singeing his hair, its whistle calling for his attention. The lever budged under his weight, and he pushed harder.
“You will not get through!” he cried, tears now leaving their tracks through his grimy cheeks.
His chest sought to burst with the agony building through his body and mind. It was all his fault. It was he, Lanric, who had trapped these creatures here. And it was he who was unwittingly releasing them. Upon the town. Upon Aliara. Upon their child.
And what was worse is that these beasts so foul would soon know what he had never known. They would breathe in the cool air of the surrounding mountains and meadows. They would feel – in a way he hadn’t been able to in years. Since he was a child. Since the day his nightmare had begun.
A splinter of stone struck the wall twenty feet away, even as a new hiss of steam appeared somewhere above him. At the same time, he felt the force on the lever strengthen as it began to rattle beneath him.
A scream tore through the air, adding a new pain to his ears. He desperately fought the urge to release his hands from the lever; to block the sound from entering his head.
Lanric cried out as, instead, he pushed ever harder. Beads fell from his forehead into his eyes, while drops coursed down his neck. Was it sweat, or blood?
A new guilt swept over him, this time for something he hadn’t done. He knew how strong these monsters were. He had apprenticed himself to the smith precisely so he could build his muscles, protect others against the threat. These creatures only knew brute strength, and he had beaten them into this place so many years before. And then he had sacrificed so much to learn and use the one spell that would ensure they stayed here.
As the years passed, the hidden cave where he had trapped the creatures remained quiet. The magic warding them didn’t alert his mind to any movement. None. And so he dared to believe the foul beasts he had once trapped were no more.
Thinking he was safe, he relaxed; grew too casual. He left the smith for an easier life in the manor. And now he was paying the price.
“Aargh!!” he screamed, frustration and rage enriching his power.
More wails. Agony coursed through his ears and into his brain.
“Why did I come here?”
It had taken but one thought. One question.
And he had come. Unprepared. Weakened by years of neglect. Slowed by the march of time. Casual in his approach to the barrier. He had shown no respect for his greatest of foes.
And thus it was that Lanric the Fool undid the wards.
The rattling of the lever was persistent now, pushing upward with greater strength – a greater confidence – with each new push.
And Lanric knew his time had come. He could hold them back no longer. Staying – forcing hiss bulging muscles to do the impossible – could no longer save him. Even if he could hold the lever, the wall would soon burst.
Even running would buy him barely seconds – not long enough to escape the room, let alone the cave. The fastest man in Hustmill couldn’t outrun these monsters, and even in his youth Lanric wasn’t that fast.
But the mind plays strange tricks on a man when he believes himself trapped. And Lanric thought he spied a shadow against the far wall. Was it an alcove? Was it possible he could hide there?
Could Lanric even do that? While the beasts from this darkness tore through the town below. Where his wife, and child, slept.
* * *
In the small town of Hustmill, only the night watch were still alert to the world around them. Even the taverns were closed: the drunks, and the lonely, and the downcast long since fallen into slumber or unconsciousness.
But in the blackness of a cloudy night, not even they could see the enormous boulders hurled from the side of the mountain, or the dust spew forth as a raging torrent.
They did, however, hear the sounds. The explosion. The wind. The screams.
But none who lived that day would ever see or hear from poor Lanric again.
© Copyright 2017, Jeffrey Collyer