Cloud Tower Rising
Hungry and claw-scratched, Devlin flitted like a shadow through the twisted trees. The air was dense with rotting vegetation but a mountain breeze rilled in from up ahead. The light looked brighter there, less strangled by trees. Just a little further, he told himself.
Huntsmen had pursued him from the Brass Duke’s fortress up to the tangled branches and gnarled roots of the wood. They had watched him disappear into its dimness then turned back, laughing. Now he knew why.
Rustling from behind caught his ear. He shifted into the shadows of a rotting tree. Something low, long, and pulpy slithered through the brush, sucking and snuffling as it tracked him. He caught a glimpse of pale, swollen flesh and massive coils. Another of the vat-born — wizard creations, voracious and starving now that their masters were gone.
He swore soundlessly. Quietly, he drew a tiny bundle of porcelain and wire from his belt. He clicked a switch and it unfolded into a dragonfly. The wings fluttered and blurred, then it rose and sped after the vat-born, repeatedly diving in and stinging it and sending the creature thrashing through the underbrush and rotted trees.
Devlin leaped from hiding and sped for the light. He won precious steps before the creature oriented and arrowed after him. He dodged, drawing his short sword and slamming the blade against its side. A crackling net of blue sparks flashed across its skin, leaving it twisting and writhing. He whirled and ran, breaking into the sunshine. But where the trees ended so did the ground, and the creature was already recovered and slithering after him. He looked down at the long steep slope, then turned to face the vat-born as it came roaring out of the trees and reared to strike. Devlin stepped backwards into the void. His hands traced the rock face as he slid in a controlled fall, the creature above raging at the loss of its prey.
Devlin came to a stop on a ledge. Below, granite slopes curved down gently now to a valley. He patted the silver chain hidden beneath the sash at his waist. Castle wall or rocky slope, so far it had secured his hold on whatever he tried to climb.
He sat, swinging his tired feet over the edge, relishing the cooling touch of mountain air. He set his short sword down, letting the obsidian-flecked scabbard charge in the sun.
He’d entered the Wood far less prepared than he’d planned. His love of books had betrayed him. Instead of a rushed study of the maps of the old wizard satrapies, he’d lingered in the Brass Duke’s library. Not, it turned out, a good place to be found uninvited. But he’d glimpsed accounts supporting the tantalizing stories of this region from before the Wizard’s Ruin.
What the maps hadn’t shown was a forest now full of the misshapen vat-born, twisted things of mushy flesh or rigid scale, lidless eye or poison tentacle. He shivered. He hoped his coming here proved worth it.
Pulling his seeing-glass from his pack and surveying the valley, Devlin was astonished. He’d expected a wasteland. Instead there were rich farmlands surrounding mounded earth, palisade walls, even stonework. Veiled by wood smoke, he saw not rubble but shops and homes. And above the gabled roofs rose a steeple whose clock face glinted bronzed light.
He looked further, to the cumulus clouds growing on noonday thermals, billowing above the mountains. A sparkle on one cloud’s shoulder caught his eye. He glassed it, glimpsing white walls and slender towers of ivory and pearl rising with the blossoming cloud.
Devlin whistled softly. The cloud castle, a wizard’s stronghold, had survived, and it looked unscathed.
He loathed wizards. They’d ruled and robbed for generations: bleeding the land of coin and learning, smashing universities, stealing books and art, lighting innocents into screaming human candles, banishing rebels to the Demonic Planes. Their war amongst themselves left nothing save broken works in a haze of smoke and chaos.
But wizardly things fascinated him. He’d roamed far hunting for them, thieving them from the new petty warlords. Most he sold. A few he kept. His far-seeing glass. His short sword that soaked up sunlight and struck blows like lightning. The cloud castle might still hold a trove of such treasures.
Devlin straightened his jacket and brushed away what signs he could of his days in a forest of nightmares. Then he slung his sword across his back, hoisted his pack onto tired shoulders, and started down.
Nearing the town, Devlin slowed and studied it. The entrance gate was set in a wall of stone between tall towers. The fine stones looked taken from a wizardly structure. The walls were being rebuilt from wood palisade to stone.
He rubbed his stubbled jaw. Most towns these days were feral with confusion, disorder flourishing in the void left after the wizards annihilated one another. Warlords had risen, former servants exulting in excess and violence.
Yet here in this fertile valley, protected by a ring of snow-bright mountains and the horrors of the woods, was an oasis. Someone governed here in a fashion different than the fear and blood writ elsewhere. The future lay with the people, rebuilding with vigor and hope.
