Chapter 2 - Vision
Cloudforge was a beautiful place. To groundlings it was a myth. A fairy tale passed down through generations and something never to be truly found. However, high in the sky, in the realm of wind and storms, it truly did exist.
Obscured by a swirling fortress of clouds, the hidden nation consisted of a few smaller land masses, and a large island. The mainland seemed to float on the cloud tops much the same as a boat would float on water. Wispy clouds made smoke-like patterns at the bottom as the air flowed around the base of each island.
From the cloud line, rose up an intricate network of roads and hanging gardens. With no place to expand, the city had turned into one giant structure, carved into what remained of the land. Dwellings and streets stacked on top of each other in ways that seemed to defy gravity.
Just over the tops of puffy cumulus cotton balls, the shining walls of the palace sat at the tallest point of the city. The courtyard walls circled the perimeter of the castle grounds like a crown. At the top of the highest tower sparkled a bright light, like the beacon of a lighthouse.
For the longest time Aiden had thought that he had been forever destined to admire the palace architecture from a distance. Only more recently had he gained access to the clean and polished upper levels of the city. Not many in his position ever saw anything past the lower levels, below the clouds. The first time he'd crossed into the palace he'd found it hard not to stare.
There were brightly colored flowers everywhere! Such plants were a luxury where he was from. With little space to spare, the lower levels of the city had taken a much more utilitarian approach to their plants. Sure, perhaps some of them flowered during the spring season, but nothing ever had a purely aesthetic purpose.
The novelty had eventually faded for him once he had ventured in a few times. Now he didn't wander, he walked with purpose, donning the uniform of a palace guard. The armor itself had taken a little getting used to. Aiden was perhaps a little shorter than average, and as such, he'd given up on finding something that would fit him perfectly.
The armor was lightweight, and whatever wasn't made of metal was decorated in the colors of the royal house. The colors of the sky and the clouds, with accents of luxurious gold. He briefly wondered if it would do anything to save him if he were to run into trouble. It seemed slightly impractical and mostly for show. At least the sword looked useful.
The young man walking beside him had a much easier time with the armor, but a much harder time acting normal. He gazed around the palace courtyard, his amber colored eyes alight with wonder. "I've never made it this far up before. This is amazing!" He said quietly.
Aiden shot him an annoyed glance out of the side of his eye. He cleared his throat, "If you don't stop acting so strange, this is the furthest you'll ever get. They're going to notice if you keep gawking."
"And remember, we don't have much time. Oran ordered us in and out as quickly as possible. So stay on the lookout." Aiden added quietly. It quickly became clear that his friend wasn't paying him any mind. "Niam, hey-"
"Do you smell that?" Niam questioned.
"Are you even listening?
Niam didn't respond, his attention instead found a few of the servants, carrying plates of food to an area of the courtyard set for a feast. "Everything looks so expensive, I hear the feast they throw for the nobles is amazing... can we try the food?"
Aiden followed his friend's eyes before his lips tugged into a slight frown. The food looked delicious and it smelled even better. Fresh fruits, vegetables cooked with spices that he probably couldn't even name, and meat! He'd heard that, while limited, farming fish was possible. It was so rare that it had become a delicacy.
"So excessive." Aiden grumbled as he attempted to urge his friend along.
Niam chuckled, "I know, it looks like some of these people won't be able to fly come morning, eh?"
Aiden could feel his face grow hot with embarrassment as his stomach let out a loud growl. He wished that Niam hadn't drawn so much attention to the food. As much as he wanted to take advantage of the absolutely lavish feast that had been prepared for the nobles, that could potentially draw attention to them
"Was that your stomach?" Niam questioned.
Aiden disregarded the question, hurrying away from the banquet. He needed to focus. "Come on, gotta look busy or we'll be found out for sure. We can't afford this."
"Didn't you eat before we got here?"
Catriona didn't go directly to the festival. The sun hadn't quite dipped below the horizon and this was her favorite time of day to visit the gardens. If she took a quick detour she could still make it to the ceremonies by sundown. She needn't be there any earlier.
