The Land Above Clouds

Short story and image by Isabelle Sorrells


     In a land flowing with clear waters and clouds for land, beyond and hidden from the average searching eye, dwells many exotic creatures; creatures that defy reality. Hulking brutes that fight beneath rainbows, trees that breathe fire, things that can fly but shouldn’t – creatures from fairytales.

     Parents pass down generations of tales telling of the Land Above. It’s a magical thing to see the imagination and wonder working behind a child’s eyes, but all these villagers’ children, as the villagers themselves have done before, must come to the realization that these tales of magic and adventure are just fairytales after all. It is an occasion to mark all others, as well as a private one, when they come to this realization, as each of these children reach a stage of maturity in the knowledge of what is reality, and what isn’t.

    The Alatus family is known throughout Portus as the chief storytellers, with the largest library in town where everyone gathers to escape and hear the stories from their ancestors. Athena Alatus is Iyan’s favorite storyteller in the family, and she is his mother.

   When he was young, she used to tell him stories of the Land Beyond every night. He used to fall asleep to the warm sound of her voice as she wove webs of brave heroes fighting beneath watery rainbows and rescuing the trees from villains like Zero Kelvins. He loved the stories of the heroes who would ride the wind like eagles, rescuing wandering strangers, beloved (and not so beloved) family, and lost little children from the clutches of evil. They would invade his dreams and take him away to that magical place, and they wouldn’t leave him even in the waking hours of the day.

    Now, seventeen years old, Iyan had yet to experience that private moment, and he fought against the pressures of his friends to experience it every day. It was a running joke they had, that since he practically lived in the fabled world, he was fabled himself. They would laugh and move on, but Iyan continued to be the relentless protector of the Land Beyond, right there to defend it when anyone would question its credibility.

     The villagers called him naïve, more called him crazy, and some wondered if they should continue to tell the stories at all with the effect it had on him, for fear it would have the same effect on their children. They didn’t want their kids to have their heads in the clouds like him. They wanted them grounded – living in the real world. Iyan wanted desperately to show them the Land Beyond was as much real as he was.

    One bright summer day Iyan sat in the shade of a tall tree in the town’s park, the cool wind counteracting the heat of the sun. A huge table covered in picnic foods stood in the middle of the park, surrounded by the townspeople. It was the annual Portus picnic, and the whole town was there. Kids ran in chaotic zigzags, adults laughed over red solo cups while playing yard games, and teens lounged in their circles in the grass enjoying the beautiful day.

    A little girl ran behind the tree Iyan was leaning against, breathing hard and giggling between breaths.

  “Who’s it now Aggie?” Iyan asked, craning his head around the trunk.

  “Jaden is. He’s right over there!” Aggie giggled and pointed over to a little boy currently chasing a pack of kids.

  “Hiding so you don’t have to run as much. Smart strategy,” Iyan commended her.

  “What are you doing?”

  “Reading.”

  “Oh!” Aggie exclaimed and came out of her hiding spot to sit in front of him. “Can you read to us?”

  “Sure,” Iyan smiled.

  “Guys! Iyan is gonna read us a story!” Aggie called. Like a swarm, a pack of kids ran up and Iyan was surrounded.

  “So, what story do you all want to hear?” Iyan asked. A chorus of responses rang through the crowd.

  “Bronte of the Sea-Sky!”

  “Ustinya the Queen of the Mist!”

  “Nilsa the Strong!”

  “Batur the Fearless!”

  “How about Batur the Fearless? That’s my favorite,” Iyan asked. The kids all nodded eagerly in agreement, so Iyan quickly flipped through his collection of stories and found the one he was looking for.

   “Long ago, three great sorcerers captured King Rex of Lacetmel and took his place as rulers of the kingdom. These sorcerers were named Metus, Interium, and the worst of the three, Malum. They ruled with fear and oppression. There was no end to their ruthlessness, and no one dared challenge them.

     “One man in a small farming town had had enough of the torment and harsh taxes. His family had given all they had, and they had nothing left to give. He took up a rusted sword and a dented shield the soldiers had not bothered to take from them and went to the city. His friends and family insisted he would surely die on this foolish escapade and not to go. Some tried to make him stay for fear his actions would bring the three sorcerers’ rath down on his town as consequence, but he knew the sorcerers’ abusive rule couldn’t stand, and he would go alone if he had to.

   “And so, he did. He infiltrated the castle and tried to free the King, but his bonds were magic, and the only way to set him free was to defeat the sorcerers. He tried to find someone to help, but no one would.

   “With no one to support him, the needs of the people the only thing on his mind, he flew into the throne room. After a long, difficult battle, despite what everyone said, Batur defeated Metus, Interium, and Malum, freeing the King and bringing peace and joy to the kingdom once again, earning him the title Batur the Fearless,” Iyan finished.

    “Are sorcerers real?” a boy in the front asked.

    “I’ve never seen one,” Iyan shrugged.

   “Did that all really happen?” a girl named Lois asked.

   “I think so,” Iyan replied. “Do you?”

     Lois nodded.

    “Lois! Come here please,” Lois’ father called as he walked up to the group, a few other parents close behind him.

      “Yes, papa!” Lois stood up and went to her father’s side. More parents called their kids to their sides as well, one after the other and then all at once, leaving Iyan sitting alone under the tree.

       “Iyan read us the story of Batur the Fearless!” Lois told her father excitedly, starting a murmur as all the kids began recounting the exciting story.

       A mother hushed her child from saying any more. “None of that’s real dear, why don’t you go play some more tag?”

      “Yes, it is!” Lois responded.

      “No, it isn’t. Hon, it’s just a fairytale,” Lois’ father said.

       “But it is! Iyan said so!” At that, Lois’ father and about a dozen other parents looked at Iyan scornfully.

       “Don’t go filling our kids’ heads with that nonsense Iyan,” a man Iyan knew well scolded with a sneer on his face.

      “Really, you should know better. A Land Above Clouds where magical creatures and daring heroes reside? Ridiculous!” a woman exclaimed.

       “We don’t want them believing in what’s not real. It’s not good for them,” another added with a softer tone.

        “But they are real!” Iyan insisted as he stood to his feet. He couldn’t help it. All the adults looked down at him with pity. He hated that look.

        “Why don’t I take that book, son? I don’t think it’s very good for you either.” Lois’ father walked toward him and reached for the book. Iyan snatched the book out of reach in horror.

         “No! You’re wrong. You’re all wrong!” Iyan shouted. “I’ll show you! I’ll prove it to you. The Land Above Clouds exists.” With that, Iyan clutched his book close and ran out of the park.

***

         At home, Iyan packed a bag angrily, unshed tears burning in his eyes. “It’s real. They’re all real! I just know it…” Iyan muttered under his breath. A knock at his door made him stop.

        “Iyan? Are you all right?” Athena Alatus asked softly. Iyan wiped his eyes and continued to pack. He didn’t trust himself to respond.

         “Iyan…” Athena sat on the bed beside his backpack and laid a hand on her son’s, making him stop again.

         “They don’t believe me,” Iyan looked at his mother with determination. “They think I’m crazy. I’m going to prove them wrong. I need to prove them wrong.”

          “I know,” she said, surprising Iyan with her acceptance.

         “Wh-what do you mean?”

         “I’m not going to stop you. I know this is something you need to do.” There was so much warmth and understanding in her eyes the tears in Iyan’s own almost broke loose. Iyan’s dad walked into the room and put a hand on his shoulder.

         “Neither of us will.” Richard Alatus put a set of keys into his son’s hand, who looked from it to him quizzically. “They’re to your grandpa’s truck in the barn, he said you could use it,” Richard explained. “Bring her back in one piece.”

        “I will, Dad,” Iyan promised.

        Athena got off the bed and placed the book of stories in his hand. “You’ll want this, too.”

       Iyan took the book and dropped it and the keys onto his bed, wrapping his arms around his mom, his dad wrapping his arms around him. They stood like that for a while, never wanting to let go.

     When they finally did, Athena cupped her hand over her son’s cheek and said, “only you can find what you are looking for.”

     “I don’t have any idea where to start.” Iyan gave his parents a worried smile.

     “Well,” Richard said with a knowing smile, “where around here is there land above clouds?”

       Iyan’s parents didn’t wait for his answer, leaving his room and leaving him to begin his journey to prove to the world what doesn’t exist is real, knowing he would do it alone if he had to.

***

       Iyan stopped at every hill, every mountain he came across, climbing to the top of each one in search for The Above. He traveled great distances for the mountain he was searching for, but he knew he finally had found the right one as he drove toward it.

