Chapter 22 - The City at the End of his Soul
I see the souls of mortal men
Beyond the veil that masks this world.
Though they may toil time and again,
What wondrous strive becomes unfurled!
- Sanatana in Heinrich T. Borgerat’s Glint
Everything was horribly still; frozen, much like the ground beneath them and the many broken chunks of ice that moved up and down with the waves all around the broad floe they stood on. Atlas’s eyes were wide as they took in the scene before him: Nanashi’s black robes, tattered before, were now also singed and smoking, and she was on the ground, petrified in a desperate pose, prodded up on her forearms and forelegs, her body arching over the precious bundle. Whether she and the child were dead or alive, Atlas could not tell, but the deafening thunderclap that had followed the blinding, forked beam of light did not bode well for them.
“Kathy! No!” he exclaimed in terror.
The bare foot on her back pushed her to the side and she rolled over limply, the bundle beside her. “Kathy’s dead, Atlas. Trust me, I was right next to her when it happened.”
The foot belonged to a man Atlas had once known well: Makani, Guardian of Lightning, one of the two closest protectors of Kathlyn, hailed as one of the most powerful lightning mages of the world. He had come to the tower with Kathlyn when she had still been a child, ever as close to her as a big brother.
“Makani…” Atlas said, his knuckles as white as his face as he clutched the handle of Aalandra with rising anger. “What did you just say?!”
“I heard Lord Gildorn hit you on the head pretty bad or something, but it looks like you can still take a hint. Good. I don’t like killing morons; makes me feel like I am wasting my time.” There were sickening yellow rims in Makani’s once beautiful dark eyes. His wild, brown hair blew gently in the breeze, his light, brown skin glistened in the spray, and his muscular, exposed legs and arms, covered only partially by short pants and a short-sleeved shirt now appeared more threatening than graceful. As a former magus of the island academy Ka Hale Akamai, he had learned to bend water, wind, and lightning to his will, depending on which element he attuned himself to. When taking on the responsibility as Guardian, he had focused all his efforts on perfecting his ability to manipulate the lightning element. All for Kathlyn, who he had raised in secret on a backwater island of the Ocean Belt way back when. Together with her surrogate family, he had taken on the role of her older brother, hiding her secret even from the Keepers for many years, trying to keep her away from the troubles of the world. When they finally caught up with her, he had stuck with her like glue, never leaving her side…
“And unlike you, I don’t enjoy killing old friends,” Atlas replied, “but, by the gears, I am glad you are making it so easy to get past that.”
“Then let us–” Makani’s eyes widened in surprise, as he was knocked to the side with a deafening bang and almost toppled over, only his martial training steadying his step as he reflexively lowered his body by bending his knees to compensate. Blood gushed from the side of his right arm and his eyes darted to the fresh wound as he instinctively clutched it; then to his assailant:
A couple of meters to his side stood Ayveron, a heavy looking gun in his shaking hands. Atlas was as surprised as Makani to see him there.
He turned his head to Atlas, his face as white as paper; not from rage, but from fear: “Atlas; Atlas, what do I do now?”
“What do you mean, what do I do now? Shoot him again!” Atlas yelled.
Ayveron turned his attention back to Makani, but it was too late: The magus had begun his intricate dance. There were many different schools of thought on how to best get the magic flowing, and around them, very particular regional traditions of magic had evolved all over Aqualon. In the magus academies of the Five Cities of the Middle Lands, it was traditional to learn old words of power to call forth magic, while the more exotic Yamato mages wrote little prayers and seals on paper tags they ripped apart. The mages of Ka Hale Akamai swam with the waves, danced with the wind, and stomped to the thunderclaps.
As Makani lowered himself further and performed elaborate movements with his body, only slightly hampered by the serious gunshot wound he seemed to ignore with all his might, visible static begun to crackle around him, and it was all too clear to Atlas that his increasingly swift and fluent motions made him a far too difficult target for Ayveron, who’s hands were still shaking and who didn’t look like an experienced marksman.
“Damnit!” Atlas yelled and lifted Aalandra above his head, speaking a silent prayer in his mind: protect Ayveron!
Chunks of ice around them liquefied and the water rushed towards Ayveron, forming a new frozen egg around him, before it dove below the blackish brine of the ocean.
“Hahaha! Idiot!” Makani yelled in ecstasy, and with a snapping motion, he pointed his good hand at Atlas, forks of blinding lightning erupting from it and striking him violently in the front.
There was no burning sensation, only the feeling of being punched violently in the back of the head as Atlas’s muscles seized up with the force of snapping boughs. He gritted his teeth so hard it felt like they were about to shatter, and he was tossed back, falling of the floe and into the icy, cold water. Surrounded by blackness for a moment, he felt his vision swimming, not because of the cool liquid around him, but because of the damage his body had taken. However, right in front of him, the sword still glowed brightly with the power he had violently extracted from the Great Clockwork, and he felt the ocean around him embrace him like an old friend, caressing his damaged muscles and nervous system like a loving mother. Up! He thought, and the water rushed upwards, carrying him to the surface. “As waters rise and travel far, I wish upon a falling star!” he chanted, staring intently at Makani – who was now below him, still on the floe with Nanashi’s body – but addressing Aalandra with his words. Dense fog banks rose from the surface of the water and flooded the air within seconds, rising higher and higher to the sky. Still carried aloft by the water that steadied and propelled him in a rising column, he was now invisible to Makani for the moment; enough time to consolidate his strength.
