by Thomas K. Carpenter
Standing on his balcony over the Shear, Aegasu Feywel watches the clouds roll against the cliff far below him. He stares hungrily at the weather formations like a child with an empty belly deciding if its worth a scalded hand to find out what’s in the steaming pot.
The cloud layer hides the Fallen Lands and Aegasu believes, the answers to their renewal, high upon the Sky Plateau. The fungus lines are dying out and the cave nuts are becoming diseased and rotten. Green foliage has not been seen in generations.
The barrow scholars predict the food will run out in less than a generation. Though no one listens to them as the Exarches fight wars for barren, fallow lands. Claiming debts of Ha’luth to fuel the conflict.
Aegasu slips the malpaper from beneath his robes and immediately his hands, though arthritic and knob-knuckled, begin their dance, folding and tearing, without an eye to guide them.
The sleek shape of a bird appears from the paper. Before continuing, Aegasu examines the poppet he’s created, making sure it is a proper vessel for his enchainment.
Satisfied, he inhales the sharp morning air, filling his chest until his head swims in lightness.
When at last he’s full, he condenses a bit of his own essence and blows it sweetly into the malpaper bird.
The malpaper bird rustles in his hand and he releases it to the balcony and watches it hop from rail to door and back in short fluttering bursts.
Before he must kneel from exhaustion, he whispers to the bird waiting with its head cocked. It darts downward toward the Shear without forewarning. The sharp crackling of its wings fades quickly.
Aegasu grips the balcony with his tired hands, leaning over to watch the bird’s flight.
The air currents along the cliff are treacherous, but the bird slips through them gracefully.
Aegasu doesn’t allow himself to get excited, even though the link he has with the malpaper bird makes his heart soar with the joy of flight. The worst is yet to come.
The bird, born of his breath and encoded with his knowledge, flies at an angle away from the cliff. He can barely see it now as its crisp white form fades against the rolling clouds.
Aegasu can tell the bird has reached the critical juncture. Sweat beads lightly against his winkled brow and his balls stitch tightly against his crotch.
The currents now rush and roll against the cliff like a raging river. The slipstream after a long journey across the Fallen, throws itself against the Shear before hurrying past the towering plateau.
Aegasu’s tender bird struggles to find a way through, hovering over the furious winds. He cannot see the bird now, but feels its frustration in his tired bones.
The malpaper bird spies an opening, a hole in the stream formed from a wicked updraft and prepares to dart in. Aegasu knows this opening well, he has lost previous birds to it.
Aegasu cautions the bird to patience, but the link is weak at this distance and his creation impatient. He suspects it sees a pattern in the winds that he cannot detect with his waking mind.
The bird darts in, ignoring his concerns. A sudden rush of vertigo overcomes Aegasu and he sinks to his knees. The bird’s impact on the Shear can be felt as a clenching around his heart.
A tiny piece of his soul is snuffed out.
Aegasu cradles his chest on the stone balcony, rocking slightly.
The other enchainers would mock him. Throwing such fragile creatures into the abyss below.
Doubly so, for tying his soul to them. And then triply, for believing the Fallen Lands are anything but barren death.
But he is not deterred.
Aegasu Feywel knows everything is fragile in this world. Even him.
When the door chimes ring, Aegasu is busy cleaning the dust from the paper sailboat, using a moistened corner of an old rag.
Aegasu frowns. Not a simple frown like the downward sagging of the lips. Instead, the old man’s whole body sags like melted wax. The rag remains in his wrinkled hand, tremoring over the boat, carefully cradled on his forearm.
His eyes gray, weighed down with thoughts.
And then as he notices the little boat in his hand, his body makes a slow reversal until he shakes off his malaise.
Aegasu does not break into a smile, but he frowns no longer. His lips are pulled thin with purpose.
Then, Aegasu moves to the copper bin filled with water and whispers to the boat, reminding it that it is precious and bespoke, and sets it back into the water.
As the hull kisses the surface, the boat slips his fingers and begins zipping around the copper bin, wagging its sail eagerly.
