It was the strangest creaking of age-old metal, stressed and yet sturdy in its moaning. It made Atlas feel safe and content somehow, it sounded to him like a murmur of ancient might that slumbered all around him.
If he opened his eyes, he would see them: the gears and turning pillars and pendulums of the Great Clockwork. Being there and yet not, melting seamlessly into the air and ground all around. It was Plâton who made that clockwork visible to Atlas, but such was only possible since Atlas had already laid eyes on it before, or so Plâton claimed. Ayveron could not see or hear it, so at least there was that to support Plâton’s claim.
He opened his eyes and the sound of it, the sight of it, all of it awakened feelings and memories Atlas had thought forgotten. Indeed he had lived deep inside of the Atlas he had been before the fight with Sam, before that yellow glimmer had torn him apart. He had been the watcher of his own life, barely participating, only observing with a sleepy curiosity, lending power when it was needed the most. Such was his nature, the nature of a soul.
Moving, living, breathing, and interacting with the world, that was the nature of spirit, the part that no longer was there and that had made him take over. What he had lived through before this break was to him as a half remembered dream, and with every step he took, through memory and through Plâton and Ayveron who were now traveling with him, bright speckles would appear or reappear on the blank canvas of his character.
Yet he could not summon the power that Plâton wanted him to summon and there was a good reason for that.
“Ayveron,” he said, “could you tell Plâton how you found me? What did you see when you first laid eyes on me?”
Ayveron dimmed his strange spark torch that he had used to weld pieces of long, thin copper together and looked up through thick, shielded glasses. “How I found you? Ragged and barely conscious but standing there, as if struck by lightning. But err… what was truly strange was the ground, all black and crusty… Is that what you wanted me to mention?”
Atlas nodded, his eyes closed again.
“You know,” Plâton said ponderously, “when the old man kicked you off that mountain, you did vanish in midair. I had to look very hard to find you again and you had moved far away in an instant it seemed.”
Atlas nodded again. “Yes. But it was not in an instant. I turned at the Great Clockwork and walked through the air, stepping on it as time around me froze solid; and when I reached that field where Ayveron found me, it snapped back into the right rhythm and the world nearly tore me apart, flesh and bones. It was she who healed me; mostly. She turned all the water around me into black ash for that.” As he said that, he gently touched the hilt of the sword on his back. “Just another stubborn creature that won’t let a forlorn soul go to its well-deserved rest. To do all that, I had to use this damned thing.” Now his hand slid down to his right shoulder, the palm disdainfully clutching the bulge of the black-pearled device. “And once I had used it, it wanted more of me, much more.
The old man said that it is made from salvage. I am not quite sure what the meaning of that is specifically, but whatever it is, it is dark to my eyes and it makes me pay dearly for its service. It is the replacement for what I no longer have; a poor replacement, but one that works nonetheless. When I arrived on that field, it nearly consumed me, and the other pieces of me that remain closed the gate and froze it shut. I cannot let the might flow out of that world and into my body, Plâton, because the gate that leads there is closed and I cannot simply open it again. I do not even remember the way back there anymore. … the way back home…” With that Atlas fell silent again, listening to the creaking, a strange, bitter taste in his mouth.
“Well, then why didn’t you say that right away!” Plâton laughed again. “We have to get that gate open as soon as possible.”
But Atlas shook his head. “We cannot. Not yet. Until I know how to control this thing that has been grafted onto me, I cannot risk unleashing it again.”
Now the man sighed, for all the world sounding quite old all of a sudden. “Stand up then. I’ll stick to drilling the forms into your sorry body for the time. And the story; that I’ll continue as well. It might be just the right thing for you to know how I faced my demons.”
Atlas opened his eyes and stood up, briefly he could see the gears again, but then Plâton let them fade. “Very well”
Plâton unsheathed his own sword. It was unusually long and slightly curved as was custom in the Yamato Kingdom. “Draw your sword, I want you to be able to use that one at least,” Plâton commanded.
Atlas looked at him intently. “I cannot do that either,” he said, suddenly sounding tired.
“Why in Helgard not?!” Plâton asked, his anger flaring up.
Suddenly Atlas felt sorry for being such a bad disciple, even though it was Plâton who had offered his services and not Atlas seeking them. “I cannot draw the sword because it is still in mourning over my loss. My loss is her loss as well and she has not stopped crying since,” he explained.
“The sword is crying?” Ayveron now asked incredulously. Atlas looked at him. His strange goggles had black, shielded glasses and a metal frame, and his tough brown hair was strangely wild, as if it was partially standing up.
