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Chapter 16 - Skycloud, the Holy City

 Chapter 16 - Skycloud, the Holy City

Cloudhawk traveled with the Bloomnettle Merchant Company North for a few days, and then they reached their destination.

"Everyone off, get ready for inspection. We're about to pass into the elysian lands."

The caravan guard sounded exhausted. It was to be expected after so long on the road. However, along with exhaustion there was relief in his voice. Cloudhawk felt the cart slow then pulled open the door and joined the others outside. He still wore his mask but had changed into more presentable clothing. At least he didn't look like a beggar anymore.

No sooner had Cloudhawk's feet touched the grassy ground than his eyes were struck by the scene before him. They were passing through an enormous canyon with towering mountains on either side. They rose so high it was like their peaks were piercing heaven, tall enough that their peaks were obscured by clouds. The canyon itself was dim since no direct light could reach them.

Cloudhwk had never seen majestic mountains like this in all his life, but that wasn't what gripped him. His eyes were pasted to the fifty-meter-tall wall before them that blocked their path. The thick wall was different from the ancient mountains to either side, glowing with a dark gold metallic light like it was made from the precious stuff.

It was absolutely huge! The people he saw walking along the ramparts looked as small as ants.

This was the great wall of the elysian lands, one mountain pass among many bestrewn throughout the area that connected the lofty mountains together. It sprawled across the land culminating in a giant circle and acting as the border of the elysian lands. Everything inside was the realm of the gods. Wastelanders had never crossed over, no measure of force could breach the impregnable walls. To the people of the elysian lands their great wall was their greatest defense against the evils of the outside world.

Every pass was guarded by a thousand soldiers.

Bloomnettle Company, as borderland merchants, had special permission to come and go as needed. However, each time they passed the walls they had to allow their goods to be checked. The soldiers had strict orders not to let any elysian goods leave their borders, or allow any banned substances from outside get in - including any suspicious persons. Their insurmountable walls and strict inspection protocols ensured the elysian lands stayed safe.

There was no question they would find Cloudhawk.

He leaned on his disguise as a demonhunter. He made sure to find a reason to show off his token and his ability to use relics. As far as these soldiers knew there had never been a wastelander who had the power of a demonhunter, much less carried a token of the high order. So no one gave him any trouble and instead treated him with the utmost respect.

Getting here sure as hell wasn't easy! Without the Bloodsoaked Queen's token he wouldn't have been allowed to take a single step inside. Now he finally understood why the Queen had laughed at his determination to get here.

He passed inspection and traversed the mighty wall, finally emerging out onto the other side. When he did, suddenly it felt like he'd crossed over into another world. Everywhere he looked the ground was carpeted in green grass and pockets of wildflowers. The mountainsides were thick with trees. Everything was so vibrant, so alive.

Two worlds, separated by one wall.

All the life in the world seemed to be concentrated here. The vast terrain he'd come from was barren and toxic, while before him stretched rolling green hills and a climate perfectly suited for comfort. He wouldn't have believed it except here it was in front of him. There was no natural explanation that could account for such a dramatic change.

Every seedling was blessed here, fated to grow tall and bear fruit, whereas if it were unlucky enough to exist outside the walls would die before night fell on the first day.

They were only separated by a hundred meters or so. Only a hundred meters made all the difference.

It was like a line of judgment, a wall where life and death were determined, the border between heaven and hell. The walls encircled an area of hundreds of thousands of meters where some supernatural power beyond the scope of human comprehension brought the blasted landscape back from desecration. It stood in defiance of the wastelands on all sides and refused to be swallowed by its filth. No matter who you were the stark difference would shake you to the core. What could be responsible for this but for a miracle hand crafted by the gods themselves?

But Cloudhawk was surprised too early. Once Bloomnettle Company passed through the valley they were met with a fleet of massive ships.

The exquisite vehicles were simple yet refined. Each one was a hundred meters long and made of artfully carved wood. What really stunned Cloudhawk, though, was how the ships moved.

They didn't float on water. No, instead some inexplicable power lifted them up off the ground where they were suspended in midair. They were all linked together and people passed from one to the other using slides and suspension bridges, creating a floating, bustling town.

What was this place?! The shock Cloudhawk felt couldn't be expressed in words.

And yet to the elysians this was nothing to get excited about. In fact no one seemed to pay it much attention.

Old Thistle hailed a hovering barge nearby. It floated down and opened its hull whereupon the merchants hustled aboard without a word. Cloudhawk figured this had to be a transportation hub of some kind. These artfully crafted, absolutely gigantic flying ships were a form of mass transit.

Cloudhawk was the farthest thing from a man of culture, but he got the basics.