“It was difficult tracking you here, Lord Muundir,” a different voice came from behind him: older, sonorous, and dignified. “We sensed your soul all the way to Arkatrash, but after that brute killed Mella and Iskar, you just vanished from the map entirely. We couldn’t sense you anywhere; until a couple of days ago that is. Truly strange…”
Atlas spun around, and there he was: the other Guardian of Lightning, Emerich Gram Vul Dun, wielder of the Staff of Saxastrada.
And wield it he did: As Atlas turned around, it was already too late. “Grams raka gairm gu Saxastrada!” The middle-aged man with flowing black hair and chiseled, Skôtish chin was spinning the almost two meter long, black iron rod engraved with now blue glowing Angel Script above his head as lightning violently erupted in all directions, buzzing through the air and creating loud and threatening pops and crackles. Atlas barely had time to lift his arms protectively in front of this face, and though the water rushed to mimic his movements, forming a protective barrier, it was far, far too slow. A lance of thundering electricity pierced right through him and lit up the wave that carried him. Again, he felt like someone had struck him with a mid-sized building as all his muscles cramped up and he felt a daze as though he had breathed in vaporized metal that clung to the inside of his lungs, while the sharp odor of concentrated ozone rushed through his nose. In his mouth, he could taste the faint flavor of black smoke, and even the briefest contemplation on where that flavor might come from almost turned his stomach.
This time, he did not dive into the depths of his element. A violent thrust hit him right in the stomach, and Emerich lifted him out of the dispersing wave with the butt of the staff, which was apparently still charged and shocked him further, making Atlas’s limbs spasm pathetically.
<Not good… Everything is going numb…> he thought, still dazed. A small, chiding voice in his head told him that if he did not get his shit together right now, that would be it. Though… would that be so bad? The moment he had lost to Sameth, he had wished for nothing more than to die, and now he was finally about to be granted that wish. But was that still his wish? One prickly thought emerged from the thick haze that still threatened to drown him: What would happen to Ayveron if he died now?
His foot jerked up violently and kicked Emerich in the face, who was catapulted back with the cracking sound of a breaking nose, spinning out of control for a moment, while Atlas began to fall. He was still holding the sword tightly, and in its fading glow, he still held a significant fraction of his former power. He stopped falling, the water in his body now defying gravity, and he watched Emerich catch himself. He was floating too, utilizing a special kind of high-tier lightning magic that magnetized the bones.
Atlas made a wide gesture with his arms: “Trying to separate me from my element, Emerich? You should have done that before I saturated the air around here!” Cocky though he sounded, he knew that it was only a question of time before the pincer Emerich and Makani formed around him would snap shut and crush him. Surprisingly, no new attack had been launched by Makani yet, but perhaps the fog bank was enough to obfuscate the lower reaches of the battlefield. Still, it also meant that Atlas’s biggest attack was not going to find its mark in Makani anymore; an acceptable trade-off, since a new target was ripe and ready for the crushing right in front of him. “You know, I was going to do a clever bit about Makani not looking up despite my words, but I suppose you didn’t hear that,” Atlas yelled over to Emerich, building up his spiel. “So instead let me just say: peekaboo, old man!”
Emerich did indeed have a moment to look up as a sudden deafening roaring was exploding towards his general direction. Above him, a gargantuan, blazing ice comet, formed in the upper strata of the atmosphere, was rushing down with the explosive speed and force of a Valkyrie brigade of yore, hitting the surprised Guardian like a fist of stone hitting an ant, battering him towards the still ice chunk littered ocean.
Atlas’s wild grin broke as quickly as the foolish moment of relief he felt, when a figure rushed right over the curve of the falling star and straight past him, cutting a wide gash into his left chest and shoulder. It was only thanks to Plâton’s rigorous martial arts training that Atlas had moved slightly to the side in time to avoid getting his head split from the bottom up. He was still in quite bad shape though. He turned to see the next contender: Maya Sokolov, sister of Kenji. She was one of his two Guardians, the Guardians of Wind. Of course there were more. Gears forbid this should be in any way doable…
In her left hand, she held the Yamato-style shortsword often favored as a backup sword by the White Lancers of Aerialis, in her right hand, she held the staple weapon of the knightly order: the mighty terebra. This less than one meter long, drill-like one-handed lance used the power of wind-magic-based spell ink mandalas to spin at significant speeds, reducing its effective weight through angular momentum and serving as a hefty piercing weapon designed to break through walls of earth and ice as well as steel-wrought Angel Saxon armor. It howled like a signal arrow in full flight as the winds gathered to spin its outer shell, ready to pierce armaments and flesh.
Maya cocked her head to the side, her long white hair, so much like her brother’s, cascading over her shoulders as she spat derisively to the side, her gray eyes trained on Atlas. “Take a breather, Arashi, I’ll cut down this boy.”
Her voice was calm and dispassionate, and though she was at least two dozen meters away and the howl of her terebra and the violent up-winds lifting her wingwrap, the cleverly designed cloak of the White Lancers used for the art of wind riding, she sounded so clear and was so easy to understand that it seemed as though she was speaking right into Atlas’s ear. Wind magic.
Her words, of course, made it all to clear: Arashi Taira, her counterpart, was here also. In the back of his mind, Atlas thought he could vaguely sense where he was by way of his soul, though he tried to suppress that sense somewhat. Even though it would mean an advantage during the fight, sensing the souls that had been twisted and mangled by the yellow glimmer was far too much for him to handle.
