An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

A Litany of Horrors Tiberius

Even in the midst of the fever dream, Tiberius was exhausted. After narrowly escaping the madness in the tavern and the disaster with the dreaming man’s mother—who turned out to be a mostly inaccurate imagining of the Queen—he had found a brief reprieve from what would prove to be a long sequence of nightmarish vignettes. During the first of those peaceful moments, he found himself sitting in a wagon, beside the dreamer and another a man, an uncle by the name of Boras.

“She was the best I’d ever seen, Kelven” the uncle had said, finally providing Tiberius with the dreamer’s name. “There was not another singer like her in all the Realm. Your mother will be sorely missed, I think.”

Those comments had all but confirmed that the man’s mother really was dead. It was difficult to trust anything he heard in the dream, but the mother’s death had proven to be a common thread that wove itself in and out with an almost predictable regularity. Of the man’s father, however, there was almost no trace. He was mentioned only once or twice in passing. For Tiberius, that absence was a remarkable contrast to what he had experienced in Jayslen’s dream, so many years earlier. King Merek had been everywhere, most often in some twisted variation of the last time Jayslen had ever seen his father—hanging, lifeless, from the gallows.

In terms of other family, the man called Kelven did have at least one sister. It might have been more than one. The details were obscured, as though it was a subject his mind was determined to avoid. The dream would often take a dark, unexpected twist any time a sister was mentioned and she appeared only once—young and full of life until she had been brutally impaled on the horn of some twisted unicorn. Various other women also surfaced at different points throughout the dream, women that Kelven never named but seemed familiar with. They might have been childhood friends, former lovers or even pure fabrications.

The fever dream never stayed focused long enough for Tiberius to tell.

The only other person who appeared with any noticeable regularity was Jayslen. On those few occasions where Kelven recognized the Prince, he would either flee in terror or shout his defiance. More often than not, however, Jayslen would merely pass through or appear, unnoticed, amidst a crowd of people.

More prevalent than any one person, however, was the Auratorch itself. Unlike its former bearer, it was always present. Tiberius could sense its presence in a way that he never could in the waking world. On the few occasions where he dared to open his eyes, his gaze invariably fell upon it. For his part, the dreamer’s awareness of the Toruch was in a constant state of flux. Sometimes he would seem keenly aware of the relic, and respond to it with a wide range of emotion. When terrified, he would struggle to free himself from the burden. When angered, he would willingly—even hungrily—embrace its power, just as he had when Tiberius had first been pulled into the dream.

As they progressed from one nightmarish moment to the next, Kelven gradually began to recognize Tiberius, or at least become accustomed to his presence. At times, he even clung to sage—though rarely in the physical sense. Rather, Tiberius had become the only constant in a shifting litany of horrors. That was not to say that Kelven ever came to a point of trust. He was always wary and often curt, but at least he was no longer threatening to reduce Tiberius to a pile of smouldering ash. It was a small victory, but one which allowed Tiberius to provide much-needed instruction. During those rare moments of relative calm, Kelven would sometimes examine the Auratoruch curiously and even ask questions about it.

Tiberius did his best to answer.

“It allows its bearer to draw on more of the Flame than they could ever manage on their own,” the sage said at several times. Such instructions were spoken sporadically, delivered in fragments whenever he found a moment of peace in which the dreaming man seemed receptive. “Its bearer must always be Born of the Flame… If they’re not, it will force the Burning Fever… You’re experiencing that now… It must be used with extreme caution and restraint… It amplifies the power that is used… It could very easily kill you.”

Tiberius prayed that, somehow, those lessons would stick in Kelven’s mind. They might be the only things that would keep him alive.

Unfortunately, those precious moments of peace were both rare and fleeting. The fever dream itself was relentless in throwing them into nightmare after nightmare. First, there had been the arid dessert, where they were hunted by a pack of large carnivorous insects that Kelven had called scarabs. Sometime later, they had been stalked by the Queen’s gandjai through the streets of some nameless city and thrown into a dark dungeon, where Kelven had been strapped to a table and threatened with all forms of creative—and sometimes impossible—torture. For Tiberius, the worst of all had been those horrible moments when they seemed lost at sea, with great waves crashing down all around them. He had come close to losing all control then, when the dream had seemed so much like his own nightmares.

Most often, however, they would be back in the strange forest, stalked by the unknown darkness that haunted Kelven’s mind.

And so, when Tiberius finally snapped awake—meaning that dreaming man was also starting to stir from his own slumber—three thoughts passed through his weary mind. First, he strongly suspected that there was some crucial importance to the forest. It had appeared so many times, in so many variations, that it had to have some immediate and critical significance. Tiberius made a vague, mental note to investigate the matter further, and compile a listing of all the woods and forests within a reasonable proximity of Ronnex.

Second, he felt that he had passed on enough information about the Auratorch to give Kelven at least a slim chance of surviving until he could be found and given the necessary training.

Lastly, Tiberius decided not tell the Queen about the dream, at least not yet. She would not expect the Auratorch’s new bearer to bloom for at least several more weeks—Tiberius had told her as much himself. He would take that time to collect more information and determine his course of action. He had no desire to condemn the poor man to the Queen’s wrath.

As the third thought passed, like the last wisp of smoke from a freshly snuffed candle, the sage’s mind went blank and he fell back into his own, dreamless slumber.

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