The Unborn God

Issue #150 - Special Double-Issue

There were black kites of the god’s priests aloft in the evenings, fabric dark against the sky. I could tell that it troubled the wizard, though he said nothing. Sylva had volunteered to leave the flying house, to scout them where they hung and carry them away, but the wizard had refused.

“He thinks I would not come back,” she explained to me, spilling around me like mist. “If we fly too far from his house, we lose our way. We forget.”

“Is that what happened to the others?”

Papers shuffled on the desk before me. Her hands were the wind. “Perhaps.”

I was writing with a quill the wizard had fashioned me. It was a tail-feather from one of the large black birds that roosted in the upper levels of the house. I had been his servant for less than a week (though time quickly became stretched in odd directions inside the house’s walls, and the only way to mark it was the inscrutable concentric rings of the timepiece by the entrance) on the day he sent me to find a bird and pluck its feather.

“Here are the words you must say,” the wizard told me then, leaning over the map table in the center of the house. He made me repeat them.

It was my first taste of magic, and it felt metallic on my tongue. The words hummed as I shaped them, setting my teeth on edge and numbing my throat as they passed.

“He must see you when you speak. You must look him in the eye.” The wizard’s own were on mine now; or rather, the polished bits of marble in the place of his eyes by which he somehow saw.

The interior of the wizard’s house was shaped like a domed rotunda, though viewed from without it drifted through clear skies as a lone cumulus, its windows and doorway invisible to anyone observing from below. The first floor was dominated by the map table at its center and its walls broken at regular intervals by tall, narrow windows. Each level above formed a balcony running the circumference of the house and was usually lined with books. It was impossible to tell how many levels there were, and each overhung the next as the dome arched toward its peak. Mists hid the highest reaches, and enormous skeletons and preserved creatures were suspended from the unseen ceiling.

There was a single spiraling staircase connecting each level, but these rose at different points along the circumference of each floor so that moving upward between balconies was never direct. In addition, no staircase—and the staircases were the most ornate aspect of the wizard’s house; silver and carved of bone or ivory—seemed fixed in location. They moved, in fact, according to a specific pattern, though I did not realize this until the wizard fell from the house.

On the day I fetched the quill, I found one of the large black birds after climbing through at least eight levels of the house. It was perched on a railing opposite a wall of shelves filled with glass jars each containing a human hand suspended in colored oil.

I cleared my throat, hoping the bird would look toward me. In response, it took wing and circled the suspended bones of a rock-whale to perch again on a railing three balconies higher. It might have been a raven or a rook but for its a bright azure beak.

I sighed heavily and started upward once more.

When I reached it the second time, now opposite a wide desk of scattered scrolls and spots of ink, the bird cocked its head to study my approach. I spoke the words the wizard had given me. I could not tell that they had any immediate effect, save once again feeling heavy and deadening in my mouth, but the bird remained impassive as I approached and tugged from its tail a long, black feather.

It was only when I broke eye contact that the bird screeched and speared the back of my hand with its blue beak. I was still nursing the gash when I returned to the wizard.

“Good,” he said. He took the ebony feather and notched it with a tiny silver knife. “It must taste blood before it takes ink.”

I showed him my hand.

“Hold it out.”

I did, and then shouted and tried to pull away when he pushed the shaft of the feather into my wound. When he withdrew it, the barbs of the feather were streaked with red as though it had drawn up blood as a tree takes water.

“Sylva will bring you something for the wound,” he said, releasing my arm. I held the wound with my other hand, pressing down until it throbbed.

“You must learn to write.” The wizard moved back to the table in the house’s center.

When I had first come to his house (by night in the airship with my poisoned father, fleeing the god’s ministers), the wizard, if what Sylva and the timepiece told me was correct, had been sleeping in one of the upper levels for years. Now he seldom left the circular map table. Sylva whispered it was where he had taken council with his captains in the old days, when the emperor had sent him here into the Shallows from over the mountains. But none came to take council with him now that I could see, save perhaps the winds and the birds that passed in and out of his windows.

The table was enormous. It seemed as wide as the room I had slept in as a child in the mill beside the stream. It was a map of the Shallows, detailed so that every river and field appeared. Sylva called it by a certain name when I had first come to the house, but now I could not recall what it had been. (I may not have been listening, distracted by trying to catch a glimpse of her whose voice I heard and hands I felt but could not see.)

Besides the map, the features of which shifted so it always remained centered on the location of the wizard’s drifting house, the most noticeable aspect of the table was the clouds. They floated above its surface like smoke, in perfect miniature of the clouds above the Shallows, portraying the shifting aerial topography through which the wizard’s house passed.

When I stood beside him clutching my hand, the table showed tiny flecks to the far south, building into hillocks and furrows moving northward, until the center of the map was a cluster of white columns with scything blue canyons between. I could see those columns outside the windows as we passed among them, blinding white and flattening at the tops.

