An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

The Burden of the Flame Ki-Kala

Ki-Kala watched in fascination as the human leaned out over the pool’s clear, unmoving surface. Bent over the water, and demonstrating an inexplicable fascination with his own reflection, he looked very nearly as frightened as when he had been pinned beneath the Urophex’s foot. That struck her as strange, even by human standards. He was obviously shaken by the change he was seeing in himself, but surely that could not compare with the imminent possibility of his own death.

Could it?

It was difficult to know. Humans lived in the shadow of their own mortality, in a way that Ki-Kala could never hope to understand. From the very moment of their birth, they were hurtling towards it, living out their fragile lives under the weight of their own impending deaths. Who was she to say what would frighten a human, or what might be perceived as a threat?

Conversely, death was not a concern for the most of the Quilani. It was not that they could not die—the Sundering had proven that, coming at the cost of thousands of lives. Rather, Ki-Kala and her people simply were not bound by the rapid deterioration that was the curse of mortal flesh. For the wyran, death was little more than a distant possibility. She knew that it would come for her one day, but she had always believed that day to be far off. Even if it was not, had never seen any reason to obsess over its arrival, as so many humans seemed inclined to do.

Was that what was troubling Kelven now? Did he see his own death reflected in the waters, or in the gradual transformation of his eyes? Well, she thought, there’s only one way to know for sure. She would have to ask him. If she was going to rely on the human to help her find and rescue this girl who was his sister, she needed to trust him. In order to trust him, she needed to understand him.

Ki-Kala watched Kelven for several more moments before moving over to sit beside him. As gently and reassuringly as she could manage, she reached out and placed one hand on his shoulder. He was shaking, and even through his clothes she could still feel the fever burning within him.

“What is it?” she asked. It was an open question, one in which she hoped that he could find his own meaning. She kept her voice soft and quiet, the way she had seen dryads speak with some of the more skittish forest animals.

“I’m doomed,” he muttered, as though those simple words might explain it all.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“My eyes—the green you saw. No human is born with eyes that colour. It’s the mark of the Flameborn.”

“Yes,” she said. “I’ve seen it before. I don’t know much about it, except that the fire wielders have shown remarkable magical ability over the years.” She struggled to keep her tone calm and reassuring. Remarkable did not even begin to describe what she had seen such people do during the Sundering. Or what Kelven had done to the Urophex. “But what exactly does that mean—to be Flameborn?”

“It means to be in communion with the Flame…” He looked up, caught Ki-Kala’s eye and then trailed off, as though realizing that what must have seemed like a simple explanation to him would have no meaning for her. “You don’t know about the Flame, do you?” She shook her head. “Maybe I should start at the beginning…”

“That might be best.”

“The origins of the Flameborn stretch all the way back to the time of the Fey Wars… But I suppose you already know that much. As the story goes, we were fighting hard, but to little avail. General Terramore—in the time before he became King—was making use of every trick, maneuver and strategy he could imagine, but everyone knew it was only forestalling the inevitable. Sword and spear had as little effect against the Fey King and his armies as they might against the rising tide. Our people seemed destined for annihilation.”

That had never been the intention, thought Ki-Kala bitterly, though it seemed to have become an obsession of the Remnant it the later stages of the war. She still did not understand that compulsive hatred for the humans.

“Then,” continued Kelven, his quiet voice falling into a practiced rhythm, “a young cleric named Lindrech had a dream, in which he was commanded to climb Mount Cessa and pray alone to the Nine for seven days. This he did, and when he returned, our people were teetering on the edge of extinction. Ignoring the mockery of those around him, Lindrech built an altar, just as he had been commanded, blessing it with myrrh and oil.

“It is said that the moment he completed his ritual, the altar leapt into flame. There was no spark to ignite it, nor any wood to sustain it, but somehow it continued to burn and burn. Even when the rains fell and the winds howled, it would not go out.

“Soon, Lindrech himself fell ill, burning with fever. Many thought he was afflicted with some new form of plague, so he was sent into isolation, for fear that it would spread. When he emerged three days later, he bore no sign of his illness, save for the emerald green of his eyes. All who saw him were amazed, and the cleric himself claimed to have been blessed by the Nine.

“The next time they engaged with the Fey King’s armies, Lindrech burned dozens of the enemy to ash.

“And that was the beginning of the Flameborn. Soon, they were lining up at the burning altar by the dozens. Not all were chosen, but those who were became known as the Elect. Terramore himself was among the first, and it was taken as a sign of blessing upon him. Soon thereafter, he was named as our first King.

