Chapter 26 - The Long Road

Black as loch in Saxon land
The mist will gather glen to glen,
And shine like rainbow luster where
The Angles live in stony halls.

- Old Skôtish Nursery Rhyme

  Atlas

Atlas coughed violently, clutching his chest as his muscles burned and his bones ached. “Argh!” he hacked.

No one called out his name, no one rushed to help him. When the episode had ended, he loosened the fingers he had curled fiercely around what he now realized was the Staff of Saxastrada. He looked up, still shaking slightly with exhaustion. Ayveron was there, and so was Nanashi, Kathlyn in her arms. “Ayveron…” he said, his voice scratchy, “are you alright?”

“Am I alright?” Ayveron asked incredulous, “are you alright? Your hair just un-blighted! Also, you acted very terrifying a couple of minutes ago. And before that you summoned, uh…”

“A comet,” Nanashi chimed in.

“A comet, I am told.”

Atlas got up, deciding to prod himself against the staff for convenience. “These things happen,” he said, trying himself at a disarming smile.

Ayveron shook his head. “I get it. You’re the Lord of Water. All hail to the master of the ocean. But putting the comet aside for the moment, what was up with the blighting and the vaporizing?”

Atlas rubbed his aching head. “Vaporizing? Is that the same as disintegrating? The White King said disintegrating.” His brow furled. “Think, Ayveron, if they had been vaporized, there would have been vapor.”

“For gear’s sake, Atlas, if they had been disintegrated, they would still have been broken down into something; it means their integrity would have been undone!”

“Uhhhh…” Nanashi tried to interject, but it just faded into the background of Ayveron’s spiel.

“If, as you are implying, they had been completely erased, that would mean their matter had been somehow turned into energy and dispersed, so the correct term would be annihilated.”

“Annihilated,” Atlas repeated blankly. “I did that.”

“You know, it looked a little bit like that, but in a much more prominent way it looked like you didn’t do anything after whatever happened to make you blight. So, there you were, talking like Borgerat’s Vinclav with a touch of psychopath, annihilating people left and right, and I thought to myself: Well, maybe he went crazy after murdering that city and then thinking he saw a baby killed in front of him, but then you didn’t know my name and referred to yourself in the third person. And just now you said something about a ‘White King’.”

“He was in the black pearl, now he’s on my soulscape.”

“Who is he?”

“I don’t know. But he has a nation. It’s also on my soulscape. Or at least some of it. The rest is still moving in.”

“And that does not alarm you?”

Atlas gave Ayveron a long look; then tried to get his bearings. They were on a wide meadow, the ocean in the distance behind them. Large chunks of melting ice with debris in them were strewn across it like erratics. Looking forward, he saw the landmass transition into metal, giving way to the Walls of the Spiral Sea, an iron casing for the ocean that led up to the South Pole. On the outskirts sat an impressive installation, comprised of a large hall with a rounded roof, a broad, paved street leading up to it, several large vehicles, some houses, and more erratics, which had severely damaged most of these things. Also severely damaged by the debris was a several hundred meter long thing perched on the metal, which looked much like a sleeker yet more massive version of the bullet train. Lightning erupted around certain broken parts of it sporadically.

“Ayveron, I think our train is broken,” Atlas noted anxiously.

“Oh, is that your expert opinion? What gave it away? The several tons of ice around its crushed segments or the high voltage discharges?” Ayveron replied with considerable snark.

“Well, how are we going to get to Borealis now? This was supposed to be the infrastructure to get us there!”

“Maybe you should have thought about that before smashing it up then!”

“I did what I had to, Ayveron…”

“I wonder if Hestia Bygate said that after blowing up Estverde!”

“Wow. That… seems a bit uncalled for…”

“Really, you feel a Hestia comparison is uncalled for after you destroyed an inhabited city?”

“Well for one thing, I didn’t kill those people because they were my enemies.”

“You know how that sounded, right?”

“They were literally bred to suffer and we lacked the time, power, and expertise to start a revolution or something and take out whatever place they made new people to replace the old ones.”

