The Last Page - By Anthony Huso

THE LAST PAGE

CHAPTER 1

Caliph Howl carried a thin paper-wrapped package across the well-tended lawns of the High College. Today was the day of his revenge.

Tattered shadows slid back and forth under a canopy of danson trees. The old stone buildings of Desdae warmed themselves in the sun like ancient mythic things, encrusted with gargoyles and piled with crippling tons of angled slate. Thirty of the buildings belonged to the township. The other eighteen belonged to the college. Two camps with an uneasy truce watched each other across the lake that separated them; collectively known by one name, Desdae: the gray hamlet of higher learning that crouched at the foothills of the mighty Healean Range.

Behind the campus’ thick walls, Caliph knew theory-haunted professors wasted away, frisking books for answers, winnowing grains of truth, pulling secrets like teeth from deep esoteric sockets. This was a quiet war zone where holomorphs and panomancers cast desperately for new ideas, compiling research with frenetic precision.

Desdae might be far away from the mechanized grit of cities like Isca, it might be quiet and sullen, but it wasn’t simple. It had small-town villains and small-town gossip and, he thought, small-town skullduggery as well.

Caliph tugged the library’s massive door and cracked the seal on the tomblike aromas: dust, buttery wood polish and ancient books.

He scanned for the librarian and slunk smoothly into the aisles.

The system that organized the library was like most other products of northern bureaucracy: a premeditated torture inflicted by the personal preferences of the man in charge. The system required students to memorize the stone busts of dead scholars, thereby reinforcing the school motto, “Truth, Light, Chastity and [especially] Hard Work.” The busts marked ogive-shaped burrows into labyrinthine stacks where freshmen soon learned to associate topic and location with the scholar representing a given area of study. Those who didn’t, doomed themselves to hours of wandering.

Caliph knew almost all two hundred sixty-three stone heads’ names and birth dates as if they had been kin.

Freshmen who became hopelessly lost had two choices: browse endlessly or pay the expedition fee senior students demanded in exchange for a path to wisdom.

Senior students typically charged one bek for two books. Caliph had quickly become one of the profiteers.

Four more years and he would graduate. Halfway to the embossed vellum that would list the three foci of his degree: economics, diplomacy and holomorphy. He turned down an aisle marked with the bust of Timmon Barbas, born Century of Wind, Year of the Wolverine. Timmon Barbas had been one of the most brilliant military strategists to see siege engines roar.

Caliph gently ran his finger across the leather spines as he walked. Anticipation swelled his stomach and a faint smile marked his still boyish lips.

Roric Feldman would come to the library after lunch today, looking for Timmon Barbas’ book, The Fall of Bendain. Though only forty-seven pages in length, Caliph knew every word of it from beginning to end. He knew every stitch in the binding, every scuff in the cover, every worn and dog-eared page.

He had written it himself.

Not a bad bit of forgery. Every page had been individually aged and penned in the old tactician’s handwriting. The cover and binding Caliph felt particularly proud of, embossed and tooled and edged with metal just like the real thing. Even the rust was authentic.

The Fall of Bendain had not yet been reprinted. Though the new press from Pandragor, dripping with grease and possibilities, would eventually churn out copies, other textbooks had taken priority: lisgl’s Physics Compendium for instance, and Blood: A Holomorph’s Guide, which for any student of the discipline was an absolute must.

In another year or two or five, Caliph’s careful forgery might not have been feasible. Today, however, the window of opportunity swung wide open.

Morgan Gullows, Caliph’s tutor in the Unknown Tongue, had almost caught him aging treated paper over a gas flue. With first draft in hand, Caliph’s plan had nearly been discovered. Thankfully, Gullows was a recluse and rarely looked at anyone directly. He had muttered something unintelligible and shambled off, leaving Caliph to watch his paper catch fire.

The whole test had gone up in a mushroom of smoke and shriveled ash.

From then on, Caliph had exercised every precaution he could think of, stowing his drafts and materials behind the massive radiator in Nasril Hall. He wheedled his way into a job organizing the whirring ticking office of Silas Culden where he graded midterms.

Silas loathed every minute taken up by class-related chores. Twice a week he dumped a slippery

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