An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

A Fevered Dream Kelven

Kelven fled down the long, straight path that cut through an otherwise dense crush of shadowy trees that rose over him like many-armed Titans. Though they seemed entirely motionless, he could feel them pressing over him as he ran. Behind him came the pursuer. It’s massive bulk thundered after him, but every time he looked back it was just beyond the range of his version, lurking within the shifting, shadowy mist.

It’s a Changeling, he told himself.

It had to be. One moment, it would be massive and dark, a great spider-like shadow that seemed familiar, but which Kelven could not quite place. The next it would have the shape of a man, tall and bearded; or sometimes the shape of a woman, with long strands of golden hair weaving through the fabric of the darkness. As far as Kelven knew, only a Changeling could shift forms so readily, or perhaps some of the Fey, but they were locked away behind them Shimmering. Aren’t they? And this was the Fellwood. Isn’t it?

Somehow, he could not be certain. His head felt heavy and clouded. He was having trouble keeping his mind focused on any one particular thought.

Eventually, the unchanging corridor of trees was broken by something long and metallic lying on the ground. As he approached, he recognized it as a sword—and not just any sword. The wing-shaped ornament of the crossbar clearly marked it as a weapon of the Winged Guard. He found himself wondering what a sword belonging to the Queen’s personal soldiers would be doing here, but he quickly pushed the thought from his mind. A sword was a sword, and at the moment, he was badly in need of a weapon.

He bent low, even as he continued to run, closing his fingers around the hilt. As he lifted the weapon from the ground, it felt completely comfortable in his hand, like an old familiar friend. He spun the blade in a grand flourish, testing its weight and balance. They were so perfect that he knew he would unleash terrible destruction on any foe unlucky enough to approach him. For some reason, that stuck him as odd, but he could not tell why. All that mattered was that he was armed now, able to defend himself against the pursuing darkness.

He turned his gaze back over his shoulder again. Though it did not appear to have gained on him, it was still close, still pressing forward. Kelven thought he could see the small shapes of fairies and goblins and other Fey creatures. Whatever they were, they all had red eyes, glowing like flecks of blood within the shadows.

Somehow, he made himself run harder, moving faster than he ever though possible. Beneath him, his legs became a blur to his eyes.

Abruptly, an old woman appeared, as though out of the very air. Stooped and hunched, her face was as weathered and cracked as the arid ground of the Thergal Desert. The sockets of her eyes were entirely vacant, oozing with some golden, bubbling ichor. When she opened her mouth, as though to scream, her tongue was a scorpion’s tail, complete with one long, venomous barb. Without hesitation, Kelven slashed at the hag. His blade struck, cutting her in half, and quickly reducing her to dust and ash.

Unfazed, he just kept running and running and running. It seemed as though he would never stop running. There was no end to the corridor of trees; it went on and on, fading into the distance. There was no going back either. The darkness was there. If it caught him, it would destroy him. He did not know how how or why; he only knew it to be true.

So he kept running, clutching the sword fiercely in his hand.

As his mind focused on the weapon, he glanced down and was startled to see that it was beginning to melt. Drops of iron were running down the blade and over his hand. He expected it to be hot—molten metal was always hot, was it not? Instead, it felt as cold as ice. Soon the sword bore only a vague resemblance to its former shape. His hand was covered and the iron itself began to twist and swirl around his wrist. It was becoming solid again. Within moments, the sword was completely gone.

It had transformed into a manacle.

Kelven recognized the cursed object and its amber stones. Where had those come from? It was a trick of the darkness. Somehow, it has placed the sword there for him to find and now he was bound. There was no escape. No matter how fast he ran, no matter how far he went, it would always stalk him, always find him and always catch him. His fate was sealed. Death was coming. A shadow loomed.

All he could hope for was a quick ending. Oh blessed Nine, have mercy. Let it be fast. Let it be painless. Let it be…

He was so wrapped up in his own fears and uncertainties that he did not see the old man laying in the middle of the forest path. Though he tripped over the stranger and went tumbling to the ground, he allowed his own momentum to carry him forward. Kelven could not have said where the man came from or what he was doing there. It did not matter. Rolling to his feet, he prepared to face this new danger, only to remember that his sword was gone now, transformed into the hated thing bound around his wrist.

“Ashes and embers,” the old man wheezed. “That hurt.”

“Who are you?” Kelven demanded. When the other man raised his amber-coloured eyes, there was a strange look there, as though he was surprised by what he saw. He had a long, silvery beard and short cropped hair to match. Clad in a simple but elegant grey robe, he looked more like a scholar than an enemy. But Kelven would not be fooled again! He saw no sign of the darkness now, but he knew it lurked nearby. This old man must be just another trick, a ploy to capture him and spirit him away, just as it had done to her. The darkness had taken her too, taken the girl who was so important to him.

But who was she? Why did he care? Why can’t I remember?

“Answer me!” Kelven screamed. Suddenly, he felt his hand tingling, as though pierced with a thousand tiny pins. He looked down to find his clutched fist awash in a glowing white nimbus. Thin tendrils of silvery flame dancing around his hand like eels through the waters. Strangely, he was more surprised at his own calm than by what he saw there. This was normal. This was right.

This was power, and he would use it to defend himself. Smiling in grim satisfaction, he raised his hand. Yes, he would burn the old man of the darkness to ash.

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