His eyes soften at the sight.
At least until the chimes ring again. Aegasu glances uneasily in their direction.
“A pauper’s prayer. I’m not ready,” he says.
He grabs the bowl, forgotten on a shelf, and picks through it, throwing out the rotten sweetjackets and rinehorns. Only a pair of bitter noudles remain.
Aegasu sighs heavily at the nuts, willing them to be anything but noudles. Whoever it is will think him a poor host.
“No matter,” he says, as much trying to convince himself. “A poor offering of Ha’luth is better than no Ha’luth at all.”
Aegasu opens the door and a slight man wearing clothes that might be fashionable in the courts of El’ort, pushes past him into his living quarters.
Stunned by the rude entrance, Aegasu stammers in silence, as the man looks around his cluttered apartment with clear distaste.
Holding his ring encrusted hands out as if they are drying in the sun, the intruder asks over his shoulder. “The enchainer Feywel, is this not his quarters?”
The man’s gall thickens Aegasu’s thoughts with confusion until the only word capable of exiting his mouth is a simple, “Yes….”
“I dare say. The man is, as peculiar as wind sock.”
Aegasu spies the etched silver ring on the man’s little finger and the revelation brings him out of his stupor.
When the enchainer turns on him with an outstretched hand, Aegasu confuses it for a greeting and reaches out to accept, only to have a thin coin pressed into his palm, as the intruder asks, “Can I trouble you for a few questions before your master returns?”
Aegasu nods, rubbing the ha’penny between forefinger and thumb. The man has mistaken him for a servant. Which was not surprising considering the state of his robes, but the insistent chimes had left no time to change before opening the door.
“Yes, Master Dandilan,” he says, clearly indicating Aegasu should repeat.
“Yes, Master Dandilan,” says Aegasu while barely restraining a grin. He’d never been a good actor, but Dandilan barely pays him any attention, so the unintended ruse continues.
“I may have use for a manservant when I displace your master, even if you are rather old,” Dandilan confides.
Aegasu restrains the urge to tweak the man. The intruding enchainer continues wandering around his apartment with a sour look.
With a heavy sigh, Dandilan arches back and gazes at the coffered ceiling filled in with Math’halini frescos and bound in copper filigree. It shows an artist’s impression of the Crescent Keep from a distance, including the plants and foliage that used to exist, though not in Aegasu’s lifetime.
A pleasant smile lifts to Dandilan’s lips. “For a backwater settlement on the edge of the Fallen, this place has spectacular architecture,” he says. “Despite the current clutter.”
“The Crescent Keep was once the summer home of the Emerald Emperor. He enjoyed gazing into the Shear,” explains Aegasu.
Dandilan waves his hands dismissively. “Yes. Yes. History. It’s only important if someone cares. And I don’t.”
With an abrupt jerk, Dandilan notices the huge press that commands the center of the living room.
“What in the sun’s tail is that?” asks Dandilan, clearly repulsed.
The marble rollers are stained with mal root pulp. Aegasu hadn’t cleaned up since the last batch.
“A malpaper press,” explains Aegasu.
“Oh bother, that’s right. The mage Felwey is a master of paper. I can’t understand why the Seneschal would employ such a rube in his retinue,” he says. “I’m sure you’ll be much happier with me. Fire beats paper every time.”
Aegasu furrows his brow. An enchainer bound with fire. A troublesome revelation.
Knowing that no good can come of his continuing deception, Aegasu clears his throat, readying an apology when Dandilan spots the open door to the balcony. Dandilan weaves through the piles of mal roots, stacks of paper and random artifices to reach the balcony before Aegasu can say otherwise.
Aegasu catches up to Dandilan on the balcony. The enchainer leans over the stone railing, staring at the clouds below.
Then, the man catches sight of the bloated sun passing behind Emerald Peak. The sun’s tail can be seen quite clearly, trailing away from the red-orange mass like a fiery whip.
“I’ve never seen the Tail so clearly before,” he says.