Emerich was most certainly dead, so at least that boded well for Atlas, and the prolonged quiet from Makani’s direction made him think that perhaps, just perhaps, the gunshot wound Ayveron had inflicted on him had been far more severe than it had looked. Still, at least two more guardians were still very much alive and ready to kill him, and with the severe cut he had just suffered, on top of the multiple intense electric shocks, Atlas’s body was just about ready to give out, despite the constant healing Aalandra bestowed on him.
<Well… no way now but through…> he thought to himself, steading his sword with both hands while facing Maya. “Just you and me then? Pinky promise?” he asked with gritted teeth, trying to muster his best Plâton grin.
Maya readied herself. “Pitiful. Lord Gildorn sure did a number on your soul, boy.”
“Only one man in this world calls me boy, hag!” he retorted.
Her eyes narrowed. “Your sword sure shines now, but it looks nice and brittle to me. I think I’ll break it. And don’t think you have any hope of walking out of here. There are no more Guardians on the way, but the shadows are crawling with plenty of our own. You are done!” And as she spoke that last word, she took flight with the wind beneath her wingwrap, terebra howling and sword gleaming.
Atlas braced himself and managed to dodge the deadly thrust of the small lance, blocking the shortsword with Aalandra, the motion causing a sickening pulse of blood to rush out of his open cut. His still paralyzed arm was just another handicap that weighed him down like an anchor in this fight. Barely withstanding the initial impacts, he was no longer able to evade her foot as it rushed up to kick him in the chest-wound. He screamed, first seeing red, then encroaching black ink around the corners of his vision. Bad. This was bad.
He tried to gain some distance, praying, wishing for the water to save him, to protect him. But the bond he had reclaimed through boundless cascades of stolen power was waning quickly now, and he felt the end coming closer and closer.
The sounds around him had grown so dim, it was almost as if someone was pressing pillows against his ears, and his eyes too were barely keeping up with the fading scenery.
With a savage swing, Maya’s terebra rushed towards him but didn’t bludgeon his body, turning instead to Aalandra. The sword was struck and snapped in two, the upper half sailing away in a wide arc.
Atlas followed it sluggishly with his eyes; then he suddenly sunk out of the world. Before him, in a sort-of black-framed window, he could still see Maya, moving to cut him down with the shortsword. Was this it? Was this how he was going to witness his own death? Again?
A strange glow rushed past him towards the window to the world. As it did, he himself began falling faster and faster, until he dropped through the Great Gate, which closed shut before him as he fell onto the ground. But something was wrong; there was no snow.
Nanashi’s head was pounding. The sudden blinding light and deafening thunderclap had stunned her rather effectively; yet nothing more.
As she opened her eyes with some effort, she found herself lying on the icy floor, Kathy’s bundle besides her, sparks dancing around the smiling child’s face. Of course. There had been no chance of lightning harming her. The ur-soul of lightning, the catalyst for all lightning magic, was forever tied to her soul, and as such would keep her safe where it could. Apparently that protection had extended to Nanashi, for she felt, for the most part, unharmed.
Her eyes darted about and saw the bare legs of her attacker, dancing around in small puddles of blood, which were still being fed by large drops falling to the ground. Lightning arced around his slender limbs, and he was clearly preparing to unleash more destruction.
Due to an inexplicable fog that had spread seemingly everywhere, she could only make out his lower half, her view enhanced by the lighting he himself provided. Her movements would likely be concealed for a moment at least, so she rose to her knees, picked up Kathy, and placed her carefully a bit to the side so she would not be hit or stomped on; then, Nanashi rose to her full height and reached into that black void within her, cracking the fifth gate open. A wave of dark pressure erupted from behind her, washed over her body, and extinguished the lighting that was forming around her attacker like a candlewick being pinched by a denying hand. The dance-like movements of the feet before her stopped, and an ominous wind thinned the veil between them, revealing the bronzed figure before her, an air of surprise about him.
“You’re pretty sturdy,” he noted, sizing her up. “Or insulated.” He opened and closed his fist, inspecting his fingers, his eyes narrowing, “Or magically insulated. Oh, now this is rare…”
In his eyes, she could see it now: the yellow glimmer that had called her and her brothers to their quest. The glimmer she had first seen in the Uramachi of Yamaseki, infesting the higher-ups of the Black Market, and then in the Hall of Light of the Shadow Society…
“Well, well, well. I think I know which one you are,” he continued with a grin. “The one that cleaned out the Hall of Light, yes? So that’s what Atlas meant… of course…” He began looking around the floe, his eyes searching for something. Searching for Kathy.
Nanashi took a threatening step closer. “Stop! You have picked a fight with the wrong Null!”
“Oh, have I? Are you going to uh… nullify me like my kind in the Hall of Light? What a spectacular display indeed!” His grin grew wider, just as he saw her flinch.
“No…” she said evasively. “Never again… I… Arkatrash… All those people gone because of me…”
“What a clever little Null you are! I like killing clever things… It’s not boring.”
“ ‘We are older than all of you infants! Older than the world and all the worlds before it but one!’ ”, Nanashi said, eying him cautiously. “What does that mean? What ancient evil are you? Speak!”
His eyes narrowed again. “Who told you that?”
“A scumbag called Muramasa. Does it matter? It was one of yours, right? What are you? Are you one being, or many? What do you hope to gain from harming this world?”
“Muramasa, eh?” He looked to the side for a moment, apparently in thought. Then he smiled. “I see… yes, I see… If you want to know what we are, why not take us in and learn it first hand?”