“There are scrolls in the third cabinet of the third level,” he was telling me. “Begin your lessons with those of the third shelf. I do not have time to teach you myself, but you must learn nonetheless.”

“I know how to read and write.” My parents had sent me to the school in the village until I was old enough to help my father at the mill.

“Not the languages my books are written in. Not enough to be useful.”

“Why?” I pressed. I was bitter about my hand.

The carved stones that were his eyes turned toward me for an instant before shifting back to the table.

“Because I wish it.” He paused as though waiting for me to argue. When I was silent, he continued. “The books themselves and the quill will assist you. Begin copying the third scroll, and continue to the next when you are ready.”

I sighed heavily and started for the nearest staircase. I assumed in my ignorance that studying would be less labor than scrubbing the flagstone floor with rainwater. In this, as in much, I was incorrect.

I found a desk on the third level, not far from the shelf the wizard indicated. I wanted to be alone but not too far away. I still understood little about the upper levels of the house, but I knew that one did not climb into them without having been sent on a specific errand.

The house had a tendency to resist casual wandering.

Sylva found me where I sat on a weathered oaken stool. “I brought you something for your hand,” she whispered, “and some parchment and ink.” A bandage coiled through the air like a serpent.

One could not see Sylva. I wished I could, because her voice was kind. Perhaps because we were both servants of the wizard, she treated me at times like a younger brother. Not like the birds, who ignored me, and the timepiece, who only answered my direct questions, and then only as though I were a particularly uninteresting piece of furniture.

Sylva, according to the wizard, was a wind to which he had provided an anima. She was a living breeze. She could carry things and take messages, and she could clean the wizard’s house, but like the wind, one only saw the effects of her passage. Depending on how hard she concentrated, she could manipulate objects with surprising dexterity. She must have been rather focused now to carry the parchment and ink to the table so steadily in her twisting fingers of air. I thanked her and when she said nothing assumed she had gone.

The parchment of the third scroll smelled of age, but the ink inside was dark. I realized why the wizard had selected this particular volume, for it was written in the language I could read, interspersed with lines of an unfamiliar text. It told a story of two brothers and a tree and a dying king. I soon learned that the unknown script told the same story; that the scroll was a tool by which I was expected to learn the language.

There was more. The story told of the tree learning to speak; of winds that would shape the words into various tones the way Sylva shaped fingers to grip a tray or broom. Sounds seemed to float up off the parchment, so that with concentration I heard the speech as well as read the forms of letters.

It mattered, because tone was often the most important thing with magic.

I learned that from the books. The wizard was correct. I did not then know his plans, but as peaceful as the skies seemed now, there would soon be no time to learn from him.

That first day spent over the scroll passed quickly. The strange script arched and coiled as I watched, marching over the words with which I was familiar until it finally left them behind and went on alone to tell of the king’s death, the blinding of his son, and the strange fruit the tree bore. The sounds continued rising from the parchment as well, forming tones I felt more than heard, passing above me like the tiny clouds over the wizard’s table.

His voice called me down to prepare dinner.

We watched the black kites after we had eaten. The sun was setting behind mountains in the west, mountains that were only peaks, cliffs, and dizzying spirals of cloud. The kites were rising on invisible threads, a line of black diamonds in formation against the horizon.

“They’re searching for you,” I said.

The wizard nodded. We were standing high in the house, though there were still scores of balconies above. There were no shelves on this level or desks of books and scrolls. Instead, wide windows opened on every side with dozens of brass and glass instruments crowded before them. The wizard was peering through one that looked like a spyglass with five or six parallel tubes.

“Can they see us?” The kites were becoming invisible as darkness grew. Through the spyglasses it was clear they had no riders, yet I felt certain they were watching.

“They will see nothing but a cloud.”

“But they know your house is disguised.”

Again the nod.

“Why doesn’t the god send the jellies?”

We sometimes drifted through schools of luminous jellies that rode high during the days before falling beneath the clouds as they cooled in the evening. I shuddered when I saw them drift past the windows, white and nearly transparent by daylight, remembering the night that had brought me to the wizard’s house, when the god turned the jellies to red, flowing, angry sheets across the sky.

“The god is yet unborn,” the wizard explained. He had explained this before. “His manifestation in organic creatures—the jellies, certain plants and animals on the surface below—are unconscious reactions. Such as you would shift or mutter in your sleep. He does not consciously search for us, though his followers do.”

“The priests?”

The wizard nodded a third time and lowered his instrument. He moved from the windows, which looked now onto an inky darkness devoid of stars, and motioned me to follow. A fire winked to life in the great hearth on the main floor far below.

