Atlas [ Chapter 16 ]
There was no sense of time Atlas could draw on anymore: he might have been lying on the deck of this rickety boat for an hour, or a hundred years, he couldn’t tell. Someone once told him that the void was the place where time was young and men were old. Was this the meaning of that sentiment? The stars above were throbbing like tiny heartbeats, but Atlas knew now that they weren’t stars. Plâton had called them ‘tiny gears turning’, but what did that mean? Was it a part of that Great Clockwork that Atlas had beheld once again under Plâton’s care?
That ridiculous metaphor for destiny… What even was destiny? Some invisible force that had willingly shattered Atlas in her grip or at least let this happen to him? Now trying to twist him into some tool to do her bidding? What a joke. And why was there a boat underneath him? Was this the garbage that the old man had pushed on him when he had strapped that crutch of a device to his shoulder? Was it that? A gar-barge? Atlas smirked at the bad pun.
He stood up and reached for the sword. It wasn’t there. Naturally. What now? He walked up and down the length of the ship, staring into the dark waters, staring at the strange night sky, staring at the barely defined horizon that just went on forever. “Where do I go now?” he asked the void.
There was no answer.
After a while, Atlas went back to the place where Plâton had been and suddenly something caught his eye: the book. He picked it up reluctantly and inspected the cover. It was blank. When he opened it, he read the title out loud: “The tale of the boy who would live with the gods.” It was the story that Plâton had been telling Atlas and Ayveron. It felt like that had been very long ago, as though it had been in another life. Atlas knew a thing or two about living a life over and over: after all, he had been the one sitting on the throne, somewhere beyond that thrice-damned gate. Through death and rebirth he had been Atlas so many times, in so many worlds. Not by the same name perhaps but as the same being. He had always been content with being the ocean, the well of power behind the man. He would catch a glimpse of these past lives here and there, whenever they truly needed him to watch, but mostly he just was and gave them might if they truly desired it, deserved it. He missed those times. The real world was complicated, and it was wary of him. Reality didn’t like his smell, his form, it wanted him gone, and he could feel it with every breath as long as he was in control of that body. What a mode of existence! Ordering some strange, meaty construct around by the power of free will; it truly wasn’t for him…
He remembered all that Plâton had already told him and carefully flipped the pages past those parts until he came to the passage Plâton had last uttered on their travels:
There isn’t much I can tell you about the night I spent in Odenheim all those years ago. Certain things happened, but I shall not speak of them. It was then that I truly learned that I was not welcome in the realm of the gods. From that day on, I was close to my mother most of the time. She would show me around her realm, the small woods, though they are to date the largest forest I have ever seen, Brammenwoods and Odenwald Forest included, and time and again I would walk quietly by her side when she welcomed the souls of the dead. Freyja had the honored duty to guide those souls to the gates of Helgard, the realm of the dead.
Oh, I am sure you have heard much about the cycle of rebirth, and much about it is true, I suppose, but you have to understand that it is what we call ‘the big wheel’. The realm of Helgard is ‘the small wheel’. A realm created by the faceless world-shaper to appease the gods and establish their hold of power over those who worship them. The tribe closest to their realm, the Angel Saxons, take dutiful care of the stone circles erected all over the Great Land in Freyja’s name. Those circles, called the angel stones, link the Great Land with the realm of Asgard and the souls of all those still sworn to the old gods may travel through there rather than follow the call of the Great Clockwork. If they do, they will end up in the small woods, and my mother takes them by the hand, and brings them to Helgard. She told me about that place, saying that it was made of golden halls in the north, where men and gods would feast and tell stories of great wars and go on glorious hunts, and a prison for the damned reaching far underground, locking them in punishment until their eventual release into the big wheel, only sometimes letting them above ground to serve as game in glorious hunts.
“In the end, Helgard is an illusion. A way to dwell on life while denying its cycle,” my mother once said to me. “The gods know of the Great Clockwork, have known of it since ancient times. It is everywhere and nowhere, it is you and me, and everyone that is and ever was and ever will be. An endless cycle that moves forward through time: not a circle, but a spiral. Our immortality, too, is an illusion. In time we will be so eroded by the turning of the centuries that our souls will leak out and rejoin the big wheel.
Do you know why the gods are immortal and strong?” she asked me then.