“We’re near the upper atmosphere and the peak blocks enough light for us to witness it,” Aegasu explains.
For a little while, Dandilan stays still, enraptured by the sun’s tail.
Aegasu feels the same way when he gazes upon it and a poem he learned when he was a child comes rumbling up from long memory. Aegasu speaks the words like a prayer:
Hark our crimson sentinel
Caught within the Eater’s Maw
Crust shorn and mountains tremble
Until the Breaking came
Not the might of the Sorcerer Kings
Nor the will of the Sha’thazhu
Could keep our fragile home
From shaking into dust
Until the Child-God
Spoke the telling words
And with a paper heart
Took the world enchain
Dandilan rounds on him as the poem ends, his eyes wide with understanding. “You’re Aegasu. You’ve been playing me false.”
“I have played you nothing,” says Aegasu simply.
Without the court garb, Aegasu might have felt the slight twinge of intimidation as the Dandilan’s face was red with fury. But given the bright colors and flippant laces hanging from every hem, Aegasu could barely constrain the corners of his lips from curling upward.
“I’ll have you know that I plan to call for Challenge,” he says.
Aegasu pauses, which in turn lights up Dandilan’s face.
Now he understands why the man has called on him. Sizing him up and scouting out his quarters. He would never have let him in otherwise.
Dandilan smirks. “Yes, you’re wondering how I can call for Challenge so quickly. The Emperor sent me along with a letter of recommendation.”
Aegasu hadn’t actually wondered. He assumes something of the sort. Dandilan said so only because he wants to show his favor with the Emperor.
Aegasu shrugs away the words, infuriating Dandilan even more.
Dandilan holds up his left hand, displaying his ring-covered little finger for examination.
“Silver etched with gold,” he says proudly. “Youngest ever to receive that rank at the Court. And higher than your plain silver.”
Truthfully, Aegasu is impressed at silver etched with gold at his age. The young enchainer shows great promise.
Aegasu holds up his little finger in bored fashion, because he truly is bored. Games of power are made for younger men than he.
“You mistake my ring for silver,” says Aegasu. “It is platinum.”
Aegasu could have let him believe the silver, only to lure him into underestimating him, but even an old man has his pride. And the look of shock is worth the loss of advantage.
“But—But…you make magic with paper,” he says incredulously.
“Fragile things have a special power,” Aegasu explains, pulling out a sheet of malpaper from his robe and quickly folding it into a dart with a hard paper tip. Aegasu blows just a touch of his essence into the paper dart, half-closes his eyes and concentrates on the inner demon bound to his soul.
The dart springs from his hand like it’d been launched from a catapult and rips through Dandilan’s billowing sleeve before it imbeds itself into the stone behind.
The silence is less impressive than he’d hoped.
Dandilan laughs a moment later and touches his finger to the dart. The paper blackens, then bursts into flame.
“Fire beats paper, old man,” he says. “I told you that already.”
Aegasu sighs in disappointment. He begins rolling paper produced from his robe into tight tubes. Using a vial of quick drying glue, he binds the rolls together.
“But fire cannot create. It only destroys. Though paper seems small and fragile.” He sets the collection of tubes on the ground, open ends facing upward like a short pedestal. “It can be used to reach great heights.”
Aegasu steps onto the paper pedestal and claps his hands once.
“That’s not magic,” says Dandilan. “That’s just a trick.”
“Just because we can do magic doesn’t mean we should. Each time we do, it gives the demon we have enchained a stronger hold on us. Which eventually leads to madness and death,” says Aegasu.
At the mention, Aegasu feels his demon waking slightly from its slumber. A rustle at the base of his spine and a tingle across his palms is all it manages. Then it returns to sleep, convinced that nothing will happen.
Dandilan rolls his eyes, pulls up his sleeves and gathers an inward force. Steam erupts across his arms.
Aegasu takes note of the enchainers taint. Blackish-red tendrils of stain travel up his arm. Too much for an enchainer of his age.