“Well, it certainly sounds to me like that would have been a thing worth at least trying.” Ayveron was really starting to get riled up.

“I couldn’t have spent another day in that city, Ayveron.”

“Why the gears not?!”

“Because… I’m not strong enough. Look at me. I started this whole journey with a knife in my back. My best friend broke my soul, and every time it came close to mending, it got cracked again right away. First Arkatrash, now Rim City… And you’ve already gotten a glimpse at what has crept in through those cracks. ‘Borgerat’s Vinclav with a touch of psychopath?’ You don’t know the half of it. That thing in me was half a line short of offering me a Glintian bargain. Which is somewhat ironic, seeing how it sure doesn’t feel like it needs my permission to do with my soul what it wants.”

“Ah. I see.” Ayveron replied succinctly. His expression had turned inscrutable, waxen.

Nanashi pointed to the east, drawing their attention: “I think transportation won’t be a problem.”


Atlas let out a grunt and winced, stumbling backwards. Ayveron even managed a girlish scream, but Nanashi, who had announced their new company, just stood there, waiting gracefully.

Still, Atlas’s and Ayveron’s reactions were somewhat excusable. After all, they were tired and beaten, and a seven meter long, giant winged monstrosity had just locked onto their position, now flapping in for a landing before Nanashi, whose hair flew around violently in the wind as the artificial gale knocked Atlas and Ayveron down. Six slender legs set down on the ground gracefully as the three pairs of green, blue-patterned wings that were stacked along the long, furry trunk came to rest, and large, curious, facetted eyes beheld them. It bowed in closer and one of two furred, almost feathered-looking feelers crept down towards Nanashi, brushing over her face.

“Get up, you two. This is no wild beast; it is the moth of Sagamund Greenhorn.”

“This is a.. a moth! A Yamato moth?!” Ayveron said excitedly and hastened towards the beast, all fear suddenly replaced by curiosity. “By the gears, I’ve read all about those creatures in the Codex Riccardium! And that’s larger than a war moth. Is that a living, breathing dragon moth?! I thought those were extinct!”

Atlas was surprised time and time again by how Ayveron’s thirst for learning and seeing new things seemed to be stronger than any hindering emotion or caution. Though, as Ayveron quickly drew closer to the moth, it leaned back and flaunted the patterns on its wings, causing him to stop in alarm.

“Perhaps you should approach slowly, or it might mistake you for an attacker,” Nanashi suggested drily, carefully patting the moth’s head.

Atlas, too, got back on his feet and stepped forward to inspect the creature up close. “It’s gargantuan!” he said in awe and admired the pattern on its wings. “Ayveron is quite right, no one has seen any of these since the Great War. The Angel Saxons led extinction campaigns against all mountable moths in Yamato.”

“Look at the fur on its trunk! The topography suggests that it conceals scales of some sort!”

“It does,” Nanashi admitted. “I have ridden on its back once, and there are indeed scales underneath. I think the fur sprouts out from in-between the segments.”

Atlas held his hand up as well and felt the feeler brush against it. It then proceeded past his arm and stroked over his backpack: It was where he had stuffed the cylinder containing Sagamund’s brain at the expense of some of his gear. Ayveron had taken as much of that as had fit into his own backpack, the rest they had left behind in Rim City.

“Do you think it recognizes its master?” Atlas asked Nanashi.

She shrugged her shoulders. “I would not know. But I am guessing it remembers my smell. I wonder where it hid for such a long time…”


Getting on the moth’s back was no easy task due to its size, and even when they reached its back, Atlas had his suspicions on whether Nanashi had any idea how to steer it, though she did find a pair of reins near the head.

After Atlas had taken a look around he raised a brow: “What are those, chairs?”

Nanashi nodded. “Of sorts. I sat in one of those when I rode on this moth. You can strap yourself in – and should! The ride can be turbulent at times, and all the wind might sweep you off the moth’s back. Check all the pouches and satchels tied to its side!”

Atlas and Ayveron obeyed and found instruments, foodstuff, and even filled water skins.

“What good fortune!” Ayveron said and handed Nanashi some stale, crusty bread and a slightly shriveled nantama fruit.

