CHAPTER SIX: IMPERIUM (2/5)

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The wooden platform seemed to take forever to descend. Goone had been very quiet since being informed of the Emperor's summons and seemed to be deep in thought, but his silence was making Sol uneasy.

"We might not get another chance to talk alone for a while," he said at last, "so let me give you one piece of advice: don't take off that ring. No matter what, keep it on, you hear me?"

Sol nodded. "Alright. But why?"

Goone didn't get to answer. Daylight poured in as the platform landed with a soft thud in the heart of the river. On the bank were more than a dozen guards, all Elders—except for one.

Centred among them was a Centaur with dark grey skin. Like the rest of the guards, he wore black and gold armour and a helmet which looked more decorative than functional.

"Detective Goone," said the Centaur as the two men approached. "Why is it, whenever there is trouble, there is also you?"

Sol and Goone came to a stop in front of the Centaur.

"How you doing, Tiruk?" said Goone.

"I will be better when this grim matter of Pan Magal's death is concluded. There are too many questions and not enough answers."

"If that's why you've come to us, then we won't be much help; the Order already knows everything we do."

"The Emperor still desires to talk with you; the human's arrival has... piqued his curiosity." Tiruk studied Sol closely. "Do you understand me, human?"

"Yes..." Sol said.

"I am Tiruk, Commander of the Emperor's Guard. The Emperor wishes to meet you and has sent me to escort you to him personally. Do you agree to come?"

"Uh, yeah... sure."

"Excellent. Then step this way; it is time to leave."

Sol followed Goone onto the bank. He was slightly alarmed when the guards formed a circle around them. A strong breeze picked up and soon dust was swirling about the group like a tornado. After a few seconds, the dust solidified into a wall, perfectly transparent and curved. Sol looked down and saw the grass under his feet was now squashed flat beneath a glass floor.

"You afraid of heights?" asked Goone.

"No," Sol said. "Why?"

"Just checking."

To Sol's shock, the glass room lifted off the ground and ascended straight up into the air. Sol looked back at his treehouse as they drifted higher and higher and saw the hundreds of Tomlins watching in awe as the glass room floated above them like a balloon. They soared past the top of the smoking chimney and the treetops and emerged into the cloudless sky.

Sol could see for hundreds of miles in every direction, though where the forest ended, he did not know. There was no discernible limit to the trees expanse; all Sol could see was a vast panorama of green and blue leaves, with the occasional smattering of reds and browns.

The glass room started drifting sideways, floating over the treetops like a bubble caught on the wind. It quickly picked up speed and was soon soaring over the forest at an incredible pace, rendering the view below as little more than a green blur.

Just as Sol was wondering if the forest was ever going to end, the trees gave way to a rocky coast and, beyond that, a stunning pacific ocean. He picked out the outline of a mountain range scribbling itself onto the horizon which coloured itself with land before transforming into a glorious vista of snow-capped mountains and luscious green valleys. The glass room followed the ocean into the land's mouth where it became a great river snaking between the hills.

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