      It was incredibly far off, but he could still see the body, stark against the blue sky, alone in its height. As he drove closer, he had no doubt it led to The Land Above as the rocky palisade loomed high overhead, its peak hidden in a dense sea of clouds, making it impossible to see how tall it truly was. On the road leading up to it, a single sign told Iyan the mountain’s name was Intrades. What that meant, he did not know.

     At the bottom of Intrades, all roads come to an end. The only way up was to climb.

     The climb was steep and rough, but Iyan persisted. Falling, resting, climbing, acclimatizing, he did it all. There were times he thought he would never reach the top, but his book of stories, and the promise of reminding the world of something they had forgotten – and proving he wasn’t crazy – kept him going.

   Iyan knew he was getting close when he could touch the clouds. They obstructed his view and enveloped him in a fluffy embrace as he ascended into them. Iyan reached the top, breaking through the thick layer of clouds. Everything he had been through, the distance he’d crossed, the pitying gazes and scorn he’d endured, it was all worth it. Nothing he had imagined could’ve compared to what he saw.

    The Land Above the Clouds was an entirely different world, and Iyan couldn’t breathe in it. He collapsed onto the oddly colored grass and struggled to breathe. His lungs were closing, and he needed something, anything to open them up. Iyan spotted a shimmering river a few yards away through his collapsing vision. He could barely think, but the river reminded him of the story of Ustinya, the Queen of the Above, who had put oxygen into the elements earth and water since the atmosphere was not fit to hold it.

   He dropped his bag and submerged himself in the water, oxygen returning to his lungs. Duplicating the ways of Ustinya’s people, Iyan rubbed mud from the bottom of the river on his neck and under his nose and stepped out of the water, using the mud to give him oxygen while on land. Now, able to breathe, he took in the magical world.

   The grass was wispy and white, as if it were made of the clouds that hid this world from the rest of humanity. The river was a shimmering cobalt blue and the mud at the bottom was clear as glass. Beyond, the grass faded and gave way to a forest of trees set ablaze in an eternal, bright red flame, and he could almost swear he could see the trees growing taller, inch by inch, slowly but surely.

    The only way to anywhere was through the inferno. The river snaked through the trees, smooth and unaffected by the heat.

     Iyan took a picture of the view before him with a disposable camera he had acquired from one of the previous towns and stood at the edge of the flames, wary of the heat, wondering if this backwards world’s fire would affect him the same as the world below. He stepped forward and jumped back with a hiss. It does.

    “Welcome to Terra Supra Nubes. You came through the Introitum Ad Aubes Ex Monte. We have not seen anyone come through there in centuries,” all of the trees said at once.

    “I don’t know what any of that means,” was all Iyan could think to say.

      The trees seemed to laugh with the rustling and cackling of leaves on fire. “Who are you?” they asked.

     “My name is Iyan, and I have come to see the Land Above Clouds. I want to know that it exists,” Iyan replied.

      “Here we are.”

      “Where’s the rest?” Iyan asked incredulously.

    “Are we not enough?” the trees demanded. “We are the Spiritus Ignis! We burn eternal, water runs through our territory unharmed. We are fantastic in our existence, harboring creatures of impossible design, and our voice speaks unlike any other forest. Is that not enough?”

      “But where are the cities? Where are the people? I want to see more.”

      “We warn you, the more you discover, the heavier it will bear. That is, if you discover it at all.”

      “I need to see more, please,” Iyan insisted.

      “Very well. The only way to what you seek is through our forest of flames.”

     “There has to be another way. I won’t survive if I go through the forest.”

      “Perhaps it is best if you go back down the mountain then. There is no other way through.”

      “No. I’m not going back. Not until I have proof.” Determined, Iyan stepped into the inferno and was engulfed by the heat. Fighting the flame, he took another step, and another. He ignored the pain as best he could, but it was too much. With a cry, Iyan ran out onto the white grass and rolled to put out the fire burning his clothes and hair. When he was sure it was out, he stood again, and before he could have enough time to give up – or the trees could discourage him again – he ran head-on into the fire.

        He swerved around the trees and dodged the collections of flame and heat. Sweat pulled his shirt against his skin and fell into his eyes, blurring his vision. He ran and ran, but there was no end to the forest. Iyan came to a stop, his head light and his breath leaving him as the heat dried the mud around his throat and it flaked off. He was going to die here, and he would never see his family again. With that thought, Iyan stood up and turned back in the direction he came from, but even the glaring white of the grass in the clearing couldn’t be seen through the trees.

      As his legs were about to give out the flames ahead sputtered and died, paving a path of blackened but soft grass and ash-white trees.

     “Go,” a voice whispered through the flames around him, and he took off, finally crashing back into the clearing, but the mud on his neck was gone, and the river was too far away. He collapsed, gasping for breath.

    “Eat the grass,” the trees commanded and Iyan obeyed, pulling up clumps and shoving it into his mouth greedily. As he ate, his lungs opened and he could breathe again. He looked back to the forest to find the path once again awash with flame, the trees a few feet shorter than the rest where the path had once been.

    “Thank you,” Iyan said to the forest.

    “That was foolish, boy. You cannot outrun our flames,” the trees replied.

    “But why did you save me?”

    “Our fire was meant to bring and protect life, not destroy it. There are other ways to avoid the flames.”

      A hot wind rushed from the forest and swept passed Iyan, flowing helpfully to the river and back through the trees.

      “Go, and Godspeed on your journey, young Iyan.”

      After wrapping his camera and book in as many layers of plastic bags as he could, Iyan stepped into the river and swam to the forest’s edge. With a deep breath he swam under the cover of the trees and was relieved to find he was untouched by the heat. From there he swam, stopping for breaks on the river’s bank. When night hit, the glow of the fire and the river lit his way.

     When the sun rose the current of the water picked up, and Iyan found himself carried through the waters and out of the forest to another clearing looking out over fields of white and mountains tinted pink in the sun. Patches of forest were scattered all over, each a bundle of vibrant pigments and saturations. A roaring filled Iyan’s ears, and before he could register what it was, he plunged down a thundering waterfall, gravity preventing him from gaining control of his limbs.

    He plunged into a vast lake of sparkling water that was black as night. The blue from the waterfall flowing but not mixing with the pure black, both waters dancing against each other in swirls. Sections of the sky were the color of the blackened water, and it was almost impossible to tell if he was in the sky or the lake. When he saw the sky falling in streams into the tarn, he realized he was in both.

    It took barely any effort to swim to the beach as the black, star-filled liquid seemed to hold him afloat. When he reached the glittering pink sands he collapsed, body-aching, into an exhausted sleep.

    ***

    When Iyan opened his eyes, he had no idea where he was, but he knew there were no people here. As he sat up a dull throb pounded in the small of his back from where he hit the water and he groaned. Iyan stretched for a minute before he snapped a few pictures of his surroundings and unwrapped his book, flipping through it for any clue as to where he was. The tale of Bronte of the Sea-Sky could give him a clue, or Apate the Trickster? As he thumbed through the pages a parchment yellowed with age fell out onto his lap. Of all the time he spent reading this book, he had never seen this.

   Iyan unfolded it to reveal a blank sheet of paper, old and worn. As he went to flip it over a gust of wind caught the paper and sent it tumbling into the water, where it immediately sunk into the black shallows. Iyan swore and lunged forward, shoving his hands into the water. He pulled out the paper, now heavy and waterlogged. He let out a disappointed sigh when he discovered both sides were blank, but as he watched, the paper soaked up the black water, forming words and images with it like ink. To Iyan’s surprise, what was once a blank sheet of paper now was a map of the Land Above.

    Upon close examination Iyan was able to find the forest of Spiritus Ignis and what he could only assume was the lake he now sat by; the Volu Stellas. The map showed that if Iyan kept going, he would come across the Deserto Flores, a place called Barathrum Lucis, and then would eventually find the Elevatum Urbem, the only name Iyan recognized as the Elevated City. Iyan would be excited about this information had he not been utterly confused how to get to the ‘Deserto Flores.’ The map was rudimentary in that it only showed the places’ names and a few drawings in their respective order, and he didn’t remember seeing anything when he fell that looked like the flowers that were drawn around the Deserto Flores.

   Stumped, Iyan’s gaze drifted to the waterfall he fell from. He could still see the light of the forest fire glowing from over the edge, playing tricks with the lights as it reflected off the mist of the waterfall, broadcasting little rainbows into the air. Looking at it now, Iyan recalled the stories of the Gigantes Albus, battle-hungry giants that lived beneath rainbows. He wondered if there was one under there right now. Struck with an idea, Iyan packed away his things and walked along the beach toward the waterfall.

      The beach gave way to grass and eventually gave way to rock until Iyan was met with a wall of silver boulders that stretched high above, water pouring down further into the lake. Iyan walked on the side of the cliff over boulders and clumps of grass, sometimes having to climb directly on the cliff for lack of better foot holds. As Iyan climbed toward the waterfall the thundering of falling water drowned out all other sounds, dying down only a little once he was behind the wall of rushing water.