When at last Dandilan seems to come to some internal conclusion, a great bout of fire bellows from his hands, snaking forth to whip and burn the very air itself.
Aegasu detects a slight fattening of a tendril on Dandilan’s arm before he puts the sleeve down.
“Impressive, yet foolish,” says Aegasu, regretting the words instantly. He doesn’t want to make an enemy of the man, despite the call for Challenge. Or drive a fellow enchainer to overuse his powers.
“You’re the fool, old man. You’ll be out on the street in a week’s time.” Dandilan leans against the balcony. “This view is wasted on you.”
“I conduct my research from that location,” says Aegasu.
The intruding enchainer’s face wrinkles in a mixture of laughter and mocking. Aegasu tries not to react, but even his pride has limits and the demon wakes again.
“So it’s true then?” asks Dandilan. “You actually believe the Fallen Lands hold some secret? That greenery still lives below?”
Aegasu does not answer him, but his silence only goads the man further.
“It is known that nothing lives there without the light of the sun and that the land is thick with poisonous gases,” says Dandilan, pausing and stalking around Aegasu, as if he’s lecturing a disobedient child. “Why do you think nothing has attacked us from those lands in untold centuries. It is all dead!”
“Then why do you wish to Challenge me?” he asks, trying to deflect the man’s ire. “Aren’t the courts of El’ort more suited to your talents?”
Dandilan smirks, and then thoughts pass mischievously across his face, as he tries to determine if he can confide in his fellow enchainer, despite the Challenge. He shrugs, denoting the conclusion of his thoughts.
“It is known that the airs above the Emerald Peak are well suited to enchaining great wind beasts,” he says. “I wish to make them my study for a while, before I make my triumphant return to court.”
The Emerald Peak is a prime location to enchain horrible, sightless demons from other realms. Aegasu knows because that is how he obtained his. But he knows Dandilan already has a demon.
Which means he intends to create a poppet. Most likely one to bring back and with, sell his services to an Exarch. The right demon, enchained to the right poppet, would make a fearsome foe on the battlefield.
Being denied an opportunity to continue his research would almost be as bad as what Dandilan would unleash on their fragile world.
Aegasu holds his hands out indicating the sky beneath them, hoping to defuse the subject. “Let us not bicker while the stolen sun slowly tears the world apart, ‘cept for the ministrations of our Child-God,” says Aegasu. “I did not mean you a fool. Only that it was foolish to waste such efforts while our world lies in peril.”
Dandilan laughs once–short and cutting–and Aegasu marks how quickly the man goes from manic to fury and back.
“The Child-God is a myth,” says Dandilan. “And the world is not in peril in my lifetime. You end-of-worlders are fools. Just because the sun has a funny tail doesn’t mean the world will end.”
The words drive Aegasu to grab Dandilan by the arm with a surprising amount of strength.
“Do not speak of ill of the Child-God. She enchained world and saved us from the stolen sun. I have seen the Needle of the Gods and felt the thrum of her power.”
Dandilan opens his mouth to speak, but Aegasu cuts him off, trying to restrain his own emotions as he does so. When he grabbed Dandilan’s arm in anger, he felt his demon enhance his grip.
Before speaking again, he calms himself. “Power should never be a hammer. Those displays are an inefficient waste.”
Dandilan tries to pull away, but Aegasu holds him fast, this time through sheer effort.
“It’s the reason I study paper, so I don’t use any more force than necessary,” he explains. “I hold my power with a paper heart, as the Child-God teaches.”
Dandilan’s arm grows warm to the touch, so Aegasu lets go. The young mage shoulders past into the main living quarters. Halfway to the door, he stops and stares at the mostly empty bowl of nuts.
“You never offered me Ha’luth,” he says.
Aegasu holds his patience with clenched teeth. “Fine,” he says, holding out the bowl. “As your humble host, I would be honored if you would have a bite to eat.”
Dandilan throws a disgusted glance at the bowl and picks out a noudle.
He eats the bitter nut in one bite, grimacing until he can chew it enough to swallow and spits the husk onto the floor when he’s done.
