An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

The Dream of the Silver Tree Ki-Kala

Kelven did not know how he had come to stand before the great, silver tree. Somehow, he was simply there, looking up at the thousands of branches that seemed to stretch far into the sky, almost beyond view. Each was twisted and gnarled, as though by the passage of countless ages, stark and unadorned by any leaf or fruit or blossom. The bark had a strangely metallic sheen to it, and seemed to move and ripple, like the corded muscle of a bull or ox. At the centre of its trunk was an expansive hollow so large that Kelven himself could have easily walked through without having to duck his head. The tree, he knew, was so much more than it appeared. It was alive in ways that went far beyond anything else he had ever seen or known. Somehow, it was aware of his presence.

In the distant, rational corners of his mind, Kelven knew that such thoughts should have troubled him; for some reason, they did not. He approached the tree without fear or trepidation. Only a single, focused thought burned in his mind.

Kill the shadow.

At the foot of the tree, an indistinguishable shadow twisted and writhed, as though in agony. Shrouded in an obscuring veil of darkness, it was held firmly in place by more than a dozen, spindly and thorny branches. As he approached, Kelven found that he was already holding the same knife with which he had killed the prince. Fresh blood still coated the blade, an unmistakable reminder of a previous murder. He had already used the knife once. He could do so again. A chilling rush of glee rose up in his heart.

Kill the shadow. 

He wanted nothing more than to comply, to do as he was bid. With his every advancing step, the dark figure’s thrashing slowed, as though the last vestiges of energy were seeping from its body. When he was close enough, Kelven hefted the knife and, with the same frenzied strength that he had used to kill the prince, drove the blade home. Some strange instinct seemed to guide his hand, for he knew that he had found the shadow’s heart. Blood poured forth, thick and inky, like a crimson ichor. When the dark figure screamed, it was with the voices of thousands, all shrieking in common agony.

It was only then that the great tree released the shadow. As its branches pulled back, shafts of pale moonlight fell towards the ground like unrolling ribbons, chasing away the darkness until the shadowy figure was exposed, its identity revealed.

Tyra.

He stumbled backward, filled with horror and revulsion at the sight of his sister, slain by his own hand. As she laid cold and unmoving before him, her normally radiant skin appeared pocked and ashen. Her golden hair had taken the appearance of straw, muddied and beaten by the trampling of foot and hoof. Lifeless, almost colourless eyes stared at him with a sadness and accusation that gradually froze him in place. Paralyzed, the knife fell from his hand. He found himself filled with a vile sense of fulfillment, as though he had somehow completed a task that had been laid out for him.

No, his mind wailed. No! I didn’t mean it. I never wanted this. I never wanted to hurt her. O Healer, make her whole again. Please make her whole!

Even as he prayed the words, the first drops of rain began to fall around him. At least it seemed to rain—only the water was not falling from the sky, but from the countless branches of the tree itself. What began as only a few drops quickly grew in intensity, to the point where it was streaming down a single wall of water.

“Tyra!” cried Kelven. His sister’s body was already starting to wash away. Freed from his own paralysis, he rushed forward, desperate to save her body for proper burial, but the deluge drove him back, forming a barrier that he could not pass. Soon, he could see nothing but a reflection as it rippled along the surface of the watery wall. It was not his own reflection, however. Instead, he found himself looking upon an image of the Prince, who gazed back with a wry and self-satisfied grin. When the reflection opened its mouth to speak, there was no sound. Instead, the words echoed in the depths of his mind.

Kill the shadow, he heard, over and over again. Kelven closed his eyes. He threw his hands over his ears, desperate to drive the voice from his mind, but he could not escape it. Kill the shadow. Kill the shadow. The words filled his mind like a chant, persistent, repetitive and unyielding. Worse yet, he found himself wrestling with an overpowering compulsion give in, and the overwhelming terror of what it might mean if he did.