     Behind the waterfall was a pocket of cobalt blue water that hadn’t mixed with the black waters outside and a platform of rock cut into the cliff in the shape of a ‘U’. Iyan was so focused on not slipping on the rocks that he didn’t see the giant on the other side of the platform until he spoke.

    “Young bellator, welcome. My name is Calian, the Ruthless Gigas. Prepare for battle,” the giant roared. His skin and hair were pure white, and the brightness of him made Iyan’s eyes hurt. He wore a roman-style toga that revealed his bare chest and all the scars that covered him, each one a different color. Reds, greens, pinks, oranges, grays, yellows, there were so many colors, so many shades. Some Iyan had never even seen before.

     “Wait, I’m not here to fight. I was wondering if you could help me,” Iyan replied.

      “Ha! You are a fool! You come into my waterfall and don’t want to fight? What kind of warrior are you?”

      “I’m not. I’m just trying to find the people of The Above.”

      “I should’ve known. A human! It has been a long time since I’ve fought one of your kind. See these?” The giant pointed to various scars on his body. A storm-cloud gray, a red the shade of Iyan’s grandpa’s truck, a grassy green, and a yellow that reminded Iyan of the autumn leaves in Portus. “These are all colors of the few of your kind I have known to be worthy warriors. People and creatures come far and wide to witness the shade of their souls. You mean to say you do not care to know?”

     “I just want to find the city,” Iyan insisted.

     “That is not possible, I am afraid. When one ventures beneath the waterfall, there is a price to pay. I wonder, what color will you give me, if you can?” At that, the giant ran swiftly toward him, large feet pounding against the ground and sending echoes throughout the cave.

      Iyan could think of nothing to do but put his arms in front of his face as Calian the giant barreled into him, sending Iyan flying into the cliff side. Iyan crumpled against the ground and groaned in pain.

     “I have not fought a good battle in decades, young bellator, and I am hungry. I am hungry for color. Get up and fight,” Calian encouraged. He stood a few feet away, back against the waterfall, waiting patiently for Iyan to stand up. “You will not leave until you do. I will wait.”

     Iyan waited on the ground for the pain to subside, biding his time as he desperately searched his memory of the stories that told of those who have fought a Gigantes Albus. The Gigantes Albus fights for color and honor, Iyan recalled. The only story Iyan could remember was the story of when the villain Apate used her deceptive abilities to make the Gigantes Albus think she had scarred him without doing anything, and he let her go.

   The only problem with that; Iyan didn’t have any ‘deceptive’ abilities. Iyan had no idea how he could fight this guy, let alone scar him. The giant towered over him and was covered in muscles and experience.

    Iyan had never really fought anyone, not like the way this giant wants to, and he had no weapon with which to defend himself. Iyan slowly stood. The only way to get through this was to fight. So, he would fight as best as he could, pushing down his fear, although, unlike Batur the Fearless, his hands continued to shake from a feeling not quite gone. He searched his surroundings for any weapon he could use. Behind him the cliff face was covered in a wall of vines and sticks. He pulled one off the wall and brandished it before him like a sword.

     “Let’s do this,” Iyan said, thankfully keeping his voice from cracking.

     “Ah! The Bellator has found his courage! Let us see who will bleed first!”

     Iyan and Calian charged at one another, Calian with his fists of steel, Iyan with his stick.

     They fought, and it was not a quick battle. Iyan was only able to keep going because he was smaller and faster than the giant, nimble as he was, but Iyan was tired and losing strength. His nose was gushing blood, his head throbbed from where he hit the wall and he had a horrible gash running down his arm, blood dripping from his fingers, and he had yet to touch the giant. Iyan came to the sickening conclusion he wouldn’t make it out of this fight. He needed a plan. He needed something better than a stick as a weapon.

     Iyan’s gaze fell on a section of jagged rocks on the edge of the platform, sharp from erosion. The only way to satisfy the giant’s need for color was to give him a scar. So, that is what Iyan would do. Iyan ran at Calian and screamed. The giant was taken aback by Iyan’s fierceness, so his reaction was slow when Iyan slid through his legs, Calian only managing to cuff him slightly about the head before he slipped into the pool with a splash.

   Calian looked over the edge of the platform to find Iyan lost beneath the waters, bubbles surfacing from where he plunged into the pool. After a few moments Iyan’s limp body floated to the top where the bubbles had been. Calian reached down and pulled the unconscious boy out from the water by his wrist, holding him at arm’s length, and inspected him to see if he had died.

   “Mea, humans have weakened since my day,” Calian noted when the boy didn’t stir.

     Iyan suddenly burst to life, lashing out with his free hand and scraping the rock across the giant’s chest, leaving a large gash across his torso, color seeping out of old scars. The giant bellowed and dropped Iyan, stumbling back and putting a hand across his wound. Iyan stood in a fighting stance, ready for the giant to come at him, but to his astonishment, Calian’s pained yell trailed off into a fit of laughter, echoing against the stones of the cliff.

   “Mighty Bellator! How clever you are!” Calian laughed.

    “Ex-excuse me?” Iyan asked, unsure of what was happening.

    “Come, let us see what color you have given me!” Calian walked over to the edge of the waterfall where it poured onto the end of the platform. He stood under the water, letting it wash away his blood, the wound healing rapidly, color mixing with his blood as it flowed. When Calian stepped out of the water the wound had healed, leaving a glowing blue line across the canvas of his white chest. The new scar had overlapped a few others, and where they met the blue had mixed in, turning them different shades and giving the giant multiple brand-new colors to adorn his chest.

    “Ah, what a beautiful shade! This is a wonderful gift, thank you, Young Bellator,” Calian said heartily.

    “So… we’re done?” Iyan asked hopefully.

     “We are done!”

      “Oh, thank God!” Iyan dropped the bloodied rock and fell to his knees in relief. Calian looked to him and smiled.

     “Come here and heal your injuries Bellator, you will not do good to have open wounds like that.”

       Confused, Iyan shakily stood and walked to Calian. “How?”

     “Like this,” Calian gripped Iyan by the shoulders and placed him directly under the waterfall. Iyan gasped when the water flowed down his head and through his wounds, the pressure a painful shock, but it soon faded to nothing.

     Iyan emerged from the natural shower feeling fresh and rejuvenated. Any of the pain he felt before had washed away with the water. He looked down at his arm where his wound had been to find it had been replaced with a thin scar down the length of it, stark white against his sun-tanned skin.

    “Whoa,” Iyan gasped as he sat on the ground, taking it all in.

     “Whoa indeed,” Calian agreed, sitting down next to him with a loud thump, taking in a deep breath. “It feels good to see color again.”

    “How long has it been since the last time?”

    “About three-hundred years, I think.”

     “But why? In the stories the white giants were always fighting.”

    “I do not know. The bellatores have vanished. Many came from your kind, and I haven’t seen or heard of your people in centuries. Or my kind, for that matter.” Calian stared wistfully out through the cracks in the wall of water at the world beyond. Iyan could see him recounting the old days of epic battles and scars won behind his eyes. “You said you were looking for something. A city?” Calian asked.

    “Yes!” Iyan replied excitedly. He ran to where he had dropped his backpack and sat in front of Calian, pulling out the map for him to see. “I need to find the Elevatum Urbem. It shows where it is on the map here, and I need to go through these places to get there, but I don’t know which way to go, let alone what I’m looking for. I doubt these places will have signs in front telling me their names. Could you perhaps point me in the right direction?”

    “This is the desert of flowers, in your language. This is where you will want to go next,” Calian said, pointing at the map. “You did good to come to me.” Calian stood and walked to the cliff wall. He stood for a minute, searching the stones. When he found what he was looking for he pulled out a small rock from the wall and the entire thing came crashing down.

    Or at least, a section of it. A gaping hole stood in the middle of the cliff, fallen rocks scattered around it. On the other side Iyan could see a place incredibly different from their own.

   “Where is that?” Iyan asked.

    “That is still the Land Above. This is just a door to another part of it. A shortcut,” Calian explained.

     Iyan wrapped up his map and book and hiked on his bag before going to stand by Calian’s side in front of the door.

     “Why is it so imperative that you find these people?” Calian asked.

      “The people back in my hometown don’t believe you exist. I need to prove to them that you do.”

      “What if they are not there? It has been centuries since I have seen anyone of The Clouds. They may have died off.”

       “No,” Iyan said forcefully. “They are still here. I just need to find them.”

       “Your whole mission could be for naught,” Calian said gently. “Are you prepared for that?”

       “I don’t need to be. I will find them.”