“His followers, those who prepare the way for his coming—its coming—send aloft those kites. They may pray to it, and it may hear their prayers, but it hears them as one hears voices in dreams.”

I thought about the priests that had come to my father’s mill. “But the priests are like an army. They must have dozens of men in each village.”

The carved stones marking the wizard’s eyes turned on me. “Tell me about them.”

“What?”

“Tell me about the blue-cloaked priests that came to your father’s mill.”

I thought back to the day the priests had come to tell my father he could no longer harvest the glow-ink from the jellies because these aerial creatures that had provided my family’s livelihood for generations had become extensions of the god’s growing consciousness.

“There were maybe twenty of them, but it was hard to count. I’ve told you this before. They kept blending into each other. But they all looked hard, like soldiers. And they had mercenaries with them. And wagons and weapons. They beat my father.” I stopped suddenly. I had forgotten that. “They beat him and said they could kill him and no one in the village would lift a finger.”

The wizard was pulling a smoky ribbon from the air as he walked. As he spoke he twisted it around his hands. “That was not the way you told the story when you first came here. You said there were perhaps half a dozen priests. Old men. They seemed bland and ineffectual. They had no mercenaries and no weapons.”

I was confused. “That’s not how I remember it. Why would I have said that?”

The ribbon writhed in the air between us. I thought of Sylva but felt no wind.

“Because the god is growing,” he answered. “Because it is growing toward omniscience, perhaps omnipotence, and its influence is reaching backward and forward in time. When you came here the priests were bands of clerics who had succeeded in bringing the god to root in the city but were still flailing in their newfound power.”

The ribbon arched between us, and I realized it was recording the words as he spoke them. I recognized them as the language I had been training myself to read.

“Now they are an army, and they are launching a grid of watchers into the sky to snare us.” We had arrived back at the table on the main level of the house, beside the roaring fire. It seemed to take less time to move through the house when I was walking with the wizard.

“They’ve always been an army,” I said. “That’s how they were able to take the city and plant the god at its center.”

The recording spell spiraled away from us, to be lost in the dimness overhead.

“No.” The wizard stared down at the table. Now, besides the surface features and miniature billows of clouds, there were tiny flags of darkness flying in formation over its face. “There was no army. Nor did they recruit one in the time you have been here. The current of past events is being influenced. Do you recall the War of Sixteen Saints?”

“The War of Seven Saints,” I corrected. “The seven rebel generals who tried to prevent the god taking root.”

In the light from the fireplace, his eyes did look very much like the eyes of a statue. “I thought being in my house might shelter you from the influence,” he said. “Go back to your books for another hour, and then you may retire.”

But though I stared down at the books for what seemed hours, I did not see them. I recalled instead the day the priests had come to our house, their hard faces and their posture, and the sounds of the blows on my father’s back.

I do not know whether the wizard ever slept. When the timepiece woke me in the mornings to prepare his meal, he was already awake, usually standing where I had left him in the evening, staring down at the map table. And when I went to bed on my small cot beside the door, he was either there still or sitting in one of the chairs beside the fire.

He had been sleeping, though, for decades before I found his house, so perhaps he felt he needed none now.

When the kites grew thicker, the wizard finally sent Sylva to scatter them.

“You said she might not come back.” I brought the tea service and set it on a tall stool.

“She may not.”

“Is that what happened to the others?”

The wizard took his cup and stared into it as though it contained a smaller version of the map on the table before him.

“That may be the case,” he said. “At the height of my power the house was filled with winds. Each had an anima. Their spirits were tethered to my house. If they wandered from it while I was asleep they would lose cohesion and consciousness.”

I looked out the nearest window. The cloudscape today seemed a sea with a few white islands rearing out of it. I saw no black kites but knew they must be rising around us.

“Do you know this instrument?”

I looked at the tall, narrow glass column the wizard indicated. It hung on the wall between the timepiece and an open window.

“A barometer. The port-master in the village used to carry them.”

“Indeed. Every airship captain would carry one. They gauge the weight of the air, and its falling or rising signals a change in the weather.”

I knew all this and nodded.

The wizard drained his cup. “The emperor sent me over the mountains a hundred years ago to put an end to the Sky Wars that were tearing the Shallows apart. After that there was peace, until your lifetime, when the priests tried planting their unborn god in the city.”

I knew all this as well, but I had never heard the wizard speak of it himself.

“Do you know why I slept through the War of the Sixteen Saints?”

“Three Saints,” I corrected, wondering what this had to do with the barometer. “There were three generals who rebelled.”

The wizard arched an eyebrow and handed me the cup, which I returned to the tray. When he was done, I would take it and the rest of the service to the tiny kitchen adjoining this room and wash them with rainwater cached in the stones below.