But how could a wooden boat fly? He couldn't see any engines or devices that could explain it, much less a source of energy. What was making them rise off the ground? After asking roundabout questions he discovered that the boats didn't need any sort of energy at all. Whether they were in the air for ten years or a hundred, it didn't cost them a drop of energy.

If the elysians had this sort of technology, why didn't they just take over the wastelands?

Eventually, Cloudhawk learned that the boats had to abide by stringent restrictions. The moment the ships, or in fact ninety percent of the elysians' tools, left the holy lands they lost their mystical abilities.

The boat they soared on now was such a tool. So long as it remained within the elysian borders it could go where it pleased without the need for any sort of energy, gas, wind or manpower. Some mystical and unfathomable power kept it aloft.

Yet if it tried to float over the walls, it wouldn't get a meter into the wastelands before crashing into the earth. Even to this day no one knew why, they just chalked it up to the mysterious and incomprehensible will of the gods. Just like how the wastelands were a place of jagged mountains and turbid water, the elysian lands were the polar opposite - a mysterious and picturesque land of plenty.

The elysian lands were a place that had clearly been blessed by the grace of the gods. It was a land filled with miracles. Be it the endless flora and fauna, or the limitless energy, everything was beyond comprehension. It could only be explained through the lens of godly intervention.

Cloudhawk sat upon the boat as it soared through the heavens toward Skycloud City. The boat was quite fast and he was told they would reach their destination in two days or so. He spent the time looking out over the sprawling horizon, constantly barraged by visions of harmonious and verdant landscapes. Sparkling rivers traced paths like silvery arteries to deliver life-giving water to every corner of the domain.

It was intoxicating to behold. He was so enthralled he hardly noticed the passage of time.

On dawn of the third day one of the crew shouted out to the passengers. "Everyone out! We'll be arriving in Skycloud City in twenty minutes!" [1]

The clouds were painted gold by the rising sun, and when they parted a city was revealed that was more magnificent than anyone could imagine.

Cloudhawk raced to the deck where he stared in awe at what appeared before him. It was a belt of jewels suspended in the clouds. Not real jewels, of course, it was actually a river that snaked across the clouds and tumbled from the sky. From deep in the clouds water bubbled upwards in columns of silver springs. They gathered together into a waterfall which fell to the lakes beneath.

From a distance all one could see was the waterfall, tumbling from endless cloud-born springs. Upon getting closer the raw power of it could be felt, like a hundred thousand water dragons roaring toward the earth. The source of the lakes below was this celestial waterfall, and the lake then split into rivers and tributaries to feed the entire basin. This was the source of all the land's vitality. This was the heart of the holy domain.

A heavenly river! A heavenly waterfall!

It was the most incredible miracle in all the elysian lands!

Cloudhawk was frozen solid, robbed of both his ability to move and think. His eyes played over the undulating surface of the lake, like a picture from some fairy paradise. Countless rainbows traced paths all around and there, on the banks, a city emerged.

It was a shimmering city of holy light with scores of ships coming and going, thousands of magnificent boats criss-crossing. It seemed so full of life and exuberance. From overhead Cloudhawk could see every street, every building, every paving stone perfectly and meticulously placed. It was like a dream.

Cloudhawk felt hot tears in his eyes.

Ten years. More than ten years!

All that time he fought and struggled through the wastelands, every day a nightmare, of fear and hopelessness. In his dreams he'd longed for a place like this... just like this.

Were his dreams coming true?

Skycloud City. This was it, the most vibrant destination in all the Skycloud Domain. [2] A paradise adrift in a sea of purulent wasteland.

"Hey, you alright?" Squall saw that Cloudhawk was shivering. He gave him a pat on the shoulder. "Get ready, the ship will be descending soon. We'll bring you to the Governor's mansion. Soon you'll get to meet the man and complete your mission."

Cloudhawk was almost desperate to see every part of Skycloud City, but he couldn't forget himself. Restraining his wildly beating heart he followed Squall from the deck. The ship began to slow and coast toward the ground until eventually docking in its designated area. The hull opened up and the merchants disembarked in an orderly fashion, flooding out into the holy city.

1. For some reason this reminded me of train travel through China. Some people love it, I did not. The two cheapest ways to get around are sleeper buses and sleeper trains. Sleeper buses... well, suffice to say avoid them unless you wish to be intimately acquainted with the urine of a dozen or so other people. Maybe I'll have a reason to share that story one day. Sleeper trains are boring as shit - nothing to do but stare out the window and smell everyone's feet. For hours. Conductors show up twenty minutes or so before arriving at your destination and tell you to get moving, and if you're too slow they'll just go to the next stop and make you pay for the return trip. If it isn't clear I'm not a fan of the 'travel' part of traveling.

2. He makes the distinction here between city and domain. Skycloud is also the name of this whole area in addition to the city.