An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

The Steward’s Fire Tiberius

The stranger cried out in surprise as the main room of Pelor’s house burst into fire. He leapt backward, cursing loudly. Tiberius’ heart quickened. He could almost hear its pounding in his ears. He reached out and felt the rush of flames growing around him, singing to him. When he sang back, in a song that had no language, the flames heard him. They rose up in response, and through them, he could sense more than he could ever have on his own.

This was the Steward’s Fire.

In a matter of minutes, it would kill him.

He had to drive Pelor’s murderer away, and maintain control of the blaze—the last thing he wanted to do was set off a fire that would reduce the entire Stilt District to cinder. Reaching out through the flames, Tiberius could feel the stranger’s presence. He lashed out, hissing tendrils snapping like a whip, causing the other man to retreat even further, narrowly avoiding the scorching blow.

“What sorcery is this, old man?” asked the stranger. All the smoothness had vanished from his voice, leaving only a surprised anger. “You don’t have the look of the Flameborn about you.”

In response, Tiberius attacked again and again, straining to control the fire. It felt like doing an entire day of hard labour in the span of mere seconds. Every muscle in his body ached, to the point that he wanted nothing more than to collapse into sleep. But he knew that if he did the flames would either die out—and the stranger would be upon him—or continue to rage, unchecked, until they consumed the house and everything in it. Using every fibre of his will, he pushed on, holding the power of the flames tightly contained and driving the stranger back and back.

“This isn’t over!” the murderer hissed. “You may have caught me by surprise this time, Baby Blue Bird, but I assure you, it will not happen again.” Through the power of the Steward’s Fire, Tiberius felt the stranger go, vanishing back in whatever direction he had come from.

He knows my name! That could only mean one of two things. Either the murderer knew about the Society and was acting against them—or he had been sent by them. Tiberius found either possibility disturbing. He recalled Fleet Paws alluding to some sort of trouble within the Society. Has there been some sort of schism? Have we been compromised? Such troubled thoughts were like further strands being woven into the web of questions and uncertainty that seemed to be ensnaring him.

He needed answers, but the harder he sought them, the more the web seemed to tightened around him. There was nothing to be done about it now, however.

At the moment, his primary concern needed to be survival.

He maintained the flames for several more moments, just to be certain that the stranger would not return, then banished the flames and collapsed to the floor. His breathing was fast and laboured. His heart was beating so hard that it too felt as though it had caught fire. His muscles burned, and it felt as though all the blood in his body had suddenly turned to acid.

By the Nine, he thought, a few more moments and it would have killed me. Truthfully, he was not certain that he had eluded death at all. In time, he knew the pain would pass, but he was too weak to move, much less push himself to his feet. While he had sent most of the flames back to wherever they had come from, he could still hear the soft, crackling hiss of small fires all around the room—remnants that could not be banished. If he did not escape soon, those flames would continue to grow, and eventually consume Pelor’s house.

And him along with it.

He tried struggling to his feet, but barely managed to lift himself more than a few inches off the floor before his arms betrayed him and gave out. He fell hard against the ground, driving the air from his lungs. I’m getting too old for this. When he was younger, he had been able to cope with the strain of the Steward’s Fire, though even then it had been difficult.

Now, it felt impossible. He was spent, too exhausted to move. He had not saved himself; he had only delayed the coming of death.

As he laid there, unmoving and listening to the growing fires, thoughts of Jayslen returned, unbidden, to his mind. He thought of their long, and often strained relationship, and all the years he had spent pouring into the Prince, shaping his understanding of the Auratorch, just as he had done with Prince Torshen before his untimely demise—and just as his own great uncle had done with Jayslen’s grandfather, Lachlan Rayderon.

It had always been that way. The torch had been linked to the royal houses for centuries, and so too had the Steward. Even when the house banner that flew above the palace changed—when a king or queen had died heirless, or when power had been usurped through war or politics—the Torch had always remained tied to the Winged Throne. Whenever one of its bearers passed, the talisman had always been passed on to a successor in the royal family. When necessary, it was passed to an intermediary—usually a prisoner or criminal—who would then carry the talisman back to Relen’ayar under careful guard. The intermediary would then be executed, in order to pass the Torch on to its rightful heir.

Most recently, it had happened following Torshen’s death in Sanghar. One of the mortally wounded rebels had been used as intermediary, and flown by wind carriage back to Relen’ayar, where the talisman had been passed on to Jayslen.

It was not a practice that Tiberius approved of, but even as the Steward of the Auratorch, he had little say in the matter of succession. His mandate had always been to guide and instruct its bearer, whoever that might be, and to keep the Realm safe from the talisman’s horrible power. Until recently, it was a task he thought he had performed well.

Now, it seemed, he had failed.

Jayslen was dead, and the Auratorch had been passed to a stranger, with no known ties to House Rayderon. Worse, its new bearer was no mere intermediary. The Torch’s power had bloomed within Kelven far more quickly than anticipated, and if his fever dream was any indication, Tiberius feared that the man was at least as unpredictable as his predecessor—but without the prince’s years of preparation and training.

The sage had hoped that coming to Pelor’s house would help him locate Kelven. The more he thought about it, the more Tiberius had come to believe that Jayslen’s remarkable story had somehow come to its culmination in his final days. If the sage had been able to unravel the multitude of questions, perhaps it would have led him to the Auratorch. Perhaps he could have found Kelven and prevented him from doing something that would destroy the entire Realm.

But that was not to be.

He knew he was going to die. He could hear the flames growing around him, could feel their heat spreading as they crept forward. No help appeared to be forthcoming. Curse these old bones! he thought. And curse that damned assassin for what he did. A wave of guilt washed over Tiberius. Pelor had been a good man, good enough to risk his own life to pull a drowning sage from the Kharnine. Tiberius had repaid that kindness with death. It meant little that it had been inadvertent. Death cared nothing for his intentions, and it seemed like an unfair trade in the sage’s mind, especially considering that he would soon share the poor fisherman’s fate.

He loathed the feeling of helplessness. Screaming in frustration, he made one last attempt at pushing himself to his knees, but the result was the same. He was left winded and panting on the floor. Even one last attempt at crawling proved too much for him. The Steward’s Fire had drained him so completely that he could do nothing but accept the inevitable. There could be no more fighting. No more struggle. He was just too weak.

Whatever was to become of the Realm, it would happen without him. Kelven would be forced to learn the workings of the Auratorch on his own, and Nathaneal would assume the mantle of Stewardship, at least until he found some way to pass the unwanted burden on to another. Tiberius could only hope that the two men proved fit for their given tasks—even though he knew they were not.

Yet, as he laid there, waiting for the end, he found that it was not thoughts of his son or of Kelven that filled his mind. Nor was it thoughts of Jayslen or the Auratorch, of the Society or the man who had killed Pelor. While each of these lurked like shadowy spectres in the corners of his mind, they could not command his attention. Resigned as he was to his own end, they were the concerns of other men now.

As Tiberius, Steward of the Auratorch, prepared to face the shadow of death, all he could think of was the emptiness in his own heart. All he could feel was the void that had once belonged to his wife.

Rala, I love you.

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