The walls began to shake as the roaring of overstressed metal thundered through the halls.
The crackling of ten thousand lightning storms rose in a staggering clamor and a tingling wash of blue and green light began to envelope the room, filling it with blue wisps that seemed to communicate by means of living lightning, stretching out like grotesque and beautiful fingers, scanning each other as if it was their means of sight. The pull of Aqualon stopped working as all things in the room seemed to take on slow and clumsy flight, swimming in the air like a boat on the river. Atlas’s insides became victim to the absence of weight and wobbled like pebbles of wax within a jar filled with oil.
The dinner he had just partaken in seemed to plea for its escape all too soon and Atlas himself was almost too astonished by what was happening to deny it. To put it in order: All the sound came first, then the light, and then gravity went away. After a few seconds of encumbered floating, time seemed to be the next force on the list of abnormalities that formed around him like a puddle forms during a downpour: It seemed as if everything around him was slowing down, even his own movement, while his mind was unimpaired, racing even, and he was fully aware how it all just slowed down and almost came to a halt.
The light changed color to yellow and red and amber, like the small sun that hovered in the great ray at the center of the city, although Atlas could not see it from inside the house anymore.
Next the frequent bursts of white light given off by the shocks of lightning around him changed, multiplied. A build-up of static electricity made his hair stand on end and sent a tingle through his body. Then the roaring and thundering and shaking climaxed as if there was some sort of resonance being achieved and time suddenly seemed to reverse as the people around him glided back into their chairs and those in turn back onto the ground in an awkward motion that could in no sense be seen as falling.
The most peculiar sight was Ayveron who apparently hadn’t been as successful as Atlas in keeping down his meal, and any question about what was happening to time was shockingly answered when the retch returned back to Ayveron’s bowels the same way it had left them. Atlas felt himself return as well and all the small objects that had begun to float before reverted to their proper places.
The wash of light around them turned into a bright green and then sucked out of the room like water flowing out rapidly, joined by a bright sound that accompanied its vanishing.
The group sat silently around the table, digesting the magnitude of what had been the so called ‘jump’. Even the three that should be accustomed to the procedure seemed ponderous to Atlas.
If he had understood correctly, the great city around them had just disappeared from its previous location and appeared somewhere else, many leagues away. Ayveron was white as a bed sheet which was impressive in itself seeing how he had been quite pale before. The slightest tinge of green was now visible around his cheeks. “Always a fun ride,” Plâton said with a wide smile.
Ayveron re-retched. Lynis chuckled, “You know it.” She stood up to pat Ayveron on his back and hand him a handkerchief before looking for something to clean up the splats. Luckily Ayveron had possessed the presence of mind to aim for his previously empty bowl.
Plâton rose. “I thank you for this lovely dinner my friends, the debt has been repaid in full and I thank you for your hospitality.”
Once again Archibald was perplexed, a fact that led Atlas to believe that one did not simply get used to Plâton’s strangeness. “You are leaving already?” Archibald asked in disbelief.
Plâton nodded. “We have a long way to go and too little time, and you cannot take us to the last stronghold or even aid us any further. You have your ways and that is that”.
Archibald nodded slowly. “I doubt this is the last time you have dragged us into this new war you speak of. So I suppose we shall meet again soon enough. Still, would you not at least spend the night? Your companions still look exhausted.”
Plâton shrugged. “We’ll make camp soon, but until I know more about what drives the Guardians after Atlas and what kind of power they bring along, I cannot risk leading them to you.” He tapped both Atlas and Ayveron on the shoulder to get up and so they did.
“Do we really need to go so soon?” Ayveron asked disappointedly, but with a meek voice. The unnatural travels of his meal seemed to have left him somewhat queasy.
“You may stay if you wish or follow. But be warned young man, the path we walk will be filled with peril.” Plâton looked quite serious for a change.
Still, Ayveron would have none of it. “Fine, I will follow… By the gears, I am getting into far darker places than I set out to find, but now that a few hours of travel with you have lead me to the fabled city of Miyako Fluxum already, I cannot help but be curious what else I might miss if I stayed here now.” He gave old Tim, Archibald, and Lynis a courteous bow each. “It has been an honor to sup with the people of this great City.”
Old Tim returned the courtesy. “It was an honor to have a technocrat of Altonar with us and a friend of the old general.”