“I removed myself from the stream of history for a full century,” the wizard was saying. His attention had returned to the map table. “As the god grows, its power increases both backward and forward in time. I have explained this to you before.”

“Yes.”

“There are ways to combat this, but the surest is to isolate oneself. The god’s influence does not yet stretch as far as a century into the past; events from perhaps the previous decade alone are being altered. But I needed a way to test those changes. I needed a barometer.”

“That’s why I’m here?” I picked up the tea service. “You needed someone to gauge the god’s power?”

The wizard waved the question away. “You are here because you found the sword, and in so doing found my house.”

“The barometer is falling,” the timepiece announced.

Outside there were flashes in the distance. The wind hauled itself back in through the window, bringing with it the smell of rain. For a moment Sylva was around me, and I had the fleeting impression of a giantess with streaming hair, her form an outline of mist. She was wild and stroked my face with rainy fingers.

The wizard barked a word and the figure collapsed.

“There were many kites,” she whispered, “and there were airships as well. They are gone now.”

I had never feared Sylva before. I did now.

The timepiece woke me next morning.

“To the books,” it said.

I went into the kitchen to wash my face in cold water, then reemerged and studied the concentric rings making up the timepiece’s face. I was learning the script of the wizard’s books, but I still could not interpret any of the figures on its surface.

“What time is it?” I asked.

“Now.”

I snorted.

The sky beyond the windows was a grey slate. The house felt very much like a ship today, sailing through silent and shrouded seas.

The wizard was nowhere to be seen, and the fire in the hearth beside the map table had fallen to embers. I stirred it and added some logs from the wide basket on the stone floor, wondering how the wizard replenished his supply of firewood. Did the house land to take on fresh supplies? We gathered water from the clouds and eggs from the birds that made an aviary of its upper reaches, but the flour that I used to make our bread, the tea, the wood, and the other supplies crowding the rough wooden shelves in the kitchen surely came from somewhere.

Though he was, after all, a wizard.

I climbed to my desk on the third level of the house. On the second level I had to walk nearly the entire perimeter to find the spiral staircase, which had wandered from where I had descended it the previous night.

I had finished the scroll about the tree and the dying king and his two sons. I moved on to scrolls of the second shelf, which interwove the new script with a third one, jagged and angular. This one was more difficult, but I copied out the curious shapes onto parchment with the black-and-red quill that had tasted my blood.

I encountered resistance. It was difficult to form certain letters, to join together the angle of their figures. I felt it up my arms and in my chest.

“You are weaving spells.”

The wizard had come up silently behind me. He pointed down at the short train of words I had been able to fashion.

“Is that why they’re so hard to write?”

“Spells are created of words and will. Sometimes the words are the easier part.”

I asked him what kind of spells they were.

“Warding spells. And spells of knowledge. Things that will allow you to read more of the books in the house and protect you from what you learn.”

“And from the god?”

He moved from the table and motioned me to follow.

“And from the god,” he agreed. “It cannot influence you directly, but we have already seen that it begins to shape and alter the past, including your own.”

We reached a window, and he motioned below.

“We are leaving the Shallows.”

It was like going over the edge of the world.

I had never been beyond the Shallows. I knew they were an immense mesa, but I knew it the same way I knew what the port-master used to say, that the world was an immense sphere. It was a fact never mapped directly onto my experience.

“You see now why the sky captains called it the Shallows?”

The grey clouds we sailed upon were breaking.

“Because the sky is shallow over it,” I muttered.

The wizard’s house had drifted with herds of cumulus for a hundred years over the low sky of the Shallows. When I looked down from the windows, it had always been onto a patchwork of rolling hills, farms, and small streams. Now that had ended, and the land fell away in dizzying cliffs. There was a tiny brown thread I knew to be a road, stitching back and forth down the broken cliff face until it reached sandy red-brown dunes below. The rippled dunes seemed distant as the bottom of a sea.

I had lived my entire life on a mountaintop and never known it. “That’s a desert?”

“It is. It stretches several days’ journey to where the mountains begin to rise and the city rests.” The wizard looked grim. “It does not normally hold clouds.”

There were a few other clouds in the sky with us, slipping over the edges of the cliff like steam from the lip of a cauldron.

“Except when it storms.” Sylva had come up beside us.

The wizard nodded. “I have been waiting for the winds to change, and now we have slipped the net tightening around us in the Shallows. We are going to the city.”

“I thought we were hiding.”

“We were hiding until the winds changed.” The wizard’s house was dropping slowly, and the cliffs were already rising up behind. “Now we go to do that for which I slept a hundred years. Are you afraid?”

I was not. Something grew cold and tight in my chest.

“They killed my father,” I said, angry with the memory and angry the wizard would question my resolve. “When the god moved into the jellies. The priests and their soldiers came and killed him to make an example. Then they hung his body up on one of his own kites as a warning.”