“Hmm,” said Atlas, “Maybe it is too quiet for you to hear… Here…” he unsheathed the sword just a little bit so some of the blade stuck out. Immediately there was rain all around them, pouring like waterfalls and as if it had been raining all this time without interruption, and a roaring as deep as the sea and as bright as the tinkling of a mountain spring pierced the dark shadow that the torrent had cast over them. Atlas sheathed the sword again and the rain was gone and even their clothes that had been instantly soaked through were dry again.
“Oh. So that’s what that was back in the city,” was all Ayveron said to this and Plâton sighed once more.
“Only the kata then,” he said with resignation. And so Atlas resumed training the kata of five elements that Plâton had shown him before.
It was quite a while until Plâton ended the session and Atlas was exhausted and sore. Plâton had used the time to prepare something to eat and he spoke as they all partook: “What I showed you earlier was not just for you but for me as well, you see,” he spoke tiredly, staring into the campfire with a strange look on his face. “I had to see it for myself: the Great Clockwork has begun to change. It is ever-changing of course, but this time the nature and scope of it is different; gears are shrinking and vanishing where they should not. There are dark times ahead for all of us, but especially for those that lie behind us. It feels like the Middle Lands are about to plunge deeply into a cataclysm, one I cannot fathom.”
Atlas spooned some of his soup, blowing on it before he drank up. “The ten that are chasing me,” he said after a bit, “the ones you referred to as ‘hounds’. I could feel them too when they were closing in. They have the same sickness that Sam had when he… when he killed me. I am afraid that it might be spreading, that it might envelope the Middle Lands; it was the fear of the true Atlas, to be precise, the part that is gone now. He chose self-annihilation to allow me to stay behind and deal with this: A power much different from anything he had seen before at the time… It was vile, evil, and his fears are now mine.”
Plâton looked at Atlas with the strangest eyes. It wasn’t like him to appear so tired and worked up. “Well, when that part of you vanished, it took quite a bit with it, at least that’s the way it seems to me. Existence is all that makes us human and powerful in this universe and yours is ripped open like a wound. It is no wonder that you cannot call forth any form of magic, even one as primal as the one I wanted for you, to make you strong,” he said, the years weighing on his voice.
“How does he get strong then?” Ayveron asked. He didn’t sound like he was really a part of the conversation, more of an observer, stating a question out of curiosity. That being said, Atlas could sense his honest worry, and it somehow comforted him.
He looked back at Plâton. It was a question he would have asked as well, since apparently he would need great power at some point. Plâton sat up straight. “Power has many forms,” he said and the iron-clad confidence had returned to his voice, his charisma firing up once again. “You may think that Taishôgeki is just the fighting power I demonstrated to you; you would think wrong. It is a way of life. A magus will learn to bend his soul and in that bend his environment to his will over the course of his life time. A warrior will learn to wield a weapon and make it part of his body, a technocrat will master one or more of the many branches of science to understand the world in its intricacies. The ability of humans to specialize in any field or activity gives them great control over their environment, their lives, and the lives of others. But it often makes their gaze grow narrow, they forget to look to the sides, they forget to look back, they forget about a world of knowledge and wonders as they focus on their one calling. Taishôgeki is the Great Impact, and it is as the impact of a stone on the surface of a pond. If you plunge a stone into a pool of water, the ripples will spread in perfect circles and at one point cross the entire pool, meeting all of the shore.
If you draw a small amount of wisdom from every place, from every step you take, from everything you see, those tiny shards may appear weak compared to those who study one thing all of their lives, but those little bits will grow, slowly, and they will begin to synergize and resonate and form a whole, more powerful than any force on this world. It is a power that anyone can reach for, anyone at all, if he just accepts one simple idea:
To master not any field that he chooses but to master the human condition.
If I cannot teach you to release the power of your soul into this world, I can still teach you strategy, how to play an instrument, how to cook, how I have learned to view the world through Taishôgeki and what lies beyond it, how the gods of the North live, how to fight with nothing but your body; and I am sure Ayveron could teach you about gyrometrics far better than me. If you draw wisdom from all the sources you can, it will synergize and you will be strong. Not because you can lift a heavy stone up from the ground, but because you will have learned how to elevate your mind.”
Somehow Atlas felt as if he had been taught a valuable live lesson up front for once as opposed to his usual suspicion that Plâton was trying to trick him into learning something. He tried to memorize Plâton’s words as best he could, pondering on their meaning. He thought about learning how to cook. “And will knowing these things help me defeat dark forces; forces strong enough to make the five keepers crumble?” he asked in a tone that made clear he was unconvinced.
Plâton shrugged to that. “Probably not as directly as you think. But knowing these things may lead you to a greater understanding of what you need to do and where you need to go.
