Azura felt like the breath was stolen from her lungs, and felt her stomach leap into her throat as she fell. For a moment it was like she had slipped into a bottomless pit, and then she lost consciousness.
An indeterminate amount of time passed.
Azura slowly came to, awoken by the sound of chirping birds. The air was crisp, clean and refreshing. She greedily drew in gulps of air like it was the most delicious thing she’d ever tried. It made her dizzy until she stopped.
Once her senses fully returned, the small girl realized she was slung over a set of not very broad but safe shoulders. Someone was carrying her over rugged terrain, careful not to jostle her too much.
Azura’s brilliant blue eyes opened and she looked around. She was greeted with a world full of life and vitality.
Colossal trees that had to be thousands of years old rose all around her, each one easily a hundred meters tall or more. It would take a dozen people to completely surround one of them. Above the sky was covered by a canopy of green, thick luxuriant leaves layered one on top of another. Then there was the fruit, large and inviting, hanging from branches lining their path. From twig to branch the trees were covered in moss and other foliage. Flowers peaked through the underbrush, glorious and in full bloom. Their dizzying fragrance danced in the air.
Although she could not see the sky, their path was not dark.
Luminous mushrooms peppered the ground and provided more than enough light for her to see. They came in all sizes, with the smallest the size of a fingernail and the biggest half the height of a man. She was inundated with greenery, it was as though no inch of soil was wasted. The sheer volume of growth left her dumbfounded, with life occupying every nook and cranny.
Creatures akin to jellyfish danced on the breeze on the edges of her vision, glowing like fireflies. Deeper in the forest she often caught side of fawns or rabbits. None of them were aggressive, like playful spirits flitting among the trees.
It was so serene, so quiet, so peaceful, and so fertile… in a word: Perfect!
Azura stared, hardly able to comprehend what she was seeing. This dreamscape, this fairy tale forest was unfolding before her eyes.
A familiar voice whispered into her ear. “What do you think? Pretty, right?”
She looked down and for the first time recognized the tattered gray cloak beneath her. Cloudhawk had raced in to save her after the winds had ripped Azura from Claudia’s grasp.
Her eyes sparkled as she continued to try and take in everything at once. A joy that sprang from the depths of her heart was given voice in her words. “So pretty! I like this place.”
Cloudhawk chuckled. “Well, then you’re really going to like what you see next.”
He crouched down then leaped into the air. He and Azura rose sharply through the air, fast as a bullet until they pierced the canopy. He landed on the tops of the trees light as a feather.
The world opened up before them. It was a scene that confounded her imagination.
A sea of green was revealed, stretching as far as the eye could see. Ancient trees reached toward the heavens, tall as mountains. It was a world where the full expression of its wild and natural essence was left unchecked.
The wind blew, causing the canopy to undulate like verdant waves far into the distance. The pleasant sound of rustling leaves was the only noise. Incredible.
Cloudhawk only had Greenland Outpost to compare it to, and this cradle of life was a hundred times better. It was a unique paradise, filled to the brim with life. In sharp contrast to the blasted lands outside, everything here was pristine. No mutations, no forced evolution. It was exactly as it must have been a thousand years ago.
Yet the forest was ornamentation. When Azura’s eyes gazed upon the center of this wooded utopia, she felt the breath catch in her throat.
A truly gargantuan tree occupied the center of the forest. It was no exaggeration to say it was the size of a mountain. Its trunk had the look and consistency of black rock, rising three thousand meters up into the sky. The canopy was enormous, practically enveloping the clouds. It had to be five kilometers from end to end.
It was a towering island in a windswept sea, a majestic king surrounded by countless adoring subjects!
How small humans were… they could stare at a tree a few meters high and be in awe. An average tree in this forest was a thousand years old and a hundred meters tall. The tree in the center of the forest was several thousand, so that even at this great distance they still couldn’t get a full view.
Striking was putting it mildly.
The visual seeped into one’s very soul, making them feel small like an ant or speck of dust. In the face of the towering Godtree, humans were insignificant.
Its canopy was breathtaking, so high that clouds wafted among the leaves and made them hard to see. If they looked closely, Azura and Cloudhawk could almost see structures built between the branches. That had to be where the people of the Vale lived.
Cloudhawk’s voice was thick with praise. “Truly a god’s masterpiece, don’t you think? Spectacular.”
Skycloud was full of its own miracles, or had been at one point. He was reminded of the waterfall that fell from the heavens and the enormous border wall. However, it was Azura’s first time seeing anything like this. She was rendered speechless.
That was enough.
Cloudhawk had subjected the small child to terrible danger, but it was a critically important experience for her. She had witnessed the bitter, cruel war between the Elysian lands and the wastes. She learned what it meant to be strong, how important it was. Now she faced a true miracle and witnessed the sort of beauty that could exist. It was a series of ordeals that would change her utterly and forever.