The wizard stared, and Sylva gasped.

“The gulf widens,” he said softly. “You did not have that memory when you first came to my house. You came here with your father.”

I shook my head. “I came here because....” The memories were uncertain. They changed as I watched them, like clouds in a gale. “I was fleeing.”

“He had been poisoned by the jellies, and you found my house seeking help. I healed him in return for your pledge of service. He returned to your village alone.”

“No.” My voice cracked. “I saw them kill him. I fled alone.” The memory was firm now, as clear and sharp as the outline of my father’s kite against the sky. “My father is dead.”

“He is dead then,” the wizard said.

I held back my tears until the wizard had returned below, but when they came they were grey and full of fury.

The next hours passed swiftly. Clouds continued spilling from the Shallows and gathered around us as the winds carried us across the desert. Sylva began to roar in and out of the house’s windows. The wizard gave her words as she passed, phrases of power I had not heard before but half-understood. She goaded clouds down and around us until they reared on all sides like beasts.

Soon it was storming. Winds whistled beyond the windows.

The wizard called for me.

“Is it magic?” I asked.

“Magic is little more than reading the signs.” Clouds clustered over the table’s surface so densely it was difficult to see the map below. “It is magic to know when to go and when to stay.” His marble eyes glanced at the windows. “But yes, Sylva helps, aided by my power. I was afraid I would be crippled with only one of my winds remaining, but I believe she will be enough.”

She had become a monster. Soon the howl of wind was joined by the clatter of hail falling against the white stones of the house’s walls. The wizard spoke to the timepiece, and copper shutters swung into place over each window. Sylva came back in a whirl of steam through the chimney.

“Rest,” the wizard told her. Amidst the steam it was almost possible to see her shape.

“They have airships,” she said. “They are waiting over the city.”

“We will reach them presently.” He smiled. “The storm has become self-sustaining. Gather your strength for the final event.”

The mist scattered, and I lost her.

The wizard turned to me. “Can you read my books now?”

I was looking for Sylva and asked what he meant by final event.

“My books,” he repeated. “Can you read them?”

“No. Every day I find a scroll in a new language, and I’ve barely made headway in the second script. It would take a lifetime to be able to read half.”

He smiled again. He was making me nervous. It was the most I had seen him smile since coming to his house. He had been waiting and watching for so long that now to see him taking action and almost eager was disconcerting.

“They will teach you,” he said.

Outside, the storm continued to build.

I went to my desk but could not concentrate. Outside, the wind moaned, but I heard it crying inside as well. I climbed two levels and found Sylva.

She obviously wanted to be found. She could have stayed hidden, even if she could not have remained silent. Rain had sprayed in through the crack of one of the shutters, and she shaped it into a wide and pained face.

“Who am I?” she asked.

I sat down beside her.

“I don’t remember who I am.”

“You’re Sylva.”

Her face rippled. “Before that. Whose anima holds these winds together? The wizard is strong, but not strong enough to create life. Whose soul did he use for me?”

I reached for her, but there was nothing. The face collapsed, and I felt only a breeze on my arms.

“He thinks the other winds left while he was sleeping,” she said, and now her voice was at my ear. “He’s wrong. I drove them away. I was stronger than any of them, and I pushed them out of the house one by one.” Her voice grew cold and the air shaping it colder. “I wanted him—I wanted the house—to myself.”

I had given no thought to how Sylva had come or what bound her to the wizard, but now I thought of her alone for those decades while the wizard slept, haunting the house, driving the other winds away in fury or frustration.

“Why?” I asked.

It was a stupid question, and she ignored it to ask her own. “Who was I, that I could have done that?”

“Do you love him?”

“He’s an old man.” She sighed. “I’m compelled to serve him. But I was jealous of the others.”

I waited.

“When we get to the city he will send me away. He will need me to drive the airships out of the sky.” Her laugh was sharp and hollow. “It won’t be difficult. But I do not want to go. The storm out there is alive now. I hear the winds I drove out. They’re not really alive, not since they left the house, but they remember me. And they’re angry.”

The air stirred as she withdrew.

“I don’t want to go. Goodbye, Diogenes Shell.”

For a moment there might have been rainwater lips on my forehead, and then she was gone.

I stared at the rows upon rows of scrolls around me. I wondered in which her story was written and how many years of reading it would take before I might find it.

When the copper shutters closed like a hundred eyes, lanterns along the balconies flickered to light. They stretched upward, tier upon tier, until looking at the upper levels of the house was looking into a sky of stars. We had been riding in the storm a full day perhaps. Now the lights were beginning to dim, and the wizard called me again to the main level.

“Stay off the staircases,” he said when I reached him. He stood before the table, which was still covered in the layer of black clouds we rode within.