“Nantama! I did not think I would eat one of those again so soon!” she said joyfully and took a hearty bite.

“Maybe we can use these against the wind,” Atlas suggested. He had found a stash of leather-rimmed goggles in one of the satchels, enough for the three of them. He handed them around. “So, what now?” he asked.

Nanashi pointed at two of the backseats; there were a total of four, though they were not elevated but simply tied around the moth’s trunk. Atlas and Ayveron took a seat and strapped themselves in.

“This must be a very strong creature if it can bear up to five and provisions.” Atlas noted, looking at Ayveron, very much expecting a long explanation, but he just shrugged his shoulders.

“Biology is really more of an interest than something I actually studied, and the Codex Riccardium was a bit vague on the Ryûga, the dragon moths. The war moths, yarenma, and murasaki moths have large floating bellies with lifting gas inside, which allow them to have larger bodies with less total weight, but the dragon moths are different. The Greenhorns of old used ancient technamagix to breed those; no one knows quite how they tick anymore,” he apologized.

Nanashi strapped herself in the front and looked around somewhat clueless. “Uh… Sagamund Greenhorn’s moth, will you not rise and take us to the city of Borealis? We bear your master’s brain and hope to return it to his people,” she said to the moth.

Ayveron and Atlas exchanged a meaningful glance: This was her plan? Ask nicely? Clearly there had to be some handling trick to– and the moth’s wings began to flap. It went down on bent extremities and propelled itself up with its six legs, using the momentum to take flight: At first slowly and clumsily, but then it quickly increased its altitude, gliding from time to time, flapping at others, seemingly in search for warm air currents to carry its massive body up. In fact, it seemed to be able to retract and push out its wings to some extend to increase and decrease its wingspan, and from time to time, ominous hissing sounds erupted from its underside as though gas was escaping from between the scales. Ayveron soon theorized that, when fully expanded, the wings were too large to push against the air, so the moth extended them to full size when gliding and retracted them to flap.

The feeling of flight was quite invigorating, though after a time, Atlas began to grow tired of the wind chill and the thin air. It also was difficult to breathe while air was streaming around him, though thankfully the moth did not fly at great speed, so it remained somewhat manageable.

The moth took them along the broad ocean strip that veered off slightly southward from its general eastward heading, and after what seemed like hours, a small island came into view.

It looked warm and comforting, yielding sandy beaches and palm trees, and was apparently the destination of their mount, which slowly spiraled down, until it landed on one of the beaches.

Once they had dismounted, the moth slowly moved along into the thicket of palms, vanishing inside the forest. They were now on the Spiral Sea.

“Well, at least it didn’t fly off right away…” Ayveron noted, slightly uncomfortable with the departure of what was likely to be their only life-line right now.

“I do not think it would leave us here,” Nanashi noted, looking around. “It seems to be much more intelligent than I gave it credit for initially. Maybe Sagamund Greenhorn made improvements to its brain…

It certainly picked a good spot. We can rest up here and gather provisions. The South Pole is very far away, and what little is left in the moth’s luggage will not serve us for long. Do you two have any experience with fishing or foraging?”

Atlas and Ayveron exchanged a meaningful glance and Ayveron said: “Define ‘experience’,” while Atlas simultaneously said: “No.”

Her left eyelid twitched slightly. “I see… It is a miracle that you two are alive…”

Now both of them looked at the ground saddened. “It was more of a miracle worker…” Atlas said quietly.

Just as she opened her mouth to reply, Ayveron interjected: “Well, since I do have my tools with me, I should be able to fashion a fishing rod. I don’t have any carbon rods to spare, so maybe one of you could procure a stick while I craft a proper fishing hook from copper wiring?”

She nodded slowly. “We can do that… In fact: Keeper, go look for a long stick, I will see what kind of food can be gathered on this island. Though I know not too much of plants that grow in this kind of climate…”

Atlas agreed and followed her into the woods where they split up after a while.

The palm trees didn’t really yield branches; they had ringed stems with broad leaves at their top and curious wooden fruits that did not look edible to him. But soon, he discovered a grove of young trees. They were still rather broad-trunked for rods but would do the job in a pinch; and perhaps he could split them or whittle them down.