He did not know how much time passed before he opened his eyes again, but when he did the chant was all but gone. Some faint trace of it still echoed in his corners of his memory, but the voices themselves had gone mercifully silent. He looked around. There was no sign of Tyra or the strange, silvery tree. He seemed to be in a different place entirely, a place that was both strange and eerily familiar. It was dark, with an irregular, domed ceiling that seemed to be threaded with twisting roots that reminded him of the trees in the Fellwood.

The Fellwood… The spirit woman. I’m in her den. All at once, the memories came rushing back, and with them, a welcome sense of relief. He had been dreaming. The tree, the voices, and his sister’s lifeless corpse—they had all just been a part of that dream. Which meant that there was still hope. Tyra might still be alive. He needed to find her, and the spirit woman had promised to help him do just that.

He looked around and found her kneeling at his side. Oddly, she was not looking at him, but at the cursed manacle on his wrist. She seemed fixated on it in a way that made Kelven feel more than a little uncomfortable. What is she doing? What could possibly be so interesting about this bloody iron band?

“Hideous, isn’t it?” he asked, trying to catch her off guard. He might as well have been trying to catch his shadow. When she looked at him, her expression was calm and collected, as though she had been expecting him to awake at any moment, and had merely been examining the manacle as a means of passing the time.

“It is… unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” she said, thoughtfully.

“At least we have that in common.” His throat felt dry as he spoke, and he suddenly realized just how thirsty he was. And hungry. He could feel the need to eat growling deep inside his gut. “How long was I asleep?”

“Eight or nine hours.”

He felt like he had hardly slept at all, though most of the dizziness seemed to have passed. “Well I feel a bit better. At least that’s something. I just wish I could do something about these cursed dreams. I don’t think I’ll ever get any real rest again if I keep having these nightmares.” In truth, if the dreams continued, he did not know how he would even maintain his own sanity. He could still see Tyra’s lifeless body, could still feel the horrid sense of satisfaction that had filled him as he had stood over her.

“What are the dreams about?” asked the Fey woman.

“I’d… rather not say.” He tried to sound dismissive and uninterested, hoping that he could somehow hide the fear that seemed to be gnawing its way into his heart.

“In my experience,” she continued, “dreams can be important. Even more so if they persist. They might be trying to tell you something.”

“If there’s any truth to them at all, then I think I’d rather be dead.” He was struggling to keep his hands from shaking, and failing badly. Perhaps Ki-Kala would simply attribute it to the lingering effects of his fever. “But there’s not. Dreams are just dreams. Nothing more.”

They have to be. Oh, holy Nine, they have to be.

Shaking his head in an effort to clear his mind and regain some control over his body, he gradually became aware of the Iria woman staring intently at him. While he found it difficult to read her strange, unfamiliar features, it seemed to Kelven that there was surprise in her eyes, and perhaps even a hint of fear. Had he said something to reveal the nature of his dreams? He did not think so, but she was so foreign that he found it was impossible to tell with any certainty. Had she somehow looked into his mind and read his thoughts? He had both heard and told stories about Fey creatures who could do exactly that.

“Is everything alright?” he asked, tentatively.

“I don’t know. Your eyes…”

“What about them?”

“They look… like their changing.”

“What do you mean changing?” Instinctively, he brought the tips of his fingers to his eyes, as though he might be able to simply wipe away whatever the Iria woman was seeing.

“They seem to be turning green… almost the colour of emeralds”

Kelven’s hand fell away. His jaw hung open. The entire world seemed to grow dim around him. Green eyes. He knew what that meant—everyone in Relen’kar knew what that meant. “A mirror!” he cried. “I need a mirror!”

“I’m sorry I don’t…”

“Ashes and Embers!” Scrambling to his feet in spite of his own weariness, Kelven rushed across the small den and clambered up through the entryway. Fighting down a wave of shuck and panic, he found himself sprinting through the Fellwood. Somewhere behind him, Ki-Kala was shouting his name.

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