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Book 5, Chapter 86 - Seeing the Tree

 Cloudhawk faced the mysterious city sprawled out before him. His eyes instinctively widened, for he couldn't believe such a place existed in this ice-choked land.

Imperia was nothing more than an expanded version of Woodland Vale. While a little surprising, it made perfect sense. After all, it was once the realm of the Shepherd God. As it just so happened, Cloudhawk had considerable experience with Silvana's homes.

The Shepherd God's strongest powers lay in control of plants and animals. Everywhere her presence was felt - whether Woodland Vale or Greenland - the city was dominated with an enormous God Tree. By comparison, they could be considered equivalent to the energy pylons of Skycloud. These trees drew energy from the environment to create far-reaching protective enchantments.

For a thousand years no one had gained entry into Woodland Vale. Once its borders were activated even someone like Arcturus couldn't force his way inside. Meadow's enchantments were even more powerful. It was not surprising that even demon elder Judas and his Noxian armies were thwarted.

Once Cloudhawk and his group were free from the Carnivorous Forest, they found themselves at the base of the God Tree. He lifted his eyes to its cloud-scraping canopy, stricken by the sight. This tree was different - different from every other tree he'd seen. In fact he was willing to swear there was nothing else like it in the world.

It was a stunning presentation of blooming flowers, so large it was difficult to wrap one's mind around. While not much taller than the God Tree in Woodland Vale, it was more than twice as thick.

The city built within its boughs had been named Oakstead, or the City of a Thousand Trees. Imperia, seat of the king, was how it had come to be known by the citizens of Silver Kingdom over time. Woodland Vale's God Tree housed a few hundred thousand people, but Imperia gave shelter to several million.

Cloudhawk continued to drag his eyes across the scene. The base of the tree was like an enormous black wall, or a lofty mountain face. It was so massive that you couldn't even see the curve of the trunk's edges. It was like standing at the foot of a colossus.

Right now there were several groups gathered at the base of the tree. Judging by their clothing and equipment it was clear they came from all over the kingdom.

For some it obviously wasn't their first time. Though they gazed upon the God Tree with devout reverence, it wasn't with the same degree of amazement. Others stared with eyes so wide they threatened to roll out of their skull or prostrated themselves in the dirt with faces of zealous awe.

Different places, different cultures. Sometimes the discrepancies were quiet marked.

Meadow was on the southern border of the ancient battlefield, whereas Skycloud was to its north. They might as well have been in completely different worlds, and in fact Cloudhawk sort of felt the same as when he slipped into different dimensions. Whether culture of environment, Meadow was completely different from Skycloud.

"Welcome to the magnificent Imperia." A man dressed in the city's livery presented himself before the group. "Each of you have come to pay tribute to our king, victors of the Chosen Council in your various cities. I must congratulate on you this opportunity to enter our fair capital. Each of you are permitted to remain here for no longer than one day. I encourage you to do the most with this gift while it lasts."

The messenger continued to heap voluminous praise upon the Silverwing Monarch. He praised his king as no less than a god, whose unerring guidance brought this kingdom from squalor to splendor. Through his grace the people of the Silver Kingdom came to know prosperity. As they listened the visitors to Imperia ate it all up. For the normal folk of this place the Silverwing Monarch held an unalienable place in their hearts.

Cloudhawk, however, was reminded of Desmond's words. He wondered what happened to him, in the hands of king's Enforcers.

"You are about to be admitted into Imperia. Besides a few restricted areas, you are free to do what you like and go where you please. Remember to abide by our laws, for the dignity of our grand city must never be challenged. If you ignore this warning, no forgiveness will come to you."

With this final warning offered, the messenger put a small horn to his lips and blew. The visitors all felt a powerful gust of wind sweep by overhead.

Several enormous birds were summoned by the horn's call, emerging form hollows in the trunk of the God Tree. They were huge things, with a wingspan a hundred meters long, majestic golden plumage, and three heads each. Strangely, each head was a different color. They each worked harmoniously and filled the area with a sense of power.

The three-headed rocs served as airships. They glided to the base of the God Tree, buffeting the crowds with fierce winds. They landed with force enough to make the ground tremble, like mountains landing all around.

"Do not be afraid!" The messenger tried to soothe the newcomers. "These divine beasts dwell within the God Tree and protect our home. They are our king's most loyal guardians. They will bring you into the city."

It seemed the rocs were quite intelligent, for they needed no orders to bow and allow the humans to start climbing up their wings. With a mixture of excitement and trepidation the visitors clambered onto the backs of this incredible creatures.