“I decline. Use your words.”
“You’re less fun by the minute,” he noted drily. “Building the Great Clockwork was a mistake. A mistake we intend to fix. That is all there is to it.”
Nanashi’s eyes widened. That was certainly a lot more to take in than she had expected; she wasn’t even sure which question to ask next. “You… built the Great Clockwork?!”
“Not quite us, but the mankind we belonged to did. And once it was set into motion… Well, no need to bore you with the details. You’ll be all caught up once I give you a little jolt.” He bent his knees deep and then suddenly lunged for her with ferocious force.
Nanashi didn’t have any combat experience worth mentioning, and it was only thanks to daily practice back at the Eastern Black Sanctum that she was able to sidestep his attack. Ever trained in anti-magic combat, the Null were prepared for just this kind of situation. However, there were a couple of factors to be considered: What worked in Nanashi’s favor was the fact that her attacker seemed to have a savage wound in his right arm, which was bleeding profusely; what worked against her was her lack of combat experience and the fact that her opponent seemed to have significant martial training of his own. The way he used magic apparently also made him a dangerous close-quarters combatant, as he was swinging about in soft, dancing motions that ended in devastating whip-like snaps.
With her sidestep, Nanashi tried to move her hand in a hard downward chop towards his neck, but his good hand swung around his torso like a pullstring top, slapping her arm aside, and as he went down on his back in a strangely controlled falling motion, it bent outwards in a curve as he pushed his foot upwards to kick her right in the chin.
She was knocked off her feet and saw stars for a moment. Her jaw didn’t feel right. With no time to recuperate, she simply rolled sideways across the slippery floor, using her momentum to get back up on her feet. Where she had been, she saw a shimmer in the air, which popped out of existence quickly but had been of an unmistakable yellow hue. If her focus wavered for even a second and her null magic weakened, she would be done for. Some throwing knives would have been nice right about now, but she really only had one weapon on her person.
With trembling arms, she loosed and then raised the greatsword of Günter Oakenheart: Broad and heavy, but also reassuringly long. A bit of distance was just what she needed, though the significant weight of the weapon would exhaust her quickly…
The man didn’t make her wait but rushed her as soon as he was back on his feet, sweeping low for her legs. She dropped the blade down like a pole to force him to change direction and then ventured a kick herself, the tattered black robes flying around her as her foot crashed into his shoulder. She lifted the sword above her head and brought it down hard on him, only to have the blade bite into the ice, pulverizing a small chunk as if it had been struck by a hammer, her target already out of the way. He was spinning around to gain some momentum and obfuscate his movements further. The way he intermingled dance and deadly motion made it incredibly difficult to predict where he would strike or dodge next, and her window of opportunity was shrinking quickly.
Then, an ominous boon turned the battle in her favor: A deafening crash boomed towards them as what looked like a mountain broke through the upper strata of the fogbank and plummeted into the water, causing an immense tidal wave to rush towards the floe. They were done for. But the plagued one would go first!
As he turned his back to glimpse the tidal wave in surprise, the sword of Günther came down on him and split his head in two, spilling his steaming brains over the ice.
Nanashi shuffled over to where she had put Kathy, and to her great relief, the girl was still there. She picked her up with one arm and held her tight, holding on to the sword with the other hand as she faced the great wave heading towards them, chunks of ice like so many teeth in its gaping maw…
Everything was wrong. Was this really still his soulscape?
Before him, far-reaching uplands sloped gently up and down, covered in lush green pastures, and only in the far off distance could he see tall mountains, reaching up beyond a veil of clouds.
But this was not just a vast, empty land: far from it. Already right here at the mouth of the Great Gate, which was still firmly shut behind him, stood tall towers of strange design, one to each side of the gate, great metal balls at their tips like the mighty Molotov towers of Fulgrath, which were used to harness lightning.
From them, heavy cables extended, several dozen meters up in the air, traveling all the way to the mountains, held up in intervals by less intricate towers; wooden poles, really. And this was only the beginning, for he could see many buildings of strangely mismatched architecture standing close to each other, carpeting much of the hilly uplands. There were figures in the distance; people! People in his soulscape that weren’t him! Well… either that or the fragments of his existence had explosively multiplied. And while he did not dare to guess what that might mean for him, the thought certainly unsettled him, so he shook it off for now.
Still, something was very wrong. There was a city inside his soul, where there should only be a snow-covered mountain top. Something had mutated the soulscape. The reactor perhaps? Or had it been the doing of the black-pearled device? Atlas intended to find out. Though priorities had to be put in order first… He turned around and banged against the gate, testing if he could get back out. Right now, on the outside, in the real world, his body and the bodies of his friend were in grave danger. He didn’t really have the time for inward journeys right now.
The gate did not budge. After a few minutes of trying to fiddle with it, he gave the pointless pursuit up with a sigh and turned his attention back to the city, only to be startled by the sound of creaking metal as the gate opened.
He jumped around, just in time to see that it had swung open the tiniest bit. Perhaps if he got his fingers in and pulled… But instead, he stumbled backwards in horror, when he saw what came through the small crack: A glowing, yellow aura with tendril-like shapes extending from its being was squeezing through the crack and into his world. The glimmer was back! Everything would break again!