He inspected a thinner one that seemed to have the right elasticity and girth but doubted it would yield a long enough stick, until he had the bright idea that the heavy leaves could just be tied together to extend it if only he could procure a rope. Perhaps there was one in the satchels of the moth… but where had it gone?

After deliberating for a while, he dug out the tree, which took significant effort and bloodied his hands a little, since he had to pull it out with force. Then, with his haul hoisted over his shoulder, he went deeper into the forest, looking for the moth.

Fortunately, he picked up its trail quickly, for it was a beast of great size and power and had mowed a path clear through the thicket. It had created some sort of nest out of fallen and plucked palm leaves of which it was also currently eating one, chewing on it for nourishment.

“Hello, moth,” he said carefully. “Might I look through your satchels? I need a rope.”

It fixated him with a regal gaze while chewing on the large palm leaf. Well, technically it was difficult to determine its exact field of view since it had large facetted eyes, but its head had moved slightly to point straight at him. Slowly, he edged closer, and even more slowly he slid around it, prying through the nearest satchel, though it did not yield the bounty he sought. After a few tries, he came across a fine shishisô rope, just right for his purpose. After closing the satchel back up, he inched away from the giant moth, bowed uneasily, because he was not sure how intelligent it was and what kind of etiquette it expected, and then strode back towards the beach while tying up the young palm tree, wrapping the rope tightly around the strong and broad leaves, creating a rod suitable for a fishing pole.

Soon he was past the palms and set foot on the warm beach, where Ayveron was immersed in some fine metal work, fiddling on a long metal implement with a bubbling, clear cuboid attached to its hilt. Just as Atlas approached to bring the rod over, Nanashi too emerged from the palm grove, carrying an armful of the wooden fruits. As the three of them met there on the sand and the sun slowly set before them, Atlas could not help but marvel at the strange and novel peacefulness of the scene that unfolded around him. When had he last felt like this? He could not remember…


Din

Din gasped for air. “Why is it difficult to breath?! It should be easier at ground level than up in the monastery!” She fiddled with her tragus, trying to get her hurting ears to pop. At least that part was to be expected. Not because it made logical sense, which it technically did, but because it sucked.

Takagi seemed to have fewer problems with the rich forest air they were now breathing. “It is much more humid here… And there is… more stuff in the air,” he explained quietly. “Perhaps you are allergic, master… Should I prepare you a wet cloth to breathe through?”

She lifted her hand to wave away the notion.

There was a cacophony of new sounds, beating down on them after the – at worst – windy quiet of her prior dwelling: a plethora of bird calls, the ominous sounds of foxes – at least Din hoped they were foxes and not women being violently stabbed to death –, cracking and creaking, the sound of wind rustling through the thick needles of evergreens, and some more distant sound she could not identify right away. She looked upward, observing the canopy and trying to spot some of the noisemakers while slowly growing accustomed to the ‘stuffy’ air. It wasn’t bad by any means, but now that she had a moment to mull over Takagi’s words, it actually made sense that there were more spores and pollen in the air down here in the thicket.

Where had the door gone though? She had stepped through it just now, but there was no hint of it remaining. The healer moved towards a battered, old building, overgrown with creepers, moss, and vines, just like his boots and cloak, and large, mossy trees cozied up to the old walls that looked like they might collapse any moment. The ground was thick with ancient roots and brushwork, while grand, old trees hung over them, watching silently, safe for a wooden creaking every now and then. Hesitantly, Din followed the healer towards the building, and Takagi followed her in turn.

“Is this your home?” she asked the healer.

He stood still for a moment to reply while opening up his arms towards the building. “All of this is; the entire island.” Then he moved on.

“Island?” she whispered to Takagi who shrugged his shoulders. Then she spoke up, so the healer could hear her: “Island? The ocean lies on the south side of the globe, surely we are not there?”

