The Wizard’s House

Issue #166

Goya found the blade. I should say that first. He pulled it from the silt at the bottom of the creek bed, where its hilt sliced through the reflected clouds on the water’s surface as though it were itself one of the emperor’s great airships. He reached into the stream and pulled it free.

I was bigger and older. I took it from him. Were I not able to admit that, I might still be climbing the terraced balconies of the wizard’s house, staring down at my father’s fevered form below.

By all rights, the sword should have been Goya’s. He was the mayor’s son. For all I knew, his line traced back to the barons, maybe even to some of the captains whose airships once warred above, before the ruins of those ships washed down from the hills into the creek. He would have shown his father, and his father would have taken it and hung it on the wall in their manor or sold it to a dealer of antiques in the city.

But was I was a boy and I wanted it for my own.

This sword that I brought to the wizard’s house was not mine. I must write that now, looking down out of the windows onto the white plane of the clouds we ride within. My father is gone, and when he left, I gave him the blade and told him to take it back to Goya.

He may not remember. The wizard says he will not.

The morning after Goya found the blade, the priests of the Unborn God came to the door of our mill.

I had been up since dawn. I had studied the blade by the glow of my lantern until the winds dropped, then hid it under the straw of my mattress and climbed the tower at the roof’s peak to winch down the kites.

“A good night?” my father yelled up from the courtyard. He yelled the same thing each morning.

“Looks to be.”

It did indeed. The clouds were piled high in the western sky, catching the sun’s early glare. Even in that light I could see the glow of the jellies caught in our wicker nets.

I cranked the wooden winch. It took several minutes to draw the kites all the way down. They grew from points of darkness against the sky to canvas squares that showed clearly the places where my father had mended and patched their fabric, to wide bats with outstretched wooden arms thrice as long as my own. When they were low enough, my father poled down the wicker basket-nets while I collapsed the kite arms and stowed their frames in the loft.

“A fine harvest,” my father hollered when I joined him in the mill. He had lugged in the baskets and was already stained to his elbows in the jellies’ sticky-sweet juice. He did a lot of hollering.

I nodded and joined him. As we worked, we fell to our standard disinterested arguing.

“They must be larger higher up,” I muttered. “That’s the only way to explain it.”

Each was about the size of a hand and as heavy as a soapstone. Their glow was more pronounced in the dark of the loft than it had been against the morning sky, though they were already fading.

“Explain what?” My father tossed another into the vat behind him.

“How they can fly,” I said. “They’re too heavy.”

He grinned. “Birds are heavy.”

“But these don’t have wings.”

We had argued about this before. I thought they expanded at higher altitude and had some way of generating heat. My father contradicted casually and carelessly. It didn’t trouble him how they flew. He knew they would be there, in the rich downdrafts, if we could get our kites into position each evening.

“You went to Swords Creek again.”

It was not a question.

“It’s not a good place,” he continued, taking my silence for assent. I readied myself for the lecture that was sure to come. “Look out the window.”

I did. The clouds were still piled in the west.

“Those clouds would make good cover,” I mumbled, figuring I would cut to the chase and anticipate where today’s argument would go.

He glared. “That’s right. But you don’t have to worry about that. You don’t have to look for gunships dropping through those clouds. You don’t have to spend the day whenever the sky isn’t clear wondering what might be waiting above those clouds.”

I had heard this before. About the wars during his great-grandfather’s time, when all the barons had fleets of airships and the emperor’s thunderheads could launch broadsides that would level an entire town. There were cities up there—maybe entire flying countries, if you believed what some said. But they all had fallen.

Except the wizard’s house.

“The largest, the last battle was north of here.” My father had told me this tale so many times that I knew the words as I knew the jellies’ flesh under my fingers. “It rained bodies, and it rained swords. Bodies don’t stick around long, but the swords do. Time washed them all into that creek. Used to be the banks were lined with blades and bones.” He sighed. “Don’t go back there.”

Mother called then. There were priests at the door.

The Sky Wars were a faded memory for most. The Unborn God and his blue-robed priests were much more recent. I had been nine years old when we lost the War of Sixteen Saints and the god was planted in the city. We did not think it would touch us here in the Shallows, but I learned that morning that roots grew in strange and unseen ways.

We went back through the house to the front door, where I waited to see what my father would do. When he just stood there, watching them, one of the priests asked if they might enter. My father nodded and stood aside.

