An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

A Cruel Joining Dian

If it had not been for the fact that he was experiencing the world through his totem’s spirit flesh, Dian was certain that he would have felt his stomach churn in sudden fear. As it was, he could feel Azental’s body tense and her feathers ruffle. The story of their initial Joining was a painful one for him; the only people he had ever shared it with were Larus, Sheeva and Delerick. It was a part of his life that he was not eager to relive, especially given the vividness of his own memory.

I would really rather not, he told Jaspar through Azental’s telepathic link with Melah.

I see, replied the Magi. May I assume from your reluctance that it was an unpleasant experience?

That’s one way to put it.

Several moments passed before Jaspar responded. If I am to instruct you, I need to understand you. Our Joinings are key moments in our lives. Often, they form the foundation of who we are, and who we will become.

Dian groaned inwardly. You’re going to insist on this, aren’t you?

I’m afraid it’s important. Doubly so, given the uncommon nature of your totem.

Resigned, and knowing that it would do no good to argue with the Magi, Dian’s mind reached back to those dark days before he came to the Citadel, when he was still living in a League-funded orphanage. As he thought about that part of his life, he found himself opening the doors to memories he preferred to keep locked away. He began by telling Jaspar how he had never known his parents. He had always been told that they died when he was just an infant. As a result, he spent the first eight years of his life in a constant struggle to survive the cruel attention of Bryen, the old man who ran the orphanage, along with his two spinster daughters.

It had been Bryen who discarded whatever name Dian’s parents had first given him, renaming him after a dark but otherwise worthless form of volcanic rock. The old man had always taken great pleasure in that—had seemed to consider it his own, private joke—and had been quick to ensure that the boy always knew his name was also a reflection of his own worth.

It had been a hard life, and his earliest memories were of trying to avoid Bryen as much as possible, a task that proved difficult, since the old man had often gone out of his way to seek Dian out. Even now, years later, he still believed that tormenting him had been one of Bryen’s greatest pleasures in life. Though he had been smaller than most of the other children, he had been forced to do far more than his share of the chores, all while silently enduring the old man’s cruel and mocking jokes. The few times he had been brazen enough to stand up for himself, he had been thoroughly thrashed, usually until Bryen was so full of rum or beer that he finally passed out completely.

All of it had been made even worse by the fact that Dian had been completely friendless. The other children in the orphanage had all seen how Bryen treated him, and it had not taken them long to realize that anyone who sided with Dian was bound to share his fate. At best, the other children had merely kept their distance; at worst, they had joined in his constant torment.

I’m sorry, said Jaspar. Even through the telepathic connection, the sympathy in his voice was evident. It must have been very lonely.

I can’t imagine how it could have been much worse, Dian replied. It went on that way for years. What I didn’t know was that the worst was still to come. Then one day, when I was eight years old, I fell asleep while scrubbing the upstairs hall. They’d been working me even harder than normal and I just passed out. Bryen came stumbling out from his room, drunk as usual. He wasn’t watching where he was going, tripped over me, fell down the stairs and broke his leg. His swearing and cursing woke me up, but with a broken leg, I thought I was going to get at least a bit of a break from his torment. I was wrong.

Dian went on to explain how, after returning from the physician, Bryen had still managed to give him the worst thrashing of his life. Afterward, he had been thrown into the darkness of the cold room and left there for days at a time. Jara, who was the kinder of the old man’s two daughters, would occasionally bring him water and stale bread. For the most part, he had been left alone, cold, isolated and teetering on the brink of madness. He had lost all sense of time, and became so irrational that he had actually looked forward to those moments when Bryen would appear, drag him out of his isolation and beat him in front of all the other children. The beatings had hurt, of course, but at least he had experienced a bit of warmth.

Then, one day, the old man had dragged him out of the cold room and sent him sprawling across the floor. Dian remembered laying there, waiting for the beating to begin. It never came. Instead, Bryen had stepped out of the room, returning a moment later with a caged raven in one hand and a joining rod in the other. Dian had not recognized it at the time. To his young eyes, it had look so much like a terrifying stone knife that he was certain that the old man was going to murder him. Instead, Dian had watched in horror as Bryen removed the raven from its cage and plunged the sharpen end of the rod into the squawking bird’s heart.

I did >not squawk, Azental objected.

You did so, replied Dian. Not that I blame you. I would probably have squawked too if the old bastard had stabbed me like that.

And then you and the raven were Joined, interjected Jaspar. For a passing moment, Dian wondered if the Magi had somehow heard his mental exchange with Azental. If he had, he gave no indication of it.

Eventually, Dian replied. There was blood everywhere, and after a moment the stone started to glow with a horrible light. I can only describe as angry, red and pulsating.