Each roc could carry roughly two hundred people.

Cloudhawk stood on one's back and it felt like standing in a city square, except for the massive feathers beneath his feet. It was a hugely wide space so that even when the bird took off he hardly felt it. The feathers were tough as iron. These rare, magnificent creatures were full of raw power.

What's more, Cloudhawk could sense clearly the hum of relic power from each of them.

That meant every roc was a divine beast and must have special abilities besides their sheer size. In a fight they had to be deadly, more than most could envisage. Cloudhawk had never encountered a divine beast of this size, or more than one of a particular sort of divine beast. What governed these rocs? Was it the king himself?

Every passing moment made him more suspicious. There were so many unanswered questions.

The rocs were fast, as one might imagine. They flew a full circle around the God Tree and spiraled toward its canopy. Just as they'd witnessed from below, the top was like a singular magnificent blossom.

There were no limbs, more like a herbacious plant than a tree. Its enormous leave stretched toward the horizon in all directions so that it looked like half a giant flower bud. When looking down on it from above it was revealed that indeed there were no limbs except for those that excited inside the 'bud'.

The trunk of the tree was hollow, and branches grew inward and upward. At the top of each branch was a giant leaf like lotus sprouting from the depths of a pond. The leaf pads existed like islets, upon which neighborhoods were constructed.

Cloudhawk looked down on them to see at least a dozen such islets, each with buildings of various kinds constructed on the leaves. Though isolated, each pad was connected by series of bridges. The pads came in different shapes and sizes so that no one was the same as any other. They were dispersed through the God Tree's trunk at random. The final result was a sprawling urban system suspended over a massive drop.

The space between the highest and lowest pad was at least five hundred meters.

Below this pad-system of urban development there was a forest inside the tree trunk. They included fruit trees, enough to wholly support the population of Imperia. The entire city was wrapped in a sense of beauty and wonder.

A city on leaves! A forest in a tree! Cloudhawk had never seen anything like it.

Eventually the rocs settled on one of the pads and deposited their riders.

Cloudhawk ordered his entourage to gather their things and move out. They stepped out into the expanse. In fact 'lotus pad' was really just a vivid way to describe the look of the place. The ground was the same here as it was anywhere else, with soil and grass and everything else. Each of these were more like islands than leaves, and provided housing for several tens of thousands of people each. They were also quite bustling.

"Welcome all!" A hale and hearty man approached, swinging a decorative walking stick before him. Their landing place was always swarmed with guards and citizens. The old man introduced himself. "I am Administrator of the Thirteenth District. I am responsible for receiving you today, and will assist you in organizing your tributes to the king."

Cloudhawk frowned ever so slightly. This city was huge, and he heard resonance from every direction. There was no way he could pinpoint the king or the blood crystal among all this noise. And as for this tribute? It wouldn't even give me a chance to see this Silverwing Monarch's face.

Even more frustrating was discovering how strong this city was. From within these dwellings, to the guardian rocs, and even some of the citizens he felt resonance worthy of concern.

The weakness of the cities around Imperia's periphery did not speak for the capitol itself.

It was different here, compared to Skycloud. Skycloud City was lofty as the mountains when it came to powerful citizens, but it wasn't solely where they were concentrated. The other cities, towns and garrisons under its purview also had strong members. Imperia, on the other hand, appears to be where all the mightiest people of this realm were gathered.

No wonder Desmond had been so confident. As a citizen of Oakstead, he could be forgiven for thinking he was above reproach.

Cloudhawk cast a glance toward the Khan of Evernight, standing at his side. The cyborg remained cool and unreadable. It was like none of this mattered. Although the two of them were strong by anyone's standards, maybe even among the strongest here, they were not strong enough to shake this place on their own.

The Khan had already revealed the identity of the Silverwing Monarch. Cloudhawk wasn't sure he believed him, but nonetheless it inspired dread in him. Cloudhawk had come to this alien environment only ten days ago. That was all the time he'd had to prepare. Somehow he had to come up with a way to find the Silverwing Monarch and take the Demon King's blood crystal from him.

For days he'd been kicking around ideas on how to do just that.

1. The writer waffles between phrases. When he refers to -or 'The Shepherd God's Realm - he is talking about this place's official name as it was founded. We call this Meadow. Since the fall the people living in Meadow have forgotten its name and history, and now refer to it as 'The Silver Kingdom'.

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