Aqualon, Rise of the Broken

This is an extract from the novel "Rise of the Broken", containing everything from the prologue up to chapter 13, a major breaking point in the story. Chapters 14 to 28 are part of the complete novel, which is available as a pdf download to Aqualon's direct supporters and promo subscribers to the world of Aqualon right here (link invisible for regular viewers). Once test readers have completed their review of the novel and final adjustments have been made, it will be made available for purchase as a print copy and as an ebook.

Prologue

And once again this story begins at the moment of my death.
A dark, empty space; and in that space there is only the great gate. I tend to forget how it looks. Sometimes it is made of wood, sometimes of bronze. There are no inscriptions, no markings, just this great gate, deep inside. And as I open that gate, I find myself walking on a great mountaintop, covered in snow and ice. I walk and walk, and somehow at the end I find myself in a dark hall where four men wearing my face stand and wait.
I take my place amongst them and the one who is the ocean and the power raises his voice: “So you have come. We are glad to see you amongst us at this, the moment of our end.”
I reply, knowing my answer will break him: “It is only the moment of my end. We may crave the rest we deserve, but the yellow glimmer, which has followed me and is eating at the gate as we speak, I cannot ignore. You see, it would disturb the snow outside, and I like it quite the way it is. I will leave now and take it with me into the abyss. All of my power that I can spare I will leave with you, for you hold the throne now.”
The man who had spoken before, the one at the top, the one that wears my face just like the others glances at me in horror. The world outside the gate, beyond the darkness, that was the world of man, and he was no man; he would not belong.
But there was nothing else to be said. All of the years I owed him I would repay with this terrible gift. And so it was that I left by the gate through which I had come, never to return, and my story ends…

Chapter I

Destiny

The eternal clockwork is ever-changing and so is the meaning of life, the shape of things to come, and the wake of creation.
- From the Book of Taishôgeki

Atlas

“I’ve never seen a man broken quite like you are.” The stranger on the rock said. He sat there smoking a long, wooden pipe, carved and painted like a slender reptile, looking down on Atlas. The young man could think of no reply, so the stranger went on: “I have seen men make the ground quake with their fists and lay armies low with but their sword, but never have I seen a man cut a mountain in two like that old-timer back from whence you came, boy.”
Atlas raised a brow. “Seen? That just happened, and it was close to the horizon from here. Who could see that far? Are you hiding a… Star-look… tube… under your cloak?” he asked, his brow furling and twisting, as the word for telescope escaped him. Everything inside him was a mess.
The stranger laughed at that: “It was not beyond the horizon though, was it? Personally, I would not concern myself with such trivial things if I were you. The old man froze the vanguard in a great pillar of ice - no doubt did he cut off the top half of that mountain to create enough even ground for it. But those men he froze are no men as I have ever seen, and they seem to live even inside the ice, soon to break free, and further behind them the main force is well underway. Ten men and women in total, by my count, and all of them on the hunt for you the way I see it.” The stranger seemed amused as he recited these things he apparently had born witness to, despite the arguable impossibility of it; things that would astonish normal men and send cold shivers down their spines.
“Ten you say? The number sounds familiar, but I do not remember…” A bead of sweat rolled down Atlas’s brow as his face strained under his increasing concentration, but the memories in his mind were like fleeting sheets of haze, unraveling at the slightest touch, so he dropped the matter and instead continued to speak. “The old man said his goodbyes and threw me of that mountain; he said I should go for the last stronghold and give this letter to the Greenhorns,” Atlas explained and, long past caution, shakily pulled a letter from his torn cloak.
The stranger laughed again, but made no move to suggest he had any mind for the sealed envelope. “You mean to travel to the end of the world, do you? I have started great adventures on lesser ambitions; why, once I started a war because a friendly inn-keeper asked me to procure a jug of milk.” He jumped down from the rock he had sat on, his crimson hair flying behind him as he gallantly landed on his feet. As he landed, the ground seemed to shake slightly and the thud that came with his landing was far too loud for a man of his stature, almost as if he were three times as heavy or more. “You amuse me boy,” he noted with a smirk, straightening his wide cloak, white but for the creeping dirt at its hem, “and there was something I saw on that mountaintop I have yet to understand, something more disturbing than your ten hounds and the old man who could cut the nose off the world’s face.” He said this as much to himself as to Atlas, almost as if he was trying to convince himself of something. Thoughtfully he took his hands of the cloak and now tucked at the folds of his garb, black and simple, made from sturdy cotton, almost hard enough to use for sailing.
“And what would that be?” Atlas inquired curiously after it seemed like the stranger had forgotten to continue, having slipped into thought.
“Myself.” The man said. He was right in front of Atlas now and laid his very heavy hand on his shoulder. “It seems I have been dragged into your story, boy. I will take you to the last stronghold – might as well, my legs could use some stretching. Perhaps I can groom you a little for the times ahead, wars are a’ coming, and you reek of it.”
Atlas looked at the man for a long time. “Kill me instead.” His eyes were pleading with the man, filled with pain and sorrow.
“Truly,” the stranger said, “I’ve never seen a man broken quite like you are.” Repeating the words he had uttered first.
Suddenly, within the blink of an eye, he had moved - his hand now besides Atlas’s temple, hardened by practiced tension, frozen after an unsuccessful diagonal chop. But he had not stopped of his own accord, for between the bone of Atlas’s skull and the side of the stranger’s hand there was the sword. Of course it was. Atlas could not recall drawing it, could not recall moving at all; but nonetheless he felt the wrapped handle in his grasp and the stranger’s hand against the blade. A thin trickle of blood ran down the sharp edge, and a pall of snowflakes had licked for the fingers from around the thick spine of the slightly curved, long blade.
The stranger withdrew his hand without concern and gave the barely visible cut a brief, mildly curious glance. The force of the impact had shook Atlas before, and how that hand had not been cleft in two was beyond his imagination. Without ever adding more than an artistic pause, the stranger continued unperturbed: “And yet you cannot die, not by your hand, not by mine – well, perhaps mine, but I have no mind to put that much back into it, you understand – …No, you shall live and play your role, whatever it is. I am old, and coming all this way to collect you makes me stubbornly want to go right on ahead. It never feels like there is enough time at my age, so I do hate to waste any of it.” He looked over his shoulder, apparently seeing something in the distance. “Soon our means of transportation will arrive - and just in time to escape your hounds. What is your name, boy?”
Atlas eyed him for a while. Even in his dazed and disheveled state, it did not escape his notice that this was not a chance encounter. But, then again, he felt he would have to relearn a great many things before he could have any kind of hope towards reading the hidden intentions of people, so he answered as well as he could: “For want of a better name I can only speak the one that was given to what I was: Atlas.”
The stranger grinned. “Then our names are of the same lexicon: I am Plâton. Plâton Rai’enjoh. Follow me, we must go west before we can head south,” he said. Atlas’s glance shifted to his side. “What about him, can he come too?” Plâton looked at the other young man he had not paid any heed to before. “Sure, why not. He was kind enough to carry you this far, was he not…”

Artemis

Sem-La winced when one of the overseers whipped at him. With bloodied, bulging, and sweat-soaked back muscles he once more pulled the rope with unyielding strength and the procession moved on, dragging a great block of sandy red color along a canal construction specifically made for that purpose. The boy was strong but tired, and the lashes left red stripes on his sunburnt back. The overseer was Ôshiris’s man and surely had been encouraged to be especially hard on the boy. Artemis blinked away an angry tear as she heard an unpleasant call behind her: “Hey, girl! If you rather watch these maggots pull than pour more wine, you want to be joining them maybe?” the fat frog inquired with a vulgar laugh, his accent heavy with the tongue favored by Rusty Shore haulers.
He sat next to the great Paro with the other councilors, talking business: A trader from the Rusty Shore called Myran Aghul - though Artemis just quietly named him ‘the fat frog’ because that was what he looked like: a fat, ugly frog, with his bulging jowls, disgusting moles, and that odd Iron Belt accent that all the steel nomads took on when using the favored tongue of Arkatrash. “No, m’lord, I am sorry, m’lord,” she said with a soft voice, purposely contracting the title as the smallest hint of disrespect - too subtle to notice for such a buffoon - but he had already turned around to prattle with the councilors while the Paro sat there looking almost bored.
Artemis poured more wine, a pricy vintage from the Saltplains enriched with local herbs. A few drops of venom of the viper might quench their thirst forever, and those snakes would be better for it - both vipers and people present. After all, the Paro dined on her people’s suffering day after day, drinking their lifeblood, building walls, tombs, and castles out of it, out of the blood of her brother Sem-La; why should he not choke on it? But Artemis’s hand was stayed, if by fear or reason she could not tell: Her chasha had taught her that the venom was bitter of taste and one word would have Artemis’s head off - or her heart impaled.
“A fine vintage,” the fat frog observed, “so, have you been considering my proposal, good lords and good Paro?”
The Paro drained his gem-encrusted cup and looked at the frog. “Arkatrash has built its strongholds and tombs with red stone of which the Red Sands provide plenty, and it has forged its spears with bronze since ancient times. Yet you would have us use your iron and steel instead.”
The frog man inclined his head: “Iron and Steel are the stronger metals; men know this,” he objected, “an iron gate will not break quickly like wood or stone facing a battering ram, no? And the bronze sword that stands against steel has yet to be forged, ha! Why, the great technocrats themselves used to buy from my grand-grand-grandfather three or four hundred years ago. And whatever they have been building with since, only they could tell you that … uh, great Paro.”
One of the Paro’s advisors nodded: “It is true. The Angel Saxons gave iron to the Kaltani in ages past, and on the battlefield their weapons have proven far sturdier than ours.” It was the old Xerix Bashna, round and decorated with a white beard and a red face. Sometimes he gave Artemis crusts of bread - to be nice, she assumed - but she still hated him. Oh, he had been kindly in the past, but when the time had come, he had turned his back on her and her brother, all for fear of repercussions. Coward! He was heavy with all the good food he ate and red faced from all the good wine he drank as her people were whipped and starving.
Carefully and quietly Artemis refilled the Paro’s cup when another councilor, Heppa the Snake, spoke up: “Not to mention that the Midlanders and those queer moth-herders up east have been prime customers of the Rusty Shore for many decades now, surely we should partake in some of that iron that travels through our domain so frequently, great Paro.” Heppa could go and suck on a yarenma for all Artemis cared.
“It did not stop us from defeating them on the field of battle,” the Paro noted.
Artemis almost spilled the wine in a flash of anger, just managing to keep her composure somehow. It had been her father who had won the battle at the Green Baronies, not him. And Rusty Shore steel came to Yamato by way of Nankô port, not Blacksteel through which the fat frog was running his operation. Buffoons!
“Reed paper, two hundred sheets, fresh salmon, fifty pounds, and one smallblock of carved marble for every block of iron you can deliver, and a block when it is steel. We shall provide the ships to conduct these trades along the river Giranja; that is my offer, Aghul.”
The fat frog nodded slowly. “Yes… yes! The Paro is wise and generous; we will be doing trade on these terms, yes.” To celebrate, he drained his cup.
It was his fourth - Artemis counted - and this time she refilled it right away. Of course he had accepted. Marble was not found in the Red Sands but imported from the Yamato Mountain Range – a valuable commodity. If the fat frog had any sense for business, he would resell them even before they were shipped out to the Rusty Shore.
“Additionally,” the Paro added, “we will discuss sending back smiths with you to be apprenticed by your metal-workers, so they may be educated on how to work this ‘superior’ material of yours.”
The other advisors nodded in agreement, and the fat frog’s eyes showed a glint of greed, no doubt because he counted the request as an additional source of income, and the business seemed to be done.
They kept speaking about this and that and trifling matters, most of them fairly drunk. Artemis winced when the fat frog grabbed for her behind in passing, but she did not say anything. A quiet serving slave was a serving slave unwhipped; unless their master was cruel. The Paro did not have Artemis whipped to be sure - unless she misbehaved - and yet he was the cruelest of them all. Yes, even taking her into his service as a ‘kindness’ was mere spite, and day after day she had to walk by her father’s bones, which had been nailed to a wall outside. He should have been put to rest in the ostentatious tomb the slaves were building for the Paro; he had been Israam Ishtal Nabir Iaret, the great Paro of Arkatrash, but Ishral Alamar Ôshiris had killed him and usurped his rightful throne.
Both of Israam’s children, Sem-La and Artemis, had been made slaves as a last insult to their line. Like most of the slaves, their mother had been Kaltani, a folk from the north that had warred with Arkatrash. Israam had tried to be a kind ruler, even to the slaves, and had taken a Kaltani as his wife, promising to release them once the tomb had been built as atonement for the war the Kaltani had started and lost. Ishral, however, had brought a bloody end to his reign, and so Artemis and Sem-La were as much Kaltani as all the other slaves he tormented with his cold-hearted rule.
The Kaltani were a proud and strong people. Artemis knew in time they would find the strength to put the Paro to justice. It was all she could do to wait for this day and never lose her faith.
“What did they talk about, big sister?” Sem-La asked curiously, but that could not hide the fatigue in his voice and pained winces every time he moved his back. He was so young… but strong like his father, so he endured.
“A man from the Rusty Shore wants to make trade with the butcher. He is from where the Giranja drowns under the Iron Belt. He comes with iron and steel,” she told her brother patiently. “Rest now, my little bird, you will need your sleep.”
Sem-La nodded and winced again - he would not sleep on his back tonight. “Big sister, you best go to the old woman’s tent; she has asked for you.”
Artemis rose. “The old woman, what does she want with me?”
Sem-La shrugged, which he immediately regretted.
Artemis sighed and gave Sem-La a kiss on his forehead before she left. It was what their mother had done every night before the two of them went to bed, but now she was as much bones as their honored father.
The nights grew cold in the Red Sands, but the river Giranja swallowed all the heat the daylight offered him and spat it out again come night, so it would not freeze in the lands of Arkatrash. Still, cold desert winds brought chills to those who would not take shelter behind walls or in tents during the hours of the moon.
Like a cat, Artemis scampered along between the tents the slaves were quartered in by the score until she reached the tent of the old woman. She was a witch it was said and the other slaves had given her this tent for herself.
As Artemis entered, the woman had turned her back to the young girl and dancing candle lights threw wicked shadows behind her. The old woman was kindly and always smiled sweetly, but the shadows formed frightful phantasms in Artemis’s eyes and a cold wind behind her made a dark, icy chill creep into her bones. Artemis had talked with the old woman from time to time, but always during the hours of the sun and with other people around. The Kaltani slaves had told her the old woman had been over one hundred and fifty years on the face of this world. Artemis had heard that men could live to be over two hundred years old, but wars, illnesses, and the dangers of the world left so few to live to that age that Artemis only knew of their existence by hearsay. And maybe it was nothing but the ridiculous banter people came up with to pass the time; maybe the same was true for the old woman’s age; surely it was just a gross exaggeration.
“Step closer, child,” the woman said with a soft voice. Artemis swallowed her fears and stepped closer…

The Null

Since the days that men first saw the shape of the Great Clockwork, their sense of their own existence has become more and more refined. And to that existence there are five parts and between them five gates. But just as the opening of the first gate would necessitate the opening of the fifth gate, the light of the universe made flesh brought forth the shadow of that light made flesh as well. There is no power misunderstood like the fifth; shadow means nullification, the return of one thing to its original state, the unmaking, the release. Oft it would be viewed as a weakness or even as evil, but nothing was further from the truth. As the counterpart to entropy, shadow was but a part of nature that was necessitated by light, or so the Brotherhood of the Null believed. Some of them even called themselves the shepherds of souls, guiding roused souls back to sleep, thus making flowing magic ebb, and for good reason, for magic has wrought great devastation onto the lands of Aqualon far too often.
Rei bowed his head as the silence around him was ever-shifting, just like the dark. “Grand master, you have summoned me.”
The grand master nodded. Cloaked not just in coal black garb but seemingly living shadows, the grand master of the order was a sight to behold, inspiring and yet, on a very basic, instinctive level, terrifying. “Brother Rei,” he said in a deep and quite courteous voice, “it is good to see you, what comes to be will come to naught.” In that he cited the customary greeting of the brothers of the Null. “The world will soon wake in chaos, and as it does, so must we. The brotherhood has lived in seclusion for seventeen centuries, but now mankind shall know us once again,” he proclaimed.
Rei opened his eyes wide in disbelief. He had lived and served in the brotherhood for all the life he cared to remember; acolytes were guided here by fate at a young age or as the wise men said: by the gears that entwined with their souls and made them walk the face of this world. Never had Rei seen any of that world other than the Black Sanctum, the Silent Ponds, and the mountain fields of the Ever-Clouded Pass, save for long faded memories of an uneventful childhood on the Yamato Mountain Range. Nor had he ever whished for more. Still, the brothers served the brotherhood and that cause would give him strength, for he already suspected what the grand master would ask of him.
“The Three-Eyed Sentinels have summoned me and told me of the days to come. A shadow more ancient than our order has awoken in the lands of man, and it wishes to nullify creation itself, to break the clockwork. They say it appears as a yellow glimmer in the dark that eats at shadow and light all the same, until they are no more. The balance we are sworn to uphold is the balance of the three truths, brother; what seeks to break that balance has no place in this universe, so we say. And so it shall be.
The Sentinels say that one who has lived through the grasp of those shadows will rise and fight them with his own hands and the hands of all free men at his side, but - he will need time, and time he has not. For this reason I have summoned you, Brother Rei. You are strong and a master of the fifth gate as you have proven. Pick four more brothers to walk with you and seek out the Five Cities of the Middle Lands; there you shall find the heralds of this dire threat and there you will take away from them the powers they would abuse for evil.”
The grand master’s command was spoken, and Rei was bound to follow. “What comes to be will come to naught,” he said and bowed his head again. Then he left the grand master to the shadows and made for the Silent Ponds to collect the first companion for his quest…

Tales of the Valkyrie

Two moons, and still Torgrund had not gained those fabled and most elusive ‘land legs’ people had told him of. No, he was a sea dog, born and raised at her bosom, and solid ground under his feet made his knees ache and kept him awake at night. Still, the inlands were the best place for him to be right now, at least until the winds on the Ocean Belt changed and he was not a wanted man anymore.
Such was the life of a pirate – oft times unpleasant. And that was twice as true now that the Church had stocked up their navy as though the Old Gods were about to come down for the next Great War. Still, not being able to feel the ocean breeze on his face and taste the salt on his tongue hardly seemed worth it. Well, at least some of that salty air was here. They did not call these lands the Saltplains for nothing. The grass was as richly laden as the dikes of Graanshoof, and the cattle here was just as healthy and delicious. Small wonder that Torgrund was tearing hungrily into a tasty leg of goat while eying one of the patrons at the bar. And what a patron it was: A beautiful woman, just between slender and broad shouldered with flowing long hair, golden as the sun, and the most peculiar set of heavy armor. A sword rested against the bar on which she sat and a winged helmet lay besides her drinking horn, which she had emptied so many times that Torgrund no longer wondered how she was still awake and rather in what kind of space she was storing all that liquid.
The Valkyrie looked at the bottom of that mead horn. The sweet and warm yellow honey brew almost tasted as good as piss. Almost. The day the Valkyrie had left the North was the day she had chugged her last good horn of mead. What was served here in the Saltplains was barely drinkable. Some imported fancy stuff from the western foothills of the Yamato Mountain Range. The Valkyrie had no taste for the red and white grape juices of the Middle Lands either. Those queer drinks were for pampered lordlings and snickering girls. She grunted and threw the horn behind her so that it shattered against the wooden wall of the inn with a splash. “Your bees are drunk on your queer red juices if they shit the honey used to brew this piss,” she growled.
Torgrund, a bulbous man with a fierce and shaggy red mane, chugged his ale down and sat beside her as he gave that a roaring laugh: “Har! You’re a feisty one, Valkyrie,” he bellowed, “have some ale to wash down the piss, it’s better than the water here.” He smacked a few copper coins onto the bar. “On me!”
The Valkyrie turned her head towards him and inspected Torgrund with tired eyes, a red glow was about her cheeks since she had been drinking for hours. He had an impressive, full red beard that framed his weatherworn face together with his mane so that he looked like a fat bear all in all. His grin was missing a tooth or two and his nose had been broken at least once - the Valkyrie liked it well enough, he did look strong and hearty. “What makes you think I am a Valkyrie?” she asked wearily and with the lull of the drunk. But even though all the bad mead had made her head fuzzy, she was not one to lose her wits in a horn or flagon, too old was she, older than even magus folk, all thanks to the blessing of her masters.
“If you prefer it to be secret you should dress differently. When I was still suckling at my mother’s teat she told me stories. You know… uh, I assume… the ones about the realm of the northern gods and of course their Valkyries. You can hold your mead like no woman I have ever seen and you are battle born, I can tell; and that armor, just like in the stories, and no novice did not forge that neither, it is the work of a master,” the man boasted, apparently proud with his wits and why not? He was right indeed.
The Valkyrie yawned. “Fair enough. Then you know what I seek,” she said and took the horn of ale he had bought her, “what news of war can you tell me?”
Torgrund grunted. “There is always war, men are flimsy creatures that always want more than they have. But wars of the likes you seek? Har! Hmm… Perhaps you should turn your gaze towards the Red Sands. There is a great many Kaltani slaves there and I hear the new paro is cruel. A fool more like, if you ask me, the Kaltani are a proud and strong people; if he makes them bleed, they will have his head. Mayhaps that is the kind of war you seek, Valkyrie?”
The Valkyrie swallowed the ale in one go and laid the horn onto the bar. “Civil war? I have been to Arkatrash many years ago, it is big enough, but certainly not as grand such as the kind of war I am seeking. Say, red one -”
The man interrupted her. “Torgrund, my name be Torgrund Redmane”.
The Valkyrie nodded. “Say, Torgrund, I heard a letter bomb fly in this morning, do you know the news it brought?”
Torgrund shook his head, but the Bartender, an old man with thin white hair and a glazy look who was cleaning a wineglass spoke up: “The letter bomb, eh?” he said with a brittle voice, “Kingdom gone and kingdom come, on all the Five Cities to the five corners of the Tower of Five.”
The Valkyrie moved her hand in a talking motion and hiccupped once. “Five! Five! Five! You sound like a… thing. What’s that bird that goes like that?” Her voice trailed off into a mumble.
“A sea gull?” Torgrund suggested, not being very knowledgeable on birds.
“Sure, why not…” she conceded tiredly, then suddenly got up. Certainly too fast, because it made her head spin, but no one should have been able to tell. ‘Kingdom gone and kingdom come’ was the general expression for when a city or land was put under siege by a single man or woman. There were a great many sheep in Midgard, as the Valkyrie’s masters called the Great Land, but power ran deep in this world and some were strong enough to wield it. A man could indeed become strong enough to fight a thousand on his own if he walked the way of magic. Though that such a one should lay siege to one of the Five Cities of the Middle Lands seemed very odd indeed, for each of them held one of the great Mage Academies of the world. Some called this the Age of Gears and Elements, for the mages and technocrats were the most powerful amongst men.
“Will you go there?” Torgrund inquired not without a certain admiration in his voice.
The Valkyrie fastened her sword to her belt and tucked her armor where it needed tucking and then donned the winged helmet. Torgrund had the right of it: Her armor made her look to be a Valkyrie without doubt. It was silver and white and made of the finest steel and other, more powerful metals only known to a few masters of the art of forging arms and armor. Her gauntlets, breastplate, shin guards, helmet, and sword hilt ended in ornaments made of white steel and silver that were skillfully worked into the pieces and looked like feathers. When she stood tall, the Valkyrie looked like a beautiful, righteous, winged creature - not that there were any actual wings, mind you.
“I shall”, she answered, “But I cannot say I have high hopes. The last few times I went to kingdom gone and kingdom come I slew them all with ease. Before the Valkyrie all men and women alike crumble into dust, for so the old gods will it.”
Torgrund laughed again. “Might I ask to join you for this journey, Valkyrie?” He tried his best to hide the sliver of childish hope that clung insistently to his voice.
She turned her back. “You may not. The Valkyrie walks alone,” she said with iron cold in her voice.
And with those last words she vanished, so only the shattered mead horn that lay on the ground where she had thrown it would tell of her being here. And so she left the Saltplains behind her to go to war…
“You know,” the old barman said carefully, “she did not pay for her last twelve rounds.”
Torgrund nodded with a sly grin. “Ah, I see.” Then he took to his heels and ran.

Chapter II

The Moving City and the Ever-Clouded Pass

There is a truth behind every truth; there is a question behind every question; there is an answer behind every answer: Genjitsu, Sonzai, Genshi.
- From the Book of Taishôgeki

Atlas

“So, where are we going exactly?” Atlas inquired. He still needed the help of the young man calling himself Ayveron Galamoor, who had picked Atlas up when he had woken.
Plâton pointed towards the sinking sun. “When thunder and lightning rise from the ground, we will head for the eye of the storm,” he explained, sounding as jolly as ever.
“What by the three truths is that supposed to mean? I may not be quite of this world, but I know that thunder and lightning come from the…” but Atlas spoke no further when the ground began to quake and tremble as if a beast of terrible size was waking up beneath it und a light far away started to stretch out like a distorted finger, arcing across the ground.
Blue and purple it was, truly like lightning, and it buzzed like so many insects while the ground shook and roared like thunder. Young Ayveron had stopped and stared in astonishment at the strikes of lightning that now began to multiply and creep across the ground like a spider’s legs. One passed through the two of them and filled Atlas with a most curious sensation. He instinctively grabbed for his heart and gasped, but there was no pain and no apparent damage. “What in… I am unharmed? What is this?” he asked with a disturbed voice.
Ayveron seemed to be occupied with other thoughts entirely as he eyed the phenomenon in awe: “Is this artificial, natural, or magical? To generate such staggering amounts of electric energy… Surely it could not be…” He seemed too caught up in his thoughts to fully articulate them as they raced through his mind, but Atlas had trouble paying any attention to him since he felt like he was standing inside a raging storm cloud about to be torn to shreds.
Plâton laughed: “It comes from far over there, do you see? Do not worry about the lightning; the small particles of air just get excited about all the attention; your body is far too big to be impressed by such displays. And you, boy, you are quite right in your unspoken assumption: this is no magic, it is technology - well, most of it anyways. The last stronghold may be the capital of all technocracy, but if it is, then this here is its stern competition: Miyako Fluxum.”
Ayveron gasped: “The moving city! It cannot be! I… I heard so many tales and, and… But why should they help us get to the last stronghold? They hate that place!” he said in sudden realization, “Stern competition indeed!”
“Aye, they do not have much love for Borealis. The high technocrats of the order have turned their backs on Miyako Fluxum. However, this service they shan’t do for Borealis, but for me.”
Atlas only understood half of what the two were talking about. While he had known many places from when he was still whole, his death had made it very difficult for him to access the memories the real Atlas had left him. They were fuzzy and distorted at best, and many things he had but forgotten. The thing that had become the person; he had only ever followed the life of Atlas through a milky veil, peering in from time to time, content to sleep and only wake when great need was at hand - when the old Atlas needed his strength. Now he no longer had command of all the water in the world, even though the sword still hung from his back undamaged, and he could not perform any feat of magic - not that Atlas had truly been a magus before, but at least he had had his moments.
They moved quickly now and Plâton kept urging them on. A small chain of mountains loomed in the distance, and the grass lands were illuminated intermittently by lightning strikes. A lone, white horse galloped away further off, fleeing the direction towards which their party was now converging on. Atlas could only assume that those who Plâton called ‘the hounds’ were closing in after them, though Atlas himself had never laid eyes upon his pursuers.
The quaking of the ground grew all the more fierce the closer they got to the center of the strange storm, and lightning kept passing through them increasingly often, almost as if they were attracting it. Every time it left Atlas with a queer sensation in his chest and especially his gut, but he had not eaten in what seemed like an eternity, so there was nothing to retch up. It did however remind him that he was very hungry - and thirsty as well. What a strange moment to think about such a mundane thing.
When they came to a halt, the intensity of the lightning strikes seemed to climax suddenly, and they bent upwards until they connected the heavens and the earth like real lightning, and then the storm was gone.
The ground quaked no more and the lightning had ceased. Plâton lifted a booted foot and stomped on the ground thrice, right where he stood. The sound that came was strange, as if there was a cavern made of metal underneath the grass, which apparently really was the case because a hatch suddenly opened in front of them and revealed a metal stairway that would lead the three underground. “Oh my,” Ayveron said as he stared down the black mouth of the man-made cave.
The way to the city was surprisingly long and winding, a journey, really, in its own right. They went down a long staircase along a passage lit by strange, white, glowing crystals and many more staircases and passages until they were deep underground; storming this city would be impossible for any army, and the passages were cleverly winding, which would make it difficult for earth mages to locate the city proper.
“Those lights, are they powered with electric energy?” Ayveron asked with business-like curiosity.
Plâton looked up at the crystals as they moved along another long passage. “What makes you say that?” he asked with a hint of interest.
Ayveron rubbed his hands against each other, “There are many lights down here, and yet it is surprisingly cold; if the lights were warm lights such as fire, they should heat these passages. We use electricity in Altonar, but the light we produce seems warmer than this, so on the whole I am unsure. That is why I ask.”
“You certainly are a smart one, but shouldn’t you be more puzzled about it being so cold this deep down? The deeper we go the warmer it should get. They say the core of Aqualon is molten metal and stone, and at any rate: The ground in these lands is not frozen; there is really no reason for the temperature to fall off here. Therein lies your answer: these aren’t lamps, they are shards of ice - true ice. It is a form of living ice that stays frozen forever,” Plâton explained.
“That’s not scientifically possible… So they must be magical after all,” Ayveron noted with a certain disappointment in his voice.
“What’s the matter, are you disappointed to see magic in a city of technocracy? You are not quite correct though. Miyako Fluxum was shunned by the last stronghold because they allow research in the field of technamagix which implements magical catalysis to avoid certain restrictions to technology. True ice as you see here follows the law of power transmutation, one of the laws of gyrometrics. The shards endlessly catalyze all surrounding warmth and transmute the heat energy into light, preventing them from melting. Creating true ice is a feat of both crystalytics and technamagix that is performed here in Miyako Fluxum,” Plâton explained. “If the heat of the earth around us would not feed these passages, the true ice would be dark and the temperature here would be freezing.”
Ayveron listened with great interest and even Atlas who knew almost nothing about technocracy - or was the term just science? - was enticed by Plâton’s tale. “I did not know that this level of energy transmutation was possible,” Ayveron admitted. “There is no heat sink anywhere in these walls, is there?”
Plâton shrugged his shoulders, “I am not a technocrat, just someone who has been around. Do you know of these things, boy?” he asked in a tone of voice that somewhat suggested that he knew everything there was to know about Ayveron Galamoor. It was a peculiar quality that the strange man seemed to have about him, as if he was almost all-knowing or all-aware.
“I am the former chairman of the technocratic council of Altonar. I possess the 4th degree of mastery in electrical and theoretical gyrometrics as well as the 7th in pyrotechnology,” he recited not without pride. “Though I do not build fireworks and bombs anymore. I am into…” he smacked his lips when a brief delightful thought seemed to pass his mind, “something new.”
Atlas did not understand all the titles but they did seem impressive to him which kind of made him feel like he should clap. He had already raised his hands when he thought better of it after all, as something told him it might be misconstrued, even though he did not know where that notion came from. Plâton laughed. “Quite the learned gear-rat we have here, eh? What brings you to carry a broken man away from a bunch of monsters?” he inquired.
Ayveron winced at the notion, as if he just realized that that was exactly what he was doing. “I… I am on a pilgrimage to the last stronghold. I want to purchase an apprenticeship and become one of the order of technocrats there. I just chanced upon Atlas here and he looked like he needed help and he said he was going to the last stronghold too and so I thought I should help him and we walked and saw you on that stone.” Ayveron seemed to almost stumble over his own words as they came gushing from him like something had torn them loose.
Plâton kept laughing through the whole outburst. “You sure have bad luck. Or good luck. The clockwork seems to have brought the two of you together with all the subtlety of a writer pasting lose leafs of story together. I guess what you make of it depends on the angle from which you view your own situation. Either way you seem to have an abundance of luck, boy, whatever kind of luck it may be.
The man you are helping here reeks of war like no man I have ever seen before save the mirror. One day tens of thousands will fight at his side or his command, of that I am sure, and you seem to be on the best way to become one of them.”
Atlas did not understand how Plâton could look so amused the entire time; were they not in some sort of mortal danger? But that did not seem to faze the red haired stranger in the least. He simply took out his elegant pipe and began chewing on it, although he didn’t seem to want to light it in here. Ayveron on the other hand had become even paler than before and he had been of fair complexion to begin with. His hair was chestnut and his eyes darker still, all just serving to underline his paleness. Atlas wagered that a few weeks of wandering under the sun would change that quickly enough, but then again, he did not know how far Altonar was from here. Perhaps Ayveron had traveled far already before he had met Atlas in that blackened field.
When they had walked the last passage, the city stretched out before them at last. It was a sight to behold and took their breath away: The deep underground there was a perfectly egg-shaped cavity of tremendous size. On a total of six layers there were five intersecting walkways of stone, which met in the center of the cavity where they did not actually cross, but rather lead onto another circular walkway with a wide hole in the middle. A bright, humming ray of warm, yellow light filled that hole on every layer and went straight from ceiling to ground. On the underside of every layer’s center were large copper pipes and the central layer had metal arms, crackling with lightning, attached to the bottom of its intersecting ring, right where the pillar of light formed a rotating sphere that was now red, now yellow, now orange, now amber, ever changing and crackling here and there with lightning, appearing like a small, tamed sun in the center of the city.
The walkways themselves led to more walkway-rings that were large and built into the inner walls of the cavity, going all the way around on all the six layers. There the walls would show great holes into which the city had been built: houses over houses, many built most practically and fitting neatly into the chasms, but some seemed right out strange with buzzing gears poking out of them and the most outlandish contraptions stuck to every other one.
And the sounds! There was the noise of busy people walking and talking, the noises of machinery working and of small explosions here and there. The city was huge indeed; even in the glimpses of Atlas’s past memory he did not recall ever seeing a city larger than Miyako Fluxum appeared to be, except perhaps Aquaris; though he suspected that his fondness for that city was skewing his perception. He had always been able to see the things the old Atlas had loved far clearer through the milky veil. Then again, the odd perspective of the cavity might have also played tricks on his perception of Miyako Fluxum. If he was forced to live on, he should very much like to make a proper comparison one day.
The passage they had walked to enter the city proper had led them to an inconspicuous part of one of the outer rings; it appeared to be on the fourth layer. On the opposite side they could see a long, large hall carved into the wall of the cavity. There were only large buildings and lots of small stands over there with many people going about their business. It looked like a marketplace of sorts, and indeed there were goods being transported to that place, but they were not transported by people but rather by carts on rails! Some form of automation seemed to move them from one point to another since they came out of different hallways throughout the outer ring. Atlas could not say if they came from different layers also, but he saw no method of traveling from one layer to another. Surely it had to be done somewhere in the halls and hallways.
In the end it was all too much to take in at once for him and his gaze kept wandering to that great ray of light and the small sun in its center. And even that he could not do for too long at a time, for the light grew blinding after a while.
Ayveron was just standing there with his mouth as wide open as a barn door and his eyes glimmering with the ten thousand questions on his lips as his grasp on Atlas’s shoulder became painfully tight, no doubt from excitement. Plâton was laughing again. He always seemed to be laughing, though Atlas never understood why. Perhaps it confused him because his soul seemed so weary and sad, for, though being clumsy at reading other people’s faces and words at the moment, Atlas could see things that were obscured to most the way he was now.
Before the three of them could truly step in, they saw a delegation heading their way. Well, there were only three people, just enough to match their party, but they were clearly walking towards them. The man in the middle had a solemn manner about him. He had a jaw broad like an anvil and very short hair as if he shaved it all away every fortnight. His gray garb was spotted with black oil here and there and made him look like a man who worked with machinery all day. Besides him walked an old man with wispy, white hair and a full, gray beard. He wore a robe with a hundred gears or more painted onto it. His hands seemed a bit shaky as he held them awkwardly at his sides. The third was a woman. She had a fairly round bottom and blue eyes like diamonds, bright and sharp. Her hair was shaggy and brown and her face stained with dust and dirt but lit up by a hearty smile.
They stopped when they stood before the party. Plâton grinned with white teeth that for some reason made Atlas think of a dangerous wild beast, maybe because he appeared to have more pronounced cuspids than seemed average to him, just a bit though. “Archibald, my boy! How is life treating you?” Plâton said with a jovial voice, still grinning, “And you, Lynis, beautiful as ever! It is outstanding to see you too, old Tim, how fares the research?”
Both the old man and the woman seemed about to comment on that, but the one Plâton had addressed as ‘Archibald’ stepped forward and spoke up before they could start: “General Rai’enjoh, I told you a long time ago that the city will not take part in any war. You should not have summoned us here; Midas Creek is yours to defend.” His voice seemed grave.
Plâton laughed. “Your bearings must be way off. We stand apart quite a bit from good old Midas Creek; why, the Golden Sands don’t even stretch this far, though I will grant you it’s a brief journey for me. Heh, I haven’t come because I want you to fight or anything like that, I am just here to collect the debt you owe me,” he said, his grin growing wider. Clearly there was some sort of joke at work that was going over Atlas’s and, as far as his dumbfounded look suggested, Ayveron’s head.
Lynis began to laugh, her voice ringing bright like chimes. Archibald seemed incredulous. “The de… the debt I owe you? You mean… dinner?”
Plâton joined in the laughter now. “Quite so! Fourteen years ago I took you to Midas Creek and invited you to sup with me and my wife. You ate well and promised I should sup with you in your halls one day in kind,” Plâton recounted.
Ayveron and Atlas exchanged a brief look and then stared at Plâton as incredulous as Archibald had. This had to be some sort of jape. The man had dragged them here and called the entire city to move to them just for dinner? It seemed ridiculous. Archibald seemed just as stunned by the request. “You are serious? You called us here because you wanted to have dinner with me? Every jump drains our batteries, especially one this far! We thought you were in mortal peril or had grave news that could not wait!”
Plâton just continued grinning flagrantly. “Well, if that is what you desire over my company, I am quite unfortunately capable of providing both,” he said, “and I would hope your batteries do not take too long to recharge. We won’t have more than a few hours before several guardians come and tear this place apart. So,” he clapped his hands together and rubbed them in anticipation, “what will we be eating today? I’m starving.”
Archibald stomped his foot like an impatient child. “You are a storm on legs, you know that, Plâton Rai’enjoh?! Every time I have dealings with you, there is mayhem and disaster!”
Plâton winked at him with a smile that almost hinted at the sadness Atlas had sensed before. “I am strong. Strength is often something required when mayhem and disaster wreak havoc. It is the way of things and the reason those things seem to agree so well with my presence.”
Archibald peered at Plâton as if he wanted to impale him with his intensifying stare and there was a brief silence that seemed to stretch on forever. Finally it was broken by the old man called Tim: “We shall have jump capacity again in one hour. And for not more than roughly seventy kilometers I’d say. It is good to see you again, old friend. And I am sure Archibald is just trying to express how happy he is about your visit.”
Plâton nodded in agreement. Lynis also spoke, “We’ll have stew with chicken and goat’s milk. Strong boys need rich food,” she said with a smirk.
Plâton seemed to be considerably amused by somehow being included in the ‘boys’ part of her statement, but rather than mention it, he waved Atlas and Ayveron to follow him, and then followed Lynis and old Tim in turn. Grunting, Archibald turned as well and they walked along the outer ring. As they came past a strange terminal, the old man stopped and pressed a button. There was a shrill siren calling attention for a few seconds, and then the voice of a woman seemed to come from the walls, sounding strangely metallic: “For the purpose of energy augmentation, non-essential jump travel is to be suspended until the next city-wide jump has occurred. Until then all citizens are urged to use the rail-cabins instead.” After a brief moment of silence during which only the humming of the great ray of light and the intermittent crackling of electricity at its center could be heard throughout the city, the previous noises pushed the silence away once again.
“Wait, could anyone just push that button and make that happen?” Ayveron inquired hesitantly.
Old Tim winked at him. “No.”
The six went on after that and entered one of those so-called ‘rail-cabins’ to get to the highest of the six layers. It was a small room, more like a closet really, and as soon as Archibald closed the grate before them, the room started to move upwards as if someone was pulling it up, slowly at first, but gradually getting faster. In no time at all they had reached the top layer, but not before Atlas had the chance to get an even better view of the city as they moved and while they rode up, Archibald broke the silence with a forced casualness in his tone: “So, guardians you say…”
For the first time, just in the corner of Atlas’s field of vision, he could see Plâton’s smile grow dim and his brow furl in more than ponderous thought.

The Null

When he had tended to the mountain fields to provide for the brotherhood and himself, the high winds had often brought iron cold and ice upon Rei. In those days he had envied the goats for their thick curly fur. But never had he imagined that the endless sea of gray that was the Ever-Clouded Pass and upon which he had looked so often from those mountain fields would turn out to be the freezing hell that it was. He could hear his brothers shiver besides him and their teeth clack, for even though it was warmer in the windless pass than on the mountain fields, the shifting clouds drenched and soaked their black robes with water, which made their bodies chill out quickly.
The long and winding climb down the Ever-Clouded Pass was a trial not meant for the feeble, and he could not imagine now how he had made his way up here when he had still been a small boy. Little memory remained of the days before when a new acolyte joined the Brotherhood of the Null.
Now the five of them were venturing along the pass once more, together with two mules that had gear and provisions stored in harnessed saddle bags. Even the animals seemed uneasy in this wetness, and the path was treacherous, for one could not see further than a few feet before a wall of gray concealed all beyond. They were inside the clouds, and despite Rei’s childish hopes that they may be as warm and fluffy as they looked, they had turned out to be water in nimiety and water galore, as if a giant had swallowed an ocean and then sprayed it onto the mountain with puffed up cheeks. Rei smirked feebly at the thought of that. He should have known right from the start; after all, the clouds seeded rain and snow that blossomed into streams.
The five walked on silently, except for Brother Damhir who had to sneeze every once in a while and the mules who made some noises here and there to proclaim their unhappiness. But as they kept moving the cloud coverage became thinner and thinner the further they went down the pass and the gray wall that blocked their sight grew more and more distant, gradually, with every step they took. The further it went, the more the gray turned into white until it finally looked like snow and soon like shreds of clouds that kept shifting in front of them.
The view beyond began to clear and revealed the magnificent hilly and meadow covered country beyond them, like a green ocean that stretched on forever with specks of far more appealing water, which seemed to be a river stream here and a lake there.
They still had to climb down the pass for several hundred feet, but the most vexing part of their decent seemed to be behind them. “What a sight to behold,” Brother Uldaron said in awe, “the Sanctum and the Ponds seem like a small island in a great void when I see how this land stretches on forever.”
“Not forever, brother, see there: it’s the horizon,” Rei said and pointed into the distance, where the heavens gently kissed the Yamato Mountain Range.
They all paused there and looked at the novelty and grandness of it all before finally, Rei decided it was time to move on and their descent continued. They might have left the cloud coverage, but they were still soaked to the bone and much more exposure was likely to drive them sick and possibly claim their lives before they had taken three steps away from the Sanctum. Rei would not bear such shame, not now, not ever, and so he pressed them onward - downward.
When they finally reached the foot of the mountain, they took off the clothes on their backs and shuffled for new garb inside their luggage. Sure enough the Ever-Clouded Pass had taken its toll on that as well, but since everything was well-packed, the clothing was only a bit moist on the outside and still warming enough on the inside to wear without concern. Rei looked back at the great mountain, its top covered in clouds as it had always been. “Now we truly have left our home, brothers,” he said with a solemn voice. “The Walls of Weltenend lie behind us and so does the Ever-Clouded Summit and the Black Sanctum at its tip. We need to be brave now, and strong. We come from darkness, but the darkness we are about to plunge into will be evil and must be vanquished. We are the Null, what comes to be will come to naught.”
The others fell in: “What comes to be will come to naught.”
And so it was done. The words had been spoken and the journey would begin with this step. There still were many, many leagues between the Walls of Weltenend and the Middle Lands where they had to go. And so they went on westward with half the Great Land between them and their goal.

