An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

The First Lesson Dian

Dian hesitated for a moment before following Emilia back to the campsite. From the way she had spoken, he half expected to find Jaspar to be showing visible signs of impatience. Instead, the Magi was sitting calmly, some distance away from the fire, where the night air was beginning to cool. His legs were crossed, his eyes were closed and his breathing was deep and regular. If it had not been for the straight and intentional angle of the Magi’s spine, Dian would have thought that Jaspar had somehow fallen asleep.

His eyes snapped open as Dian approached. “Nice walk?” he asked.

“I learned a thing or two.”

“Excellent,” said the Magi with a satisfied smile. “No effort is ever wasted when we come away with greater knowledge.”

“Payneth the Wise,” said Dian absently, pulling the words from a distant corner of his memory. “Seventh stanza of his second book of proverbs.”

He regretted the comment immediately. Jaspar’s eyebrow shot up in surprised response. “Where did you learn that? Most people wouldn’t even recognize the proverb, much less be able to cite its source.”

Dian hesitated, uncertain of how to answer. He had spent years hiding the peculiar nature of his memory. He did not have any specific need to do so; as far as he could tell, he was not breaking any rules. There was, after all, no edict against being able to recall names, events and even entire written passages without error. For Orders like the Clerks and the Magi—which he was now a part of—such a memory would be something to be prized and nurtured. Even among the Watchers, it had its place. Someone who could accurately report what they had seen was far more valuable than someone who could not. Still, Dian had always chosen to keep his talent a secret, likely because it was directly related to his bond with Azental.

He had recognized that connection in the early stages of their Joining, and that knowledge had only enforced his need for secrecy. He had already faced years of abuse, even before the Joining—which had been a cruel joke in and of itself—and there had been little reprieve after arriving at the Citadel. He had been the strange child, the one with the raven totem, which made him a target for mockery and ridicule. By the time he was old enough to realize that he could remember everything he had ever seen, heard, read or experienced since the moment of his Joining, he had already learned that he was safest when he kept a low profile. The less people noticed him, the less he was exposed to their scorn. So he had kept his memory a secret, using it when it served him, but also pretending to forget things on a regular basis. He wrapped himself in a shroud of unremarkable normalcy, and wore it like armour.

Now he had let his guard down, and Jaspar’s expectant stare felt like a spear pressed against his heart. How much could he say? How much did he dare reveal? He supposed that the truth would come out eventually. If Emilia was right—and he had no reason to believe otherwise—ten years was a long time, and Jaspar was no fool. But do I dare reveal myself now? Am I ready for that?

Just do it, pressed Azental.

What if he rejects me? What if he deems me unsuitable to be his apprentice?

For having a keen memory? Don’t be a fool.

“Obsidian?” interjected the Magi.

“Apologies,” said Dian sheepishly. “I was just thinking of where I’d heard it. Magi Li was one of my instructors. As you may know, he always had a strong affinity for anything written by Payneth. I probably just heard him mention it in one of his lectures. I have a pretty good memory sometimes.”

“So it would seem,” said the Magi.

Coward. Azental’s voice echoed through Dian’s mind.

Shut up Azzy.

“I’m sure that will be helpful as we progress through your apprenticeship. Speaking of which, I believe it’s time for our first lesson. We have much to learn.”

“We?”

“Here’s another tidbit of Payneth wisdom that perhaps Li did not share with you: ‘he who seeks to teach must never stop learning.’ There are some who believe that apprenticeship is all about the passing of knowledge from the Magi on to the apprentice. Foolishness. That Magi also needs to learn from the apprentice. My purpose is not to make your more like me, Obsidian.”

“Then what is your purpose?”

Jaspar’s smile was full of warmth, patience and an unsettling degree of amusement. “Why to make you more like you, of course.”

“That doesn’t make sense. I’m already me.”

“But are you as much like you as you can be?”

“I’m—not sure.”

“Then that’s what we’ll want to find out. First, let me see you fly.”

“Fly? You mean through Azental?” Jaspar nodded and Dian sighed. He had been hoping that having become apprenticed to the Magi would mean less flying. That his very first lesson would involve taking on his totem’s spirit flesh was not encouraging.