… Or so he thought. As the yellow glimmer seeped into his world, digging into the ground, scratching malevolently against the metal of the Great Gate, the strange towers lit up in an eerie green light, bolts of energy crackling across the surfaces of the large metal balls. The yellow glimmer was suddenly and irresistibly drawn towards these spheres, and as it moved in through the gate, it was violently sucked up and visibly transferred along the thick cables, traveling across the land towards the mountains, vanishing from Atlas’s sight; though not harming or infecting any part of his soulscape. Wherever it went, the whole spectacle seemed far too deliberate. It appeared as though the towers had been constructed for the express purpose of catching the yellow glimmer and directing it… elsewhere. But where? And who built them?
A sudden beam of green light cut through the cloud cover around the mountains and shone all the way to the outskirts of the city. As it burst violently against the ground with a hum that was audible even all the way over at the gate, a strange outline began to glow inside of its influence, and where it burned into the ground, a new building arose. When it was completed, the beam of light vanished.
Though distant, Atlas could see that it was a fairly large house in the architectural style of the Yamato people: Wooden-beam-framed walls and slightly curved roof-edges. It stood right next to an ostentatious white stone building with elaborate ionic orders, like they were often found in the city of Lumina Aka, and next to that stood houses of more obscure and heterogeneous styles yet.
“Hey!” Atlas protested to the clouds, “at least ask for permission before you start building projects in here!”
There was no reply.
Well, no direct reply. Something did actually happen: At the side of one of the towers, a door opened, and someone emerged. That someone was a woman. She had golden hair, much like him, though hers was braided and a tad bit brighter. Though she seemed to be a Middlish woman from the look of her, she wasn’t really the spitting image of Atlas, which, on top of the whole gender thing, led him to believe that she was not in fact a part of him. Those had generally looked exactly like him so far.
“This is private property!” he said indignantly while pointing his finger at her. “You are trespassing on my soulscape!”
She stepped closer, looking him up and down. One of her jade-green eyes had a keyhole. “You can’t… own a soul,” she noted with a raised eyebrow. “Well, unless you’re Vinclav. You’re not Vinclav, are you?” She rummaged in the folds of her Yamato garb, which was dark with red patterns embroidered into it and didn’t seem to quite match her nationality; though it did look rather good on her.
“I… no…” Atlas said lamely, but then caught himself again. “Well, you’re still trespassing! What are you doing here?”
“I wanted to see the machine in action, so I came up here to the gate,” she explained absentmindedly, at last retrieving a crumpled piece of paper, which she unfolded and then inspected carefully, looking up from it at Atlas and then back again, as if comparing the two.
“What do you have there?” he asked nervously. He was being scrutinized for some reason, even though he should obviously be the one doing the scrutinizing right now.
“Well I’ll be a murasaki moth’s aunt… Guess I better take you to the mountain,” she noted, giving a last comparative look to the paper and then him before she nodded affirmatively. She put two fingers between her lips and produced a powerful whistle. Out of thin air, a creature materialized from a distorted ball of light. It was a bayô, one of the goat-horses of the Yamato kingdom; not as good at sprinting as regular horses, but expert climbers and sought-after mounts. The woman stroked the animal’s throat gently; then hopped on its back. “You can sit behind me.” She pointed to her own backside.
“Alright,” he said, now with a threatening calm in his voice. “Alright.” It was not an expression of compliance.
“Alright,” she repeated, smiling at him in a way that was both jolly and coquet and made his stomach boil with blank rage.
“My name is Atlas,” he spoke now, his tone polite and almost free of that telltale tremble of suppressed fury, “who might you be?”
“Hello Atlas. I am… hmm… let’s say… Hinoko. I rather like that.”
“You very clearly just made that up.”
“It’s better that way, probably. I’m not really in the mood for reminiscing.”
<Getting angrier…> “Ah. Might I perhaps have a look at that piece of paper you found so fascinating earlier?”
She shrugged her shoulders and handed him the piece of paper. “You would have seen one sooner or later anyways. It’s plastered on most walls around these parts.”
“These parts…” he repeated with narrowing eyes; but he swallowed further comments for the moment, taking hold of the parchment she was now handing him. On it, there was a surprisingly accurate pencil drawing of him, below which a few words were written out in the Middlish tongue:
Name: Atlas Muundir
If you see this person, please see them escorted to the mountain top. The highest one, please.
PS: Please treat him with respect.
Atlas looked up from the paper, which had all the bearings of a truly strange wanted poster, and gazed at Hinoko, his brows furled in concentration. “It says ‘Please treat him with respect’,” he noted.
“Well, I may have lived in the Yamato Kingdom for quite a while, long ago, but in my book any instruction starting with ‘please’ is optional. Heh, drove those mountain kooks up the walls back in the day…” she said with a fond expression on her face.
“I thought you weren’t in a mood to reminisce,” Atlas said drily.
“Ah well, to err is human. So, are you getting on the bayô, or did I call her for nothing? Feel free to walk to the city and leave me to my own devices. Anyone you meet there will take you to the mountain, too; it really doesn’t have to be me. Also you don’t have to go. I mean, it’s a free soul.”
“It’s my soul,” Atlas noted.
She shrugged her shoulders.
“So I take it this is all just a big inconvenience to you?” he asked, his eyes narrowing.
“Well, kind-of. I did see the towers in action, so at least that bit is off my list, but I wanted to take a long, close look at that big gate over there.”
“Good.” He swung himself on the back of the bayô. “I feel like inconveniencing someone right now.”
It took only a couple of minutes before they reached the outskirts of the strange city. The fact that there were no roads or pavement between the many houses made it look only all the stranger. There were street lamps though, fitted with strange bulbs; electrical like the ones in Fulgrath by the look of them.