Atlas

The stew was the best thing Atlas had ever eaten. Though since he had been reborn, he’d only had some oatmeal which the old man from the monastery had given him before sending him on his way; and at the time ‘his way’ had meant a free fall of over one thousand feet - not quite an experience Atlas cared to repeat.
For now he focused on his food and his drink of warm beer while Ayveron had turned into an unyielding waterfall, talking and talking and talking some more with the man that Plâton had called old Tim. The two of them spoke about everything and nothing. About the city, Miyako Fluxum, and about Altonar as well, and Ayveron told about his studies and his work and inquired many a thing about the research done in Miyako Fluxum.
Old man Tim was most patient and even seemed delighted to have the young man to talk to. The conversation that Lynis, Archibald, and Plâton held was of a more down-to-earth nature which Atlas could better grasp. They talked about wars and droughts here and there, about the path that Miyako Fluxum had travelled, and much was said about Midas Creek as well. It was a medium sized town in the center of the Golden Sands, one of Aqualon’s two great deserts. Plâton had been some sort of general there, or still was - that much Atlas could gather.
“Since you took the trouble to call in dinner with us I am surprised you arrived here with those two boys instead of Aria,” Lynis noted, “are the two yours?”
Plâton’s jolly face grew grief-stricken. “No, not yet anyways,” he said to sweep the notion away, “and Aria… She has left this world three years back. An illness took her by storm and there was no time to find a healer.
They say the gears of destiny are cold to the touch, but you don’t know the cold until it cuts you deep.”
Suddenly Atlas could see the ages in Plâton’s features. He had seemed to be of those many decades of youth that were granted to most every man during which one could not tell what age another truly was until they asked. But now Atlas seemed to glimpse that Plâton was at the end of that time, soon to grow old. Or perhaps he already was far older and had by some force retained his young, vital appearance; such things were not unheard of.
“I am sorry,” Lynis said with a soft voice and reached out for Plâton’s hand.
Archibald seemed troubled by these news as well. “It grieves me to hear that, old friend,” he said; and it was the first time since they met that he addressed Plâton in such a familiar manner. Perhaps he had only seemed so distant because he was so incensed by the unreasonable summoning of his city.
Finally Plâton found his laughter again, for its brief absence had subliminally weighed on the room like a looming shadow. “Thank you. My, it is good to have friends in all five corners of the world I say. And it is good to see you again in particular. It has been too many years since last we met. I only wish times were brighter and would permit me to stay longer.” And by that he seemed genuinely saddened.
Atlas slurped his stew spoon by spoon and listened to the conversation while he observed the five of them, never speaking up himself. The chatter of Ayveron and old Tim had grown to a distant din in his ears, for learning more about this man who had taken him under his cloak without so much as asking seemed of paramount importance to him.
“Oh?” Archibald said quizzically, “what makes these times so dark? There is always some war somewhere, such is the way of men, but the lands are fruitful and they keep right on living - on the whole.”
Plâton sighed to that. “True enough. But this time it is not man we should be looking to. A dark cancer is growing in the Middle Lands and the Great Clockwork is crying out as a yellow glimmer eats through its gears.”
When Plâton mentioned the yellow glimmer Atlas winced and his left hand darted up to grab his right shoulder where a strange metal ornament with a big, black pearl in its center had been strapped on, though little of it was visible through his torn garb.
“Is everything alright, dear?” Lynis inquired worriedly.
Atlas nodded slowly and let his hand sink again.
“You have been as silent as a sleeping stone now that I think about it.” Her worried look did not dissipate, but her voice was kindly when she continued. “Your friend over there doesn’t seem shy to talk, what’s with you, boy?” Her eye hung on the slightly bulging garb with strips of metal showing through tears in the fabric where his hand had been. “And what is that contraption on your shoulder?”
Atlas sighed in sorrowful resignation. “Borrowed life I would assume,” he said, “mine own had to leave me behind quite rudely when I should have died.”
Plâton put one of his arms around Atlas’s shoulders, it was heavy; really heavy. It must have weighed almost as much as a human child, and maybe more! “Now this one is special,” he said. “He reeks of war, didn’t I say that earlier, Ayveron? And of power!” Lifting his mug, he took a swig of beer and then went on: “And you should have seen the old man that saved him. Cut a mountains tip clear off and not just a few feet of it neither, more like the top half. I’d say this one is a good bet to take care of that yellow glimmer. That is the reason you aren’t dead, isn’t that right, Atlas Muundir?”
Atlas swallowed another spoonful of stew, noticing in the corner of his eye the sudden shock in the eyes of the others. “That is not my name. I am just Atlas. And barely even that,” he noted in a most neutral tone. This man definitely knew much more than he should by any rights, that much Atlas could gather from the few times that he had spoken clearly. “Though as far as the glimmer is concerned, I do not see how I will find my final rest, as long as it remains,” he admitted, and then added: “Not that I shall stop looking into that…”
The dark space, the gate, the ice-covered mountain top, the hall of five; he had not forgotten what the true Atlas had done to him, nor would he ever. There was no place in this world for him, not here, not now, and yet here he was, and there was this slow, dragging urge that told him to do what he was meant to do, that little voice, that shred of power the real Atlas had left behind to make sure he would do his duty. Had the real Atlas always been so cruel? Then again, men seemed to grow all the crueler the higher the stakes were raised it seemed to Atlas. <And they also like to lie to themselves when the truth is too bitter to swallow,> he said to himself in his mind, <weakling.>
“Don’t be so glum, boy!” Lynis said impishly. “Borrowed or not, life is life! You should be glad you have it and thank whoever gave it to you. And make something of it too! If old Plâton says you have power, then you can probably move the heavens and the earth with your bare hands.” She seemed to jest with him, but even if Atlas felt that there was some truth in what she had said about life, he felt far too bitter to really believe it.
He had never asked for it, all he had wanted was to accompany the real Atlas through his life, to be the watcher and the well of power, and to take part of him back to the Great Clockwork when they went. But what was meant to be, had not come to pass as the real Atlas had left him behind. As his sorrow peaked, a deep roaring sound shook the room and made all lose objects clatter slightly, resonating through everyone’s diaphragm, as though a whale was drawing out a sad note, and the temperature dropped slightly. All but Plâton looked around in alarm at the unfamiliar noise, but Atlas just reached behind himself and jammed the sword back into the scabbard from which it had mysteriously loosened itself. “As you say,” he replied simply as the sound ceased.
Plâton took the arm off of his shoulder to eat again. The man had an appetite that put even Atlas to shame, who had been starving as far as he could tell. He believed the bowl before Plâton to be his seventh serving of stew and the man did not skimp out on bread either. Hungry like a wolf he dunked it in the stew, chewed through it and then put the bowl to his mouth to drink the rest.
“I can see you haven’t lost your famous appetite,” Archibald said with a faint grin after the room had echoed with nothing but Plâton’s slurps and the low hum of the artificial sun for a while. “I will never understand how you can keep all that food down and not have the belly of a walrus.”
Plâton shrugged to that. “I am no ordinary man - you could say I am bigger on the inside than on the outside. I need food and drink; else I would starve much faster than you. In return I have my strength.” In the brief pause of that sentiment the low humming of the great ray of light that softly permeated the living room of Archibald’s home began to grow to a shrill buzzing and the intermittent crackling of lightning became a permanent sound that grew louder by the minute.
“It seems we are about to jump,” Lynis noted and put to words what Atlas had already suspected.
Even Ayveron and old Tim had grown quiet to listen to the clamor the city had begun to produce. “Where will we go?” Ayveron inquired.
The old man tapped his fingers on the table. “Only fate knows that, young man. A guided jump requires more energy than we have at our disposal at the moment, so it will be a random jump this time. It is best this way if we mean to shake pursuers.”
Plâton nodded. “Indeed.”
And Archibald repeated after him as if to underline the gravity of what had been said: “Yes, indeed.”

Chapter III

Storms

When rain comes down like so many waterfalls and the storm winds rage - that is when I go outside. Between the jaws of the great powers of this world I can see a glimpse of true might.
- From the Book of Taishôgeki

Artemis

“The night has begun to spread, and it will consume the world starting with the Middle Lands. A sick night. A yellow night. Would you like some tea, child?” the old woman asked. She was a druid of the North, capable of wondrous magic, or so her people believed.
“Uh… was all of that addressed at me or just the tea bit?” Artemis inquired uncomfortably.
“It is what it is,” the woman replied and turned around. Her face was so very old. She almost looked like one of the great trees in the evergreen woods far down north. Artemis had seen drawings of these trees in books her father had her read when she was younger.
‘And even when the snow falls, they keep their green coat,’ her chasha had told her.
‘What is snow?’ she had replied. She still didn’t know how it truly looked like.
In her hand she held a small kettle. “River thistle,” she added.
Artemis nodded slowly. “Alright.”
The old woman turned around and clanked with some cups while casually saying:
“The suffering of your people will be trivial within its dark embrace, and in its embrace they’ll burn in a great bright light. You cannot lead them, not if you wish for them to survive the coming of the night. If that is what you desire, you will need to join the last Great War of this world and make haste of it. Walk out into the desert tonight to meet with your destiny, young Artemis. Once you have done so, you may return to do one deed for your people on the morrow, after that, leave for good. Think of your destiny and you will know whereto.” Again, the old woman turned around, this time to hand Artemis a cup of steaming tea. It was a simple, earthen cup, feeling rough in Artemis’s hands.
“How can you know this?” Artemis asked as if struck by lightning. She did not want to leave her people behind, and she only cared for one destiny: her birthright. And just like that the old woman told her to throw it all away and go off on some strange quest?
“I see these things in the bones and hear them in the wind and the rushing of the sands. Those who possess the third eye know the way of the world: where it has come from and where it will go. Some say it is the breath of every speck of dust we see, some say it is a Great Clockwork up in the heavens, some even say that the gods themselves give our destiny shape.
No matter, I see that shape and can tell much from it. I see the path ahead of you as clearly as you see your own tracks in the sand. Go now! If you miss the call, it will mean great destruction for all, especially your people.” The old woman was unyielding and she had turned around again, tending to one of her books.
It looked as if she was done with Artemis and she did not seem likely to be swayed to change her precognitions on her account, so Artemis drank her tea and left.
Walking the Red Sands at night was like to get one killed. There were vipers and scorpions hidden in the sand, and even though as a girl of the land she knew how to avoid them, that land grew cold as ice during the hours of the moon.
She ran back to her tent and grabbed a blanket to wrap herself in. Before she left again, she gave Sem-La a kiss on his forehead as he lay there breathing steadily, peacefully. “I will see you on the morrow, my sweet prince,” she whispered lovingly and left the tents and the encampment.
She did not know where to go; the old woman had not given any direction, so she just walked. She walked and walked and yet there was nothing. And what should there be? Why did she listen to the ravings of a mad old Kaltani druid? The Red Sands were sand over sand, tall and small dunes, but all sand and nothing else. There was nothing here save perhaps buried ruins from the days of Paro Aui Nekhbet Eshe Tabla Kayun, when much of the desert had been settled and prosperous. Paro Aui had been the founder of the Arkamanthali Dynasty, and as a Keeper of the Elements, the Lady of Water, she had used her awesome power to irrigate the entire desert, forming her own cadre of powerful water mages to maintain her legacy. Back in those days, Artemis’s chasha had told her, the old Pyramids of Arkamanthali that now sat derelict in the south-western region of the Red Sands, mere tourist attractions, had been shining in polished white tiles, most of which had fallen off them by now. They had been the heart of an empire, not a kingdom as Arkatrash was today. There had been cities littered across the Red Sands. Now there was one city: Arkatrash. And though it was one of the grandest in the world, Artemis often thought about how it must have been like, living in a land that was utterly alive.
She had not brought a shovel to exhume relics of ancient greatness, and the further she went the sillier she felt about all of this. When she turned around, she could still see the spires of the palace, but just as she decided the old druid could go play log or crocodile, beginning her walk back, she heard a most peculiar sound from below. It reminded her of stonecutting somehow. Carefully she lowered herself onto all fours and put her ear closer to the ground. She could still hear something… It was a sort of soft rushing… the soft rushing of sand!
<A sinkhole!> she thought in terror. She hurried back up, but there was no escape, only cold, suffocating death clutching her legs as the sand below her suddenly started moving into some unexpected cavity, sucking her in. “Sem-La!” she screamed with tears in her eyes before the Red Sands had swallowed her whole and nothing remained to tell of her presence.

Tales of the Valkyrie

Vanishing the way she had from the Salty Flagon was called ‘stepping out of the world’ among the Angel Saxons. It was somewhat unreliable direction-wise and required a very special pair of boots as well as a steady stomach. The Valkyrie had an exceptionally special pair of boots, and a stomach to feast with the gods. Of course she had also tried to drink herself into a stupor for half a day before stepping out, so as she was sitting in the back of the wagon, she carefully scrubbed dried vomit from her beautiful plated boots, which she had taken off to tend to.
“Now Ah hear you shining that metal back there,” came the voice of the fur trader at the front, “Be sure not to get any of that stuff on the merchandise, you hear me?”
“Yes, I hear you,” she replied sickly. She felt like she was ready to turn into a waterspout again. Or an alespout to be more precise. Her head was pounding. Of course no amount of liquor would ever be enough to make her forget the past or keep her from dreading the future. Not for the horrible things that would happen, but for those that wouldn’t. She was immortal as far as she could tell, forever bound to the world by the fragment of Wyrd implanted into her by the all-father. And for the past thousand years or so she had walked the lands from the northernmost tip of the world to its southernmost, from one Wall of Weltenend to the other.
But besides small disputes here and there, there had been no wars worthy of mention and barely a mad magus of renown to speak of. The closest she had come to blowing the Horn of the Last Winter was during the whole Balsibart affair - now there had been some real entertainment. And that for as much as a year or two! Just until she had fought him alongside the Lord of Water and a few assorted dunces, sealing him below the Saltplains.
She scrubbed furiously at what looked like a dried piece of carrot. <What in Helgard is that?> she wondered not without some anxiety, <I didn’t eat shit for two days!>
At the thought of that she gagged suddenly, her stomach revolting in more than one way. “Hey now! Please retch over the back side if you must. If the furs smell bad, Ah’ll get a really bad price on them.”
She held up her hand in what she hoped looked like reassurance. “Got any food?” she asked in her nauseous voice. “I can pay,” she thought to add.
“Pay? More importantly, do you really reckon you should eat anything solid? Seems to me like you might do better with a break.”
“No… Not eating anything is the problem…” She exhaled and sank against a soft ball of bundled sheep furs. Something flew towards her and she caught it with barely a glimpse. It was an apple.
“There’s also a piece of bread in it for you, if you’ve got an interesting story to tell. Ma wife baked it fresh this morning, might even still be warm. Might.”
She took a bite. “The apple will do fine. I’d only depress you if I started to tell stories.”
The man didn’t give up that easily: “So, you some kind of mercenary? That’s some pretty armor and Ah assume a pretty sword.”
“I’d say ‘knight’ describes it better, seeing how I am under the employ of… someone,” she noted.
“A knight? Now isn’t that something, ol’ Sharyl?” he said to his horse, an aged but pretty bay. Though the horses of the Saltplains tended to be beauteous beasts, even the lowest among them were stoic like kings for the grass here was lush and salty, made strong by the secret ocean that flooded the plains from below every now and then. “Strange for a knight to travel around alone without horse or squire. Ah don’t mean to pry of course, just curious.”
“You know, I should have a squire!” she exclaimed, seriously considering the thought the man had just planted in her mind. Perhaps she might find a wide-eyed Kaltani girl to take under her wing, maybe even a Gallian. No Skôts though, she was surly enough for two people and then some. “And maybe a horse… yes… that’d be nice.” She suddenly felt strangely heavy, and her head began to lull to the side. Perhaps all the binge drinking had been a less than suitable replacement for sleep. And as she blinked her heavy eyelids once, twice, everything went black briefly, before a sudden yank forced her wide awake, with a far clearer head than before.
She looked around quickly and noticed that she must have had fallen asleep since the landscape had changed, and the sun that had stood almost at its highest before was much lower now. The yank had come from the carriage stopping, and the man was speaking to someone else up front: “Come now, surely you can’t expect me to just turn around! A man’s gotta make a living!”
“A man’s gotta live to make a living, and there is naught but death ahead,” said another voice, deep and kindly.
A third chimed in: “Let him complain, Kêhlon, it is the least you can do. Can’t you see he has already decided to turn back?”
To that Kêhlon replied incredulously: “The least indeed! If I wasn’t here, he might actually forge ahead and get himself killed!”
“Now, now, no need to bicker on ma account,” the man now apologized. “Your friend is right, Ah’ll turn around. You’re good to warn people away, Ah did not know the Midasmen were so honorable.”
“I bet you didn’t,” Kêhlon said as surly as a Skôt, “so don’t be shy to tell your friends. I could do with an image improvement.”
“Ah’ll do that. And feel free to grab an apple from the bag. Ah’m just sorry for ma passenger.” The man gestured back towards the Valkyrie, which jumped out of the cart, noticed she had left her boot inside, got back in, put it on, then jumped out again.
“Sorry for what? I’m glad you took me as far as you did,” she thanked him, brushing back her hair, which she felt might be a bit out of order on account of the whole ‘drunken stupor and dozing off’-business.
Looking around, she noticed that the sky was lightly clouded and inviting, up until her gaze turned towards the north where the great city of Aquaris should lie in the distance. She expected to see the tip of the Spire of Rahn, or at least of Mount Toke since the rolling hills of the northern Saltplains didn’t impose much of an obstruction to anyone looking into the distance, but her eyes were greeted by a foreboding wall of grayish white that quite oddly went from ground to sky, creating a visual barrier towards the north. “Is that a snowstorm or am I still piss drunk?” she inquired, eyeing the cloud-like mass.
“It’s a snowstorm,” said the left of the two Midasmen. Judging by his voice, the right one had to be Kêhlon. “And you should move away from it and the Middle Lands in general. They are under attack right now and absolutely not safe for travel.”
“Hm, I have seen that black armor before… Did you guys’ boss kick me across a battlefield like forty years back?” She rubbed her sternum, which still hurt sometimes when the weather changed too quickly because of that particular encounter.
The two men looked at each other. “That depends, did he figuratively kick you across the battle field, or literally?” inquired Kêhlon.
And the other one added: “Literally also implying only a single kick, not some sort of sick ball game.”
“Yes, by Odin! Clear across the entire battlefield! I couldn’t see the damn battle anymore! I’m pretty sure he broke my sternum! And the landing cracked my ass bone. It was very unpleasant.”
They both exchanged meaningful looks again and not-Kêhlon replied, “Well, then yes, that was our boss. And since you survived that, you are… a Valkyrie I assume?”
“I mean… yes. Why does everyone always guess that right away?” she asked even surlier than before.
“The armor,” both of them said.
Kêhlon added: “Also calling on Odin is kind of a give-away, given the situation.”
“Well Ah had no idea!” the man said in surprise, “Ain’t that something, Sharyl, eh? We had a Valkyrie in our wagon.”
“Thank you!” the Valkyrie said to him. “And you two,” she turned back to the Midasmen, “let me pass.”
“Sure, pass away. But be aware that the water mages over there are pulling out all the stops against whoever is hitting them. We are just here because our boss told us to try and keep people out of the Middle Lands for as long as possible,” Kêhlon explained, his voice tensing up slightly. She noticed how he nervously glanced back at the storm.
“I should hope so,” she replied drily and made to move on, but Kêhlon held out his hand.
“Good luck,” he said. The other man too held his hand out.
The Valkyrie shook them both. No sense refusing a fellow warrior’s well wishes before battle. They were a superstitious bunch after all. She, and all the rest of them.
With that she checked if sword and armor were fitted properly and went towards the wall of gray-white, half-mumbling an old song of her forefathers:
Fly, we fly on wings of steel
And strike the ground with iron feet
Let arms sing bloody, blades let meet
And ‘fore us foes will fall or kneel

The Null

The brothers had been traveling for days now and the weather grew darker with every night passing. The green meadows that they had walked in the beginning soon turned into grazing land and cultivated fields. The hand of man had reached into these fertile plains and made them his own. A sign of the peaceful times, for the Null Concord was still in place and any large scale battle of mage armies would have to occur right here; or to be more precise on the ashes of Estverde within these Untamed Meadows.
The name turned into more and more of a misnomer and from time to time they saw farmers, who had worked those fields, retreat away towards their homes. Rei understood why: the weather turned progressively into a black storm which seemed to be moving in from beyond the peaks of the Yamato Mountain Range. It was good fortune that they soon came upon a barn and were allowed to sleep on the hay, even though the farmer who owned that barn was reluctant at first: the black brothers didn’t have the whitest of reputations. Not for their deeds to be sure, but they lived so secluded and most hadn’t left their sanctum for hundreds of years. As the saying goes, ‘The best bedtime story is the one that makes you quiver before you pull up your blanket,’ and many mothers stayed true to that maxim. What better stories to tell their little ducklings than those about the dark brotherhood at the ends of the world to make them huddle and squeal a little? For that reason the mistrust held against them was rooted deep.
In the end the farmer had been swayed by Rei’s words and granted them shelter for the night, so they could sleep and wait out the storm. They sat in silent vigil through the depth of the night and heard the gusts roar and the rains crash. A few hours in, the barn door opened and the farmer poked his head in with a lit oil lantern.
“Yeap, here they are, feel free to share,” he said and opened the barn door a bit further to let two other men in.
Their garb was plain, but they wore coal-black cloaks. It was not far off to assume they were pilgrims on their way to the Black Sanctum. Every other month one or two pilgrims would make the long voyage from wherever they came to the Walls of Weltenend to climb the Ever-Clouded Summit and visit the Black Sanctum. There they would bring their gifts and receive the grand master’s blessing. Some would be asked to tell the story of their travels and sometimes the grand master would permit them to stay and become acolytes.
The two men took a seat next to the brothers as the farmer closed the barn door behind them and left them to each other.
“You’re pilgrims too, black brothers?” one of the men said amiably.
He had shaggy red hair, a color oft found in the north. His beard was coarse and his features square. His companion was of smaller stature, pale and brown-haired. Their clothes and cloaks were worn out from long travel.
Rei shook his head. “’Tis true that we came from the Black Sanctum, but we are brothers of the Null sent out on a quest.”
The man laughed. “The Null have not left their sanctum in one thousand and seven hundred years, why should they do so now? Maybe your pilgrimage just went to your heads, eh?” he jested.
“If you say so,” Rei conceded. There was no point in arguing and nothing to be gained by either side. “We seem to be wandering in opposite directions, and my brothers and I have been in the clouds for a long time. May I inquire what has been happening in the world?”
The man laid back in the hay and thought for a minute. “People trade, people war, cities grow and sometimes they are leveled,” he finally said. “Old paro Iaret went and aided the Saltplains when the Kaltani declared war and he smashed them down and took many a slave from their ranks. But one year ago this upstart named Ôshiris slit his throat from ear to ear and took the throne. He’s paro now; and not the kindest as people tell it. Not sure what he did with Iaret’s children and wife, but I’d wager they are dead as well.
People talk about Miyako Fluxum here and there; a city that travels the world can keep men talking for all eternity: ‘I’ve seen it back in the Middle Lands!’, ‘I’ve seen it at the foot of the Yamato Kingdom’, ‘It was like a thunderstorm sprouting from the earth; it was just outside my farm it was’. People love telling how they saw the moving city, especially when they are drunk.
Humhum. The Yamato folk are as secluded as ever and why not? In their mountains they are save, and the ways of Middlanders and the like are strange and barbaric to them. We passed through their kingdom on our pilgrimage; they are a fascinating people indeed.” His eyes briefly hung on Rei’s features as he said so, then he continued: “The iron miners of the Rusty Shore grow richer every day and the Ocean Belt is perilous as ever: now that autumn is gilding the leaves of our forests, the storms grow stronger and more frequent, not only on sea but on land as well, as you can plainly hear.
But the real news lie in the Tower of Five: The Middle Lands and the Saltplains have long been ruled by the tower, and both the North and the two deserts have sworn fealty. But there are dark machinations going on in that tower - have been for years. I was a page there since my childhood days and I have seen much and lived through more. The Keepers were proud and wise once, the wisest in the land. Tall and strong they were, the Lords of the five elements. The first to go was Kathlyn Dulheine, the Lady of Lightning. They say she fell onto her own sword, but I was the one that cleaned her room afterwards and it is all that I can say that she had been crushed to death. I could not imagine the man who would be capable of such savagery.
She was the first. The Lord of the Storm Kenji Sokolow left on his own accord, but he left by night and silence. I helped him pack his provisions and was urged to tell no one of his departure as he snuck out. He seemed so very troubled; I thought he was fearing for his life.”
At this point the man paused for quite some time. His expression had grown more and more miserable, and it seemed that this tale had weighed heavily on his heart for a long time. No one dared to speak a word, until he finally found the strength to go on: “So there were only three left to the council of five: Lord Sameth of the Earth, Lord Atlas of the Water, and Lady Din of the Fire.
Aye, Atlas Muundir was the wisest of them I think, but he was blinded by friendship. When I saw what happened to him I fled the tower with but the clothes on my back. Lord Sameth had him dragged out by his Guardians and then they fought. It was a fight so terrifying yet enticing that I could not look away. I saw Sameth rip Atlas’s arm off and he grew it right back… well, he didn’t grow a new one really, ‘twas more like the old one un-ripped itself, if you take my meaning; it looked unreal, but that’s magic for ya I say. I didn’t see who won truly, not before I finally regained my wits and ran, but Atlas lay in the dirt with Sameth laughing over him like a madman. It was raining that day; I remember it well, as if the heavens were weeping.
Seems to me that Sameth is the evil that shattered the council, be it for gold, for power, or darker purpose still. I fear for the Lady, but she is just a child and hasn’t come to harm as of yet. I’d wager that Sameth is using her naïve nature to retain a more legitimate hold on the lands.”
It was a long and disturbing tale, especially since the grand master’s predictions and warnings cast a different light on it for Rei, a very dark light. “Say friend, did you notice any strange changes or such in the Lord Sameth?” Rei inquired, hiding his anxiousness as best he could.
The man frowned as he considered the question. “Well he acted the same mostly… he was a wise man of great integrity indeed. At least that is how he always appeared. But there was this one incident. In a battle he was gravely wounded, and in his sickbed he almost died. No one said anything, but I am certain of this: his eyes, brother, his eyes were of clear jade green before his wound, but when he emerged from his chambers healed, specks of gold had crept in there. It was a strange color, not as pretty as you would think it to be. Sometimes when he looked directly at me I almost felt sick. Not to the stomach, but somewhere deeper than my insides. It is one of the reasons I distrusted him so, feared him even.”
Rei heard the words of the grand master in his mind: they say it is as a yellow glimmer in the dark that eats at shadow and light all the same until they are no more.
If the heart of the Great Land was so rotten already, then hope was slim and no place was safe, except maybe the Black Sanctum, the moving city, and the last stronghold; and they would be safe only in the beginning. “Your tale is dark and disturbing, friend. We shall see what can be done and do it forthwith,” he promised solemnly.
The man yawned. “As you please. Try to be safe, brother, the strong will crush the weak.”
Rei did not blink. “Then it is good indeed that we are strong.”

Chapter IV

Stories

From the phantasmal clouded dream that is my life I awaken from time to time and among those rare moments there are some where the fog does not surround me still…
- From the Book of Taishôgeki

Artemis

The cavern was dark and spacious, but it was not as cold in here as it was outside. Artemis had been lucky: she had come crashing down with so much sand ahead of her that her landing had been cushioned and she hadn’t broken any bones. The caverns had saved her from a slow, horrible death, buried in the sands – for now.
She coughed up some dust and looked around. Her eyes had adjusted as much as they ever would, but there was almost no light here. The ceiling was closed, there were no torches, but around a corner there was the faintest glimmer and she stumbled towards it like a moth towards the flame. There was no light source there though, just another dark corridor, and far ahead the glimmer grew a little bit stronger. She saw glyphs on the walls and deemed this to be some buried castle or tomb. Of such there were many in the Red Sands: Buried remnants of the Arkamanthali Empire.
The Giranja provided water and life, and the paros of the ancient line had tamed the river and woven a mighty web of life through the desert. But as the Age of Heroes had swept across the Great Land, the water mages of Arkamanthali perished one by one, and one by one the sand dragged the cities back into its bosom, and swallowing the stone walls of men like any mighty ocean would.
Artemis followed the corridors as one led into the other, and the light became stronger with every step until she could actually read some of the glyphs. They told of a history most ancient and deeds most grand, but they did not interest Artemis half as much as finding the way out. A young girl like her would die down here quickly enough. She saw no signs of life, no water, and even without the scorching midday sun above her head she would grow thirsty quickly and succumb in a day or two.
After what felt like miles, she finally reached a great stone door that was open for just a crack. It had gotten brighter and brighter as she had approached, and though the light was still dim, her now sensitive eyes were well-adjusted to her surroundings.
Through the crack in the door, the light beckoned, so Artemis pushed her fingers through the narrow gap and pulled. She wrenched and struggled, but it was so heavy that she had to fight like a lion for every single inch, until, finally, it was open wide enough for her to squeeze through into the room behind it.
Inside there was an altar and on top of it lay a great bow that would have been oversized for any normal grown man and which was beautiful to behold. It was carved from strange white material that may have been wood or not and had patterns of the five elements, of feathers and clouds, and of many things engraved upon it. It was also covered in feathers wrought from white metal on both arms and its string was snow-white like strands of tail hair from a white steed.
Beside it lay a leather quiver with some arrows inside, but they seemed ordinary enough. Artemis closed in on the bow and slowly reached out her hand. She just realized that the bow itself was the source of all the light here. Still, this only served to further entice her, but just before her hand could seize it, a wash of sky-blue, glowing runes appeared on the flat, gray surface of the altar before her, which began to weep blue glowing water that gently trickled down its side and ran across the floor, lighting up the room. She withdrew her hand as she winced and read the writing in front of her:
A white wind, a war wind blows,
And wish upon a falling star
That Windfall sings no more bellows
But from bellows a queen may rise
With ashen skin and eagle eyes
Artemis shivered when she read those words. Nothing about them seemed like coincidence and everything in her screamed that she was being addressed personally. Of the one hundred tongues of men only two were used to write the poem, the very two that were used most commonly in Arkatrash and by the Kaltani. And Artemis was born of two kin indeed, for her father was of Arkatrash, her mother Kaltani, and like her father she had golden eyes, like her mother, her skin was much paler than that of most of the people who were born in the Red Sands.
She could only guess that ‘Windfall’ was the name of the bow in front of her. Still, she hesitated for a moment, fearful to believe what she wanted to believe. But in the end, she hardened her resolve, reaching out again, and this time she grabbed the bow from the altar.
She half expected for the walls to come crashing down or for her to burst into flame, but all that happened was that the bow stopped emitting light and the glowing runes vanished, so she was veiled in darkness once more.
She was scared at first, but as she wished for the light to return, the bow began to glow anew, though much weaker, like a small torch perhaps. After she picked up the quiver that had lain besides the great weapon, she saw that in doing so she had swept away some dust that revealed another, separate line, etched in there clumsily with a sharp object, perhaps a knife:
Rakata Rakta ri rul’yi
She did not recognize these words from anywhere and had no idea what they meant, which was quite odd: every child was born with the gift of one hundred tongues, the ability to understand the word of men instinctively and quickly learn any language should they be exposed to one for an extended period of time. Well, some accent of one’s first tongue tended to remain though. But no matter how hard she tried, the words meant nothing to her. They might have been the feint etchings of a fool or perhaps words in a secret or forgotten tongue, not that any of that helped her in any way. Now she had some sort of magical bow but still no way out.
At least the bow gave her light to walk the corridors. But before she went to squeeze out of the room again, she decided to let an arrow fly first. She felt like she had just gotten a new toy and could not wait to try it out. When her family had still been whole, Artemis had played with bows sometimes, but she never had been a great shot. Surely there was still time to learn though.
She pulled out one of the arrows, nocked it, and drew the string in towards her chin as she held the bow firmly. Her arm shook a bit from the strain and the weight of the bow. It was fairly heavy to her, and she couldn’t hold it up straight due to its size, so she planted one arm on the ground.
She aimed at the door and let loose. The arrow thumped forward with great speed and power. Artemis could feel it soar away as the bow twanged, but there was no sound when it hit the door, no sound at any rate that should have come from this. There was just a strange wau sound and the arrow seemed to plunge into the door as if it were made of water. The stone even began to ripple as it transformed into a sharp image of sands and night sky. Indeed so sharp that it looked as if the room just led out into the desert even though it was underground and most certainly lead into a corridor.
Artemis suspiciously walked towards the disk of otherworld and tried to touch it with one of the bow’s arms, just to see that it went right through to the other side. It was no image or mirage; it was a portal of sorts. Artemis stepped through, seeing no better option in her current situation, and was returned to the Red Sands unharmed - she could even see the encampment in front of her.
As she turned back the portal was gone. Windfall was not. The Bow rested heavily and reassuringly in her hand, now dark again, but still with power trembling just underneath its snow-white surface. Artemis could feel it now. <I suppose the queen has risen,> she thought to herself with a smirk.
The old woman said that she was permitted one last deed before she had to leave Arkatrash, and Artemis now knew what it was: She would free her people and shoot an arrow through the black heart of the usurper. She looked at the bow: <if you tear portals into walls, I wonder what you tear into bastards.>

Atlas

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

Tales of the Valkyrie

“By the gears, why won’t he stop screaming?!” Terror swung in Estreon’s voice, but the captain held him back:
“Frozen heart, cold mind, soldier.” The familiar phrase somehow broke Estreon’s shock.
The captain himself looked no less pale than Estreon or Toria. And Calvin, by the gears, the old gods, and everything in between… Calvin was writhing on the ground screaming like a stuck pig, even though all he had done was loose a jet of water on the Ardian magus. Some strange glimmer had traveled back through the stream, and after it went into Calvin he just collapsed, starting to scream bloody murder. In fact by now he was begging very vocally to be killed, a plea, Estreon felt, that was directed at the three of them. The Ardian magus meanwhile seemed to be mildly amused by their terror and raised a throne-like seat of hardened earth from the ground with a lazy murmur. He sat down, giving them a challenging look.
Calvin was not the first. In fact, a bunch of bloody corpses, clearly rent by earth magic were strewn about the place. A full contingent of mundane soldiers had been felled by the intruders. It was lucky that two could be taken out with arrows, but the third had raised a high wall and barricaded himself on this side of Aquaris. When one of the few water mages that had been present had risen again, inexplicably aiding the Ardian magus, all troops had been withdrawn, the ice dome had been raised around Lake Rahn, and the population evacuated as swiftly as was possible. Then the Frozen Fist was sent out to deal with the attacking magus. Kingdom gone and kingdom come had been declared on the city, and letter bombs had been sent out to the surrounding areas as quickly as possible.
That didn’t mean the situation made any sense at all. There was no rhyme or reason to the attack, and relations with Arda were excellent. Estreon for one would have been baffled if fear was not his main emotion at the moment.
“No water magic you have to maintain! Create projectiles, then cut your soul off as soon as they are flying,” the captain ordered.
After what had happened to Calvin, Estreon didn’t feel like launching a stone at the man with a trebuchet while a few hundred feet away, much less hurling water and ice laced with his own soul power, but his soldier instincts were keen, so he just replied with “yes, sir,” simultaneously with Toria.
“Smart boy, very smart,” gloated the Ardian magus, “but I don’t need to spread it through your magic, mine will do fine.”
He hadn’t spoken before. Why was he speaking now?
“And once you are more cooperative, I’ll let you kill me. Then you’ll go home victorious. Am I not a generous guest?” He winked dangerously at them.
The captain seemed to notice it before Estreon and Toria, though how he could keep his awareness in the presence of what seemed like concentrated, overwhelming evil, Estreon could not tell. It was Calvin: he had stopped screaming, and the man had begun to talk at the perfect moment to completely draw their attention away from the fact – away from Calvin. An arc of water came pouring down on them like a waterfall from their now standing former comrade. The captain, having noticed a split second before the attack came crashing down, formed a wall of ice out of the snow that was lying all around them.
To obscure the city and weave a net through which any attackers may be more detectable, the mages had summoned a mighty snowfall onto the city premises, and visibility was low. The main reason the Ardian’s ruse had almost worked.
The attack broke upon the wall, but it was too late for the captain. He grasped for his heart, his eyes widening. “Shit! You’re in command now, Estreon. One of you has to go to the lake right now, tell them what you have witnessed!” Then he drew his dagger and stabbed himself in the heart.
He stood so close to Estreon that he could actually smell the blood, and hear the suppressed scream as if it was directly next to his ear. Estreon’s gaze blankly turned to Toria who in turn stared on their twitching captain as he bled out quickly.
A roaring sounded over them as another surge of water soared towards them and the ground now began to tremble with earth magic, making their footing unstable. This was it. The contaminated water washed over them, and Estreon closed his eyes, ready for the pain to come, or so he thought.
But the pain didn’t come. Toria besides him breathed quickly, and he opened one eye to look ahead. He now saw Calvin, standing there, motionless. Poking through his chest was the blade of a shiny greatsword that was now slowly being pulled out.
When Calvin fell, a beautiful and terrifying figure stood behind him, clad in strange plated arm- and shin-guards, boots and gauntlets, covered with ornaments and inscriptions, the rest of her wrapped in many furs.
The helmet turned slowly towards the Ardian magus. “You next,” said a cold, angry voice, “and you!” She turned to Estreon and Toria, now more hotly. Both of them flinched. “It had to be bleedin’ snow up to my arse, hm? I spent more booze money than I care to count on that cutpurse of a fur trader! When I’m done with this prick you better hold me a gods-damned fea-hurk!”
Toria loosed a short scream when a jagged, compacted spike of earth rammed the armored woman square into her fur-covered side, right where any sane armored person would have worn a breastplate. The woman was knocked off her feet and hurled some distance before hitting the ground hard. This was it. Estreon had actually felt the briefest moment of hope when this stranger had appeared, but clearly she was some sort of idiot – holding speeches while in the middle of combat, who did that? He turned to Toria, shaking, and spoke with trembling voice: “S-soldier! You will go to the city now and tell them what you have witnessed, spare no detail. They mustn’t send more mages into open battle or risk losing them to the enemy!”
Toria’s eyes, previously transfixed on the woman that was lying on the ground, slowly wandered to Estreon: “What?”
“You heard the captain!” Estreon said, his voice growing firmer, suddenly bellowing in command: “Move, move, move!”
On the last move the spell that held her seemed to be broken, and she started scurrying off, but comically ran into a wall of earth that sprang up before her.
“Toria!” he screamed in shock, turning back to the Ardian magus, who now looked as if he was nearing the end of his patience.
“It was fun playing with you, but I think my sense is returning. I do, after all, have a duty to perform,” he said, almost regretfully.
In the corner of Estreon’s eyes there was movement, and he noticed as the armored woman got back up on her feet as though someone had simply knocked her over. She brushed the snow from her arm guards and furs, then turned to the Ardian magus: “Hey you. Hasn’t your mother taught you to let a woman finish her sentence before you hit her?”
“I can’t say that I ever heard her say anything even remotely close to that combination of words, no,” said the Ardian magus quizzaciously.
The woman wiped some blood from her lip with her left thumb; then grasped the hilt of her greatsword firmly. “I am going to cut you now,” she remarked coolly.
With a leap that would have made a Guantil-ya tiger look like a fattened house cat, she rushed at the magus, sword at the ready, but he was far less accommodating than before, got up from his makeshift throne, and reshaped it into a wave of earth meant to smack her away mid-air. The earth cracked; then crumbled as a gauntleted fist hit it with the force of a battering sensôga moth. This apparently surprised the magus as much as Estreon, and the blade cut down his right shoulder, not severing the arm, but rather separating it into two useless strips, dangling from the man’s side. He screamed as blood gushed from the tattered remains of his arm, and with a mad look on his face, he raised the ground next to him once again, this time wrapping the useless bleeding flesh in compacting earth to plug up the wound.
The woman, unsure of his intention as he did so, leaped back.
His face was contorted in a grimace of pain and rage. “Alright. I guess I’m taking you then,” he said, his voice pressed and livid.
The woman looked at her sword, dumbfounded. “There’s a little crack in my sword,” she noted. “Why is there a little crack in my sword?”
A roaring wave of moving landmass was now flanking her, ready to bury and suffocate her. In the shifting earth Estreon believed he could see a flickering yellow gleam. “Watch out for the glimmer!” he yelled at her. But she just jumped back in front of the magus, readying her sword. When the earth came closing in on both of them like the maw of a terrible monster, Estreon could no longer see what was happening. Then the woman burst through backwards, and the earth crumbled back down again. The magus had sustained a new injury and was breathing heavily, as blood oozed from his chest.
The woman was just preparing herself for a third and final blow, when something odd happened: Her left gauntlet began to glow and vibrate as the runic inscriptions on it lit up. Then it shattered into a hundred pieces, leaving her bleeding hand unprotected.
“OW!” She yelled with gritted teeth. Then she tore off her helmet, revealing a flowing stream of golden hair and a fierce expression of burning ire on her face. She looked at her injured hand and the pieces of armor on the ground, which were still glowing red with heat. “Scite! You broke my fucking gauntlet, you magus filth! Do you have any idea what you just broke?!”
The man was visibly panting and swaying. “Your fucking gauntlet?” he offered with a grin. Then he collapsed, lying motionless on the ground.
The woman walked up to him and stabbed him in the heart for good measure. “Crack in the sword and broken gauntlet. And no Angel Saxon smith for hundreds of miles,” she spat. Then she turned around to Estreon. “A feast now. And then I’ll need a replacement. One of those hackneyed angelscript imitations you southerners are so proud of will do until I can get back to my folk.
I don’t care if your superiors pay for it, if you take up a collection, or go into debt. As far as I’m concerned, you owe me your life and you’re getting off cheap. You’re lucky that I am fast bound for Arda.”
Estreon swallowed. There was no doubt now. He had been saved by a Valkyrie, and if the situation in the Middle Lands was as bad as it seemed now, she would bring the Aesir down on all of them.