Atlas felt like he should say something too, but he remembered little about courtesies and the little facets of social interaction for that matter anymore. He had witnessed all those through the milky veil, back in the days when he had still been a whole, unbroken person, but so thick had the fog been at those times that truly they must have been trifles to the old Atlas, nothing more. For that all he could say was: “Thanks for the food” in a mumbled voice before Plâton left on ahead and he had to follow.
When he looked back, Lynis and Archibald were standing in the doorframe of the strange, small house where they had been hosted, though the two did not follow them through the walkway of the outer ring. A bit later Atlas could experience a smaller, less extreme version of the jump once more when they switched layers to find the exit: The transportation of people and goods between layers was usually conducted by small jump stations feeding off the energy of the great ray in the center of the city. They had been compelled to use the rail-cabins before as to conserve the energy the jump stations would have otherwise consumed. Now that the jump was done though there was no need to maintain that policy, so the three got to try out one of those stations. It was a feeble experience compared to the large scale jump they had lived through just a moment ago, but it was still magical in its own way.
When they had reached their destination layer, a young man was waiting for them, handing them a large backpack with gear and rolls tied to its sides. Apparently Archibald had at least suspected Plâton’s swift departure, or perhaps called ahead, and had ordered for provisions to be packed for the three travelers.
They left by the same path by which they had entered the city before: A small gate led them to a passageway which led them to stairs which led them to another passage and so on until they had traveled through Aqualon’s upper crust for quite some time and finally emerged through a hidden stairway which concealed itself once again as soon as they had stepped out into the open.
The night was bright with a thousand stars shining down on them and the glowing face of a big round moon, more than half-full already. The sight of it somehow stirred Atlas. Before them stretched wide plains with soft hills here and there and in the distance there was a crater-like rampart of grass-covered earth that actually seemed to smoke, though it did look too small to be a fire mountain by far, and those supposedly only existed in the Lands of Inferno. “What is that?” Atlas asked his two companions.
Ayveron shrugged. “It’s probably a city or factory that produces the smoke, it’s black with charcoal and white with steam.”
Plâton nodded: “The large cyclical rampart of earth marks it unmistakably. It is one of the five great cities of the Middle Lands: Arda, the city of earth and stone and crystal. This one should be under the direct supervision of Sameth Gildorn, Lord of Earth, one of the two that remain of five.”
At the mention of Sameth, Atlas’s hand reached up to the black pearled device on his right shoulder. “We should not go there.” He said with pressing urgency, even fear in his voice.
Plâton laughed. “Why not? We won’t have the comfort of a city all the time we travel, you know. And at least here I would not be so worried about bringing the Guardians in after us. Woe be on Gladering, if they can’t stave off a powerful magus or two.”
But Atlas would not listen, instead he grabbed Plâton’s shoulder tightly. “We must not go! Sam is the man that killed me. He is too strong, we can’t get caught by him or his, we must go somewhere else!” His insistence was fierce and desperate.
Plâton looked at the smoke and then back to Atlas and then sighed. “Very well. I don’t think I need fear any man, even one who is part of the five keepers, but for you we will walk a different path. It seems to me like you deserve to be the one who finishes off Lord Sameth.” He looked up at the starry sky. “Besides, it seems like we need to pass the city by anyways, it lies to the west and we must go south towards the Rusty Shore if we hope to reach the last bulwark. Hmm… I have not walked the Middle Lands for many years, but I think I remember a small forest three leagues that way.
Erdwald, that was its name. Erdwald by the Ardenhills. If we make camp by the angel stones, we’ll have the forest between us and the city. Then we’ll head for Vanderfelden, we might be able to purchase some horses there.” He pointed south-west, Atlas recognized the direction by way of the blue star, one of the three marker stars that were used by seafarers to navigate.
“Still, wouldn’t we have been safer with our hosts for one night? How much of a threat could the Guardians pose to them?” Ayveron asked and looked at a strange whirring gadget he pulled out of his jacket just to put it away a few seconds later. Plâton looked back at the city. “I dared not overtax our dear host’s hospitality. They are good folks, but I must not ask for their help too often or risk alienating them, we will have need of their services again soon enough. Anyways we have to gather supplies, and if we can’t buy them in the next settlement, we will have to produce them ourselves the old-fashioned way,” he said with a smile. “Well, I will do most of the work, I suppose. Let me take a peek on what was so generously provided by our hosts first though…” He went through the backpack Archibald had provided for them, before packing it up again and shouldering it casually. “It will do.” And so they went on.