Dandilan looks to Aegasu expectantly when the noudle is gone. At first, Aegasu is confused. Normally, a guest only eats part of the offering, thus leaving the gift in limbo so the host doesn’t have to offer another.
Aegasu holds the bowl out. Dandilan eats the second and spits the husk on the floor defiantly.
The grin rises to Dandilian’s face as he’s clearly looking at something behind the old man. Aegasu turns to see what it is and his heart drops when he sees the malpaper sailboat swimming eagerly in its brass bin.
“I wish that as my Ha’luth,” said Dandilan, the triumph evident on his lips.
Aegasu wants to protest, to cry foul. But he has no one to blame except himself.
He retrieves the boat and hands it to Dandilan, who grabs it roughly, crinkling the sail as he stalks from the room without another word.
The only bright spot to the tragedy is that the sailboat had not been made with an enchainment of his soul. Instead he’d used a fark. Dandilan would gain no advantage over him for his Ha’luth.
But Aegasu felt sadness anyway. He’d enchained the sailboat with great care, choosing a fark through the planar membrane that would benefit from the enslavement. The tiny scaled creature had been battered from an encounter with a predator and had happily accepted the link.
Dandilan would probably kill the poor creature in his examination. Or at least ignore its care.
Aegasu dips his hand into the stilled surface of the water and lets loose a heavy sigh. He knows what he needs to do now.
He must go to the Seneschal right away, because there’s only one thing he can do to help him survive this Challenge.
He must call for it himself.
Aegasu keeps a passive facade, even though he’s enjoying the tantrum.
“The Challenge states that any enchainer may call it,” explains the Seneschal, clearly annoyed by the outburst.
The Seneschal’s dark bald head drips with sweat in the warm confines of the Spire. He has eschewed the formal robes since he is there by ceremony only, but the heavy silks of his office still lay heavily on his stocky frame.
Thoughts that the Seneschal might be sympathetic to his cause are dashed by a telling glance. The man has never agreed with Aegasu’s opinions about the Fallen Lands.
“But, but…I’m–” Dandilan swallows his words, realizing the other enchainers are watching.
Clearly exasperated, Dandilan makes a sudden movement and cuts his arm on his formal robes.
The robes the five enchainers wear symbolize the discipline required to practice of their craft. Razor thin steel hides in the voluminous folds of the white robes creating a hazard of movement.
Dandilan closes his eyes and with a steaming finger, careful not to cut himself again, cauterizes the cut on his arm. The robe however has already been stained by his blood.
Aegasu sees signs of other old stains on his robe. Aegasu’s remains white, unmarred by blood, despite his age.
The Seneschal clears his throat, reminding Dandilan that they wait on him alone. Once he has turned his attention back to the others, the Seneschal completes the formalities.
First to leave, Dandilan pulls something from beneath his robes, crumples it and throws it at Aegasu. Aegasu’s weary heart nearly gives out as he realizes what the wadded malpaper ball is.
Aegasu kneels to the ground and carefully picks up the wad. Then, with tenderness, he unfolds the wad until it takes the shape of the sailboat once more.
The other enchainers are watching him, so he bites back the urge to cry. They mock him enough in their cups, about being a useless old man. Even winning the Challenge will not change that.
Instead, Aegasu straightens the paper until its sailboat form, though unavoidably wrinkled, can be clearly seen. He plans to take it back to his living quarters and give it a proper send off into the Shear, when he feels it wiggle in his grasp.
Aegasu stands, straining to get upright as his knees crack with age. He holds the sailboat in his outstretched hand, and whispers quietly, reminding it that it’s precious and bespoke and can return to sailing in its copper bin the moment he gets back to his rooms.
The sailboat wags in response, bringing a smile to Aegasu’s heart.
Aegasu wakes to the sounds of coughing.
The Seneschal kneels beside him on the balcony. The other enchainers wait in the background.
The sadness on their faces squashes his hopes.
“You pushed yourself too hard,” lectures the Seneschal. “You’re too old for duels.”