       Calian nodded his head in acceptance and said nothing else. Iyan pulled out his camera and unwrapped it. “Actually, can we take a picture?”

      “Picture?”

      “Yeah, you just-,” Iyan saw the look of confusion on Calian’s face and sighed. “Just hold still.” Iyan took a quick picture of the giant alone and one of them together before putting the camera away and facing the field beyond. “Thank you for the, uh, help.”

      “And thank you for the caerulus gift, Young Bellator. Allow me to offer you some advice; when you venture into the Deserto Flores, beware of the Herba Balena. It is a thirsty creature and will drink you dry,” Calian warned.

      “Good to know.”

      “And Iyan,” Calian placed a large white hand on Iyan’s shoulder. “You have conviction, which is a good thing. Don’t ever lose it.”

       Iyan smiled and said goodbye to the Gigantes Albus before stepping through the door and into the Deserto Flores.

***

    After Iyan was through he watched as the stones surrounding the opening in the cliff floated back to their places as Calian the giant replaced the lost rock. When Iyan turned he understood immediately why the Deserto Flores was named the way it was.

   All around him were rolling hills of beautiful flowers, vibrantly swaying in the breeze with piles of boulders placed at random intervals throughout. There was no sign of civilization other than a pair of mountains standing arrant against the sky, awash with the fading pigments of dusk.

   Iyan could only assume his next destination was somewhere near those mountains, seeing as it was the only place to go. Iyan ate a clump of irises around his feet when his lungs began to tighten and watched as the sun slowly sank below the horizon. When the only light he could see were the stars above he lay down and gazed at the milky way until his eyes shut and he drifted off to a peaceful sleep.

   Iyan awoke the next morning to the ground shaking beneath his feet. He tried to stand but the ground shook so horribly it was impossible to find balance. In the distance, the very hills shifted rapidly toward him. As they shifted, the flowers lost their vibrancy, immediately dying and wilting to decayed brown mush. Iyan watched in astonishment as the ground split and a strange, earthy creature broke through, letting loose an appalling screech before burrowing back into the ground, its wide tail thumping against the earth and shaking the world again.

   Iyan struggled to get out of the way as the rocks behind him tumbled down. The creature was getting closer now. Iyan grabbed his bag and prepared to take off when the creature broke through again not three feet away from him, snaping its wide mouth at him, attempting to snatch him up. With nowhere else to go Iyan scrambled up the pile of rocks, slipping and sliding as they shifted. When he got to the top, he looked down to see the flowers rippling and dying in a circle around him.

   The creature let out a screech from beneath the ground before it jumped through, spraying dirt and flowers everywhere. Iyan ducked and watched in amazement as the creature dove over him, large mouth snapping at him, but missing. It was a whale covered in dirt and moss and fresh flowers, vines and roots wrapping around its body and trailing behind it, its eyes a toxic green. Dirt fell in Iyan’s eyes as it soared overhead and disappeared beneath the dirt, nearly knocking him over as it passed.

   Iyan watched the ground ripple and shift as it circled him underground before finally giving up and rumbling through the fields of dead flowers and away from sight.

   Now, Iyan was surrounded by fields of mush and decay, the world strangely silent with the whale’s absence. Once Iyan knew the whale was not coming back he opened his backpack, sitting on the pile of rocks and found one of the stories about the Herba Balena, gathering as much information about the creature as he could.

   From the tale of Juvia of the Rain, Iyan discovered the grass whale was one who had fallen from the sky during the great whale migration and was lost to the soil. Unable to return to the waters, it roams the land, doomed to never swim through the depths of the oceans but to steal the water from everything that has it in the earth, dead or alive.

   Traveling through the whale’s fields was dangerous, even suicide, and many who had tried were sucked dry to satiate the whale’s thirst. To protect her caravan, who had no choice but to go through, Juvia commanded the clouds to pour all their waters far off in the distance, allowing her caravan to pass through safely while the whale drank from the rain, far away from them. Some stories said the clouds continued to rain in that spot, creating an eternal downpour for the Herba Balena, but clearly, they were wrong.

    After a few hours passed, Iyan climbed back down from the rock pile and stepped on the ground again. When the ground stayed still, Iyan took another step and then another, carefully walking toward the next pile of rocks, trying as hard as he could not to draw the attention of the grass whale.

   As he walked his back ached from his fight with the giant, why the pain hadn’t washed away with the waterfall, Iyan didn’t know. When he had covered about half the distance between the two rock piles the ground began to shudder and Iyan broke into a run. When he saw the whale’s ripples coming toward him, he refused to turn around, only picking up speed, trying desperately to reach the rocks before the whale reached him.

    Too late, the whale breached in front of him, landing with a thud on its belly, mouth gaped open, waiting for him to just walk in. Iyan swerved around the beast and kept running, leaping onto the whale’s tale as it flopped and using it to launch himself onto the rocks. After he landed, he scrambled up the rest of the way and stood, breathing hard, facing the whale.

   He and the Herba Balena stared at each other, the whale visibly irritated it had missed its drink, for a few moments before the whale finally gave up and burrowed into the ground, but this time, it didn’t go away. It just circled and circled, determined not to let him go.

   Iyan sat there for four days and nights, the whale circling patiently, both parties too stubborn to give in. During the night, the whale slept, grass and mud jetting out of its blowhole the only indication as to where it lay, hidden beneath the ground. One night, Iyan took a risk and climbed down for some dead flowers to eat, and he almost didn’t make it back.

   The whale had gotten hold of his leg, snapping its large mouth around it, and sucked. He managed to pull free before the whale could do much of anything, but when got to the top of his rock pile, he found the skin on his leg had dried and was tighter around his bones than before.

   The next night he tried this, the whale was slower to react, and he managed to get to safety before it stirred. The night after that, after some careful experimentation, the whale didn’t stir at all. Iyan realized that as the grass whale sat here, waiting for its prey to come down again or to give up, it was dehydrating, slowly killing itself as it refused to go anywhere else for its water.

   By the fifth night, Iyan was ready. He pulled together his things, carefully crept down the pile of rock and silently ran into the night. He figured the whale only knew where he was because it sensed the water inside him, as far as he could tell, it couldn’t really hear, but he didn’t want to take any chances. The whale didn’t stir, so when he reached the next rock pile, he kept going, passing the next one and the next.

    The mountains were getting closer, so, so close, there were only a handful of rock piles left between him and the mountains and the forest of trees scattered around it. Iyan let out a quiet whoop of excitement as he passed the next rock pile, he counted only ten more to go if he kept going in the same direction. He could make it.

   His joy was short-lived when the ground shook with a mighty tremble, making him fall to his knees. Iyan looked back into the night, the dead blanket of flowers turned a dull gray in the moonlight, but wherever the whale was, it was too far back to see.

    Iyan stood, and despite the unsteady ground, ran with all he had. He continued to fall every few strides, the trembling only growing stronger, each time sneaking a glance behind him. He had gotten past two more of the piles, leaving him eight more, when he caught the smallest line of rolling land beyond. Iyan stood and kept running. The piles were at varying distances, so it was hard to tell how far exactly he had left to run, but his bag was dragging him down, and his lungs were closing again. The trembling was growing stronger and Iyan fell to the ground.

    Iyan shoved some flowers in his mouth and ran as he chewed, not daring to turn back. He had just passed the two other piles when the ground folded and Iyan was launched into the air as though the ground had been pulled right from beneath his feet.

   Iyan fell to the side, far away from the path he was following and the rock piles nearby. The whale had gained on him, and was about to overtake him, so as the whale breached the surface, making an arc in the night sky, Iyan ran beneath the whale mid-flight, skidded on his side the rest of the way as the whale landed and grabbed on to the vines wrapped around its tail.

  The whale stopped; mouth wide as it bobbed its head around, blindly searching for the prey it knew to be right there but confused as to why it wasn’t falling into its mouth.

   Iyan climbed up the vines and grabbed onto the whale’s tale, which jerked at his touch and flung him onto the whale’s mossy back. After that, the whale made no further indication that it knew he was there.

   The whale began gliding backwards, slamming its mouth into the ground, sensing Iyan’s presence but not realizing that Iyan was on top of it, instead of crushed beneath or behind him.

   Iyan crawled to the head of the whale and quickly swiped his hand in front of the whale’s eye. When the whale did nothing, Iyan did it again, but slower, and Iyan understood that the whale could sense the water in Iyan’s body but couldn’t see him. With this new information, Iyan crawled to the top of the whale’s head and sat down, draping his legs of the top of its mouth. The whale sensed this, and began to glide forwards, aimlessly snapping its large mouth, searching for the water source that should be right in front of it.