She walked next to a small stream, listening to the peaceful sound of the water running over the smooth rocks. She followed the stone path to a grove of trees. They had lost their blooms months ago, but it wouldn't be long now before the trees would bud again.
At the base of the trees grew bright red flowers. These flowers were always a sign of the harvest and they stayed in bloom until the harvest season was over. They had long leafless stems and spiky flowers that splayed out in a delicate pattern. They could be found in more colors, but this red was by far Catriona's favorite variation.
She admired them a moment in the brilliant evening sun and then suddenly the world around her grew dark. Her back stiffened and she let out a shocked yelp. Someone had slipped up behind her, placing their hands over her eyes.
"Guess who." a voice whispered. A voice that she recognized well.
Her posture relaxed. "Eamon, you scared me!" she exclaimed, sounding relieved but also a little annoyed.
Eamon let her go and moved to stand in front of her in full view now. He smiled at her, blue eyes full of playful mischief. The sun shimmered on his shoulder length raven hair, the same color as his wings, which were folded behind him. "I knew you'd be here. Always one for the scenic route." He said cheerfully.
"Yes well... I do like to have a little time to myself before these big celebrations." Catriona responded, beginning to walk again. She took his hand as he fell into step with her. "Too many people, it's so claustrophobic."
"Oh... I'm sorry. Am I too many people?" He questioned, genuinely worried.
She laughed in spite of herself. Catriona had come here to be alone, but even so, she was happy to see him. "No, Eamon, you're not." She assured him. "Although you're going to have to stop surprising me like that. What if the guards had heard me and thought I was in trouble?"
Eamon seemed to think about this a moment. "You know, you're right. It wouldn't be good news for the wedding if the groom showed up full of arrows would it? We can't have our princess marrying a pin cushion."
"No, I would be very sad and I would miss you terribly if the guards turned on you." Catriona replied with a smile. This young man had an odd sense of humor, but it was one of the many things that she adored about him. She stopped walking, their hands clasped together caused him to stop with her. "I can't wait until we are married."
He pulled her towards him, embracing her and kissing her lightly on the forehead. "Neither can I."
She returned the embrace, taking a deep breath. Contentment. She only truly felt content in his arms anymore. If she could stay there forever like that, she would. Once their marriage had taken place, maybe she actually could.
It probably still wouldn't excuse her from large ceremonies though. With that thought a smirk worked its way across her face and she looked up to him, "Then you can be on display with me at every festival for the rest of your life."
Her fiance faked an expression as if he were having second thoughts. He released her and backed away dramatically. "Well, when you put it that way it doesn't sound very exciting."
She giggled. "Oh it is," She replied sarcastically, "So exciting."
"Well," he began, his hand searching through his coat pocket, "since I can't sit with you just yet..."
She watched him intently, curious now. It took him a moment to produce a small box from his coat. What was he getting at?
He held the box out to her, "You can take me up there in spirit, with this."
When he opened the box she felt her heart flutter. Inside was a beautiful ornate necklace. The pendant was an emerald of the most rich and pure color she had ever seen. It was set in gold, which formed an almost wispy, intricate pattern around it to hold it in place. "Eamon! Where did you get this? It's beautiful!" she exclaimed.
Eamon removed the necklace from the box and took the clasps apart. He didn't even have to ask her to turn around so that he could help her put it on. She eagerly did so, holding her bundles of chestnut brown curls out of the way.
"I'm glad you like it." He said, fastening it in place. He smiled at her adoringly.
"Of course I do!"
"I saw it and thought of you. It matches your eyes so perfectly."
She could feel the blood rush to her cheeks as her face flushed. How lucky was she to have someone just so ... perfect? She could just barely see the necklace if she looked down. The chain was just long enough that the pendant dangled within her sight.
She looked up to Eamon expectantly, "Yes?" She prompted.
He looked at her confused. "What?"
Her gaze traveled around the lush garden. A breeze rustled through the foliage, but they were alone. "Nothing I ... I just thought I heard you say something."