People rarely make the right decisions because they are strong on the outside; if they make the right decisions, it is probably because they are strong on the inside.
I cannot make you strong on the outside right now I fear, at least not as much as you may need, but I can try to make you strong on the inside. … And who knows,” he added, “you still have that letter you are supposed to bring to Borealis. Maybe they can offer you the power you need to win this fight. If I have learned one thing in this life, then that technocrats are crazy.”
“Hey!” Ayveron shouted, looking affronted, “don’t make me blush, old man! Flattery will get you nowhere.”
“That was the weirdest pronunciation of ‘everywhere’ I have ever heard to date,” Plâton replied with a grin.
Atlas absentmindedly stroked over the place on his sturdy jacket where the parchment was pocketed. The jacket along with a durable, yet comfortable outfit had been packed in the supplies provided by Archibald, and they mysteriously fit him rather well. As for the parchment, well, the old man from the mountain had given it to him, just before he had kicked him of that very peak, but never had he mentioned what was written inside or why he should take it where he said he should, only that he would find what he needed in Borealis. He hadn’t actually said to take it to the Greenhorns, but that is what it said on the front: to the Greenhorns.
A strange silence dragged on for quite a while, one that felt like all three of them were lost in deep thought, until Ayveron finally broke it: “Weren’t you going to continue the story?” he asked hopefully.
Plâton smiled. “Ah, yes of course. Where was I again? …
The ascent took a great, long time. The winch moved us up slowly and the tree was gargantuan, even more so when seen close up. It was like a giant’s arm that reached into the clouds, holding the great castle in its palm, the crown.
Little did I know what kind of future this winch was carrying me to, little did I know of the hardships to come and the cruelty of the old gods. All I thought to know at that time was that I was safe with Freyja, and I stood closely by her as I watched the meads and farmlands underneath grow wider and the harvesting machines and livestock smaller.
In the distance I saw more and more of the Small Woods - that was what Freyja had called them - but in reality they were as vast as a dark green ocean of trees, betraying their name, and what was more, there were a great many five-sided glades with flickering blue lights inside. “What are those specks of light?” I wanted to know.
Mother looked down at the Small Woods and weighed her head times left, times right. “Well, those are gateways to Midgard, the world that you come from. The living such as us cannot pass through them, but the souls of the dead do. Those who honor us still that is:
Make sure to keep these things and check
For pocket knife,
For water skin,
For safety of your hearth and kin,
And for the afterlife:
A lodestone kept around your neck.
It is my task to guide the souls who adhere to this to the afterlife, the realm of Hel.”
I nodded. “What is it like; the afterlife?” I wanted to know then. She gazed at the blue lights in silence for a while. “That is for the dead to know and for us to learn. I may be immortal, but I feel that one day even I may know, perhaps when the world finally crumbles to dust and time comes to an end…”
It seemed that I had started a train of thought in her that went off into the distance all too quickly and her gaze wandered up to the sky that was ever shrinking under the tree’s canopy towards which we were moving.
“Oh,” she then said, a melancholic smile playing about her lips, “but these souls go to Helgard of course, that is a place I know. A waystation to the afterlife you might say. It is much like this place: Unchanging, boring, another trap of immortality one might say.” And more she would not reveal then.
After what seemed like hours, we finally reached the crown and went through thick layers of branches and leaves as broad as a grown man. Even the journey through that thicket took quite a while, but once we were past it, we reached the castle gate.
It was beautiful and grand and obviously built by true masters who wanted their names to echo through history. Freyja told me some of their names: Fjötl of Forty-Four Hammer Strokes, Bearin of One Hundred Hammer Strokes, and Minnewalt of One Hammer Stroke, as we stepped before the great gate. It was made of age-old wood and engraved over and over with Nordic runes, which had been filled up with precious gold. This was the fabled angelscript, the ancient art of magic of the Angel Saxons.
There was a smaller gate at the foot of the left wing, no doubt to let single persons and smaller groups in. Freyja took hold of a heavy iron ring and knocked three times. – Oh yes, iron, for you see the Angel smiths get their iron and steel from Asgard, the only other source of it apart from the Iron Belt and the walls of the Spiral Sea –. For a moment nothing happened, then a deep, booming voice spoke: “Who wishes to enter Odenheim?”
“Freyja, mother of Hnoss, mother of Gersemi, mother of Plâton, Lady of the Small Woods.” When she spoke my name, she looked down at me briefly, and I felt as if I had been vouched for in front of a great power. The small gate opened to let us enter the castle, which I now knew was called ‘Odenheim’…