An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

Caught in the Dream Tiberius

It was only the third time in his life that Tiberius had ever experienced the gift of sight. Here, in the fever dreams of others, his blindness mysteriously vanished. He had never discovered the reason why. Nor was he ever prepared for the shock. All the light and movement and colours that he could not name seemed to assault him at once, to the point where needed to squint, and sometimes even close his eyes completely.

The entire experience filled his skull with a dull, pounding ache. It was more than just the light. He found himself constantly cross-referencing all of the unfamiliar things he would see against his own, very different understanding of the world. Simple experiences like texture and distance, which he normally determined by the touch of his fingers or the echo in his ears, were entirely foreign when filtered through seeing eyes.

Still, he knew enough to recognize the man with the burning hand. Twice before he had been thrown into a fever dream; twice before, he had seen the simple iron band that was the Auratorch. The first time—when Jayslen’s uncle, Torshen, had bloomed—Tiberius had only just become the Steward. The second time had been twenty years ago. When Torshen had fallen while leading the Queen’s army in some petty uprising, the Prince had inherited the Torch. He had been groomed all his life for that inheritance.

In both cases, Tiberius had been pulled into their dreams, but this time it was different. Even with their fever-clouded minds, both Torshen and Jayslen had known and recognized him. This new dreamer would not. To him, Tiberius would only be another part of the nightmare. Already, the man was raising his flaming hand in dangerous fashion. Tiberius did not know what would happen if he loosed the Auratorch’s power here, in the dream, but he did not want to find out.

“Stop!” he cried, closing his eyes so that he could concentrate. “Stop…I mean you no harm.”

“Then answer my question,” the dreamer replied. His voice was nearly cracking with fury. Or was that merely the sound of the growing flame? “Who are you? What do you want?”

“My name is Tiberius,” the sage replied, chosing his words carefully. One false step, and the frightened dreamer could unleash the fully power of the Torch. “I am a sage from Relen’ayar. I… I used to be…” Be careful what you say, old man. You don’t know what’s happened between this man and the Prince.

“Used to be what? Spit it out!”

“I used to be the tutor to Prince Jayslen.”

“Who’s that?” The man sounded confused, as though the name should be familiar to him, but somehow was not. Is he mad? Surely he received the Auratorch directly from Jayslen. How can he not know? Unless… Tiberius thought he understood. The dreamer could not remember Jayslen because he did not want to remember. This is his dream, which means I am subject to his own whims and fancies. And his fears. It was not an encouraging thought, but Tiberius quickly cleared his mind and steeled his resolve. All that mattered was finding a way to get through to him, to make a connection.

“Just a man,” relied the sage softly. “But tell me, friend, what’s your name?” It seemed a good enough place to start, but even that simple question threw the dreamer into a fit of anger.

“You know!” he cried. “You know, because the darkness knows. You serve it don’t you? Don’t you?”

“I really don’t know…”

“Where is it? I saw it chasing me. I saw it. Is it hiding behind the trees? Is it just waiting for your signal, to jump out at me? I won’t have it. I won’t! I swear, I’ll burn you to ash first!”

Clearly, their conversation was deteriorating—and at a rapid pace. What darkness was he talking about? Was it merely a foul imagining that haunted this dream? Or was it something more? Tiberius tried opening his eyes again. As images rushed in on him, he looked just long enough to get another glimpse at the iron manacle, closed tightly above the flaming hand. Then he shut his eyes again, allowing the unfamiliar image to linger in his mind.

The Auratorch. It was the key.

“Don’t you think it strange?” he asked, pressing carefully. “I mean, how is it that a man’s hand can be surrounded by flame without burning? Does it not hurt?”

“No. Stop toying with me.” The other dreamer was trying to sound firm, to fill his voice with resolve, but Tiberius’s experienced ear picked up on the faint undertones of doubt. He pushed on, pressing his advantage. He was very deliberate about his next words, knowing that the dreamer’s reaction would reveal a great deal about him—even in the foggy daze of this fever dream.

“I’ve heard of such a thing before,” he said. “They say that some among the Flameborn can do such things.” He took a deep breath, sucking in air as though shocked by a sudden revelation. “Wait, you’re not one of them, are you? Born of the Flame?”

“No!” shouted the dreamer. “I’m not. I’m just a normal man. I didn’t want this. I didn’t ask for any of this! I’m just a storyteller!” There! Tiberius had already suspected that the woman from Ronnex was telling the truth. This merely confirmed it. The stranger had to be the storyteller she had spoken of. Somehow, he was implicated in the Prince’s death. In all likelihood, he had been one of the very last people to see Jayslen alive. Unfortunately, Tiberius still had no idea where in the real world this storyteller was sleeping, much less how he was going to get to him.

He needed more information.

“That sounds like quite the life. I’d like to hear more about it. Do you travel from town to town?” When he received no response, he tried again. “When I was a boy, I always thought it would be so grand to live such a life. A minstrel for hire, without a care in the world. I’m sure you can see how such freedom would appeal to a stuffy old tutor like myself. Do you sing as well?”

Again, there was no response. Frustrated, Tiberius was about to try yet another approach when the world began to shift around him. For one terrible moment, he felt nothing. He heard nothing and smelled nothing. It was as though everything but his own consciousness had been blotted out existence. When it all came rushing back an instant later, he felt as though he was being thrown against the hard stone walls of Relen’ayar.

Bloody ashes, he swore to himself. You need to be more careful, old man. Dreams, he knew, were wild an unpredictable. They could change in heartbeat—especially when a new thought was introduced to the dreamer’s mind. He wondered where the nightmare had shifted him to, and what new horror the fevered mind would invent next.

When the spinning slowed, he found his answer. He was sitting on a sturdy wooden chair, leaning over a table with a flagon of beer between his hands. The drink must have been a projection of the storyteller’s mind. Tiberius much preferred the taste of strong wine and pushed the flagon away. Still, both it and the murmuring blend of various conversations told the sage that he was sitting in either a tavern or an inn. The strong, heavily nuanced voice that filled the entire room confirmed it.

The storyteller was practicing his craft.

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