‘Fain knew at once what had happened – he had travelled back in time as he had wished, but his clothing hadn’t. "I’ve read about how tricky this wishing game can be. Genies seem to revel in deliberately misunderstanding the simplest orders."'
Looping through his own past and offending kings and leaders throughout the world, Fain searches for the means to wisely direct his new powers.
His quest grows increasingly vivid as he encounters monsters, mermaids, warlocks and autarchs, gathering richer understanding with each magic gift. With an introduction by Alan Moore, Fain the Sorcerer is a dense and mischievous work of shamanic satire.
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Fain the Sorcerer
By Steve Aylett
Serif BooksCopyright © 2015 Steve Aylett
All rights reserved.
In which Fain shows up with a lemon
Here's the whole story of how Fain the Gardener became Fain the Sorcerer. But I'll tell it quickly by leaving out the lies.
The King of Envashes offered a reward to whoever could awake his daughter, who had been sent to sleep by a necromancer. This was a tradition in those days: it gave everyone something to chat about other than pigs, and something to think about other than what was important.
Fain visited the court with the intention of squishing a half-lemon onto the nose of the princess, or perhaps simply shouting at her, or both. 'Or perhaps,' he thought, 'when the time comes, I won't be bothered to do either.' For Fain was a young man of his own mind and no-one else's.
But as Fain entered the audience room and saw the King awaiting on his throne, he happened to see also a miming, pranking moron who pulled faces at empty air and generally acted the fool. Enraged by the clown, Fain flew at him and smashed him to the floor, strangling the jangling jester as the whole court protested and claimed they were appalled. Finished, Fain stood to regain his composure as everyone cried out against him. 'He has destroyed the neck of the King's jester!' they announced, and called guards upon Fain. Fain was obliged to run outside, steal a beautiful horse and escape into the forest.
Though a mere labourer and odd-job man, Fain knew the business with the Princess was meant to distract the common people from rebelling against the King and other woes. 'With the spectacle I'm providing,' Fain thought, 'you would have thought the King would be grateful.'
Arriving at the mossy mouth of a cave, he was confronted by a ragged, one-armed man who staggered out with a jug jammed down over his head. 'You!' Fain shouted at the man, leaping from the horse and thwacking it into a run. 'Idiot! I must hide in your cave.'
'Take the jar from my head, and the cave is yours,' the man was saying as Fain knocked him aside and the jar smashed upon a rocky ledge. The tangle-bearded old man shouted 'Land of beer, nook of pine!' or something like that, but seemed quite happy. He picked up a few of the jar shards and scampered after Fain into the cave. Fain was explaining the anger he had incited at court by killing a mime.
'What was your crime?' croaked the old man.
'For the throttling of that stupid clown I'm being hunted by one and all — they'll probably follow the horse awhile, then double back and stab me.'
'Not you,' the old man chortled, and began dancing around the smashed pottery. 'For this urn is enchanted, and it falls to you, its destroyer in good faith, to receive its final three wishes. The old man you see cannot benefit from it — only others may. Choose!'
'Three wishes is it?' thought Fain. 'He's probably a total nutter but just in case, I'd better choose carefully.' For he knew such situations are notoriously sticky and fraught with unforeseen consequences. Magical literature was full of stories of impulsive dreamers asking for stupid things like 'an endless supply of sardines' and so on. Fain considered his options as carefully as he could with the threat of capture upon him. Then he piped up. 'Alright, old man — if this broken rubbish really does have the power to grant wishes, here are mine. One, that I can travel into the past to whatever time I wish, at will. Two, that I be given the knowledge of how to wake the Princess up at the castle. And three, that I have an endless supply of sardines.'
'You choose well, young stranger,' cackled the old lunatic.
Fain felt no different, and immediately wondered why he'd stood here in the cave mouth wasting his time with this dodgy relic.
But as he stormed out of the cave he saw the King's riders bearing down on him, the lead man drawing his sword with a yell. 'There's the villain now!'
