An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

The Shadow Deepens Carvesh

“Do it again?” stammered Carvesh in response to Quelana’s question. “By the Nine, woman, it was horrible enough the first time. I’ve been praying all day that I would never have to do anything like that again.”

“We may not have that luxury,” relied the healer.

“Why do you say that?” asked Gregor.

“While I’m still having trouble accepting some of the specifics of Carvesh’s tale, it’s clear that he encountered something, something that nobody in Kervale had ever seen before last night. But something’s not adding up here. When did you and Trent arrive at my doorstep this morning? Two hours before dawn?”

“That sounds about right,” replied Carvesh.

“And what time were you attacked?”

“I think it was around third hour. Maybe a bit earlier.”

The healer nodded thoughtfully. “That would have been my guess too, based on what I saw from Trent’s wounds.”

“You can judge the passage of time that way?” asked the Mayor. “Is that one of your Flameborn talents?”

“Not at all. It’s purely physiological. The signs are somewhat different between the living and the dead, but it’s possible either way. Judging from what we just saw, the people here were killed several hours after the attack on Trent.”

“And after I killed the beast,” said Carvesh. He felt the hair of his arms stand on end as the cold fear of understanding began to creep through his veins.

“Precisely. Which means that, unless these things can regenerate, all of this was done by a different creature. Or possibly several.”

“The Nine protect us,” muttered Gregor. He ran one hand nervously through his thinning hair. “You think there may have been more than one?”

Quelana nodded gravely. “The extent of the wounds is severe and the violence was all contained to the main living area, suggesting that the entire thing happened very quickly. I can’t imagine that any creature, no matter how large, could cause that much death so quickly. If it had been alone somebody would have had the chance to run. They may not have survived, but at least they would have made it out of the house.”

“What about Dane? He got away.”

“I’ve been trying to puzzle that out. He was covered in blood, but there wasn’t a scratch on him. And, while he’s clearly showing the signs of having witnessed some terrible violence, there doesn’t seem to be anywhere he could have hidden. It’s almost as though the creature overlooked him.”

“He’s the youngest,” offered the Mayor. “Maybe it didn’t see him as a threat. Or maybe he escaped and came back later.”

“Perhaps,” replied Quelana. She did not sound convinced. “Either way, if there are more of these things roaming around, everybody in this region could be in danger. I’m afraid that others could share this same fate.”

“I agree. But what can be done?” asked Gregor.

“Bring everyone into the village itself,” suggested Carvesh. “We can work to fortify it, post guards and build plenty of watchfires. The beast I saw seemed to be staying in the deepest shadows. Maybe they’re afraid of the light.”

The Mayor shook his head. “You’re thinking like…” Whatever he was about to say, he quickly caught himself. “Like a soldier. People around here won’t be too keen on leaving their farms, herds and flocks. It’s their livelihood, and they won’t abandon it lightly.”

“I feel the same way, but I’d give up every acre of land and every head of cattle if it meant keeping Anya, Jayne and Alek safe. Hendrick would have done the same. Fields can be replanted and new livestock can be bought. You can never replace the ones you love.” Even as he spoke the words, he felt the bitter sting of old, painful memories.

“That’s the truth.” There was a gleam of sorrowful pity in Gregor’s eyes as he spoke. “But what can be done tonight? There’s only a few hours left until sundown. We can’t possibly hope to get everyone into the village, much less fortify it. Better to send out runners. Warn everyone to lock their doors tightly.”

Carvesh was about to point out how Hendrick’s own, heavy wooden door had been smashed to splinters, but was cut off by the appearance of a horse running hard towards them. Mounted on its back was Jadoc Felkenson, one of the men that Gregor had chosen to accompany them up to the farm. He and Madik the hunter had left to check on Hendrick’s livestock.

Jadoc reigned in quickly, forcing his will on the skittish mount through the sheer power of his arms. He was a big man, taller even than Carvesh and thick with muscle gained through his long years of heavy lifting as a hired farmhand. His sleeveless, woollen tunic revealed the definition of his blocky arms and shoulders, a trait which matched the angular line of his jaw and the sharpness of his nose. In these warm summer months, he kept both his beard and fine, auburn hair cropped short.

“Mayor,” he said respectfully as he slipped down off his horse. “We’ve been down to the barns and fields, but I’m thinking you won’t believe what I have to tell you.”

“Try me,” replied Gregor, casting a quick glance at Carvesh. The village leader had already seen a great deal more than he would have ever expected when he opened his eyes that morning.

“It’s like a butcher’s shop gone completely mad. There’re dozens of dead cattle, all slaughtered in bloody gruesome ways. Some were torn up so bad that they were almost unrecognizable. But here’s the strange thing. From what we could tell—and Madik has a better eye for this sort of thing than me—only the bulls were killed. The cows are all frightened by the death and blood of course, but otherwise they’re unharmed.”

“Come to think of it, that’s how it was at my farm too,” said Carvesh. “Lost a handful of my best bulls, but not a single cow. Hadn’t given it much thought though.”

“That’s odd,” said Quelana thoughtfully. “Normally a predator would pick off  the weak and vulnerable, not the biggest and the strongest. And why would they just leave the cows?”

“That’s not all it left either,” said Jadoc. “Hendrick had a small flock of sheep and a few horses. None of them seem to have been killed either. Madik said it’s like the bulls were targeted.”

“Then why would it have killed the Rasmas family?” countered Carvesh. “What would motivate these creatures to kill bulls and humans but leave everything else untouched?” He knew they were missing something, some important but unseen part of this nightmare that was unfolding around them. They desperately needed more information. What was it that his Mesinian tutors had always said? In conflict, knowledge is like iron. It can be forged into a shield to defend or a blade to attack; the very wise do both. It was an ancient proverb that had been drilled into his mind over and over again. Yet, as he remembered it, the first seeds of a plan began to germinate in his mind.

“Jadoc,” he said, “where’s Madik?”

“Still down at the barn, looking around.”

“Good. I’ll need to talk with him. I have an idea, but I think I might need his help.”

“What kind of idea?”

“I still have a few strong bulls left in my herd. If it’s bulls these creatures want, then its bulls we’ll give them.”

“Like some sort of a sacrificial tribute?” asked Gregor skeptically.

“No. More like an invitation.”

“To what?”

“Into a trap,” said Quelana with a knowing smile.

“Exactly,” continued Carvesh. “We’ll lure them, snare them and when we have them, we’ll make sure that what happened here never happens again. Let’s get moving. We have work to do.”

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