An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

The First Shadow Carvesh

By the time he had herded the last of the surviving cattle back in the corral, Carvesh’s entire body ached with exhaustion, and it was still several hours before he would be able to back home to Ayna and the children. There were still too many questions to be answered. What had spooked the animals in the first place, driving them to break violently out of the corral? More importantly, who or what had slaughtered three of his strongest bulls?

Carvesh shuddered as he looked across the field, where one of the fallen creatures lay, its flesh torn to bloody ribbons. He knew all too well the effects of a wolf pack that caught a stray calf or cow, but he had never seen them take down a full grown bull, and certainly not with such sheer violence. As far as he could tell, the killer had not even stopped to consume any of the meat.

“Found another one,” grumbled Trent the head farmhand, who was making his way back towards the corral. Carvesh had hired the thin southerner several years ago, and despite the fact that his decision had been strongly influenced by a nostalgic longing for his lost homeland, he had never regretted it. Trent was a hard worker with a keen eye, a sharp mind and enough respect to not give voice to whatever truth he suspected about the blonde-haired man who had come to work the land on the slopes of the Stonewall.

“Where?” asked Carvesh, retrieving his sword.

“Down by the Great Oak. Sorry boss. He was torn up real bad, but I think it was probably Nighthorn.”

Carvesh swore. Nighthorn had been his prize bull, young and strong and bound to fetch a good price at the upcoming Herding. “What did this?”

“Can’t say. All I know for certain is what didn’t do it. No wolf or coyote kills like this. Doesn’t fit their hunting patterns. A big bear might have enough in him to gut one bull, but not four, and not like this.”

“What about a rockcat?”

“Maybe. Don’t know much about the creatures from the Stonewall, but I’ve never heard of anyone talk of a rockcat big enough to do this. Quite frankly, I’ve never heard of anything that could do this, at least nothing I’d believe in. Ferron’d probably have something to say though.”

“Ferron’s crazy.”

“If anyone’d tried telling me what we’ve seen tonight, I’d probably say the same thing about them.”

“Fair enough. But all Ferron ever talks about is dragons and other folklore and…” Carvesh broke off, catching sight of something darting from one shadow to the next. “Did you see that?”

“No,” replied Trent in a low hush, “but I heard it. Just for a moment there. Ash and Embers, there’s something foul in the air tonight.”

Carvesh certainly could not argue with that. Whatever he had seen was big—bigger than any other creature he had ever encountered—and it was fast. He had only caught a gimpse of it as it leapt through the night, but the shadows had seemed to move with it, like a covering of dense, black fog. There was a fresh chill in the air too, as though the frigid winds from the vast peaks of the Stonewall had suddenly found their way to his farm, cutting like a frosty knife through the thick heart of summer. Clad in only a lose linen shirt, Carvesh found himself shivering against the cold, and against something else, something far more intangible.

And far more terrible.

“Devilry,” hissed Trent, as though reading his employer’s mind.

“I’ve never believed in devils,” said Carvesh, though he was not certainy if he was responding to Trent or merely trying to convince himself.

“Doesn’t mean they don’t believe in you,” replied the farmhand with a momentary half-grin. Then his face went as rigid as stone and he hefted his spear, subtly prompting Carvesh to do the same with his own weapon. The shadows and the night had gone uncomfortably still. Straining both ears and eyes, he could hear nothing and see even less.

Then, in the mere blinking of a eye, the shadows exploded. There could be no other way to describe it. Tiny shards of darkness hurtled like insubstantial daggers in every direction, revealing a beast unlike anything Carvesh had ever seen. Larger than any of his bulls, the creature ran on four massive feet, each ending in long, blood-stained claws. Broad-plated scales darker than the darkest pitch covered both its massive body and oversized head, which was like the twisted imitation of a dog. The snout was too long though, as though stretched out simply to allow for more vicious teeth, and its colorless eyes were like balls of black glass.

The shadowbeast fell on Trent, snapping its powerful jaws around one arm as it pushed him onto his back. The farmhand’s screams tore through the night, even as the creature’s teeth tore through his flesh. He struck once with his spear, but the iron head just bounced off the hard, black scales.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, Carvesh knew that he should have been horrified, that terror should be overtaking him. Instead, he found himself reacting, falling back on years of drilled swordcraft and drawing on some latent instinct buried deep within him. He raised his sword and, with all the strength he could muster from his exhausted body, he drove the blade forward with a single, focused thrust.

Somehow, it struck true.

The razor sharp tip pierced the creature’s left eye, pressing into the deepest part of its skull. On any normal beast, the blow would be instantly fatal. Carvesh had no idea what would happen here. Could mortal iron truly slay a devil?

The answer, it seemed, was yes. At least it could slay this beast, because its jaw slackened and its body went limp. It fell to one side, dragging Trent with it, and slowly started to shrink, as though it were somehow deflating. When it has reached about half of its original size, the shriveling body completely imploded. One moment it was there, and the next it was gone, leaving only a dissipating shadow and a small residue of black ash.

“Trent!” cried Carvesh, rushing to the farmhand’s side.

“I’m alive,” he groaned. “May never use the arm again, but I’m alive. By the Nine, what was that thing?”

“I don’t know,” replied Carvesh, pulling off his shirt and tearing it into long strips, which he quickly started to use as makeshift bandages. Somehow he needed to slow the bleeding enough to get the wounded man to Kervale. There was a cleric there, a Flameborn woman with the talent to heal. “But after we fix you up, I’m going to find out.”

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