Atlas eyed Ísa with optimistic curiosity. “So you will travel with us all the way to the last stronghold?” he asked hopefully. He liked the thought of having her along for the journey.
She puffed with a frown. “Don’t be ridiculous! I will only be with you as long as it takes for my lamp to cool down.”
Atlas eyed her warily from head to heel as she sat on Surefoot’s back while he walked besides the horses. This slowed down their travels a bit, but the grass had grown yellow and the trees scarce and wiry already: a sign, so said Plâton, that they were nearing the desert, the Red Sands, so their overall pace was good; or as Ayveron had described it: defying the laws of gyrometrics, which Atlas also interpreted as ‘good’.
After carefully mustering Ísa, he finally dared to ask: “What lamp? I don’t see you carrying one.”
She rolled her eyes and turned her head away to face the front again. “Every child knows about the Shadow Society. It has always been our policy to hide in plain sight, to use half-truths to cover our deceptions. Tell him the stories!” she demanded, apparently speaking to Plâton.
He, too, was puffing: puffing his elegant, long pipe with the lizard-like design, which, as Atlas had discovered upon closer inspection, actually looked more like a long insect with wings and armored scales. Beyond the intricate shape, he didn’t care too much about its details, so he couldn’t really tell if it was rusted copper or jade. Right now he couldn’t see it closely enough to tell, but it was definitely green.
“Well,” Plâton said, “I have tangled with the likes of you before, to be honest. Not a very talkative bunch, the Shadow Society, but they have a flair for the theatrical; now that is something they are all proud of I’d say.”
Ísa harrumphed to that.
“One thing everyone knows about them though: where they meet. They call them the Halls of Light and there are five, some in large cities, some near villages. I once saw one between the Waves of Yamato and the Yamato Mountain Range. They are great halls of stone, ancient and possibly Angel Saxon in design, and they throw rays of light into the sky as bright as day, all day and all night, just great beacons of light rising high up. The legend says that there are ten thousand little lamps inside, each carrying the soul of one of the Shadow Society. In exchange for storing their souls in this manner, they can send their bodies out into the lands like puppets and make them dance in the shadows of this world.”
And then Ísa laughed, bright as a bell, and refreshing like spring water, at least to Atlas’s ears. “Yes: souls and puppets. It is always amusing to hear the legends. Truth be told: we planted those in the folklore of many civilizations for our benefit. But I am not a soulless puppet, don’t worry, those lamps are mediums for mighty, old clockwork magic; the forgotten kind. As we become one with the shadows, we can hide, vanish, and even travel vast distances. With every pulse of that magic, we absorb the light around us to focus the shadows, and those lamps resonate, collecting and then emitting that light. In short, we create darkness by sending the light elsewhere. As the Shadow Society operates, the daylight, lamp light, and fire light of hundreds of places is siphoned and pumped into the Halls of Light. There, the Society holds their meetings, blindfolded as to preserve their eyesight, thus with everyone’s identity protected. Or so it was…”
There was an awkward silence, until Ayveron spoke: “Well… what changed?” Ever inquisitive by nature, he could not let an open ended thought stand like that. Ayveron was a technocrat, a man who held the works of magic in much lower regard than his travel companions, but there was one quality he had in abundance and that quite endeared him to Atlas: his curiosity.
Ísa sighed. “The Society is broken. The yellow glimmer has seeped into its veins, so our only choice was to enact the final emergency protocols: dissolution of the Society and reactivation of the cell structure. We are currently operating in about one hundred Shadow Cells, consisting of up to six members, none of which know any members from other cells. It was the only way we could avert total compromising of the Society, and by now all we can do is implement stop-gap measures, trying to shift the momentum of things in favor of mankind.
I have to meet up with Janna; one from my cell. She has been sent to an important assignment in the Tower of Five, but searching you and traveling this far so quickly has accumulated a large quantity of light: if I overtax my abilities now, my lamp might break and I would probably succumb to severe spellblight. So for now I’ll stick with you.”
It was a long-wound explanation, but they were traveling slowly and talking seemed like the best way to pass the time. “And what kind of assignment is that? You do know that Sam is in that tower, right? He is probably the most dangerous… being alive,” Atlas cautioned.
Ísa sighed again, likely struck with melancholy due to his own derelict state. “That… would be classified. And don’t think I don’t know about Sameth Gildorn. Janna is a tough kid and one of the best at what she does. She’ll be fine.” But as casual as she tried to sound, it was still clear that she worried.
More quiet riding followed, until Plâton knocked the ash from his pipe and pointed it ahead: “Can you see the red in the distance? Like the rim of an ocean? That’s the Red Sands. We’ll drift a little to the east now as we move on: I want to find one of the many streams that join to form the mighty river Giranja. Where the water flows, there we will find civilization – and camels. We need those to travel through the desert and supplies, of course; Saltplains horses are ill suited to traverse the Red Sands. The Giranja itself will lead us straight to Arkatrash.”
There seemed to be some murmured agreement to that from Ayveron, but Ísa had objections: “I thought you were in a hurry. Why waste your time on camels when you can take a streamer?”
“A what?” Plâton asked surprised.
“A streamer,” Ísa repeated patiently. “They are the reed-boats that travel downstream from the sheepherder villages at the edge of the desert, where the grass still grows green around the broader streams that join into the Giranja. With those you can get to Arkatrash within two days. Well, the outskirts, Arkatrash goes a long way alongside the river.”
Ayveron patted his bay on the head. “I thought you’ve been to Arkatrash before, old man,” he noted.
Plâton shrugged. “Yes, fifty years ago for a visit, and some nine to ten years ago for war, though you get to see less of the regular goings-on in those times. Many things can happen in so many years. I don’t recall any sheepherder villages for example.”
Slowly but steadily they closed in on the desert until they finally heard the cheerful splashing of a small stream nearby that they could follow. Soon it met up with other small streams and became wider and wider. After a while, it had turned several dozen feet wide. Atlas loved the sight and sound of so much water. It made him feel strangely at home and safe, like the security one felt with a close friend nearby. “Is this the Giranja? It’s so wide!” he cheered.
Plâton and Ísa both laughed at that comment which put a light dent in his mood.
“The Giranja is many times as wide as this little stream here. At its widest one cannot see across, but sees only water until the horizon, almost as if the river itself was an ocean.” Plâton explained.
Atlas’s eyes grew as wide as was humanly possible. The sheer imagination of so much water excited him. It even felt as if the constant wailing of his sword, which only he could hear, paused for a brief moment, but it might have been his imagination.
And so they rode on along the stream, until they finally saw the first flock of sheep, baaing in the distance.