The Seneschal grimaces inwardly, visibly chastising himself.
“My apologies, Aegasu,” he says, more kindly. “You were only to lose and give up position to Dandilan. I wouldn’t have exiled you as the law suggests. You’ve done great service to the Crescent Keep and I would have allowed you to stay on as my envoy. It has a pittance of a salary, but….”
The Seneschal pauses. The other enchainers turn away from his gaze when he glances over the Seneschal’s shoulder.
Aegasu pats the Seneschal on the hand.
“I knew what I was doing when I offered the wager,” he says. “The terror-bird is a precious tool and I did not want it leaving the Crescent should I win. We might begin to understand the Fallen lands again.”
Aegasu sits up, feeling a surprising amount of vigor despite his duel.
“We tried to talk Dandilan out of the wager, saying it was too cruel a fate for a fellow enchainer, but he’ll have none of it. And the nobles heard it, otherwise we could have just ignored him,” explains the Seneschal apologetically.
Aegasu gets to his feet and checks around the room.
“My poppet. It did not perish in the flight,” he says. “Has it returned?”
“Yes,” says the Seneschal.
A brass cage is brought to Aegasu. Inside, the paper bird cocks its head, watching him.
Aegasu opens the cage and takes the bird out. A strange sensation emanates from the bird. One he can’t categorize.
Then again, he’d never put so much of himself in the bird, nor had one of his birds returned. Usually they were smashed upon the rocks of the Shear and he had to regenerate that lost bit of soul over time.
The bird hops up his arm and pushes his head against his chin, much like a cat might do.
Well, it is my soul, he thinks.
Then, it pushes again and opens its beak.
Something green is lodged in the bird’s throat.
Aegasu chuckles even though his fate has been horribly sealed (and as an old man, he knows he has a special right to laugh during grim times.)
At least the loss has brought proof of his long standing research. The duel pushed him past his fears, allowing him to finally reach the Fallen Lands with a poppet.
Aegasu rubs the bird’s beak, coaxing it open so he can retrieve the green object.
How ironic. “It’s a shame that my poppet did not arrive first,” he says.
The Seneschal’s head whips around. The other enchainers stop mulling around and look his way.
“What did you say?” they ask him.
“My poppet. It’s a shame it didn’t arrive first. It has a leaf in its throat.”
Aegasu reaches his fingers into the birds mouth and removes the leaf.
The leaf feels cool and spongy in his fingertips. He’d never touched one before. The Sky Plateau was devoid of greenery, save the bone trees, which didn’t count at all.
Aegasu looks up to see the Seneschal staring blankly at him.
“What?” he asks.
“Your poppet did arrive first,” says the Seneschal.
The malpaper bird, as if reading his intentions, grabs the leaf and flies it to the Seneschal.
The Seneschal’s head dips low as he considers the ramifications. “In times long past, the Crescent Keep had been a defense against the Fallen Lands,” he says after a time, his voice heavy with thought. “Now it must become a launching point for exploration.”
He pauses, taking in his surroundings before he begins. The apartments near his now flicker with the lights of the other enchainers. They have come to learn the currents of the Shear.
Tomorrow he will give his first lesson, but tonight his body thrums with forgotten emotions. He feels like a young man, head long after his first kiss and his skin prickles with the anointment of expectation.
The bird darts past his head, anxiously reminding him it is ready to begin. And so is he.
Before releasing it, he glances down to the sailboat, swimming eagerly in a bin three times as large as its previous. And he smiles.
Then he releases the bird.
His heart soars.
Thomas K. Carpenter writes in diverse genres including YA dystopia, post-cyberpunk, dark and gritty fantasy, greekpunk, and alternate reality historical mystery. His latest series, the Alexandrian Saga, has garnered rave reviews from readers and critics. His best-selling novels and short stories can be found at all major online retailers. He lives in St. Louis with his wife, two kids, and one oafishly large Labrador retriever. Visit him online at www.thomaskcarpenter.com.