He did not interrupt his slow pacing this time but simply replied: “This is the North. Skôtish land to be precise, or as the other Nordmen call it: the lands of the Lochmannen, for the Skôts are lake-dwellers, and this island rests in the middle of their largest lake, Loch Albentand. Though the children of Albenheim live hidden away in High Saxia, the Skôts still both revere and disdain those ancestors; the Albenmannen had much love for things that were clear and shining and reflecting like gems.”

Din had not expected such an extensive history lesson from the druid. The healer she had thought the quiet type was actually rather talkative when instigated. “I see,” she replied. “Do the Skôts live in these woods?”

They had arrived on the wooden veranda of the building: a simple house, overgrown and decayed though it was, rectangular in shape and with a diagonal roof. It looked almost like a peaceful shrine; and perhaps it was.

“No, this is my island, and so are the woods on it. Only the animals choose to live here, and so it has been for many years. The Skôts sometimes send a ferryman over to take me to their settlements at the shore; if they need my aid. After all, I am a healer. When they come next, I will ask them to take you along to the mainland. I possess neither boat nor raft, and I do not have any tools you could use to construct one. Until then, you may come inside and spend your time here as you please.”

That surprised Din: She had not expected to be delayed so early, though there seemed little she could do about it now. “I thank you then…” she said slowly. How regularly did ferrymen come to the island? She was a little anxious about the healer’s concept of time; could it be that they would be stuck here for days, weeks, or perhaps even months?

The inside of the shrine was far more homely than it looked on the outside, and everything in here was speckless and tidied up. A heavy, oaken table sat in a central room, ringed with polished tree-trunk segments to sit on, and a water-filled wooden bowl was placed on it as a centerpiece, water lilies floating prettily on the surface. Long shelves with damp, moldy books adorned one of the walls; another housed cooking utensils, including an oven and stove, while a third held a hearth.

The healer led them to the table where they sat down thankfully while he began to prepare something in the cooking area, soon returning with three plates on which he served some stale bread, cheese and sausage. Then, he made another trip to bring them earthen mugs with a clear yellow liquid that smelled sweet.

“Thank you,” Din said with a friendly smile.

“It is a rare occasion that I host guests,” he explained. “Rarer still that one of them is a Keeper.”

“You spoke of the Albenmen earlier, who were they?” Besides her personal curiosity, she found the silence to exert a certain pressure on her, as though there were thoughts in the back of her mind she did not wish to engage with right at the moment.

Thankfully, their host seemed less than reluctant to share what he knew: “Albenmannen,” he corrected her. “You know not of the elder races then? Surely you know of the northern gods of Asgard though?”

Both of them, Din and Takagi, nodded in reply.

“Good! I take it you never heard or read the Aloud-Tijden Saga then? It is the ancient oral record that we northerners have carried over from the times before the world was reshaped by the Faceless World-Shaper. Many poems and stories are in this saga, passed on from grandma and grandda to their young’uns, and, recently, written down by Kaltani scribes and scribes of the Middlish lands. Though some say the Angel Saxons have kept records for eons now; after all, they were the first to cut their houses from stone and build them high up to the clouds. Let me recite to you, as well as memory permits, a few verses that may shed light on your question.” He cleared his throat but did not start right away, apparently trying to remember the words more clearly, before he began:


In olden days before the war

There were nine realms and not one more

Remember well, this story tell

Of golden days of yore


There was no ball of earth and ísen

Under mannen’s feet

And eons passed us quickly by then

For realms were split by gaping silence.


A river branching like a tree

Of light and rainbow-colors then

Ran between the shards, you see

War was no easy feat for men


“Well, that is how the saga begins,” he explained. “Every realm has its own song, and they all start like this. Before the world was reshaped into its present form, there were nine separate lands, all drifting through space next to each other, connected by a rainbow river. They called the river the Bifröst, and the riverbed was called the world tree, because it branched out like a tree when you drew it on a map, the realms hanging from its branches like fruit. … The next verses are about the Albenmannen.”