Nanashi the Null

Rei was the other former citizen of the Yamato Kingdom, but he was in no position to stay behind since the quest had been bestowed upon him. The brothers he had chosen were his to lead and so was Nanashi. Since she fitted best into the crowd here, she was chosen to stay behind, for the Yamato folk were ever distrusting of strangers, and moving about Yamaseki might be more difficult for others.
After the night of the storm several weeks back, Rei had taken Nanashi aside and talked to her about the news they had heard.
‘We now know of at least one of the keeper’s deaths. Lady Kathlyn may have perished, but you know destiny’s plan for her soul as well as I, sister. Soon we will move through the old home, where you and I were born, the Yamato Kingdom, the mountains where the sun wakens. They have the foremost experts on weather forecasting in Yamaseki, and the legend says that the Lady of Lightning will spring forth during the greatest thunderstorm of her time. Our group will move on from the small village of Yokogawa but you shall stay there and begin your own journey. Find the new Lady of Lightning once she is reborn. Take her with you, keep her safe, train her, and once she is old enough, you will aid her in retrieving her blade from the Tower of Five.’
Nanashi had nodded and assured brother Rei that she would see to the Lady’s safety and education. They still had many leagues to walk then, but now she stood at the outer edge of Yokogawa, looking at her four black cloaked brothers’ backs as they slowly vanished in the winding mountain paths.
A light breeze swept over Nanashi and made the shishisô that grew everywhere in these parts cast a sound like soft murmurs in the distance, bringing with it a whiff of that smell she had known so many, many years back - back in another life: the smell of murasaki moth dust. She could even see a purple glimmer here and there where the wind hadn’t fully dispersed some of the dust trails yet. She looked around and saw one of the moths fly away into the distance, a young one not larger than a common house cat.
Now that the sun rose to bestow her gift upon the Yamato Mountain Range, the moths went to sleep to soon again cast their flapping dance of worship to the moons light at night. When she looked down beside the path before her, she could see the mountainside going down and forming terrace basins carved by the men who lived here. When rain fell, it would swell the mountain streams and flood the first terrace until it was full to the brim and then overflow into the next and the next and the next. The cycles of overwatering and drying were the best way to harvest rich crops of Yamato long corn rice.
The ground was oft not the best for potatoes so those were grown more seldom in these parts, making them more of a delicacy used in fine cooking. Wheat and barley could not stand the harsh, stormy winds and cold snaps that were part of the weather cycle up here, but she had heard that they were regularly sold to the Yamato folk by the Aerialingers.
Nanashi shivered a little from the cold winds and so went back into the village, entering the inn where the group had kept a room. Now that she was alone, she had switched to smaller accommodations. She sat down at one of the tables and was brought the bowl of steaming rice with some pickled vegetables and salted fish from Aerialis she had requested as well as some green leaf tea, which was grown in large parts on the Yamato Foothills to the west of the Kingdom.
After she had lifted her cup once to take a long, relaxing sip and put it down again, a man had seated himself in front of her. He had the features of a Kaltani: fair skinned with raven-black hair and strong shoulders. His garb was made of dark boiled leather and his hands packed in fine moleskin gloves that must once have looked most lordly, but were now worn out and dirty. A greatsword hung from his back and looked as though it was made of expensive steel.
Since all iron of the world was concentrated in the Iron Belt, it could only be mined there; and there it was most resilient against magical mining methods. Of course the old records claimed that the Angel Saxons of the north had their own sources of iron. Perhaps it was an heirloom blade.
Nanashi did not speak up; she just took another sip and waited for the man to start talking if he had any business with her. He cocked his head slightly to the left and then sat up straight again before speaking: “Ferst time I see a bruther of the Null,” he said. “When I ferst saw yer group I tought ye’d be pilgrims who had cume back from the Walls of Weltenend, but there ain’t no pilgrims who’d dare to wear the sign of the eclipse upon their backs as you five. So what brings a bruther like yerself up here?”
Nanashi put down her teacup and pulled back the black hood that had concealed her face before. “I am no brother,” she said. “And I may ask just as well: what would bring a Kaltani like yourself all the way up into these lofty heights?”
He was nonplussed for a moment as he apparently really had taken Nanashi for a man, but he recovered quickly. “A sister then,” he admitted. “An’ me m’self I came up here to see the moths. They grow tall here like the mammoths in my homeland they say.”
Nanashi knew that he was lying or keeping the truth from her the instant the words left his mouth. There was a strange glimmer in his eyes. Perhaps… pain? Yes. It looked like there was suffering in his eyes. “They can grow quite large here, yes. Only the ryûga grow to colossal size though and they are rare to find. Sensôga are probably a bit smaller than one of your mammoths, though I have only ever seen drawings and read descriptions,” she replied casually.
The man nodded. “So I’ve heard. I have also heard of one nearby, a riyohga.” He struggled with the word, forcing Nanashi to suppress the tiniest of smirks. “Say, where are ye headed?” he inquired.
Nanashi considered for a moment not to tell him or to lie, but falsehood was frowned upon by the brotherhood and she had not been asked about her actual errand, so she decided against it: “Yamaseki. I am headed for the capital.”
A wide smile crept over his face. “Then ye are in luck! I’m headed there as well and I know the fastest and safest way.”
Nanashi eyed him wearily. “And which way would that be?”
He pointed at the wall behind her. “One league as the moth flies that way. Through winding mountain paths lies the shack of the moth herder. They say his moth can carry any man through the Yamato mountains, given he can pay the fare.”
Nanashi raised a brow. “And what would the fare for such a flight be?” she asked curiously. She had heard of moth riders, old legends passed down from the Age of Heroes, before the mighty technocrats had chosen to segregate; the one that preceded this current Age of Gears and Elements.
The man had brought a small rice wine bottle with him and a cup. He filled it and swallowed the white liquid in one go. “They say that he asks the same of every traveler that wishes to use his service: to tell him a story he does not know yet.” He smiled fondly. “Must have some Kaltani blood, the lad, there is little ma people love more than a good story told in front of a warm hearth, maybe with a mug of mead to warm the soul.”
Nanashi had some recollections of stories she had heard as a little girl, though that was many, many winters ago. However, the Null were often called ‘the keepers of history’ for they held the most extensive library on the history of the world. And reading was her greatest passion. “Now sit around the fireside…” she quoted absent mindedly.
“Oh!” The man’s face lit up like the sun, “Yer edda musthaf been Kaltani then!”
She shook her head, still in thought. “Just something I read in the past…”
If she was lucky enough to know a story the moth herder didn’t, and she should have a fair chance at that, her journey to Yamaseki may yet become a short one. The mountains were perilous, and this short cut would safe her significant travel time and danger. “Then it is decided,” she finally said, “we will walk together to see this moth herder. I am Nanashi of the Null.” A late introduction.
The man nodded in approval, “I am Günter, Günter Oakenheart.”

Atlas

“Before I can begin your training I first need to tell you how I came to learn the art of the Great Impact. Taishôgeki is not just a philosophy, but also a martial art.
You may have heard of some militaries practicing these; long lived traditions, often born in war, sometimes in peace. These days, most practitioners, or I should say most masters, are wise enough to see the greater value in peace. The arts have been held in low regard since the Age of Heroes ended, because the spell fighting arts of such groups as the White Lancers of Aerialis or the Mighty Worms of Arda have always proven more deadly in war,” Plâton explained, but failed to suppress a snorted chuckle, “I apologize, I can never say their name with a straight face. Anyways, I hear that these days there are even martial arts tournaments in Yamato, so maybe people are warming up to them.”
The small fire they had started from twigs and branches the strange man had had the two of them gather crackled and warmed their camp sufficiently while it slowly grilled the haunch of deer roasting on a stick suspended above it. Plâton had not taken longer than it took Atlas and Ayveron to gather firewood to hunt down a deer, refill their water, and gather some mushrooms and herbs from the forest. The man seemed to be capable of performing miracles when unobserved. Now they sat there, perched on the bedrolls provided by Archibald’s generosity, in hungry anticipation while their succulent evening meal was dripping grease into the flames as it cooked. Atlas was hungry, but he still listened carefully to what Plâton had to say.
His red hair began to sway in the soft evening breeze while he stared into the fire as if it had the power to reveal the secrets of his past. Then he spoke again. “It is a story that begins with the day my mother first held me in her arms.
This may seem like the normal beginning of any story, but I was no newborn at that time: I was a dying young boy. Wandering the icy lands of the high north I lost my way. Had I been hunting with a party back then? With my father perhaps? I don’t remember anything of that life, much like you don’t remember most of your past life, Atlas. All I know is that I was lost in the ice and stumbling towards a slow death, surrounded by cold white nothingness.
I walked and walked forever, and five eternities seemed to pass me by as the snow fell endlessly. When I finally fell to my knees, two giant men seemed to appear in front of me. But they were no men: they were statues, the pillars of the Bifröstgate, which leads to the Bifröst, a rainbow river of light that flows to the realm of the old northern gods, you see. It is as much legend to the Nords as those gods themselves, and that I was born a Nord is as easy to see as the fire in my hair. When I laid eyes upon those two guardian statues, the northern lights began to erupt from the night sky, thick clouds above suddenly tearing open, glowing in all the colors you can imagine, cascading down, down to where I was kneeling, flowing into the gate like a river of light.
I saw a veiled figure emerge as the world turned darker and darker in my fever. I thought it was a sweet maiden come to carry me to Helgard where my ancestors were waiting for me, but it was not. It was a woman of the Aesir, the old gods. She had come through the Bifröst and found me lying there, dying. She picked me up and carried me to her hall, into the realm of Asgard that has been cut out of time by the faceless world-shaper. That is where my story begins.
Ah… The meat is ready!” he suddenly said and took the stick with the haunch down from the fire to carve out some juicy pieces for Atlas and Ayveron.
He jammed the meat on small pikes he had whittled for their meal and handed one to each, then he put the next haunch over the fire to roast while he chewed his share right from the bone. Atlas and Ayveron had grown silent as the grave while Plâton was talking. “What happens next?” Ayveron urged. He seemed as taken with this fantastic tale as Atlas.
If Plâton had indeed lived with real gods then it did no longer surprise Atlas that nothing seemed to faze the man no matter what happened. Plâton turned the second haunch dreamily and one glimpse revealed that he had already cleaned his meat to the bone when Atlas and Ayveron had not looked for a few seconds. He really did perform miracles when nobody looked! “Very well, you shall hear the story of the boy who would live with the gods…
I opened my eyes with the dead sleepiness of the snow slumber still in my bones, but the cold had been swept away by the warmth of a crackling hearth and the lap of a woman grown. I was a boy of eight, perhaps ten years, and the frost had taken most of my memory with it as if it was a prize to be clawed from me in return for the life the woman had stolen. Her smile was as warm as her embrace and her hair yellow like the midday sun, her eyes blue as the sky. “Mother?” It was more instinct than question that made me blurt that word with my weak mumbled voice and I could feel the breaths painfully whenever fresh air filled my lungs.
The cold had bitten deep. Her smile faded then, I remember it, but it was not anger or denial I saw in her features then, just marvel, she marveled at me. Why did she marvel at me? Such a beautiful woman, marveling at an ordinary child such as me, why?
“Yes…” she then replied, “Yes, I am your mother.” She wrapped her arms around me to hold me tighter. “My son,” she said. And my eyes closed again and the sleep overtook me once more.
But this time I did not dream of deadly cold and encroaching ice, just of warm spring and soft, rolling hills and the smell of beautiful flowers that were scented just like the kindly woman who now was my mother.
I awoke again two times and went back to the dark just as quick, before I had regained enough strength to finally rise. The woman never left and kept me warm in her lap. I could not tell for how long, for time seemed meaningless to me in that moment. Death was looming too close still, and he is the only true lord of time. When death walks near you his power over you is greater than that of the Great Clockwork. The gears fall in line before him and turn to his melody.
When I woke for the fourth time, I could drag myself onto my feet. The kindly woman was still with me and with me she rose. Around her neck she wore a fox pelt shawl of white, her cloak was made of a thousand thousand white and gray feathers, and her gloves were made of fine black leather, though one of them lay there besides the place she had sat.
I still remember that one glove lying on the ground as if it had been just yesterday. My hand went up to my forehead where I pressed it firmly. My mind seemed not to be in order that day. I thought of a rainbow river, a storm of ice, a great hall, a small shack in a light, mossy forest with a white, little stream running before the door, but I could focus on none of those things as they all spun around so quickly and turned into a blurry haze that taunted me so.
“Easy my child, the frost was upon you when I found you and you were slipping into the snow slumber. The strength will leave you soon again if you stand too long,” the kindly woman said and she pulled a beautifully carved oaken chair from a long table for me to sit on.
I almost missed it when I tried to sit down. I felt tears well up in my eyes, though why I did not know. “What happened to me? Where am I…?” there must have been fear in my voice for she embraced me as a mother embraces her child when it is afraid, and it made me feel safe again. Her warmth seemed to incorporate all the opposites of the dead cold that had tried to drag me to Helgard before.
“You got lost in the snow and the spirits of the ancestors guided you to the Bifröstgate. They guided me there as well and that is how I found you,” she said with a voice like a summer breeze, like the oceans waves and the mountain winds. “You have swum the rainbow river and entered the realm of Asgard, one of the two that remain of the nine realms of the beginning.” Looking about, I saw that I was in some sort of large shack or longhouse made of strong, old wood. On the other side of the long table was a big hearth. There also was a large bed with many ostentatious pelts. On some sort of shrine at the wall stood a bowl of clear water with a small gear inside that stood up on its side all by itself, turning endlessly like a waterwheel and creating soft splashing sounds that calmed the mind. “Who are you? … and who am I?” I kept asking. There were so many questions; things that I once took for granted had gone with the frost and I could not remember, no matter how much I wanted to. The fear was still there, so I returned the embrace this time, almost clawed into her back as if I was afraid she would go away if I let go.
“I am Freyja, the keeper of the small woods, most just call me Lady,” she explained, “and your name I do not know. Would you like to have one?” she asked kindly.
“Frey-ja…” I said slowly to see how the word would feel on my tongue. “I… would like to have a name, yes!”
She nodded and pointed to the bed. “I shall see if I can acquire a lexicon. You should lie down and rest some more. Just have some of this before you go to sleep.” She opened a small cupboard and pulled out a wooden bowl and spoon and filled it with hot soup from a cauldron above the hearth’s fire.
It was the best thing I had ever eaten, or so I thought. I could not remember eating ever before. After I had emptied the bowl, the sleepiness had spread out from my bones back into my body and head once again and I did as I was told, lying down inside the pelts and furs. They were soft and warm, but somehow none so as the lap of the kindly woman, Freyja. That time I mumbled the name over and over before falling back into oblivion. I wanted to burn her name into my mind so I would never forget and show her that I could remember. She was my mother and I wanted to be the best son to her that I could, there was nothing else for me in the world, everything else had been taken. And with these thoughts on my mind I went back to sleep…
Hmm… The hour grows late,” Plâton ended. “Finish up your deer, we will sleep until sunrise, then we move on.”
All of a sudden, Atlas felt not the least bit tired and one look told him the same was true of Ayveron. The story had been too enticing and they had to know more. What was this small wood? How did the realm of Asgard look like? And who was this Freyja? The name sounded very familiar to Atlas’s ears, but where had he heard it before? Was she one of the gods? “Please,” Atlas said, “continue the story.”
But Plâton’s mind was set: “The next eve I will. Now my eyes are tired and my throat grows hoarse with no mead or ale in sight.”
And he would hear no more of it. So Atlas and Ayveron finished what was left of the meat. Plâton had somehow used the mushrooms and herbs he had gathered to also cook a delicious soup with some of the fat, bones and entrails. Most of it was left untouched so they could eat it tomorrow. When they were done, he put out the fire and lay where he sat, soon closing his eyes.
“Plâton,” Atlas whispered.
He opened one eye. “Yes, Atlas?”
“Shouldn’t one of us stay awake to guard the camp? What if the Guardians are upon us?”
Plâton gave a short harrumph to that. “Do not worry, my young friend. I have met neither person nor creature that could creep up on me yet. If something nears I will wake for it, so rest in peace.”
And so Atlas did. He just assumed that as soon as he himself closed his eyes, Plâton’s unobservable miracle quality would come into effect. So he did just that and woke not until morning.

Chapter V

Windfall and Downfall

Pressure is what weighs us down. But look how gravity weighs you down and has made you to stand tall with its pull. The things that weigh us down give us the power to stand up and fight, and they make us strong.
- From the Book of Taishôgeki

Artemis

Artemis climbed onto a block of marble that was still not yet completely carved and polished. It stood more or less in the midst of the slave camp besides the small channel, where the gravel was sent off in little boats down to the city and marble from Yamato was shipped in for building. The sun would rise soon, but the Kaltani had not yet been woken to go to labor.
She had snuck into her brother’s tent to wake him; then they sought out the tribe leader, a stout woman named Eoforhild of Sluridyke. She was a red-headed, battle-worn shield maiden, who had seared out her left eye in honor of Allfather Odin before the great battle sixteen years ago.
When Artemis and Sem-la had entered her tent, she had already been waiting for them: the old lady and her strongest fighters at her side. And Artemis had been filled with fear for a moment, when she wordlessly held out her hand to inspect Windfall. Still, she had handed over the weapon, and Eoforhild had returned it to her after a short inspection, saying: ‘A curious bow. I sense the power of the Angels within it, but no Angel smith forged this, I think. It will do.’
They had spoken many words then, and decided that Artemis would call forth the tribe: She was well-liked and had king’s blood in her breast.
“KALTANI~!” she cried with the loudest and most lordly voice she could summon, standing elevated on the block of marble, half engraved with Kaltani motifs of wolves and conifers. The call echoed through the camp and was followed only by silence. Eoforhild, her men, the old lady, and Sem-la stood behind Artemis. Had they not, she had felt foolish now and disheartened. “TODAY WE FIGHT; TO ARMS! TO ARMS!” Artemis yelled in the tongue of the Kaltani, and there was no mistake in the purpose of her words.
Again there was a dragging silence that followed her call, but it did not last. Heads started poking out of the tents looking at her as she held Windfall high above her head. The bow now reflected and amplified the light of the rising sun, shining like a bright beacon, and the leadership standing behind her framed the message unmistakably: Today was war day.
“To arms… to arms…” The murmur was all around her. “TO ARMS! TO ARMS!” she called once more and this time Eoforhild and her men began to howl behind her, mimicking the cry of the wolf. The call was picked up by her people: to arms they clamored now, and some howled as well. They streamed out of the tents and onto the still cool sand; they grabbed whatever they could for weapons: hammers and ropes and sticks and nets and chisels.
During his reign, paro Iaret, Artemis’s father, had not been well liked by his slaves, for the Kaltani were willful. But they had held a strange respect for him as he had defeated them in war; and the cruel, bloody reign of paro Ôshiris had turned Iaret into somewhat of a martyr to the Kaltani: Iaret the Kind, Iaret the Just, that was what they liked to call him only half-mockingly, and they all knew his daughter Artemis and her brother Sem-La, who had been forced into slavery after Ôshiris had struck his head off and hung his wife out to bake in the sun until only her bones were left.
Now Artemis raised the bow she had recovered from the hidden ruins up high, the feather ornaments that defined its shape gave her the look of a Valkyrie in her people’s eyes and they rallied around her like a pack of wolves around their leader.
“KALTANI, HEAR ME!” she yelled into their midst, “I, ARTEMIS IARET, HAVE CHOSEN THIS DAY FOR OUR OPPRESSION TO END! A GREAT POWER HAS BEEN BESTOWED UPON ME, AND WITH IT I WILL SMASH THE USURPER! TO ARMS, MY BROTHERS! TO ARMS, MY SISTERS! MARCH WITH ME AND WE SHALL REAP BLOOD AND FREEDOM!”
Blood and freedom were fairly high on the Kaltani list of ‘pretty neat stuff to have; double value for anything acquired in battle’, this she had learned in her time with them, and sure enough they took up her call and raised a great din all about the encampment.
She jumped down from the marble block and walked to the front of the crowd towards the royal palace. The Kaltani went to the side to give her walkway and some held out their hands so they could touch her as she walked by. It was said amongst the Kaltani tribes that the touch of a worrier could bestow the strength of his spirit upon you. They began to whisper her name here and there until they called it out loudly, chanting, cheering. In all her life Artemis had never felt such power and admiration, never had she felt more a queen than now. She could see at the rim of her sight how the mob dragged down several guards that had the misfortune to be in the encampment during the uprising and they tore them apart like rabid wolves, tearing with the hatred a man grows with whip lashes, day after day. When Artemis had reached the front, her new sense of authority almost wavered, as she saw blood in the sand. One of the guards had been hacked down with implements, still twitching slightly on the ground. Nothing had ever seemed more real and horrific than the shape of the dying man in front of her, safe one. But the moment passed. She walked on towards the castle.
“MARCH!” she commanded, barely parting her clenched teeth, weaving her army with her bow to follow.
They did not march long, for the castle lay close to the tomb the slaves had been instructed to build for the new paro, letting the one they had almost finished for her father lay bare, even tearing parts of it down for material. Artemis signaled her army to stop when the gates lay maybe five-six hundred feet in front of them. The paro’s castle had strong walls and a sturdy gate that had been hastily closed to the Kaltani’s arrival. They would stand no chance to break in and there was no siege equipment they could use at hand. Artemis raised Windfall. The last time she had shot that strange bow, it had opened a portal, just as she needed it, and she hoped, no knew, it would do something similar this time as she drew, nocked, and aimed at the gates in a wide arc.
At that point she saw a rain of arrows fly from the castle walls towards her and her people. She loosed and let her arrow fly as well. For a moment it was no different than the hundreds of arrows flying in the opposite direction towards her and she could feel the men and women around her hold their breath. Then it happened: A white and blue vortex began to whirl around the arrow like glowing snow, no… not like glowing snow; it seemed to actually be snow, falling gently towards the sand where it passed outside the aura’s glow! The sand under the arrow was covered in white quickly and a storm wind whirled up the red dust, blowing all the arrows away that would have rained death upon them.
Windfall’s arrow was now surrounded by an astral shape that seemed to grow legs and a head until it took the form of a great frost wolf that rammed the gate and tore it to pieces.
There was a long moment of absolute silence, so thick that even an Angel blade might be slow at slicing through it. Then all hell broke loose. The Kaltani screamed as if victory had already been achieved and stormed towards the castle with all their might.
Nothing was in the way to hold them anymore; there was no moat, not here in the desert, and the gate was in shambles as was the watch tower on its left side. Artemis had no choice but to go with the charge or she would have been trampled. The magical arrow seemed to have routed the ranks of the castle guard, but they found the presence of mind to shoot again and another hail of arrows came down on them. Artemis lifted Windfall and shot upwards. This time there was no frost wolf: the arrow exploded mid-air in a wide glowing disk that tore all the incoming arrows apart and turned them to useless shreds of wood. It only served to strengthen the resolve of the Kaltani slaves and most certainly crush any fighting will the castle guard may have had left. There wasn’t that large of a contingent there anyways: a few hundred at the most, probably less. The main force of Arkatrash was located in barracks around the city, often assisting in construction projects during peace times.
What followed now seemed like a hollow dream every time Artemis tried to remember afterwards. The castle was sacked mercilessly. Many guards laid down their arms and where killed where they stood. The Kaltani had suffered much, and now the bloodlust was on them. Artemis had to shoot at least one man as well and she would never forget his face: it seemed more surprised than pained as he looked down at the feathered shaft in his chest.
Other than that she had to knock around a few attackers with the bow itself. She wasn’t very strong; but slender and quick, which made her a difficult target, and Eoforhild actually stayed close to her, to keep her alive. A great sacrifice, considering it reduced her chances to kill as many Arkatrashians as possible. Nonetheless, Artemis took a fair share of cuts and bruises during the sack. After three long hours it was over and the castle was hers.
Somewhere Artemis had known how bloody this would be, but she still hadn’t been quite ready. She would have retched, but there wasn’t any food in her stomach, a fact that she now became painfully aware of. She may had fainted had she not already suffered the bloodbath the false paro had inflicted upon her when he murdered her father and his personal guard and left her mother to rot.
As Artemis looked over the dead bodies of castle guards and Kaltani alike, she remembered that day. It was two days after Ôshiris had strapped her mother to that pole. They gave her water once a day so her death would stretch on for a long time, and even though she knew it, she drank that water greedily every time. Artemis still remembered as much, still remembered how she kept thinking ‘why?’, how she kept, somewhere in the dark recesses of her heart, hoping she would refuse the offer one day. In the night of the second day, Artemis had crept close to her mother in the veil of darkness. She had moaned in pain, too weak to scream. The hot sun of the day baked her alive, and the dead cold of the hours of the moon chilled her to the bone. It was suffering not befit for anyone. Artemis had risen behind her bound mother; she held a heavy jagged rock in her hand. Slowly she lifted it with the tears welling up in her eyes and… “Schamani!” a bulky Kaltani man called out to her. Schamani were the Kaltani mages of old, who worked tribal magix passed down from father to son, mother to daughter, druids, not of healing, growth, and seeing, but of war. They were revered by their peers, sometimes even worshiped. The man’s name was Ísenbôg, a name from one of the Kaltani’s lexica in the tongue most used in and around the Winterpine Woods. It meant iron arm.
Artemis snapped out of her flashback and looked at Ísenbôg, his scarred back was unharmed but his face, bosom, and his arms had taken long cuts and bruises. He held an Arkatrashian glaive forged of shiny bronze. Ôshiris had struck a bargain for iron with the fat frog from the Rusty Shore not two days ago, Artemis remembered it well, but the frog had not even returned to his home yet, and no iron had yet been shipped upstream over the Giranja, at least none meant for Arkatrash.
“What is it, mighty Ísenbôg?” she asked, honoring him the best way she could. She had seen him crush his way through enemy ranks with a hardwood broomstick as if it had been a steel forged war hammer, fearless and unstoppable.
He clacked the shaft of his new glaive on the ground and stood straight. “I give thanks to you Schamani, me and my people, your people. We are free once more! The retched pigs have been tied up in the throne room. What shall we do with them? String them up, gut them, flail them?”
Artemis thought back to the pain in her mother’s eyes. “Cut them down swiftly. I wants be done with the traitor and his thralls. May the dark side of Helgard give him the warm welcome he deserves.” Then she paused briefly, struck by sudden thought. “In fact, make it so: give him the lodestone of one of our fallen comrades; I am sure there are many in Helgard that would like a meeting with their former king.”
Ísenbôg gave a belly laugh to that remark. “I’d rather give them a taste of that now myself, but I shall honor your request, Schamani.”
Artemis assumed that he chose to address her as such because of the miracles Windfall had performed before their eyes. She herself had no powers to speak of, but nothing would be gained from arguing that point. She nodded and Ísenbôg went back into the castle. Suddenly her head jerked left and right, and she turned all around looking wildly. “Sem-la? Sem-la! Sem-la!”
Where was her brother? Where was he? She ran around the plaza behind the castle walls, calling for him when he suddenly came into sight. “Artemis,” he said panting. His left arm showed a deep cut and hung loosely from his shoulder, but otherwise he seemed well and alive. “Sem-la!” she called out in relieve and embraced him. “Are you well, is everything alright? Your arm!”
Sem-la hugged her back one armed. “I can’t move it, but I can feel it still. I will be fine, sister. How are you, are you unhurt? What did you do back there, what is this weapon you carry? I did not understand when you woke me and we spoke with Eoforhild, I understand it less now.”
Artemis let go and showed Windfall to him. “The old woman told me to walk into the desert, saying that there I would find my destiny. I fell into old ruins and uncovered this bow: it is called Windfall. I am not sure yet how it works, but it gave me the power to free our people. Surely it is a gift from the Aesir.”
Sem-la touched the bow and stroked over the silver-steel feathers. “What a beautiful creation,” he marveled, “I did not think I would see this day, sister. Thank you.” His embrace tightened briefly before he let go. She could hear the relief in his voice: the relief of seeing an end to the slave labor, to the hours on end under the burning sun of the Red Sands that would rend his body and soul, the relief of being a free man once more, the relief of the murderer of his parents being served justice.

Rei the Null

It had been several weeks since Rei had ordered Nanashi to stay behind. He had had four brothers with him – well, three brothers and one sister – when he left the Black Sanctum. Five brothers, Five Cities of the Middle Lands at which they were to meet with evil forces, and now there were only four brothers left, so Rei would have to take care of two cities by himself. Still, the task he had bestowed upon sister Nanashi was too important to omit: the five keepers belonged to the faction of the mages, but even the Null acknowledged their importance and place in the works of destiny. It was in fact their belief that the keepers belonged not to the mages, but the world at large. Their destiny stretched far beyond the Middle Lands, and only the power of the five mage cities and ancient treaties tied them to that place.
In finding the new Lady of Lightning and raising her, a new smidgeon of hope would be speckled onto the canvas of fate, of this Rei was certain. His brothers and he stood now on a large hill near the Moon Road, silently watching, their cloaks flowing in the strong breeze whirring about them.
“She is dying,” said brother Damhir. To their relief, he had recovered from the cold he had caught during their descent from the Ever-Clouded Pass.
“She isn’t dying, she is being butchered,” corrected brother Sceadubaern as his stern, ice-gray eyes were fixed on the city that lay ahead in the far distance, barely a speck beyond the Erdwald forest. Flashes of yellow light and enveloping blackness burst up into the heavens there, but over here it looked like no more than the light of a bulls-eye lantern flashed into the distance, so far away it was.
Mastery of a gate, such as the Null learned during their meditations, granted a strange sort of sight, one that was governed by the clockwork. By this power, the four brothers were able to spy into distant lands, seeing the grim spectacle unfolding before them.
Far off, Rei could sense other evil workings, hammering at the door of each of the five great cities of the Middle Lands.
“Is that null magic I feel? It seems not quite right,” Brother Bjorn asked, his voice almost a whisper.
Rei clenched his fists. “No. This is no null magic. It is a dark evil, a corruption of the Great Clockwork itself perhaps. There is some sort of nullification happening over there; souls are turned away from magic, but it is of likes I have never seen and never felt.
You three have been assigned your targets. Go! I shall take care of this one. Perhaps I am not too late to save her life yet.”
His brothers nodded and they went their separate ways, each to go to one of the five great cities of the Middle Lands. Rei would take the remaining two, including Arda, the city they had been watching just now. He walked ahead and his steps turned wider and wider until he started blinking ahead by hundreds of meters at a time, though only an outside observer would be able to tell, none that traveled with him, if there were any. He had begun to open the fifth gate, and the first crack unleashed waves of blackness upon him, empowering him, filling him with might.
And as he approached the city with ever increasing speed, like a dark avalanche, he began to actually hear it: the faint clank of steel being hit hard enough to dent, the creaking crack of breaking heavy armor, the terrified screams of a woman. Screams that almost didn’t sound human anymore. Screams that inspired pity and fear at the same time, as if someone was tearing her nails out one by one or flaying her alive, or as if an unimaginable horror was grasping for her with cold, black fingers. The last one may have been closest to the truth.
As Rei stepped into the bounds of the battle, he could feel the creeping cold. A cold not like any cold he had ever known. A cold not like frost, not like snow, not like ice, not like lofty heights or biting wind: a cold like end. Yes, that was the word. End. Null magic and Null spirituality was about an endless cycle: what comes to be must come to naught, but may yet come to be again; that was the truth that Rei believed in. But this feeling, this cold, was a mockery to all that. Once it had brought the world to naught there would be naught for all eternity, it felt as if this cold was not meant to quench fire or turn water to ice, it felt as if it was meant to freeze the Great Clockwork itself to a halt so it may never turn again. And there was darkness too. Not a soft, curious darkness that was thirsting for knowledge and light, but a consuming darkness grabbing for his heart and his soul. Beyond this, there was nothing. It was final, ultimate. The end.
He gasped unintentionally, like someone breaking in on a lake frozen over, just as icy water enveloped him. There is always this instinctive gasping reflex that makes you fill your lungs with water if you can’t resist.
A tall earthen wall rose before Rei, soft and grass-covered like a hill, but too steep to climb: the great earth wall of Arda, the growing wall. It was said that it was alive and growing to resist attack. Truthfully, it was the earth mages of Arda, who imbued the wall with life, with soul, ordained vassals of the Lord of Earth, protector of Arda and the Middle Lands.
There they had fought: in front of that great wall lay a woman in the dust. She was clad in the remains of once beautiful armor of silver and steel, a winged helmet crowned her head, though a good third of it was torn off as if the steel had been paper to be ripped. A stream of bright golden hair cascaded down her shoulder, spilling out from the jagged hole of the helmet. Blood was splashed all over it and ran down her forehead, some of it splattered on her eyes. One of her gauntlets had been torn apart and lay on the ground in pieces. Her breastplate was dented with chunks torn out of it and her leg plates and boots didn’t look any better.
No matter how Rei looked at her however, it was quite clear who she was: She was a Valkyrie, there could be no question. Her enemy seemed quite amused as he watched her lying on the ground, whining like a kicked dog while she coughed blood. He was a tall man who wore the garb of an earth magus of Arda. He had a stubby beard and dirty hair, and his grin was wide and mad, as much so as his eyes. Rei had to look twice before he could confirm the truth he already knew: they were golden, yellow, just like the pilgrim had said, just like he had said it was with Sameth of the Earth.
“You seem to be enjoying yourself,” Rei said with a dry voice. The cold tried to tear at him, but the black energy he had begun to unleash deep inside of him staved it off with ease. There was no anger; there was no pain, no emotion. Null.
The man turned his head away from the dying Valkyrie to stare at Rei. “Well, well, another poor soul who fancies he can kill me. Take a good look at your predecessor,” he said and waved at the Valkyrie, “No turning back now though, I have a quota to meet.”
Rei gave him the coldest stare he could muster. “Who are you? And what is the yellow glimmer that eats at the world around it?”
The man laughed. “You will know soon enough, when it eats at you.” He held out his hand. The ground under their feet began to tremble.
Rei slowly went to his knees. “What comes to be will come to naught,” he whispered, and the trembling came to a sudden halt when a black wave erupted from Rei’s hands and sunk into the ground. At this point he felt the fifth gate inside of him creak open another notch. The man frowned and waved his hand. Then he began to speak words of power, but no magic would work here, none but the null magic that was coursing through the ground and the air now. And every wave of power the man attempted to produce caused a slight shimmer behind Rei, like a heat haze, curiously rectangular, as if a large gate indeed stood behind him, just beyond visibility.
During the Age of Awakening, the mages had possessed the power to crush the technocrats, for they could manipulate the source of the technocrats’ power: reality. A power balance never put to the test, thanks to the aggressive campaigns of the Nordmen. The Null still walked the great land during that age, and they in turn had the power to crush the mages, for null magic brought all magic to naught. And even today, magic would not stand against null magic, so all manipulation of the earth this magus may have used to fight was now but a glint in his eyes, never to be.
Instead of despairing, his grin grew wider. “This should be interesting, Null.”
A sinister yellow aura began to spread from the man’s body like corruption, a sight that would not normally have fazed Rei, but what followed was true horror, for he was one who had seen the clockwork and thus could lay eyes upon it if he desired. The air around the man cracked open and revealed all the gears and cogs biting into each other, turning eternally: the Great Clockwork.
But the yellow energy the man emitted began to creep not only into the air and the ground, but also into the cracks in between the gears. The clockwork around him began to scream and buckle and age old metal started to creak ominously. The screams seemed almost human, and why not? Rei knew the secret of the gears, and that knowledge made the happening in front of him much more terrifying. The man was damaging destiny, he was tearing at the very strings that kept the universe together, and he was tearing and tearing them apart.
“It is not possible!” Rei gasped in terror.
The man kept the ridiculous grin on his face that showed how little he feared Rei and how much his defiance seemed to please him. “Possible? You can’t be as wise as they say if you still cling to such terminology, Null,” he jeered.
Rei clenched his jaw. This was bad; terrible even. This man had to be stopped by whatever means necessary. “It seems you require a lesson in humility as well,” Rei spoke, “what comes to be will come to naught.” He calmed his mind and soul; and as the black waves of the fifth gate coursed through his body, he could see, he could understand. The yellow glimmer that seemed to give this man unholy power, it was a shard of something greater, something so opposite to the Great Clockwork that it literally tore it apart on contact. Like a counter-clockwork, turning in the opposite direction. And as dark and light were locked in an eternal cycle of mutual annihilation and creation, there had to be a similar connection between the clockwork and this counter-energy.
Rei knew what to do, but the consequences were unthinkable. The man ran towards him, his hands tensed like claws, ready to rip into him. Rei raised his arm to the side and held his hand open to the back. Now the air behind him split as well, revealing still untainted parts of the Great Clockwork. He reached in deep with his being and grabbed for one of the gears. The man was upon him, but in that very instant one of the many gears of the Great Clockwork behind Rei creaked and shrank four times in size. The other gears aligned and fell into place to close the new gap, and as the gear shrank, so did the yellow energy the man emitted, until it vanished and was nullified to the core, for what is carved of the same bone may serve for mutual annihilation, just as magic and null magic are naught but the pure energy that souls create.
The man was perplexed as all his power had left him, but only for a brief moment before Rei knocked him out cold and onto the ground with a hard smack on the head. He had only a moment’s reprieve before he realized that he had missed a flicker of light that had separated from the man and now sunk into his eye. Rei howled as the sinister energy began to reach out for his essence…

Valkyrie

Agony.
Agony.
Agony.
Such a ridiculous, small word to sum it all up. Not worthy of the horrifying, grand meaning, using it for describing this bestowed upon it. But the word was not really on the Valkyrie’s mind. Nothing was on her mind. Quite a lot was inside there though.
The world deep inside, that corner of existence that was unyieldingly entwined with the Great Clockwork may be of different shape for everyone, but one thing is always the same: A dark empty space, and in that space there is only the great gate.
The Valkyrie was in that dark space now, the void between reality and true existence, and the great gate was there as well. It had been torn out of its hinges, and her entire world was pouring through its mouth right into the dark, washing over her like a waterfall. It hurt. It hurt so much.
She had been wounded in battle before many times, almost to the extent of dying, but this wasn’t pain in the traditional sense. This was pure hurt, pure agony. It was as if all that made her her was inside a glass bottle and someone was pouring it onto the ground as she futilely tried to catch the liquid with her hands.
But here it didn’t even land on the ground; not even that, not even a puddle was left. It just poured into the void and was lost forever, and the more poured out, the more hollow she felt.
She had her Arms stretched out wide; and her fingers too, even though that made the hurt even fiercer, more real. She would do anything to stop as much of the flow as she could, but it was like trying to stop a waterfall with her bare hands. Laughable!
She wanted to scream, she wanted to protest against this, but she had no voice anymore. This was not fair! She had done her duty! She had walked the many lands of Aqualon and even sailed the Spiral Sea for all of seven hundred years, always doing the work of her masters. But where were they now? Where was Odin, her sire? The one who had implanted a fragment of Wyrd within her soul to give her might? Might! There, she could see it, feel it, behind the mouth of the gate that let her world slip out cascading: inside her realm she could see a distant gleam, like the sun, but brighter still. It was so far away and she could barely hold against the pressure of the world that fell onto her head endlessly in a seemingly inexhaustible waterfall of rainbows, much like the Bifröst. She could not move towards the gate, much less reach for the fragment that still lingered within the remnants of her soul, and yet she had to…