“Have we reached the city?”

“Soon.” He pointed to a spot near the table’s edge. “Sylva.”

“I’m here.”

“After this you will be free.”

The lanterns along the first balcony sputtered. “After this I will be lost! You’re sending me away!” She was angry. Her voice filled the house.

“You may go where you please,” the wizard said, still staring at the table. “Put out the fire.”

She stomped on it and blew a thousand brilliant sparks up the chimney.

There was a new light coming from somewhere. Thunder crashed against the walls of the house as though someone wanted inside.

“Who were we?” Sylva yelled.

The wizard glanced up. There was a glow against his marble eyes from the growing light in the house. The lanterns had completely gone out, but the metal of each staircase burned with a white luster that increased with each echo of thunder outside.

The wizard turned to the timepiece beside the doorway. “Time?”

“Soon,” it answered.

I realized with a start that the clock was a map. Not of outside.... There were points around each of its concentric circles, one on each ring, arranged in a spiral running out from the middle. I glanced up at the rows of balconies. Each held one staircase, shining now with electric light. They moved, though I never saw it happen. At this moment they were arranged in a spiral pattern, each slightly offset from the one below. They grew brighter, and the spiral tightened, as did the spiral of arms on the clock’s face. The clock was a map of the wizard’s house.

“Who am I?!” Sylva shouted again.

“You are my wind,” the wizard said. “Wear this.” He pulled a silver ring off his finger and handed it to me. “The timepiece will speak to you, and obey. In time, the house will as well.”

He moved his hands along the sides of the table, and it swung back slowly, revealing a wide hole like a well through the stone floor.

I would have asked a hundred questions, but I did not know what was coming.

“Now, Sylva.”

She was all around me, filling the chamber, and her fingers were in my hair.

Then once more she was gone.

Below the house I could see a maelstrom of cloud and the raked hulls of airships bobbing within it. We were the center of a whirlwind, and down its throat far below loomed the walls of the city and what must have been the roof of a huge cathedral. The light running up and down the staircases mirrored the lightning in the clouds.

“Are you going to kill it?” I thought about the god growing in rooms below, the thing the priests had planted in the heart of the city, now reaching backward and forward in time.

“You cannot kill a god.”

“Then what are you going to do?” I had to shout over the thunder.

“Stop it. Change it.” His eyes flashed again. “You are not who I was expecting, Diogenes Shell, but you are the one who came. You must take my house back over the mountains, to the emperor. He summoned me home long ago, but I slept instead, waiting for this day.”

I yelled my question again.

“He will ask you my name. This you must tell him, so he will know I have succeeded.”

“But I don’t know your name!”

“You will know if I succeed. Time?” he asked again, turning to the timepiece.

Its voice hammered like a gong. “Now!”

Lightning flared in the sky around us, and the spiral of light in the wizard’s house answered in kind until the air sparked and my hair stood on end. The wizard stepped over the edge of the stone floor and dropped through the hole. The lightning followed him down, weaving a net around him as he fell.

In the sudden silence I could hear Sylva calling. A new memory rose up: the massacre and the village burning beneath me as I fled in my father’s airship, and I screamed.

The storm cleared quickly. Clouds peeled away as the whirlwind collapsed, and below and falling behind I could see smoke wafting up from a ruined cathedral.

No airships rose in pursuit. The wind pushed us away from the city, toward the mountains in the north. I told the timepiece to open the shutters of the windows, climbed in the house as high as I could, and used a spyglass to scan the horizon. I saw no sign of the wizard, nor did I hear Sylva’s voice on the breeze.

“What did he do?” I asked the clock when I descended.

“I do not know.”

I was twisting the silver ring between my fingers as I spoke. Now I slipped it onto my right index finger, the only finger it fit, and asked the question again.

“He fell to confront the god. The staircases, when aligned correctly, act as conduits for the lightning. He wished to face the god, and he believed this method would best neutralize its defenses.”

“Along with Sylva’s storm.”

“Correct.”

“Does the house hold other tricks like that?”

“Indeed. Very many.”

“Turn the house around and pass again over the city.”

“I cannot control the house’s path.”

“What do you mean? The wizard could.”

The clock ticked. “Indeed. But he has sent it home, and it is returning. I can do nothing to alter its course.”

“Where is it going?”

“Over the mountains.”

“And what then?”

“The emperor’s corsairs will rise to meet us.” The voice of the timepiece rang like silver. “When they find that the wizard is gone and you do not know the word of passage, they will conclude you are an agent of the god and will have you executed.”

“What is the word of passage?”

“I do not know.”