There it was again, a whisper. She turned toward the sound, "Did you hear that?"
This time the voice came it was such a light whisper that she couldn't make out what it said. Still, she could not see, or sense anyone in the area. The voice called her name again. "That!" She exclaimed, wandering back towards the grove of trees she had been standing in earlier.
Eamon followed her, unsure of what else to do. His expression had changed from confused to concerned. "Catriona, I don't hear anything."
A sudden sharp pain assaulted her senses, causing her to gasp. She cradled her head in her hands, stopping in her tracks. Standing there with her eyes clenched shut, she barely heard her fiance's worried voice asking her what was wrong. She didn't feel his hands on her shoulders, holding onto her as her world faded.
When she opened her eyes again, she found herself alone. The clear late evening sky had been replaced with dark clouds. These weren't clouds from the sky, it was smoke. The smell burned her nose. What happened?
"Eamon!?" she shouted, frantically looking for him. "Where are you?"
A low rumble like thunder behind her caught her attention. Only, it wasn't thunder. She could sense a presence with it, as if this noise were from something alive. She whirled around, coming face to face with a large shadowy creature.
She couldn't make out much about its shape, but it was large, with eyes the size of her head that glowed like embers through the smoke. It stared at her, leaving her frozen in place. Her heart felt as though it would escape her ribcage any moment now.
Catriona heard the whispers again but she couldn't make out any words. Her thoughts reeled. Who was speaking to her? Was it the beast? What were they saying? Why? "What do you want?!" She shouted, frightened and confused.
The creature took a step towards her. She felt the earth shake beneath her feet as it moved, right before another sharp pain like the one before brought her to her knees. She sank to the ground, her eyes shut.
"Catriona! Are you alright?" Eamon practically shouted at her.
When she opened her eyes again she was sitting on the grass. Eamon knelt in front of her. The pain was gone and the scenery had returned to normal. She gazed around, searching for anything amiss. The sky above had darkened enough that stars were visible.
"What happened?" Eamon questioned, pulling her attention from her surroundings. He put a hand to her cheek, forcing her to look at him.
"I-I don't know." She stammered. "What did I do?"
"Nothing! You just stood there!" He practically shouted at her. "Are you hurt? I'm going to fetch a healer-"
"No, no I'm not hurt. I'm okay I just-" she said quickly, stumbling over words. Then the sound of horns in the distance caused her to pale. "The festival!" She exclaimed. Anxiety welled up in her chest. She had lost track of the time! "Oh! I'm going to be late again!"
Eamon frowned at her, disapprovingly. "Perhaps you should sit this one out? Go back to your chambers and get some rest?" He suggested, offering her his hand to help her up.
Catriona took his outstretched hand, allowing him to pull her to her feet. She batted a few specks of dirt from her skirt as she did so. "I promised I would make it." she replied, distressed. She unfurled her wings, ready to take off.
Eamon didn't let go of her hand. He tugged back at her. "Catriona, please."
Catriona gave him her best reassuring smile, "I'm fine, really."
The headache had gone just as quickly as it had come. Physically, she felt normal. She was a bit shaken, but at the moment she feared her brother more than the monster. Besides, Eamon had seen nothing near her. How would she explain to her brother that she broke a promise to him because she saw something that didn't even exist? He likely wouldn't believe her.
"Yes, I'm sure." She insisted. When that didn't seem to be enough to convince her fiance she put her arms around him, hugging him tightly. "I promise if I have another spell I'll take myself straight to the healers."
Eamon sighed heavily, reluctant to release her. "You should go after this even if you don't have another one."
"If it makes you feel better I will." She said. Honestly it would make her feel better too. She didn't get the feeling that there was anything wrong with her, but her mind wouldn't soon forget that vision.
"Well we should get going." Eamon said, resigning himself to her wishes. "You know how your brother feels about punctuality."
Author's note: Hey guys! I'm a little new to all this I'd appreciate any comments or critiques and I also just wanted to say thanks for reading so far! I hope you continue to enjoy as I post new chapters in the the next week or so!