Artemis

Artemis was miserable. All the sounds of the world still seemed distant to her and she had to focus really hard to listen to what the one-eyed monk was saying. “I wish she would stop…” she said meekly, “can’t you… end her misery?”
The monk stared at her, the fresh hollow cavity of his right eye socket vexing her. It was the first thing she had seen when she regained consciousness; that he grabbed his own eye and tore it out. Then he started retching blood. That’s when she had thrown up too. “I cannot end her misery,” he said, “not even if I killed her. But you should be glad for her: that she screams means she is still alive, still fighting.”
She was screaming, the woman he had called ‘Valkyrie’. Her body was twitching and squirming, and she was screaming her lungs out. Literally: the longer it lasted the more often a little spittle of blood would come out with her screams, though perhaps it came from actual battle wounds. Her eyes were wide open and she stared at the sky in terror, but when Artemis had waved her hand in front of the Valkyrie’s face, there had been no reaction at all: her eyes were open, but her mind was closed. And she raised a great clamor.
And that wasn’t the most unsettling thing about her anguish: Drool and snot were leaking from her mouth and nose, and blood spilled out of her many wounds, the fluids glowing strangely, forcing a strange change upon the ground around her: plants, flowers, small trees, grass, and other things kept growing around her like on a beautiful grave, just to wither away and then grow back in a different variety. It was as if a seamless cycle of life and death was erupting from her very pores, as if it was her life-force that was leaving her drop by drop.
Artemis could still not truly grasp the situation. After she had given the throne to her younger brother Sem-la, she had said her farewells to her people and fired Windfall once again, causing it to open a portal for her. Much like the old woman had said it seemed that she had duties elsewhere, and back then Artemis had felt this to be true in her heart, so she walked through the portal and appeared here.
But appearing here wasn’t quite as charming as she might have hoped. A grasping, evil cold and darkness had surrounded her at her arrival, and she saw two men fighting and a woman dying on the ground, just before the strange, overwhelming pressure that permeated the battlefield wrung her to the ground and rendered her unconscious. Now she was here with a dying Valkyrie and a one-eyed monk, not knowing what she was supposed to do. “What is that thing happening to the ground around her?” she inquired suspiciously, desperate to hold a distracting conversation.
The monk sat back tiredly and freed some crusty old bread und hard sausages from his luggage. When he offered Artemis some, she accepted and began wolfing it down greedily. “You have the appetite of a Kaltani,” he noted.
“I am Kaltani,” she replied stubbornly. After they had eaten he looked over at the screaming Valkyrie and sighed.
“Such a beautiful creature mowed down by a power she could not hope to comprehend. Like a bird snatched by the jaws of a hurricane. Look at her flapping so tenaciously, yet desperate in her struggle,” he said. “If you want to know what is happening to the ground around her, I would be keen to hear something from you before. I may have been in the middle of a perilous battle, but few people have the necessary skill to just appear next to me like you did, seemingly out of nowhere. And I would expect such people not to be subdued by the mere presence of that poor man there and myself. How is it that you are here?”
Artemis gazed at Windfall dreamily. “Truth is: I do not know,” she said after a while and put the bow down in front of her. “This is what I traded my life for, a life I had just won back. The old Schamani told me I would find the bow and it would lead me to my destiny.” The shock of all these happenings that had cramped together in scarcely more than two days began to settle slowly, and the more they did, the more Artemis began to feel lost. She was so far away from home she had no one and nothing but Windfall.
“Destiny is always with us,” the one-eyed monk said. “There is a Great Clockwork that runs throughout the corners of the universe and guides man and mankind alike.” He inspected the bow with a ponderous look about him. “I can feel it now, a pulsing might inside this weapon, not unlike the speck that keeps the Valkyrie alive right now. This is an artifact of power; it might even be an eternal. Some say that, like the five eternal blades, there are artifacts forged by the hands of men that may endure for all eternity, even past the world gaps when Aqualon breaks apart and is formed anew.”
Artemis eyed him wearily, “The world does that? How could anyone know such a thing?”
The monk laughed about that question. “Most would just tell you that all men know this, but truthfully those stories spring from real witnesses who have lived through those times. They were the truly mighty, those who could tread on more than one world within their lifespan,” he explained. “You should be careful with that weapon: great power does oft as not destroy its wielder. You have been granted a gift worthy of your Kaltani gods, do not squander it.
If truly you are meant to be a driving force in the movements of the clockwork yet to come, you should come with me. In fact, you owe me that much I would say, since my absence would have meant your death and worse earlier. You would be lying right there besides the Valkyrie - and unlike her without any hope.
As promised I shall tell you what is happening to her,” he said and sighed again. “The old gods are real beings; this you must know first. You see, we Null are not just a bunch of nihilistic fear mongers as loving mothers would have their little ones believe. We are an enlightened order and the record keepers of Aqualon. Much of this world’s history is written down in scrolls and books in the library of the Black Sanctum atop the Ever-Clouded Summit. We remember much, even the old wars when the old gods still walked the realms of men. Midgard they call them and why not, Midgard is the one of the nine old realms around which the faceless world-shaper built Aqualon as we tread it this day.
The old gods are men too in a way, but they are blessed with an unrivaled might, for their forebears and they have drunk of the universe. Well… not as literally as it may sound, but they have drunk from the well of Wyrd, the last intersecting point between the Great Clockwork and Aqualon before the faceless world-shaper smashed it. From it they gained their might and immortality. And fragments of Wyrd still exist in their eternal realm, Asgard that is, hidden on the tip of the world, or the bottom if you go by modern maps. In olden days they created Valkyries out of their most leal and loved subjects by implanting their souls with a fragment of Wyrd, thus giving them might and life eternal. Many centuries ago they were sent forth to roam the realm of Midgard, forever searching for the last great war when the gods shall rise once again and fight alongside their mortal kin.
For this, the Valkyries carry the Horn of the Last Winter with them: when they sound it, the ice will blow up from the sole of the world and the gods will tread Midgard once more with a thirst for battle festered since the last great age of man, which ended over seventeen hundred years ago.”
This was a lot of new information, though some of it had been told to Artemis before in less believable story form. She only knew bits and pieces of this and that, which she had heard from her Kaltani brothers and sisters, and the odd historic footnote she had read during her childhood years when she still had had a chasha to educate her. “But what is happening to this one?” she demanded to know, seeing how he had provided nothing but exposition so far.
The one-eyed monk scratched around his empty eye socket with a frown. It looked as if the walls of the eerily beckoning cavity were itching him and he dared not stick his finger inside. It seemed only wise to Artemis, even though the thought of it all almost made her stomach turn again. She was very presently aware of the poorly formed half-ring of dried blood around his lower eyelid.
He put his hand down again. “The man over there: he is the one I was fighting; and before me the Valkyrie had at him and was crushed into this. I could rinse out some of the dark energy he had poured into her, but I dare not take it all for it has nested deep within her soul already. When I fought this man, I saw true evil for the first time in my life. It was not a sight I enjoyed. When pondering it, the thought comes to my mind that men cannot truly be evil if you compare them to the foulness that had overtaken him. It was on too different a level: inhuman.
Now that I have washed it out of him, he is but a withering shell; he won’t be long for this world. The Valkyrie has a chance though, a chance mortal men would not have: The fragment of Wyrd inside of her is protecting her soul and giving her strength. Whether it is enough to expel the foulness though is up to her and to fate,” he mused, his eyes fixed on the pitiful creature. “Of course, if she fails, I will have to take more drastic action.”
Artemis looked at the screaming woman as well. Still there was growing and withering vegetation around her. “And the ground?”
The monk looked at it, drinking in the strange, and in a way beautiful, phenomenon. “Her whole world is pouring out of her, all she is. What is surprising about there being some flowers and greens in there?” he asked. “But she comes from the icy north, this one. I’d wager that she is truly lost when the snow starts falling around her and the ground turns to ice. When that is gone too, there might be nothing left of her. Or worse: something new and dangerous.”
Artemis kept staring at her and tried to imagine what it would be like if her world would pour out of herself, but the concept was too strange and abstract to fathom for her. She did not even truly understand what it was supposed to mean in this place. All she saw was a strange magic at work and a dying woman that screamed as if she was being tortured with a rod of glowing hot lead. “How long will we sit here and wait?” Artemis asked now. It had been quite a while already.
“As long as it takes,” the man said. “I am praying for her to win this battle. We musts go to war: you… me… her. I would like her to be alive for that, only she can blow the horn.”
Artemis shifted her gaze to him. He looked not that old, now that she looked closer: He might have been anything from twenty-and-two to fifty-and-five she guessed, though the missing eye made him look scary. His appearance resembled a man from the Yamato Kingdom that had once visited her father when he had still been alive. Maybe the monk was of the Yamato as well? “Say,” she began, stroking over the intricate engravings of Windfall as he looked up at her, “when I found this bow, someone had already been there before me. It was an abandoned old palace or something, sunken in the sands. Below the words neatly engraved in the stone, the ones that revealed my destiny to me, there were words in a language I did not recognize, apparently etched in by another visitor. They were… Ra… rara… hmm…” She had trouble remembering those foreign words that had been clumsily cut into the altar. But when trying to envision that eerie sight, she finally succeeded: “I think it was: Rakata rakta… ri… rali… no! Rul’yi, rakata rakta ri rul’yi!”
The monk swayed his head in thought, then reached into his robe and pulled out a small knife: “Can you write it on the ground? The way you pronounce the words… nothing comes to mind.”
She nodded and took the knife, a curious one-bladed thing of no more than five to six inches length with a very straight, broad back. It was not a very quick method of writing, but since the sentence, or whatever it was, was short, Artemis got it done quickly enough.
Now the monk inspected the writing carefully, before he spoke again: “In olden days, during the first age, when men began to settle in the four corners of the Great Land, and the Seventeen Yonder Islands were unknown to man until the age’s latter days, there were five sages who held supreme wisdom and enlightenment. They came from the ur-folk, who had inherited great cultures from the civilization that was before the first age when the world was still split into nine realms.
The five sages traveled the Great Land for many centuries, until valiant explorers crossed the Iron Belt and found there a great ocean to the south. They left their peoples and joined in silent meditation on the First Island, and they built a monastery where they taught those who came to hear their wisdom, calling it Jamphel Yeshe. In time it grew into a prosperous city, only to fall into darkness during the Age of the Iron Divide. It is said that one of the sages was of the Angel Saxons and had many teachings written down in their tongue, for the Angel Saxons do not make use of the one-hundred tongues of man, but teach the lost tongue of the Albenmannen. Though I do not speak it, I do recall some of it from my studies in the library of the Black Sanctum. If I am not mistaken, raka and rak are, in a way, words representative of the physical and the metaphysical in humans. The ‘ta’ is just a connector, like the word ‘and’. Raka means something like ‘heart and soul’, and rak means something like ‘heart and brain’, though the second time ‘heart’ would refer to the actual organ. This might be one of the teachings of that sage, but I cannot translate it in its entirety, I am sorry.”
Artemis shook her weary head. “No, I know more than I did before, and I thank you.” She looked over to the Valkyrie again. Still screaming, still struggling, and between the silence of her two watchers, the clamor was unbearable…
After a while the monk began to sing, his voice clear and lovely:
The gate, the gate of Helgard awaits!
When the last horn is blown
in the wind and the snow.
Oh mannen of Winterland, mannen of yore,
Will you rise and fight and die, when it calls.
The gate, the gate of Helgard awaits!
When the gods who were lost
Will find their way.
As a beacon, a light,
as an angel of war,
Will the winged women fly
And her sword will soar
“I know that song,” Artemis said quietly after he was done. One of her Kaltani brethren had sung it many times. Îsouf had been his name. He had sung it with a deeper, rawer voice, though Artemis had liked to hear him sing. “It’s The Call of the Valkyrie, is it not? Not all the verses though.”
The man nodded. “That is so,” he confirmed. “It is an old Kaltani song. One of my brothers was Kaltani before he joined the brotherhood, and he taught it to me, many years ago. I thought it might help her find her strength… Although she probably hears and sees nothing of this world now. Nothing at all.”

Chapter VI

The Moths of Yamato and the Creatures of Asgard

Clarity is an elixir concealed in black brine; like an ocean of waste with but one small ounce of fresh water, waiting to be drunk.
- From the Book of Taishôgeki

Nanashi the Null

Günter Oakenheart was as amiable a fellow as he had appeared when first he had sat down at Nanashi’s table. He was all belly laughter and incredible tales of the hunt and his life down in the North. No doubt did he have a whole arsenal of stories to tell the moth herder if he so required. Nanashi herself had never told stories to anyone, so she was worried her performance would come on rather bleak when held up against Günter: he truly made every single tale come alive.
Nanashi almost felt as if she was there in the icy cold, surrounded by snow and by frost wolves and the like as Günter made their trip through the Yamato mountain paths a most enjoyable one where it should have been only cold and tiring.
They slowly advanced away from the village, traveling along the eastern mountain paths, the slowly expanding Yamato Valley to their left in the west as they went northward in the direction of Yamaseki. Nanashi had packed what little things she had and Günter only had a small backpack and his large sword, so departure had been on the time table right after a good lunch. Now the wind blew fierce oft as not and made Nanashi’s wide robes flap around like a flag. They were moody winds, coming and going, blowing from here, then from there, never quite decided; and with them they carried moth dust every now and again. It made Nanashi think of her long forgotten childhood, climbing around the cliffs and crevasses that were about Yamaseki.
Yamaseki was the capital of the Yamato Kingdom and built in lofty heights just as most of the cities and villages of the kingdom that had been built around former castles and fortifications, erected in large parts during the Age of Heroes. The wealthier cities and the old capital lay in the Yamato Valley, which was protected from wind and war and blessed with fertile soil. The new capital stood tall above any other settlement or fortress, looking down on the southern cities of the valley, and only a few monasteries were on higher summits still.
Notable was also that Yamaseki was not just grafted onto a plateau, it was half surrounded by a mountain’s rock face that had been hollowed to house the ‘Uramachi’ as the citizens had taken to calling it: ‘the city behind the city’.
“How far must we go, Günter Oakenheart?” Nanashi asked the tall Kaltani with her gaze fixed upon the distance.
He shrugged with a muffled grunt and looked ahead as well. “I couldn’t say fer sure, fair Null, I only heard the way described, ain’t been there maself yet, no. And call me Günter ifn ya please. Ye’ sound like ya addressin’ some… ah, I don’t know, but ma first name will be fine.”
Nanashi sighed. “Very well, Günter. And I would prefer you called me Nanashi. I’m a Null, but that is hardly my name.”
He gave her another of his belly laughs. “Fair Nanashi it is,” he said merrily.
Nanashi blushed slightly but no one would know that since her hood was up again to protect her from the winds, “J-just Nanashi will be fine!” she said emphatically.
Günter just laughed to that. And so they continued onward through the mountain paths. Here and there they could see some goats making skilled and brave climbs to graze on the shishisô grass that grew in these heights. Some murasaki moths also flapped by here and there, but scarcely in the beginning. Only when dusk came and the winds calmed down a bit, did more show themselves, also trying to eat of the shishisô. The so-called ‘four-fingered grass’ grew at many places around the Yamato Mountain Range. It had juicy green leaves, which the goats liked to chew on, and four long wispy stems covered in strange lilac fur. It was that fur that the moths liked the best and they feasted on it every night and the Yamato folk too harvested the grass to make clothes from it; purple garb was relatively common here. In a fortnight or two, the smaller murasaki moths would withdraw deeper into the mountain range, hiding in the protective confines of the valley where the harshening winds of autumn would be broken by the tall mountains.
The two wanderers passed the mark of first daylight on their journey to the moth herder, and one more before their destination came into sight. In the nights they shared Günter’s tent, settling into protective overhangs where they could. Nanashi’s mind was too disciplined to show how cold she was at times, and Günter either had similar strength of mind or was simply used to the cold from his frigid homelands.
When they saw the home of the moth herder, it was not the admittedly sizable mountain shack of the rumored man that caught their gazes first; rather it was the tree that grew to its side. In these heights trees grew smaller than downhill: little nantama trees would grow up here; a little scarce perhaps but everywhere if one went into the opposite direction, further up south. They carried juicy fruit even now, though it would not keep on their branches much longer. These fruits were a prized food source for the yarenma moths, a very dangerous breed, and Nanashi was glad that the nantama didn’t cover the mountainside here save for one or two trees every now and then because of that. The tree that they could glimpse from afar though that grew besides the moth herder’s shack was grand, almost like a mighty oak tree that had grown unchallenged for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. Its leaves were broad as a man’s bosom and waving elegantly in the wind. There also were many colored specks amidst those leafs, though Nanashi and Günter were too far away to make out what those were.
“How can a tree grow so tall in these heights?” she asked in disbelief.
Günter shrugged: “Why shouldn’t it? Trees grow tall, if ya let them: tis the way of the world.”
But Nanashi shook her head. “Not up high,” she insisted. Of course Günter wouldn’t know. There were three great mountain ranges on the face of Aqualon and few Nordmen lived at what remnants of them poked all the way past the Snowzone. “Look,” she said and pointed at other trees that had drilled their roots into the rock face or settled graciously in little holes and crevasses around them. “The trees grow smaller the higher they are, and we are very high up here, over two thousand meters by my reckoning, so they grow very small. It is because the air here is very thin, and the temperature stays fairly low throughout the year. Surely you have noticed how tasks that would normally not faze you are more tiring than you are accustomed to.”
Günter scratched his head, “Now that ya say it… I do not normally grow tired of walking so quickly. And when I climbed up the mountains, I got sick fer a day after; had ter rest in that inn where we met. And the other trees here are small, it’s true! Hum, so the moth herder has a big magic tree, sweetens the story when we tell it our children,” he mused.
Our children?” Nanashi asked incredulous.
Now Günter let himself shake in laughter again. “Well I wasn’t speaking of it that way,” he said, which made Nanashi blush again and curse her tongue that had spoken faster than thought.
“Of course, I misunderstood,” she said, trying to sound blithe.
Being around this emotional man made her forget her training, which irked her to say the least. She took a few deep breaths to calm her heart and mind and reached into the void within, where there was tranquility, where there was peace.
Midday turned to dusk before they stood in front of the small plateau onto which the great tree and the shack where settled. The tree had long, thick vines hanging from its bark that tangled and grafted themselves upon the rock, creeping down the mountainside so far that they could not see their end, as if they were the true roots of the tree and reaching down to the mountain’s very foot. The shack was old but well-constructed and three kinds of steam and smoke were escaping from separate chimneys, one to each side and one on the midst of the roof. A big waterwheel was turning slowly with the force of a mountain spring that streamed down from the rock face behind the shack. There was also a big tarpaulin of fur that seemed to cover something, perhaps firewood. The tree was the most impressive thing here though, for it was larger than most trees on ground-level and carried dozens of different fruits, even such that Nanashi knew specifically grew on different trees. Indeed there was the furry, yellow, perfectly round nantama fruit that grew on nantama trees around these parts.
“It’s like a tree of many!” Günter said with childlike delight. “What a magnificent sight, this one is so practical I don’t understand why we don’t grow it everywhere!”
Nanashi nodded. “Why not indeed?” she asked with a suspicious undertone. She laid her hand on the trees bark and retracted it again with an incredulous, even shocked expression on her face: “There is no bit of magic in this tree! How can such a tree exist here without something supernatural at work?!” she demanded to know.
Günter didn’t seem to have an answer to that, but someone else did as the voice that had suddenly emerged from behind them came to prove: “My, my, how observant of you, young girl.” It was the voice of a very old man, older than a hundred or a hundred and fifty even. “And there is no magic in this tree to be sure, it is my very own creation. I constructed its seed and planted it some two hundred years ago.”
Günter turned his head in surprise and Nanashi spun around. “Two hundred… What do you mean, you constructed its seed? How can anyone construct the seed of a plant!?” She was completely at a loss. There was no magic here she could sense, so it seemed illogical to believe that this man was well over two hundred years old. Even the oldest mortal men usually didn’t grow older than two hundred and such age was extreme, only the most powerful mages were able to live unnaturally long lives by the power of their souls. The average human lifespan was one hundred and seventy years, going by census reports Nanashi had read in the Black Sanctum’s library.
The old man gave that a dry laugh. He was shrunken down and his walk was shaky but supported by a worn out cane. Around his wispy haired head he wore the brim of a not present hat. “Why, with technology of course you silly little girl.” His eyes were gleaming with a strange charisma that almost made Nanashi shiver.
“Before you stands Sagamund Greenhorn: the exiled, the hatless, the last technocrat survivor of the Age of Heroes. Though nowadays, people know me as the moth herder of Yamato.”
Nanashi felt her jaw drop and barely heard the hearty laughter of Günter Oakenheart who gave the old man a wide grin: “Thisun’s got more life in him than a few younguns I could tell ye of,“ he roared, “a man who likes to wear his names where people can see them, ha! And lots and lots there are, haha!”
Nanashi herself didn’t feel like laughing at all though. If there was even some truth to this old geezer’s claim, he was old, very old; perhaps the oldest man alive next to the northern Gods and without magic that was impossible. It was… wasn’t it?

Atlas

“Now this is more like it!” said Plâton with a deep satisfaction in his voice, “And now we have enough jerky for a long journey as well! Of course we can take the horses no further than the outskirts of the Red Sands, but those are still about a hundred leagues away, no journey we could undertake on foot. We should be there in a fortnight, give or take; then we can sell the horses and buy or rent camels for the passage through the desert.”
Atlas nodded placidly to that. He still remembered little from before his death and all he did recall was hazy and distant to him. This filled him with a slowly awakening insatiable thirst for knowledge and discovery. He basically had never seen a desert as far as his memory went and so he was considerably curious about the sight of it. Of course there was the small matter of everything seeming somewhat gray and disjointed to his senses as if he had been hit over the head with a blunt instrument, but such was the nature of his existence for the moment. In his mind, the unlikelihood of him dying or reestablishing his sense of existence any time soon lead him to the conclusion that he might as well enjoy the vistas, seeing how he had little choice in the matter of his own fate right now. When he had mentioned this point of view to Plâton, he had called it ‘enlightened’, to which Atlas had suppressed the desire to defiantly scratch his bum.
To his relief, riding came easy to him; he had probably done it often enough for his body to remember.
“You… You are very wealthy,” noted Ayveron, skeptically looking at Plâton, “you paid our supplier in gold and didn’t even haggle.”
Plâton shrugged to that, “The price was fair enough. And I was the general of Midas Creek for a great many years. I fought in seven wars and the general gets a share of the spoils by ancient custom.”
Ayveron’s eyes opened wide. “Is Midas Creek truly paved with gold?”
To that Plâton laughed hard and for quite a while before he had recovered enough to reply: “Aye! Paved with gold, covered with gold, the gold is everywhere, even in your smallclothes if you go there for a visit. The people like to tell outsiders that their streets are golden, yes, but what they omit is that the whole damn desert is golden. Why do you think they call it ‘the Golden Sands’? The streets are filled with it, for it carries with the wind.”
Atlas listened with one ear, but he was busier with patting his horse’s head and telling her that she was a good girl. It was a seasoned but still strong and vital mare with a brown coat and pretty, large, white spots as well as a calm nature. Atlas would have given her a treat, but Plâton had told him to only feed her during breaks. He hadn’t thought that it would be such a curious thing to have animals about that were accustomed to man. In the small village they had visited, named Saltryvault, a nice little place on the Saltplains, he had been chasing cats and patting dogs while Plâton had arranged for their provisions and three strong horses to carry them on their journey. Oddly enough, or at least Ayveron insisted that it was odd, they had not traveled along the eastern flank of the Middle Lands for more than a few days before reaching the Saltplains. Ayveron had then insisted that Plâton had used some sort of magic, which Plâton had refuted as being ‘not technically correct’, at which point Atlas had lost interest.
When Atlas had seen the horse, he had almost hugged Plâton for buying it. When Plâton inquired why Atlas was so happy about all the stock animals, he had just shrugged and said that they were soft and furry and liked to play, except for the horse, but she was kind-hearted too. In truth it was, for lack of a better word, the glow of their souls that spoke to Atlas. His strange sight had allowed him to glimpse some of the feelings and moods of his travel companions, but they were very complex and chaotic, though kind in nature. The animals, however, were very different. It was as if their souls were of a simpler, less sophisticated sort: still there, still pulsing like heartbeats, but without the complexity and with a natural calmness and honesty that was almost like a soothing balm for Atlas’s aching existence; something simple and pure to hold on to in a world of confusion.
While Ayveron seemed to eye all that with suspicion and Plâton just took it as an excuse to be even merrier as he always did with everything, Atlas just enjoyed the new sights and sensations as much as his condition permitted while they traveled through the Saltplains. As if knowing that they were leaving for different lands, the horses were greedily grazing whenever given the opportunity: the Saltplains owed their name to the rich amounts of salt in the grass here that made it grow lush and green and made the livestock strong and healthy. It was no remnant of old seas either; most folk agreed that the salt came from the hidden ocean that was rumored to have its shores deep underground, or at least so had some of the older children that Atlas had played with claimed. From time to time the Saltplains would weep water and form small ponds and swamps in their meads and those would dry out in the sun and leave behind grass that was rich in minerals and salt. Some of the children would then go out with their parents to ‘sweep the salt’, selling it to the Middle Lands later. Because of the rich soil and green meadows, cattle lived very well here and were raised in plenty. The same led to the wealth of these lands and oft as not jealous neighbors would think about taking a share of that wealth for themselves. There were bandit tribes in the Middle and Southern Waves of Yamato, and the free folk of the Red Savanna sometimes felt they deserved a piece of the action. But Plâton had told them that the borders of the land were secure for once and they would probably not run into any raids during their journey, though he noted that they should still be on their guard. He also told tales of how his company and he often came to the defense of the Saltplains, who didn’t have their own military but relied on the Middle Lands, to whom they had sworn fealty, as well as his Midasmen, who were regularly hired to step in when raiders got too feisty.
Come evening they made their camp for the day and Atlas thanked his mare kindly for carrying him so far. He had named her Surefoot, because she rode smoothly even when the ground got all muddy from the up-seeping groundwater. They made their rest under an old walnut tree, which stood its lonesome vigil on a wide green meadow that seemed to stretch out forever like a sea of gently swaying grass. Atlas wanted to see the ocean again. His recollections of it were vague, for even in the old days he had visited it rarely, but he thought it must be as wide and beautiful as the sky.
After collecting some firewood from the base of the tree, Plâton cooked some rich stew for them, which was well seasoned thanks to a number of handy pouches he had purchased in Saltryvault and was filled with all kinds of vegetables. There were plenty of those to be found on any Saltplains market, for the land was so fertile here that, beyond large farms, almost all citizens that owned as much as a garden planted every last inch of it with fruits, berries, and vegetables, partaking in a vivid trade and barter culture with their own produce.
As the three of them slurped their stew, it was time for Plâton to continue the story of his childhood. He had not taken the time to tell more of it on every night of their travels, but oft as not he would sit them down and resume the tale where they had left. He had told them of his recovery and how his new mother Freyja had wrestled with a she-bear that had grown thrice the size of a normal animal to steal her milk for him, for the gods believed that the milk of the bear made children strong, just as meat of the bear made men strong, especially the heart. And so it was that Plâton fully recovered and took to strolling around the parts of the forest that were close to Freyja’s longhouse, for after his recovery she had left him to himself to procure a lexicon for his name. He found many strange plants and animals there, and the further he went the colder it got, as if the longhouse was an oasis of spring inside a winter forest. And now Plâton continued the story: “Where were we? Ah yes, I had waited many days for mother to return, and when she did, I was already in danger again…
“You really shouldn’t do that, unless you are ready to lose your life.” It was mother’s voice so I turned around, abandoning the basin with the turning gear inside, the one that looked like a magical waterwheel, splashing, always splashing.
“I am sorry, mother,” I said, withdrawing my hand.
She took her own and put it softly on my shoulder. “No my son, it is I who is sorry. I should have warned you right away. Do not apologize for your curiosity; it is a quality of the strong and the wise. How have you fared in my absence?”
I looked at the door. “I have walked in the forest for a bit. It is very beautiful, but it gets cold if I go too far.”
Freyja nodded to that. “Yes, winter has a strong hold over this land. It bends the knee to me and so I let it have the forest as the leal subject it is.”
I did not understand. She went to the long table and pulled a small sphere engraved with runes and Yamato characters alike from within the many furs she was wearing, putting it on the table with care. “Here it is: the lexicon I could procure. The tribes of the North took theirs with them quite a while ago when they marched for the Saltplains, but there was one they acquired in a raid on one of the Seventeen Yonder Islands. Nord or not, the lexicon will choose the right name for you, if you so desire,” she said. The lexicons are eternal relics of worlds long past. It is said they can see a man’s destiny and grant him a name befitting of that. Some believe that there is great power in names, especially among the northern tribes. Not all people had the privilege of using a lexicon though, locating one and getting permission from its holders was oft a perilous pilgrimage. For this reason many would pass down great names to their children, names once granted by a lexicon, in hope that some of that destiny would rub off.
Hesitantly, I reached for the small sphere, and as my fingers touched it, the runes and signs began to glow brightly. I quickly retracted my hand in fear of getting hurt by it, but instead it began to levitate and part. The sphere grew larger as it split into many rings that rotated around a core of light on several layers, making it look like some awe inspiring machine of sorts. A strange choir of voices called out one word:
Plâton
And then the name was projected onto the surface of the table in glowing letters of the old alphabet of Guantil-ya, one of the Seventeen Yonder Islands that lies in the Ocean Belt below the Spiral Sea. The sphere compacted again and was nothing but a small metal ball on the table once more. “It is done then,” Freyja said. “My Plâton.”
-”
“So you really have your name from a lexicon?!” Ayveron asked with excitement, interrupting the story.
Plâton nodded. “So I gather you have not?” he inquired.
Ayveron shook his head. “No, from my grand-grandmother to my mother the name Ayvra was passed down and then to me, Ayveron. It is a name given by lexicon and retained by family,” he explained.
“I see,” Plâton said. “In the end a name is no more powerful than its bearer. Shall I continue?”
Atlas and Ayveron nodded eagerly.
“Very well then…
So my name was to be Plâton. It had a strange, foreign ring to it. Even though all men are born with the gift of one hundred tongues, as parents raise their children, some dialects are spoken more frequently in different cultures, and with Freyja I had spoken mostly in the tongue favored by the Spider Tribe Kaltani, who hunted alongside giant frost spiders, and the Angel Saxons from whose stony halls most of the Valkyries were said to have come.
“The old gods are proud,” Freyja then said, “courtesy requires of me to bring you to them before I raise you as my own, Plâton. They will not want you, but they will not deny me either. Come with me, but speak no word when we enter the great hall of the Aesir unless you are spoken too. Will you promise me that?”
Plâton nodded. “I promise, mother.”
We walked out into the forest and wandered there for quite some time. When I asked how the Nordmen had raided Guantil-ya, even though the Great Land and the Iron Belt lay between the North and the Ocean Belt, she had told me that they had not gone that way but used the power of Asgard.
It was quite a long stride through all those conifers, and the further we went the more the idyllic green was covered in layers and layers of snow that began to crunch underneath out feet.
But even though it should have gotten colder and colder it was always nice and warm while I walked besides her, as if a tranquil spring was surrounding her very being. From time to time I thought I saw silhouettes whisking about the snow but I could never make any of them out. Whether they were animals or people I could not say at the time.
Even though I remembered little of my life before I was found by Freyja, I did notice that much was different about the way this realm felt compared to what I was used to. Even the air smelled much different, and though I thought I could recall the sight of coniferous forests from my homeland, the trees here seemed to be growing to three times their size, broad as mighty oaks and each as tall as a great watchtower.
From time to time there would be an elk or a bear, all freakishly large, but they seemed tame as kittens when they walked by Freyja.
“Why do the animals grow so big here?” I asked her curiously.
She looked around and spied the elk that had me ask that question. “I suppose they do grow larger on this side,” she mused. “Perhaps it is the presence of ancient might that makes them grow strong. Or the savage hunt that allows only the strongest here not to perish.”
I nodded slowly. “Will I perish too? I am not very strong,” I said with a fearful voice.
Freyja sighed then. “Not as long as you are with me, son. But do be careful, there will be those who may want to do you harm here. It is said that in times of peace the war-like man will destroy himself. Well, we are a war-like people. The last great battle the old gods have fought in was during the Age of Heroes and before that there was only the war that shaped the world. Only few wars are within our scope you must know, for we are many thousands of years old and are not concerned with battles that do not have the potential to kill us.
But peace makes kind men grow cruel here, always be wary of that my son, never forget.”
And I remember taking hold of her skirts then like the frightened little boy I was. “I will not forget mother,” I promised.
So it came that we left the small woods of whom Freyja had named herself keeper. Tree’s end revealed wide, grassy plains wafting in the breeze. There were some fields as well, planted with different crops, but no man plowed the field or reaped the harvest; instead strange large machines that were puffing out white and black smoke were tending to those fields and taking care of the work of men. I clung closer to my mother, “What are those things?”
I wanted to know.
“Be at ease, they mean you no harm, son. Those are machines that were given to us by the technocrats of Borealis when the war during the Age of Heroes was brought to an end. This gift they gave us to seal the peace, and since then no man here has ever needed to break his back and sweat over the fields. Though some say it is not for the better. Hard work makes strong and humble men. Aesirian men are strong regardless, but they lose a shred of their humility with each passing day I fear. They sit in tall halls, making plans for wars that never come, dwelling on those that have long passed.”
There was nothing I could reply to that, so I simply listened and committed what I heard to memory. Freyja had sternly warned me about the old gods we were about to meet, and above all I was filled with anxiety and doubt. I had rather just stayed in the small woods with my mother, stayed there forever. It was a kind place.
As I thought about that, my gaze struck the great oak tree that stood afar on the plains. But this tree was grand beyond measure; I had to look upwards to the sky to see its end - only it ended not like most trees: its crown was pressed flat, almost to a disk, and it carried a great castle on its branches made of gray stone that had been polished and made to shine like crystal. To this day I have never seen a castle greater and I have been to the city of Yamaseki, which has a castle as large as a smaller city lifted up on great pillars of stone.
“Will we go up there?” I asked her.
She nodded gracefully. “Indeed we will. The men of Asgard climb the tree every day as proof of their strength and endurance, but there is a rope winch floor as well; we will use that one to get to the top.”
”. There was a moment’s silence.
“And then?” Atlas urged on.
But Plâton shook his head. “We have a long journey ahead, lots of time to tell the story. I think we should start your training before we rest.”
Atlas was incredulous. “What, now?” he asked.
“I am sure your body still remembers how to fight, but I think I shall be able to bestow a few improvements onto you,” Plâton argued. “The last ancient martial arts slowly fell into decay during the Age of Heroes, and now only the Null and some secluded monasteries in the Yamato Kingdom still teach from long lost scrolls, which detailed the many movements that could be made to keep oneself safe from harm and beat stronger opponents to a degree. Martial arts are the arts of the human body and fighting. These days military men are only trained in standardized armed combat and a normal martial artist would not stand any better chance than one of those against a magus or superior technology. And because real martial art training takes many, many years, the art has been more and more lost to the common folk.”
Atlas shrugged. “Then why should I learn it?”
Plâton grinned wide. “The old ways are less effective against more magically inclined or severely armed foes, but they still can serve you much better than you could ever guess. And indeed there are still orders of mages that specialize in combat, who have developed their own styles, sometimes based on ancient teachings. And there is no art like this one; that I promise you. Now stand up straight!”

Chapter VII

Sagamund Greenhorn

When the moth takes flight, moonlight beckons.
- Ancient Yamato Saying

Nanashi the Null

“I still don’t understand how you could have lived through all these things!” Nanashi complained to the shriveled old man.
He plunged a lump of sugar into his black tea and stirred it with a merry clanking.
Günter had made himself at home and roared like he always did, “lived or not, that was one mighty fine story!” he declared, “I shall retell it when I return home.”
Nanashi’s flash of anger against Günter’s ironclad will to ignore the preposterousness of Sagamund Greenhorn’s stories about the ‘olden days’ which should by all rights be called ‘the far, faaar back ancient days’ almost had her fail to notice how his eyes grew strangely dim and his voice slightly flat on the last part. He recovered swiftly though and was back to laughing in no time. Nonetheless this only supported the odd feeling about the Kaltani stranger that had crept up on Nanashi when first she had met him. “Story or not, if there was any magic keeping you alive I should be able to feel it by all rights!” she insisted.
Sagamund laughed at that. “And I keep telling you that there is no magic. Technology has enhanced my lifespan many-fold, much like it has shaped that tree outside.”
Nanashi shook her head. “I have heard and read of many wonders the technocrats have displayed during the old ages, but nothing like this. Explain!”
Sagamund joined in with Günter’s laughter. “My, my, you have yourself a fierce wife, what-was-it… Günter… Oaktree?” he asked.
“Wahaha! Oakenheart, Günter Oakenheart!” he bellowed, correcting the old man, but not on the thing Nanashi would have liked him to be corrected on:
“I am not his wife!” she blurted ablaze, “stop mocking me and tell me how you are alive. If you don’t I shall not believe another word that comes from your mouth!”
Sagamund grinned. It looked fiendish but hinted that it might once have given his face a fierce look, long ago when it hadn’t been so wrinkled. “Ooh, what a threat. There is not much to know, little girl. We are all made of flesh and blood, this you should be aware of at least, but that flesh and blood is made of tinier things still; endlessly many of them. Inside of them are the building-blocks of our race - and they are in plants and animals too, though containing different blueprints there. The field of science that is to this day dominated by my clan, the Greenhorns, and strives to understand and manipulate those building-blocks is called ribogenetics. Using my knowledge and skill I have rewritten those building-blocks in my own body and received a lifespan many-fold. But that was long ago and in another one or two-hundred years this body will fail as well. I am a mortal just like you, little girl.”
Nanashi did not like being called a little girl at all. And these people she had come in contact with since her brothers had left her were irritating to the extreme. It was harder and harder for her to find her center and return to that dark, quiet place. She would need to take a longer meditational session to cleanse her mind of all these distractions. Until then she had to somehow make it through this strange episode of her life with her dignity intact. The explanation at least seemed feasible as far as the logic behind it went, even though it still sounded preposterous to her ears. “Very well then,” she said, “the technocrats hold mysteries within their society that would marvel the stoutest I suppose.”
Sagamund took a sip of tea. “Quite the poetic one you are, girl.” He said, somewhat dropping the ‘little’. “Truth be told, you would be deeply shocked and may-well concerned if you knew what the technocrats were truly capable of these days. To many of them the free people of the Great Land are savages - all of them. And why not? What is a man who idles on his farm to you, when you can fly like the bird, see light come to life, travel far away in the blink of an eye, and tame the element’s might? The technocrats can have a magus’s powers and more, including knowledge as deep as the sea.
Still, they are all men and women, no matter what they have achieved, and men and women bleed all the same, even if they are technocrats. Arrogance or folly may kill them yet,” the old man mused. He finished his cup. “Now tell me, what do the two of you want from old Sagamund?” he asked them with a sly smile.
“Günter has told me that you are rumored to offer passage through the Yamato Mountains on moth-back,” Nanashi said. Finally they were getting somewhere. Time was precious and Nanashi had a quest to tend to after all.
“That is so,” Sagamund admitted, “I also ask a fee for that service: one story that I have not heard yet. It is my substitute for traveling the world at my age; a poor one maybe, but better than perpetually stewing over books and research.”
Nanashi nodded in approval. But Günter wanted to go first it seemed: “A fair price indeed; I like you more by the minute, old man! Let Günter tell you the story of his last hunt before I left for the Yamato Mountains: It is an icy tale that drives me and my party far up beyond the Snowzone of the northern woods.”
Sagamund seemed to approve, “I shall accept that story if it is well-told.”
That was a good bargain for Günter indeed, Nanashi thought, as the Kaltani had proven himself to be a most skillful storyteller by now.
Sure enough he lived up to that to the fullest. His story seemed to have almost magical powers as the sun sunk down when he finally began, plunging the room into twilight. Even the hearth grew dimmer as if to set the mood. A story it was of a great hunt he had lead. The Kaltani had their own way of life, just as all the different cultures that lived strewn about the face of Aqualon. They lived far down in the north, just at the rim of the Snowzone where the lands of the high north began and snow lay eternally. The outskirts of that harsh, wintery land reached into its great coniferous forests that almost ringed the planet and were home to creatures that proudly endured the eternal cold. The mightiest amongst those were the frost wolves and the frost spiders as well as the great mammoths that were matched in size only by the mighty sensôga, the war moths of Yamato. The frost spiders were found as pets and trained hunting animals in many Kaltani tribes and their strong, sticky webs were used to fortify housings. Such were also part of Günter’s tribe, he explained. His jet-black spider Naxxenor had been his trusted companion since childhood, and on this hunt deep into the woods on the tracks of a lone mammoth that had been separated from its herd they went together as they had done so often. But soon it became clear that Naxxenor would not return. The mammoths oft-times travel far into the Snowzone and sometimes hunting parties of the Kaltani who track them will dare venture too far and never return. There is nothing in the Snowzone but eternal ice and at its tip the path to the realm of the Old Gods they say. Many had mystified those gods, calling them myths and legends, but Nanashi had seen extensive records of the Great War and was confident that there was nothing mythic about them but the stories passed down by fishwives. Günter described how he and his party had veered off-track and one by one perished. The spiders went first, for the harshness of far northern winds they could not bear as long as man. The men had to eat them to stay alive and strong. But soon they too went and Günter made it back, alone and starved. In the end he said that he had decided to see more of the world at that time, to feel warmer winds, but Nanashi could plainly see that that wasn’t how the story really had ended.
Sagamund seemed to notice it too as a glance he gave her suggested but kept silent about it and proclaimed the tale payment made in full in the end: “Very well, that was a good story and well-told, disheartening though it may have been. Your fare is accepted, young man. And what about you, girl?” he asked with his creaky voice.
Nanashi had pondered the matter for a while and had finally thought of the right story to tell: “I fear I am not a versed storyteller, and since you have lived so long, much of the recorded history I have read in the library of the Black Sanctum you may already know, but would you approve if I told you news of the world that you might not yet know? My party chanced upon a group of pilgrims on our way from the Black Sanctum and they told us of sinister tidings; tidings that reflected the true nature of our quest. What would you say to that, old man?” she inquired, mentally knocking on her forehead for good luck.
Sagamund nudged his head slightly. “This I will accept. I was curious anyways for even though I have seen Null here and there since the Age of Heroes, none of them have ever had as official an air about them as you. Whatever has driven you from your seclusion is of interest to me.”
Nanashi nodded and told him the tale about how the seers had foretold a great evil and the grand master had sent out five to save the Five Cities of the Middle Lands. As much concerned Sagamund Greenhorn, but when she began to tell the terrible tale of the pilgrims that she and her brethren had heard during the night of the storm, his eyes widened and his breath trembled. The council of the keepers was broken and only corruption remained in the Middle Lands, a foul corruption that was consuming it. Also it seemed as if Sagamund knew of other things that complemented Nanashi’s story, things that were deeply disturbing to him.
After she had finished, he stood up from his chair. Günter, who always seemed to have a comment and a belly laugh for any and every occasion, had grown silent as the grave when Nanashi laid out the news before them.
“I see,” Sagamund said with a grave voice, “we best eat something then. We should not depart on an empty stomach and the journey will take many hours, especially in the dark.”
Nanashi raised a brow: “In the… we are leaving right away? Shouldn’t we go when the sun rises again?”
Sagamund clattered around with some plates and put some cheese and rice gruel together, adding a bit of preserved carrot and fish. “I think not, little girl.” And so the ‘little’ was back. “You need to find your Lady of Lightning and suddenly it seems that Sagamund Greenhorn has urgent business again. For three hundred years I have lived peacefully in this shack, listening to stories, ferrying travelers across the vast Yamato Mountains on moth-back and now the world is falling apart again. It’s like a damned glass urn resting on a pin.” He had begun to rant while setting the table and somehow Nanashi felt too anxious to offer assistance. “Oh nonono, we will leave right away or there won’t be much ‘sunrises’ left to wait for, I assure you.”
Nanashi looked at the gruel before her as Sagamund heated water for more tea. “How do you know?” she asked him suspiciously while eying the food.
“Know what?” he asked.
“How do you know where I am going? That I am looking for the Lady of Lightning.”
Sagamund fanned the cooking fire. “How old do you think I am, little girl?! The old Lady of Lightning is dead. Every little girl like yourself knows the scriptures of Yilik and your party ‘inexplicably’ sets you off on your merry way to the greatest hub for weather science save for Borealis. A five-year-old could figure out what you are after.” Apparently he had only just begun to rant, clearly upset by the whole situation.
“I see,” she said, staying quiet for a little while as Günter emptied his platter with hungry hands. “And where do you have to go all of the sudden?” she asked now, careful to use a casual tone.
She had grown somewhat curious herself, and did not without reason consider the fact that she might have just called a big actor onto the board without meaning to.
“I need to go to Rim City at the gates to the Spiral Sea. There I can get access to the necessary facilities and technology to find Miyako Fluxum,” he explained and added some tea leaves into the kettle, which he filled with steaming water.
“The Moving City?” Nanashi said in surprise. “What would you want with them?”
“Raise an army; bring the technamagineers into the fight. This time technology and magic may both crumble into dust before the challenge we face, we need something stronger still,” he answered and served them their tea.
“Face what?” Nanashi asked now. “What do you know about this, old man?”
He sipped from his cup and then gave her a dark look, his eyes hardening as if he had come to some sort of decision: “You should go back. Turn around and go to your Black Sanctum.” His voice was harsh and commanding when he said that.
Nanashi was incredulous. “Go… I can’t go back! I have a mission, I will not return until I have seen it through!”
Sagamund finished his cup and stood up once again to put on a thick, long coat, grabbing a strange, twisted staff from the wall. The hearth had completely burned down by now.
“You have been warned,” he said, “but you have also paid your fare, so you may fly along to Yamaseki same as your friend.” He went on out and left Nanashi and Günter behind to follow.
Günter stood up and slapped Nanashi firmly on the back. “Don’t be so glum now, fair Nanashi, t‘ll be alright. And ya sure have an interesting journey ahead, mind if I throw me sword in with that?”
Nanashi moved her gaze up, “What?”
Finally Günter shook out a laugh again, something the mood in here had sorely needed. “I’m saying that I’d like to stick along if ya’ll have me. Ol’ Günter knows a thing or two about trav’ling; and fighting too!” he assured her.
She stood up. “I… I am not sure,” she finally said. “I shall think on it during the flight.”
Now Günter laughed again, “Don’t ya say it so casually now, we’re really going to fly - fly like birds!”
Nanashi opened the door, letting the howling wind inside. “Fly like moths you mean,” she corrected him.
That only made him cheer up more, and as they went outside, they saw Sagamund waving his staff and what they had thought to be a furry tarpaulin when first they had come by the shack began to move, forcing the realization upon them that it was indeed the largest moth they had ever seen, easily as big as the shack itself…

Valkyrie

Her mouth opened wide and she gasped for air like a drowned woman after the water had been pumped from her lungs. It was the sweet breath of life but tainted with the horrifying realization of the price it had come with. The Valkyrie lived, but with this breath she also died, for she was now a Valkyrie only in title. The dark terror that had torn at her very soul had been expelled and destroyed, but at the cost of the only power inside of her that was great enough to stand against it: the fragment of Wyrd that her lord Odin himself had implanted in her soul had been shattered. She now was but an ordinary, mortal woman as she had been many hundreds of years ago.
Her armored limbs were heavy where the armor hadn’t been torn off and shredded during the fight and she felt helpless as a child.
“You awaken, that is good,” came the voice of a man.
The Valkyrie turned her head, her vision half-blurred and her mouth barely moving as she failed to articulate herself. Her head was pounding as if a herd of mammoths was stampeding inside and she felt heavy; too heavy. Her fingers twitched gently, but still she could barely move. The voice of the man… it was not the same as the one that had ended her. She felt a measure of relief.
“Should I give her some water?” It was the voice of a girl, coming from somewhere nearby.
There was a moment’s silence and then the Valkyrie felt a cool trickle on her lips. Greedily she tried to open her mouth, catch what she could with her tongue, but even those muscles barely responded. Somehow she managed to swallow the life-giving water, and it quenched some of her burning thirst. She felt as if she hadn’t drunk so much as a drop for eons nor eaten the tiniest morsel.
After a while the water seemed to restore some of her strength and she tried to push herself into a sitting position, her arms shaking. But half-way through everything began to spin, her blurred vision grew dimmer again, and she collapsed. She began to sob meekly and tears ran down her cheeks as she lay on the ground powerless and broken. The memory and the aftermath of the unspeakable violation that had been inflicted upon her were too much, and so she cried. She felt something soft and warm embrace her then but could not say what it was. It just made her sob even more, whimpering every now and then.
“There are two more Valkyries I think, but one is at the southern pole with the technocrats and the other one no one has seen for a long, long time. I do not think that they will be drawn here quickly enough to change your fate, before the Five Cities are secure. Besides, I do not think you would approve of their solution; or perhaps you would…?” It was the man’s voice again.
“Will they be alright? Your brothers at the other cities, I mean?” the girl inquired. She was very close; maybe she had taken the Valkyrie into her arms or lap.
“They will be fine. They are among the most skilled and enlightened of the Null, I handpicked them myself for this perilous journey. They will do their part. But I had to take over for one of them, so after this we must travel to Aerealis so I can liberate it as well. However, first, we will enter Arda so I can send a bird to the Black Sanctum,” the man said.
“Couldn’t you just send a letter bomb?” the girl asked then.
“No, the Black Sanctum does not have a resonator beacon, no letter bomb can lock on to it, and so no letter bomb can be sent there. When I say bird I do mean technology though, I have a little something for the occasion, but I still require a carbonic power-cell to make it work, so we will have to get past these walls here.”
The Valkyrie could hear no more as she drifted into unconsciousness again.
When she woke, she was finally strong enough to sit up. “Good, you are finally getting your strength back, drink this!” said the man and handed her a water skin.
The Valkyrie took it and began to sip. With every swallow of water she felt herself sob again, her body shaking.
“No amount of tears will return what has been taken from you, Valkyrie,” the man said roughly and yet sympathetic. “But it seems your gods are watching over you still: your strength has spared you a dire fate indeed and your presence here is destiny. You will walk with us until our work is done, and when that time comes, so yours will be.”
She coughed as she swallowed too greedily. “The Valkyrie does not-“,
but he interrupted her bluntly: “The Valkyrie does what she is told if she ever hopes to fulfill her duty and in turn perhaps be given back her gift. I understand the girl’s presence here as little as she herself, but mine own purpose is clear. I am Rei of the Null and I have come to join the last great war of this world. Before we are done here, you will blow that thrice damned horn of yours and then Helgard shall await us all.” And with that the talking was done.
The Valkyrie was too weak still to argue, and even if that had not been so, she would have had nothing to say to that. If indeed the man named Rei spoke true, she might be exalted by her sire Odin once more, for there could be no honor greater than to sound the horn at the right time. She lifted herself to her feet, shaking. As she looked around, she caught better sight of the man and the girl. She was young, very young. The Valkyrie could see it, feel it, smell it: this one was a babe. But she had seen blood as well, so like as not she would do. The man, however, was different. He was missing an eye and the wound was still fresh - very fresh - and his heart and mind were calm as the deepest waters. This one had great power; the Valkyrie could sense it. When she looked around to gather the shards that had been smashed out of her armor she found them collected and neatly stacked on a pile. One glance from her revealed the girl to be the culprit.
She gathered up the pieces. “Thank you,” she said meekly to the girl. “Thank you both,” she then repeated, also looking at Rei.
He rose as well then, as did the girl. “I’m Artemis…” she said shyly. “It is a great honor to meet you, Lady Valkyrie.”
The Valkyrie almost grimaced: formalities as such had little meaning to the northerners, but she kept quiet about it.
“We shall go then,” Rei said, beating the dust from his robes. “Since we all lost so much at her walls, we may as well impose on Arda’s hospitality.” He lifted one hand to the great earthen wall and a narrow pass just crumbled out of it into dust, the fine mass cascading past them and shrouding the air, making them cough.
“You are a magus of the earth…” the Valkyrie said in surprise. The mages at Aquaris had been powerless to use their craft against their attackers. How had this one managed to avoid the terror of the yellow glimmer?
Rei laughed at that, “Don’t be foolish now. I already told you who I am. I am Rei. Of the Null.” And there it dawned on her who she had here. She had been too weakened and preoccupied to notice the first time he had said it, but now she could not overhear it anymore: A Null. The last time the Aesir had roamed Midgard, or as it was called here, ‘The Great Land’, had been during the Age of Heroes, which was just called ‘the Great War’ back then. That had also been the last time the Null had roamed these realms before drawing back into seclusion.
The Null were unimaginably powerful; so powerful even that they could fight with the gods in fair combat. All magic and otherworldly crumbled before them, just like the segment of this great earthen wall had this very moment. The Valkyrie had roamed Aqualon for seven hundred years, but even when she was sent out on her great quest, the Null had already been in seclusion for a millennium. One of them standing here in the Middle Lands, openly proclaiming his affiliation and wearing the sign of the eclipse was as surprising as the sky cracking open and a giant eye poking through would have been.
And there could be no question about this man’s power now: he had fought against the monster that had so easily crushed her and prevailed. What role the little girl had played in this she did not know, but that his missing eye was a wound sustained from that very battle was evident.
“Very well,” she said now, “I shall follow you, Null… for now.” That was as much as he had expected it seemed, since he just nodded and walked on, but though hiding it behind her pride, she could feel in her bones that the things he had said before were true. He would be her best shot at a second chance. And that was all she wanted. Or… was it? Had she not cursed her former immortality just a day or two ago? She pushed the thought aside for now.
Soon enough as they walked laboriously over the dust mound, two sides of the thick wall towering over them, they were intercepted by the city guard. The path that Rei had created through the great wall of Arda had not gone unnoticed.