“It was our salvation. Without the Flameborn, we would never have won the war…”

Not exactly, corrected Ki-Kala silently. For a moment, she considered telling him the truth—that the humans would never have survived at all if it had not been for a small contingent of the Quilani who had betrayed the Vanarch in an effort to save him from his own consuming madness. She decided against it. For the moment, it would serve little purpose, and would only cause additional tension. In time, however, she would need to challenge his skewed vision of history, if only to make him understand the danger they all faced.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “If being Flameborn is considered a blessing from your gods, why are you so upset?”

“Be cause it’s not supposed to happen this way,” Kelven responded through clenched teeth. “At least, not anymore. Lindrech and King Terramore and all the others, they might have become Flameborn as adults, but that hasn’t happened for centuries. Today, the Elect are always chosen as children, and always before a Sacred Hearth. This shouldn’t be happening. I’m too old. Besides…I don’t think it’s a blessing at all. At least, not for me.”

“Why not?” pressed Ki-Kala.

“It’s complicated.”

“If we’re going to help each other, I think I might need to understand.”

“After Fey Wars,” continued Kelven, after just a moment’s hesitation, “there was a time of relative peace, as people started rebuilding their lives. Terramore had been named King and laid the foundation for what would eventually become the Winged Throne. But as time passed the Flameborn began to establish themselves as leaders over the common people, and it wasn’t long before they started to come into conflict with each other. One thing lead to another, and soon our people stood on the brink of a civil war that we could ill afford.

“That’s when Terramore’s son, Elhorn, took matters into his own hands. While he did not have his father’s skills on the field of war, history tells us that he was a brilliant orator. He began speaking out about the importance of establishing order and a governing law. Eventually, he was able to gather enough support among the Flameborn to establish the Sacred College.”

“And what is that?” asked Ki-Kala.

“It’s the body that oversees all of the Flameborn. Every child who becomes one of the Elect is sent to train with them. They have their own rules and laws, dictating how the power of the Flame is to be used. For the most part, the system works.

“But every once in a while the College needs to deal with a Renegade—someone who has been blessed with the power of the Flame, but who refuses to abide by the College’s laws. These Renegades are hunted down. Mercilessly. And when they’re found, they’re given one of two choices—imprisonment or death…”

Kelven trailed off into a sullen silence. With stooped shoulders and a lowered gaze, he looked exhausted and defeated. There’s something else, thought Ki-Kala. Something he’s not telling me. It was clear that he did not want to talk about it, but she knew that she had pressed him too far to just let it go. When her curiosity had was piqued, Ki-Kala could be as persistent as a rockcat.

“And you’re afraid that the College will see you as one of these Renegades?” she asked.

“There’s no telling how they’ll see me. As far as I know, this has never happened before. But if they discover me, they will come for me. And that will be the end.”

“What do you mean?”

“When they find me, they’ll drag me back to Relen’ayar. They’ll find out who I am and what I’ve done, they’ll have no choice but to kill me.”

“But why? Have you broken some law?”

Surprisingly, the human actually laughed. It was a soft, quiet chuckle that rang both humourless and forlorn in Ki-Kala’s ear. “What greater crime is there than regicide… or at least the next closest thing?”

“You killed your king?”

“No,” responded Kelven bitterly. “We haven’t had a King in years. But as fate would have it, I did manage to kill his son, Prince Jayslen. With his brother exiled and his sister teetering on the brink of maddness, he was the only real heir to the Winged Throne. And I killed him. It was self defense. If I hadn’t done it, he would surely have killed me, but that won’t matter. Not in the slightest. When they find me, they won’t just have me killed. They’ll make it long, drawn out and extremely public. Like I said, I’m doomed.”

“When did this happen?” asked Ki-Kala. A chilling sense of dread was already building in her heart. Could it be?

“What does it matter?”

“Just answer the question. It’s important.”

“A few days past. Just before Tyra vanished.”

“And what does this prince of yours look like?”

“He’s tall, black hair with a thick beard. Green eyes of course, at least until he died. He was dressed in woodsman’s clothes and carrying an axe. Pretty unremarkable actually.”

“And how did you kill him?”

“I stabbed him. It was more luck than anything. Listen, I really don’t understand…”

“On his left side? Right about here?” She placed her hand on Kelven’s rib cage, just beneath his heart. His eyes widened in surprise.

“Yes, actually. How do you…”

“If I help you back up the hill, are you strong enough to walk?”

“I think so, but I don’t understand…”

“We’re leaving,” said Ki-Kala. “Now. I don’t know what he’s up to, but if what I suspect is true, he may be even more dangerous than I’d imagined.”

“Ashes and Embers! What are you talking about?”

“Crayven. The black wind who took your sister. When he appeared to me, he came in human form. But it wasn’t his form. He shouldn’t be able to take physical from at all. Not here. Not without the Remnant. I didn’t understand it at the time, but now I think I’m starting to.” Her mind went back to the strange, blackish wound she had seen on Crayven’s side.

“I believe he’s taken your prince’s fallen body.”

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