Azura was a talented young girl.
Cloudhawk had a sneaking suspicion that if she grew well, Azura could change the world. He trusted his gut impressions, which was why he agreed to take her own as a disciple in the first place.
Azura’s curious voice interrupted his reverie. “Where are we?”
He shook his head. “It’s a strange place. Everyone’s been separated in the forest. I guess you could say we’re lost, but that big tree is a pretty hard landmark to miss. If there’s anywhere that serves as the heart of this place, my bet is it’s there. So that’s where we’re headed.”
Azura’s eyes weren’t as good as her teachers, so she couldn’t make out the buildings that were constructed along its boughs. But she didn’t need to know there were people living there to understand it was the heart of this magical place. And if she could figure that out, so could everyone else. Heading to it as fast as possible was the right decision.
“Let’s get going.”
There wasn’t any time to enjoy the scenery. Everyone else had to have seen the tree – it was impossible to miss – and had to be headed that way. The longer they stood there the further behind they fell.
Cloudhawk wrapped his hand around the phase stone. Reality undulated around him and his charge and then suddenly they were gone. They blinked back into existence a dozen or so kilometers closer to the tree. Without any threat to distract him, around twelve kilometers was the current limit to what Cloudhawk could muster.
He rested for a little while, then teleported them further.
For Azura it was a series of stutters, each one bringing them closer to the enormous tree. At first it was a distant image, like staring at a mountain in the horizon. A few minutes later, though, and her vision was filled with the thick black bark of it. They were now too close for her to see the whole thing at once.
By the time they reached the tree Cloudhawk was spent. The size of the thing was absolutely breathtaking, and its canopy covered the ground for miles in shadow. Because the sun was shut away there were no large trees here to compete for space. Instead, a long grassy expanse was all there was between them and the base of the heart tree.
Never had Azura experienced so much green in all her short years. The grass alone was stunning to her. Eye-opening was an understatement. She was still recovering when Oddball jumped off Cloudhawk’s shoulder and began circling them excitedly. “What’s wrong with your bird?”
He reached out with his mind to connect with Oddball, gathering what he could through their shared link. Cloudhawk then looked toward the towering crest of the tree, his keen eyes caught site of numerous heavy black fruit.
Azura followed the line of his gaze and suddenly understood. “He likes to eat fruit? He’s so greedy!”
Never taking his eyes off the tree, Cloudhawk shook his head. “Those aren’t fruit.”
She looked at him strangely. “But… it’s growing off the tree. Isn’t that fruit?”
“I guess if you put it that way you aren’t wrong. Maybe it’s better to call it a very special fruit.” Cloudhawk’s face was thoughtful. “That’s eboncrys, which is why Oddball is so excited.”
“Something that is very useful,” he explained. “It’s different from other minerals, not least of which because you don’t dig it up from the ground. It contains a thousand times more energy than its weight in fuel, and is very stable. Wastelanders and Elysians both want it to power their weapons.”
She still didn’t really understand, but it was obvious from the way Cloudhawk talked about it that eboncrys was special. She looked over the tree, completely covered by the black balls. Weapons, he said… if bad people got their hands on this, they could hurt a lot of people.
She muttered to herself ominously. “This isn’t a Godtree. It’s a death tree.”
Already people were fighting, killing, and dying to get to this tree. Whoever took control of it would definitely be one of the world’s most powerful groups, and only bring more death and suffering.
Any awe and admiration Azura had for this tree quickly fled. She didn’t think a tree like this should exist at all.
Cloudhawk looked down at his little disciple, at her solemn face, and smiled approvingly. He then looked back at the tree. Now he understood why Autumn had brought so much eboncrys with her during her journey through the wastelands.
She could have carried kilos of it, and it wouldn’t have made a dent in what the tree produced.
With a little refinement, just one of these black ‘fruits’ could produce several handfuls of eboncrys. A quick glance told him that there had to be hundreds of thousands of them up there, ready to be plucked. The small ones were the size of a human head, and the big ones rivaled water tanks.
It was a thousand years of accumulation. This was the fabled treasure of Woodland Vale.
Cloudhawk called to Oddball, trying to calm it down. “Now’s not the time, buddy. Wait a little bit and I’ll make sure you can eat as much as you’d like.”
Oddball had never seen so much eboncrys, much less the ‘fruit’ it came from. The unrefined bounty of the tree was even more suitable for him to nibble on, and easier to digest. If he stayed here for a little while, Oddball was certain to grow quickly.
Something was happening in the tree. Cloudhawk was pondering a way to get up, when from the treeline behind him came the sound of an explosion. Someone was fighting somewhere in that dense forest.
“Fuck, these guys are a pain in my ass...”
Cloudhawk scowled, weighing his options. He decided to go take a look.
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