His heart leapt for their renaissance, yet he silently urged the wall-builders to hurry. After all he’d seen, he doubted their secret would keep. They would need those walls.
Devlin merged with the farmers and tradesmen pouring in through the gate. Beyond spread a broad plaza edged with brightly colored stalls. The ancient clock tower, from an age before the wizards, stood on the far side.
He drifted among the stalls drinking in the colors, the conversation, the aromas of foods smoking and sizzling in the fresh air. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been in a cheerful market. Black Firth stank of rotten seawater, bloody chains, and slavery. Wind Home’s great square held only the skeletal wind-rattle chime of starving people who’d dared to steal bread. The Duke’s streets were filled with dull eyes and stumbling limbs, the wet-gasping miner’s cough, drowned by roaring forges.
What must it be like to stay in a place like this? To belong to a community, building, supporting, protecting, instead of wandering in, assuaging his curiosity, taking from it, and moving on?
Valuing the new and unknown over home and hearth, he’d lived as a wanderer, a finder and trader of curiosities and lore, slipping through the cracks, avoiding entanglements. He’d told himself his travels made him a living book, that he’d written his life in the ink of wonders the wizards couldn’t steal.
But if his life were a book, it had gone unread.
He shook his head. Focus, you fool! He needed to resupply and leave without attracting attention. He shopped quickly, paying with old Imperials, grimy and scored from their travels.
“Good coin,” said the last merchant, “but I’ve not seen many Imperials since the wizards torched each other.” His appraising glance swept over Devlin. “Between the Rotting Wood and the Silver Peaks, Cloud Tower is an island. Strangers don’t just wander in.”
“I slipped through the wood by luck,” Devlin answered carefully. “Nor was I planning on staying. The West is in flames. The Brass Duke is arming for pillage. I’m looking for a quiet part of the world. I have no taste for war.”
“None of us do,” said the merchant, his eyes hard. “We can guess at how bad it is Outside. We aren’t going back to that. No more lying down as playthings of wizards or slaves of warlords. It’s been sweat and blood regaining our town. We don’t need anyone from beyond the pale stirring up trouble… spying.”
“Good policy,” said Devlin. “Good day, friend.” He grimaced a smile, then quickened his step for the edge of the square. He didn’t need to look back to see if the Guard was being called.
He slipped into a side street. The market’s bustle faded as he dashed down shadowed lanes, turning into ever narrower passages between walls of rough stone and wood until he came to a deserted alley. He leapt for a handhold and scuttled upwards, lizard-fashion. At the roof edge he spun round and jack-knifed up and over. Startled crows hopped away as he piked into their midst. He rolled into a crouch, listening for sounds of pursuit.
He heard only his own breathing. I’m getting too old for this, he thought.
Devlin hid on the rooftops the rest of the day. He laid his sword in the sun and ate a small meal. He listened to the bustle of the town as he studied the castle atop its clouds.
He found the town’s sounds soothing. There were children playing, peddlers calling, matrons gossiping. Not once did he hear a whip’s lash, or a scream, or the plunging creak of a gallows. What had the merchant called it – ‘Cloud Tower?’ He liked the name. He could live here.
The thought surprised him. Don’t be a fool. You’re here to take what you can from that castle. Nothing else.
After dark Devlin slipped out of town, spending the night in a hay pile in a barn. He slept fitfully, stirred by distant thunder and pattering rain. Before dawn he rose and headed for the mountains.
He walked through pastureland, then up wooded heights. He reached the tree line at sunset. Here the wind blew chill from higher ridges, black against crimson. He was near the looming edge of the tower cloud. Through his seeing-glass he could make out the curtain wall and towers high atop a rounded shoulder.
He gathered firewood as thunder rumbled, then took shelter beneath a rocky overhang. When evening rains came, he had a small fire burning, screened within the hollow.
After eating, he checked his gear. He sharpened his blade, cleaned his tools, and sorted his climbing rack. Lastly, he lay his chain on his lap, checking the harness buckle that allowed him to wear it like a belt. The chain was smooth, silvery links of a light wizardly alloy. An engraving wound about it, like waves rolling before the wind. He’d found it looking for treasure in the sunken ruin of a wizard’s sailing craft. He suspected it as part of the anchor. Over time he’d discovered its gift.
Tomorrow would be its greatest test.
He rose before dawn. The rain had stopped and the air was still. The tower cloud hid the sky, lapping at the mountains. He limbered up and ate, then built a bonfire out under the open sky. Nursing the flames to a ruby coalbed, he slipped on his sword and pack then tossed a tangle of sodden green alder wood onto the coals.