As the sword drove toward him, Fain wished he could go back and do it all differently. The entire scene blurred as though he were falling backward over a cliff, the view rushing away from him. And indeed the wind was knocked out of him as he landed in the previous day, completely naked.CHAPTER 2
In which Fain yells at the Princess
Fain knew at once what had happened — he had travelled back in time as he had wished, but his clothing hadn't. 'I've read about how tricky this wishing game can be. Genies seem to revel in deliberately misunderstanding the simplest orders.'
He looked for the old one-armed man at the cave-mouth but found nothing — not even the pieces of urn, because of course it had not yet been broken. He found a cottage nearby and stole a ragged shirt and trousers from the washing line. And he made his way to the castle, at which he had not yet disgraced himself. Nobody was interested in chasing him or ordering his death.
'You claim, like so many others, to be able to awake my daughter from her month-long slumber?' the King asked him without enthusiasm. The atmosphere at court was gloomy and despondent, courtiers glumly flicking the pennants. 'You realise she was enchanted by Hackler Thorn, the greatest sorcerer in the world?'
'I am the greater sorcerer, Your Majesty,' Fain lied. 'I can start waking her right away, if it's convenient.'
'You're a spirited young man. I hope, for your sake, that your confidence is well-founded.'
Fain was taken to the Princess's sick room, where she lay in a bed of yellow shot silk. Fain was surprised to find that she really was beautiful, not the bland blonde that princesses generally tend to be. She was all the colours of a playing card, with sky-white skin, jet black hair and a big mouth like a target. Fain thought on the matter of how to wake her, and found that he indeed possessed the knowledge, in accordance with his wish. 'Yes, I see what's happened — Thorn gave her a brief glimpse of a universe of possibilities. As a result she's utterly bored, your Majesty — by you, the court, the castle, the kingdom. Even at her young age it's years since she heard an original idea. I'll yell one in her ear and Bob's your royal uncle. Alright?' And crouching at the Princess's pale ear, he shouted 'Thursday and Saturday are the same day going under different names!'
And the Princess roused, much to the King's delight. 'What joy!' he cried. 'Send forth the word — the Princess is awake! We celebrate! Where is my jester?'
The jester pranced in to find his throat received and constricted by Fain, who shook him like a flag.
Pretty soon Fain was once again riding through the forest, the King's men in pursuit. 'At least,' he thought, 'I have released the Princess. But now that I've wrecked my chances at court by killing that mime again, I may as well carry out the other part of my plan — to meet with the old man and get another three wishes for myself. For as far as he's concerned, he hasn't met me yet.' He found the old man sitting in the cave mouth and thought to himself 'That moron will sit with that thing on his head for at least another day without my help.'
'You! Idiot!' he shouted at the man, leaping from the horse and thrashing it into a run. 'I must hide in your cave.'
'Take this jar from —'
Fain knocked him against the mossy wall, shattering the urn and freeing the man's head. The man cried 'When you merely look, you pine!' or something like that. As the codger told him about the three wishes, Fain pretended it was the first he'd heard of all this. 'Only three wishes? Well, you can help me with a problem. I happen to possess the ability to travel into the past — now for my first wish I want to magic my garments back in time also, to save the inconvenience of appearing suddenly naked throughout history. Second, I of course need a constant supply of gold coins to appear in my pockets, no matter how much cash I remove. And third, I wish to travel instantly to the place where Thorn the Warlock enchanted the princess a month ago, yet an hour before it occurred.' For Fain could not stop thinking about the Princess.
'You choose well, young stranger,' cackled the old lunatic.
The day blinked and Fain stood completely naked in the massive audience hall of Thorn the Warlock.CHAPTER 3
In which Fain pushes his luck with a real sorcerer
At first the Warlock seemed to be a pillar of innards, and then a rearing black serpent with transparent wings — and finally a fork-bearded skeleton, each bone of which was wrapped individually in its own snakeskin envelope. In the tradition of wizard kings, a living coat of arms was massed on the wall behind him, operative lengths of bone and muscle levering like a water clock. The Princess knelt near to Thorn's throne, her hands chained behind her.
