The Lone Swordsman Carvesh
Carvesh could do nothing but stare in transfixed horror as the half-dozen surviving shadowbeasts closed in on the lone swordsman. By the Nine, what’s he doing? They’ll tear him to bloody shreds. The stranger’s movements were unbearably slow, like someone stretching out their muscles after waking from a prolonged slumber. He was raising his blade, but the creatures were closing too quickly. He won’t even have the chance to defend himself. Then, as the first beast launched itself through the air, the stranger lashed out, striking his target with shocking speed—and all the thunderous force of rockslide. The shadowbeast did not simply dissolve.
“The Guardian protect us,” stammered Carvesh. He heard Madik let out a low whistle.
With another powerful stroke, the stranger quickly dispatched a second shadowbeast. He then drove back a third with the broad face of his shield. He spun to his right, side-stepping a particularly vicious swipe before literally cleaving another attacker in two.
His fortunes did not last. A moment later, the largest of the remaining beasts leapt upon the swordsman’s back. He fell into a deep crouch, then vaulted forward, rolling along the ground. Using its immense strength, the creature maintained its hold. Carvesh was certain that the big man was doomed, but somehow he managed to heft his blade and drive it deep into the beast’s exposed underbelly. The blow struck with such force that it pinned the creature to the ground, where it continued to writhe and thrash until it finally dissolved into dust.
Though bereft of his blade, the stranger did not pause for a moment. He leapt to his feet, drew both axes from his back and rushed the two remaining shadowbeasts in a whirlwind of iron and death. If the creatures understood their danger, they showed no sign of it, renewing their own fierce assuault. Each of them shattered against the sheer violence of the stranger’s onslaught.
A deep hush fell over the night, broken only by the hiss and snap of the still-burning fires. Slowly and methodically, the swordsman surveyed the area, as though assuring himself that all of the shadowbeasts had truly been dispatched. When he seemed fully satisfied, he retrieved his sword—its blade was still buried deep into the ground, surrounded by a pile of black dust. He returned his axes to the strapping on his back and turned to leave.
“Wait!” shouted Carvesh. The stranger paused, turning his still-cowled head back towards the Great Oak. Carvesh was already making his way down, slipping from branch to branch until he felt it was safe enough to simply drop to the ground. At first, he ran with reckless haste, slowing his pace only as he drew close enough to recognize just how large the stranger really was. “I just… I just wanted to say thank you.”
The cowled head cocked questioningly to one side.
“The shadowbeasts,” Carvesh explained. He spoke slowly, unsure as to whether or not his words were being understood. He was not sure that the stranger was even human, for he had never met anyone who came even close to matching the swordsman’s stature. “If you hadn’t arrived, they would surely have killed us. So, thank you.”
“You are welcome,” replied the stranger. His voice was deep—far deeper than any Carvesh had ever heard before. Each word sounded more growled than spoken, and carried with it a strange inflection, as though his tongue was stuck somewhere in the back of his throat.
“You fought bravely,” Carvesh said, testing and probing in an effort to learn whatever he could about this stranger and his intentions. He had no idea what he would do with what he learned; he simply had the sense that this was an encounter of tremendous importance. When no reply appeared to be forthcoming, he continued cautiously. “These shadowbeasts…You seem familiar with them, as though you’ve fought them before.”
“What are they? We had never seen them before last night.”
“They are the forerunners, sometimes called Those that Come Before.”
“I would speak more freely if your man did not have an arrow trained upon my heart.”
Carvesh looked back over his shoulder. Madik and Jadoc had both descended from the tree and stood a dozen paces back. The hunter had his bow drawn tight, with both his unwavering arrow and his steely eyes fixed squarely on the stranger. “Madik, if you please.” The hunter lowered the head of his arrow toward the ground, but he did not relax the bowstring. If it proved necessary, he could still loose the arrow faster than the swordsman could close the distance between Carvesh and himself.
The stranger grunted. “Good enough—though you need fear nothing from me. I have no interest in killing humans.”
“Then you are not human yourself?”
“No. I am a Guardian.”
“A guardian of what?”
“Of the mountains known to you as the Stonewall. You ask about the jychra—these things you called shadowbeasts. They are the first wave, those who, by the sheer force of their numbers, have managed to cross into your lands from the wastes to the east.”
“What do you mean, the first wave?”
“There is a shadow growing, a darkness we simply call the Remnant, for it is no longer worthy of its true name. For centuries, my people have kept it at bay, but in recent years it has grown stronger. The jychra, and other such abominations, have multiplied. I am the last of my tribe. We were destroyed defending the Pass of Kharil.”
“So these things come from beyond the Stonewall?”
“I’d always thought it was impassable.”
“It very nearly is, but there are a handful of secret paths, each guarded by a different tribe. Until very recently, none of those paths had ever been breached.”
“But now they have? Ashes and embers. How many of those things are there?”
“At the moment? Hundreds. But more are making the crossing every night.”
Carvesh felt the cold rush of fear spreading through his body. Hundreds? How can we ever hope to defend against so many? We were nearly killed tonight. It was impossible. Even if every man, woman and child in Kervale lent their backs to the effort, they could not hope to fortify the town against so many. Only high walls of thick stone, like those found at Sharenden, could ever hope to withstand such numbers. Could they run to those protective walls? Lord Carwell was known to be a good and honest man—the sort of rare lord who genuinely cared for the well-being of his people—but his fortress was more than fifty miles to the southwest. It was a difficult journey at the best of times.
“And if they keep coming?” asked Madik, drawing Carvesh’s attention back to the present moment. “How many then?”
“They’re numbers have never been counted,” responded the stranger. “But if they come in full, the Remnant’s boundless hordes will surely spread across these lands like a tide of death and shadow.”
“What can we possibly hope to do against such numbers?” asked Carvesh.
For a long moment, the stranger said nothing. Instead, he silently regarded each of the men standing before him. When he did finally speak again, his words were clearly directed at Carvesh. “What is your name, human?”
“I am called Carvesh.” He would say no more than that. The name of his family had long been lost to him, and he had not bothered to take another.
“Then tell me, Carvesh of the Oak, do you have young?”
“You mean children? Yes. I have a son and a daughter.”
“And what would you do if they were threatened?”
“I would do everything in my power to protect them, of course.”
“Then you must do nothing less against the jychra and the Remnant, for I tell you this truly—they do threaten your young ones, just as they threaten every creature on this side of the Stonewall. But as you can plainly see, they are not invincible. My people have spent generations fighting this shadow. We have learned its weaknesses. It may come to pass that I will teach you these things, Carvesh of the Oak.”
“But it may not?”
“I will be watching you, I think. If you prove yourself worthy, I will share with you what I know. For now, retire to your beds, humans. The jychra will not bother you again this night. You have my word.” Abruptly, the stranger turned and began to walk away from the farm, back in the direction of the shadowy Stonewall.
“And what should we call you?” Carvesh cried after him.
The lone swordsman paused once more. He did not turn. He did not even look back over his shoulder. “My name is Taarumachk.”
With that, he silently vanished into the night.