   Iyan moved his legs to steer the whale back on course to the mountains and rode on the whale’s head toward his destination. The whale would occasionally burrow back into the ground, during which Iyan would jump off and run above the whale until it breached again, landing on its back and crawling back to its head to steer it again.

    They reached the edge of the forest around the mountains where the field of dead flowers was separated from the forest by a line of the biggest diamonds Iyan had ever seen. Before the whale could touch the diamond it came to a sudden stop, launching Iyan into the grass on the other side. Iyan stood and met the whale’s blind gaze, green eyes finally looking at the place the whale knew its source of water to be, but unsure of how he could have made it so far. It refused to cross the jewel barrier, and Iyan knew he was safe. The whale gave one last angry snap of its jaws before leaping back into the ground and rolling away, jets of grass and dirt shooting out if its blow hole as it went.

***

   Iyan walked through the forest, the ground slowly getting steeper and rising in elevation, his back aching as he went. The two mountains stood on either side of him, seeming to close in on him as he walked.

   Iyan hiked up a large embankment of rocks, pebbles rolling down as he climbed. When he reached the top, he gasped in astonishment.

   Unfolded out before him was a canyon that stretched as far as the eye could see. It was entirely black except for the little pinpricks of light scattered throughout, as if someone had taken a chunk of the night sky and locked it away in that scar of the earth. It was an endless pool of nothing, beautiful but daunting, and it sent shivers down Iyan’s spine.

  Smoke drifted in Iyan’s peripheral, and he turned to see black smoke drifting lazily from a section of rock at the very edge of the canyon. At a closer examination Iyan found, ‘Barathrum Lucis’ written in stone with liquid night.

   So, it did have a sign in front of it. Iyan scoffed and touched the strange substance, yanking his hand away when the words changed beneath his fingers to say, ‘ravine of light.’  In front of the sign was a set of stairs going down. Iyan counted about thirteen, before it was too dark to see the rest.

    If Iyan had any doubt before, he had none now. This is where he needed to go next. Iyan ate some grass and stored a few handfuls in his bag before standing at the edge of the ravine of light, gathering up the courage to descend.

    At the break of dawn, as the sun crept over the horizon and set the tops of the mountains on fire, Iyan descended into the darkness. It was cold and dark, but the random balls of light were everywhere and somehow, it got lighter the farther he went. Iyan could hear the drip of water echoing and he sped up, sure he was getting closer to the bottom of the endless stairs. In his rush, he slipped on a step and tumbled down the rest. He was unable to stop himself, hitting his head against the steps, and he blacked out.

   When Iyan came to, he was at the bottom of the ravine.

   Looking up, he saw nothing but a white-dotted black sky. The light from the day above was completely gone, and Iyan didn’t know if it was because he had been knocked out that long or the canyon’s depths were so far below and so dark not even the sun’s rays from above could reach the bottom.

    Iyan shivered from the cold, shrugging on a sweater before beginning his course into the abyss; his path lit a few feet at a time by the star-like lights suspended in his obsidian surroundings. It was easy to lose track of time in the Barathrum Lucis. After a while, Iyan could only keep track of what he thought were days by being awake, his nights counted when he was asleep.

   Four of what he considered days had passed and he found no other source of light, no staircase leading up or opening leading out. The ravine was endless, and it felt as though he were going deep underground, through the mountain and down into the earth, further and further away from his destination.

   In the darkness, with nothing to occupy himself but the monotony of walking, Iyan had nothing but time to think. And as he thought, alone in the oblivion, doubt crept in. What if he never found the people of the Above? What if they had all died centuries ago, like Calian had said, and he was getting lost in this canyon for nothing? Iyan tried to distract himself from these thoughts, but they were persistent, and the voices of the townspeople back home echoed inside his head.

They whispered of his naivety, his innocence.

He was immature and a bad influence on the children.

He would never amount to anything if he always kept his head in dreamland.

How did he expect to live in the real world and support a family if he believed in such ridiculous things?

They would stop telling the stories of The Land Above Clouds because of him.

Athena and Richard Alatus have failed their son.

He is a shame to the Alatus family and the town of Portus.

There is no such thing as the Land Above.

With each voice whispered in his head, each step he took, the pain in his back worsened.

   After a while, Iyan was brought out of his thoughts when he noticed the lights had dimmed and the air had gotten even chiller than before. He was going the wrong way. He turned to the left, where it looked like the rock beneath his feet inclined, and continued walking, but then that way too, seemed wrong. After a few more turns and collisions with walls Iyan realized he was lost, but knowing of nothing else he could do, Iyan forged ahead.

    Three more days later, Iyan sat down on the cold terrain, lungs closing, and shoved a few blades of grass into his mouth. Iyan dug through his bag for more only to bring out an empty fist. In a panic, Iyan upended his bag, shaking out its contents and searching through the assortment of things. He produced only a few more clumps of white dirt, which he stored safely in a side pocket and packed up the rest of his things.

   Iyan forced himself to move, despite the tears threatening to spill. He wouldn’t stop, not yet. He continued to walk, but the lights continued to grow dimmer no matter which way he went, and he could barely see his own feet. The terrain grew more rugged and Iyan tripped over a rock and fell over. His back flared up in pain and Iyan screamed into the shadows with despair until his throat was raw.

   When he finally collapsed, the lights had dimmed to nothing, leaving him lost and alone, crying in the darkness.

   “What are am I doing here?” Iyan sobbed.

   “That’s a question I should be asking you.”

    Iyan jerked his head up in surprise in search for the source of the gravelly voice, but it was so dark he couldn’t see anything.

    “Who said that?” Iyan asked. When no answer came, he called out, “who’s there?”

    “Why are you crying?” the voice asked uncomfortably.

    “I’m lost, and I can’t find my way back.”

    “Back to where?”

      The question caught Iyan off guard. It was a genuinely curious inquiry, but he was unsure of the answer.

      When he didn’t respond, the voice said, “this isn’t a riddle. Where do you want to go?”

     “I’m tired, in pain, lost and blind. I miss my family and… and I’m afraid. I thought I could be like Batur the Fearless and face all my challenges without fear, but I’m afraid. I’m a fool to have thought so,” Iyan ranted, stalling the question.

      The voice hummed patiently, waiting for him to continue, just like the way his mother would for him, and he was reminded of home. Of his father’s calm reassurance, his grandpa’s warm smile, the joy and fun he would have playing games with all his aunts and uncles. Of all the times him and his cousins and siblings would sit on the floor of the library or out on the lawn while their parents’ read stories from their collection, the townspeople joining in on many occasions. He thought of his mother and her loving embrace when they would read together at night, filling his mind with wonder.

    But that was all when he was kid, and he knew his life wouldn’t be like that when he returned. The memory of it all, however, renewed his spirit, reminding him that no matter what happened, he would always have the love and support of his family, and he knew his mother and father would want him to keep going until he had found what he was looking for.

  “I want to go to the Elevatum Urbem,” Iyan said confidently as he wiped away his last tears.

   “Ahhh,” the voice said, “I have not been there in an awfully long time. Does it still exist?”

   “Yes,” Iyan asserted.

   “Well then, we’ll just have to get you there.”

    “You know the way?” Iyan asked hopefully.

    “Yes, I do.”

      Iyan leapt to his feet in excitement, but the action caused too much strain on his lungs, and he fell again, digging into his bag and eating the last few crumbs of dirt he had left. The reprieve was blessed but short as the dirt was not enough. His lungs closed and he had nothing to help him breathe again.

     “Why are you still eating dirt?” the voice asked like a disappointed parent. “What is this, the stone age? Here.” The shadows parted in front of Iyan revealing a man cloaked in black. The man reached above him and pulled one of the lights out of the dark and held it out before him, a glowing jewel in his palm. The man twined something around it before placing it over Iyan’s head, Iyan gasping for breath all the while. As the stone settled against Iyan’s chest the cold touch of it forced his lungs open and he could breathe once more.

      “Better?” the man asked, his face now illuminated with a soft glow by the light of the stone draped around Iyan’s neck.

      Iyan sucked in as much air as he could before he was forced to exhale, then gave the stranger his thanks.

    “Of course. My name is Betsalel.” Betsalel held out a hand for Iyan, which he took and was hoisted back to his feet.

     “Iyan. And do you mean Betsalel the Shadowed?”

     “I have not heard that name in a while,” Betsalel smiled, impressed, “but yes.”

     “You trapped your former mentor, Lyssa of Discord in eternal darkness when she was going to sink all of the Land Above Clouds into chaos, right? I read your story all the time. You’re a hero!”

     “I was a villain before I was a hero,” Betsalel said morosely. “Come, I will take you to the city,” Betsalel turned and walked away, Iyan by his side.

     “So, how come you haven’t seen the city, if you know how to get there?” Iyan switched subjects.