The timepiece answered no differently no matter how I phrased the question. I asked no further questions and instead waited the rest of the day hoping Sylva would return. But all the winds that found their way through the open windows were silent. After that, there seemed to be nothing but to resume searching the wizard’s books and watching the mountains’ slow approach. If he had survived, he would send a message. He would call the house back. Something. I could not imagine he would have knowingly sent me to my death over the mountains.

But we continued to drift northward, and no word came.

I had never seen mountains. I thought the clouds that I moved through were the true mountains, and they did indeed dwarf any contour of land I had seen in the Shallows. But these mountains rose up as though the world itself was gathering to lurch to its feet. The bank of clouds we followed broke against their knees, and their shoulders and peaks wore wreathes of snow.

We rose until we left the cloudbank behind, and still the mountains lifted in front of us. I wondered how we looked to anyone watching on those slopes: a white, stony cumulus higher than any other dared go, solid of form while the true clouds tore themselves to ragged bits on the mountains’ lower slopes.

Still we rose higher, passing through a narrow break between two peaks just below the snow line. Our shadow moved across a thin golden snake that disappeared over the lip of the pass. It was a road leaping over narrow crevasses on spans of ivory that seemed frail and sugar-spun from so far above: the emperor’s highway connecting his capital with lands to the south and west that he held now only in word.

We were over the mountains for days. When I was not watching at the windows I read. The wizard had been right. Books opened themselves, and the scripts within flowed around me like rivers. I heard their words after I had closed the pages and by night as I slept beneath open windows.

I heard my memories as well. The ribbon-spells the wizard had cast when I spoke came streaming down out of the darkness and read my own words back to me. The number of saints in the War of the Saints, the number of priests who had come to the door of our mill, my father and the words he said.

I no longer recalled him dying.

Yet the wizard’s house continued to hasten northward, and the wizard’s name remained unknown to me.

There were histories among the scrolls. Soon I was able to affix the names of battles and lost fleets with the valleys that passed below us. I knew the legends of captives of war with souls enchained in water, fire, earth, or wind. I knew, when the mountains opened out to a high, grassy plain stretching out toward the horizon, that we had reached the threshold of the emperor’s capital.

But I did not know the wizard’s name.

The voice of the timepiece broke my reverie. “There are ships.”

“Airships?”

“Rising from the valley beneath us.”

I saw them approaching in the house’s wide windows. They were unlike any I had seen before. They had no air-sacks nor sails. They rose like the wizard’s house, without apparent means of buoyancy. There were two of them, thin, with low stone walls and slanted roofs.

“Who are they?”

“They are the emperor’s corsairs.”

“The house has come home,” I said slowly. I turned to the timepiece. “What is the wizard’s name? Tell it to me now or you have killed me.”

Its voice was hollow. “I do not know.”

When the two ships neared, someone on board the larger unfurled a blue banner. I recognized the standard from my readings: a tree with three blossoms. “The emperor is aboard that one.”

The wizard would not have left me without a clue at all. I wracked my brain, but I could cull nothing from the words I had read or those he had spoken to me.

The first ship pulled alongside the house, close enough I could see figures moving behind narrow portholes. There was a soft shudder, and one of the birds that had returned to the house’s upper reaches dropped heavily to my shoulder.

“They have docked,” the timepiece said, “and three have come aboard.”

I stood beside the large table at the center of the room. It had been dead since the wizard fell, but now it blinked to life, and I could see the landscape of mountains and wide valley that spread out below. A breeze beside me stirred.

Someone knocked at the door.

“Open it,” I told the timepiece.

The three men who entered were tall and thin, in the white and blue uniforms of sky captains I had only seen before in very old paintings.

The one in the middle followed a few paces behind. “Who are you?”

I told them my name.

“Where is your lord?”

“The wizard fell to meet the god and sent the house back over the mountains.”

The two in the lead held a whispered conference as the third waited. He eyed the timepiece with interest.

“We have had no message from the city,” one of them finally said to me. “Though you would have outpaced any who came.”

I nodded. They were suspicious. The wizard had been gone over a hundred years. I had no idea what hold the god had developed here. And the wizard had not been sent against that foe; he had been sent to put an end to the barons’ Sky Wars, which had ended in my great-grandfather’s time.

“He would have left a sign,” the third finally said. He looked at me. “I am the Emperor Theodorus. These are my lieutenants.”

They both gave small bows.

“He would have given you a name.”

Memory blossomed unbidden:

I had been awake since dawn. The winds began to drop as the sun rose, and I climbed the tower at the roof’s peak to slowly winch down the kites.

“A good night?” my father yelled up from the courtyard.

“Looks to be.”

The clouds were piled high in the western sky, and they cast the sunlight back in brilliant white. Even in their glare I could see the glow of the jellies caught in our wicker nets.

I cranked on the wooden winch. It took several minutes to draw the kites all the way down. When they were low enough, my father poled the wicker basket-nets from where they hung while I collapsed the kite arms and stowed them in the attic.