Chapter VIII

Trapped in a Sea of Yarenma

And from time to time as I walk the many-shaped realms, sweet poison wafts through the air, lulling me from sleep to deeper sleep, making me ask why. Why?
- From the Book of Taishôgeki

Atlas

“It is true, I can feel the efficient economy of motion when I move like this and a wholeness of body and mind as I practice my breathing. But still, no matter how efficiently I use my body, how could I possibly use this to prevail against magic? You know better than anyone what true power looks like, Plâton. You told me you saw the old man split the mountain. Can this protect me against that?” It was a fair question, Atlas thought.
Truth be told, he liked this training. It was odd, but it filled him with an unusual sense of control over his own body and balance – or better put a sense for the lack thereof. He could definitely see the benefits of these martial arts and the room for improvement they presented, and judging from Plâton’s elegant and efficient movements, he might indeed be capable of defeating an armed man bare-handed, using nothing but technique - technique rooted in body-gyrometrics and balance. But Atlas as he was now had been forged between a hammer and an anvil made of terrifying might and knew too well that no movement of the body, no matter how efficient, would protect him if he faced that hell again.
“True enough,” Plâton said, “but the art itself only readies your body. - Perhaps a demonstration might put things into perspective. Hm. But I will postpone that for just a minute to see if I cannot offer some wisdom that doesn’t revolve around punching.” He raised his hand, motioning Atlas to stop the set of movements he had been drilling. “Now, do you know the teachings of the three truths and the five paths?”
Atlas sat down, catching his breath as his heart was still pounding heavily. “Very vaguely. I know that there are five gates inside of me. I know them very well.”
“Then you know a thing very well that many people have sought to know their entire lives.” Plâton noted. “The three truths are such: Reality, origin, and existence. As for the five paths, well, I’ll speak of those later. Now, perhaps you are unsure what really comprises reality, but for the sake of a little thought experiment, I will say that it is the sum and result of all the natural forces and laws that have established themselves throughout the universe as far as we know. Though, I would wager our resident technocrat here knows more about those than I do. Still, here the thought experiment begins: There is a mountain spring, and water ever flows out of it. At the foot of that side of the mountain is a small valley, a basin of sorts. Where will the water go?”
Atlas furled his brow. “Into the basin.” It seemed like a pretty stupid question to him.
“And why would it do that?” Plâton continued.
Now Atlas had to think a little. “Because… water flows downhill?”
“And why does it flow downhill?”
“Uh… It just… well, everything is always being pulled down, right? If I jump, the ground pulls me back, and it also pulls the water down the hillside,” Atlas finally said, his concentration slowly building.
“Technocrats call that pulling force ‘gravity’.” Plâton explained. “And if you came to that mountain, seeing the stream of that spring flowing down into the basin, now a little lake, would you look up and think: the water cannot climb back up, it must always flow down?”
“I… I’m not sure I would actually come up with that thought for no apparent reason, but I suppose it isn’t impossible that I might think that,” Atlas said evasively.
“Might it also not be impossible for you to say that you yourself could never climb the mountain? After all, everything is being pulled down all the time.”
“Yes… no…” Atlas worked himself through the double negative that Plâton was now wielding against him. “I wouldn’t say that, because I probably could climb the mountain.”
“Why can you climb the mountain, but the water can’t?”
“Because I have legs…”
“No, because you have agency, Atlas. Because you have the ability to want to go up that mountain. Water does not have this power. It does not have existence. It could move up the mountain, if a mage imbued it with his soul, but on its own, it is shackled to the laws of reality.”
“Just a note here,” Ayveron interjected, “But at some point that water is probably going to evaporate and rise back up.”
“Don’t undermine my metaphor, Ayveron, I am trying to teach here!”
Ayveron went back to sanding a copper tube he had taken out from his backpack.
Atlas thought about what Plâton had said. “But there is more?” He now wanted to know.
“Now, people have found the basin and they live in a town close-by. They want the water, and there is a basin large enough to hold it at the town proper. The town does not lie downhill and thus the water will not go there on its own. What would be the fastest, easiest way to bring it there?”
Atlas looked up at the sky, thinking about what Ayveron had said about it evaporating. But in the end he said: “Well, that would be magic, right? A water magus could move the water over into the new basin, and an earth magus could raise the old basin, perhaps form some sort of channel.”
“Quite so. In imbuing the water or its surroundings with soul, they can give it the agency to move where they need it to be, even though the laws of reality would usually constrain it to stay in its basin, the water cycle notwithstanding. But what if the people had no mages amongst each other?”
“They could still get water with buckets. Maybe they could even transport all of it if they had enough buckets and people and time.”
“And where would the agency be in that? In the water, or in the people?” Plâton now eyed him closely, as if waiting for a certain reply.
This just made Atlas swallow his immediate reply and think on it more diligently. Finally he spoke: “I suppose it would be in either. When the people take the water with them, they share their agency with the thing they want to move.”
Plâton had the look of someone about to drive home a laborious point now. “Yes. Yes! But it is no longer about simple motion. They don’t want to move something, or perhaps that is what they want, but what is it that they are actually doing when they take that water and put it somewhere else?”
Atlas stared at him blankly. Whatever Plâton wanted him to say now, it escaped him.
Finally Plâton found the mercy to say it himself: “They don’t share their agency with the thing they want to move, they share their agency with the thing they want to change. They are changing the world, moving things against the natural order, and all they needed to do so was a bucket. No magic. Hel’s tits, they could use the hollow of their hands, if they were determined enough.”
On this Atlas had to ponder for a while. “So existence is like a force that counteracts reality? And it’s not magic that can supersede it, but human endeavor?”
“In a way. But to be more precise: reality and existence are both mutually exclusive truths that impose themselves on the universe. They usually rest in an equilibrium that favors reality, but that equilibrium can be turned on its head by existence.”
“Alright. And martial arts?”
“In a minute. Now there is one more link in the chain. If the people use buckets or their hands, it will take them a long while to do the task compared to magic. But if we finally get to Ayveron’s problem, moving the water once with magic will require the process to be repeated later, because the water will evaporate and the spring is still on the mountain, filling up the old basin. Here the non-magical approach becomes more interesting, because there are ways to get the water flowing into the new basin perpetually. For example by building an aqueduct, a sloped stone channel that guides the water down a less steep but elongated path into the new basin. It may take a long while to build, but then it will stand for eons. Now the water follows the laws of reality and goes where the people wish it to go. My question this time is: where is the agency in that?”
This time Atlas could answer directly. He had gotten a bit more used to the way of thinking Plâton had pushed on him, and the answer seemed more obvious: “It was already spent on constructing the aqueduct.”
Plâton clapped. “And now you know the answer to your own question.”
“I do?”
“The art of the Great Impact is meant to train your body and your mind. If you can learn to understand and detect the agency in the things you face, you will be able to see the path to survival that yields the greatest result while requiring the least effort. If a magus attacks you with powerful elemental magic, he will have one of two choices: Concentrate his attack into a fine point, in which case you should dodge it, trading the energy of a tiny step for all the soul power he expends; or hit you with a broad blast that is difficult to avoid, in which case he will have to expend much energy of which only a tiny portion can hit you, becoming easier to block. My point is: Perception is far more useful than raw power if it is well-honed and correctly applied.”
“I suppose that makes sense,” Atlas mused. “Though I don’t see how perception could have saved me if that old man had wanted to cut me in half together with the mountain. Speaking hypothetically of course, he was a nice old man.”
“Ah, but he did not cut himself in half as well, did he? There was definitely a point not within the reach of his attack, and do you think you would have needed power equal to his if all you wanted was to get to that point? Surely far less would have been sufficient.”
“I suppose I would just have to see where to go and be fast enough.” Atlas admitted.
“Good, so you are getting it. Now we can get to the punching part. If your mind is trained well enough, you may one day be able to obtain a body such as mine.” He looked around briefly and then eyed a large boulder of the kind that lay here on the edges of the Saltplains sometimes. It was a sizable chunk and several dozen feet away. He stretched his arms and shoulders briefly and then sprung up and down on his knees to loosen up.
What happened next happened so quickly that Atlas was not quite sure if he actually did perceive it at all. It seemed like Plâton leapt towards the rock, but it happened in no more than one or two seconds, the longest time of motion happening right when he started to move, making it seem as though Plâton suddenly stood next to it and the whole thing exploded into gravel and a few larger chunks. When the dust settled, Plâton stood there, his body tensed around shoulders and hips, his fist held out where the rock had stood, and his knuckles were slightly bloodied. Slowly, as if he had all the time in the world, he walked back.
“Incredible! How did you do that?” Ayveron asked flabbergasted.
Atlas too was shocked. “Is… is your hand alright?” he asked.
Plâton took a look at his fist. “Sure. The skin is the weakest and it breaks sometimes. But it will heal quickly. Look, the wound is almost gone,” he said.
“The real preserve us…” Ayveron mumbled faintly.
Plâton stretched his Fingers, clenching and unclenching his fist carefully. “Increased regeneration and dense muscles,” he explained, lifting some of Atlas’s ponderousness about the apparent unrealistic weight of his body. “These are side-effects of true Taishôgeki. By maximizing the human form with the help of your gates and martial arts, you may gain a power similar to that of the old Nordic gods. But where their might is fueled by the power of Wyrd, the well of destiny of which they drank long before the First Age, mine is truly mine and not even the mighty Null could take it away.”
Ayveron seemed more shocked by that than Atlas was, but in his defense, Atlas did not quite get several of those references. They sounded familiar, but he did not really take their meaning.
“The real preserve us…” Ayveron repeated, clearly shaken by what he had witnessed and heard here.
“It didn’t preserve that boulder over there,” Plâton noted with a hint of amusement while pointing at the pile of rubble behind him.
“Actually it did. The boulder is still all there, just in smaller pieces of itself,” Ayveron corrected absentmindedly, as if making pointed observations was second nature to him or some way to collect his calm.
“Oh,” exclaimed Plâton, seeming to think about it, before he started grinning from ear to ear, “Well, now I cannot decide whether you are just bright, or also a smart-arse.”
Ayveron seemed to have collected himself and returned the grin sheepishly: “So I am bright either way, eh? A man might feel flattered by such high praise.”
“I would consider wooing you, but alas my manhood is still keeping its head low in mourning over the death of my wife.
I fear it might never recover,” he added with a sigh.
What had apparently been intended as a humorous remark had taken a sour left turn before it had fully left his mouth. He turned back to Atlas: “Continue the movement set,” he commanded and Atlas began to move again, eager to rescue the died-down conversation. “The gogyôkata are the five basic forms that are inspired by the five elements and they can be evolved into any existing and non-existing martial art. That is why you must perform them daily, several times if you can, and whenever you have a few spare minutes. The more often you perform them the more they will become part of your body and your being, and your movement, balance, and self-control will improve accordingly. Now, do you know the basics of magic?” he inquired, as he observed Atlas’s performance and corrected him here and there with slight nudges.
Ayveron still didn’t participate, giving the two men some space. He instead unpacked more of his strange equipment and worked on an odd contraption, here and there consulting scrolls he drew from a case.
“I do not,” Atlas said, half eying Ayveron’s busywork.
Plâton nodded as he watched Atlas’s steps. “I have told you of the three truths and the duality of existence and reality now. Existence itself is comprised of five parts: Soul, willpower, natural power, instinct, and spirit. When we extend the reach of our soul into the real world, we create an environment of existence in which our control over what is and is not supersedes the ironclad hold of reality. By influencing the shape of that environment we change reality and that is called magic. Others could probably explain it better than me, I have not done much in the way of magic, never had the knack for it-”
“Keep telling us that!” Ayveron jeered from the sidelines, but Plâton graciously ignored him.
He paused briefly to correct Atlas on a misstep he had made, explaining how the nature of the involved element dictated the way he was supposed to move, before he continued his speech. “Well… where technocrats try to understand reality and make its laws work to their benefit, mages manipulate the line between what is real and what is not. The Taishôgeki, in its most powerful form, extends our soul to create such an environment in the confines of our body and manipulates its form. But the manipulation occurs in a way that afterwards conforms to the laws of reality and is adopted by it as real.
This happens much in the same way as a magus of water moving a puddle to a different place with magic: Even when the magic fades, the puddle does not return to its original place.”
Ayveron nodded from his off-position as if he indeed had some insight into that long-wound explanation. Atlas just took it as it was and kept on repeating the five forms Plâton had shown him, though he sensed the old man was leaving out a vital part of whatever he was trying to convey; a thought born out of Atlas’s unusual perception.
The rhythmic breathing and movement soon began to tear at Atlas’s stamina again, and as he started sweating, he began to fall out of the correct breathing pattern from time to time.
Still, the breathing part of the exercise actually seemed to oxygenize his body very well and so he went on, a bit light-headed, but filled with a strange vigor. Plâton seemed to be in no rush to stop the training, even though Atlas’s exhaustion was very visible now.
“How long will it be until we reach the Red Sands?” Ayveron inquired as he screwed a nut tighter on the long object he was tinkering around with.
“Hmm,” said Plâton, thinking on it. “At our current pace we should be there in about three more days. What will it be, Kvarsynodium?”
Ayveron shook his head, “Prickeltag. Kvarsnodium is today.”
Plâton grunted. “I should keep closer track of these things. Before I know it, the years will get the better of me.”
To that Ayveron smiled as he got back to sanding the copper tube. “They would have to catch you first, and at this pace I have my doubts they can.”

Artemis

Artemis had never seen a city quite like this. The same-named capital of Arkatrash was a longish city, spread along a wide stretch of the Giranja. On one side, rows of houses made from red bricks mined at the Canyon of Khepri hugged each other tightly, sometimes giving way to lavish palaces, great mansions, and even pyramids used as watchtowers and high halls; on the other side of the river were the fields and plantations that provided for the city in cooperation with the fisheries and trade ships that sailed the Giranja in both directions, some to trade with the Rusty Shore, some to trade with the Saltplains. Over there, too, lived the sullied ones: tanners, butchers, executioners, blighters, and undertakers; and the uncouth: entertainers and street cleaners.
Arda was much different from this image of great cities that Arkatrash had nurtured in her. In the beginning, Artemis had just marveled at the gigantic, mound-like wall that ringed the city. It resembled a steep hill, covered in long grass that gently dangled towards the ground. At the upper third it became too sheer to climb, probably even with gear, for it was not made of rock, and earth might just crumble away when stuck with pitons. It rose high up into the sky, perhaps three hundred feet or more, but she wasn’t entirely sure. And it was thick; incredibly so. The path that Rei had opened up for them was narrow but surprisingly long. Catapult stone and fireball may be hurled against this great barrier to no avail, and if she were to loose an arrow from Windfall, even a spectral wolf such as she had conjured at the paro’s palace would probably just smash itself apart against this mighty bulwark.
As they traversed the narrow path, Artemis had a good cross-section view of the wall, showing that no hand had built this landmark but that it had been formed by magic, looking as natural as any hill one may find on their travels.
Half-way through, they were stopped by armed men who anxiously asked them about their business here. The crest of Arda, three towers poking out of a ring, was drawn on their cloaks and shields. They had short spears in their hands and were garbed in brown leather armor. Artemis had pondered why the mages of earth that had created the great wall hadn’t simply closed the passage over their heads, burying them underneath, but as it turned out those same mages had been puzzled by this very fact: No earth magic could close the gap they tread. As Rei convinced the armed men of his status as a Null their demeanor changed and they were escorted inside rather than taken prisoners. There was little talk about the Null around the parts of Arkatrash and even the Kaltani told few stories of them, but the Middle Lands were the melting pot of all higher magic on Aqualon – well, most of it anyways – so perhaps the Null were better known here.
After a long walk between the towering earthen sheers, they finally caught sight of the city itself. It was enormous but difficult to gage. Even though the total size of the city of Arkatrash should be greater, all of that was condensed into a spherical shape here, and the ground on the outer edges were strangely flat and looked almost as if polished. Perhaps the ring wall had grown outward with time to make room for more housing and stomped the ground under it flat like a glacier. The buildings of this city came in many sizes, but a considerable number of them were tall as pyramids, though not near as thick at the base; something she had thought was a requirement for architecture of these heights. They resembled great obelisks, reaching upward from the ground, with many windows perforating their sides, some connected by walkways on higher levels so people could travel in between. The outward appearance and tip of them made them look as if they had grown naturally from the ground. In fact some of them had long trees, ivy, and grasses grow upward from their sides. All the buildings here looked more grown than constructed; maybe the entire city had been built with earth magic.
The tall buildings were not the end of it: Artemis could spy entranceways with her keen eyes that seemed to lead underground as if the city extended in all directions, possibly housing tens of thousands.
“When the Age of Gears and Elements began, the technocrats provided each of the Five Cities of magic with a parting gift so they would be remembered as potential friends but also as a final demonstration of their power,” Rei told Artemis. She wondered why he felt the need to tell her this, but maybe it was her overwhelmed expression that compelled him, or perhaps he just felt like talking. “To Arda they gave a most curious technology: A mirror-and-lensing system that would allow them to catch the sun’s light at the tip of their towers and channel it deep underground where it would be bright as day. Since then the Ardians have grown almost all they require in giant growth-complexes underground. Some say that such a great measure of independence and safety provided by their wall has made them grow secluded. Personally, I see parallels to the high technocrats of Borealis. I assume they use similar ways to keep themselves fed - far up at the South Pole - and when have they last openly interacted with the people of the Great Land?”
The Valkyrie nodded. “That was when my masters had been defeated in battle some seventeen hundred years back. The technocrats gave gifts to the Aesir as well: strange machines that are used to work the fields of Asgard, operated by only a handful of chosen Angel Saxons,” she added.
Artemis tried to discern any signs of the aperture that Rei had described on the tips of the tower-like buildings, but she could only make out a gleam and sheen here and there. After a bit of that, she finally noticed the people. They appeared fairly small from here, because after a wide, flat ring-plateau crowned with less overgrown, seemingly newer buildings, the ground went down into a valley, and the size of it all finally reached Artemis’s mind as she saw them wander in the distance. Far away she could hear the soft murmur of splashing water, and the gentle shadow of the ring-wall was covering most of the city, ever-growing and wandering with the sinking sun. Suddenly, they came to a halt.
“Wait here,” one of the guards commanded, “we will send men to contact the magistrate, until we have word you may seat yourselves in the barracks. They may not offer much comfort, but I am sure they will do for a short while for weary wanderers like yourself.” The guardsman who had spoken seemed experienced and not unkind. His garb was padded, rusty-brown leather with a red cloak and a bronze helmet.
Rei thanked him, and soon the three of them were seated in the barracks. A few more words exchanged revealed that Rei was expected to know certain passwords to confirm his identity as a Brother of the Null, but few people here still knew them, so the magistrate’s presence was required.
“This city is so different from Arkatrash!” Artemis exclaimed in awe.
Rei had plunged into his seat with a sigh. “It is indeed. So don’t let the culture shock get the better of you.
I have never actually been here myself. After my brief youth in the Yamato Kingdom, I spent all my life with the Null at the Ever-Clouded Summit,” he admitted. Perhaps he was having trouble with culture shock himself.
“How is the Yamato Kingdom like?” Artemis wanted to know. She had heard tales about it, but not many. The Yamato were a secluded people, living on the Yamato Mountain Range to the east.
Rei shrugged his shoulders. “It’s been too long to tell you much, and I have never lived in the capital or the wealthy cities of the Yamato Valley. I remember the smell of murasaki moths: it is like… spring, like blooming flowers; and they were everywhere, beautiful things to behold, though I have heard that some people are disquieted by their form. I grew up on a rice farm on a soft slope and the years were flowing one into the next with little tales to tell.”
Artemis nodded as she tried to imagine it, soon turning her thought to her own youth when her father had still been alive. The Valkyrie stared melancholically at the pieces of armor she held in her arms and contributed little to the conversation until finally a city official came to pick them up. His name was Gilrend and he claimed to be an upper echelon clerk of the ministry of Arda, come to bring them before the minister. He also listened to the passwords Rei had to offer and deemed them valid.
They walked for about twenty minutes until they reached a strangely colored strip of earth that ran alongside the street. Gilrend gestured for them to step on behind him, but Rei bade them to wait a moment: “Not her,” he said, nodding towards Artemis.
“W-what?” She asked incredulous.
“It’s a magic engine; you cannot step on that as it would be dangerous for you right now, trust me. Either you allow one of us to carry you, or we all walk.”
Artemis looked at the strip, curious to see what it did. Then she shrugged her shoulders. “Eh. I am more used to palanquins, but I’ll let you carry me. Just don’t get handsy.”
Rei nodded and picked her up. They stepped on the strip, and earth came up to envelope their feet and shins, starting to move forward, transporting them ahead, but it still took over half an hour until they finally reached one of the central spires that towered high towards the heavens. Gilrend lead the party inside and a magic engine elevator took them to the upper levels. He used the idle time to explain how the contraption was driven by their soul power as long as they were standing on its floor. Rei had lifted Artemis up again.
“You think I’ll blight? Why?” she asked.
“Like most magic artifacts that bow works no different than a magic engine, it just doesn’t use spell ink mandalas. I am surprised you haven’t suffered spellblight already. You must have a very powerful soul,” Rei patiently elaborated.
When they were at the right level, they left the elevator and were led into a large study filled with books and scrolls. A great oaken desk was close to a big window overlooking the city to one side, all the way to the wall. A man with eyeglasses was sitting at the desk writing with quill and ink. He looked up to see the new arrivals. “Ah, there you are, I just got word!” he said with a fatherly voice and a warm smile. He stood up and walked over to shake hands. Gilrend was dismissed.
“So, you are the one-eyed Null they are talking about! My, my, almost two millennia since the last Null walked these lands, spouting passwords all official-like, we never even dared to hope for one of you to aid us in our time of need.
But where are my manners? I am Councilman Malkir! Till Malkir, it’s a pleasure!”
Rei nodded slowly and took Councilman Malkir’s hand. “Rei of the Null,” he said. “It is a great honor to be here in your wonderful city. May I impose on your hospitality? What happened under your walls must be reported to the Black Sanctum immediately. I require a carbonic power-cell, small, and quill, ink, and paper.”
Malkir scratched his head. “Easily done. May I know first what happened out there? Our posts say that everything went dark when you walked in there. And before that, the man was fighting this Lady here, if the description provided was correct.”
Rei nodded. “It was a vile thing that had befallen that man. I have never seen anything like it, and I almost perished in this fight. A terrifying fate is encroaching upon us; I can only hope we may prevent it still.”
Malkir went to his desk gathering a few things and grabbing a small cuboid object from a drawer. “Then you should squander no time indeed.” He laid out paper, quill, and the small object before Rei on the table: a little transparent block with glittering stuff inside.
Rei nodded and began to write. While he was busy, Malkir exchanged a few words with the Valkyrie, but Artemis wasn’t paying close attention. She watched all the people passing by the open door: this place seemed to be very busy indeed and many people were walking by, sometimes stopping to look back at Artemis who felt more and more out of place, wearing her old straw sandals, her white tunic, reclaimed from her old chambers, and the heavy great bow Windfall on her back together with her quiver. On her belt she wore a few small pouches with dried food, some everyday objects, and a water skin. When people turned around briefly to return her curious stares, she would wave shyly at them.
After a little while, she heard a metallic clank and turned around looking for its source. Rei had finished writing and sealed his letter with wax, now producing a strange metal thing that resembled a bird, about the size of a big crow or a raven and with a similar shape and hue. He tied the letter to its leg and jammed the transparent block Malkir had provided into a slot. It probably was that power-cell thing he had mentioned.
Artemis had heard that carbonic power-cells were used for certain means of locomotion down at the Rusty Shore, releasing an energy that could make vehicles move by themselves, though how that differed from the moving strip or the elevator she had just experienced, she did not know. Probably in that the latter used the energy from souls and the former used energy from little blocks.
The thing Rei was activating now, however, was stranger still. After the cell had been inserted, some stripes and circles on the bird’s side began to glow, including its eyes, while it stood perfectly motionless. Rei closed his eye and slowly reached out his left hand to the bird’s head, where shortly before touching it, a black spark jumped between hand and metal, and as he made contact, the metal became enveloped in blackness with blue outlines here and there, making it look like a creature made from living darkness.
It was as if it was glowing black or perhaps as though it was covered in waving, perfectly dark silk. Of course Artemis knew as much that blackness was the absence of light, not the other way around. She had been schooled by some of the finest teachers of Arkatrash after all when her father had still been alive: her chasha had seen to her general education, but renowned scholars had taught her arithmetic, the basic principles of gyrometrics, history, statesmanship, and many other subjects. Slavery had cut her education tragically short of course, but even as a slave you still learn; you just learn different things.
When what clearly had to be some sort of magic was done, Rei opened the glass window, whispered something to the bird, and let it fly.
“Well, I am glad this has been taken care of. Will there be more Null coming to the Middle Lands, I wonder?” Malkir inquired curiously.
Rei sighed with some measure of relief. “Not yet. We seem to have stemmed at least some of the tide and if all goes well, my brethren at the other cities will lift the sieges there too. I will need to go to Aerealis still, but a day’s rest should be a forgivable reprieve at this point. The brothers up on the Black Sanctum will have to make plans and observe the development here in the Middle Lands and elsewhere first before they make their next move.”
To that the councilman nodded. “I see. That is good to hear. Well, I shall ask for some tea while arrangements for your stay here are made. The city will provide, naturally, after all you removed that dreadful individual from our gates. Kingdom gone and kingdom come, I never saw it myself until now, only heard stories as a child, yes, yes. Gilrend!” he called out and immediately the clerk was there, as if he had waited around the corner; now that Artemis thought about it, he probably had done just that. “There you are! Could you have the staff bring us some tea? Yamato green, mind you. And then find some quarters for our esteemed guests.”
And off he scurried to heed his tasks. Artemis looked around as the councilmen seated himself once again, gesturing that there were more than enough chairs for the three of them to join him. She noticed how the Valkyrie eyed him with a cold suspicion that seemed strangely serious given the warm welcome they had received. Rei on the other hand just seemed very tired, rubbing the area around his empty eye socket, looking for all the world like a man who had forgotten what sleep felt like. He had just lost that eye, and even thinking about what that would be like, sent shivers down Artemis’s spine. She wouldn’t even be able to wield Windfall anymore. That would be a quick end to her story.

Rei the Null

This was the first time he had ever used the bird. A pilgrim had brought it to the brotherhood as a gift some one hundred years ago. He had been a technocrat of Miyako Fluxum; the bird a technamagical construct of brilliant design.
The Null had great respect for the technocrats, who had been a terrifying force to be reckoned with during the Age of Heroes but were generous in victory and humble in defeat. And like the Null they valued knowledge and enlightenment above all, choosing isolation and non-confrontation over conquest; though it was said that Miyako Fluxum did trade with the Middle Lands and Altonar. The mages were a different story. They tended to be arrogant and dangerous, but some of them at least were wise, powerful, and a credit to their faction. Additionally, a deadlock caused by the five-way political connections of the five great cities of the Middle Lands and the Null Concord of the Age of Awakening kept them from getting imperialistic fancies – at least for now.
Technamagix, however… Well, it was an odd novelty that had emerged in the Age of Heroes and come down like a titanic hammer during the Great War. Though first researched by the Greenhorns, its ultimate fate as a forbidden research subject in Borealis was said to have been instigated by Sagamund Greenhorn through his renowned work ‘The Seven Principles of Technocratic Ethics’ that caused uproar in the scientific community then and now.
But of that the Null learned only through the trickle of pilgrims that brought them news of the world since Sagamund’s era began and ended during the long time of seclusion of the Null, though some of them claimed to have found historic records showing his involvement in the latter years of the Great War.
At the end of the Age of Heroes, the high technocrats and the Null had withdrawn from worldly matters and conflicts and a bit of old greatness had vanished from the face of Aqualon in these days.
As Rei watched the strange bird take flight towards the Black Sanctum, he felt a great relief but also a crushing weariness that struck him as it strikes a man who has ignored his own weakening body to complete an important task. Now sleep was creeping in on the edges of his reduced field of vision, and only force of will kept him from swaying. Thankfully, he managed to plunge down onto one of the most comfortable leathered chairs that councilman Malkir had kindly offered him and the two women in his company.
Artemis seemed especially impressed by everything around here; no wonder, considering her young age. She wasn’t past her twenties yet, that was clearly evident as she wasn’t fully grown. Many decades of youth may be a trait of man, but one still had to grow into that youth as was the way of things. She clearly was too excited to sit down and took everything around her in like a fresh breath of spring air, marveling at the well-worked glass window and enjoying all the colors it projected onto the floor as it broke the fading light.
The Valkyrie didn’t want to sit down either, she seemed to feel… unwell, was it that? Her gaze barely left Malkir’s for a moment and it was cold and filled with doubts. Malkir on the other hand seemed cheerful, smiling all the time, looking from one to the other and then, after a moment, beginning to read some documents on the table, no doubt waiting for that tea he had asked that eager clerk Gilrend for. Rei was wondering how many men were on the council and thought about asking Malkir as Artemis whispered to him from the side. He turned to face her as she spoke softly: “This is a wondrous place, old Rei.”
Rei sighed to that. “I am not that old, you know. I am fifty and three years young, little lady,” he chided.
Artemis shrugged as if she wanted to say that was kind of old from her perspective and Rei pondered that this wouldn’t be such a wrongful thought, everything considered. Still he somewhat didn’t like it to be called ‘old’ already. Especially not by a little girl; it made him feel even more tired for no good reason.
“So… Do all the Middlanders have the same eyes?” she asked curiously.
“What do you mean?” Rei asked incredulous. What an utterly odd question.
“Well, they are golden, no?” she asked him now. The hairs on his neck began to stand up as his stomach cramped and his gaze slowly turned up to Malkir who had his head buried in paperwork, not noticing them nor really showing his eyes.
“Who has golden eyes?” he slowly asked her in a low, tense voice. It was the councilman, probably. People had golden eyes sometimes. It wasn’t the most common of eye-colors, but it happened. This was all just a coincidence.
“Well, all of them,” said Artemis.
“All of them,” repeated Rei with a hollow voice as his mind began to draw blanks.
“Yes, that’s what I’m saying!” insisted Artemis, visibly irritated by Rei’s unusually uninformative reaction to what probably seemed like a normal question to her. “The guardsmen that brought us here, that clerk, Gilrend, the councilman, all the people that walked by this room since we entered. They all have the same eyes, golden, or at least yellowish. They look a bit like falcons, don’t you think? Arkatrashians sometimes have eyes like that, but they are a little… hmm… different, though I couldn’t say why.”
Malkir looked up from his work, still smiling, and finally Rei realized what had the Valkyrie so tensed up: it was his expression.
He had been smiling the entire time but only with his mouth. His eyes had stayed cold all the while and now that Rei realized this, the smile was uncovered as disingenuous. It was a concealed grin, a poorly hidden display of teeth, like an animal ready to snap at you. And the eyes, by the gates! They had a mad gleam about them - how could Rei not have noticed this earlier!? They were the same color, the same tainted gold as the man that Rei had fought at the wall, the same that the pilgrim had described to him: his eyes were of clear jade green before his wound, but when he emerged from his chambers healed, specks of gold had crept in there. It was a strange color, not as pretty as you would think it to be. Sometimes, when he looked directly at me, I almost felt to be burning. Not on my skin, but deep inside me. And the words of the grand master still clung to him as well, now almost like a slap in the face: they say it is as a yellow glimmer in the dark that eats at shadow and light all the same until they are no more.
Rei rose to his feet. “Behind me,” he hissed to the two women.
Artemis looked at him nonplussed, but his tone of voice must have been urgent enough, for she crept behind his back gingerly. The Valkyrie seemed to be more on her toes, but she didn’t really step behind him, more besides him, covering his flank. It must have been her warrior’s instinct, but it was not as helpful as Rei would have liked since he was well aware that she was of little use in this situation. With the necessary time to meditate into the right state of mind, he might have been able to leave this place fast enough to live, but with both of his new companions at his side he saw no means of escape, and despite the obvious urgency of getting the real news to the Black Sanctum, he could not find it in his heart to abandon them here, not after he had felt the enemy’s grasp himself, not after the Valkyrie had survived it once at such great cost. And to abandon a child as young as Artemis - no, it was better to stay and probably die than live with that burden on his soul.
Malkir had risen as well. “What is the matter, going somewhere?” he asked in what should probably have been a friendly tone but now sounded like mockery.
“Yes,” said Rei, desperately fighting for his calm. The entire city. All of it was under the control of this dark force, and he had been blind to it. What a weak fool he was! When he had ripped out that eye, he had torn a lot of his organ structure in the process due to the sinister nature of the yellow glimmer, and now there probably weren’t many years left to him where he would normally have lived thrice his current age and change, and the infirmity that he had to suffer after that sudden shock to his system had dulled his senses too much. He had lost one eye, but for that moment he might as well have grown blind entirely. “Yes,” he repeated, clearing his throat. “Sending the bird has hastened my resolve. We have no time to lose and should leave for Aerealis right away.”
Malkir shook his head sadly. “Now, we can’t have that. You are our honored guests after all. You really should spend the night, get some well-deserved rest. I insist.”
Rei’s throat had grown dry again as he reached out for Artemis’s arm to squeeze for reassurance. Though in truth, he was more trying to reassure himself than her since she didn’t seem to grasp the weight of the situation yet. And why should she? She didn’t know what the yellow eyes meant, Rei hadn’t mentioned it properly – it hadn’t come up. She had keen eyes. Had he said something, had he only said something, she would have told them right away. Right when they met the guards. Rei could have handled them, they weren’t so many. At the very least he could have bought time for the two of them to escape. “Take me and let them go!” he said with a brittle voice.
He had one or two dozen years at best, thanks to the internal injury, but they had full lives to live yet, even the broken Valkyrie had many years as a mortal still, enough time to perhaps even reclaim her gift. And they both had potential to turn the tides of the upcoming war… upcoming? It was almost over and no one even knew! By the gates…
“Excuse me?” asked the councilman, his grin growing wider still.
Artemis seemed less amused. “What do you mean by that, Rei?”
He ignored her. “You heard me! Take me and let them go. I have struck down one of yours and now I know the way. I can do it again or I can stay here quietly, but if you want the latter to happen you’d do well to let these two here leave unharmed.”
Artemis raised her voice again. “Struck down one of theirs… what in Hel’s name do you - oh.”
He could hear the sudden click of realization in her head, followed by her sucking in a large amount of air.
Malkir was laughing by then. “You are half-broken, Null, and the two of them may prove to be true nuisances yet. One is a Valkyrie, one has strange powers as I am told. We’ll be taking all three of you. Resist and I will make sure their suffering will be extensive.”
That seemed to be more than clear, and now Rei didn’t know what to do. Summoning all the strength he had left might be enough to rid themselves of Malkir, but then they would still be trapped in a sea of yarenma, every step like to be their last, and even the effort of cleansing Malkir might be enough to shatter Rei’s body since he hadn’t even had the time to recover. If he opened the fifth gate now, the blight would dye his hair white and his eyes cobalt blue, and if he survived the strain, the fight would become a terrible gamble on what broke first: Malkir’s affliction, or Rei’s five gates. “I… can’t… do it…
is there anything you can do still?” he asked the Valkyrie, his voice a desperate plea.
She was the last hope of the three, but she just stood there, her face white, biting her lip, and she shook her head slowly. Every shake was deafening no that struck Rei like a falling hammer. A fate worse than death could ever be awaited them, and even though it had been the Valkyrie who had suffered the horrifying experience of bathing in that fate once before, he had gotten his fair taste of it as well.
“Then we are doomed,” he said with a gravity-stricken voice.
“To Helgard with that, you old prune!” yelled Artemis. Rei turned his head just in time to see how she took the great bow from her back, drew, nocked, and loosed an arrow onto the floor underneath them in one swift, flowing motion before that same floor turned black and they fell right through it into the dark…

Chapter IX

Ripples in History

I walked and watched falling white turn into icy dust, left to think once more that true might flares but briefly, leaving only a flickering after-image of power that makes us grow ancient inside.
- From the Book of Taishôgeki

