Imperia’s residents did not discriminate against outsiders. Although those from outside the capitol were marginally lower in status, they were still an important part of the realm. They were diligent, hard-working citizens who toiled to bring in treasures from the forbidden area. Their sweat and blood was then offered to the king – who in turn used these materials to create rare and powerful weapons!
Oakstead’s prosperity was directly tied to these folk.
The old man in front of Cloudhawk was called Barclay. Imperia had a total of thirty six Districts and he was administrator the one they stood in. He himself was also a talented Chosen and came from a family whose leadership spanned eight generations. This legacy is why he’d been tapped for such an important post.
Barclay sized up Cloudhawk. “First time in Imperia?”
Cloudhawk nodded, since claiming otherwise would be an obvious lie. “Yes, it is.”
“You look young, and there’s something unique about you.” The glint in the old man’s eyes spoke to years of experience. He’d always had a talent for reading people yet he couldn’t seem to pierce Cloudhawk’s facade. He was young, yes, but something about him said he’d experienced quite a lot in his short years. “To be so young and still be an outstanding person in your town, have you thought about what your next steps may be?”
Cloudhawk wasn’t sure how to respond so he did what he figured the old man expected. “I’d appreciate your advice.”
“The outer cities are too small. Maybe you settle here, in Imperia, should they convey the right upon you. Perhaps you will earn further status and honors. Maybe the Silverwing Monarch will bestow upon you a whole new life with great power and prestige!”
Cloudhawk listened, speechless. What sort of person was this king? Who was he to ‘bestow’ new life and power on someone? Way too far fetched.
“Those of you who have won your Council also have a chance to test yourself in our trails.” The old man could see Cloudhawk was uninterested in his words about the king, so he pressed on without asking further. “If you can make it through the Emerald Labyrinth you will also earn the right to live in Imperia indefinitely. Every time the tributes come, people gather to try their luck with the Labyrinth. Most of us who live here won our chance by overcoming this trial.”
Trial of the Emerald Labyrinth, eh? Beat it and he could live in the city for as long as he liked. It was the first time he’d been made known of the chance. It piqued his interest, so he asked for more information.
Each time a city sent Chosen to pay tribute, they were allowed to select a few to attempt this trial. Although it was difficult, those who conquered it under strict conditions not only were permitted to remain in Imperia, they also had a chance to win recognition by the king himself. That meant baptism, transformation, new life.
More and more Cloudhawk was confronted with the secrets of this place. What was the Silverwing Monarch’s true identity? What powers did he wield? What did ‘baptism, transformation and new life’ even mean? He’d spent several days in Redleaf but deliberately kept out of the public eye. The consequence was he knew practically nothing.
Barclay led Cloudhawk and his people to the center of the district. A tall, old tree came into view. It had been cleaved across the middle and turned into a stump. Around it were a slew of sacrificial offering so that it appeared to be some kind of alter.
Barclay pointed it out. “Offer your tributes before the alter!”
Cloudhawk raised a brow. “I thought these tributes were to be delivered to the king?”
“This is how the tribute is performed.” The administrator’s face was split with an easy smile. “Don’t worry, soon the King will send his most trusted representatives to collect the items.”
Stranger and stranger. Cloudhawk didn’t like it, but there was no other option. Red Banner’s collection of over a thousand relic fragments were placed by the tree.
“Very good, all finished!” Barclay nodded with satisfaction. He waved at everyone and said, “Tonight we are holding a special celebration. Bring all the people from Redleaf to partake in the revelries and enjoy our hospitality. Come! Everyone! Let us celebrate this bounty together!”
Imperian residents gathered round. They presented strange fruits, local specialties and fine wines for all to share.
Festive winds blew the sounds of joy all through Imperia. Young men and women gathered round the altar, dancing and playing music. Fine food and drink flowed nonstop. All of it was a wonder to the people of Redleaf. After all, it was a great honor to be treated this way and spent time in the king’s city.
Cloudhawk reached out and connected his mind with Oddball’s. Through the bird he found that their district wasn’t the only one holding this party. The same scene was being played out all throughout Imperia.