As Hinoko rode them along between the mismatched houses, Atlas glimpsed several people, who stopped to look at them. He recognized none, and his soul being this crowded made him feel uneasy. This place was quite confusing enough without a society suddenly living in it. When he spied one of the people stepping into a house, he put his hand on Hinoko’s shoulder. “Stop! Please, wait here for a moment.”
She reined in the bayô and let him get off its back. “Yeah, I’m sure you’ll get around just find from here on,” she noted with a wink. Then she rode off, back in the direction they had come from.
Atlas would have complained, but there were more pressing concerns to be addressed right now. He headed to the house he had just eyed, stepping to the door through which the person had entered. Taking a deep breath, he opened it. Behind the door, there was no house interior; rather, a green-colored ocean gently swayed with so many waves, stretching on seemingly forever. He closed the door again. Then he went to the next house, opening the front door of that one as well. A red barren, flecked with craters and pocked with jagged mountains was set against a black night sky with a million stars shining down on it. He closed that door as well. Then he put his back against the wall and slid down onto his bottom. The doors were all Great Gates, each house its own world, plugged into his for some reason he could not begin to fathom.
He needed a moment.
After a while of sitting there, sunken down and trapped in his own, circling thoughts, he felt a gentle tap on his shoulder. His right shoulder. It was the first time he realized that both his arms were healthy and working. He lifted them up to look at his hands in surprise. The paralysis of his right arm had been, as far as he could tell, caused by the black pearled device. But it was only a side-effect in the real world, while in here, it was the presence of that strange replacement spirit that had unbalanced and ultimately damaged his existence. Now, he was whole again, apparently.
He looked up, and for the first time since he had arrived, he actually did see a familiar face. But once again, it was not his own: Before him stood a young woman, looking not a day over twenty years, but possibly being no older than a hundred days. Her hair was long and white, and her clothes tattered and ragged. Her attentive eyes, which seemed to very actively inspect him, were the only thing that was off about her. They were cobalt blue and glowing, the look of spellblight about her evident. It was the blind woman, the one he had killed along with all the other people of Rim City less than an hour ago.
“Y-you!” he stammered. “How did you get here?! Didn’t you go to the Great Clockwork?”
“If I did, I wouldn’t be here,” she noted airily. “Have we met before?”
“You don’t remember me?”
“Only from the posters, and from the picture book of course… You looked sad, so I came over. Do you need help?”
He got up and looked her over, his brow furled. Perhaps she wasn’t the blind woman after all. She seemed… imperceptibly different somehow. The city had been a sort-of human manufacturing plant. Perhaps the people of each short-lived generation looked the same, and she was just one version of the blind woman from an earlier batch. “I… I suppose I should go up the mountain…” he mumbled. “Although… Do you know how to get out of here? Into the real world?”
“I’m not sure, do you have a body there? People here generally don’t. It tends to be a bit of a hurdle,” she observed with a carefree smile.
“I… do… probably…” he said, his mind reeling like a runner who had gone one mile too many. “No, wait…” His eyes widened. “Maybe I don’t! Is this actually the Great Clockwork?! Am I dead?!”
She looked up at the sky. It was covered in a thick layer of clouds, yet so bright, it appeared as if it was the middle of the day with clear weather for miles. “I don’t know about you being alive or dead, but this is not the Great Clockwork. That is kind-of the point of this place, isn’t it? Well, not this place specifically – this is the soulscape of a guy named Atlas Muundir. That’s you, right?”
“Well, if you were in the Great Clockwork, this place wouldn’t be here, and then I wouldn’t be here. Look, over there, that’s my house. It wouldn’t be here either.” She pointed at a concrete hole in the ground that looked like the entrance to the underground hall the Isotope Incubators had lived in.
Atlas’s stomach lurched.
“Here, take a look at the outside, that way you’ll know if you have a body to return to,” she suggested, rummaging through a sling bag that hung from her shoulder.
“I can look outside? That would be great!” he exclaimed hopefully.
From the bag she pulled a leather-bound book, holding it out to him.
He grabbed it, unsure what to expect, and opened it. It was a picture book of sorts, though the pictures were moving slightly. Flipping through the first few pages, he saw images that seemed very eerily familiar to him, and he felt goosebumps on his back. There was a beautiful, intricate drawing of a black field, and in it was he, on his knees and broken, bleeding. A man was standing in the distance, looking at him. On the next page, the man was closer, and then he was prodding Atlas up over his shoulders, then they moved on. The man was Ayveron. On the following pages, they wandered through the grass lands, until they arrived at a large rock upon which Plâton sat, smoking his long pipe. This picture book told the story Atlas had lived. Not from his birth, but from… From after he had been defeated by Sameth?
He went back to the very first page, and on it he saw him: the old man, dressed in a humble monk’s garb, tending a desolate monastery up on the Northern Waves of Yamato with no one else to share his company. In the very first drawing, Atlas was on his knees, holding his shoulder; his right shoulder. And though there was no text on the image, Atlas could hear himself speak as he stared at it intently:
“What… what is this, what have you strapped to my body?!”
And the monk answered: “It is… Nothing but garbage, I supposed. But it will knit your broken being for now. You were paralyzed before, now you can walk. It’ll do. And you’ll have to go right now too. They are coming…”
On the next page, he was handing a green letter to Atlas. Though the actual letter had not been green, he could see the point of the artistic license that someone had evidently taken here. Who had drawn all this? Again, in his mind, he heard the voice of the monk:
“Take this letter to the Greenhorns… Now, go!”