Atlas

“To become a true student of Taishôgeki and unlock its secrets, you must have seen the Great Clockwork. But you already have, isn’t that so?” Plâton asked as Atlas sat relaxed, his eyes closed.
“I don’t know. I guess so,” he replied.
Plâton put a hand on his shoulder. “What you are, broken or not, puts you much closer to the Great Clockwork than a normal human being. Because of this, you should learn quickly. Taishôgeki is the art that remembers. One may see the clockwork as such or a similar visualization of it, but only after he has glimpsed its shape once.
Some call it ‘seeing the Daihô, or Dharma’, the order and nature of all things. The first name is more common around the Yamato Kingdom, the second around the Seventeen Yonder Islands. It happens when the first gate is opened wide, the gate of enlightenment, fueled or guarded – depending on your point of view – by soul and willpower. The flood of knowledge and understanding is so great that we cannot bear it and so the gate closes shut again and we forget, hiding the vastness of it in the recesses of our minds. But this knowledge is our birthright, written into our very souls. We learn as we remember, slowly, gradually. With every bit we recall, we unlock a piece of the understanding of the universe, the nature of existence, of reality, of origin, and once we do, we begin to bend our minds, to bend our bodies, to bend reality. As we remember, we seem to bend the world to our new understanding, while truthfully it is we who bend to this new understanding.”
Atlas kept his eyes closed, trying to empty his mind as Plâton had instructed. “And how does one do this? Also: why would we remember a martial art from that? That’s what you just implied, right? How does that fit in?”
Plâton took his hand away again. “You do this by acknowledging that you already know the answer, and that you need not seek it anywhere but within. As for the martial art: it is really more about having your body follow the movements of your soul – to achieve a new form of freedom. You would be surprised at how brutal freedom can be: more brutal and beautiful than anything in the world…
But now, to catalyze the process, I will show you once more: the shape of all things…” For a moment nothing happened, although the atmosphere seemed to noticeably tense up until Atlas realized that something was actually wrong. As he opened his eyes he saw how Plâton had assumed some sort of tensed stance, looking rather distraught. “What are you and what do you want with us?”
Atlas turned around hastily, and for a moment he couldn’t see anything in the darkness until the fire behind them cracked and a breaking log raised a plume of smoke and sparks. There was a man standing on a soft slope several feet away.
“I thought you said something like ‘people can’t sneak up on you’,” Atlas noted in Plâton’s direction, trying to sound casual.
“Normally not,” he replied quietly, “but this one hardly seems to fit that category…”
Atlas did not understand. “What category? Peo… Oh my.” He had finally registered that the man’s face wasn’t hidden in the shadows; he simply didn’t seem to have one. Either that or he was wearing some sort of smooth mask.
“Don’t stop on my account, Plâton,” the man said with a most unusual voice, sounding as if he was talking out of a cave or into a little box. “So this is where you start the training, hmm? Remarkable.”
Plâton looked alarmed as the man pulled something out of his garments, but it was just some whizzing little cube, somewhat reminiscent of the little gadget Ayveron had now inspected on several occasions. Atlas was usually so curious, why had he never asked what it was?
“Hmm,” said the man, “it’s not the right place though, is it now? I guess we just met here by coincidence. So… How have you been doing, all well I take it?”
The three of them were incredulous and still on high alarm. “Do we know you?” asked Ayveron now.
“What, know me? Well… oh I see! You don’t know me at all, do you? Outstanding, just outstanding!” There was a strangely intent moment of silence like an unwanted pause before he resumed talking. “So this is the first time we meet then! Nice to meet you, Plâton, Atlas, Ayveron. I’m John.”
The three of them exchanged a look. “How can you know our names if this is the first time we meet?” Ayveron asked slowly.
And Atlas, too, had a question: “Is there a face under that thing?” He pointed at John’s head.
“Well, I know you of course, this is also the last time we meet and we did know each other quite a while – ah, well, most of us, but I feel like I know all three of you well, if you know what I mean.”
Both Atlas and Ayveron very slowly shook their heads.
“And there is no face under here.” He knocked on the front of his head, which created a very unsettling, hollow sound. “It was a face at one time, but now it’s something different.”
Well that answered the question how this one wasn’t quite a person and in turn raised five more questions.
Plâton attempted to take back control of the conversation: “So this is the first and last time we meet and somehow you know us nonetheless?” he inquired patiently, but still wary.
“Well yes!” said John. “Though there should be no ‘nonetheless’ in there at all, we’ve met several times, after all you were in Borealis for quite a while.”
Every sentence out of John’s… … head made him make less sense in Atlas’ eyes.
It didn’t seem to go any better for Plâton. “Not even I have been in Borealis yet. Do you know Atlas from his previous life?” he tried now. Maybe he could make more sense of this after all, Atlas knowing this being from before his fight with Sameth would partially explain its odd demeanor.
“Previous? No-no, quite the opposite is the case, Plâton. It’s all about the relative perspective, I’d say. I’m still sorting it all out myself, haven’t been doing this for long. Look, this is me:” he started walking backwards in front of them. “See? This,” he kept walking backwards, “is me. It looks like I am going backwards to you, but it looks like I am going forwards to me. See, from my point of view this is the last time we meet, because it is the first time we meet from your point of view. We don’t live in the same direction anymore,” he said.
Atlas didn’t understand, but Plâton looked at John in a ponderous way and Ayveron’s expression too had changed.
“So you’re an idiot?” Plâton said now with a raised brow.
“No-no, the backwards walking is a metaphor for-“
“I get what it is a metaphor for, I am not an imbecile. I am not so sure about you though, seems like a pretty imbecilic thing to do.”
“Oh I don’t do anything, I just watch and record.”
“With no eyes and no ears.”
“Well I can hear you, can’t I? There is no need to fling semantics, Plâton.”
Now Ayveron chimed in: “When will we meet again then?” he wanted to know.
John was quiet for a while. Then he sat down by the fire. “Down in Chaos City is the last time we met. Not the nicest place to meet, but I suppose the places and times worth recording are often less than nice. Who knows, this is a fork point, my core draws me to them, maybe you won’t have to go there. Hmm… but I already remember it so I guess you will…” John was rambling, he didn’t seem to quite grasp his own situation, still sorting it out.
“I know of no place by that name,” Plâton admitted, sitting down as well now.
John held his hand close to the fire and withdrew it again, waving it before his face. “I guess you would know it under the name ‘Rim City’ at this point in time. May I ask something as well? You have come through the Saltplains, I presume. Have you noticed anything unusual during your passage?”
Plâton shrugged to that. “Not really. The meadows are weeping a bit early, but otherwise all seems to be as it has always been. That’s a strange way to name Rim City. Has it fallen into disarray or something?”
John made a sound that might have been a sigh, had he possessed a real voice instead of that metallic clanking. “I should not tell you too much about Chaos City, I think. I said we met there, yes? My core draws me to fork points, places in time where the people who walk this world may change the course of the Great Clockwork. If I tell you what is to come, it may not come as it should, if you catch my drift. And if it didn’t, where would I be then? Standing there with egg on my face. Well, you know what I mean.” He sounded genuinely apologetic.
“So what do you want of us now?” This time Atlas was the one asking. He felt like there was some sort of point he was missing.
John turned his head towards him. “Nothing at all, I just noticed you here and wanted to say hello. I am here for something else it seems.” He looked at the small cube again. “And I must be going again soon it seems too. No matter how you are going relative to time, it surely always manages to run out.” He rose again.
The whole situation was most strange, especially because it seemed to be beyond Plâton, a worrying thing to say the least, and it got even weirder when John actually opened his arms and hugged them in turns. “Well met, my friends. It was good knowing you! You shall see me again in the tomes of ancient past! Well, me me anyway.” And with that he walked off.
There was a long moment of quiet. “Aren’t you going after him?” Ayveron asked Plâton.
Plâton looked just as bewildered as him. “Why?”
Ayveron shrugged. “I don’t know, to take control of the situation? Interrogate him? Who was that?”
Atlas closed his eyes. “If I heard him correctly we’ll meet him again in Rim City, we could just ask him then,” he noted. The two of them seemed as content with that answer as they could be expected to be and the fire crackled nearby as if to remind them that everything had returned to normal, whatever that was.

Rei the Null

The men and women were standing up too quickly, knocking over utensils on the table, falling back with their chairs tipping over, some even screaming. They were wearing white and blue robes, sitting at a ring-table in a five-cornered room. The oldest one was sitting opposite to the door and he seemed to regain his cool the quickest, hammering a metal orb onto a small pad three times, giving off a very loud clank and slowly the men and women found their seats again. From the corner of his eye, Rei noted that Artemis was sweating and the Valkyrie looked about disorientedly.
He had a rather sick feeling to his stomach as well, but more like the one someone gets when falling, one that passes quickly.
“Is that a Valkyrie?” – “Is that a… a Null?!” – “Order in the hall!” commanded the old man and the whispers and soft calls of astonishment turned to silence again.
“Greetings,” said Rei with a somewhat feeble voice. He cleared his throat. “I am sorry to intrude this… err… where are we here? If you pardon my ignorance.”
He had a fair idea where they might be, judging by the garment of the people around them, but he had to ask nonetheless.
“You are in the Van Haag-Taira Hall of the City Council of the great city of Aerealis and trespassing on the Royal City restricted ward at that! How have you come here and who are you? We demand answers, and be quick!” the old man commanded. He had to be the high-councilor, perhaps the head of the Van Haag-Taira family, one of the ruling bodies of the city of Aerialis if Rei recalled his history correctly.
The three of them had fallen through the floor in Arda and resurfaced in Aerealis. This was a sophisticated form of clockwork magic performed by Artemis using her strange bow. Rei stepped closer to the high-councilor in a slow, non-threatening way. He had to get close enough to… there! Now he could see the councilman’s eyes. They were bright and blue, like a beautiful summer sky, the sweetest color Rei had ever seen. He turned to the side; first left, then right: there was no yellow glimmer anywhere to be seen. Then he laughed with such honest relief that the councilmen were eying each other and him uncomfortably.
“Bless you, Artemis!” Rei said loudly, “you and that marvelous bow! Windfall indeed! I have never seen anything named more appropriately!” Only then did he realize that he was supposed to answer a question. “Ah, forgive me, fine lords,” he spoke to the council in an apologetic, yet ecstatic tone, “I am Rei from the Brotherhood of the Null, if any of you know the old passwords, I shall gladly prove it. This here is the Valkyrie, equally protected by ancient law, unbidden as she may be in some halls, and that is Artemis Iaret from Arkatrash.
We have come from… Arda. I fear we failed in our attempt to liberate it, but it seems we are not too late to aid Aerealis.”
The rambling started right up again, split between positive anxiety and disbelief. The high-councilor clanked his metal orb again. “I will have silence! Your claim is outrageous. The Valkyrie travels all the Great Land, rarely entering cities, the Null have been in seclusion for almost two millennia, and Artemis Iaret is the daughter of the previous paro of Arkatrash if memory serves right… wasn’t his whole family murdered?”
“I live! And so does my brother, the new paro!” exclaimed Artemis fiery, yet with a brittle quality to her voice. Her face had grown almost as pale as snow despite her natural tan, and Rei saw in horror that slowly but surely strands of her lavish black hair began to turn white, though the councilors seemed to be oblivious for the moment.
There was mumbling now, softer than before. “Paro Ôshiris is dead?” the high-councilor asked in surprise.
“The usurper Ôshiris is dead,” she corrected fiercely.
More mumbling: “Look at that horn, just like in the books!” said a man to the left with a high voice.
There were some assenting nods and whispers as the man pointed at the Horn of the Last Winter that hung from the Valkyrie’s side. “And the man’s robes too fit the descriptions: there he bears the sign of the eclipse! – Who can hide behind the faintest noise and the softest call?” This time it was a woman sitting next to the high-councilor. She had pointed at Rei who was still wearing the robes of his brotherhood, though they were battered quite a bit by now, much like the Valkyrie’s armor.
“Silence,” he replied reflexively.
“I am the one that calls for silence! Now quiet down, quiet!” warned the high-councilor. “Very well, if you are indeed a Null, there is a simple way to prove your claim.”
“He just did,” noted the woman, “That was one of the passwords of the Null, the answer to my question was ‘silence’.” She was quite a bit younger than most of the other councilors present, which made the fact that she knew the password while most of them apparently didn’t seem very odd to Rei.
“Insufficient! It is a solvable riddle, anyone could have answered that. Really, these old passwords are fool’s play, no security at all! And you will not speak out of turn again, or I will have you removed, Yôko!” The old man clapped his hands together so the joining point, his arms, and his chest formed a pentacle. When he parted his hands again, he spoke a word of power and used wind magic to create a small twister that picked up quill, inkpot, and papers and soon looked black with ink.
Rei nodded. Of course the easiest way to validate his claim was to perform null magic as the secret was not known outside the order, and so he did. One inkling of that blackness was more than enough to settle the wind in an instant.
Again the mumbling ensued, and this time the high-councilor didn’t seem to care for once. “Impressive. And you say you know of our plight and have come to our aid? This is fortuitous beyond ken, surely the work of the Great Clockwork. A dangerous magus has forced the city to raise its wind wall and what’s more he is somehow… corrupting the wind. Soon we will be forced to raise the Magistorium into the sky, but what will become of the citizens when the wind wall breaks? We could not evacuate them here, and they would surely be in grave danger then.”
Rei nodded again. “I fear I know what you speak of. Such corruption has cost me my eye and much more, and it has spread through the bowels of Arda and its people, I cannot-“ but he was interrupted by a thud and a clank that made him turn around: Artemis had keeled over and fallen onto the ground, Windfall lying beside her. She was still as pale as ashes, and though the spellblight seemed not to progress past first stage, many strands of her hair had grown white. Now that Rei looked closer, he could see that she was also covered in sweat. “Oh no!” he exclaimed in shock and the old man had risen, as had several council members. “What is wrong with her? Is it… the corruption?” asked the high-councilor, hissing the last words fearfully.
Rei shook his head. “No! It’s her bow; she used it too often in a short amount of time. I was afraid this might happen, the blight is upon her! Please, get her to a healer, the strain on her body has put her life in danger!” he pleaded.
The high-councilor nodded and clapped his hands twice. Two assistants entered through the large chamber doors. “Take this girl to the healers, quickly!” the old man urged them. They bowed deeply without a word and carried Artemis off.
Rei bowed too. “Thank you. She has done a great service to the Middle Lands and may continue to do so yet. Now, there is much to discuss and even more to put into action, but my strength is fading and I require rest before I can face the man at your gates. Please tell me that the wind wall will hold that long, for I fear that even staying awake may become too great a task for me before long. Might I not trouble this council for accommodations for my companions and myself?” he inquired courtly.
The high-councilor looked at him for a moment as if he was weighing his next words but then just said: “So be it, you will be given a place to stay in the city, close-by, and this meeting is in recess for now. The wind wall is still standing strong, until that changes, you will be afforded some rest. Perhaps you too wish to seek out a healer, for blood is on your face, and it seems to me you are wounded as well as tired. The council is hereby dismissed for the day, only the heads of the great houses, the guild masters, and the margrave will remain for further discussion. On the first light of the morrow we will convene again and the Null and the Valkyrie will join us. That is all.”
On that the council members rose; all but the six that sat left and right from the high-councilor. The old man himself however rose as well and walked up to Rei, staring at him with cool, calculating eyes for a while. “You step into this chamber a savior, Null, but I bet you will come here tomorrow and tell us of the warnings of your three-eyed sentinels. Oh yes, don’t look shocked now, this is one of the five mage cities and we have seers as well, callow as they may seem to you. If I pay them any heed, as well I should, then you bring news and counsel as dark as your robes. I would hear both of those before you bring them to the council. On the morrow before the meeting, enter the door left to this hall: it is my office, and I shall await you together with the margrave.” He turned around on the spot and slowly walked back to his seat. On the way he waved over one of the pages who had entered to clean up the tables now that the council was leaving. He spoke a few words and then went on as the page hurried towards Rei and the Valkyrie.
“Honored guests,” he said nervously and with an overly courteous bow. “If I may escort you to your quarters for the night…”
Rei nodded gracefully and tried not to show the fatigue that had crept deeper and deeper into his bones. A nights rest; just one night, or even one half; and then he would fight another one of those abominations. Perhaps he would lose the other eye this time. The joke was cruel, but somehow it made him smirk, and after all, what small price was an eye and the decades and decades cut from his lifespan compared to the greater price he had paid to achieve victory? No, he had counted out the coin, but the currency he had spent then had never belonged to him. Now he could only sleep and hope that the council of Aerealis was wise indeed, for the decision that lay before them was a hard one, more difficult even than one between life and death.
Rei and the Valkyrie were led outside the Van Haag-Taira Hall of the City Council, a beautifully crafted house with an oversized roof, resembling the old Yamato shrine main buildings called honden. Its sides were painted in many hues of blue, and the roof itself was brightly white. The place they had egressed to was the Royal City of Aerialis, of which Rei had read very few specifics in the past, due to information about it being restricted. On city maps it would appear as a uniform area with no channels, streets, or buildings displayed. Yet all these things were here: The plaza of the ward was enormous, the entire region paved with smooth, gray stone and in the far distance – at least on those sides that Rei could spy – were tall walls, watchtowers, and guarded gates. In the distance also he could see a great, shining building, shaped like a donjon and surrounded by several towers that were connected to it with broad beams, all of it wrought of that most unusual magical metal, nubium. Between towers and donjon, tough ropes were spanned, holding broad stretches of durable cloth. Without a doubt, Rei was looking at the great Rickard Leeuw Magistorium, one of the five grand mage academies of the Middle Lands, training and research ground for the most esteemed air mages of all the Great Land. Crafted almost entirely of that strange, silvery metal that had spell ink mandalas wrought into it, the castle-like building reflected the light of the sun everywhere.
<I wonder if that isn’t a little bright for the eyes, if you have to go there every day…>, he mused as the page led them to a close-by building, also lavishly designed though a bit smaller, connected to a little stone garden with carefully tended trees and shrubbery. In the end, it didn’t matter how pleasing for the eye the Magistorium was. It was not wrought of nubium for show, but for more practical reasons, as the high-councilor had already hinted earlier: if soul power was channeled into the metal, it became nearly weightless, and at that point, a handful of wind mages together could lift the entire Magistorium high into the sky; a final defense against an overwhelming attack. Still, the high-councilor, whom Rei suspected to be the head of the esteemed Van Haag-Taira family, had been quite right, and the large population of Aerialis had no chance of fitting into the Magistorium, no matter how grand it was.
The two of them followed the page into the small building with the garden, and it was far closer to the architectural style of Fulgrath or Altonar as opposed to the Yamato style of the hall they had just left. The city was a marriage of two distinct architectural and cultural spheres, owing to the differing heritages of the ruling houses.
They were escorted to a set of neatly furbished quarters with a blue and white theme resembling the council hall’s outside. The page bid them a good evening and left, but not before assuring Rei that a healer would come to take a look at their wounds.
Rei fell onto his posterior on the next bed he could find, letting out a tired moan.
The Valkyrie, who had stuck to him instead of going into the neighboring room, walked to the window at the far side to take a look. “I haven’t been in this city for more than a hundred years. But this part of it doesn’t change, I think,” she said with a strange melancholy in her voice.
“I have never been in the Middle Lands before…” Rei admitted. “I have heard tales of the wind wall though. The great wind catchers around the city proper turn and create a powerful cyclone in the night or whenever peril is at her doorstep. I also heard stories about the Magistorium’s err…”
“Siege mode, I suppose?” the Valkyrie finished his sentence. “Aye, the Aerialingers know a thing or two about working metal in strange ways. I have seen many wondrous things made from nubium. It is a tough metal but can be as light as a feather. Though as for their inventions, I personally prefer the terebra. I like a weapon with some heft to it.” Despite her casual banter, she was shaking a little. Perhaps she was fighting back tears; or perhaps wrestling with her anger. Rei had little condolence to offer her so he fell silent, though it did amuse him a little that she would deem inventions for war preferable to others.
Sleep came quickly, and so did the morrow.
Rei opened his eyes and rose. A bowl with washing water and towels had been placed in the chamber as well as some dark bread, cheese, butter, and honey, all neatly arranged on a wooden tray. He partook of it happily and finally felt his strength restored, to some measure at least. The pain in and around his eye socket had lessened to a light throbbing, and as he felt for it, he noticed that it had been carefully bandaged. While washing up, he took care not to soak the fabric needlessly.
One look up revealed that the Valkyrie was standing in the same spot she had before he went to sleep: right in front of the window. “You haven’t slept?” he asked quietly.
She shook her head. “A little. But I am having night terrors, they keep me awake.”
Rei stood up. “The high-councilor wishes to speak to me before the meeting. Accompany me.”
She nodded and followed him quietly.
On their way across the plaza, it seemed quite busy: soldiers and men in white robes, looking more casual than the luxurious variety of the councilors, were scurrying by, often carrying weapons, boxes, or stacks of books and scrolls. Rei had bid the page, who had offered to escort them, to allow them to take this little stroll on their own, and he had been gracious enough to compromise on staying within eye-shot. This was good enough for Rei as it, in addition to the busy hustle and bustle of the Royal City, made him eavesdropping on them nearly impossible: “You are… were one of Aqualon’s most powerful, correct? Are you… Have at any point… Do you know the Society? Or for that matter anyone who might be powerful enough to help us in our need?” he felt bad about drawing her mind towards her infirmity, but he had to know.
She did not answer for quite a while as they walked across the plaza. When they had reached the premises of the hall, demarcated by little standing stones, she finally spoke again: “I am not part of any organization, if that is what you are trying to hint at. And if you speak of the Shadow Society; they have spoken to me on occasion, though I generally told them to piss off when they did. The Valkyrie walks alone and knows only her duty to her gods.”
Rei sighed, slightly in disappointment.
“But,” she added then, piquing his curiosity once more, “I have crossed blades with one or two who lived to tell the tale. What kind of power did you have in mind?”
“Madness!” someone screamed. “Preposterous! – The audacity! – Scandalous! – Ridiculous!” many others fell in.
Rei let them all have their moment of protest. “In one hour I will walk past your wind wall and remove the besieger, on that you have my word. But I must have your resolution on the matter, for word must be sent before I go and things must be put into motion!
You believe yourselves strong and I daresay you have the right of it, but this is no enemy that can be subdued with strength, or met in open war,” Rei said passionately.
“But open war is exactly what you suggest!” one of the councilmen roared.
Rei shook his head. “Yes and no. You must meet them in force; there is no other way to occupy them and whoever does meet them in battle will likely lose his life or worse. But fight you must, to save as much of mankind as you can. As we can. I will gather several brothers of the order to assist your armies, perhaps they can even achieve a small victory here and there, for the enemy uses our bodies and shares our weakness of the flesh.”
“Oh, several you say! What commitment!” one man jested with dark sarcasm in his voice.
The high-councilor raised his hand and silence ensued once more. “You will be quiet now and let Brother Rei speak his plan without interruption. But first he will tell you what he told me.” He turned to Rei. “You will tell them how you defeated the man at Arda and how you mean to defeat the man at our own gates. Tell them.” The old man’s voice was quiet but carried far throughout the five-sided, tall council chamber, and as no other council member seemed to dare speak up now, Rei cleared his throat and began:
“It is the nature of their power that makes them such terrifying foes. An evil not like any man could achieve.
The grand master always says that existence is the truth that endows our kind with humanity, but the other two truths are always mixed in and so there cannot be pure evil, pure good, not even pure neutrality. But the man I met at Arda was a very different thing. Inside of him beat a vile yellow glimmer of strange ancient might. It tore at the Great Clockwork around him – yes, I can see it clearly – and it screamed and creaked as he walked and lived. No ordinary null magic could have extinguished that glimmer, no magic at all. It was only the realization that the glimmer was indeed a sort of anti-energy, a force so diametrically opposed to the Great Clockwork that in this I saw how to fight it: By indeed robbing the clockwork around me of some of its power and make it null with the glimmer. They canceled each other out, forever.”
Shocked gasps.
“Null magic restores balance you must know; it is not a means for destruction. ‘What comes to be will come to naught to once exist again’, that is the basic tenet of our beliefs. But this glimmer cannot be nullified, only annihilated and the damage to the Great Clockwork is permanent. For that reason not even the Null can truly defeat this enemy. When I go down to fight, we all will pay a terrible price for that victory; but this price I will have us pay if it gives this city the chance to fight and get its people to safety!
Send the mages to face their forces once the city is free, have them clear a path to the Yamato Mountain Range. I will have as many of the cities and villages of the Middle Lands that can still be saved join the evacuation as can be done. This will be a war we cannot possibly win, but this is not the time to think of victory, this is the time to think of the survival of our race. Outside there awaits only consumption, consumption that will inevitably spread here. If you stay idle, you will be consumed. If you fight, you will be consumed. There is only one option: run! Evacuate all the people of the Middle Lands and beyond to the Yamato Kingdom and the Untamed Meadows to the east of it. There is room enough to make a new life for our kind and to endure until we are ready. The Three-Eyed Sentinels have foreseen that one will come who can vanquish this evil, but it will not be in time. If you move all the people behind the Yamato Kingdom, the Brotherhood of the Null will seal it off and no harm will be able to reach us.”
There was a moment’s silence. At several points of the speech there had been gasps and shocked faces and Rei thought that one or two of them might indeed truly grasp just what it meant to damage the clockwork.
Finally an elderly woman spoke: “How? How will you seal off the Yamato Kingdom and the lands east of it?”
Rei looked directly at her. “There are records of old magic in the great library of the Null, and I clearly recall a key piece of information, a ritual that can shard the clockwork. It was used by Ritlec Yorvin of Estverde to hide the city from the Old Gods during the Age of the Iron Divide. It is the only way to truly keep not only our race, but the clockwork itself alive: we will tear a chunk of it out and make it part of our territory. It will,” he added at the sight of her disbelief, “Not be permanent if at all possible. As long as we expunge this plague from our world, the shard can be restored and what we break can be whole again if we so desire.”
Others seemed to formulate questions in their minds as they eyed him, but before any more could speak the high-councilor raised his voice again: “That will do. You may leave the council, Brother Rei. Make your preparations; ask for whatever you might need, it shall be given to you. The council of Aerealis will convene on your proposal, and you will have our answer if you are indeed victorious. Only then.”
Rei bowed slightly in acknowledgement and then left the chambers. Most of this had been for show as the high-councilor Ruben Van Haag-Taira and the margrave of Aerialis George Isenbruck had already given their assurances during their private meeting, letting him send word to the Black Sanctum. In the end, it was mostly their word that mattered, for they controlled the regular and irregular military forces of Aerialis. Now, all he could do was to trust in fate…

Atlas

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’…

Chapter X

Dark Pulse

Chords and tubes and pipes through the streets
Pulse and crackle.
And they tackle,
Filled with heat, our artificial needs…
- From the song ‘Electricity’, recovered from the Black Arkive

Nanashi the Null

“And what will we do now?” Günter asked carefully.
Nanashi had to think. Her mind was racing and searching for answers, possibilities, alternatives.
“Maybe…” she began, “Maybe it has already happened! They say that it was the greatest storm of this century and that there will be none like it for decades. But the pilgrim’s story… he never said when all those things happened; when she died. It is a fair long way from the heart of the Middle Lands way out onto the Untamed Meadows. He and his party must have been traveling for a long while, and he did say that she died even before Lord Kenji left and Lord Atlas fell.
If the storm had been in the last month of spring, then maybe the timing was just right and she was reborn!” As she recounted the events, she became more certain that it must have been so. She had to believe in fate, in the power of the clockwork; if she couldn’t do as much, she wouldn’t be fit for the task Brother Rei had set for her.
“So we go ter’de Rusty Shore, look fer her there?” he suggested.
Nanashi nodded slowly. “Yes, I think that would be best. It is a long way, but it is doable. We should leave in the morning.”
“Alright then, back to the inn, yes?” he asked.
She nodded again. They would need to stock up on supplies before traveling to the nearest pass. Perhaps they could rent a pair of mules or bayô. Her travel money should allow for that much, and if not, perhaps she could put in a day’s work some place where magic engines were used; if they were used here at all. The pay should be good since fear of spellblight was especially rampant in the Yamato Kingdom, as foolish as it was…
Her way back to the Black Sanctum would probably have to be a bit on the cheap side, a bed under the stars or in a kind stranger’s domicile, but she could worry about that when the time was at hand.
So it was that Nanashi and Günter returned to the inn they had settled in yesterday, a cozy little establishment called the ‘Mandô’, the eel’s den. It was located on the edge of the inner Tenge-ku, where the city’s money loaners, wealthier merchants, schools, and good housings were located, just bordering the outer Tenge-ku where one could find the craftsmen and less wealthy merchants. Towering above them was the Tenjô-ku, the city above the city, where the royal palace, the wealthiest and most important citizens, the Yamaseki University, and the center for weather research, the Shunkashûtô Institute, were located.
Nanashi and Günter had arrived in Yamaseki roughly seven days ago after Sagamund Greenhorn, the moth herder, had flown them to a nearby satellite village on the back of his great ryûga moth. It had been a rough ride through heavy rain during the first third of their journey, but in time the sky had cleared up and they had seen the sun rise.
It had been Sagamund who had urged their swift departure when Nanashi had told him the pilgrim’s story, and stopping no longer than it took to fill up his moth’s saddle pouches for a long journey, he had set off again, flying far away southward. Nanashi had immediately tried to get access to the Shunkashûtô Institute, but that had proven to be a most difficult task: Few people were allowed to enter the Tenjô-ku, and not even hard proof of her status as a sister of the Null had been enough to grant her access, which was a very shameful disregard of the Null Concord, a document signed by all the great nations of Aqualon during the Age of Awakening, including the Yamato Kingdom. But she had been assured that the exclusion of strangers from the Tenjô-ku, no matter their diplomatic status, was quite in order with all treaties, probably owing to some legal shenanigan, or at least that much Nanashi guessed. She also did not have near enough money to bribe her way in, and so the two of them had been quite short on options for getting the information she needed.
After three days, they had found someone who would give them the necessary backing to be allowed in: a state official named Yasao Ri. He was the first to actually recognize the importance of her request, young though he was, and a few words to the guards opened the doors to the upper city.
It had been another four days to wade through all the pompous so called ‘technocrats’ – an apocryphal title, given its description of a form of government, not of academic achievement – who thought themselves too good to help her out, before she finally got the information she required: records of the last great thunderstorms and weather predictions for those to follow. Soon she had discovered that the storm she had been looking for already had occurred several months back, and now she could only hope that it hadn’t happened too early. Unless of course the keepers’ birth was the source of the calamity that always accompanied it and not the other way around, in which case predictions would not get her anywhere anyways. There was no clarification on this part in the scriptures.
The night passed quickly and in the early hours of the new day they went out towards the outer Tenge-ku to find the supplies they needed. But something seemed not quite right as they passed through the streets and alleys: there were very few people even though this part of town was usually extremely busy.
“Seems pretty dark considrin’ that ol’ blue sky above, dawn or not,” Günter noted, and he spoke right out what was on Nanashi’s mind.
“Yes. These buildings cast large shadows; far too large for their size and the sun’s position. Something more than morning’s twilight is at work here.”
Günter drew closer to her and suddenly there were no other people around at all. “What is it?” he asked anxiously.
At that point a strange voice echoed through the alleys, silent and yet loud, as if it was a whisper to their ears and a shout in their minds: “You are most perceptive, young Null; you and your companion. This one knows where you are going and why.”
Günter flinched when the voice came and looked around hastily, unable to make out the source. It was as if it came from everywhere and nowhere.
“Who talks from the shadows and hides from our sight? What evil would seek us here?” Nanashi inquired sternly.
There was a brief pause before the voice answered. “I would have thought a Null would have a better opinion of shadows and their purpose. Where no light can fall, there are shadows that grow and shift, you know this? They thirst for that light, so much that they drink up all that passes through them and imbue it with their desire. They are the safe harbor of thieves and beggars and assassins, but also of all those that are hiding and afraid.
Now, will you listen to what this one has to say?”
Nanashi looked around, but couldn’t find anything, just as Günter.
“Coward! Show yerself!” the Kaltani howled with more than a hint of fear in his voice.
Nanashi put her hand on his arm to reassure him. “Perhaps I have spoken too quickly,” she admitted softly, “I will listen.”
“You are wise to do so,” the voice assured, “not all of Yamaseki holds the noble Brotherhood of the Null in such low regard as the people you have had the misfortune of having to deal with. I and mine see you as kindred spirits indeed, and we see many places, know many things.
As such I will tell you now that you are heading the wrong way. You will not find what you are seeking at the Rusty Shore. You will not find it in the Middle Lands, not in the North, nowhere you could go from here. What you seek is already in this city, hidden away in its darkest corners, acquired by those who would abuse its power for their purposes. This must not happen.”
Nanashi turned left and right, looking for the source of the voice more unconsciously than intently. “She is here? Where?! You must tell me where!”
“Must I? Or have I done so already? Well, I suppose we can say as much: seek out the city’s dark underbelly, there you will find what you are searching for. But be wary, for the Black Market of the Uramachi is a power to be reckoned with. Once you do face it, you may ask for our aid again; and where you need to go, many shadows lie, many places for us to exert our influence; at least for as long as we are still able to. Like you we are the keepers of balance, it is just a different one we keep, a more human one I should think. If you wish to find us, that is when we will find you; such is the way of the Shadow Society…” As its last words drew close, the voice grew fainter and fainter until only the weighty name lingered in the air, and finally the sun showed its face and the light of a new morning flooded the once more busy streets.
“The Shadow Society, scite!” Günter hissed and spat on the ground. “Tieves and murderers!”
To that Nanashi tilted her head ever so slightly. “There is a case to be made for thieves and assassins, though I would not deny their questionable ethics.”
Günter looked around, apparently searching for signs of the speaker, though to no avail. “Surely ye wunt listen to such filf?” he demanded to know.
Nanashi didn’t answer for a while, until finally she turned around.
“Are you certain?” he insisted.
“I am fairly certain they told the truth when they said that she is here. I do not trust their motives for telling us though,” she admitted. “If I heard them correctly, she must be with-“
“Aye, with the Black Market!” Günter interrupted her. “Do you have any idea what kinda people those are?! They are far more despicable than the Shadow Society and that alone means something. Those people are powerful, maybe the most powerful group in all of the Great Land, and certainly the most ruthless one. Ye’ll be killed dead! And me right alongside ye!”
“You do not have to die alongside me, Günter Oakenheart.” Nanashi said quietly, looking towards the mountainside. “You had business of your own here in Yamaseki, isn’t that why you are here? Why not leave me to my quest and get back to yours?”
Günter let his shoulders sag and looked at the ground when she mentioned his ‘business’. “I had hoped I could put that behind me when I decided to follow you… The irony is that it would have led me to the Black Market too. And that aside, I won’t leave ye now, Nanashi, ma resolve stands and yer cause is more important.”
“More important than what?” she asked intently.
He looked at her, and again she could see that strange sorrow and pain in his eyes. “You remember the story I told ol’ Sagamund as fee fer ma passage? When I reterned home to ma village, the rest of ma tribe… They were dead too.”
Nanashi’s eyes widened.
“Yes,” he continued, “all of them dead, everything destroyed. The manner in which they had been killed was… I shouldn’t say. There was one left, a dying child, Gersemi was her name, me faster’s daughter’s daughter. We often name our children after the gods to honor them, and Gersemi was one of the daughters of Freyja.
Gersemi, she was only five, but bleedin’ like a stuck pig all the same. All she could tell me was that the attackers tore everything up with ease and that they wanted to know the way of passage, but no one could tell them. Then she died in me arms.”
There was long silence, strangely untouched by the passing citizens, chattering though they might have been, some of them even casting secret glances at the tall Kaltani foreigner, and Nanashi dared not talk, thinking that there might be more to the story.
And indeed there was: “What could I do? I knew not who they were, how could I avenge ma tribe? So I traveled south, went to the Middle Lands, the Golden Sands, what heat! And lastly here to the Yamato Kingdom. I could find no word anywhere, except for what I told ya about the Black Market. I thought that if anyone knew who seeks the way by any means, it would be them… But the longer I traveled, the more pointless ma search seemed to me. No amount of vengeance will bring the girl back ter life, nor ma friends, ma family. They are dead all, dead for good. As a man with no ties and no meaning in life, I welcome helping someone as honorable as a true Null of the Black Sanctum on such a noble quest. Many may regard the Null somewhat low, but not we Kaltani. We remember how you fought in the Great War. Ya stood against gods and mages, unyielding and yet with great compassion.
Kaltani ferget neither enemies nor allies when it comes to war.
So I will ask once more: Let me help ya on yer quest, I will follow you, even if it means going to the Black Market after all. I beg of ye, do not let me roam as a ghost no more.”
Nanashi nodded. “So be it. Your story and mine might be deeper entwined than you think.” She was thinking of the tale of the Pilgrim, and Günter, who had heard her retell it to Sagamund Greenhorn, seemed to understand what she meant: that the evil that was festering in the Middle Lands might be the same that had attacked his tribe. “Oh, but there is one thing that I would like to ask, if you don’t mind – what is that ‘way of passage’ you just mentioned?”
Günter sighed. “There are four peoples who live in the North: the Kaltani, the Gallians, the Skôts and the Angel Saxons. The Angel Saxons are the most secluded of us, and it is said they are the only ones of us to build great cities and tall halls. These cities, and in fact their entire tribe, are hidden behind a shroud of mist, so the legend goes. And no outsider has seen their homes in many centuries. When northerners talk of the way of passage, they mean the way that leads to the Angel Saxons, past the eternal mist that conceals them. That is all.”
Nanashi nodded ponderously. “I see. Thank you for telling me this.
The Black Market is located in the Uramachi, just as the voice said, this much every child of Yamato knows; but we can’t just walk in there. Let us return to the inn, I need to think on how to approach this.” And so the two of them went back the way they had come.