The third realm was named Albenheim

And wondrous to behold,

For magic as you know it now

Was forged inside their holds


When passing over Bifröst’s streams,

Oh how their land would sparkle, gleam,

Like precious gems and finest glass,

The likes of which you have not seen


For what their brothers the Swarten mined

In their realm of Swartalbaheim,

The Albenmannen then refined,

With ever-shining lunar light


“Beautiful!” Din exclaimed happily. “Why did you keep your mouth shut so tightly when you saw me the first time around?” She took a sip from her mug. It was sweet mead, rich with the aroma of forest flowers. “You know, I actually had history lessons by a very learned teacher when I still lived in the Tower. We didn’t cover a lot of the Old World, but that is what Middlish historians call those Nine Realms, I believe.”

The healer smirked. “Proto-world, more like.”

“By the way, why are you so quiet, Takagi? You could barely look up from the ground when we first spoke. Come on, regale me with tales of how you got into the monastery.” She gave her companion a teasing look.

He stared back with wide eyes, and for a moment she expected a deep revelation on his part, but he simply shrugged his shoulders and looked back at his mug, which he held with both hands.

Instead of hitting him, she turned to the healer. “You know what, I do want to know why you’re only warming up to me now. Did I have something on my face last time?”

He too shrugged his shoulders but actually managed a reply: “I live here alone as the centuries pass by; therefore I enjoy talking to people on the rare opportunities I get. Back when you injured your fellow student of the ways of Taishôgeki, you looked very frightened. I am not very apt at healing emotional pain, so I refrained from saying anything for fear of worsening your plight.”

Din raised a brow. “Got it, you’re a foot-in-the-mouth kind of guy. So, why not just ‘vacation’ at the monastery, or with the Skôts at the shore?”

“I have already told you this. It is because I cannot leave here for long. This is not just my island, I am the island. Or better put, the forest on it. The further I go, the sooner I need to return, and in the monastery that is so very far away, I can stay not even for an hour at a time. But now you are here, so please, feel free to talk, and ask if you have any questions. My voice grows hoarse from being used so little. A little exercise will do it no harm.”

“Um… ok,” Din said. She had not expected that reply at all. More something along the lines of: ‘something, something fate, something, something, responsibility, something, something, Great Clockwork, something, something, doom.’ Those were things people enjoyed saying around her these days. At least it felt that way sometimes. “Then let me ask you… why… those things?” In her mind she always pictured herself to be more eloquent, but clearly she was at best a donkey with the gift of speech, judging by that poverty-stricken example of human communication.

The healer drank deep from the earthen mug in front of him, “I used to be a druid, a healer of a small Kaltani tribe, hundreds of years ago. One year, winter struck early and harder than ever before. The snow stretched out far past the Snowzone, reaching even the Middle Lands, I am told. I was the last survivor, though I was certainly close to death. With me present, no Haerthersfǫr procession made its way to my village, and never have I known greater shame than for being too weak in the art of Druith magic back then. I crawled up to a nearby tree to lean on while the cold slowly grasped for my heart. But in that tree, there was an ancient power that had lain there long before the land itself: The staff. The tree split open as I leaned against it, and the water spilled over my head. When I grasped for the staff, I became immortal and a healer of far greater power than ever before. But I had no home anymore, nowhere to go, nowhere to be. So I just sat there, in the snow, holding the staff, not knowing what to do. The cold had no more power over my heart, but that same heart was empty. Like a tree, I sat there motionless as the cold season passed by; and as the water sprung forth from the staff eternally, a small lake formed around me, and many things grew there, and many animals gathered to live in my presence. It felt like eternities passed me by, and I began to think that perhaps this was who I was now, who I was meant to be: a place, tranquil, emptied of mind, but filled with life. Still, the hollow feeling in my heart persisted. Then, one day it happened, and in the dead of another harsh winter, a man came from the high north past the Snowzone. On foot he stalked through bitter cold, as though winter itself was his cloak – though his cloak was mightier than winter itself, some say – and his hair flowed red in the wind like the crackling fires of the hearth. On that day I was reborn.”


Atlas

They had grilled some tropical looking fish with colorful patterns on their scales and eaten them with the white meat and juice of what Nanashi had identified as ‘coconuts’ as well as some small, orange fruits she had not recognized, but deemed edible. She had fed the baby with the whitish, clear juice that was trapped inside the coconuts and little Kathlyn was babbling contently.