It was hard to tell how many there were. They seemed to blend into one another. When I looked at them straight on, I was sure there were only three or four, but when I watched them from the corner of my eye, there were more—maybe six or seven. When I turned my back, I was sure the room was crowded with them.

“Greetings in the name of the New God,” the first priest said. Mother had set out bread and cheese, and one of the priests and my father sat down together. The rest of them waited behind.

My father inclined his head at the greeting. The priests were protected by the barons, but they did not yet compel assent to their doctrines. They figured such would be resolved when the god was born.

I wanted to ask the priests about the city they had come from and about the god rooted and sleeping at its heart, but my father would do the talking. The priest said they had been on the road for several weeks doing the god’s work. My father asked what that business was.

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

My father nodded. He was one of many, but his mark was known throughout the Shallows. “Trader and harvester. We process it here and take it into market.”

“But surely the soil is fertile. Surely there are other ways to make a living.”

At this my father gave a blank stare.

The priest tried again. “That is, were the jellies, for instance, to disappear. One would still have a mill here, a good plot of land. One would still be able to, as it were, make a way?”

My father pulled at his mustache thoughtfully. “There’s always a way to make a way. We make a good living from the jellies, as my father did before me. What interest do priests of an unborn god have in how I make my living?”

The priest spread his hands. His fingers were almost impossibly long. “An unborn god growing. A god reaching into the fabric of his world. The walls of the chamber in which he dwells are laced with a thousand eyes. Soon his sleeping form will fill the palace of his conception.”

My father made a low noise that sounded vaguely disgusted.

I remembered the arguments my parents had had when Tertius’s men passed through the Shallows about whether my father would join them on their march to keep the god from taking root in the city. He did not go, and we lost.

The priest ignored my father’s tone. “But 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 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—by their ears and knows the passage of caravans on the dunes above.”

There was a glow in the priest’s eyes. His fingers were still outspread, as though he could by holding them open somehow augment his deity’s growth. The two or five or seven figures standing behind him did not move.

My father was not impressed. “I see,” he said, taking a bite of his bread. “And now the god is in the jellies too? Now it feels the passage of the winds across its world in the motions of their nightly migrations?”

The priest closed his hands. “Yes,” he said, taken aback. “That’s it exactly.”

My father waited.

“And with that understanding, we assumed that you would want to know and that this might cause a certain reevaluation of—”

“If your god can be in moss and worms,” my father interrupted, “then it can be in the ink that I take to market. The ink that is burned in lamps all across the Shallows.”

“Absolutely not.” The priest stood. “It would be blasphemy. It would be deicide.”

My father added cheese to the bread and took another bite.

“We harvest grain,” he said absently. “We catch fish. Eat eggs. What happens when you priests decide that your god has added these to its divinity as well?”

The priest smiled apologetically. “I know this must be difficult to understand.”

My father understood. I saw it in the set of his jaw. The priests did not stay long, but I wondered how soon we would see them again.

We argued about it on the trip in to the village the next day. Partially, I was arguing to keep my father distracted. I wanted to get the sword into the village without my father seeing. I had wrapped it in rags and wedged it beneath the planks on the underside the wagon.

I was also worried about what the priests had said.

“What if they’re right?”

My father grunted as he swung the wagon onto the main road. “There are millions of jellies. The god is big.”

“But it would feel it. It would know. And the priests. They’re gaining influence each year.”

“The priests are new to power. They don’t know what to do with it.” He spit over the side of the wagon. “And like I told them. If it starts here, where does it end?”

He was quiet for a minute.

“Septimus was the only saint they were able to take alive,” he said softly. “They summoned the emperor from over the mountains to stand at his trial, to play the role of Justice. They say that when Septimus stood before the emperor, he told him his only regret was having but a single life to give in the god’s defiance.” My father chuckled. “They say the emperor paled, for he never spoke of the god. But when he had fled back over the mountains, the priests planted the god in the city.”

“I don’t understand. We’re nowhere near the city. How can the god be in anything so far away?”

“You didn’t see the priests bring it to the city and anchor it in the cathedral they had built. It was just a seed, but it took a dozen oxen to pull the wagon. Even then, it was covered with eyes.”

My father coughed and spit again.

“We’ll keep harvesting,” he said.

In the village, I slipped away as soon as my father finished unloading the first of the barrels. He would be there the rest of the day, dickering about prices and trading for the supplies we would return with in the evening.

