Galwynn noted that the landscape of the Lower Reaches was similar to features of Land, if those features were all made of clouds, vapor, and endless blue vistas. The road the skyriders galloped along looked like a carpet of smooth white fog in a dale at sunrise. The misty terrain to either side of the road was as blue as the sky above them, except where it momentarily became as transparent as sapphire, revealing the hills, rivers, and forests of the Land far below.
The vegetation of Sky was as leafy and lush as plants on Land, but the leaves were not green; they were as white as winter snow. Grasses and low-growing shrubs similar to white heather, baby’s breath, and snow-white roses followed the lay of the bluish ground, making the countryside appear to be covered with a boundless, nubby wool carpet. Trees and bushes were also crowned with white leaves as dense and lush as any forest on Land, but supported by trunks and stems the color of shadows and oncoming storm clouds.
Hills and ridges rose up from the flat terrain to form mountains so blue that they blended into the azure of the heights of the Lower Reaches. Even at the higher altitudes of the Lower Reaches, cloud banks formed. But Galwynn could not discern from this distance, whether the realm of clouds itself had clouds; or whether the clouds of the higher altitudes were actually islands in the sky, with other folk, terrain, vistas, and wonders to behold.
As the Ethereal Legion crested the top of a prodigious ridge, Galwynn thought the skyriders were galloping toward an enormous cloud bank that straddled the road and stretched out of sight both left and right. The cloud bank looked as if a god or goddess had scooped a snow-white glacier off the top of Mt. Majestic and deposited it in the middle of their path. Kevin expected the Ethereal Legion to come to a halt at the sight of the barrier in front of them, but they galloped on without pause, as if they did not see the mountainous cumulonimbus cloud blocking their way.
In Galwynn’s travels, he had seen distant whirlwinds, tornadoes, tempests, and hurricanes, but he had never seen a whirlwind that seemed frozen in place before. This cloud bank was smaller and whiter than a hurricane; but otherwise, its rounded top and billowy, far-flung, misty sides were just as ragged.
And still, the skyriders rode on.
As the Ethereal Legion got closer, Galwynn could see that the surface of the cloud bank was not smooth as polished marble, as had been his first impression; but was instead composed of huge blocks of stone the color of cumulus clouds. The stones were stacked in serpentine tiers crested with battlements and turrets, and separated only by seams and arrow slits.
Suddenly, Master Galwynn realized what he was seeing. This was no cloudbank, this was their destination. This was Castle Castellanus.
“What-ho, the castle!” cried the captain of the Legion from the lead rank.
“What-ho, the riders!” replied the guard from the barbican gatehouse, which was three stories above the heads of the skyriders. “Welcome home, King Cirrus and company!” said the guard. Then she blew a spiral horn, and in like manner to the skyriders’ standard-bearer, hoisted the Sky King’s colors to notify the castle that their liege lord had returned.
Shortly thereafter, a sound like rolling thunder shook the air as two portcullis gates like overlapping cloud-drifts, rolled aside left and right, to reveal a long tunnel into the castle. The Legion cantered forward in unison, heads and standard held high.
The company rode into the tunnel passing through a series of inner portcullis gates, guard houses, ambush points, and intersecting tunnels. Eventually, the passage opened onto a huge inner bailey. The Sky King was home.
When Kevin asked Aaron about the structure of the castle, Nimbus answered that it was patterned after a hurricane: The cylindrical void at the center of the castle was the “eye of the storm” and contained the inner bailey, a chapel, service buildings, and the castle keep. The eye of the storm was capped with a dome that was painted with an enchanted ceiling mural that mimicked the changing light and movement of corresponding celestial bodies in the Upper Reaches. Finally, the curtain wall between the smooth interior and the ragged exterior was hollow and vast, containing thousands of rooms including private apartments and shops; and public squares, atriums, and halls of various sizes; that were all connected by a maze of corridors and stairways.
Once when Kevin was a journeyman at the Academy of Enlightenment, the then Master of Enlightenment sent him on a mission to a coastal town in the Southern Isles. The town was originally a small fishing village with whitewashed, azure-domed, row houses that fit comfortably on the narrow strand between the Inland Sea and the steep, rocky hills that rose not far away.
But over time, the town flourished and grew so populous that the houses and shops had to be built in tiers, with the foundation of one building partially resting on the roof of the building below. The town was crowded chockablock and shoulder to shoulder with copious olive trees; narrow, ramped cobblestone streets with white mortar and fat whitewashed balconies; and whitewashed buildings with slit windows to reject the heat of day, and bright patches of color to relieve the eye.
Kevin had never seen a town like that before. It was a mad, eccentric, hodgepodge—and it delighted Kevin no end. That coastal town in the Southern Isles, so long ago, was like Castle Castellanus, now.
King Cirrus handed command over to the captain of the Legion, bade Master Galwynn farewell for the evening, and then headed off with his chamberlain and advisers to be apprised of the current state of his kingdom. “Do the soothsayers still say we’re all going to die anon?” asked the Sky King. “Yes, my lord,” answered the dejected chamberlain. “Well, nothing new there,” replied the Sky King, pragmatically.
Meanwhile, several stable boys took the skyriders’ horses to their stables, and the weary Legionnaires threw their kit bags over their shoulders and trundled to their barracks. Lastly, three pages took Kevin’s luggage and then led him and Aaron up a spiral staircase to an apartment in the keep.
Nimbus was temporarily billeted next door to Galwynn, instead of with the rest of the Legion, so he could be at Kevin’s disposal. His apartment was simple and spare, and Aaron pretended it didn’t impress him. However, his new temporary quarters offered a degree of privacy that was impossible to achieve in a barracks shared by forty rugged soldiers, and the soft featherbed nestled in one corner was a far cry from his usual rough-hewn straw pallet. Aaron bounced on the soft bed mattress a few times, grinned, and thought, “This duty might not be so bad after all.”
Next, Aaron went next door to Galwynn’s quarters, dismissed two of the pages, and ordered the remaining one to have the kitchen send up two hearty dinners. Nimbus looked around Galwynn’s quarters approvingly, and found the Master of Enlightenment standing on a balcony that overlooked an interior atrium and small public square. Kevin was looking down to watch Skyfolk going about the last chores of their day. They pulled laundry off their clotheslines, closed their shops, and stoked the hearths in their apartments with lightning-wood to prepare their evening meal. Meanwhile, children in the square were stealing a last few minutes of play before dinner, laughing and rushing in and out of hiding places like whirlwinds; racing faster than any child of Land could ever hope to run.
Looking up at the ceiling mural of the sky, Kevin could see constellations begin their procession across the Upper Reaches. Nimbus stepped onto the balcony and Galwynn noted how closely bound was the spirit of Skyfolk to their gods, Sun and Moon. Kevin watched transfixed as stars slid across Aaron’s countenance, form, and vestments in synchrony with the turning of the celestial bodies on the enchanted ceiling mural. A twilight horizon slid across Aaron’s tunic and shoulders like a shadow. The caul that divided his face slid westward until the waning dayside diminished to a silver sliver and gave way to the waxing nightside, and sparkling stars wheeled across his cheek.
“Well, Master Galwynn,” said Nimbus, “what do you think of Castle Castellanus?”
Kevin gave him an enigmatic smile, and turned back to the starry view on the ceiling mural. Then he said over his shoulder, sincerely, “I think it is a place of untold wonders.”