      “I haven’t had reason to go there. I live here in the Barathrum Lucis, and no one has passed through here in a few centuries. I assumed they all died.”

      “You’ve never gone to see if they had?”

      Betsalel stopped and looked at his hands with confusion. “Well… I suppose I forgot I could. I’ve… been down here for so long I…” Betsalel trailed off, his brows furrowing together as he looked at his palms, as if the answer to his seclusion was written there, lost somewhere in the lines.

     “How long has it been since you’ve seen sunlight?”

     Betsalel looked up from his hands to Iyan, his eyes filled with the pain of one lost in the dark for far too long.

    “I do not know.”

    “Why don’t you come out with me then? I will find the city and you will find the sun.”

    “I think I would like that.”

    With that they continued walking through the bottom of the ravine in silence, the lights growing brighter, but the pain in Iyan’s back growing stronger.

     “Can we take a break?” Iyan grunted and sat down before Betsalel could answer.

      “We are still a ways away,” Betsalel noted as he sat down across from him. “If I remember correctly. You should get some sleep before we continue. Are you all right?”

      “Ugh, I’ll be okay,” Iyan said as he lay down, “I just need to rest for a bit.” Iyan tried to get comfortable but lying on his back only made the pain worse, so he turned, face onto the cold hard ground and passed out.

      When Iyan awoke most of the pain had gone, leaving a heavy weight on his upper back that he couldn’t figure out how to get rid of, let alone where it came from, but he did feel better. Standing again, it felt as though he was being dragged against the ground, which was what Iyan assumed as the result of sore muscles. After Iyan stretched, they were off.

     They talked during their trek of many and often simple things. Betsalel was not used to having company and would have to stop talking for brief intervals to give his throat a break, but once he got going, Iyan could tell he had missed conversation as his dark eyes lit up with joy. When he couldn’t talk, Iyan would fill the gaps, answering questions, telling him of life outside and what he had seen, recounting everything he had been through to get there.

      Betsalel eventually told Iyan of the time he spent with his old mentor as well as all the horrible things he had done while in her service. He began his story dejectedly, but as he continued, his shoulders lifted, a burden being raised after carrying so much guilt around for centuries. He tormented the people of the Above with her and did it gladly, but she never stopped, only causing more pain, growing drunk with power. He knew it had to end, so during the final battle between his mentor and those that were left still standing, Betsalel betrayed Lyssa and cast her into the darkness forever.

     “We are close now,” Betsalel informed Iyan after a stretch of silence. “The air has changed.”

     Iyan knew he was right when a moment later he felt a warm breeze blow through, ruffling his hair and sending goosebumps up his arms. Gradually it got warmer and warmer until they came across a narrow hallway with stairs at the very end.

   “You saved everyone Betsalel. Even villains can be heroes,” Iyan told him as they walked side by side down the narrow passageway. Betsalel looked at him in surprise, crinkles forming around the corner of his eyes as he smiled warmly, a rare expression on his usually somber and lost countenance.

    When they reached the bottom step, the pair looked up into the black expanse above them. The glowing starlike stones illuminated various parts of the staircase becoming smaller and smaller the farther away it was. The light of day remained unseen.

   “I fought with Batur in the war against Lyssa. He was a brave man. One of the bravest I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, but he was also afraid in his bravery. We all were.”

    Iyan gave Betsalel a grateful look before placing his foot on the first step. “Come on. Let’s go see the sun again.”

   Gradually, the darkness lightened to gray, shapes becoming more distinct around them, until suddenly they emerged from the ravine and were hit by a bright light so strong it was blinding. Iyan squinted his eyes shut, waiting for them to adjust. When they finally did, Iyan opened his eyes to white grass and blue sky. Ahead the ground sloped down to a large field of wheat and other crops, a pond in the middle. Behind him, the ravine stretched beyond, the end too far away to see. Betsalel stood at the edge, eyes closed and face turned to the sky peacefully, his chest slowly rising and falling as he savored the fresh air.

   At the bottom of the hill Iyan spotted a simple wooden sign and he jogged down to read it. In fine white letters were the words ‘Elevatum Urbem.’ The city was nowhere in sight.

   “Where is it?” Iyan ran to the top of the hill and looked out before him, but all he saw were fields and more forest. “Where’s the city? We have to be in the wrong place.”

     “No, this is it. I recognize this place. This is where the Elevatum Urbem used to be,” Betsalel confirmed, eyes now open and squinting in the light.

    Without a word Iyan took off into the field of crops in search for the city. He pushed his aching legs further and further, the ground growing wet and soft as he neared the pond. Iyan pushed through a crop of wheat and stumbled into the lagoon, feet sinking into the mud at the bottom and sending ripples across the glass surface.

    “Where is it?” Iyan cried out, pulling his feet out of the mud and walking into the water. His foot stuck fast in the mud, and he stumbled again, hands sinking into the muck as well. He stood upright again, arms and legs caked in mud, breathing hard. He watched as the water stilled and his face became clear in the natural mirror. Something behind him loomed over him in the reflection and Iyan turned, expecting to find Betsalel, but he was nowhere to be found. The only thing Iyan heard was the sound of crickets and frogs. He was alone.

    Iyan investigated the water again to see the strange shape still there. Iyan walked to a spot where his reflection was stronger and peered in. Whatever the shape was, it was on him. Iyan looked over his shoulder and gasped in astonishment to find a pair of silvery wings protruding from his back and draped into the water.

    “Whoa – “Iyan examined them through the projected likeness, not believing his eyes. “This isn’t possible.”

    “After everything you’ve been through, you really think that isn’t possible?” Betsalel asked as he emerged from the wheat.

    “You knew about this?” Iyan asked him.

     “I couldn’t see them in the dark. I only saw them when we got out of the ravine.”

     Realization dawned on Iyan as he thought. “This must be why my back was hurting!”

    “Its only going to keep hurting if you don’t hold them up.”

    “Hold them up?” Iyan asked.

    “Flex your back,” Betsalel instructed.

     Iyan tried but failed miserably. “I can’t. They’re too heavy.”

    “Like this.” Out from behind Betsalel emerged a single wing, charcoal and magnificent against the blue sky. The wing stretched to its full length then folded in on itself against Betsalel’s back. He then trudged over to Iyan. “Your turn.”

     Iyan tried, sweat beading his brow at the effort it took. After a moment, with the careful instruction of Betsalel, he managed to extend a wing and fold it against his back in an up-right position, then the other, and a comfortable awareness replaced his old burden.

    Iyan watched the shadow of his wings flex and bend in the water, glints of silver catching the sun. His eyes trailed to the clouds above and Iyan gasped when he saw it, spinning around to look in the sky.

  “I found it…” Iyan gasped.

  “What?” Betsalel asked.

  “Dear God, I found it!” Iyan exclaimed. Betsalel followed his gaze into the sky. There above them was a great city made from the very clouds themselves. Winged people flying in and out of colossal gates held by two titanic white pillars stretching high into the atmosphere. Iyan stumbled back a few steps, water splashing and rippling as he took in the incredible sight. Iyan took a picture before turning to Betsalel. “How do we get up there?”

    Betsalel gestured to Iyan’s back. “You fly.”

   “Oh. I forgot I could do that. Can you teach me how?”

   Betsalel curled a wing around his side and pinched a feather between his fingers. “I can teach you how to hold yourself, but fly? I haven’t done that since before I had been cast down into the Barathrum. I’m afraid I don’t remember how.”

  “We can figure it out together then.”

   Iyan and Betsalel trudged through the swamp and crops, finally stopping once they reached the hill again. There they stood and gazed at the city.

  “So, what do you remember about flying?” Iyan asked.

   Betsalel turned his face up to the sky and closed his eyes, recalling a memory. “I remember the warmth of the sun and the gentle breezes and the peace and freedom of the air… But that’s all. I recall the feeling, not the mechanics…”

     “It’ll come to you,” Iyan encouraged, “but for now, I have an idea.” Iyan walked to the edge of the ravine and turned to face Betsalel. With some difficulty Iyan managed to unfurl both of his wings to their full length and he held them aloft. “You might want to look out,” he warned. Iyan ran as fast he could toward the hill and leapt. For a moment he levitated, but only for a moment before he fell and tumbled down the decline into the crops.

    “Well, that didn’t work,” Iyan called as he emerged from the wheat and climbed to the top of the hill.

    “Maybe you need to catch a breeze,” Betsalel suggested. So Iyan waited until a strong gust of wind came through and did it again, this time remaining in the air for a few more seconds before he fell again.

     “Flap your wings this time. I’m almost certain that is the right way,” Betsalel advised.