Huge groups centered around the altars dancing and drinking, eating their fill. But it didn’t feel like a party. Rather, it was like a collective understanding, that this was a centuries old tradition they were taking part in. For Redleaf’s citizens, they didn’t think too much on it. They let themselves get wrapped up in the festivities.
The revelry continued for a good hour before someone raised their eyes and shouted. “They’re here!”
Barclay looked skyward and saw the figure slowly descending toward them. He was all dressed in white to represent his holy presence, and from his back sprouted spotless white wings. In fact every inch of him was white as jade, wholly otherworldly in appearance.
“Highblood! It’s the honored Highblood!”
Even the calm and composed Barclay was thrilled when he saw him. The rest of the citizens cheered wildly like this Highborn was the center of their worship.
Cloudhawk was both surprised and suspicious. What were these Highbloods? Growing wings out of nowhere, that was a sign of mutation!
Did that mean that mutants here were idolized? If that was so, then the poor, maligned mutants of the wastes would likely vomit from jealousy. Cloudhawk peered at the Highblood for a better look. When he saw more clearly what they were he froze.
He could hardly believe his eyes! He even wondered if he was dreaming!
The magnificent Highblood slowly beat its wings as it descended unto the altar. Its snow-white wings spread out three meters from end to end, proud as a peacock on display. The crowds cheered as he showed off his perfect form.
He was young, not even thirty. Cloudhawk looked on his face with open shock and disbelief on his expression, for it was a face he knew.
Desmond?! Cloudhawk blinked, rubbed his eyes and blinked again to make sure he was seeing things properly. This was real, it wasn’t a dream, but he was still hardly able to believe it. This so-called Highblood was the same man he’d beaten ten days ago in Redleaf. The one they called traitor.
It left quite an impression on Cloudhawk. He still remembered the fear and anger in Desmond’s response when he spoke about Imperia. How could it be that in less than two weeks Desmond appeared remade before him?
Desmond’s eyes swept the crowd. With gentle eyes and a friendly smile he spoke over the reverent gasps. “Praise be to our Silverwing Monarch. He has forgiven my sins and have given me new life. I live now to forever defend the glory of my king.”
The crowds cheered and praised the king’s name. Desmond then began to gather the crates and boxes around the alter. He then beat his enormous wings and took off with the treasures in hand.
Cloudhawk wasn’t the only one shocked into silence. Everyone from Redleaf recognized him. Never in their wildest dreams would they have suspected to see Desmond reappear here, in this new form.
Barclay looked at Cloudhawk. “Did you see? That young man is lucky, he received our monarch’s grace and has been elevated. He is now a part of the royal lineage. It grants him great honor, and though he will not live as long as the king his lifespan is much longer than an average person’s.”
Was this the ‘new life’ Barclay had been talking about? It sure seemed like Desmond had been reborn into something else! The citizens of Redleaf all looked enviously toward the horizon where Desmond had vanished. How lucky he was to receive such a blessing!
The Highblood of Imperia were a small cadre of individuals who were gifted the royal blood of the king himself. Recipients enjoyed tremendous respect and long life. IT was the dream of everyone to one day be selected for such an honor.
Cloudhawk asked his guide, “How many Highblood are there?”
Barclay saw that Cloudhawk was finally interested, and answered with a smile. “Very few. Highblood must be strong and exceptionally hardy. At present there are perhaps a little more than a hundred Highblood.”
Cloudhawk tried to hide his surprise. Highblood were selected from Chosen strong enough to be veteran demonhunters. They had the fighting capabilities of Templars! No wonder Judas had such a deep fear of Imperia.
Of course, Cloudhawk did not envy Desmond in the least. He knew that such incredible gifts were not real, not in this world. For whatever you gained, you lost something of equal or greater value. Desmond looked like he’d been lifted up and enlightened, but Cloudhawk knew the truth.
Desmond wasn’t Desmond anymore. Underneath all the glitter and shine was a completely different spirit. Or… or no spirit at all. What as a hundred years of life, or even immortality, if you lost yourself?
No, Cloudhawk didn’t envy that at all.
The only thing worth pondering now was the Silverwing Monarch’s true identity.
He was able to make relics and transform human bodies. Perhaps a legendary demonhunter who potentially could live forever. Any one of those was miraculous alone, much less all together in one man.
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