I shook my head and she continued: “The gods are immortal and strong because when long, long ago the world was split into the realms of old and connected by the rainbow river, there was a great well of Wyrd in the center of this realm, Asgard, and the Aesir drank from its water to gain everlasting might and life eternal. It was a well not filled with water, but souls, or something very much like souls. The substance of its cool riches came not from the depths of the ground, but from Great Clockwork, making it a connecting point. When the Aesir drank from the well, their connection to the clockwork was amplified by a great factor and they became more than man, they became gods. In time, a man came to our world, a Weltenwandler more powerful than any living being had ever been in all the Nine Realms, and he said he would rebuild the world according to his design. Some joined his cause, like the Swarten, the Midgardians, and the Vanier, such as I am, and some resisted, like the Albenmannen and Jöten and the Aesir, who would not let the world they had conquered for themselves be remade free. He brought in his wake a great war that shattered the realms, and by consuming the well of Wyrd, he forged the shards together to a great ball, the world we now call the realm of the middle, and that man calls ‘Aqualon’. The faceless world-shaper, or god-king, appeased the factions who had joined his side by giving the world of the middle to man and the Swarten and recreated the realm of the Aesir, Asgard, for them to hold as well as a realm below, the realm of Helgard, where the two were free to live together, if they so chose. Thus, the well of Wyrd was gone forever and with it the last intersecting point between the real world and the Great Clockwork. Only the gods remain as remnants of that connection. We, and little fragments of Wyrd that are kept save amongst us.”
I remember listening, memorizing every word of this tale. I felt that there was a hidden meaning in these words I had to uncover one day, and I would be right. Perhaps it wasn’t even so much what she said as it was what she didn’t say, but in time I came to realize something wonderful. But more on that later.
The days passed, turned to weeks, months, and I grew older, bit by bit. I cannot deny that in time I felt drawn to the others: the gods of Asgard and the few Angel Saxon servants allowed to work here, even though most of them held me in great contempt. Every full moon, the men would go out into the wilds for the hunt, chasing after the great beasts that lived in this realm. I began to practice in secret, though I am sure my mother was well aware, to one day join them on the hunt and prove myself.
Somewhere deep down I think I realized that I could not live out my life at the side of my mother for all eternity. When I first asked to join them, they beat me savagely. And the second time too. The third time, they would let me join them at last, and a great boar almost killed me, much to their amusement. Every time I returned home wounded, my mother would worry gravely for me, but I would not have her interference on this, so all she could do was heal my injuries.
Atlas frowned and put the book aside for a while. He had liked the vivid description the story had offered to him before; now the passage of time had sped up, only summarizing Plâton’s tale. Ponderously he went to the front of the ship and grabbed for the stirring wheel, turning it times left, times right. It didn’t matter since the rudder was broken, and even if it hadn’t been, there was no destination, no heading he could have navigated to. In the end, it was only a means to pass the time and think.
After a while he sighed and picked the book back up. After all, there wasn’t much else to do. He opened the page where he had left off and turned it, just to discover to his surprise that a whole bunch of pages were missing afterwards. Baffled, he leafed through the book, even turned the back up and shook it to see if any ripped-out pages would fall out, but none did. Then he checked what the next available passage said. There was definitely a whole part missing. The ripped remains of torn-out pages taunted him like a jagged white grin. Had they been missing all this time, or had they vanished when he had thought of the style as disappointing? Had he ripped out these pages unwittingly? He couldn’t say, but without any alternative, other than not reading at all, he continued:
And so it had come to this, the last Vanier were slaughtered in their uprising against the gods. They had dwelled in the caves on the great divide that made Asgard closed in itself, forging their thirst for revenge against the Aesir who had fought them in the first great war, long before even the First Age of Aqualon. Oh, I remember those dreadful days of battle, but in the end, they all perished at the cruel hands of the Aesir, and no day in my life do I remember more clearly than the last day of that battle, for there was only one Vanier left in Asgard, one alone: my mother Freyja.
And this time, the decision was made to have her pay for the sins of her kin, and the gods were coming for my sweet mother. As they stormed for her little house in the small woods I remember her calm, it was always there, like the ocean on bright days. And she spoke to me: “Oh, my sweet Plâton, you have made my heart brighter in these past few years than it has been in the thousand years before. How you remind me of the children I once carried to term and raised, and you are my son in your own right, do not forget that. In all these years the Aesir could not accept you, for they think you weak, but I know better, my love, I have seen the strength in you. I cannot avoid my fate any longer, but I can, at the very least, protect you, even if it is just for a day more, or a week. When they come for me, they will not see you, and you must be very quiet so they cannot hear you either, do you understand?”