      Iyan flapped his wings a few times experimentally on the ground before returning to the edge of the ravine. When he felt another wind coming through Iyan took off again, flapping his wings all the while. When he leapt, he felt the wind catch beneath his wings and he was lifted into the sky. Iyan whooped in triumph as he glided in a circle around the top of the hill, Betsalel laughing and shouting along with him.

     He then flew up, wings beating heavily as he ascended, dodging clouds as he went. Betsalel’s figure became smaller and smaller until Iyan couldn’t see him at all. Suspended in a sea of blue, nothing could have compared. Not the ocean or anything else on land. He was in heaven.

    Iyan laughed as joy overflowed. When he flew high enough, clouds above and below, he tucked in his wings and free fell back toward the earth. He fell through the clouds, both soft and untouchable, puffs of white scattering as he broke through.

    When he broke through the last cloud and could feel the ground coming up Iyan spread his wings and the air slammed into him, stopping his fall. Iyan slowly descended, a smile on his face and a glint in his eye, adrenaline making him shake.

    Betsalel watched Iyan touch down beside him, his mouth upturned in another smile.

   “Your turn,” Iyan said excitedly. Betsalel walked to where Iyan had started before and unfurled his beautiful black wings with ease, almost blending in with the ravine behind him and giving the illusion that the darkness of the Barathrum Lucis was leaking into the sky above. Betsalel sprinted to the edge and leapt in the air. He remained aloft for a moment, but panic washed over his face as he faltered and then fell to the ground, rolling half-way down the hill before coming to a stop. Iyan rushed over to help him up.

    “I’m not sure these old wings are fit for the sky anymore,” Betsalel assented, crestfallen.

    “Hey,” Iyan said as they walked back up the hill. “Let’s do it together this time.”

      And so, the two of them stood side-by-side, far enough apart for their wings to have room, mentally and physically preparing themselves for their flight.

     “Go!” Iyan shouted and they ran off the hill and into the air. Betsalel’s wings remained steady for only a moment before they tottered and failed, and he ceased to fly.

    “No!” Iyan grabbed Betsalel’s hand before he could fall out of reach and, with all his strength, threw Betsalel into the sky.

    Another wind swept through, catching both Betsalel and Iyan mid-air, lifting them up higher and higher, giving Betsalel enough time to gather control of his wings. Soon enough, Betsalel was flying on his own again. He laughed as he shot into the air with an impossible speed Iyan couldn’t match. He twisted and turned and flipped with a swiftness that could only be acquired through experience and he flew with the joy of a caged bird finally set free.

    “Come! It is time to see this city you have been searching for!” Betsalel called as he shot past.

    “Ha ha!” Iyan laughed with the wind which howled with their excitement and took off after Betsalel.

     They flew through the golden gates – the words Elevare written in gold above them – and between the smooth white pillars, touching down in the city.

      Iyan stood in awe. The city itself was made of clouds. The streets, the houses, the buildings; all clouds made solid, somehow strong enough to hold all the people and alive enough to produce and support the plant life that adorned the streets and buildings. Iyan slowly walked through the street, taking it all in.

      The city looked as if it had come straight out of Rome, with cobbled streets and ivy-hugged columns to support buildings with beautifully chiseled facades depicting what Iyan recognized as the stories of the Land Above as well as things he did not. Flowers bloomed everywhere and trees grew out of the walls. Water flowed through the air and in the road, creating intricately designed statues or flowing around already existing ones made of clouds. The streets were alive with people and activity, and they all had wings.

      A few people strolled down the street enjoying the beautiful day, but most people soared overhead, a multi-colored sea of wings moving in every direction. Winged soldiers stood guard at the gate and patrolled the street and sky in creamy togas with gilded lances, their wings painted with flecks of gold. This early in the day shops were being opened, the clanging of the forging of metal and the murmur of crowds rang through the boulevards.

     A pack of children ran across the cobblestones, their wings the color of parrots and blue jays and cardinals. One boy with bright green wings tagged a girl with bright yellow ones and the rest of the kids scattered into the sky as the girl turned to chase them.

    The roads and buildings pulled inward and upward in a mountainous range of rooftops, all leading to the highest point in the city, a stark white acropolis that overlooked everything.

Iyan was speechless with amazement and wonder.

All the stories were true, the people exist, and the Land Above Clouds is real.

***

      Betsalel left him not long after they arrived, in search of the loved ones he prayed were still alive. Iyan wished him luck and they parted ways.

      From there, Iyan did everything. He wandered the streets, memorized the city. He met people, made friends, ate their food, danced to their music, and read their literature. He flew through flight training in their Cursus Caelum, and watched flight competitions in the Aer Arena, some simple races, others fantastic battles ranging from one-on-one combat to mock-wars. The Elevatum Populus made training for future war a sport, although they were a peaceful people who encouraged excellence and enlightenment in all areas of life.

     Iyan wanted to stay in this city – this world, all the days of his life, and he never would have left. But Iyan also knew that he had to go home – his real home. He missed his family, and his mission was not yet done. There was still something he had to do.

     So, Iyan packed up his few belongings and closed the door to his borrowed room, the mass of clouds closing with a silent rush of air. This soon was followed by another from behind and Iyan turned to find a familiar face smiling back at him.

    “Salve Iyan! Where are you off too?” Betsalel asked as he folded his dark wings behind his back, but not before Iyan noticed the gold flecks of color now adorning his feathers.

    “Salve,” Iyan greeted. “I’m going back home. I want to see my family again.”

     Betsalel nodded in understanding. “It’s good I caught you when I did then. The king wishes to see you.”

    “The king?” Iyan asked in surprise.

     “Yes, and we must go now.”

     “What does he want with me?”

     “He will explain everything. Come.”

      Betsalel and Iyan took off into the sky, Betsalel leading the way. They soared through the air, the Populus flying ambient. Iyan watched as they flew closer to the acropolis, the collection of buildings by far his favorite in the city, with the sun and clouds dancing in harmony with the architecture and swarms of beautiful wings fluttering around it as the people flew to their various destinations.

     “I see you’ve gotten a new paint job,” Iyan noted, gesturing to Betsalel’s wings.

      Betsalel looked back at him with a smile. This man was so different than the one Iyan said goodbye to all that time ago. He was happier, and his hope radiated, although the effects of the Barathrum Lucis remained, faded and in the background, but forever present. “A lot has changed since last you and I met.”

     With that, Betsalel and Iyan dove down and landed in front of the vast cloud pillars that were the entrance to the Palatium de Ventis, the palace of winds. The building was a soft white and clean, the inside completely exposed to the elements. As they walked up to it a wind both warm and cool rushed out of it, all at once gentle, strong, and steady.

   They walked inside to a large room of colorful frescos and murals on the floors and pillars. Thin beige curtains serving as partitions between rooms flowed in the breeze. Iyan could see the vague shape of figures moving about in the rooms they didn’t go into. With the breeze and the curtains and the clouds, it was as if he was in a dream.

  They walked through the curtains and rooms until Betsalel led him to a room with a large hole in the ceiling.

   They both flew through the hole into a room that mixed with the sky. There were no walls here, nor curtains nor ceilings. Pillars of cloud were scattered out on the beautifully tiled floor, clouds and endless bright blue sky stretched forever. The tiled floor dropped off at the edge of the room where the roof of the palace and a bird’s eye view of the city could be seen. Sentries stood guard between the pillars, spears in hand and swords at their side.

  At the far end of the room, directly in front of Iyan, stood marbled thrones and upon them sat a man clothed in daylight and a woman wearing night itself. Both wearing thin crowns adorned with golden clouds, the king’s flecked with blue and the queen’s flecked with black, their wings folded behind their backs. Around them in other chairs sat the various royal advisers, none Iyan recognized.

   Iyan and Betsalel stopped a few feet from the thrones and bowed.

  “Welcome,” the king of Elevare said, his voice strong and comforting.

   “It is an honor your Highness,” Iyan replied as he stood upright again.

   “Thank you Betsalel,” the king dismissed him, and he went to stand next to a woman Iyan didn’t know, laying a hand on her shoulder which she reached to hold in a loving gesture.

   “What is your name?” the king asked.

   “I am Iyan Alatus, your highness.”

  “Betsalel told us you were the one to find him,” Queen Ustinya began, her voice smooth and powerful.

   “He found me, really.”

    “And you rescued him from the Barathrum Lucis, bringing him back to us?” King Allerick added.

    “We helped each other. Neither of us would have gotten out without the other.”

    “You have our thanks. But you must not be from Elevare, the Populus is forbidden from going into that place, and for good reason,” the King continued.

    “No, your highness,” Iyan confirmed.

    “Where do you hail from then?”