He knew there was no helping it though, so ten minutes later, he was laying beneath the canvas tent that he was sharing with Jaspar and Kwynn. He had pulled a blanket over him, as was his custom, and was slowing his breathing while holding the crude, shale totemstone firmly between his thumb and index finger. When he determined he was ready, he reached out with his mind. He could not say precisely where he reached; all he ever knew was that he was somehow stretching beyond himself. An instant later, he felt the familiar shifting sensation, as though he was somehow melting from his own flesh, sinking down, down, down—until he reached that place of nothingness, an emptiness devoid of all feeling beyond the simple, primal awareness of his own self.

Then he was in the air, wrapped in the raven’s flesh. He let her take control, as always, trying hard to ignore the feeling of her wings beating through the darkness. She cut and twisted, avoiding branches with remarkable agility, until they finally burst above the forest’s canopy and into the silvery light of the moon. Dian fought down the initial disorientation that he always experienced when adjusting to the overwhelming detail of Azental’s vision.

Oh it feels so good to fly! cried the Raven.

Speak for yourself.

Looks like we have company. Azental turned her head to see a large Ambertear Owl flying toward them. Jaspar’s totem. The milky white bird fell in beside them, hooting softly, as though in greeting.

I like him, said Azental. Very genteel.

I get the feeling you’ll be seeing a lot of each other, replied Dian.

Well that is certainly preferable to flying through that horrid, petrified forest all of the time.

You do know that’s where we’re ultimately headed, right?

Of course, but we won’t be there for some time. Flying like this will provide a much needed break.

For one of us anyhow.

Jaspar’s owl banked to the left and Azental followed. Dian let her go. He could, if necessary, take control of her wings, but he seldom did. For the most part, he was content to leave the flying to her. She knew what she was doing, and he preferred to keep his mind occupied on other matters, mostly to distract himself from the horrid sensation of air flowing beneath her wings. At the moment, he was wondering what this flight could possibly have to do with his first lesson as Jaspar’s apprentice, or what the Magi hoped to accomplish.

Dian? The voice in his mind was not Azental’s. Nor was it his own, though it bore an air of familiarity.

Yes, he relied hesitantly.

Excellent. I was not certain that this would even work.

Jaspar?

Yes!

But how?

A little known fact about the Ambertear owl is that it possesses an innate ability to communicate with other animals, usually birds. We don’t understand it, really, but the general consensus is that they manifest some sort of instinctual telepathy. Fascinating, isn’t it? Our Joining only amplified that ability in Melah. Now, it appears that I can communicate with you through your totem as well.

So this is all just an experiment?

Everything is experiment, Obsidian. Trial and error still remains the best way to learn. But if you’re asking if I brought you up her just to test out Melah’s telepathy, then no. There is also the matter of your first lesson to attend to. And though I certainly love the feeling of the wind beneath Melah’s wings, our lesson is better suited to stillness. Let’s find a suitable perch.

The owl took the lead, banking to the right this time and circling downward until they found a strong, barren branch. Melah landed first, pulling in his wings and shaking out his feathers in a single, fluid movement. Azental’s landing seemed somewhat less elegant in comparison. The branch swayed beneath her as she clutched it in her talons, but she maintained her balance with a practiced ease.

Nicely done, said Jaspar. He sounded almost surprised. It appears that we have much to learn about your raven. I look forward to it. But now, for your first lesson. The topic is honesty. Let me put this question to you. What is honesty? 

Telling the truth, Dian responded immediately.

Interesting. Is that all?

He thought about it for a moment, and his mind took him back several years, to an incident in which a girl had fallen gravely ill at the Citadel. She had described her symptoms to the Magi assigned to treat her and had then been prescribed particular medicines. Unfortunately, she had been to embarrassed and ashamed to admit that she had also become pregnant. Withholding that information had resulted in the death of her unborn child—and had very nearly killed her too.

No, said Dian. Honesty also involves being forthright and transparent, and not holding back any important information that could cause confusion or misunderstanding.

Precisely, Jaspar agreed. And so, for your first lesson, your task is to demonstrate that very honesty and tell me, from your own perspective, exactly how you came to be Joined to your raven.

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