Atlas looked into the round. “What now? Can we really ride Sagamund’s moth all the way to the south pole?”

Nanashi looked at the small fireplace they had built; the flames burned low, seemingly mesmerizing her as fire was wont to do. “Maybe…”

“And the child?” Atlas continued. “Is she going to survive a journey that long? I noticed the air was very thin and cold while we were flying.”

Nanashi kept staring at the flames. “Maybe…”

“Maybe, maybe, maybe’s not enough!”

She looked up at him, and it seemed like the first time their gaze met for more than an instant. Her eyes were dark and shaped like thin almonds, her hair was black, lustrous, and luxurious, much like Ísa’s. She looked so very tired, and not just for lack of sleep, but from a weight that Atlas recognized all too well. He caught himself observing her features with some interest.

For a moment, she opened her mouth to say something but then kept quiet, and there was a silent understanding between the two of them.

Ayveron picked up on it as well, or perhaps he had known it long before Atlas had spoken; Atlas had never doubted that Ayveron was the most intelligent person he had met so far, probably including Plâton. Though that old man had experience ten- and hundredfold their measure. Now, Ayveron spoke: “So, we have no road ahead of us. And you cannot control the water anymore because your magic sword is broken?” He looked at Atlas with raised brows.

Atlas nodded, though the phrasing of that sentence irked him.

“And you cannot jump us all the way to the city using your black, jumpy magic?” Ayveron added, now addressing Nanashi.

She also nodded. “Stepping out of the world,” she corrected him, apparently also irked by that particular phrasing.

“And I take it none of you have some super special, secret kind of magic you neglected to introduce that would solve all our problems?”

“None I am aware of,” Atlas admitted reluctantly.

“Smart phrasing…” Ayveron mumbled.

“What was that?” Atlas asked irritated.

“Nothing.”

Nanashi added: “The only way I am aware of would be to travel through the clockwork somehow, but only very few people can do that, and I am not one of them. It is the most powerful version of stepping out of the world. Also, taking other people with you while doing it is tricky, I hear.”

Ayveron sighed and looked up. “What I wouldn’t give for one of the travel gates of Fulgrath or Miyako Fluxum’s jump drive right about now… I guess we are leaving it to the clouds then.”

Atlas and Nanashi exchanged a confused look. “What does that mean?” both asked at the same time.

“I have not heard that idiom before,” Nanashi added.

Ayveron changed into a lying-down position, facing up to the stars. “It is not a saying. At least one has followed us since Rim City. The wandering clouds have been suspiciously active since Arkatrash blew up.”

A cold wave washed over Atlas’s back and made him shiver, so he hugged his knees. The great explosion, the lost people he had met in Rim City, it all kept repeating in his mind frequently, like a dream he could not wake up from but at best push away when more immediate things were afoot.

“Well, shortly after it happened, many wandering clouds began to converge on the area. Three or four I believe. And when Atlas sank Rim City several of them gathered in that vicinity as well. And I am relatively certain, that one of them has tailed us since we climbed on that moth.”

Atlas and Nanashi instantly looked up, and there was a cloud above their heads indeed. Far up, and relatively even.

“That is not a wandering cloud, it has no long tail trailing after it,” Atlas noted.

“Well, it had a tail when we arrived, but it has been lingering over this island for so long that said tail has faded. The corpus, though, has not; in fact it looks like it has grown several times in size. Of course, by now it is more than clear to me that it is not growing but descending. Soon, it will envelope this small island, though to what purpose I do not know. The only thing I think is more than likely is that it is coming down for us.”

“You think… wandering clouds are some sort of creature?” Nanashi inquired.

“Or technology,” Ayveron retorted. “What an interesting way to circumvent the aerial zero-tolerance policy of the Middle Lands and their close allies.”

There was a long silence until Atlas finally said: “Well, not much we can do about it now.”

Then, there was a loud cracking and they could see the great moth take flight, away from the island and into the distance.

“That can’t be good…” Nanashi said dully.


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