'Who let the gardener in here?' bellowed the cloaked cadaver, and Fain thought the remark appropriate, as the hall's walls were encrusted with gargoyles so over-elaborate they looked like cabbages. 'Guards — take this wretch to the bird room and let him rot there.'
Fain was about to protest when he saw that the gargoyles were climbing down from the walls and crouching toward him.
Fain was still wondering about the clothing situation. 'Next time I'll have to specify that my clothes go with me from place to place, as well as from one time period to another. Does that magical madman keep landing me in it deliberately?'
Three of the gruesome sentinels took him down a maze of corridors past a hellhound kennel, a torture chamber, a green monster standing idle with an exploded face like a thistle, and a kitchen, and finally into the bird room, a high chamber with dove skeletons flying about the place and stone windows open to the air and sea. Fain was thrown into a domed cage and the door swung closed upon him. Two of the guards departed and the last, a hulking mutant with the scrolled horns of a goat, winched the cage upward to the ceiling. 'He can pull out your soul like a cork,' said the creature. 'You will die more slowly this way. My name is Tefnut. Goodbye.'
'Wait!' Fain called out. 'Give me a coat or shirt for warmth. That long-coat on the wall, perhaps.'
'I swear, Tefnut, the instant you give me ownership of that coat, I can reward you with a hundred gold coins.' For Fain knew he could draw endless cash from his pockets, if only he had any pockets.
'You're raving,' said Tefnut.
'Very well. Then tell me this — did this cage lay upon the floor a half-hour ago?'
'You should be in a cuckoo clock, I think,' laughed Tefnut.
Fain wished himself a half-hour back in time and fell from a point in mid-air, with no cage about him, for at this point in time the cage had yet to be winched upward. He was alone. Fain dressed himself in the coat and set out toward the great hall, stopping off at the kitchen to steal a cabbage. 'Invisibility would be useful for this lark,' he thought. 'I'll bear that in mind for the next time I meet the old cave-dweller.' As he arrived at the hall, Thorn was entering by the opposite door, dragging the Princess after him. Fain, with the outer layers of the cabbage shoved over his head, hunched over and shouted something like 'Master — the hellhounds have escaped, the apes are rebelling, a dragon has decided to bite your face, a tornado is coming, flowers everywhere have unclenched like fists, there's a fire in the kitchen and everywhere else, and the King has discovered the location of your lair and sent armies against you.'
'Well, I haven't got any apes,' said the warlock, 'but anyway I suppose I'll have to postpone my demand for marriage, m'dear.'
'I'm flattered,' said Fain, but the warlock was too busy to become enraged. He was giving the order to send out the fleet and guardgoyles were scampering in all directions. Fain grabbed the Princess and soon they were rushing aboard a warship and casting off. 'Gold coins for everyone in return for not killing me!' he cried, pulling cash from his pockets and ordering the crew to head toward Envashes. Soon they had left behind Thorn's island and his departing fleet.
At sunset, Fain met the Princess on deck. 'I seem fated to be hauled back and forth like cargo,' she snapped.
'My apologies, madam,' he told her. 'If I had planned ahead, this journey would not have been necessary. What is your name?'
'How did Thorn bring you here?'
'Flight, of course! And here I am wishing merely to keep my trousers on!'
'I beg your pardon?'
Fain felt he had squandered his wishes — and now he had to travel by normal means, at a normal rate, for a whole month before he would get another chance to add to his gifts.
And all the while the ship was heading in the wrong direction.CHAPTER 4
In which Fain provokes the crew
In the middle of the Purge Sea it became clear that the crew hated Fain. He had dressed himself in a silk shirt and some baggy Turkish pantaloons, though he kept his coat on for warmth and for the production of the crew's wages. He had to haul hundreds of gold pieces from his pockets every morning to keep the monstrous sailors sweet, but the sheer accumulated weight of this bounty soon had the ship riding low in the water. 'Women are bad luck,' said the crew, looking at the Princess, 'as are men who dress like women,' they added, looking at Fain. They sneered that Fain's magic was weak compared to that of the mighty Thorn, and complained that they had nothing to eat but fish. Fain warned them to stand back and, announcing that he would give them abundant food by sorcery, conjured hundreds of sardines from thin air. Roaring with indignation, the crew threw him overboard.