Atlas stumbled back, but was caught by the wall he had previously leaned against as he saw himself being kicked off the mountain by the monk. He looked up at the woman, bewildered.
“So, what is going on outside? I haven’t looked for a bit. I mean I should, it is rather interesting right now, isn’t it? But when you came in, the Great Gate over there opened up – well, it made me forget what was going on I suppose,” she said apologetically.
Atlas looked back at the book. “No… wait…” He leafed on ahead, passing through the incredible exploits of Plâton, Ayveron, and himself, until he arrived at Rim City, where he tried to just skip as many pages as possible. Lastly, he arrived at the moment Aalandra had been broken. His stomach suddenly seemed to collapse in on itself, leaving behind an empty pit and a sinking feeling. The sword, his beloved sword, his beloved friend had been snapped in two. What was he supposed to do now? It had been the most powerful asset still in his possession, and now it was as broken as he had been. Who could even re-forge such an item? It was an eternal artifact, supposedly unbreakable. But his own weakness had made it brittle; that and the immense power he had funneled into it to force it into action.
He turned the page and saw a stylized drawing of his slumped body in the middle of the air, while behind him an open gate had appeared. Through it, a translucent version of himself was falling out of the world, while a white shade crossed over and into his body. His eyebrows twitched. What was this? There had been something flitting past him when he had fallen, but had it been… this?
He turned the page again, and he saw another picture of himself in mid-air. But he had risen to his feet now. His hair was turning from golden to paper white, and his eyes, green before, were now also glowing brightly like the sun shining through two emeralds.
Maya was in the picture as well, and she had swung her shortsword at him, apparently to no avail, for only a small fragment was still attached to the hilt, the shattered pieces of the blade flying around it with savage sparks in the air, while his own expression was unfazed, even dispassionate.
He turned the page again, anxious to find out what was happening, but it was blank. He turned another page. Also blank. He leafed back to the last picture, and as he inspected it closer, he noticed that in addition to moving slightly, it was also still being drawn, little bits being filled in with confident and skilled brush strokes by an invisible painter.
“I don’t understand,” he said, looking at the woman in confusion. “Where is the rest? What is happening there right now?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know what you mean. That.” She pointed at the picture. “It’s still happening. – Oh!” Her face lit up in sudden understanding. “It’s because time moves very slowly here sometimes. Right now for example. It might take days before that business outside is finished. It’s easier on Mr. Ramboer, he says his hands cramp up when time passes too quickly. I don’t think that’s how hands work in here, but he insists on it.”
She pointed on the cover of the book. In faded letters, it said: artwork by Jan Ramboer.
“Well, that explains nothing,” Atlas noted drily. “But since I seem to have some extra time on my hands while something is apparently controlling my body, I think I’d like to go up the mountain now.”
“May I come along? I always wanted to see what’s up there. I’ve been in my house for a lo~ong time before it was built on this beautiful grassland here. Now that I can walk out and about I am very curious.”
He sighed. “Why not, you’ve made yourself quite at home already, uh… what is your name?”
“Momoka! Well… Technically it is one-hundred-and-three, but that woman you came with, she told me Momoka can be written as one-hundred-and-three and sounds much nicer. I think so too.”
“Of course your name is one-hundred-and-three,” he grumbled. “I mean, Momoka. Nice to meet you. My name is Atlas. You know what? Since we got quite a bit of walking and climbing to do, I wouldn’t say no to asking you a couple of questions on where you come from and how you are here. That sort of stuff.”
She nodded sagely. “Knowing more is better than knowing less.”
Atlas rolled his eyes. “Sure. Let’s go.”
They strolled past the houses and the odd onlooker until they reached the foot of the mountain. Time and space were rather inconsistent around them as reality was not much more than an afterthought in this particular non-location. Still, climbing that mountain was no easy task.
On the way, Atlas kept checking the leather-bound book regularly to see what was happening in the real world. Whatever the thing that had taken over his body was, it was certainly kicking the crap out of his attackers.
For an eternity, everything was dark, and it seemed to Ayveron as though he could hear the blood pumping in his own ears. After he had shot the man Atlas had called Makani, his friend had submerged him in a cocoon of ice; probably just in time to save him from what looked like some really nasty high voltage. Now he had to bide his time. Impotent.
He carefully stowed the gun back in its holster; then he rummaged gingerly through his backpack, until he laid hands on his dyno torch. Pulling it out, he started to squeeze the handle rhythmically, producing a slightly flickering but powerful light to elucidate his surroundings. The squeezable handle of the flashlight spun a flywheel, which in turn worked a small but powerful dynamo that powered the incandescent bulb.
Still, there wasn’t much to see. His accommodations were rather cramped, and the curved walls surrounding him on all sides were black mirrors against the bright light in his hand. When holding the mouth of the flashlight directly against the icy surface, he could project some of the light into the depths, and one time he actually thought he caught a glimpse of some marine life. But he didn’t get a good look. It could have been anything.
