An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

The Urophex Kelven

Kelven failed to notice the petrified branch until it was far too late. Even as his boot caught beneath it, his own forward momentum sent him tumbling over, falling hard against the ground. The impact was jarring. Jagged stones drove into the flesh of his shoulder and he tasted a sudden eruption of warm blood. Dazed, he tried to push himself to his feet, but his head was spinning and he stumbled again. By then it was too late.

The Urophex had seen him fall, and like a true predator, it could sense his vulnerability.

Despite having changed course to pursue the strange deer-like creature, it now turned all of its terrible attention on him. By the time Kelven began to regain his senses, it had already closed the short distance he had been able to gain. When his vision was sufficiently cleared, he found himself looking up into eight glassy and pitiless red eyes that regarded him with the same casual interest that he might give a grape before popping it into his mouth. The creature moved one of its legs towards Kelven, as if to pin him down.

Desperately, he rolled to one side, narrowly avoiding the crushing appendage and drawing an irritated hiss from the beast. He scampered to his feet, fumbling for his old knife. It had already provided him with one impossible miracle against the Prince. All he could do now was hope for another, though he could not even begin to imagine what a simple iron blade could do against such a monstrosity. The prince had been a monster in his own right, but he had also been human, bound by all the associated frailties of simple flesh and bone.

This monster was far bigger and far better protected. No thrust, no matter how lucky, could ever hope to pierce its heart.

Oddly, he found himself wondering what the Prince would have done in this same situation. Jayslen had been known as a powerful Flameborn. Some even claimed that he was unrivaled by anyone except his own mother. If had still been alive to claim the Winged Throne, he might have surpassed even her legendary ability. What would he have done? What kind of Flameborn power would the fallen Prince have brought against a monster like the Urophex?

Kelven did not have time to contemplate the question. The creature lashed out with one of its great legs, sending his helpless body crashing into a nearby tree. Coughing, he tasted more blood, along with the rancid sourness of his own bile. Ashes and embers, this is it, he thought, scratching absently at the itching manacle. If I don’t get up it’s going to kill me. With one last effort, he clambered to his knees and threw his knife at the creature’s face.

The weapon spun blade over hilt through the air. Wobbling awkwardly, it had none of the elegant grace that Kelven had seen from the master knife throwers that travelled with his uncle’s troupe, dazzling onlookers with their daring and accuracy. Still, Kelven had picked up a trick or two over the years, and managed to put more force into the throw than he had expected. When it struck, the iron blade bit deeply into the exposed flesh beneath one of the creature’s eyes, drawing a line of fresh blood and a startled shriek. The Urophex took a hesitant step backward, shaking its head against the unexpected pain.

Before Kelven knew what was happening, the strange looking deer was beside him, bending one knee as though to help him up. Desperate for whatever help he could find, he reached out, wrapped his arm around the animal’s strong neck and allowed it to pull him to his feet. He stumbled several steps, still struggling for breath. His entire body ached, and his side burned with the pain of at least one broken rib. The muscle in his right arm had gone entirely numb, except for his wrist, where he could feel the cold iron of the manacle chafing against his skin. The thought struck him as strange. Why was he paying so much attention to the cursed thing at a moment like this? Disgusted with himself, he fought to push all thoughts of it from his mind.

“Hurry,” the deer-creature said, bending even lower. “Get on.” Kelven could only nod, reaching weakly over its back as he tried to pull himself up. But it was too late. The Urophex had recovered from the shock of its wound and lashed out again, striking both man and beast with one powerful blow. A fresh explosion of agony ripped through Kelven’s entire body and for one, brief moment, the entire world went mercifully dark.

When he come to his senses again, he was lying on the cold, lifeless ground, with the great bulk of the Urophex looming over him once more. Strange, indigo blood still dripped like ink from the laceration beneath its emotionless, red eye. Kelven’s mind screamed at him to get up again—to do anything else was certain death—but his body refused to comply. Battered and beaten, he could do nothing but lay where he had fallen and offer up a simple prayer.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, to his sister, to his mother, and even to the Prince he had murdered in self-defence. He said it also to the Nine, with the reverent absolution of one who had already accepted his fate. There could be no escape, no more miracles.

Death was coming, and coming swiftly.

As if to emphasize that very thought, one large, hooked foot pressed down on Kelven’s chest, crushing the remaining air from his burning lungs. Slowly, the Urophex lowered its head toward him, rancid, yellow venom coating each of its manacles. Disgusted and terrified, Kelven’s last desperate act was to raise one hand in a vain effort to protect himself. Almost immediately, that hand began to burn and a searing heat raced down his arm, spreading through his body like fire in his veins. He screamed against the pain, unable to think of anything else for that one terrible moment. It was only when he felt the pressure on his chest release and heard the Urophex shriek in terror that he realized that he had not been bitten.

Then all the world went horribly white.

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