Though Fain could swim, he realised that he was sinking like a stone, weighed down by the gold in his pockets. He jettisoned handful after handful of gold but the pockets continually re-filled as he descended through the dark brine. 'Though it's extremely useful in a thousand other situations,' he reminded himself pragmatically as he fell into unconsciousness.CHAPTER 5
In which Fain meets a mermaid
Fain awoke in the upturned hulk of a galleon. He had been laid out on a table which floated near to a ceiling which had once been the floor. Boggle-eyed fish peered in through the cloudy windows and only seemed to find his shouting and arm-waving all the more fascinating. There was also a lot of sifting scum which didn't seem to have any firm idea where it wanted to go. Fain slumped back, feeling useless.
Becoming sleepy and glimpsing black underwater souls, Fain was awoken by a mermaid with scales of green silver, a mother-of-pearl face and golden-ochre eyes. For a day the mermaid sustained the air in the wreck by hauling down the inverted shell of a giant mollusc and upending it inside the cabin. The following morning she took Fain to the beach of a small island.
For weeks Fain lived here. Sleeping on the beach was like being in the palm of nature's hand. The mermaid showed him seaweed which, when the observer made the small effort to forget that it was seaweed, showed itself to be a ribbon of runes. She taught him to breathe underwater by explaining that it was the same as not breathing when out of water — something millions of mortal men had achieved. They swam over the ember glow of coral reefs. Here trailed the fine biology of lace creatures, varicose jellyfish and honeycomb skeins of yellow which the mermaid seemed to tell him in her slow, low, bubbling voice were part of the sea's mind. She taught him to see the liquid gold architecture of ocean currents as leaves of art flitted past. Fishes with silver throats poured through the old slimy ship offshore, a galleon forgotten into murk. It looked different to him now, the furred cabin a good dark shell for shy eels and a landscape for snails like walking doorknobs. It seemed books, too, were improved by the sea — dipped into it, even the slimmest plumped up.
But like a fool — indeed so like a fool he was one — Fain found a way to escape this sun trap. Laying in the shallow surf with the mermaid one day, the sea leaving hieroglyphs in the sand around them, he heard her tell of a conch shell through which he could speak into the dreams of any person anywhere. 'None of my scant magic can transport me across the world,' he thought. 'But I can call someone who does have that power.'
As the mermaid looked on with a puzzled smile, he spoke into the shell: 'Hackler Thorn is so insignificant no-one even bothers to really hate him, and what serves as his brain is a sort of thin gas such as you'd find ghosting in the ribcage of a chicken dead for nine years. So says Fain the Sorcerer!'
Fain retrieved his coat and clothing, kissed the mermaid's hard glossy head and told her to hide in the sea. He felt something strange in his belly as he watched her broad silver tail slap out of view beneath the green waves. And he was still wondering about it when Hackler Thorn landed on the beach astride a black rose dragon. Today Thorn was spectral and glabrous like a newborn moon-baby. He also had fangs where a milder man would have had eyelashes, and these clicked when he blinked — which was three times during the following exchange.
'Fain. I am not alone in wondering whether you are a spud. Yours is the stupidity of which men have known by fabulous report alone — until now.'
'It seems idiots no longer mask their identities but boast of their ignorance. I've a longstanding policy of clouting such creatures to the grave.'
'I'll not fight with you, nor your male equivalent.'
Thorn blinked for the third time, and then produced a grey metal sphere from his saddlebag. 'Do you know what this is?'
Excerpted from Fain the Sorcerer by Steve Aylett. Copyright © 2015 Steve Aylett. Excerpted by permission of Serif Books.
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