Smoldering plumes rose. He reached high, grasping the thick dark smoke. It stayed firm in his hand, like desert-warmed sandstone, hot and gritty. He pulled himself up, feeling with his soft boots for smoky footholds. He climbed quickly, weaving hand and footholds from the curling smoke. He had only as long as the wood smoked on the coals.
The air grew cool and wet. Daylight found him just below the nebulous lower banks. He reached for the next handhold, but found nothing.
Fear knifed through him. The smoke in his hands was dwindling, no longer billows but wisps, bending in the breeze, swaying with his weight. He was far above the earth now, and the fire was nearly out.
He searched and found one more solid handhold. It was cold, like grasping icicles. But now the smoke gave way beneath his feet. Plunging his other hand into the cloud he found icy purchase and chinned himself up. A high-kicked heel, a toehold, and he was climbing into the mist of the shifting, flowing mountain-cloud. The holds were soft, some no more than the tiniest of ice seeds swirling in mist.
He climbed, losing sense of time and place. The holds were tenuous, the cloud chilling. His hair and clothes hung wet against his skin. He began to shiver. His cold-stiffened hands were losing their grip when at last he broke out through the cloudtop to brilliant, warming sunlight. Patchwork lands below drifted in and out of sight beneath swirling mists. Above him the sun streamed between cumulous pillars like a ruined, snow-softened temple.
Climbing round a billowing cloud serac, the castle revealed itself, its white walls and slender towers sparkling. The cloud beneath him grew firmer. He poured on his strength, climbing ’til he heaved himself up onto a misty ledge.
The castle gate stood open before him. Within lay a courtyard: bright, sunlit, and still.
Devlin approached over the gentle cloud drifts. Above him, the walls glinted like white granite flecked with quartz, while higher the tower cloud blazed against a sky of noon-washed blue. He put a hand to the barbican wall. It felt solid, stone bathed in sunlight and lofty airs.
Past the gate lay a winding series of courtyards, each larger than the one before, like a chambered seashell. In the innermost courtyard stood a tree of pale metal, its finely crafted leaves fluttering and chiming softly.
Beyond the tree rose the castle’s keep. High-paned stained-glass windows poured color upon the paving stones. Beneath stood a pair of tall, narrow, ornate wooden doors three times his height. Devlin stood before them and put a hand to them.
They swung open, utterly silent, to a hall dark with sullen brooding. Cautiously he stepped in, and the doors swung shut behind him. The stained-glass in the walls cast colored shafts of light like fanned buttresses of prismatic stone. He slipped quietly to the end of the hall, to a lustrous high-backed chair atop a dais. Beside it on a table stood a golden goblet and an unopened bottle of dark wine. Dust lay thick on everything.
A massive tapestry covered the wall behind the dais. It was skillfully woven with threads of red and orange and noxious green on a field as black as a hole in the night. It held his gaze and chilled his heart. The lines in the tapestry swirled, not in the elegant fashion of a river’s flow, but as seasickness and despair. It was a rendering of the Lower Planes.
The Demonic Planes.
He averted his eyes, but still its message slithered across his mind like a tentacle. The wizard will send you down to a place of power and malice, a place of Torment Eternal…
“The wizard is dead,” he whispered, and drew his sword. A single blue spark danced along the blade and disappeared with a snap.
There was a door to each side of the tapestry. He approached the door on the left, gently opening it onto a dim, windowless room filled with tables and tools and alembics. A faint glow pulsed at the far end. He drifted towards it.
Weak candlelight pooled atop a desk strewn with parchments and books. Slumped over them lay a man in heavy robes.
Devlin froze. The man’s tangled grey hair lay like strips of flensed skin across the desktop, his cheek resting atop a book. There was a faint rise and fall of his chest, and dark red sand scattered around his chair.
Scarcely breathing, Devlin backed away. Just then his sword sparked and snapped, matched by an answering crackle as a crimson hemisphere surrounding the wizard flared then faded.
The wizard stirred, raising his head. Seeing Devlin, he hissed like a scaled beast. Freezing cold gripped Devlin, spreading from the top of his head inwards and down. Heart hammering, he could still breathe and move his eyes but was frozen in place.
The wizard blinked sunken, lamp-like eyes.
“It feels an age since I’ve thrown a basilisk curse.” His voice drifted like cobwebs on a hot wind. “Yet I snared you with ease.” He straightened slowly, grimacing with pain. He peered at Devlin’s sword. “Fool artificer. Do you not know me? I am Pallius! Your toys can never match my Arts.”