    “I come from a town called Portus, below the Land Above Clouds.” With his words a collective gasp of astonishment flooded the room and the advisers turned to each other, whispering frantically. Iyan looked to Betsalel for some indicator as to what was wrong, but he returned his gaze with a just as confused expression.

    “Enough,” the king said, and the room quieted. “Do you understand our concern?” he asked, addressing Iyan.

    “No, your highness. Not at all.”

    “A long time ago the humans stopped visiting our lands,” the queen explained. “A long time ago. We know not why or where they went. You understand, you are the first human to step foot on our land in centuries.”

   “I may have an idea as to why,” Iyan offered. “Humans don’t think you exist anymore. They believe you are just fairytales and children’s stories. They don’t think the Land Above Clouds is real, and if they did, they wouldn’t know where to look.”

  “Without them, our world has gone into seclusion. Our borders are cut off and we can no longer trade or learn of new cultures. When our people interacted with yours, we had a gilded age that we thought would never end. Great heroes emerged, unfamiliar places and beings were discovered every day and new inventions and foods were constantly being made. When they disappeared, all that came to an end. We have not been able to find them since.”

   “I might have a way to help with that.”

   “Go on,” the king urged.

   “When I get back home, I will tell everyone about the Land Above Clouds and I’ll show people where to go!” Iyan said excitedly. “I’ll spread the word, and people will come far and wide to see your lands. It will be the start of a new gilded age!”  

    The king and queen discussed with the advisors in the chairs around them. It did not take long to come to a decision.

   “Then it is decided,” the king announced as he and the queen stood, their wings unfolding to reveal the biggest and most beautiful sets of wings Iyan had ever seen. The king’s were pure white and gilded with natural gold in solid rows. The queen’s were black with natural gold as well, dripping downward as if melting into the feathers. “You have our sincerest gratitude, and our blessing.”

   “Godspeed Iyan Alatus,” the queen said, and Iyan was dismissed.

    Iyan flew into the room below and waited for Betsalel to join him. When he finally flew down, he was accompanied by the woman, her wings a vibrant crimson with flecks of gold.

   “Iyan, meet my wife, Habren of the Thorn,” Betsalel introduced.

    “But you may call me Habren,” Habren corrected. “Thank you for bringing my husband back to me. I thought he was lost long ago.”

    “I’m glad you found each other,” Iyan said. “If not for your husband, I would’ve been lost for a very long time.”

    “We will fly you out,” Betsalel offered, and they flew out of the acropolis together and out of the city, finally coming to a stop at the city gates, the same children running and flying about, as if their game had never ended. Here, they said their goodbyes.

     When they touched down Habren wrapped her arms around Iyan in a hug. “Thank you,” she said, then released him. “When will you be back?” Habren asked.

     “Hopefully, soon,” Iyan replied.

      “I look forward to that day,” Betsalel said.

      “As do I. What will you do when I’m gone?”

       Betsalel looked at Habren happily, wrapping his arm around her waist as she smiled up at him. “I will learn to live again.”

      “Godspeed then,” Iyan said.

      “Godspeed,” Betsalel returned.

       With a flutter of feathers and cloud dust Iyan was in the air and soaring away from the Elevatum Urbem. He glanced back as he passed the pillars of cloud at the waving figures of Betsalel and Habren, arms around the other, never to let go again. He took one last look of the great city he had come to consider his own, then never looked back.

     ***

         Iyan flew over the Barathrum Lucis, the dark a looming abyss below him, but he was not afraid. He soared over the Deserto Flores where he watched the meadows and hills roll like waves in the wake of the grass whale. It followed beneath him, sensing the water within him, but he soared beyond its reach, too fast and high for it to get to him. He had a bird’s eye view of all his past obstacles, and he barely touched ground. He was going home, and he would fly forever.

      Iyan didn’t see Callian again as the entrance to the short-cut was nowhere to be found within the abundance of rock piles, but he eventually found the forest fire of the Spiritus Ignis and the edge of the end of the Land Above Clouds. The crackling of the Spiritus Ignis below and behind him faded away as he descended over the edge, a presence that emanated a welcome and farewell.

      ***

       When Iyan touched down outside his house it was a warm autumn’s eve. The trees were awash with fiery colors and the winds cushioned him as he descended. It was silent apart from the laughing voices drifting through the house.

      Iyan tucked his wings behind his back as best he could and raised a fist to his mother’s blue door and knocked. He heard a familiar pair of confident steps come toward him and the door opened. His mother stared up at him in shock, the sound of laughter and clinking dinnerware faded in the background as they looked at each other.

   “- Iyan?” Athena Alatus asked, tears welling in her eyes.

   “Honey? Who is it?” Richard Alatus walked around the corner and stopped when he caught sight of Iyan.

   “Son?” Iyan’s dad said, unbelieving.

   “Yeah, Dad. It’s me,” Iyan responded, tears threatening to spill.

   “You’re here! You’re really here!” Iyan’s mom threw her arms around her son, and they broke down together. Richard ran the rest of the distance between them and threw his arms around them both, knocking them backward in a ball of tears and joy where they sank to their knees on the porch in the autumn eve.

   “I found it Mom,” Iyan said between sobs. “Dad, I found it.”

   “Oh, Iyan!” Athena exclaimed and let go when she caught sight of the wings behind his back.

   “Mom I – “Iyan started to explain.

   “You got your wings!” she cried.

   “Wait, how’d you -?” Iyan asked in confusion.

   “Come with me.” Athena grabbed Iyan and his dad’s wrists, pulling them off the porch and into the grass. Athena gestured for Iyan to back up and he did so. Iyan watched as from behind his mother and father emerged two sets of beautiful wings. His mother’s a fiery auburn and his father’s a pink found only in sunsets.

    “How did you – “Iyan was speechless.

    “We’ll teach you one day,” Athena promised.

    “Are you guys coming back to dinner?” Iyan’s aunt appeared in the doorway and let out a squeal when she saw Iyan.

    “What is it?” Iyan’s cousin appeared behind his aunt, and she yelled excitedly, “Oh my gosh Iyan’s back!” Both women ran into Iyan and wrapped their arms around him. The rest of his family ran out of the house and soon followed his aunt and his cousin, knocking him to the ground and enveloping him in hugs.

    “Did you find it? Did you find the Land Above Clouds?” one of Iyan’s younger cousins asked.

     “I did. And it is even better than the stories,” Iyan replied, sending up a cheer among his family.

    “Where’s my truck?” Iyan’s grandfather asked.

    “I couldn’t really fit,” Iyan said as he lifted a wing to prove his point. “But its safe. I’ll bring one of you back to drive it.”

      Iyan’s aunt looked from his wings to Richard and Athena, their wings outstretched, and smiled even wider. “Oh, we’re bringing those out now, huh?”

   “Wait, you mean you knew too?” Iyan asked.

   “I didn’t just know,” Iyan’s aunt replied before stepping back and unfurling her bright sunflower-yellow wings. His other aunts and uncles followed suit, stepping away from the gaggle of children and revealing magnificent sets of wings, one by one, evoking astonished ‘ohhs’ and ‘ahhs’ from the kids.

   “After the war, humanity’s belief of the Land Above Clouds died. We were trapped here, the location of the entrance to the Above hidden from us. We had no way of knowing whether our friends and family lived or died. So, we stayed, trying to keep our story alive with the generations,” Richard explained as he helped Iyan to his feet.

    “It’s been a while since we’ve brought these out,” Athena said. “But I think I could still beat those young wings of yours any day.”

   Athena shot into the sky with Richard not far behind. Iyan stood for a moment and watched as his parents’ silhouettes blotted out the sun, their feathers filtering the light in rays and casting shadows on the ground no other bird could.

   “Are you coming?” Richard called down. Iyan laughed and unfurled his wings. With a great flap that stirred the grass and leaves at his feet Iyan took off into the sky. With his family, they soared across the skies and in the fading colors of dusk, the wind carrying them away, happily living the impossible together.

    ***

      After that day, Iyan developed his film and gathered the townspeople together to tell them of his adventures. With the wings and the photos, there was no room for doubt. They were captivated by the Land Above, both the same and so different from the stories they’ve known.

      Over the years, Iyan made maps and sent others on their own journeys to find the Above. He spread the word, and as he promised, people came from far and wide to visit and make a home in the Land Above.

     He visited many times and witnessed the exponential growth and abundance of the Land Above Clouds. Towns of people occupied the once empty land, Callian and other Gigantes Albus saw new color, stairs were constructed on the Intrades for easier access, cultures mixed, and boundaries shifted. It was a gilded age where heroes were tested, shaped, and discovered.

       Iyan the Dreamer had believed even though he had not seen, and against all odds, he found what he was looking for. Now, the world knows the Land Above Clouds is real, and it is waiting with open arms for all who search for it.

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