An apt description, said the Magi. Many rods glow like that. Some of my colleagues believe it to be a side effect of the violence of the Joining.

Whatever it was, I was terrified. Bryen started to advance on me then. Stones, I can still remember his horrid grin, as if it was all the greatest of all his cruel jokes. I could hear some of the other children crying, but I couldn’t see anything except his face and the glowing stone. An involuntary shiver of terror coursed through Azental’s body, and Dian was astounded that even now, years later, that memory was so strong it caused even his totem’s spirit flesh to react. He felt the overwhelming urge to take flight and flee from the image in his mind.

He almost did, even in spite of his strong dislike of flying. He could feel Azental’s wings beginning to spread as his mind instinctively took control of her body. He fought down the urge, pushing all thoughts of flight aside and forcing himself to calm down. It’s just a memory. Bryen’s been dead for years. Dian had been one of the only people to attend the old man’s funeral, placing a single black feather on the gravestone. He can’t hurt me anymore. He can’t.

I didn’t know what was happening, he told Jaspar after a moment. I thought he was going to kill me, just like he killed the raven—she wasn’t Azental yet, if that makes any sense.

I know what you mean, the Magi replied.

Then he grabbed me by the ragged old shirt I was wearing, pulled me off the ground and slammed the butt of the rod against my forehead. It hurt like hell, but only for an moment. Then I just came undone. I felt as though I was nothing, devoid of anything but the certainty of my own existence. I don’t know how long it lasted, because I had no sense of time.

I remember the feeling, said Jaspar. And I’ve seen others live through it. In most instances, it only lasts for a matter of seconds.

Eventually, it faded and I felt myself again—except it wasn’t just me anymore. I was aware of another presence in my mind. It was Azental, of course, but I didn’t understand. All I knew was that I could feel this pain and fear that wasn’t mine. And I could hear Bryen laughing. I remember him kicking me again, so hard that I had a bruise for a month. Then he told me that I wasn’t his problem anymore, that it would be a relief to pass his trash on to the Citadel.

After that, Dian explained, he had been thrown back into the frigid dark of the cold room, where he had been left for what seemed to be an unending period of time, with only the frightened new presence in his mind to keep him company. Eventually, Jara had come to fetch him. Muttering a quiet apology, she had scrubbed him and dressed him in fresh clothes for the first time in weeks. He had swallowed down a bit of thin, flavourless soup before being left alone again. An hour or so later, a Clerk from the Citadel had arrived to collect him. Bryen had spouted all kinds of absurdlies, about having found Dian beaten and hungry on the streets, and how he had brought the poor boy to the orphanage to save his life. The Clerk had not seemed to believe any of it, but Bryen had been too caught up in his own lie to notice—or to even care.

And that was the end of that part of my life, Dian said at last. I never saw him again. They took me back to the Citadel, cleaned me up some more, saw to it that I was fed and asked me more questions than I would ever care to answer again.

And you had no idea what had happened to you? asked Jaspar.

Not until they explained it to me, several weeks later.

It’s a testament to the strength of your mind that you did not go mad. Most subjects have at least a basic knowledge of the Joining before it happens. At the very least, we try to give them a thorough debriefing to deal with the trauma. 

I did get that—eventually.

I’m sorry to have made you relive all of this. You’ve given me much to think on. I will have to— Whatever Jaspar was going to say next was cut off by a sudden screech.

Abruptly, a large, winged shape burst from the trees several yards away. At first, it appeared as little more than a blur of shadow, even to Azental’s keen eyes, but after a moment it came into focus. It had the face and body of a beautiful woman—though twisted and strangely angular—with dark, serpentine scales in place of skin. Massive, leathery wings propelled it through the air and the fingers of its outstretched hands had the appearance of elongated talons. Its gleaming amethyst eyes were fixed firmly on Azental.

Harpy! Jaspar cried in Dian’s mind, even as Melah took flight, putting himself directly between the raven and the approaching monstrosity. Dian expected the owl to be torn apart, but somehow the agile bird managed to avoid the sharp talons, while slapping the creature in the face with the broad side of his wing.

Release your Joining! Jaspar commanded.

Dian responded immediately. The world around him went suddenly dark, and he was overcome with the dizzying sensation of a quick and sudden movement. He experienced a brief instant of weightlessness before he was back in his own body, throwing off his blanket and sitting up, panting nervously. He looked over to Jaspar, who was still lying completely still. The only indications that he was still alive were the rise and fall of his chest and the expression of pain painted clearly across his face. Several tense seconds passed before the Magi finally opened his eyes and looked directly at Dian.

“Well that was unexpected,” he said quietly, pulling himself into a sitting position. “I think someone just tried to kill you.”

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