“A fine harvest,” my father noted proudly when I joined him in the barn. He had already lugged in the baskets and was stained to his elbows in the jellies’ sticky-sweet juice.

I nodded and joined him.

He finished his load and went to stand by the vats. When I had unloaded the last of my baskets, I climbed to the upper level to unlock the windmill’s gears from the water pump and hook them to the pistons in the vats below. The beams groaned as the gears locked, and I heard my father’s approving grunt.

The presses began to squeeze out the jelly-ink.

Mother called then. There was a man at the door.

A priest.

“Greetings in the name of the New God,” he said, when my father met him. Father invited him in while Mother set out bread and cheese. The priest said he had been on the road for several weeks doing the god’s business. He blue robes were dusty and his beard untrimmed. My father offered him bread.

“You are a trader in the glow-ink harvested from the sky?” the priest asked.

My father nodded. “Trader and harvester. We process it here and take it into market.”

“It is burned as oil?” The priest tore at his bread.

My father nodded again.

“A holy fire. You should be honored. Your trade is a blessed one.”

At this my father gave a blank stare.

The priest brushed crumbs from his fingers and spread his hands. “The Unborn God is growing. Reaching into the fabric of his world. His roots run deep, both in the earth and in ways we cannot perceive. There is a certain species of lichen that grows on the spruce of the forests to the east. It is now part of the god, and his awareness inhabits the march of shadows and seasons upon bark. There is a blindworm found in certain sands of the southern deserts. The god now hears–in its unborn sleep-—through their ears and knows the passage of caravans on the dunes above. And now in the jellies. He feels the passage of the winds across his world in the motions of their nightly migrations.” There was a glow in the priest’s eyes. His fingers were still outspread, as though he could somehow augment his god’s growth.

My father’s face remained impassive.

“It is a thing of great honor,” the priest continued, “to touch the god each night, even in his sleep. I was hoping—“ and here the priest coughed as though embarrassed— “I was hoping to offer my services for a short time and learn of your craft, assist you in your work. It would be a great honor.”

“You want to learn to harvest and process the jellies?”

“This may be difficult to understand.” The priest smiled apologetically. “The nature of the god is nascent, but we perceive that he is a duality. He-who-is is one with He-who-serves. We come to know the god through communion with others as much as with the god himself, for the god is himself communion.”

My father snorted softly, but the priest looked at me.

“His name,” he said, “is Theodulus.”

“He would have given you a name,” the emperor repeated, his voice dangerously soft.

The bird on my shoulder shifted its weight, and I recalled the twin stones of the wizard’s eyes and the story of the tree and the two sons in the first scroll.

“He was your brother,” I said. “He was blinded and cast out.”

“My grandfather’s brother.” The emperor’s own eyes were a deep blue. “He was consecrated and ordained.”

“I know his name, and I know now what has become of him.”

They waited. The house suddenly felt like my own. The rest of them–even the emperor–were only guests here.

So many books yet to be read.

“He was called home after the Sky Wars, ” I told them, “but he had foreseen the god’s coming. He slept, so as to remain out of reach.”

The emperor paled slightly at mention of the god. I remembered the stories they told of the emperor summoned over the mountains to play the role of justice when they executed Septimus, the only of the Sixteen they had been able to take alive.

“One cannot kill a god. But the wizard fell to face it. Not to defeat it. Not to destroy it. To let it absorb him, as it was absorbing the stream of time, the sentience of its priests, the flow of jellies across the sky. To conquer through submission, and by so doing shape its motions and its nature from within.”

The wizard’s ring felt warm on my finger. A breeze played at the back of my neck.

“I know the wizard’s name. You are Theodorus, as was your father before you and his before him. The wizard was Theodulus,” I said. “As am I.”

The emperor’s stunned silence was vast, and in it I heard submission.

The clock chimed, the wind laughed at my ear, and the wizard’s house—home now—hung high and stately over the emperor’s plains.


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Stephen Case holds a PhD in the history and philosophy of science from the University of Notre Dame and is a professor at a liberal arts college in Illinois. His fiction and reviews have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Strange Horizons, Black Gate, and multiple times previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. His novel First Fleet is a science fiction horror epic in the tradition of H. P. Lovecraft, published by Axiomatic Publishing. Stephen lives south of Chicago with his wife, four children, two dogs, and two chickens. Find him on the internet at www.stephenreidcase.com.

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“The Silver Khan” by Stephen Case
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2 Comments on “The Unborn God”

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  1. […] In the meantime, you can read “The Unborn God” here. […]

  2. […] Wizard’s House” by Stephen Case. It’s a prequel to his excellent “The Unborn God” (reviewed here). I wrote that the earlier story made me sit up and exclaim out loud. This […]

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