An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

A Magi’s Owl Dian

An uncomfortably long silence filled the moments after Zaymenar’s abrupt departure from the High Dais. Dian simply stood there, unsure of what to make of the scene he had just witnessed. Everyone in the Citadel knew that there were occasional power struggles among the Magi, but those struggles were rarely made public. Had it all just been a matter of personal differences between two men? Or was there something more at work here? Whatever it was, one thing was certain. Zaymenar would not forget what Dian had seen. The young Watcher could only hope that the black-eyed Magi would not take measures to ensure that he remained permanently silent.

“I am very sorry,” said Kaden at last, “that you had to bear witness to that unfortunate scene. Please forgive our brother’s behaviour. Still, though he may be sadly lacking in decorum, I’m afraid that Zaymenar does raise a critical point. It is not without precedent for some totems to become corrupted. No, that is not the right way to put it. Jaspar, can you explain it better?”

“Certainly,” replied the short-bearded man who had questioned Dian earlier. “As I am sure you are already aware, your totem—what do you call him?”

“Her name is Azental.”

“Ah, a female. My apologies. As I was saying, your Azental is no longer alive, at least not in the strictest sense of the word. When you were first Joined to her, she became a part of you and the independent creature that she used to be died. Everything that she was, however, was captured in the form of your totemstone. Unfortunately, this is a necessary sacrifice, as a Joining simply will not hold between two independent consciousnesses. Do you follow?”

Dian nodded. He remembered all of the long lectures he had been made to sit through on the subject. So, while he was still was not comfortable with the idea that Azental had no life of her own, he understood the theory well enough.

“Excellent. Now, when you summon her from your totemstone, she appears in what we call spirit-flesh. She looks, acts and even interacts with the world very much as she would have before your Joining. In fact, in most cases, their experience is identical. The only difference is that their flesh is only a temporary shell. It can be hurt, yes. Even destroyed. But as long as you, the human host, remain alive, the spirit-flesh can be regenerated over and over again.

“Every once in a while, however, something goes wrong. Perhaps the Joining was not completed properly, but more often than not it has to do with the totem animal. Mostly it occurs with creatures who had some imperceptible flaw, something that would not manifest itself until years later. It can, however, also occur with creatures that were not fit for Joining.”

“What are you saying?” asked Dian.

“Only that we have no experience with ravens. Many years ago, there was a Clanlord who, against all the instruction of our order, secretly captured and Joined himself to an ice bear.”

“Torvenar, the White Death,” said Dian, recalling the name from the histories he had read as a boy.

“So you have heard the story,” the Magi seemed genuinely impressed. “Very good. Then you must also know that the Joining was a disaster. The ice bear was not at all suited for the process and drove Torvenar utterly mad. Fuelled by the great strength of his totem, he led his clan across all of Tarvayes, pillaging and destroying all the way here, to Zayen.”

“Where the combined strength of the Joined Ones and the other Clanlords was enough to drive him back,” said Dian. “I remember. But what does this have to do with me?”

“There has never been anyone Joined to a raven before,” said Kaden. “And your story is rather difficult to believe.”

“You think I’m mad!”

“Please, you must understand. We cannot discount the possibility that there is a flaw in your Joining. There is, however, a simple test that we can perform. Jaspar, if you would be so kind.”

“Yes, of course. Now Obsidian, I would ask that you summon your totem now.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Nothing that will hurt either of you, I promise. But we will need to see Azental herself.” Dian hesitated for a moment before reaching within his jerkin and drawing out his totemstone. The shale stone—crudely shaped into the likeness of a raven—may well have been the ugliest of its kind in the entire Citadel. Appearances meant little with totemstones, however, and had no effect whatsoever on his bond with Azental.

You heard them, he said to the raven.

Yes. I am coming. Several feet above Dian’s head, the air itself began to shimmer, giving sudden life to the familiar vortex of colour that appeared every time the raven—or any other totem—took form. A moment later, Azental burst forth with a loud caw. Flapping her wings, she rose high above the Dais and circled once around the Stone Seat before coming to rest on Dian’s shoulder.

“A flair for the dramatic I see,” said Jasper with a wry half-smile. Then he too reached for his totemstone and a similar process occurred. Except that this time, it was no raven that appeared, but an Ambertear Owl. Larger by half than Azental herself, it was covered entirely in milky white plumage, save for the bands of its wings and the mask-like markings around its black, round eyes. Fine amber feathers fringed each glassy globe, running like tears down the heart-shaped face. The owl landed gracefully on the floor, no more than five feet from where Dian stood. Cocking its head to one sidea it looked right at Azental, hooting softly.

He’s wants me to come closer, said the raven.

You can understand it, replied Dian in surprise. She had never shown any signs of understanding the birds of the other Watchers.

Yes, I can. Carefully, with an uncharacteristic timidness, Azental jumped from his shoulder, beating her wings gently as she glided to the ground. The owl approached slowly, walking a circle around the raven, never taking its eyes off of her. For her part, Azental stood as still and unmoving as a statue. After several moments the owl stopped, hooted softly, then flew back to the Magi’s outstretched arm.

“Thank you, my dear,” he said softly as the owl vanished back into the shimmering vortex from which it had come.

“Well?” asked Kaden eagerly.

“It is as we suspected,” replied Jaspar. “The totem is untainted.”

“I see,” said the Magi on the stone seat. His thoughtful brown eyes rested for long moments on Dian. There was a look of pensive indecision on his face. “It seems we have little choice, then,” he said at last, turning to the last of the Magi, who had remained silent throughout the entire audience. “Assemble the Hunters, Yan. Have them ready to leave at dawn.”

Hunters? thought Dian. The hunters were the warriors of the Citadel, soldiers trained in the arts of war. What’s going on here?

“Watcher Obsidian,” Kaden said, his voice taking on a disturbingly formal tone, “prepare yourself. I am afraid you will be returning to the Fellwood.”

“Of course, your Grace. Azental and I are used to flying there.”

“I’m sorry, boy, but we are not sending you through your totem. You will be going in the flesh.”

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