I wanted to take the blade to R’esh, who worked at the port just beyond the village’s edge. There was not much traffic now, but R’esh spent most of his time studying the winds anyway. At one point he had a royal stipend and a title to go with it, but both had been forgotten for years. His research continued though, and whenever we came to town and my father did not have enough work to keep me busy, I would find R’esh and make him take me up in one of his ships and tell me stories of the old days.

Today he was readying a dirigible when I burst in.

“Diogenes?” he said, not turning from where he stood untangling ballast cables.

“I found a sword!” I pulled the rags away and extended it toward him, hilt first.

“Splendid, splendid,” he said absently. “Stow it aboard and we’ll take a look when we’re aloft.”

It was to be a tethered flight, the long rope of seal-silk spinning out as we ascended. There was not much of a breeze, but towers of cloud were forming here and there over the patchwork countryside below. We rose until we were nearly level with the lowest. R’esh released several loads of his painted wind-markers, which spread in all directions from our vessel like drops of colored ink in water while he mused and took notes.

“It was from Swords Creek,” I offered.

“Ah, yes?” He took a final glance at the anemometer spinning on the rail, set his notebook down, and obligingly took the sword. “Ah, yes, indeed.”

His fingers traced the markings up and down the blade. In this light, the whole sword looked blue, the same shade as the sky seen over the edge of the basket in which we rode.

“It’s definitely from the wars,” he said. “But not the sword of a sailor. Not even the sword of an officer.” He tapped one point, halfway down the blade, where there was a mark that looked like an eye and a hammer. “A captain.”

I whistled slowly. Goya would be thrilled. And jealous, because I fully intended that he never hold it again.

“And this is a...” He trailed off, then flipped the blade over and traced some marking on the opposite side.

I waited.

On the horizon there was a thin strip of deeper blue I knew to be the River Eis winding down the center of the Shallows. There were some birds in that direction as well. From our vantage they were small as snowflakes.

“You know something of the Sky Wars?” R’esh finally asked. “I’m sure I’ve told you stories. This would have been in your great-grandfather’s time.”

I nodded.

“And you know why they ended?”

“Everyone knows why they ended. The emperor sent his wizard.”

“The Emperor Theodorus,” R’esh said, getting the faraway look that accompanied his best tales. “But it was not magic that did it, though his wizard had plenty. He was a stratego. A master tactician. And fabulously wealthy.”

“The emperor?”

R’esh shook his head. “The wizard. The emperor’s wizard. Real power. Not like these priests.”

I could still see some of the wind-markers. The green ones R’esh dropped earlier had risen and were mixing with the red ones of his most recent drop. They hovered in the air to the east and south like a spangled cloud, gradually dispersing.

“He bought off captains, entire crews. He picked them carefully and seeded them among the barons’ air-fleets. He had them fighting each other, fighting shadows, forming alliances and counter-alliances that sprang up and collapsed like the clouds they were fighting among. But they had to be told his plans, his mercenaries did.” He steepled his fingers. “They had to be able to find him. And none could find the wizard without his aid, because—”

“His house!” I interrupted. This was the best known part of the story. “The wizard’s house was invisible.”

R’esh shook his head. “Not invisible. Camouflaged. You could sail past it and never know it was there. It was always aloft, sometimes floating through the midst of the fiercest battles, sometimes alone in an empty sky, and his captains would come and go in secret, because only they had the key and only the key would let you find it.”

“What did it look like?”

He pointed to where a particularly impressive cumulus was rising a mile or two behind us. “Maybe like that one.” He pointed in another direction, where a column was beginning to cap off into a thunderhead. “Or maybe that one. No one knew. It looked like a cloud, but how could you find one particular cloud out of the thousands crossing and recrossing the skies of the Shallows? I have watched certain clouds for hours, looking for one that kept its shape as it drifted across the sky. At times I was sure I had found it, but I was always wrong.”

“Because he never went home.”

That was the other part of the story. “The Sky Wars ended, the fleets of the barons were scuttled or scattered, and the emperor called his wizard back over the mountains. But he never came. He disappeared from history.”

R’esh stood and took the spyglass that hung from his neck. After watching the now barely-visible wisps of the wind-markers, he made some final notations in his log and activated the tiny, chugging engine that would winch the dirigible back to the ground.

I was nearly too excited to speak. “This is the wizard’s sword?” I held it now, and the scrolled markings seemed to dance.

“Not the wizard’s.” He shook his head. “One of his captains. I would tell you to keep it secret, but I doubt anyone would know what you held.”