His entrapment did not last forever. Which was good, because he was pretty sure his oxygen would have run out in under twenty minutes. Significantly earlier than twenty minutes, his icy tomb rose from the depths once more – or at least it started shaking violently. Then, a blinding light engulfed Ayveron and he suddenly fell a full meter onto… onto literally nothing. He was easily one or two dozen meters in the air and just resting on an invisible plane. Just as he turned on his side gingerly, fearing he would plummet to his death any second, he saw Nanashi dropping out of a hole in the air, landing on her bum next to him, the baby wrapped tightly in her arms. He also noticed a distinct splattering of blood and undefined small chunks on the business-end of that large sword she had been carrying on her back. His eyes darted around, trying to scan the situation. There were a number of people present, all, to his great indignation, flying in one manner or another. A woman with white hair and the cloak and weapon of a White Lancer was giving a fierce look to a man next to Ayveron. A man that… was probably Atlas. Yes, that looked like Atlas. Atlas with the paper-white hair of a blighter. He turned to look at Ayveron for a moment, his eyes clearly glowing, but not the cobalt blue of spellblight. It was a brighter shade of Atlas’s usually jade-green eyes.
“Stay put for a moment, you two, will you?” he said, his voice sounding not quite like his voice.
Everything about him was slightly off.
He continued, his gaze turned back to the two strangers, one the White Lancer, the other also wearing a wingwrap, but wielding a freakishly long Yamato-style blade instead of a terebra: “I’m trying to make a good impression on my esteemed host, and any of you dying won’t do at all.”
Ayveron swallowed. What had happened to Atlas? What was going on here?
The White Lancer woman began vociferating with some serious vitriol in her voice. A voice that carried supernaturally well throughout the region, hitting Ayveron unpleasantly in the ear: “What in Helgard are you?! I just cut you open and shattered your sword and you blight and start teleporting people around?! Arashi, we kill him right now before he gets any weirder. That goes for the rest of you as well. Hit him with everything you have!”
The man with the long sword hollered back at her in a quizzacious tone of voice: “Take a breather, Arashi, I’ll cut down this boy.”
“Get over here and attack or I’ll shove a sack of potatoes up your ass and stomp on your belly until I have mash!”
That seemed to shut the man named Arashi up. The woman rushed towards Atlas, her terebra howling in the vortex that powered it. In front of her, a large, metal gate suddenly rose up out of thin air and opened up. Though Ayveron could not see the opening that was directed towards the woman, he could hear the strangest sound escape the large opening. It sounded almost like the beautiful, clean, and drawn-out vibration of a cello string. A light formed at the aperture and engulfed the woman in a blinding ray that shot out like a directed explosion. The gate closed and sunk back into an invisible pocket in the air. The woman was gone.
Ayveron scrambled back a few inches, but seeing how he was literally sitting on nothing, he didn’t feel confident enough about his current purchase to test its limits. Nanashi beside him looked utterly bewildered. A mirror, surely, of his own expression.
“She is right. You should show yourself. As long as you have souls, the shadows are a poor shelter against my sight,” Atlas spoke regally, apparently to no one. But as he did it, he lifted his hands and began to sing a couple of lines:
Into all the folds of time,
Through the broken veil I peer,
I’m looking for a soul of mine,
But all I see is growing fear.
Ayveron turned to Nanashi in a sort-of yelled whisper: “What is going on?!”
She gave him a brief glance; then glued her eyes back on Atlas: “You were here first, you tell me…”
As Atlas finished his dirge, movements became apparent below them as what seemed like at least a dozen people emerged from either the water or the shadows between the floes and chunks of ice. The way they appeared reminded Ayveron all too clearly of Ísa, and it was more than likely that these people were former shadow society mages, infected by the yellow glimmer.
Most of them caught themselves quite swiftly, vanishing moments after being shunned from whatever place they had occupied, and reappearing around Atlas’s general vicinity. They threw various projectiles at him, but Ayveron couldn’t really make out whether they were thrown weapons or incendiary devices. It did not matter at all. Gates appeared in all manner of angles around them, opening up, and incinerating them, or whatever it was Atlas did using those gates. Each gate that opened played a sort-of note, though not all of them sounded like cellos. Ayveron believed to hear other string instruments, wind instruments, and even what sounded like voices. Together, a strangely pleasant harmony emerged as the agents of the Shadow Society vanished.
In the end, only the man named Arashi remained, and he was very unscrupulously running, or rather flying, away.
Atlas turned to Ayveron and Nanashi, his cool gaze and glowing eyes driving the fear of Vinclav right down Ayveron’s spine. This was clearly it. He was going to die in a blinding flash of light.
“Clever guy. That one Guardian is running away. What is our policy on those guys? Do I let him or do I kill him?”
“Ah… I… Do you mean me?” Ayveron asked, feeling utterly paralyzed under Atlas’s dispassionate stare.
“I don’t know… I mean… It would be bad if he got back to his superiors… On the other hand.”
“Alright, I get the gist. You dislike giving kill commands.”
Another light erupted in the distance.
“It is done. Where do I put us?”
“We’re in the middle of the air and Atlas can’t actually fly. You probably can’t either. Where do I put us?”
“Atlas… What is going on?”
“Hmm. That is probably a story for another time. There is some undamaged land to the South. Perhaps somewhere there?”
“Uh… there should be some sort of train there…” Ayveron said lamely.
“Train?” Atlas replied, puzzled for a bit, then he nodded, “Ah, yes. One moment.”
A gate appeared below them and opened up, blackness below them. Then it started to glow.
<Oh gears, this is it! Here I come great-grandma!> Ayveron thought. But he was not disintegrated. He, Nanashi, and Atlas simply fell through the gate and landed on soft grass. The ocean was still visible in the distance, chunks of ice floating around, and amongst them was the broken remnant of a once mighty bridge. To the other side, not far ahead of them, lay a mighty chasm and some Rim City facilities that looked far more pristine than what Ayveron had seen in the actual city.