I could never go against her word, she who had saved me and taken me as her own, so I nodded with tears in my eyes. “I promise, mother.”
“That’s my boy,” she said and gently stroked my hair. “When I am gone, you will need to fend for yourself. Even without me, my influence will remain strong here in the small woods. Look to the animals, they will be kind to you if you are kind to them, and they may help and protect you, just as they need your help and protection.”
I nodded again. “Yes mother, I will watch over them for you.”
She smiled fondly. “And the souls that come here through the angel stones… They are but lost in these woods. Many times have you accompanied me when I brought them to the gates of Helgard. You know the paths and the woods; if you can, guide them on their way, don’t let them wander stray and become lost souls. And listen to them, every man has his own wisdom, allow them to share and learn from them yourself.” As so often, she was trying to teach me of the greater meaning behind all things.
Naïve as I was I nodded and promised again to heed her words, not truly grasping them in their entirety. And as we embraced a final time, the door was knocked down and there he stood: Odin, the Father. Oh, I remember the times I had seen him, during the many feasts in Odenheim. He would usually be quiet and observant, a wise man in his own right, and sometimes he would tell stories of the past, even to me, the outsider. From all the gods, he alone had never teased me or caused me harm, but he too had grown bitter, this I knew, and he had no place in his heart for me. His gray hair was thick and fell smoothly on his shoulders that held up a black cloak, worn over heavy silver-steel mail, forged by the Angel Saxons. His beard was gray as well and braided with black leather cords and his right eye was always closed, covered by a long scar he often spoke of in his stories: When in the Age of Heroes a technocrat had dropped from the sky, where he had ridden a great war moth, ramming a great lance into the ground that pulsed out a blade-like wave, mowing down their lines like a giant, cutting wheat with a scythe, Odin and his sons had been grievously wounded. After they had won the battle though, Odin commended the enemy warrior for his feat of power and took the lance as a prize, giving it the name Gungnir. I saw it once or twice, hanging in the great hall of Odenheim on the wall… Now this man stood in our house and waited for my mother to arise. He truly didn’t seem to notice my presence.
Freyja stood up straight and faced the intruder: “So, you have come, you of all the Aesir, Echwaz.”
He seemed unimpressed. “It has been many eons since I have been called by that name. You are the last living being to remember it, Freyja of Vanaheim.”
“So it is. Will you smite me right here and now, or is there to be some form of performance piece attached to my execution?” she asked in a mocking tone.
To this day I admire her defiance in the face of death.
“There will be no execution,” Odin said in a solemn voice, and for a moment I felt the foolish hope rise in me that maybe they would let my mother live, that maybe she wouldn’t be torn from me, but it didn’t last long. “Since you have guided the souls of our peoples to Helgard since olden times, I have judged you to join them on their journey. You, Freyja of Vanaheim, Lady of the small woods, are sentenced by me, Odin, Allfather, to eternal banishment in the realm of Helgard until such time you choose to shed your immortality and be reborn. I will bring you to the gate, where you shall pass and never return. I do not presume to judge you for the crimes of your people, therefore a higher power will judge you in this, and it will determine your place in Helgard for all eternity. Follow me now.”
She let out a long sigh, as if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders; then she grabbed a feathered cloak from the wall and threw it over her shoulders, ready to follow.
“One more thing,” he said. “The boy-“
“Is human!” she interrupted him in a commanding tone. “He cannot be held accountable for the Vanier, nor for myself.”
Odin nodded. “As you will. But know that he is no longer welcome here. If an Aesir should ever chance upon him in this realm, he will not be held accountable for what happens.”
I couldn’t say for sure because I only got a short glance, but it seemed to me, as if she was crying then. But then again, so was I…
As they left, I followed them. I felt I had to see my mother off, as no one else would. But I was mistaken: as I quietly followed the two of them while they made their way to the gates of Helgard, the many animals of the small woods made their appearances, gargantuan though they were, they walked up to the two of them graciously, suspiciously eyed by Odin, and one by one, they put a little snowblossom on my mother’s feathered cloak until she was dressed beautifully in flowers.