I did keep it secret, though. I stowed it again beneath the wagon, and my father and I rode back to the mill at the day’s end in silence. I felt certain my father would disapprove, as he disapproved of anything hinting at our land’s stormy past. I also felt—and I am not sure why—that he would know I had forced Goya to give it to me and that I had no right to it.

I did not fully understand what R’esh meant about the blade until a few nights later when moonlight and wind rattling at my window conspired together to wake me sometime near midnight. I slept with the sword under my thin pallet, and I took it out then as I did several times each evening to stare at and wonder who might have worn it and in what battles. When I slid it out of the rags it was wrapped in now, it flared like a beacon.

I nearly dropped it in surprise. When I turned, the light drained away. I stared down at the blade in the moonlight. Turning back toward my bed, it flared again.

Only they had the key, and only the key would let you find it.

Trembling, I unlatched my window and climbed out onto the cold tiles of the roof. Over my head, the moon looked down on the huge silently spinning sails of the windmill. Beyond its arms I could hear the flap of canvas of our kites high above and beyond those, nearly invisible against the moonlight, the luminous specks of the jelly schools riding below the clouds.

I stood where the windmill’s strut jutted from the peak of the roof, braced myself against it, and turned slowly. When I was facing just south of east, the blade flashed to light, dimming again when I overshot. I fixed the direction, then raised the sword until it was pointing several degrees above the horizon. It grew even brighter as I kept it aimed at one particularly dark patch of sky.

The wizard’s house.

I must have stood like that for an hour. My arm would tire, and I would drop the blade to switch hands. Then it would take me a minute to find the spot again, always moving slightly, following the wind.

Sometime during the night, as the moon began to lower toward the west, a jagged silhouette sailed across its face. I had the glowing blade pointed right at it, but it seemed no more than any other cloud, ragged in the night’s winds and listing south.

It would have been impossible, but in my memory of that evening I seem to see windows in the cloud, and I wonder who was staring out of them, perhaps looking down on our mill as it passed below.

I winched the kites down in the morning, too tired and distracted to comment on the fact that it had been perhaps our largest catch ever. The baskets groaned with the weight of the glowing forms. My father had a grim look in his eye. He muttered again about the priests having no jurisdiction, as though he was still trying to convince himself.

“If it is really growing toward omniscience,” I said, “it is sending roots backward in time too.” It was something R’esh had said once. “The god could be able to influence the past as well as the future. It could change the course of events.”

“Yes, yes.” My father had heard it before and was not impressed. “Until we all become mindless appendages of an infant deity. I’ll take my chances, thank you.”

“It could explain why the Saints lost the war. Maybe we don’t even remember it like it really happened.”

My father paused for a moment in unloading the bulging baskets. There was a pained look in his eyes, and I realized that without thinking I had gone too far.

The next night the harvest was even larger, but the night after that one of our kites tore free, and we spent most of the day searching for it. When we found it, it was clear that its tether had been cut. The canvas was slashed in several places as well and its frame broken.

“This was not an accident,” my father growled.

“The priests.”

He shook his head. “They wouldn’t do it themselves. Likely hires from the next village over. We’ll keep watch tonight. They won’t need much beyond a good scaring.”

“From below?” If there were any clouds, we wouldn’t see anything.

“No. We’ll rent an airship of our own, from R’esh.”

I tried to talk him out of it, but he was adamant.

“We should talk to other harvesters,” I told him, after he had chosen a tiny skiff and it was clear he wasn’t changing his mind. “If the priests are serious about the god and the jellies, then we’ll all be in trouble.”

“They’re trying to make an example. Once they’ve made their point, they’ll claim that a tithe on each harvest would keep the god appeased.”

I had my doubts. It seemed too arbitrary. And risky. Unless the priests genuinely believed their god was growing into the jellies, they had come a long way to make a show of flexing their muscles or drumming up new taxes.

The air-sack of the skiff was small, designed for maneuverability. We released the remaining kites as the sun set. The skiff, we would launch from the field south of the mill.

“We’ll need to go high,” my father said. “There’s no moon tonight, so we’ll stay against the clouds where we can watch the kites and come down on top of them when they make a move.”

I made one more attempt. “We can petition the barons.”

“We can look after ourselves.” He paused in filling the air-sack. “This will be a lot easier if I have someone to work the sweeps while I keep watch, but I won’t make you do it. You can go back to the mill with your mother.”

He was being honest, but I also knew he said it partially to shame me.

“I’ll come.”

He smiled tightly. “It might be dangerous.”