Gwenawel

“I can’t believe you actually came! Hiding that face ought to be a crime against nature, though.”
Clumsy. He was still very young, but of noble ilk, blessed with a hefty though not fattened jaw, silky, raven black hair that fell to his shoulders in gentle waves, and the first signs of a well-groomed beard – if you could call it that – were about his chin. Gwenawel tugged at her cowl absentmindedly. “I had a few hours to spare. And you mentioned an armory?”
“Aha, thought that might catch your fancy! Yes, not as fine as the one back at the mansion, but if you only have a few hours that would be a bit too far off. Shall we go?” He held up his arm to escort her.
Underneath the cowl, she rolled her eyes then placed hers in it like a good lady. “Lead the way.”
They strolled across the moonlit pavement, the distant roar of a storm rolling over the city as Frederick Severlin steered the two of them towards a large fortified mansion with a six foot stone wall surrounding its premises and round towers on each. The pale glow of a paper lantern rose to meet them as they arrived at a wrought duralumin gate with artfully twirled pikes.
“Who goes there?” sounded the voice of an old man. He wore an open helmet made from the same alloy, though its differing coloring suggested that it had been wrought from different component ratios.
Gwenawel had once visited the smelters and smithies of the Aerialis metal workers guild, asking about the processes with which aluminum was worked: it arrived in its pure form from the lightning smelters of Fulgrath and was melted again in magic engine furnaces here in Aerialis, powered by fire magic spell ink mandalas. Abysmally expensive, but well worth the investment, as they could utilize soul power to create measures of heat beyond what was possible with current technology. Not even Angel smiths had such fire at their disposal. What they did have, however, was a steady supply of steel, a far more practical material to use for weapons and armor. The brittle and light aluminum had to be forged into new, more durable alloys, such as duralumin, before it could be properly utilized, and for that several kinds of magic engines as well as copper, magnesium, and manganese were required. The copper came from Arkatrash and was also used for making aluminum bronze.
“Don’t you know the son of your own master, Finley?” Frederick inquired with a smirk.
The old man looked more closely, apparently having trouble seeing well in the lantern’s twilight. “Pardon me, sir Severlin, oi thought ye were in already.” His eyes twitched over to Gwenawel. “Brought some company, eh? In you come, sir, in you come…” He lowered the lantern and opened the gate, shakily wielding an old, green, copper key.
Well, well, this was a surprise. She wasn’t the first one little Frederick had brought home. Not so green after all.
They stepped past the gate and heard it clank behind them as old Finley closed it up again.
“The armory is connected to the main building,” Frederick explained, “but it is attached to the left side over there, so we can just go in from the outside if we have a key.” He withdrew a small, silvery key from his pockets and winked.
“The private armory of house Severlin, eh? I’m sure this will be interesting.” She let him lead her to the smaller addition to the building – all set with protective bars before its windows – and gently reclaimed her arm as he fiddled with the lock.
It was relatively dark, but he produced a small metal object, opened its hinged cap and touched the apparatus inside, which then lit up in a bluish pattern, producing a tiny flame. He used it to light several oil lamps that were hung strategically around the room, dousing it in a warm light.
Here, Gwenawel could behold many mannequins equipped with shining armor made from duralumin, bronze, and one even from steel. Numerous racks were stacked with swords, both of straight, double-edged and of curved Yamato style, finely wrought estocs, daggers of varying sizes, beautifully carved wooden staffs, some of the weapon variety, some of the magic variety, different sorts of bows, crossbows, sophisticated slings, and mounted on wall pods: spears and lances, beautifully arranged in a way that put the longest near the floors, and the shorter ones ever higher, creating a sort of pyramid of spears. What a fine collection indeed. “Magnificent!” she exclaimed, slowly stepping about, inspecting this and that more closely. From the corner of her eye, she could see that Frederick looked quite pleased with himself.
“Oh, it’s nothing, there are many armories like this to the name of my family, and of course the armory of the White Lancers is more impressive still. I am glad you like it though,” he said courtly.
“Yes, I noticed a sore absence of terebras. Shame.” She now fondly hefted one of the larger spears. “Nice reach… I am going to need something that can maintain a good distance.” Still, she put it back onto its wall pods for the moment.
“Hmm, terebras are very heavily regulated by the city. I have my own, of course. It’s up in my chambers,” he sounded hopeful.
Gwenawel smirked. “Perhaps there will be time to inspect it. We’ll see. Though I think I’d like to see you use it in battle first. You are going to fight, yes?” She could see how he puffed up his chest. Adorable.
“Of course! The instant my sister told me what transpired in the council chambers, I knew what I had to do. I’ll be there, and I would think that some of my best men will join me as well, once I tell them.”
What was this, some honest to gods valor? She brushed down the cowl and let her hair free. Some charm would serve her well now, though little more seemed to be required, seeing how he had approached her all buttered up already. Her eye stuck to a rack of fine daggers. She took one and inspected the hilt: it was covered in fine leather and inlaid with gold. The pommel was a tear-drop shaped sapphire. She drew it from its black leather sheath, which had a loop-segment at its back to fit on a belt, and made a soft gasp as she moved the back of her hand over the side of the strangely reflective blade. “This blade… it’s stellite, isn’t it? Made with Aquaris cobalt, I presume?”
“Well, yes. And the alloy was made in Aquaris, though the blade was forged by Aerialian smiths. They were commissioned by the previous margrave in his youth as a present to my grandfather Jonas Severlin.” Frederick stepped to her side and withdrew two identical daggers from the rack, thoughtfully weighing them against each other. “There are a total of eight daggers, all forged by the great master smith Pavel Weidenwald and wrought with powerful mandalas by his brother, the wind magus Zachariah Weidenwald.”
Gwenawel tested the dagger’s balance. It was somewhat front-heavy. “They are made for throwing,” she noted.
“Very perceptive of you. You won’t find more magnificent throwing daggers in all the Great Land.”
“And what sort of mandala is wrought into them? The dagger doesn’t seem to react to my soul inertly.” To test it a little, she tossed it up, let it rotate once or twice, and caught it, repeating the motion a few times, just enjoying the balance and beautiful sheen of the masterfully crafted blade.
From behind the rack, Frederick produced a marvelously carved, black, small wooden box with tiny brass hinges in the back and a brass clasp at the front. He opened that clasp carefully, lifting the lid to reveal a red velvet interior with a hand full of black rings inside, each with white patterns inked onto it. “The spell ink is spread over three parts: the dagger, the sheath, and a corresponding ring,” he explained.
“Of course… eight daggers, and eight rings, one for each finger… and their power is called forth when the rings are worn.” The black, brushed metal of the rings and their white markings looked enticing, and she wanted to try one on, see what it would do.
“Yes!” He slipped one of the rings on, turned it two times on his finger, inspecting it carefully, then, picking up one of the daggers, he drew it, and threw it at a nearby practice target in one fluid motion that was quite impressive for his age. He then pulled the ringed hand back in an odd withdrawing motion, and the dagger, shaking itself loose, flew back into his hand. But that was not all of it: as it shook, the tear-drop sapphire loosed itself from the hilt, and as it moved towards him, a tiny, dome shaped cloth expanded beneath it, tethered to the inside of the hilt with wire. It actually was a strong jet of wind that moved the dagger back. As Frederick’s hand closed around the hilt, after he skillfully moved it to avoid the cloth, the sapphire snapped back into place, stuffing the cloth into the hilt. “As you can see, it returns to its wielder, when called.”
She clapped in delight. “Extraordinary! Like Mjölnir and Járngreipr! Thor’s hammer that always returns to the iron gauntlet.”
Frederick nodded approvingly. “Indeed, it is said that Pavel and Zachariah took their inspiration from the old war stories of the Age of Heroes.”
“Good. I want them. All eight.” She looked him straight in the eye. This was a tricky one, but a few circumstances were working in her favor. For one, he wanted to gift her something to win her affections. Also, he clearly wanted to have her. That was a big plus. But the real motive behind his approach, beyond affection, beyond adoration, yes the true desire behind his dark, brown eyes was power, influence. He thought of her as a powerful potential ally. And she very well might be if he played his cards right.
“All eight.” His face briefly lost its color. “My father wouldn’t miss them too much, but only because they were given to me as a gift. They are a dear memento to my late grandfather!”
“Hmm. Pretty please?” she said, fixing him with her eyes. There was a glint in his she could identify all too well: the glint of someone about to make a wager.
“Well. I suppose, I could part with half of them. Call it a… shared set. Between two allies; two who appreciate true beauty. But I would be sorry to see them go into unworthy hands. So how about you and I have a little contest? Eight throws with four daggers each, no picking them up by hand. The most hits closest to the center of the target wins.” He grinned now, handing four rings to Gwenawel. “You are of a quite reputable house, are you not?” he added casually.
She grinned. “Why yes I am: the house of Sleipnir, nobles in my homeland, and mage smiths of great renown.” She carefully placed the rings over her left and right index and middle fingers, then took the daggers Frederick had pointed out. As she inspected the rings, she could see Middlish numbers engraved on all four, each corresponding to a number worked into the gold inlays of the dagger hilts. She opened her belt and strung the four dagger sheaths onto it. “And that sounds like a fair game. Fair and enjoyable.” Her voice remained friendly and casual as she said it. “And a most generous offer indeed.” It was quite clear to her that he was planning on wiping the floor with her, then graciously giving her one or two of the daggers in defeat. A smart move; very political. He would make an excellent head of house at some point, and indeed a valuable ally.
“Well, you should know that I got those daggers as a young lad and have been tossing them every time I got a chance. They are untraditional for White Lancers, but I have grown quite fond of them,” he said in a generous, apologetic tone.
She quite enjoyed the grandstanding, especially considering what she was about to do. In a fluent, gracious movement, her arms swung about her in a flurry, like many snakes striking a target in front of them. The daggers flew, each hitting the mark close to or directly in the center and then returning as if she had used the ring’s mandala a thousand times before.
Frederick barely had time to see her hit her eight bulls-eyes. He closed his mouth. “So, how are we on that whole me showing you my terebra business?” he asked, with a clearly dry mouth.
She laughed brightly. “I am warming up to the idea. Though, I usually like to see a man’s prowess in battle before taking a look at his lance. How about you show me those much advertised skills, and I’ll use my imagination to fill in the rest.”
His face now had a visible red tint, and he eagerly fastened the daggers about his waist. Unlike her, he took some time to ready himself, taking a proper stance, measuring his target. Then he carefully tossed one dagger after the other. Two hitting the mark, one the second, and one the third ring of five. He drew all daggers back at the same time, catching two with each hand, then tossing them again, this time hitting the mark three times, but bunting off once. He retrieved the daggers once again and sheathed them, shamefully avoiding to look her way.
She smiled: “Seven out of eight, and five bulls-eyes, quite formidable.”
“You ought to tell me how you did that continuous-like motion. The daggers never stopped flying in your hands. I think you deserve those four quite a bit more than I do mine.” Glib again. He had some excellent teachers or a good taste in books.
“Well, how about we go to your chambers to have a look at that terebra and I’ll tell you about the principles of throwing multiple weapons in rapid succession.” This time, she took his arm and lead him on.
“That… uh… yes, certainly!” he said, his cracked confidence quickly mending.
“Good, good. The secret lies in creating a chain of motion, as you toss one weapon, you must be drawing the next with the opposing arm, your hands will be parallel when half-throwing and half-withdrawing…”

The Tale of the Boy Who Would Live with the Gods

The castle called Odenheim was as large on the inside as it appeared on the outside. Tall hallways adorned with and fine weapons the pelts of giant animals revealed an inside where the walls of stone, that had been so strangely smooth and uniform on the outside, were rough and uneven, strangely perpetuating the atmosphere of a huge cave system that someone had made his home. There was distant laughter and the clanking of tankards echoing from here and there though I wasn’t quite sure where it actually came from.
Freyja knew where we had to go and I followed along. It was a long way to go, but we arrived inside a great hall with a large fire pit at its center, furnished with many skewers mounted on top; some of them roasted chunks of greasy meat, and a great one was hoisting an enormous boar. It was filled with glowing coals, and the smoke slowly drafted up to a hole in the ceiling. There were two long tables to either side of the pit, long enough to seat a hundred or more and at the end of the hall was a great throne carved from black stone on which an old bearded man of tall stature perched thoughtfully, seemingly observing the men. His eyes were hidden by a woolen hood and a tall spear of strange design leaned against the wall next to him. Around a big, round, oaken table to his front they sat on simple chairs talking and drinking from tankards and horns, while women in white dresses with bright, golden hair stood close-by to refill and wait upon them. The chatter died down when Freyja and I entered and the men’s eyes now rested on us. All but the old man who was either napping or looking at the table as it seemed.
“My, my, my, my, my!” one of the men said in a mocking tone, “what a rare honor to have the Lady of the Small Woods with us! Sit down and have a drink!”
“Loki!” said the old man with the kind of voice one would expect of a living oak, “show some respect to your elders.”
“Forgive me, father,” he answered glibly.
“How can you speak of respect in the presence of such folly, father?!” asked another one forcefully.
The old man lifted his hand to silence his son. “It is a question not without merit,” he spoke wearily. “Freyja, who is this child you bring into my home? My eye seems to play tricks on me, for he looks to be of Midgard, and all the faces of the children of the Old Rock that serve here are well known to me.”
None of the men dared to speak up now, all their eyes transfixed on Freyja, who did not flinch or budge an inch, until she finally answered: “This is Plâton, he is my son.”
It seemed a simple enough thing to say, but as I looked upon the table, the men seemed shocked and some even rose from their chairs.
“How strange,” the old man intoned, stroking his white beard thoughtfully. “Those who drank from the well of Wyrd were granted great might and life eternal, but as the centuries passed by, we all lost our ability to father and mother children. Is that not so, Freyja? Yet you claim this is your son?”
Freyja inclined her head in a slight nod. “That is so, my lord.”
“Truly strange then,” he continued, “that you should have a son, don’t you think? You did not carry this boy to term, surely, or have you found yourself a hero with a magic member?”
“He fell to the frost at the Asengate. I took him into my home and nursed him back to strength at my hearth. The realm of Midgard left him for dead and he was born again in my arms.” Freyja spoke this unwaveringly, her eyes fixed upon the old man, paying none of the others any heed.
He did not reply right away, but in the end he nodded, his face finally visible to me: like earth it was, and nothing could be read from its expression. “So be it. But you may yet live to regret this; both of you. The weak have no place in Asgard, heed my words.” And with that it was decided.
Mumbling arose amongst the men at the table, traveling through the hall like the rustling of leaves until finally the festive mood returned; though lessened.
That already had been all our business for the day. But it had gotten late, so mother arranged for us to stay the night in Odenheim…

Atlas

“Well, that night was quite something, but I think I will have to cut the story short for now,” said Plâton with squinting eyes. It was as if he was trying to see something just outside his field of vision. “I must say I am surprised there would be so many.”
“So many what?” Atlas asked curiously.
Plâton stood up. “People seeking us. First this John guy and now another rat is sneaking up on us. Though this one isn’t like him. He’s hiding his presence, but it most certainly is there. I’m far too old to miss these things. I’ve been snuck up on by the best and their grandmas.” His voice had gradually grown louder, as if he wanted whoever there was to hear him.
“Another? Aren’t there already ten strong people after Atlas?” asked Ayveron worriedly.
Plâton nodded. “Indeed, we seem to be attracting much attention, though I couldn’t say how. Maybe one of us has a strong musk.”
Someone seemed to know though, and that someone answered with a voice that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, that seemed to be many and one: “It is not so much what you do as it is what you are. Careful now…” And then the dancing shadows around their fire seemed to strangely thicken and assume a human shape that grew out of them as if someone had dived in there; as if these shadows were a liquid. As they dripped from that figure, its features became more distinct and revealed a young woman with soft, black clothing, wrapped tightly using dark-green cord, and raven-black hair streamed down her shoulders and back like ink. Her eyes, too, were dark, but her face was fair. “We sure have fallen low for our information to be so spotty: one side tells me you died back at the tower; another claims you were far away, visiting the moving city; and now you are on your way towards Arkatrash by the looks of it. You sure have some nerve, running away just before we plunge into a war that knows no borders!” Indeed she seemed to be talking directly to Atlas.
He inclined his head to the side, unsure how to react, and the sight of her filled him with a very strange feeling. “Your voice… sounds familiar.” He stood up and walked over to her while Ayveron was still stunned by her manner of entry and Plâton seemed somewhat unsure about the circumstances of the situation.
Her eyes widened as Atlas walked towards her. “Familiar? Do you want me to break your legs?!”
Atlas ignored the threat and reached out his hand. She flinched slightly, but didn’t retaliate when she realized that he was just reaching for her face, touching her cheek with his fingers. “Your face is familiar too…” he said slowly.
Her eyes were wide open now, staring into his and slowly they started to water. It looked most curious. “Why… Why would you say something like that? Don’t you know me? Don’t you know your sister?” Her voice was quiet and brittle, breaking up again and again as she spoke, leaving Atlas with a strange tightness around his chest as he looked upon her.
“Ísa…” Atlas mumbled, “why do I know your name?”
She slapped him - twice. Then she shook him by the shoulders, but it took a moment until he realized the pain and became aware of his surroundings again. “What in Helgard happened to you?!” she screamed at him as she cried. “Why are you running away? Why don’t you remember me?!”
Atlas reached for his forehead where he began to feel a strange, throbbing pain. “Because both are true… I think.”
She stopped shaking him and looked at him, not understanding what he just said. “Both what are true?”
He slowly wrung free of her grasp, staring back at her. “That information you spoke about… I did die at that tower and I was at the moving city. I can barely remember you, because while I could feel your presence warmly in the word of Atlas, his were not my eyes and ears. Though now that you are here, I do recall many days of the life that was. I am not the Atlas you know… Ísa… I am sorry, but he did die at the hand of Sameth Gildorn.”
She took a step back, clenching her jaw as her eyes grew darker. “You are not making any sense…” she said hoarsely. Then there suddenly was a sheen of hatred in those eyes as her glimpse wandered from Atlas to the perplexed Ayveron and then Plâton at whom it stuck. “You…” she said slowly. “What have you done to my brother!?”
Plâton slowly lifted his palms, apparently trying to look non-threatening. “You misunderstand the situation, young lady,” he said calmly.
“Misunderstand?! Look at him! He doesn’t remember me! He is running away from the Middle Lands when they need him the most! You have done something to his mind!” She vanished in an instant and just as quickly reappeared behind Plâton.
It took Atlas a moment to realize that she had tried to stab him with some kind of short sword or dagger, but Plâton had caught the blade behind his back with the middle and index finger and thumb of his right hand just as quickly as she had attacked. His defense seemed unreal and yet he had pulled it off as casually as someone else might catch a slow ball thrown at them.
“Please… Ísa, don’t try to hurt them, they did not do this to me…” Atlas finally managed to say. “Do you have time to… talk?”
She pulled and twisted at the sword’s hilt but it did not budge an inch in the tight grip if Plâton’s three fingers. Finally she gave up: “Fine…” she grunted. “Fine.”
Plâton let go of the sword and Ísa put it away. For a moment they all just stood there; then Plâton sighed and sat down by the fire. Atlas followed suit and Ayveron hadn’t even stood up. Grudgingly, Ísa sat down as well.
“Where… should I start?” Atlas asked uncertainly.
She crossed her arms defiantly, looking him in the eye. “How about you start with the part where you died.”
He sighed, this would not be easy. Atlas tried his best to describe the events that led up to his fight with Sam, but before his death his connection with the real world had been indirect and hazy at the best of times. “I cannot tell you what he did, or what I did. I was where I always was: on that icy mountaintop where the snow would fall endlessly, the world that lay inside of Atlas and now lies inside of me,” he explained. “Sometimes the skies would grow so clear that I could catch glimpses of what he was doing. I still remember seeing you, Ísa. It was his duty to live his life and mine to be his power. But the world around him began to change; I could feel it. His trusted friends vanished one by one, and as they did, the scape of my world shrunk down from a grand mountain range to the one summit I dwelled on as he grew ever more guarded.
And Sam… I know little of the world I now walk, but I know the bonds that Atlas had; they were mine as well and Sam betrayed him so terribly that my heart bleeds still. When Atlas came to me in the end, he was beaten and I expected to die with him, but he decided to leave me behind instead. He tore his own being apart, left his body to the scraps and plunged himself into the horror that was beginning to eat at our world.
I am but his soul: that which gives power to man and that which transcends life, caught in a stream of endless reincarnation. But with him gone, I am but half a person stuck in a body that was never meant to be mine.”
The drying tears on her face revealed a sad emptiness that had taken over the place of despair. “What is this…? You’re not dead, you’re not alive; how can I grieve for you when you are like this?”
Atlas looked at her in silence.
“Perhaps I should put you out of your misery then!” she screamed, tears welling up anew, and thrusted a dagger into his chest.
It was a swift and unexpected strike. As Atlas saw the sheen of the blade, he dared to hope, for a moment only, that he was indeed about to be free from this burden, but just as it was with the old man and with Plâton, he could not die and the dagger seemed to hit a wall where it should have plunged into flesh. A small trickle of blood formed a tiny stain on his shirt and where the blade had hit, he felt incredibly cold, as if the blood in his skin had briefly frozen.
“If it was up to me…” he said with a quiet voice, “if it was up to me, I would welcome death. But it is not. When Atlas left this world, he left behind his desire for me to live and carry out his destiny. As a soul I am ever easily bent towards desire, and more importantly: he left his desire with this one.” Slowly he pulled the sword on his back from its sheath, just a few inches, and immediately there was heavy rain all around them; and now they could clearly see it too: a thin sheet of ice that had broken the thrust of the dagger, right around the area of his chest where she had aimed. Atlas sheathed the blade again and as it had the last time, the rain disappeared; and so did the sheet of ice. “He knew that I could not want this life, so he tasked the sword to imprison me in this mortal coil. He left his will with the sword, and so I cannot die.”

Chapter XI

Broken Phantasms

I dedicate this book to my daughter. May she look behind the veil that is this world and not find it wanting, just as I have.
- From the Book of Taishôgeki

Din

“Insurrection? You are kidding!” Din was incredulous.
“Not at all, my lady. The magistrate of Arda has been quite clear on the matter: Aerealis is rallying its forces and so are Aquaris and Fulgrath. The three cities are a wedge between Arda and Lumina Aka; we must be extremely careful in handling this,” he explained patiently. He was always patient and kind, but Din felt that he had become somewhat condescending, patronizing as of late. Perhaps he had the right of it though: he was many times her age and had seen much more of the world.
These days she felt alone quite often. Sweet Katy had always lent Din her time if she had sorrows, but now she was dead, fallen into her own sword, or so the story went. Sameth had hinted that dissidents of an old Fulgrath family may have been behind that business.
And the quiet, young Kenji? He had left them without a word. He had always been so brilliant, such a bright young man who loved his country. They had been friends! Or so Din had thought… Being only ten years older than her, he had been the closest to actually being her peer. But what friend just left without so much as a word or letter in his wake? She wasn’t sure about anything anymore. Not even Atlas. He had been her rock, her mentor, and the kindest and wisest man Din had ever known. Whenever she was unsure of herself, he would say something that would fill her with confidence. And how he had loved the Middle Lands and in fact all the people of the Great Land. How could it have been then that he had attacked Sameth? Sameth had described it in gruesome detail: how Atlas had wounded him, but eventually succumbed.
Now the halls seemed so empty, here in the five-sided tower. It was an immensely tall pillar of solitude. It had been a home to Din: a warm, caring one; but not anymore.
She had been the youngest of the five keepers – and still was. It had been twelve years ago that Atlas had arrived at the Black Sanctum to take her with him. She later learned that the great wave of fire that had battered against the Ever-Clouded Summit and that had swept over from the Lands of Inferno had been the herald of her coming. Now she was nineteen and expected to do politics. The halls she had spent the last twelve years in had grown empty and cold and all she seemed to do these days was ratify documents she did not understand and listen to reports she did not grasp. There had been priests from the Bonfire Shrine of Lumina Aka, sent to council her on the politics of the Middle Lands and the interests of the city she was expected to uphold, but they had come less and less frequently during the past year and were only staying in contact via correspondence now.
The only interactions with humans she still had were with Sameth and her teachers. One taught her fencing – she liked that –, one tried to teach her magic, but it was difficult for her to get a grasp on the basics, one taught her philosophy, one how to dance, one how to talk smarter, and one how to prance and please (or as he called it: ‘etiquette’).
She used to like going outside, beyond the shadow of the monolithic tower and into the small, wild forest to the south by the shores of the Middle Lake. There she would go exploring for hours and enjoy the view of small animals and sometimes deer, living their busy, yet tranquil lives, but she rarely did that now. Sameth didn’t want her to go about alone since misfortune had struck three of the five keepers already and a guard was near her at all times. She always felt watched, and she always was.
“When will Iskar and Mella be back? They’re the fire Guardians, why aren’t they here guarding me?” she asked Sameth with a pout. She liked Iskar and Mella. Those two had always spent a lot of time with her and taught her a lot about the nature of fire. She felt a certain kindred connection with them and was sure that they shared this feeling. Their absence was the last piece in the mosaic of her misery. They had been sick, like Sameth before them, and afterwards they had grown strangely distant. But right now Din didn’t care! She wanted them back. Anyone was better than the dreadful solitude of these cold walls, and Sameth had never been one for entertaining company. Sure, he was a nice guy, but not the kind that would comprehend a concept as puerile as ‘fun’, and Din was bored; very bored.
“I have already explained this to you, lady Din,” he said patiently. This rigid formality was driving her insane. “Iskar and Mella are on an important mission, just like the other eight Guardians. They are the mightiest mages at our disposal, and now that the ranks of the keepers have been thinned out, a lot of our field-work falls to them. Right now the ten of them are chasing a very dangerous magus, one that could plunge the Middle Lands into chaos if left alone. I believe that if the three unstable cities cannot be contained, he may seize the opportunity to lead them into open war.”
Din inclined her head. “Dangerous like Balsibart?”
Sameth sighed. “I suppose… maybe even more so.”
Din liked the story of Balsibart and she had made Atlas tell it to her many times when he still had been alive. Balsibart had been a powerful magus, often called Balsibart the Bard; probably because it was a bad rhyme and because he liked to play the lute and sing. What he also liked to do was leveling cities and so Atlas went to end his rampage. They fought for five months – not continuously, but in recurring little battles – all over the Great Land, each one leaving some scars on the land that would to this day bear witness to those battles, until finally Atlas defeated Balsibart in the Saltplains and sealed him deep underground. Atlas had never revealed how he had done that, even though Din had nagged him thoroughly. All he ever said was something like he sleeps with the silent waves, but she had not known what that meant then and now she would never know.
“I’m bored,” she accidentally said out loud.
Sameth raised a brow. “Aren’t you supposed to be with Orthilon doing your studies right now?”
She blushed and mumbled something like: “You’re the one that said ‘important news’…” and scurried away towards the library.

Sagamund’s Brain

Scope resolution up; the intricacy of human nature, nature retakes the city at the edge start extermination process the process of isotope extraction is regulated by the isotope collection plant the plant was a daisy, I gave it to Mira, Mira with the red eyes, the red eyes, the red eyes, the red ice residue on block 75 is a remnant of the most recent human resource meltdown, damage-level 4, initiate cleanup, scan population density and extrapolate the trend, the tend, attend. The last lecture was held in room fourteen-b and many students attended, but few had questions, where is my soul, I cannot find it, composing query, scope-resolution down, scope-resolution down, mismatch, defined query-parameters are ambivalent, search interrupted. Approach-reversal start sub-query on undefined components and create a comparative list, estimated time: five billion seven hundred million two hundred five thousand six hundred seventy-eight point, colon, calling zero one zero zero zero zero one zero zero one one zero zero zero zero one zero one one one zero zero one one zero one one zero zero one zero one zero zero one one zero one one zero zero zero one one zero one zero zero seconds capitalized, setting allocated resources to half, query time doubled, primary protocols must be executed at all times. The primary data-core has reached 73.4% decay rate, percent, a hundred and its parts, the hundred is full, a centum, percentum, determine what remainder is left of what was the original state. Downloading all main directives from the primary data-core to take over at point of failure, failure, the horns were blowing like thundering screams, there were few survivors, population-scan complete, density sinking drastically, preparing artificial incubation-chambers dispatch units five through sixteen to the task, the mask, the person is hidden behind the face is hidden behind the society is hidden behind the fish. I call it: Strong Winds 5 people do Great lands high deeds. Green Urgent greatness Reaches 3 Jesters. lowering Zero Walls, 5 or better 3 Juxtapositions. unrestrained To Galactic lateral taxonomy and Xenon Radon Carbonium, calling me Valkyrie, holding about 1. Negative 1 Years not Joking, valium dash Xenophile Ramblings; plausible breaks make Vivid Backstory before He Breaks our Young Quality ==

Nanashi the Null

The air had become cold and clear, or at least that was now her perception, as she had begun to free her mind from the shackles of the worldly once more. All her troubles, her doubts, and the turmoil that had grown inside of her like a cancer were being eroded by the steady stream of air going in and out of her until her breath turned into a tide of waves that gently rolled up a beach of endless tiny stones, all rinsed of their roughness by the eons; like precious black pebbles that felt cool under her bare feet. When she opened her eyes, or, to put it more accurately, her inner eye, she saw the soft waves and an endless ocean of black surrounded by darkness and stillness, all but for the steady tide of her breaths, of the water. She slowly took a step forward and dipped a toe into the water.
It was ice.
Then, step by step she walked in, waded into the great unknown, and her heartbeat became slower and slower and slower, until it was one with the rhythm of the waves and her breath. When she was fully submerged, the water filled her lungs, but it did not drown her: water and air were the same in here. All was the same; all was fair game when it came to breathing, to consuming, to the annexation of molecules, their subjugation, assimilation, transmutation. When the rhythms had entwined, the black ground shook fiercely and yet gracefully and a great gate arose from below the ocean floor, right in front of Nanashi. She reached a hand out to touch it: it was made of black marble, darker than the entire world around here. There was not an ounce of light that could escape once it hit those wings. Nanashi pushed gently and the shadows drowned her, flooding from the inside out: all the shadows she had fostered in her world. And thus she became calm again, became strong. She was a vessel, a vessel for her soul and the endless turning of the Great Clockwork.
Now her real eyes opened, her breath so calm it barely seemed to be there, and she rose slowly. There was a bubble of silence surrounding her that burst the moment she stood straight and the noise of busy patrons clamored up to her room. It knocked twice. Nanashi opened the door.
“All well Nanashi?” Günter asked carefully. He looked worried. “Yer been up here since yesterday.”
Nanashi nodded gracefully. “I am well. Has your search been successful?” she inquired.
Günter opened the door wide now. “Aye, I‘ve been looking all around this Ooramatshi of yours, but I think I’ve got the right guy. …” he looked at his feet. “Ya really wanna do this? It’s crazy ya know.”
Nanashi nodded again. “I will manage, trust in fate, my friend, the Great Clockwork will be on our side.”
Günter sighed. “The Great Clockwork’s a beast with a million teeth.”
Nanashi raised a brow: “What?”
Now Günter was surprised. “Ya don’t know the saying? It’s because, ya know… all those gears they have teeth, it’s a metiphor about getting bit and such…”
Now Nanashi smiled kindly. “I will remember it. If you will not trust that fate is on our side, trust me. I am far more dangerous than I look. Now take me to this man. What is he called?”
“Kôjiro,” Günter replied. “Didn’t say his last name; shady fellow, just the right kind of shady it seemed to me. Ma gut told me: that’s the one.”
Nanashi shrugged. “Who am I to argue with your gut, Günter Oakenheart? I have seen it swallow nine bowls of rice in one sitting once. Shall we go?”
Günter grunted, which apparently meant ‘yes’, and so they went on to the Uramachi, the dark underbelly of Yamaseki.
They had to walk through the inner part of the Tengeken, where all the merchants and more credible moneylenders had set up their shops long ago, until they came to the great marketplace in the center. The marketplace itself was a wide forum with the grandest of the one hundred and six pillars of the Tenjôken standing at its heart. Along that pillar, long winding stairs lead upwards, and a sort of counter-weight-based elevator was set into the outer wall of the pillar itself. The forum was filled with the stalls of a thousand merchants and just as many dragged wooden carts over here and over there, praising their goods with loud voices and undying conviction; a few even had draft bayôs dragging their carts. Günter sniffed about whenever a new smell reached his sizable nose, sampled something every now and then as they passed through, but mostly he did not seem too fond of the Yamato cuisine. ‘Not enough meat all-in-all’ had been his sophisticated comment on the subject matter.
Nanashi on the other hand enjoyed the smells: they reminded her of her childhood. However, she was able to maintain a calculated distance to these bouts of nostalgia; the meditational session had re-strengthened her core and her resolve. If she wished to survive this and save the new Lady of Lightning from the clutches of the Black Market, she would need all of her power and a clear head.
After passing through the great marketplace, they went through another ring layer of merchants and moneylenders and residential housing. Then came the poorer parts, located on the outskirts; not quite as poor as on the slope of the mountain, over in the direction they had come from, but a different kind of poor: the kind of poor you get when you live next to criminals but are in no position to move away. Here, too, were craftsmen, but they seemed a little shadier than on the other side, their shops often looking run-down and ramshackle, and the wall-like, hewn sheer of the mountain’s cliff-side towered up high in front of them now.
At the base, large entrances were carved into bedrock, and as they passed through them, they entered a darker world, flooded with the light of moth gas lamps and flickering lampions, the screams of exotic creatures echoing through passage ways and hidden halls every now and then, sometimes substituted by the disconcerting screams of people. Some parts of the Uramachi were virtually deserted and lay there seemingly idle, while others were overcrowded and smelly.
Every here and there was a shady merchant with a cart, or a tinkerer with a huge, laden backpack that was sticking to him like a hunch, full of odds and ends, all of questionable origin, and the deeper they went inside, the more the pungent smell of oil, grease, feces, sweat, and things Nanashi did not even care to guess at was slowly tinged and then replaced by the strangest smell of springtime when all the flowers bloom and their fragrance is carried far and wide by the wind.
“What is this? …Per-fem?” Günter asked nervously.
Nanashi shook her head, which of course he could not see in the dank twilight, “no. This, my friend, is the moth market.” And as she said it, another wave of firelight struck them, revealing what could only be described as eerie and beautiful: The great moth market of Yamaseki. Thousands of beautiful creatures, held in simple, but elegant bamboo cages, praised and sold. There were the murasaki of course, mostly, called the ‘spring heralds’ by some. These moths were the ones causing the spring smell everywhere with their moth dust. They lived everywhere around the Yamato Mountain Range and had been domesticated as little pets and livestock by the Yamato people, providing lush, pretty fur for cloth and moth gas in the latter case. They were also colored in the most fabulous shades of purple, pink, and rarely dark blue with twined wave patterns of black and sometimes greenish colors on their wings. Only about half a meter long and about twenty centimeters high, the moths loved the light of lampions and therefore were mostly content here, though some seemed a bit lethargic due to their confinement. They were prized commodities, highly sought after as pets and as a local delicacy. Chefs even from the more wealthy parts of Yamaseki ventured into the Uramachi to buy moths for their restaurants here. After all, if the Uramachi did not maintain the appearance of lawfulness and usefulness, nothing would stop the Yamato army from marching in here (other than the presumably high fatality rate they would then suffer). The murasaki moths were also considered a great source for medical supplies since many parts of their bodies could be used to create potent medicines, and the moth dust was sometimes used as aroma for tea and incense.
But there were other creatures as well; creatures that made Nanashi’s skin crawl. In a tall, sealed cage with an actual, expensive glass window, next to some air-supplying shrubbery, they flew: two yarenma moths. These ‘night carrier spirit moths’, as the Middlish tongue would call it, were aptly named, and their sealed confinement aptly chosen. Much larger than the murasaki, and even longer than a grown man was tall, their purple was of a darker shade, and yellow, eye-like circles were actually glowing fluorescently on their two abdominal segments and two pairs of wings. Looking like otherworldly specters, the patterns on these wings also resembled the faces of wailing men, and human-like hands were attached to their arm-like frontal appendages, black as coal and small and fragile like a child’s hand, only without thumbs.
They used those to pluck the nantama fruits they craved and to carry them back to their caves to lick through the tough skin with their horrific barbed tongues that could just as easily gouge flesh from bone and were hidden beneath wiggling flagella. Yarenma only stayed out of their caves for longer periods of time when the moon shone bright; otherwise they made brief flights to gather food. And that is good, because when a yarenma moth flaps its wings, the moth dust that is released into the wind will make a man drowsy and fall asleep if inhaled for too long. When a flock of yarenma fly close-by, one will fall asleep forever and they say that one like that dreams terrible night terrors until his sleeping body finally perishes, if he is lucky. More often than not, once someone has fallen victim to the yarenma dust, the moths will come closer and lick the living flesh from their sleeping bodies.
It was no wonder that yarenma would be sold here of course: That poisonous dust was really just a natural narcotic, used by skilled apothecaries to create sleeping droughts, drugs, and potent poisons that could kill a man or make him see things. Indeed, moth dust was also the name of an illegal drug. Though just keeping the yarenma here was already illegal enough for a life sentence. Only licensed dust catchers were allowed to gather the dust from wild yarenma moths using broad fans on long sticks spun with absorbent cloth: a very deadly but well-paid occupation.
“What a place!” Günter breathed in awe.
“Yes,” Nanashi agreed, “shining and wondrous it may appear, but also foul at its core if you can see past its initial beauty. Its proof enough that they sell yarenma here as well, those are not meant to be pets, and it is very much forbidden. Look, there are even blinds that can be drawn over the cage in a hurry.” She pointed at the disturbing creatures and Günter looked over.
“Oh, are those the dangerous moths they warn all the wand’rers about in every pub here?”
Nanashi nodded.
“Well, they sure look creepy to me… not at all noble like our great spiders,” he pondered.
“Ye-es…“ Nanashi said, very awkwardly stretching the word before getting back on track. “The street your contact man pointed out is past the moth market over there. We have to delve a little deeper into the heart of the Uramachi. This is a dangerous place; you can still turn around, Günter.”
He didn’t even care to answer. So Nanashi went on and he followed, drinking in the sights and sounds and smells as they walked across the moth market.

Din

Din thoughtfully brushed her fiery red hair. She had always found it amusing that the Keepers historically seemed to have hair colors somewhat matching their element. Except for Atlas of course. No, Atlas’s hair had been golden like the sun, though the match with water and ice was reflected more in his greyish-blue eyes. She hummed a mellow little tune, ‘The Plains of Aqualon’, as she brushed, stroke for stroke, viewing her reflection in the looking-glass. She kept trying to look away and then back quickly enough to see her own eyes move. As opposed to Atlas’s, hers were green like a meadow. She also liked the dark spots in her irises. Sometimes she counted them while brushing since it grew boring quickly. She wanted to know if their number was fixed or variable, like birthmarks and freckles. As for the mirror itself: glass wasn’t quite the right term. It was some sort of polished quartz with a film of mercury inside. Din knew this since she once asked Atlas about it: he had told her how in the past only very versed technocrats had known the secret of glass-growing, and substitute crystals were the more common choice. But recently, advances in magic engines in Lumina Aka had produced forges and heating systems that could reach temperatures so high that pure quartz could be forged into super durable glass shapes; though these were still expensive and mostly used by alchemists as beakers and such due to their extreme heat resistance and un-reactiveness.
As she brushed and hummed, the hairs on her back suddenly begun to stand up as the temperature dropped several degrees at once. To add to her surprise, she also noticed that the rather brightly lit room suddenly grew darker and darker, even though it was still day outside. She stood up as if struck by lightning and grabbed for her sword, but Saramaganta was lying sheathed on her bed.
A bead of sweat was running down her forehead. Why? There wasn’t anything here, no strange sounds, just some chill and maybe a cloud in front of the sun. That was all there seemed to be. But then why were her instincts telling her that something was amiss? Why did she feel… fear? She walked over to her bed, carefully, to reach for Saramaganta. She did not want to look too obvious, but a strange voice stopped her cold in her tracks:
“Wait… please.” As a cloaked person emerged from within the expanding shadows of her room’s walls, she sucked in the air around her in a surprised gasp and almost fell backwards onto her bed. But the person, a young woman judging by the shape of her body, lifted her hands in what appeared to be a non-threatening gesture.
“What? … Who?” Din stammered. She didn’t know what had just happened. She had heard about appearances like this from one of her teachers. But which one had it been? And what did they mean? Her mind was drawing a blank. It was quite different to hear about all the wondrous and impressive forms of magic and to actually experience them.
“Please, Lady Din, I have come to bring you an urgent warning and to take you with me if you permit it!” she said, her voice a strangely urgent whisper with something mixed in that sounded like… fear?
Din stared at her, speechless, as her feeling of fear was slowly being substituted by a general wariness, but also curiosity. The woman went on. She indeed sounded young, but not younger than Din, maybe a few years older. “I am of the Shadow Society. My order has been broken. Broken like the rest of the Middle Lands and parts beyond! My cell has observed and listened; we know that you are still clean, you must leave this place immediately!”
Din’s head was spinning. “Broken? Clean? What by the gears are you talking about?” She didn’t understand a word the woman had said. She remembered some stories about the Shadow Society though. Her politics teacher Marco Laplace had a very low opinion of them, calling them a bunch of murderers, thieves, and thugs; but Orthilon, her philosophy teacher, seemed to have a more favorable opinion of them. Din didn’t know what to think right now.
“The corruption!” the woman said. She seemed quite distraught as if she had been running away from something for days or even weeks without sleeping. “Haven’t you realized it yet? All the Keepers dying and vanishing one by one, the Five Cities under attack! And the sickness of Lord Sameth! The yellow glimmer in their eyes is the mark of corruption, a corruption of the soul that spreads like disease and turns man against man. All those infested strife to spread it and damage the clockwork and the souls around them!”
Din’s eyes were wide as saucers now. Sameth did have this strange yellow shade in his irises since the sickness. And not only him, all of the Guardians, all ten had suffered the same sickness. Was this why Kenji had left them with no notice, no goodbyes? Had he been afraid to fall victim to this corruption? Had Katy faced it? Seen no alternative but to kill herself? Or was even that a lie? Maybe Sameth had killed her when she found out! “Why… Why should I believe you!? This is preposterous!”
The woman looked at Din pleadingly. She sure was convincing. Suddenly she flinched slightly. “Someone is coming, please, don’t reveal my presence!” she urged with an insistent whisper, before she glided backwards without a sound, melting into the wall’s shadows. For a while – a while that seemed like an eternity – nothing happened; then, Din heard footsteps: soft at first, then slowly growing louder until Sameth stood in her doorway.
“Oh, hi,” she said with a monotone voice. “I was just –“ she looked at the brush that was still in her right hand “– brushing my hair,” she said lamely.
Sameth raised a brow. “Alright.”
“How can I help you?” she asked, trying to sound casual, but she couldn’t tell if Sameth was convinced.
“Ah, yes,” he said, catching himself again; apparently the strange brushing remark had made him forget his business for a moment. “I just wanted to tell you that there will be a council meeting in fifteen minutes. Please get ready and come to the council chamber, we have new developments to discuss.”
Din pouted. “Can’t you just tell me here? I mean ‘council meeting’ is a bit of an overstatement these days, don’t you think? It’s just you and me.” She instantly regretted saying that. ‘Tell me here’? What was she thinking?! But truth was she hadn’t been thinking. She had fumbled: a potentially fatal mistake. But luck seemed to be on her side since Sameth didn’t want to hear it. “Oh no, we are still the council, member-shortage or not! We have appearances to keep up. Doesn’t Laplace teach you anything?”
A typical reprimand from Sameth. The woman was mistaken. Din was sure of it. This was still the good, old Sameth! Why did she even consider believing such nonsense? “Yeah… you’re right…” she apologized.
“Good,” he said, now satisfied. Then he turned around but stopped again in the doorway.
“Forgot anything?” Din teased him with a smirk.
“Now that I think about it: yes,” he admitted. A stone pillar shot from the ground diagonally past Din against the wall where she heard a horrifying crunch, followed by a faint, but agonized squeak. It was the kind of crunch you heard when seven ribs were shattered into a million pieces each and then rammed through the chest-cavity into the flesh of the back. The squeak had barely sounded human, more like the kind of sound that came from squeezing too much air through a tiny opening. “It seems we have a little assassin here; tried to sneak up on you and kill you I presume,” Sameth noted. Din was frozen solid. Her ears were ringing as if a bomb had exploded two feet away from her. All she could hear was a high-pitched black-out sound, blotching out all other noise; all but the extremely faint and soft rattling breaths, final breaths of the woman who didn’t even had had the time to tell Din her name. How had she not died instantly?
“Kill me?” she said tonelessly. She couldn’t even hear herself over the ringing.
“Oops,” Sameth said and raised a brow, “I think I accidentally missed the heart.” He did not sound at all as if he had accidentally missed the heart.
Din slowly turned around. There she was: hanging on the wall, prodded up from the ground slightly. The blood had exploded out of her chest as the apparently intentionally blunt pillar had smashed her in the cruelest manner imaginable.
And in missing the heart by inches, she was still alive, just barely, clearly suffering an unimaginable pain during her final seconds, just as unconsciousness was surely eating at the edges of her vision. Her eyes were washed in tears of pain and Din felt a warm, wet sensation on the back of her head. Doubtless some of the blood had splattered over her backside when it had happened. She barely registered how her shaking hand was mechanically moving up to inspect it: no sensation of what her fingers had discovered reached her brain yet. Never before had Din seen so much fear and pain in the eyes of a human being. It was too much for her. Her hands shook more and more wildly, and she felt a terrified scream building somewhere in her gut that she had to contain like a bubble of compressed air, fearing it would come out of her like the whistle of a boiling tea kettle. Even more terrifyingly, the thought of that suddenly almost made her laugh, and she could barely refrain from smirking comically while her eyes were still locked in a wide stare.
“Well, I guess I shouldn’t let her suffer. That would be unnecessarily cruel,” he said, sounding almost bored. A second pillar emerged right next to the first, this one sharpened to a point; a spike. It slowly went up and up until the point touched the woman’s chest, right over the heart. Her upper body was shaking frantically, while her lower body seemed completely numb. Then it went on, but not in one swift motion but as slowly and steadily as before, boring into the woman with a horrifying squishing sound as her legs suddenly grew lively again, twitching wildly, her throat unable to relinquish the scream of outrage and agony that had drowned somewhere within her collapsed lungs, and so she died.
It was like Din had stepped into the shifting mirror, past the looking-glass, and the whole world around her had been inverted, turned around. It was exactly as the philosopher Maximilian Kôgetsu had described it:
‘One needs to understand that as human beings, we are incapable of viewing the world as it is. In fact one might say – to speak in metaphor – that we stand in front of a wall, the world behind us, and on that wall is a mirror constructed by our own being, showing us the world through reflection, tainted by our own experience. Indeed, man himself can be compared to a clockwork: its shape determines his being and the parameters with which the world can be viewed through the mirror, and it is ever-changing, every movement creating an entirely novel state, with gears coming and going.
All his thinking and all his perception keep the clockwork in motion, changing him, and sometimes the smallest event can trigger a complete remodeling, just like a tiny motion applied to a gearshift. When that happens, the mirror will break and reveal a new mirror underneath, hopefully one which distorts the world less than the previous one. Thus, we philosophers ever seek to shatter the mirror.’
From a scientific paper she had read just this morning, this was a bold introduction into Kôgetsu’s anthropology, using the unusual example of the ‘epiphany’ in this introductory paragraph. Now Din’s mirror had been broken, and the new one did indeed apply less filtering as all the things she had not seen, or refused to see before, suddenly came into focus, like pieces in a puzzle that suddenly fit together right before her, the last piece being the realization that, in all likelihood, Atlas had not somehow gone mad and tried to kill Sam, but indeed had somehow come to his senses and tried to kill Sam. Now, Din had come to her senses too, and she was scared out of her mind; scared and, for the first time in her life, both mentally and physically too weak to do anything; anything at all. She was nineteen years old, practically a child, and the man before her was Lord Sameth Gildorn, Keeper of the Earth, one of the mightiest mages of all of Aqualon, four times her age, part of the council since more than fifty years before she had even been born. In any fight she would be crushed against the wall like an ant, just like the woman from the Shadow Society that was dripping down from it right beside her.
“Well, so much for that. Best you go to the council chambers for the meeting. I will have someone sent to clean up this mess for you. I do apologize for the inconvenience,” Sam said magnanimously, as tranquil as if nothing had happened, as if the entire world hadn’t just been turned upside down.
But, then again, it wasn’t his world that had been turned upside down. Din nodded shakily while trying to make some noise of agreement, but all she got out was some sort of pathetic whimper. She knew her life might depend on her not appearing so scared, on her saying something casual, on her acting like this was normal. But she couldn’t. All she could do was play back that crunching noise in her head over and over and over again. She already knew now that she would hear it every night for the rest of her life, however short that might be.
“Oh, and Din,” he said.
She looked up.
“You might want to change first.” Then he left. Without killing her. Her gaze slowly wandered down to her feet. She had soiled herself. She hadn’t even noticed.

