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Luckily the Hawk was too impatient to hear me out, thus saving me from myself.

“Spare me your excuses and just get a move on!” he growled.

Then he took a leap further downward and disappeared through the canopy of leaves beneath us. Derek breathed out in relief and we continued our climb upward.

Sounds of a civilization started trickling down through the leaves: the distant chattering of hundreds of people all at once, ropes creaking, feet thudding against wood, doors slamming, water splashing. The sounds were getting closer and closer until eventually we poked our heads through a final layer of leaves.

My breath hitched and Derek also inhaled sharply as we gazed around.

“Whoa,” I whispered.

By the looks of it, we had climbed up only about a third of the tree. The giant leaves had been stripped away from the trees to create an open space, open enough to build wooden constructions around the tree trunks, interconnected by bridges and walkways. The trunks were now bare from the point we were standing for about three hundred feet upward, where the leaves began again, creating an enclosed area for this wondrous city and forming a ceiling that protected it from the direct heat of the sun.

As for the width of this place, I couldn’t begin to estimate. The clusters of magnificent architecture—tree houses small and large, round and square—stretched out for as far as I could see.

A true city in the trees. The Shade has nothing on this.

Dozens of humans walked along various bridges and walkways. But I was struck by the lack of Hawks.

I was about to hoist myself up onto the bridge about five feet above us, but Derek held me back.

“Wait,” he whispered. “We need some way to remember this place. Otherwise how will we find our way back here?”

He had a point. I turned my face up toward the leafy ceiling of the city to see if there was anything striking that could serve as a landmark.

“Look!” Derek said. “That carving there, do you see it?”

One of the trees had been cut shorter than the others. Carved into the bark was a striking depiction of a Hawk. I hoped that there was only one such carving.

“All right, now let’s go,” I said.

We both pulled ourselves up onto the narrow bridge, trying to keep our heads down and not be noticed. The walkway swayed unnervingly as we walked along it. I dared not try to estimate how many feet we might be above the jungle floor. I kept my eyes straight ahead.

At the end of the bridge was a wide platform. Its floorboards spanned the width of a dozen trunks. We had reached a cluster of some of the smaller tree houses. Derek nudged me and pointed to a human girl who’d just entered a construction ten feet away from us.

She’d left the door ajar. We walked over and Derek dared to peek his head inside. He pushed it open further and beckoned me inside. The stuffy room we entered was bare save for primitive cooking facilities and a stained mattress. The girl sat in the corner mending some clothes. She almost jumped out of her skin when we loomed overhead.

“Shhh. It’s okay. We’re not going to hurt you.” I held up my hands as a sign of peace. “I’d just like to ask you, is there a particular place that human recruits are brought to?” She looked at me with fear and confusion. I coughed, realizing I needed to play my role better. “You know, when us Hawks take you away from your homes in the mortal realm, is there any particular place you are gathered?”

“Mama!” she called, getting up and rushing into a room at the back of the building.

A blonde woman who looked to be in her mid-thirties came rushing out. “What do you want?” she asked.

I repeated my question. She cocked her head warily. “Why are you asking me that? You should know better than I.”

“Just answer her question, will you?” Derek took a step forward.

“There is no particular place.” She scowled. “We’re shoved into little boxes like these wherever there’s space.” With that, she grabbed her child and retreated into the back room.

“Where do we start?” I turned to look at Derek. “There are thousands of these tree houses.”

“I don’t know. Let me think.” Derek scratched the back of his head. We stepped out of the tiny tree house back onto the bridge.

“What are you two still doing here?” a voice boomed from behind us.

I whirled around and there stood the same Hawk we had met back down in the “Lower Layers”.

“Follow me,” he ordered. Derek and I could think of nothing else to do but obey his command. I thanked the heavens that the Hawk didn’t immediately take flight and expect us to follow him by air. Instead, he walked. We followed in silence, not daring to say a word. We passed along one shaky walkway after another, past hundreds more tree houses identical to the one we had just visited.

After what felt like half an hour of walking, the little tree houses were becoming fewer and fewer and being replaced by the larger constructions. We stopped outside a massive oval construction, a trunk of a tree running right through the middle of it. We stepped through the entrance and found ourselves in some kind of auditorium. Rows upon rows of Hawks were seated on platforms that covered the rounded walls from top to bottom.

So this must be the Battalion.

Without a word, our escort closed the door on us.

It was dark inside save for bright lights that shone down on a raised platform in the center, where two Hawks addressed the packed audience.

“… And we should expect that their first point of refuge will be the volcanoes.”

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