The only weapon he carried was an ancient flintlock I had never seen but which I suspected was more effective at generating light and noise than anything else. I had no weapon but the sword, and my desire to keep it close to me warred with my fear of what my father would say if he saw it. I left it swaddled in the same rags I had used to smuggle it into the village, and in the bustle of launching I slipped it behind the low sweeping bench. I felt better knowing it was there.

We circled for what seemed like hours. I used the sweeps to tack back and forth against the wind and then let us drift until the kites slid away below us, when I would start tacking again. When I tired, my father took over and I took his place straining in the darkness for any sign of an approaching ship.

The clouds began to glow around us, and slowly the schools of jellies dropped and came into view. I had never seen them up close like this before. As the air cooled, they drifted farther down, toward the level where our kites rode with their wicker scoops. They were larger at this altitude, just as I had anticipated, some nearly as wide as my outstretched arm. None of them came close to our craft. They were completely silent and shone with the feeble orange glow that would burn a clear yellow when their ink was concentrated and distilled.

“They’re spotted,” I said, swinging my spyglass up to examine a cluster as it passed. “You can’t see that when we catch them. They can change their patterns.”

“They’re here,” my father said. I thought he meant the jellies, but he was pointing below.

An airship had risen from the north and was making its way toward our kites.

We vented gas and slipped downward, spiraling to approach from an angle that would leave us hidden behind their own air-sack and sail. The ship was not much larger than ours. It looked like there might be three or four men aboard.

When we were within shouting distance my father did exactly that, asking them in language I rarely heard from him who they were and what they thought they were doing with his kites. Then he fired the flintlock.

There was a shower of sparks and a scramble aboard the other ship. They dropped suddenly, though even a direct hit would not have caused such a sudden loss of buoyancy. Someone on board was nervous.

I caught a flash of blue.

“There’s a priest with them.”

My father grunted. He was working on getting the flintlock ready to fire again.

The jellies were thicker at this level. As we circled, they passed on every side, some drifting between the lines of our rigging. I ducked my head to avoid one.

From this angle our kites looked like giant hooks scraping the night. The wicker nets that hung below them were almost too bright to look at, thick with tangled jellies. The kites left long furrows of darkness downwind, empty rifts in the jellies’ flow across the sky.

My father fired again. Obviously no one on the other ship had a weapon. I heard a raised voice and assumed it was the priest giving orders. The crew, however, appeared to have no desire to face my father. Their ship kept dropping. But the priest was not speaking to them. He was praying.

And they were scared.

We had dropped below the level of most of the jellies now, but many were trailing both ships, swept along in their wakes. Their light was still bright, and I noticed that the hue was changing. I glanced upward.

The flow above us had become a river of fire. Our kites were lost to view, and the jellies seemed to fill the sky. They were changing colors, flickering on and off in long waves of red. And they were moving, almost as one, toward our ships.

“Vent,” my father yelled. “Vent, vent!”

I heard the priest shriek something about dreams of a sleeping god.

Much more quickly than I would have thought possible, both vessels were surrounded. The jellies tangled in the rigging and rapidly stopped the vents of the air-sack. It was difficult to turn the sweeps.

“Cut them out,” my father said. “Use my knife.” He was fumbling at his belt.

I had already reached below the bench and drawn out the sword. My father’s eyes widened as the rags wrapping it fell away. I could tell by his scowl that he knew where it had come from.

He turned away, struggling to open the vents that would allow us to land. I moved toward the sweeps to cut away the jellies, and the sword flared brighter than I had ever seen. The flash of light made me again glance upward, and the line of clouds above gave me an idea.

“Take us up!”

My father stared.

I yelled it again, hacking at the jellies lodged against the altitude sweep.

The other ship was now completely lost to sight. Around us and below there was only a swirling mass of seething red.

I pulled the ship up sharply, and we began to rise, slowly at first but gaining altitude more rapidly as the air-sack heated. My father strained at the sweeps. He kept reaching back and pulling jellies from where they were gumming the gears and oarlocks.

I stood at the bow, swinging back and forth at their clustered forms. They were cool to the touch, but when they met bare skin they burned. At each swing of the sword, the blade shone brightest on the right of the arc.

It was working. The jellies were thinning. As I suspected, it was harder for them to gain altitude in the night’s chill than it was for them to drop lower.

There was a row of cloud-hills ahead, separated by gullies of stars. I swept the sword in that direction, and it flared again.