He rubbed his brow. “I’ve been gone so long… such black dreams…” His head arced up and he stared hard at Devlin. “Who sent you? Tinian, seeking to finish me off?” He coughed.
I am not an assassin, Devlin thought at him. I thought the castle empty…
He gasped in shock at a sensation like cold hands rummaging through his mind.
“Hmm… so you are just a trinket-hunting fool… …as you frequently tell yourself.”
His sifting brought him to the fact of the Wizards’ Ruin. He swayed in his seat. “But how can this be? Your little mind doesn’t show me…”
His head sank into trembling hands. “I’ve not yet the energy for this,” he murmured. “Tinian’s attack weakened me despite my shield…” He waved a hand, and the crimson hemisphere flickered; he snapped his fingers and it disappeared. “And now it seems I may be the last wizard…?”
He frowned. “I need time to recover.” He tilted his head, thinking aloud: “…and if I am the last, I must establish my rightful rule.” His form grew more substantial, sinister, gloating. “But first things first — best rid the castle of vermin. So you thought to rob me, little thiefling? You will serve as the first example.”
Taking up an onyx-dark staff, the wizard rose up from his chair, taller and taller, looming like a storm cloud. He stared down at Devlin, holding him, compelling him.
Devlin had never been so close to these monstrosities of power. Panic filled him..
“What do you fear?” whispered the wizard. “What do you loathe? See it. Feel it. It’s rising, forming, approaching. What you create shall be your fate…”
Devlin’s mind bent beneath the power of the wizard’s will. He struggled to fight off approaching darkness, to imagine something safe. Then his mind locked on the tapestry.
The wizard laughed, the sort of sound that soaks into a torturer’s work table. “Excellent! I hung that tapestry to instill terror in all who sought audience. Well done, fool! You’ve chosen Torment amongst the Demons.”
With a long thin knife, Pallius sliced a line along his left wrist. Blood-colored sand whispered to the floor as he turned in a slow, full circle, He let fall a final drift in the circle’s center. With a long pale finger he traced symbols in the sand. Then he flicked the knife along his right wrist and dark red blood fell upon the drift of sand, and up twisted a dark red candle.
Pallius whispered a word. The candle flared to red life, throwing the chamber into crimson shadows. He began a harsh chant, the guttural, arcane words rising and falling, echoing off the chamber’s vaulted ceiling. In the darkness the red flame reflected off the wizard’s shining eyes and the glinting silver runes of his robe.
Devlin felt like a stone statue in a vast dark cavern. Beneath the insistent chant, he heard a swelling rustle like thousands of insects rasping over one another. Past the edges of the red light, twisted dark shapes pulsed and jittered.
Pallius straightened, raising his staff aloft, and bloody light flashed, sweeping at the creatures like a ruby blade. The rustling retreated in alarm, then edged forward again. The candle flickered low, then flared brighter. There was a pressure, pushing and probing the bounds of the wizard’s circle. The staff flashed, and again the chitinous buzzing scraped through the darkness.
“You threaten me at your peril, demon,” hissed the wizard.
A thin voice thrummed like a cockroach’s wings from the darkness. “You are brazen, Pallius, to summon me.”
“You are a mere servant of the Greater Torments. Remember your place, lest I teach it to you.” Again the staff flashed, like blood lighting.
“What do you ask of me then?” The voice’s fury resonating in a low, grating hum Devlin could feel in his chest.
“What news of the Wizards’ War?”
“The Wizard’s Rule is over, the Wizard’s Ruin well begun. Your world is shattered. You stand alone. And weak.” The voice drifted closer.
Pallius raised his staff and blood red light flashed. The harsh roar of the insects swelled then dwindled, sharp with frustrated hunger.
“Worm!” he spat out. “You presume to lecture me on my place in the world? I shape the world to my desires, now and forever!” But Devlin thought he was struggling for control, his power far from full. “The only reason you are not an agonized meteor, screaming through the Under-Dark, is my need for an errand boy.” He gestured toward Devlin. “Convey this thief to the Halls of Torment. He is the Demons’ to play with as they will.”
“I await the incantation then,” said the voice, amused.
The wizard’s chant began, now high, now deep, echoing through the chamber.
Horrified, Devlin felt insect legs climbing up his boots, swarming up his legs. He felt he was sinking into freezing water. His skin begin to crawl and he tried to scream. But when the swarm and cold reached the chain at his waist, there was a pause. Chitinous chittering rose to a crescendo, then fell. There was the roar of a wave collapsing and rushing away. The cold receded.
