An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

Planning for Protection Dian

Despite assurances of safety from Jaspar, Dian sat close to the fire, flinching at every strange sound that cut through the silence of the night. “They’re opportunistic creatures,” the Magi insisted. “They rely on surprise and numbers more than anything. A single female would never attack a group of humans, especially around an open flame. In many ways, they’re little more than dangerous animals, and like all creatures, they fear fire.”

“Maybe there’s more than one,” Dian suggested. He was having trouble shaking the feeling of malevolent eyes on his back.

“I don’t think so. If there were, they would have attacked as well.”

Dian was not convinced, but he knew better than to argue the point. The Magi knew more about these things than he did. Until about twenty minutes ago, he had always believed that harpies only existed in the sorts of stories mothers told their children when they misbehaved—or that Bryen used to tell him simply for the pure pleasure of making him cry. To discover that they were real had troubling implications on his understanding of the world beyond Zayen.

To have been the intended victim of the harpy’s attack shook him to the very core.

“I don’t get it,” said Sheeva. “What’s a harpy doing attacking Dian?” Her tone was less accusing that usual, which told Dian that she was just as troubled my the monster’s existence as he was.

“I’m not entirely convinced that it was Obsidian it was attacking,” replied the Magi. “Either way, it’s difficult to guess at its purpose. One thing I am reasonably certain of, however, is that this was not a random occurrence. The entire thing seemed too precise for that. The harpy was not at all interested in Melah, at least until we got in its way. It made straight for Azental, and I believe that tells us that this was something of a premeditated attack. Or a guided one. Harpies are not known for their ability to reason, but this one seemed to know exactly what it was doing.”

“So you think someone sent it,” said Kwynn.

“I can’t fathom any other explanation. The closest known habitat for any harpies is the Kraken’s Fangs. Those rise out of the Yeartide, about twenty miles off the southern coast of Tarvayes. That’s a long ways from here.”

“Maybe it was driven out, by others of its kind,” the colorful merchant suggested.

“Given their violent tendencies, I’d think they’d be more inclined to kill than exile, but even if an outcast did manage to escape, it seems unlikely that it would have come this far inland—unless someone sent it here.”

“But who would do such a thing?” asked Emilia.

“Now that is the real question,” said Jaspar, scratching at his short beard. “Unfortunately, it’s also one for which we have no real answers. And who was the real subject of the attack? Was it Obsidian, or the raven herself?”

The thought caught Dian off guard. He had not considered the possibility that the harpy’s attack could have been focused specifically on Azental. She was so much a part of his sense of identity that he had come to think of her mostly as an extension of himself, rather than a separate being. Given the particular nature of the Joining, in some ways that was true. She was more than the bird she had been when Bryen had slaughtered her in the orphanage’s common room, and a great deal of who  she had become had its roots in his own mind. He half expected the raven to add her own thoughts, but she had remained strangely quiet since releasing their Joining. The attack had clearly unnerved her.

“Why would anyone want to kill Dian’s bird?” Sheeva grunted. “Everyone knows you can’t kill a totem.” She hesitated for a moment. “Can you?”

“Not with physical violence,” Jaspar assured her. “But I would say it’s a mistake to assume that everybody knows or understands that. What is common knowledge in Zayen may not be so everywhere in Tarvayes. And there are other people in the world, people who do not understand the Joining at all—such as those beyond the Fellwood.”

“The Firelords?” asked Sheeva.

“At this point, I think it would be unwise to dismiss any possibilities without sufficient evidence. Unfortunately, we have little enough of that. All we know for certain is that a harpy—which would not normally be found in this region—attacked Obsidian’s raven. Everything else amounts to guesswork and conjecture. Attempting to establish any conclusions would be foolish, and perhaps even dangerous.”

“What are you suggesting?” snapped the Mason angrily. “That we just ignore this until someone stops by to claim responsibility? Dian could be dead by then—and maybe the rest of us too. Did you ever think of that?

“Certainly,” Jaspar replied gently. Dian was astounded by the apparent depth of the Magi’s patience and grace. He could not imagine anyone else responding with such measured calm—except perhaps for Larus, but the Druid had spent his entire life learning to navigate his twin’s prickly nature. “I am not suggesting that we ignore the reality of what happened, merely that we must avoid mistaking our assumptions for fact. Obsidian’s raven was attacked, and I certainly intend to take action. First, we will avoid manifesting the totem in spirit flesh, at least for the time being. I also suggest using the rest of our totems to help keep watch. Melah has keen eyes, and if I remember correctly, Kwynn’s fox can hear a twig snap a mile off.”

“That’s me,” the other man replied, flashing his disarming smile. “Shaka can hear it from two miles.”

“Very good. Between the two of them, we should be alerted to anything that might approach us throughout the rest of the night. Tomorrow, we’ll leave before sunrise and travel with all possible speed. If we’re lucky, we’ll meet up with Larus and the Hunters by tomorrow evening. Their presence should offer an extra degree of protection. Does that satisfy you, Sheeva?”

“It’s a start,” the woman grunted, pushing herself to her feet. “But you and smile boy over here aren’t the only ones with a totem that can help protect Dian. Anything tries another attack tonight, it’ll be damned sorry. I’m going to get some more wood for the fire. Best to keep it burning big and bright tonight.”

When she was well out of earshot, Kwynn turned to Dian. “Tell me something. She’s a Mason right?” Dian nodded. “Is her totem an oxen? Because she’s certainly as bullish as one.”

“Don’t let her hear you say that,” Dian warned.

“I’m right though, aren’t I?”

“Actually, you’re not.”

“Really? I’ve never seen anyone with that kind of temperament Joined to a moose.”

“You still haven’t.” Oxen and moose, which lent incredible strength through the Joining, were the two most common totems among the Masons. But there was a third creature that was occasionally used—when they could be captured.

“But that would mean…” Kwynn’s eyes widened in surprise.

“Yes, she’s Joined to a mountain ape. So I’d watch myself around her. Kleg can be very protective. And I would imagine he can tear a man in two with his bare hands. But it’s been a long day, so I’m going to turn in for the night. Sleep well, Kwynn.” Dian left the other man staring, dumfounded, in the direction that Sheeva had vanished into the darkness of the woods. Somehow, Dian found that he took great pleasure in that.

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