Behind me, my father’s breathing became labored. I glanced backward as the last of the jellies fell from the hull. He was slumped over the sweeps, his arms and face a livid red. When I tried to stir him, he moaned.

There were certain creatures, so I had read, in the seas of the south that floated in water as the jellies did in air and could kill a man with their sting. We had worked among the jellies for years, never suffering more than skin stained from their ink. But we had never flown in their midst, and a priest had never called them down around us, red and broiling and angry.

I looked at my own arms. They burned, but I had been using the sword and touched few with my bare skin. My father had been in the thick of them. His skin was beginning to blister.

“The wizard’s house,” I whispered.

It would take too long to get to the ground and seek help, even supposing the healer in the village knew an antidote for the jellies’ poison. But surely the house of a wizard, even one empty and drifting for decades, would have medicines or potions to cure him.

I swung the blade back toward the clouds until it glowed white hot.

It was difficult to push my father out of the way and take the sweeps and much harder to steer while keeping the sword pointed like a compass needle at one particular hill of cloud. Several times I thought I had lost it, but each time the sword would eventually light again, and I would realign the ship. Soon we were among the clouds, scudding against the rising light of dawn. Several times I almost gave up and turned back. Once I heard my father moan what sounded like my name.

“Don’t worry,” I told him. “I’ll find help.”

He was lying on the deck, his breath coming shallow, when I finally saw windows in the clouds. They were carved in the side of a white hillock we were approaching, almost hidden among its pale furrows. No light came from within.

I circled the cloud twice before finding the courage to land on a flat bleached lawn that stretched out on its southern edge. The ship touched down as if on rock. The blade dimmed immediately, and I put it back into my belt and struggled to lift my father. A carved white door was clearly visible a dozen paces away.

The surface we staggered across—my father putting most of his weight on me—was the same shaped stone as the door: perfectly white and intricately carved into the whorled and billowed surface of a cloud. But the wind did not shape it. I watched the walls of the house, which rose up before us like a hill, and they did not grow or drift.

At the door I held the sword out again, hesitantly. It no longer glowed, but the door swung back silent and obliging. The room beyond was dark. As soon as we were across the threshold, a voice from the wall spoke.

“Greetings, Diogenes and Bartolomeo Shell.”

Lanterns came to life along a wall that curved away in both directions. The floor was wide and carpeted, the ceiling so high it was lost in mist and moving shapes above.

I could see no one.

“How do you know our names?” I called into the empty room.

“Everyone wears one’s name at the top of one’s mind,” the voice said. “It is not hard to read them off.”

“Are you the wizard?”

The voice sighed with the sound of a spring relaxing. “I am the timepiece.”

It was. I could see it now, in the warm light of the lanterns. It was like no clock I had seen before, rings within concentric rings of symbols and at least half a dozen hands.

My gaze wandered the rest of the room. It was circular, and the walls, when they were not broken by windows looking out on the cloud bank or by other mounted instruments, were crowded with shelves. The shelves in turn were crowded with books, scrolls, carved wooden boxes, and jars, many of which contained jellies suspended in fluid. What looked like an albatross slept on the railing of a balconied second tier. There were more balconies above that.

“You bear a captain’s blade,” the clock continued, “but you are certainly not one of my lord’s captains.”

I shook my head. My father moaned again.

“We were attacked by the jellies. My father is hurt.”

The clock chimed, and a breeze picked up in the room.

“This is Sylva,” the timepiece said apologetically. “She is the last one left.”

It was as if someone had opened all the windows at once. A wind swirled around us, brushing my cheek, and then wrapped around my father. His clothes flapped as in a gale, and he was half-lifted out of my arms.

“Oof. He’s heavy.”

The voice was not the clock’s, and it lacked the sharp edges of human speech.

A pair of wing-backed chairs waited beside an enormous round table that stood in the room’s center. I pushed with the wind, and together we got my father into one.

“He’s poisoned, I think. We were attacked.”

I felt vaguely foolish, talking to the air.

The wind had quieted, but it swirled around my face and again brushed my cheek.

“There are vials on the second level,” the voice said, “on an oaken shelf behind glass. Look for the blue one.”

“Are you Sylva?”

If she was still there, she did not answer. I found a winding staircase that led to the second level and followed the balcony around to the shelf she mentioned. When I returned, the voice came again. If you were not listening for it, you could fancy it the play of the breeze about the windowsills.

“This will help. Put it on his arms and face, wherever he touched them.”

I did and then put some on my own.