“No,” the wizard said hoarsely. “No!”
Then the screaming started. Pallius fell twisting beneath a rushing tide of black insects. A pale hand emerged, reaching, clutching at the table edge; then it was buried under the carapaces. Slowly the heaving, tortured mound dwindled away.
Devlin felt stabbing needles through his body as blood flow returned. His sword slipped from his hand to the stones with a clang and a flash. He collapsed to his hands and knees. Shaking, he leaned back on his haunches. There was no sign of the insects or crimson candle or wizard. Only the staff remained.
A spider the size of his hand and thick with bristling hair lowered down before him, hanging on a strand of midnight silk. A multitude of aquamarine eyes stared into his.
“The last surviving wizard makes a better toy than a simple thief,” said the spider, its voice like clicking mandibles. It dropped to the floor and scuttled up his thigh. It circled his waist, then climbed to sit on his shoulder. “But perhaps – not a simple thief after all. That is no ordinary chain you wear. But you know this.”
Devlin struggled to find his voice. “I learned that over time,” he said, his voice shaky. “Since it held me well to whatever I wished, I hoped it might resist the spell and hold me in this world.”
“Most intriguing…” murmured the spider. Its long legs moved, feeling the arcane resonances around Devlin. “It is fascinating to see how old enchantments play out in the Ruin. They weaken, or strengthen, or transmute. But now I must go watch a wizard pay for his hubris.” The spider sounded satisfied.
A wind grew in the darkness, and as the spider’s weight dissolved from Devlin’s shoulder he heard fading words. This cloud castle remains in the sky through a strong fixed enchantment. But keep your chain close, thiefling, lest you step out of bounds. I shall watch your self-education with interest…
Devlin was alone, in a pool of candlelight.
It was some time before he found the courage to move. He took up his sword and stumbled back to the audience hall. He pulled down the tapestry of the Demonic Planes. Backing away from the cloud of dust, he paused by the slim right hand door, limned in clean, cleansing daylight.
He opened the door just slightly and saw a library, light streaming in dusty beams through floor to ceiling windows. The smell of books wafted out, thick and rich. Graceful, curving staircases mounted on tracks rose from the floor to the high vaulted ceiling.
He went in and wandered among the shelves, now and then touching a spine, reading a title: Mastering Your Mind and the Minds of Others. On Flying. The Art of Siegecraft. The Control of Weather. How to Build the Rule of Law, and How to Break It.
Devlin sank into the high-backed chair, gazing at the thousands of books and scrolls rising in shelves from floor to ceiling. He’d thought the wizards had left behind only broken works and monsters — but perhaps something worthwhile had survived.
He sat deep in thought through the afternoon. As the blush of sunset tracked across the wall opposite the windows, he stirred.
Leaving the library he walked out through the courtyards and stood at the gate. He gazed out over the darkened land, glimpsed through the air pools between clouds. The lights of the town shone warmly far below.
He was wary of pursuing wizardry, but he’d always been a reader. Perhaps he could help Cloud Tower rebuild and defend itself, become a wellspring for re-introducing knowledge to the wider world. Be part of the town, but keep his life of discovery. He’d have to be careful not to be misunderstood, or power-twisted. But surely, it was doable.
He looked back at the walls and towers, the clouds rising above them. Moonlight frosted the edges and cast curving shadows in the courtyards. The castle held mystery and purpose, and a path to fellowship.
His breath streamed out in the high, cold air as he whispered, “Home.”
He had much to do. Devlin walked back into the library, and began.
“Cloud Tower Rising” © Ian Pohl First published here in Cosmic Roots, on Jan. 31, 2020
Ian Pohl grew up on a homestead in Alaska surrounded by books, snow, tree forts, and northern lights. Today he works as an oceanographer in the Pacific Northwest. When not diving or at sea aboard research ships, he is typically reading, writing, coding in Python, or messing around with cameras above and below the water. This is his first fiction publication.
Illustrations: Artur Rosa. lead illustration: “Lingering in the Golden Gleam”. End illustration: “Follow the Birds”. You can find his wonderful work on deviantArt
Background illustrations: “Rising Thunderstorm”, “The Wall”, and “Salzberg” photographs by Bernhard Siegel, Austria.
“As a Lonely Raven” and “Mystical Forest Stock”, by Wyldraven, United Kingdom.
Wizard from skydancer stock
“Wizard Cove” free background stock by Grim-Red , United Kingdom
“clouds stock” by foxyfirewings “cloud stock 2” by aerophoinix
Additional clouds from Pixabay and Creative Commons