By now it was full daylight outside and the lanterns within the house had dimmed. Each window faced a landscape of cloud with breaks of brilliant azure between.

“That’s all that we can do now,” the wind whispered.

“Where is the wizard?”

The table at the center of the room had come to life with the light. An entire map of the Shallows spread out on its surface, with detail as clear and crisp as though I looked down on it from the sky. Above its surface, like tiny piles of smoke, the clouds we rode within were arranged in perfect miniature, keeping pace with the shifting mountains outside the windows.

“This is where my master and his captains made their plans for war.” The voice was in my ear, and this time the wind tousled my hair. “There is a lens beneath that makes the whole house a camera obscura, though I don’t expect you to know what that means.”

I did not.

“Magic makes the clouds though.”

I asked her about my father.

Her voice was soft. “I have done all I can. I have never known the jellies to sting so deeply.”

I told her about what the priest had said.

“My master would know what to do.”

“The wizard? Where is he?” I asked again. “I know this is his house.”

When she said nothing I asked if he was dead.

“He is asleep.” This was the voice of the clock where it kept a dozen unknown times beside the door. “He has not come downstairs in years.”

“In ages,” the wind sighed.

“Why don’t you go wake him up?”

The breeze skittered around the table and brushed at the pages of some books lying in a heap. “I cannot go upstairs unless summoned.”

I looked toward the ceiling. The balconies seemed to pile one on another until they were lost in a cloudy haze.

“Does he know we’re here?”

“I chimed your entrance,” the clock said, “but I have chimed his meals for a century, and he has ignored those too.”

“Then he’s probably dead.”

“He’s not dead.” The voice was my father’s. He was sitting up in the chair and struggling to rise. Sylva’s medicine had helped, though his brow was still beaded with sweat and his face was pained. “He’s up there.” His eyes rolled toward the house’s upper levels. “I can feel him. He’s waiting.”

“You’re hurt.” I rushed to his side and tried to get him to sit back, but he pushed me away.

“We need to get out of here.”

“And go where?”

The effort to rise exhausted him. He fell back into the chair.

“They can help you here,” I told him. “The wizard will know what to do.”

A fit of coughing nearly bent him double. “At a cost,” he said, when he found his breath again. “Everything has a cost.”

“Then I’ll pay it.” I pulled away. “I’m not going to argue. I’m going to find him.”

“You can’t go upstairs,” Sylva gasped, though she seemed pleased.

The timepiece agreed. “There are warding spells. You would never find him.”

I glanced at my father, whose eyes were now closed, and started for the stairs.

The climb seemed to take days. No staircase rose more than a single level, so I had to cross and re-cross the curving balconies to continue upward. There were more birds perched on the higher railings, some from species I had never seen before. Preserved creatures hung from the unseen ceiling by chains of interminable length. I passed what looked like a shark, then an infant whale, and finally the bones of some vast flying lizard. Each level held more shelves, more brass instruments and unlabeled vials, more books and scrolls of all possible description. No matter how far I climbed, I could always see the table at the center of the room below and my father sitting motionless beside it.

I lost count of the levels I passed through. It was impossible that the wizard’s house could be so tall. Even the highest column of thunderhead could not have extended this far upward, and the cloud upon which we landed had seemed not much higher than the peak of our mill. I felt no unseen force, nor did I became confused or lose my way. I never descended staircases. I simply kept climbing upward through an endless array of circular balconies.

Maybe other people had found the wizard’s house as well. Maybe they were still here, like me, climbing upward forever and never reaching the house’s summit. Maybe I would find their bodies in these upper levels, mummified by the winds blowing in open windows or pecked clean by the patient, impassive birds that watched me as I climbed.

I thought of bleached bones in the sky, and then I thought of Swords Creek, where they were said to have fallen once, long ago.

Goya’s sword. The sword that should have been his but that had brought me here instead. It was still slung through my belt. I pulled it out and held it before me.

“Wizard!” I shouted.

My voice echoed in the stillness of the house.

“It’s not mine,” I whispered, lowering the blade. “I’ll give it back.”

On the next level, I found a narrow door opening off the balcony, something I had not seen before. It had a latch in the form of two human hands, which unclasped one another as I approached. Beyond was a small room with wide windows looking out over the cloudscape below. In a seat at the room’s center, the wizard reclined, asleep.

It was obviously the wizard, though I had never seen one before. He wore a blue robe reminiscent of those worn by the priests who had come to our mill. It was impossible to tell his age, but he did not look one hundred years old.

There was a small table beside the chair, with a tiny gong and hammer. I picked up the hammer, struck the gong, and jumped backward as the wizard’s eyes snapped open.

“Where did you get that sword?”

He was blind. Where his eyes should have been there were only two polished grey stones.

“You are not who I was expecting.”

He stood. In the house’s main chamber, the birds were calling to each other along the endless well of balconies. The wizard stepped to the railing and without hesitation dropped over the side. When I looked below, he was on the main level, standing over my father and holding one of his hands in his own.

The wind was gleeful in my ear.

“He’s awake.”

By the time I descended from the upper levels of the house, the wizard had carried my father, who was now completely unconscious, to a hammock slung between two bookcases beside an open window.

“This poison is deep,” he told me. “But I can save him if you agree.”

I told him that I did.

He shook his head. In this light, the wizard could have been my father’s older brother. His face seemed ageless, but his hair was flecked with white.

“You came uninvited to my doorstep, though you bore a key. I do not render my services without charge.”

I waited. The breeze seemed excited, though it may have been only the unruly and unwitting ones spilling in through the windows.

“I awaken to find all my winds have deserted me, save one.”

For a moment I had fears of becoming a disembodied servant in return for my father’s life.

“Not disembodied.” The wizard’s stone eyes were blank, like carved marble. “You will promise to remain in my house and serve me, and I will heal your father.”

I hesitated.

“You may take your time. He will die without my aid, but he is not so far gone that I cannot bring him back.”

“Why did the jellies attack us?”

“Because the unborn god is growing.” The wind whispered around me, but the wizard raised his hand. “Sylva. Let him be.”

I thought about Mother alone in our mill, waiting for our return. I thought about Goya beside the creek, about R’esh and his notebooks. I looked at my father’s drawn, feverish face. He had been right. I tried not to imagine what he would say were he awake. I glanced at the clouds outside the windows.

I told the wizard I promised.

He shook his head. “You must say it. Say, ‘I promise to remain in your house and serve you until time or word release me.’”

I said it.

The words started to take form as I spoke them, hanging in the air like a silver smoke. Before they could drift away he had snatched them up and slipped them into a fold of his cloak.

When my father awoke, I told him goodbye.

“He can hear you,” the wizard explained. “But he will not remember.”

My father stared at me as at one in a dream.

“What will he tell Mother?”

The wizard shrugged. “His memories of the night will be confused. The jellies attacked. You were lost. You fell from the skiff, perhaps.”

My father shook his head and gripped my hand. “You were right,” he said.

“About what?”

He held his hands apart. “The jellies. They expand higher up. Like an air-sack.”

I embraced him.

“This is Goya’s.” I handed him the blade. “I took it from him. Tell him I’m sorry.”

He nodded slowly.

Later, I watched from the carved white stone of the wizard’s lawn as he boarded the skiff and cast off. He moved like someone sleepwalking, but the wind was fair and the wizard said he would be safe. I stared at the departing ship until I could no longer make out my father’s form. The wind came up beside me and curled around my hand, and presently the wizard called from inside the house.

“We have work to do,” he said. “The god is growing.”

Birds were coming and going through the windows, and beyond them the sky was piercingly blue.

Inside, the wizard was already bent over his table, surrounded by maps and devices I could not name. He sent Sylva to find certain texts in the upper balconies and told me to stoke the fire.

“The timepiece will tell you when I take my tea,” he said, pulling at his chin absently while he studied the map. Clouds covered the table like steam. “Sylva has difficulty carrying the cups.”

And so it was I found myself a servant in the wizard’s house.

I write this now looking out over a sea of fog that is in truth the clouds covering the Shallows. The house drifts among them on a stiff morning breeze. I worry about my parents. Have the priests returned to our mill? Does my father glance up from his table at their knock, struggling to recall the evening when we ambushed them and he returned home with arms scarred?

The wizard says I was foolish to send the sword back, but he let it leave. Perhaps he is right. I fear he plans to confront the god, and he has given me no weapons. It seems to me though he will need more than a single wind and an unarmed servant to stand against such a thing, if that is indeed his plan. He will need captains. He will need generals to join him in council around his table. Perhaps there are more blades waiting to be found. Perhaps Goya’s will summon others.

Roots grow in strange and unseen ways.

I leave this scroll for now. Sylva is whispering in my ear. The clouds are broiling. There is work to do.


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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.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“The Unborn God” by Stephen Case
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