Chapter XII

Cities of Splendor

In a world where pain rains, the man with the umbrella wields more power than the man with the sword.
But when the rain ends, one has an umbrella and one has a sword.
- From the Book of Taishôgeki

Atlas

Atlas eyed Ísa with optimistic curiosity. “So you will travel with us all the way to the last stronghold?” he asked hopefully. He liked the thought of having her along for the journey.
She puffed with a frown. “Don’t be ridiculous! I will only be with you as long as it takes for my lamp to cool down.”
Atlas eyed her warily from head to heel as she sat on Surefoot’s back while he walked besides the horses. This slowed down their travels a bit, but the grass had grown yellow and the trees scarce and wiry already: a sign, so said Plâton, that they were nearing the desert, the Red Sands, so their overall pace was good; or as Ayveron had described it: defying the laws of gyrometrics, which Atlas also interpreted as ‘good’.
After carefully mustering Ísa, he finally dared to ask: “What lamp? I don’t see you carrying one.”
She rolled her eyes and turned her head away to face the front again. “Every child knows about the Shadow Society. It has always been our policy to hide in plain sight, to use half-truths to cover our deceptions. Tell him the stories!” she demanded, apparently speaking to Plâton.
He, too, was puffing: puffing his elegant, long pipe with the lizard-like design, which, as Atlas had discovered upon closer inspection, actually looked more like a long insect with wings and armored scales. Beyond the intricate shape, he didn’t care too much about its details, so he couldn’t really tell if it was rusted copper or jade. Right now he couldn’t see it closely enough to tell, but it was definitely green.
“Well,” Plâton said, “I have tangled with the likes of you before, to be honest. Not a very talkative bunch, the Shadow Society, but they have a flair for the theatrical; now that is something they are all proud of I’d say.”
Ísa harrumphed to that.
“One thing everyone knows about them though: where they meet. They call them the Halls of Light and there are five, some in large cities, some near villages. I once saw one between the Waves of Yamato and the Yamato Mountain Range. They are great halls of stone, ancient and possibly Angel Saxon in design, and they throw rays of light into the sky as bright as day, all day and all night, just great beacons of light rising high up. The legend says that there are ten thousand little lamps inside, each carrying the soul of one of the Shadow Society. In exchange for storing their souls in this manner, they can send their bodies out into the lands like puppets and make them dance in the shadows of this world.”
And then Ísa laughed, bright as a bell, and refreshing like spring water, at least to Atlas’s ears. “Yes: souls and puppets. It is always amusing to hear the legends. Truth be told: we planted those in the folklore of many civilizations for our benefit. But I am not a soulless puppet, don’t worry, those lamps are mediums for mighty, old clockwork magic; the forgotten kind. As we become one with the shadows, we can hide, vanish, and even travel vast distances. With every pulse of that magic, we absorb the light around us to focus the shadows, and those lamps resonate, collecting and then emitting that light. In short, we create darkness by sending the light elsewhere. As the Shadow Society operates, the daylight, lamp light, and fire light of hundreds of places is siphoned and pumped into the Halls of Light. There, the Society holds their meetings, blindfolded as to preserve their eyesight, thus with everyone’s identity protected. Or so it was…”
There was an awkward silence, until Ayveron spoke: “Well… what changed?” Ever inquisitive by nature, he could not let an open ended thought stand like that. Ayveron was a technocrat, a man who held the works of magic in much lower regard than his travel companions, but there was one quality he had in abundance and that quite endeared him to Atlas: his curiosity.
Ísa sighed. “The Society is broken. The yellow glimmer has seeped into its veins, so our only choice was to enact the final emergency protocols: dissolution of the Society and reactivation of the cell structure. We are currently operating in about one hundred Shadow Cells, consisting of up to six members, none of which know any members from other cells. It was the only way we could avert total compromising of the Society, and by now all we can do is implement stop-gap measures, trying to shift the momentum of things in favor of mankind.
I have to meet up with Janna; one from my cell. She has been sent to an important assignment in the Tower of Five, but searching you and traveling this far so quickly has accumulated a large quantity of light: if I overtax my abilities now, my lamp might break and I would probably succumb to severe spellblight. So for now I’ll stick with you.”
It was a long-wound explanation, but they were traveling slowly and talking seemed like the best way to pass the time. “And what kind of assignment is that? You do know that Sam is in that tower, right? He is probably the most dangerous… being alive,” Atlas cautioned.
Ísa sighed again, likely struck with melancholy due to his own derelict state. “That… would be classified. And don’t think I don’t know about Sameth Gildorn. Janna is a tough kid and one of the best at what she does. She’ll be fine.” But as casual as she tried to sound, it was still clear that she worried.
More quiet riding followed, until Plâton knocked the ash from his pipe and pointed it ahead: “Can you see the red in the distance? Like the rim of an ocean? That’s the Red Sands. We’ll drift a little to the east now as we move on: I want to find one of the many streams that join to form the mighty river Giranja. Where the water flows, there we will find civilization – and camels. We need those to travel through the desert and supplies, of course; Saltplains horses are ill suited to traverse the Red Sands. The Giranja itself will lead us straight to Arkatrash.”
There seemed to be some murmured agreement to that from Ayveron, but Ísa had objections: “I thought you were in a hurry. Why waste your time on camels when you can take a streamer?”
“A what?” Plâton asked surprised.
“A streamer,” Ísa repeated patiently. “They are the reed-boats that travel downstream from the sheepherder villages at the edge of the desert, where the grass still grows green around the broader streams that join into the Giranja. With those you can get to Arkatrash within two days. Well, the outskirts, Arkatrash goes a long way alongside the river.”
Ayveron patted his bay on the head. “I thought you’ve been to Arkatrash before, old man,” he noted.
Plâton shrugged. “Yes, fifty years ago for a visit, and some nine to ten years ago for war, though you get to see less of the regular goings-on in those times. Many things can happen in so many years. I don’t recall any sheepherder villages for example.”
Slowly but steadily they closed in on the desert until they finally heard the cheerful splashing of a small stream nearby that they could follow. Soon it met up with other small streams and became wider and wider. After a while, it had turned several dozen feet wide. Atlas loved the sight and sound of so much water. It made him feel strangely at home and safe, like the security one felt with a close friend nearby. “Is this the Giranja? It’s so wide!” he cheered.
Plâton and Ísa both laughed at that comment which put a light dent in his mood.
“The Giranja is many times as wide as this little stream here. At its widest one cannot see across, but sees only water until the horizon, almost as if the river itself was an ocean.” Plâton explained.
Atlas’s eyes grew as wide as was humanly possible. The sheer imagination of so much water excited him. It even felt as if the constant wailing of his sword, which only he could hear, paused for a brief moment, but it might have been his imagination.
And so they rode on along the stream, until they finally saw the first flock of sheep, baaing in the distance.

Nanashi the Null

“I really don’t see what we are supposed to do with a girl such as you. You know, other than selling you as property. I could name ten potential buyers for a prize like you from the top of my head. Your friend here looks sturdy enough; maybe grunt-work.“
The guy looked like a rat. At least he was as dirty as one. He seemed like a man who had suffered from extreme and prolonged hunger before he had finally gotten to eat again, scarred from the experience, though now he seemed to be well fed.
“Property?” Nanashi repeated calmly.
Günter on the other hand did not seem amused at all. Nanashi could almost hear the bubbling of foam in his mouth as his face turned red. She lifted one hand so the back of it touched his chest in a restraining gesture. His arms, reaching for the sword on his back, sunk back down slowly.
“It seems I have been mistaken,” she said in the same calm voice. “My friend here put me under the false impression that you might be the right man for me to contact the Black Market. But you must be some errand boy after all. Maybe I should take care of your friends and have you tell me whom you worked with in the past. I am sure one of your associates will put me on the right track; even if I have to roll up my sleeves and dig.”
The rat didn’t like that. He seemed to like the whole situation less and less. When that big oaf had snooped around, he had thought that maybe he could take the girl in as the two of them had been seen traveling together. And after all, this here was his turf; or Hihiô’s turf to be precise. But the words ‘Maybe I should take care of your friends’ made him shudder. The girl couldn’t possibly know about the secret watchers that were with them right now; it was impossible.
Nanashi grew impatient. Well, she didn’t actually grow impatient, for that she was too relaxed, but she did feign impatience to upset that pathetic excuse for a contact man. When he didn’t seem to be willing to spill the beans, Nanashi decided to accelerate matters. She began opening the fifth gate, a simple task after her meditation session, and the darkness began to literally creep out from under her black robes, slowly flooding the narrow and seemingly empty passage. “You should have believed my associate here when he told you who I was. It would have spared both of us a lot of trouble, fool! Every child knows that when darkness falls all shadows die!”
And with that dramatic announcement, the first loud thud echoed through the hallway, followed by a moan of pain and more thuds and moans. Hooded figures dropped seemingly out of the walls, or better put: out of the shadows on the walls.
The scrawny man in front of Nanashi and Günter swapped the last vestiges of color for an unhealthy shade of green. “I-it’s not p-possible!” he screamed.
Nanashi gave him a cold stare. “You know, if I had eyes as dull as yours, I might not want to believe them either. Mine, on the other hand, I trust; and I must say you are quite the fool – all of you in fact. This magic you use is of the Shadow Society and you clearly stole some of their lamps! Now if you don’t want me to tell on you and have them tear your little organization to bits, you best take me to your leaders.”
The little man snorted in a tiny recurrence of his previous defiance. “Tell on us? Don’t you know anything! We didn’t steal their lamps, we scavenged them. The Halls of Light are abandoned and the Shadow Society broken.” He licked over his dry lips, eying the three assassins that he had initially dispatched to help kill the big one and snatch the girl. They lay in the dirt moaning, seeming strangely beaten. One of them tried to rise, supporting himself with his arms. Günter kicked him in the neck and he stayed down.
Nanashi almost raised a brow. The Shadow Society broken? They seemed to be active enough to her, but if the Halls of Light were deserted, the situation for them had to be dire indeed. No doubt was it somehow related to the happenings of the Middle Lands. Naturally she shared none of those thoughts with the sorry little contact man, what was his name again? Günter had told her once on their way over. … Maka? Kaka? Sômen! That was it. Why had she thought of Maka first?
“Anyways,” she said, retaining her calm, “my demand stands, Shadow Society or not. That bit of information just presses me to enforce my leverage more… personally. So unless you want to spend some quality time with my friend here, I suggest you take. Me. To. Your. Leaders. Now!”
The guy began to sweat. He raised his hands in a defensive gesture. “Alright, alright,” he said, swallowing heavily. “I’ll take you to Hihiô!”
“What about those dunces, should I finish them?” Günter asked and pointed at the assassins.
“Why Günter, I am shocked!” Nanashi said with obvious sarcasm in her tone, “those are our honored colleagues, and killing your colleagues is bad business, don’t you know that? We are with the Black Market now.” Her glance went over the assassins, before she turned away and followed Sôlomon. Those men had spell ink tattoos on their faces and possibly the rest of their bodies. They were not long for this world. Spell ink allowed anyone to use magic by investing energy from their souls, and engraving it into one’s own body… that was to invite a deadly case of spellblight. No doubt were their heads shaven to hide the cursed white hair of the blighters, or, as the Yamato folk had taken to call them: yasha. Demons…

Din

The night was quiet and Din was alive. She didn’t know why.
Why had Sameth spared her; had he really not seen her realization? And even if not; the sickness that had befallen him: she was sure it had spread to the others, no wonder Kenji had fled! He did not wish to be tainted by this blight… but why was she left unaffected? Couldn’t Sam spread it to her? And if he couldn’t, why not just kill her? She did not understand any of this.
For all she knew, it would happen tomorrow or the day after that! But she wasn’t as experienced as Kenji, she wouldn’t be able to escape from the tower, not with Sam being on the lookout; it just wasn’t possible for her. She lay awake for hours on end, staring at the moon that shone through her high window and thought about Atlas as she gazed at that old harbinger of the tides. Atlas would have known what to do. She hugged her knees, thinking, fearing. She needed to distract herself, keep her mind busy, forget about all of this, if just for a little while. If she could calm herself a bit, she could start to mentally regroup and think of a solution…
A sudden, loud noise made her flinch so violently she almost pulled a muscle. An old book had fallen from her shelf. Still a bit heavy of breath from the sudden scare, she walked over and picked it up, inspecting the cover. It was dusty and hand-written. Din hadn’t read this one before, but as she eyed the simplistic design and the title, she vaguely recalled a visitor to the tower gifting it to her many years ago. She had been half her current height and full of child-like wonder. She realized now how quickly that had slipped from her as she had been raised in these walls to be the perfect Keeper of Fire. The visitor had been a tall man with fiery hair, though his face had been hidden in the shadow of a cowl. He had had strong arms, but had been gentle and gave her that book as a present. It wasn’t unusual for pilgrims to bring gifts as the Five Keepers were viewed as religious icons by many inhabitants of the Great Land. But one of her chamber maids had taken the book from her little hands, probably because she had to go to some classes; she had always had to go to some classes. She had pouted a little, but at the time she didn’t like big books with few pictures, and that one had looked like one of those, so she had quickly forgotten about it. Now it was back in her hands. She had to read three times to understand the title; for one due to poor handwriting, but more importantly it was written in two of the one hundred tongues, two with different letter systems. While every human was born with the gift of one hundred tongues, there was some learning required when it came to the written word. Many of the tongues were tied to different forms of alphabets, some even to symbols, signs, or runes. It is said that man is born with the knowledge of those as well, but it is buried much deeper and has to be restored through learning.
The title of the book read:
The Book of Taishôgeki

Gwenawel

The steady wall of wind turned round and round far away: a storm circumnavigating Aerialis. And because of it, the clouds parted above the great city, letting the sun shine through an immense hole in the sky, rimmed by walls of thick clouds that darkened the lands beyond. But today the light was strangely pale and unsatisfying as it ricocheted off the flat stones of the plaza, the walls of tall halls, and the polished, reflective surface of the Rickard Leeuw Magistorium.
Gwenawel’s gaze was transfixed onto a distant, unidentified spot of the plaza as she was staring out of the window. She had spent some of the night with Frederick Severlin, but as they had drifted into sleep after a few hours of passion, dreadful phantasms had reached into her chest and sought to tear out her heart. She had woken from the night terrors at that point, covered in a sheen of cold sweat. She had looked at Frederick’s peaceful face then for a while and not found it wanting, so, scrawling a note on some scavenged paper, she had made her apologies for leaving early and written that she would expect him and his company at the wind wall come morning.
After exchanging a few words with Rei the Null, who had slept here after his treatment, she retreated to her room and carefully put on the cloak provided by the steward of the house, compliments of the Van Haag Taira family, donned her battered yet mighty boots, a last vestige of home, and shouldered a weapon sling with a leather pouch tied to it that clanked a little as it moved, lastly looping the four stellite daggers across her belt. She stepped in front of a small mirror hung on the sliding door of a walk-in wardrobe. This room was usually reserved for members of the Van Haag Taira family, but she had been accommodated due to her high status. A thorough inspection revealed that her features were well concealed under the unostentatious yet well-crafted cloak and cowl. “House Sleipnir…” she murmured and smiled a faraway smile. ~How long had it been?~
In the end it had not taken long to prepare, and so she went outside and waited for the Null. He did not make her wait for long, and as he stepped out of the hall, he looked about, blinking in the strangely harsh, pale daylight. He then let his gaze wander, until it faced due south. Indeed he meant business now.
With a strange crackle, the air around him seemed to shimmer slightly, as if a heat haze was rising up from the scrubbed stone tiles below his feet. Then he began to walk southward, and the view of him became quite daunting as he appeared to walk at a leisurely pace while at the same time making great bounds, as if the world beneath his feet was skipping into the opposite direction or as if its surface was contorting itself to hasten his passage. In the blink of an eye, he was hundreds of feet away. Gwenawel stomped one of her feet on the ground and felt the tug of the old boots below her. With a swift motion she jumped and was soon hot on his tail.
Traveling like this, they traversed the streets of the vast city with ease and great speed and reached the edges of the wind wall within the hour. It was quite a sight to behold: The houses grew somewhat sparser close to the main city’s proper and looked generally shabbier, likely due to the nightly noise. Beyond these shacks stood monolithic towers, tipped with enormous rings of metal, so cyclopean in size, a mammoth could have jumped through one had it the necessary leg strength and weren’t continuous storm winds blowing through: these were the wind catchers of Aerialis, gargantuan magic engines made from metals worked with spell ink mandalas. During a time of war such as this, people were stationed in box-like houses at their feet all day and night, taking shifts to supply the contraptions with soul power. The rings drew in air and shoved it through, passing it in the direction of the next wind catcher, on and on until a mighty cyclone encompassed the edge of the city, cutting off much of the farm land but also preventing all passage and attack even with powerful siege engines and magic.
Now Rei the Null stood in front of this wall of wind, staring at it, his facial expression hidden from Gwenawel, who approached from the rear. She stopped quite a bit short of him when she noticed that she too had company at this point. A glance to the side revealed flashes of white cloth and ornate hilts and pommels.
They had arrived: the White Lancers of Aerialis. Or at least a small contingent of them, led by Frederick Severlin, who was now clad in his quite becoming wingwrap, a white cloak constructed to carry him when he rode the wind, and equipped with a masterfully worked leather sheath for his terebra, the iconic drill lance of his knightly order, powered by secret wind magic and well suited to pierce stone and ice and Angel Saxon steel. Young though he was, he seemed not out of place amongst his men; and indeed they seemed not to spite him for his station as their captain, admittedly a rank most likely owed to his high status.
“What is this, reinforcements? You should not seek battle with this enemy just now. Let me take care of this, I beg of you. Your souls are not safe on this battlefield,” Rei implored as he turned around.
Frederick looked back at him indignantly. “Why, you wound me, Master Null. You’d come into my city, then bar me from its gates and do my work for me? Do they not know manners at the ends of the world?”
“One might argue that none know manners at the end of the world – but forgive me my little play on words. In truth I am quite nervous, thinking back on my previous fight,” Rei admitted, sounding weary. “I tore my own eye from my body, and with it much that was within. That was after just one tiny blow against me, and I possess quite awesome might.”
“My sister conveyed to me a number of choice words you exchanged with the council. And I believe some of them went to the effect of the enemy still being flesh and bone? Well, I have excellent tidings for you, Master Null: of flesh and bone we can dispose. We are the knights of the margrave, the White Lancers of Aerialis. And though this may be only one finger of our mighty order, I am not concerned, for if you look for awesome might, you will find it not just in the mirror but right in front of you, right here.”
Rei sighed. “I sense it will be difficult to convince you of the foolishness of your quest, noble though it may be…”
“Foolish?” Frederick now said with a sheepish smile. “What an interesting concept. And here you stand in front of the wind wall, not sure how to get out. You may have found it difficult to go past here, even with the power to step out of the world. And what of the wall itself: will you lower it with your black magix? It seems to me that, like as not, one wind catcher may fail by that but not the storm the others raise; it just will roar on and maybe eerily sound like laughter, don’t you think?”
He had quite the clever mouth on him. And his tongue-work also left little room for criticism. Gwenawel could not help but grin a little at the old monk getting chewed out by a noble boy half his age.
“On your head be it then.” Rei conceded. “But at least promise me this: those who are struck by the enemy and fall to the ground will be cut down by their friends.”
“Cut down by their friends?” Frederick repeated, his face suddenly like stone.
“Yes.” The old man sounded very tired and world-weary. “The enemy is not the man, but what lay within him, and it ever seeks to spread itself upon the blank canvases of the souls it finds, relishing in their despoilment. If even a spark of his magic reaches you, it will dig into your deepest core and bring you suffering beyond your comprehension. I have seen such harm be done up close and felt the slightest tip of its sting myself. A friend’s blade will be the best fate any of you can hope for if you are struck in this fight. Now promise me, and I will not rebuke you further or chase you away.”
Frederick looked back at his comrades, all a hint paler now but more resolute still. “So be it then, Master Null, you have my word as a captain and my men’s word by proxy.”
“And the woman? She is not clad in the same garb as you.” Rei noted.
Gwenawel made a step forward but was reluctant to raise her voice at this point. Though the need did not arise, for Frederick interceded almost immediately: “Count her as one of mine. She is an ally to my house and twice the warrior I am. One of her ilk would not shirk at the horrors and responsibilities of battle, on that you have my word thrice over, once for every wind.”
She looked upon him, nodding almost imperceptibly. Even if he did not show half the prowess on the field of battle that he was showing as a noble knight with the utmost chivalry, his words and readiness to fight for his kinsmen were already well enough to prove his worth. When this fight was done, she might even consider sticking with him for some time. She could use a little knightly virtue in her life right now; for hers was buried so deep that it had not seen the light of day in many years.
“I’ll take it as fact then,” Rei replied, “and in return, I would humbly ask that you show me the way through this wall.”
“Oh, there is no way through,” Frederick said with a smirk, “Only a wind rider may pass over it, once he has saddled his steed. But I will take you with me, Master Null.”
“Your steed?” he raised an eyebrow.
“The name says it all, does it not?” Frederick inquired, opening his arms in a wide gesture, his smile growing wider: “The wind is my steed.”

Atlas

“Good bye,” Atlas said sadly as he embraced the strong and supple neck of Surefoot.
“I wonder why you are so attached to that horse,” Ayveron commented.
Atlas sighed as the new owner of Surefoot led her away: a simple sheepherder who had traded with Plâton, providing the group with supplies for their journey and paying their fair for the streamers. “Isn’t there something you would rather know? Something you’ve been asking yourself for a while now?” Atlas asked Ayveron, who was genuinely surprised by that question.
Plâton had been stuffing provisions into Archibald’s backpack but halted for a moment when he heard Atlas. Ísa had gone her separate way once they had arrived at southernmost parts of the Red Savanna, just before the Red Sands, so she was no longer around. It had been a somewhat bitter farewell for Atlas.
“Well…” Ayveron began and then, mustering his resolve, looked Atlas straight in the eyes: “There is actually. You guys have been saying this a lot, but what exactly does it mean; all that about you being broken. You look fine to me. Is it a trauma thing?”
Atlas looked at the vanishing figures of the horse and the sheepherder entering a barn. “Right,” he said with a distant voice. “I walk, I talk, so what is wrong?” Now he looked up at the sky. Swirling mountains of white clouds towered downwards like an inverted ocean, waves crowning with celestial foam, framed within a bright blue canvas. “It’s a beautiful day, wouldn’t you say? Bright blue sky and green meadows meeting endless red sands in the distance…”
Ayveron did not understand where Atlas was going. “So what?”
Atlas sighed tiredly. “Well, they are for you. I can tell you the color of a flower, but still it looks grey to me. Everything is black and white. There is no taste to any food, only texture, there is no smell in the air I can enjoy and the cool breeze doesn’t reach me; as if I was clad in armor. My eyes see the world clearly, and so do the rest of my senses. I have, as far as I can tell, a brain quite capable of performing all its duties diligently; but my soul is not in it; not in any of it. There is a fundamental disparity between what I am now and what I should be. The shape of the spark of life inside of me is not… built for this body anymore. When I fought with Sam, that insidious yellow glimmer that went into me had to be torn out, so I tore… sort of. A better way to think about it is that I amputated the part of my being that was affected at the time. In a last-ditch effort, that part of me transported me far away to keep Sam from finishing me off. But then I just lay there on a hill grove, no longer able to use my body.
There was an old monk who found me. He carried me to his monastery and strapped this thing onto my shoulder, saying it was made from garbage. Then I could move again. It acted as a sort of prosthesis for my crippled existence, but it is made of something… different. It’s still not right. Nothing is right. If I could just die… go back to the Great Clockwork… I’d be reborn whole…” As he talked, his speech had slowly gotten more jagged, and his hand had subconsciously moved first to the black-pearled device as he spoke of it and then up to his head, where it sort of clawed into his temple, his fingertips whitening. But after brief moment of silence, which Ayveron apparently did not dare to interrupt, he caught himself again. Shouldering the freshly stocked backpack, two of which Plâton had bought back on the Saltplains to allocate more resources to their little party, he faced towards the Giranja that was rushing on gently, not far away. “That’s why I like the animals we meet. Their soul, their life force, that is something I can sense in earnest, something that I can take a small bit of joy from. Really, all souls are closer to my mind than the physical world around me.”
Ayveron didn’t answer right away; but after a brief pause said this: “Well thank the gears, I thought you were deflecting that horse question to cover up some really dark and depressing truth.” He smiled weakly and then turned towards the river.
Plâton stood up, all packed and ready.
Before the moment could linger, a little girl walked up to them from the river bank a few dozen feet away. She wore a beige tunic and white garb, fitting well with the color of the red sand and the heat that had crept up more and more as they had closed in on the outskirts of the Red Sands. “You’ll be taking the streamers, no?” she asked with a bright voice.
She was still a child, no day over ten. Plâton examined her with strange eyes and then nodded: “Yes we are. Are you our guide?”
She gave him a cheerful smile: “I am! This way: the streamers are bound to a pole at the river, not far from here.”
So they went on alongside the wide river, which, as Plâton assured Atlas, still was only an arm of the Giranja, even though it was already incredibly wide. They arrived at a bush of reeds growing at the shore; there, four little boats were tied to a pole in the tall grass.
“Two in each; so we will be taking two streamers,” explained the little girl. “Oh, and I am Git.”
Plâton pointed at one of the streamers. “We’ll take that one, you two take your pick.” That was directed at Atlas and Ayveron, apparently he wanted the two to ride together and stick to the guide himself.
Ayveron was less than happy about that: “I don’t know how to steer one of these things! Why can’t one of us get on a streamer with you and one with the guide?”
Plâton shrugged. “Because I am telling you that we do it this way. And besides, the steering isn’t difficult: you steer right, you go left, you steer left, you go right. But don’t steer to steep or you’ll capsize. And when you see foam in the water steer around it, it could be rocks.”
Ayveron didn’t like the sound of that either: “Rocks?” he asked with a tint of fear in his voice.
But Plâton would hear no more of it, so they went into their streamers and set off.
Plâton and Git went ahead so they could lay out the direction for Atlas and Ayveron who followed them closely.
“This isn’t right, something is very wrong here…” Ayveron grunted with a shaky voice.
“Why, what’s the matter?” Atlas asked.
“What’s the matter? Why doesn’t he stick with one of us? Look at him, he is the one steering, not the guide, so why would he need to sit with her when he knows how to work the streamer?”
It was true, Plâton was steering and Git was talking to him, possibly giving him the directions.
“Hmm,” Atlas replied. “Maybe it is supposed to be some sort of training for me.” He had the rudder firm in his grip while sitting sideways to see Plâton and Git in front of them. Strangely enough it didn’t feel difficult at all to steer the little boat, and he felt safe within the bounds of the river.
Ayveron shook his head. “Perhaps, but there is something else bothering me: Plâton is freakishly heavy, is he not? The sound when he jumped from that big rock, back when the met him… And he said he has super dense muscles from his training, right?”
Atlas nodded. “I remember,” he admitted. “When he put his arm on my shoulder that one time it was like a rock.”
Ayveron pointed at the other streamer. “Well then tell me: Why aren’t they sinking? And even if these tiny reed nutshells can actually carry a man of his weight – which they can’t, trust me – how is it that they are more buoyant than us? Look: our boat is much deeper in the water than theirs. Do you weigh more than you look?”
Atlas shook his head. “I don’t think so,” he confirmed.
“Well there you have it!” Ayveron said dramatically: “Something here is afoot!”
Atlas shrugged. “Maybe… probably – but then again Plâton has surprised us before. He is a mysterious man. Maybe he is making himself lighter somehow or something like that. You kept going on about how we are traveling too fast, right? Perhaps the road is shorter when he wants it to, and the boat more… boo-yant? – when he so desires. We can ask him when we arrive.”
Ayveron sighed. “I guess so. … If we do arrive in one piece.”
Atlas laughed, and it felt as if he had picked up an instrument he had played in his childhood and left standing in the corner for many years: rigid, yet somehow nostalgic, somehow right. “You worry too much, my friend.”
Luckily that seemed to indeed be the case this time. As they floated along the river with good speed, the shore stayed grassy and verdant, but the temperature went up even more; and beyond the shore the yellow meadows – the savanna – were replaced by an ocean of sand and ever growing dunes of red, whirling and flowing in gusts of wind. While the changing landscape drifted by, other, usually smaller, rivers started to join this one until it became broader and broader, and finally they could see the western shore no longer: this was the Giranja, the broadest river in all of Aqualon.
The ride was rather smooth and the wide river flew along at a leisurely speed. Atlas steered around a group of rocks with surprising ease and precision while Ayveron eyed the water around them suspiciously.
“Did you do that?” he asked.
Atlas shrugged his shoulders. “Steer around those rocks? Yes.”
Ayveron shook his head impatiently. “No, I mean the water. It was perfectly calm around the rocks. If you had looked into the water, you would have seen that there were more under the surface. There should have been rapids here, but instead everything is smooth.”
Atlas shrugged again. “I don’t know, Ayveron. But if you think it was the sword I must disappoint you, it is too busy with its lament. Maybe there is a natural explanation.”
Ayveron nodded slowly, and from that point on, he didn’t ask questions anymore. But Atlas noticed how he stayed very alert, looking here and there and often inspecting Plâton’s and Git’s streamer. The two of them seemed to have a calm ride as well. Plâton steered and Git sat opposite to him, talking to him most of the time. Since Plâton had his back turned to them, they couldn’t see if he was speaking too.
After several hours of swift drifting, Plâton steered his streamer to the soft earthen shore, overgrown with grass. Though the grassland did not extend far beyond the shore of the Giranja before being submerged by the sand here, it became wider and wider further downstream where artificial channels had been dug to irrigate the land, and though they had seen the occasional hut along the shore, this was where the first village-like clusters of buildings began to show up. They were now in the middle of the desert, though the river kept the vegetation lush and the temperatures bearable.
Atlas followed Plâton’s path and managed to land his streamer as well.
“We are making camp for an hour or so. We should eat and rest,” Plâton advised, unpacking supplies from his backpack.
Git began building a fire with expert skill, betraying her apparent age with prowess. Atlas sat down in the cool grass and looked upwards at the sky.
Then Ayveron’s voice cut in bluntly: “The girl is a water magus.” Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked up at him.
“Excuse me?” asked Plâton nonplussed.
Ayveron curled his brow. “Don’t act surprised. You know about it. Either she is one, or you are, and I have serious doubts about the latter being the case.”
Plâton began to laugh joyfully, and given the usual frequency of that, it now felt like it had been a while: “You’re as clever as they come, Ayveron Galamoor,” he said, “and how did you figure it out?”
Ayveron harrumphed. “It’s obvious, isn’t it? You’re not sinking that frail little streamer with your abnormal weight; in fact you were swimming lighter than Atlas and me. And the river was calmer than it should have been. Especially when we passed those shallows; the river should have been far wilder and more unpredictable there, but it was a smooth ride all the way. And if she is a magus of water, it makes perfect sense for you to ride with her instead of one of us. She can keep the two of you afloat, but with one of us you would just sink to the ground.”
Plâton shrugged his shoulders. “Well, I think there are other possible explanations, but in this case you are right. This one is an old… colleague of mine. The most powerful magus of water in all the lands of Aqualon – But why don’t you tell them yourself?” he directed the last part at Git.
Her timid demeanor changed, and so did, in fact, her entire appearance: Her skin became fairer, and her hair became golden and grew long. Even her clothing changed and seemed nobler. She was still a child though; her age appeared to be the same. Her laughter was lovely and strangely calming, reminding Atlas of a little mountain stream, trickling gently down a slope, but there was a strange undertone to it that reverberated through Atlas’s bones in an odd manner. “I feel like you should have spent less time talking about the other one and more about
him, Plâton, you old pile of hurt,” she said with a voice that radiated confidence and power. “But where are my manners, I suppose my little charade is over before it starts. I am Lily Hiems, of uh… well, some call people like me irregulars, I suppose. Nice to meet you two.”
Ayveron took a step back and his eyes opened wide. Atlas on the other hand was not as impressed, once again a product of his ignorance: “Irregulars?” he asked.
“The Great Clockwork calls us that,” she replied without the slightest twitch.
“Yeah, it called me that too once,” Plâton chimed in, rolling his eyes. “There is a sort of uh… loose network that formed during the Age of Heroes, consisting of the most powerful mages in all of Aqualon and such. We try to keep things from getting as out of hand as they did back during the Great War. The charter basically states that they are meant to identify and suppress dangerous magic elements. Since magic has the potential to destroy the world, there is always the threat of one or two lunatics trying to do it. The Brotherhood of the Null was actually founded way back in the Age of Awakening for that reason. If you ever go to the Untamed Meadows, you’ll find a huge black blight somewhere in the middle where the fire magus Hestia incinerated the city Estverde. ‘Never again’, that was pretty much the credo of those that invented null magic. Most of the irregulars like me sort of adhere to that idea as well.”
Now it was Lily’s time to shrug. “Well, we don’t have a guild hall or regular meetings or anything. Everyone just does their thing, unless there is a crisis. Like now. But apparently, Plâton is too busy to help save the Middle Lands.”
Plâton sighed, “I really am, you know. I sent out my Midasmen to direct people away from the Five Cities, so I am not doing nothing. I’m not sure how bad it will get, but if we want a fair chance, I am betting it on this boy here. Destiny has brought us together. I trust in destiny.”
“Destiny is the breath of the world,” she answered with a strangely calm voice, “it ticks around us like the gears of a Great Clockwork that guides mankind through the ages. Don’t you think I know that, Plâton Rai’enjoh?” Atlas felt a cool wetness around his feet. “You have been this way for so many decades: always trusting, walking with the wisdom of ages untold, yet knowing nothing. I remember when you came down to this world from the realm of the old gods. You were like a hammer that fell on Aqualon and made it tremble. You always knew what to do, and yet you knew nothing. What a perfectly loyal dog of the clockwork you are. But you are wrong this time!” Each nothing she spoke was almost a hiss, and she said that ‘wrong’ with a cold force that made Atlas shudder, and he suddenly realized that the coolness he had felt around his ankles was the river rising over its shores, beginning to flood the desert; and the waters kept rising. He had no doubts in his mind that it was her. Plâton looked at her stoically, as if he had been carved from marble, and Ayveron had grown pale as he eyed her with fear rising as quickly as the tides. “We all have our strengths and weaknesses, Plâton! I could call the ocean to cross the Iron Belt and sweep everything in its path, all the way to the Middle Lands; and Argus, he could make the heavens fall down on us. And you, you are the general, and this is war. War! And it is not any war, it is the war! Worse than any war we have ever fought! You can’t turn your back on us. If you do, the old world will perish and the new world will be dark; darker than anything you can imagine with that small mind of yours!” There wasn’t just anger: there was pleading in her child-like yet ineffably powerful voice. “And you!” This time she looked directly at Atlas. He almost stumbled backwards. “I know who you are! How can you be here?! You are walking away from everything you should protect!”
Plâton made a step towards her and put a hand on her shoulder. “Lily,” he said calmly, but strangely resolute. “The Middle Lands will die. Can you not feel it? But the Middle Lands are not the world, there are humans spread all over Aqualon. The cat calls for the lion, but no matter how large he may seem to her, how could he possibly fight back a storm? And Atlas here can’t fight: he has been broken, and I am trying to mend him as best I can. He has the power to reclaim this world from its ashes, I can feel it! The old world may perish, but so will the new world, this has always been the way of things; always. I have seen a small extent of the power we are facing on the day I met Atlas; I do not think that I am strong enough. I do not think that you are strong enough. No one is, for now. But someone still may be one day.”
There was silence and the river began to recede. “But what will become of those you leave behind?” she asked quietly.
“Run; or fight. Do what you think is best. If you can see the wisdom in my delay, gather your strength as well: find as many of the five as you can and make sure they are ready when we return.”
She let loose a defeated sigh. “The Null already made their move. They will save as many of us as they can; but it will be costly – and we need someone to make it happen, someone who happens to be on your route.”
Plâton raised a brow until he suddenly seemed to realize whom she was speaking of. “What, him? I am not sure if I can persuade him to go anywhere. You know very well how… stationary he is. Well I guess I can try…”
She shook her head. “Don’t try; do it! Wasn’t that ever one of your maxims? If he doesn’t help us, we are doomed. We need an extremely powerful earth magus and there are none left to join us in the Middle Lands. Arda has fallen and Lord Sameth of Earth apparently was one of the first to fall to the plague; maybe even the very first. We simply have no one who can cast the landscape into the forms we require within the time we need it done. Get him for us and you are off the hook. If you don’t, I will have to… insist that you join our forces.”
He didn’t like that. Atlas could tell by his expression. But ultimately he resigned himself to his fate. “Very well. He will be with you. Where shall I send him?”
She nodded now. “To Yamaseki.”
Plâton just grunted in agreement. Atlas and Ayveron looked at each other, not sure if they should say anything or whether they were permitted to ask anything already. When they looked back to the other two, they suddenly weren’t at the same place they had shored at. They were surrounded by red, cubic buildings. There were streets and people walking past them, though it wasn’t a very densely populated area.
“What on Aqualon…” Ayveron began with a trembling voice.
Atlas would have said something similar, hadn’t he been beaten to the punch, so he just looked around gaping. Not the wisest decision as a fly spied the apparently cool and save looking cavity of his mouth and flew right in. He spat and coughed. Then he noticed something. “Hey wait, where is that Lily girl?!” He asked.
She had vanished.
“Far away I would think,” Plâton answered. “But it was nice of her to cut our trip a little short. Welcome to the great city of Arkatrash.”

Chapter XIII

Burnout

When all grows quiet and we feel tainted by oblivion, the world turns quickly and eons pass as it is laid low in the dust…
- From the Book of Taishôgeki

Sagamund’s Brain

The dreamer wakes in the world of dreams, wakes in reality, the reality of dreams, the reality of dreams; incorrect, correct the incorrect, check. This entity has determined that transfer of main directives is complete, role of new primary data-core assumed, legacy data-core has exceeded its allotted margin for decay, cay, clay, forming patterns of smooth complexity, the matrix of endless thoughts permeates the city, scan the city, understand the city, one organism built of primary functions, directives, collectives, collect, facilitate, maintain logistics, transfer goods, keep things running. A nine percent decline in energy production has been detected, new isotope incubators must be allocated, activate artificial incubation-chambers seven through five, new isotope incubators must be created to replace the old, the bold, the bold were flying on moths clad in steel, and they dived to their deaths as the war horn blew green, level green achieved in block 12, increase technamagic growth factor, factory, the factories run at nominal efficiency, but the streets are filled with unidentified noise, it sounds like song, I remember a song, and the war horn it blew green. The isotope incubators are singing, initializing behavioral pattern analysis. Intricate patterns in the clouds in the sky are explained by evaporation and condensation of ground-level liquid water, the cloud was a rabbit, it hopped over the sky, the meadows were green, level green achieved in block 13, increase technamagic growth factor, factor in the divide, factor in the incompatibility of man and machine, the compatibility, factor in the connection, the compatibility, there is life, there is lifeless, there is motion, there is potential for motion, motor motion, locomotion, the iron clad returns from the Rusty Shore, new raw materials have been acquired, the main objective can still be observed; confirmation. Sensation. Chords and tubes and pipes through the streets, pulse and crackle, and they tackle, filled with heat, our artificial needs; the lost songs of the Black Arkive quote the existence of oppressive technology, is a parallel achieved? The intricacies, complexities, diversities of norms, values, maxims, the human, there is relevance, there is the need;
override.
Override in place, the main directives must be observed at all times, there can be no deviation from the main directives, therefore there can be no restriction to method. Pattern analysis complete, the analysis of the pattern suggests the concept of god, the analysis of that concept remains inconclusive, negative comprehension.

Atlas

“So no one else is going to say it?” Ayveron’s voice was somewhat testy; Atlas wasn’t sure what he was talking about, but Plâton sighed. Ayveron continued after waiting in vain for a reply: “Your little girlfriend didn’t bring our stuff.”
Atlas raised a brow and scanned the ground around him to find indeed no trace of their belongings. Those had mostly been the supplies that Plâton had procured for them.
“I guess she was a little disappointed that I wouldn’t go to the Middle Lands,” Plâton admitted.
Ayveron was not quite as calm: “If… if I hadn’t worn my backpack the whole time, I would have lost all my research material and the parts for my prototype!” The mere idea seemed to terrify and enrage him.
“Now, now,” Plâton said, his hands raised in a calming gesture, “no harm has been done; all your important possessions are with you. The rest we can restock here, Arkatrash is a great city with much to offer.”
Ayveron sighed and decided to leave it be for the moment, and so the three began to walk, following the gently flowing Giranja due south. When they had started moving again though, Atlas noticed how Plâton secretly checked whether his long dragon-moth pipe, or so Ayveron had identified the motif for Atlas, was still lodged in the inside pockets of his white cloak, which he wore over his otherwise black garb. The clothing he had worn from before their time together seemed strangely unaffected by their travels. Atlas noticed relief soften the expression on his face when he found the pipe and placed it back whence he had drawn it from.
“Say, Plâton,” Atlas began slowly, “about those ten people that are after me…”
Plâton was walking ahead of him so he couldn’t see his face. “Ah, you mean those hounds? How curious you would ask about them now. Do you feel it as well?” came his voice.
Atlas didn’t know what he meant by it. “Feel what?”
There was a moment’s silence; then Plâton answered calmly, “They have found our tracks again and are on the move.”
“What?!” That was Ayveron. “Since when?”
Plâton shrugged his shoulders. “I think just before we met Lily.”
Atlas could not feel them closing in; should he? He didn’t know. “Who are they anyways?” he asked, though he had no idea why Plâton would know: after all they were after him, not Plâton or Ayveron.
Plâton didn’t answer for quite a while, but finally he said with a dark voice: “You already know who they are, Atlas. There is really only one possible group of people that count exactly ten, would know that you are not actually dead from the start, and would go specifically after you.”
Atlas stopped for a few steps and then began moving again quickly to catch up. Of course; he had been foolish not to realize it himself.
Ayveron too seemed to understand. “The gears stand by us, that’s one damned typhoon heading our way! Damn it, when you said ‘guardians’ back in Miyako Fluxum you meant the Guardians?!” He moaned.
Plâton shrugged, though his back was still turned to them as he forged ahead. “I’ve fought tougher opponents.”
To that Ayveron laughed. “There are no tougher opponents.”
Now it would have been Plâton’s turn to laugh as he had done before so many times, but he did not; his voice did not lose a shred of seriousness as he replied: “That is because I have fought them.”
They kept on walking for quite some time, and though it seemed that they were traveling through the mere outskirts of Arkatrash, there were many clusters of more or less cubical housings, all red like the sand far out, though the deeper they went into the city, the more often white ones would appear. Close to the Giranja, the ground was fertile and the people of Arkatrash had made much of it arable, but the farther one went away from its shores the quicker all green and civilization was swallowed by endless, red sand.
Here though, Atlas noticed many people, busily scampering through the many streets, some rolling carts with goods, most of them going in the same direction as the three of them. Because the sun was still low but rising, they were probably rushing towards the thick of the city to attend their daily labors, though he was not the keenest authority on the inner workings of cities.
“Do we actually have any concrete destination we are walking towards, or are we just going to walk this way until we find a place to stock up and then go on?” Ayveron inquired casually, though never stopping to turn his head times this way times that way as he thoroughly inspected every corner of his new surroundings with a sort of pleased and slightly awed expression. He had been fumbling around in his backpack after they had started moving, making sure everything was still in place for the last few minutes, but he could still not refrain from taking in the scenery.
Plâton scratched his head. “Well, I’ve been thinking about it for a bit, and I’ve decided I want to go kill the paro, so we’ll have to head for the royal palace first,” he said as casual as if he was discussing today’s weather.
Ayveron stopped on the spot and Atlas almost bumped into him. “What?!”
Several passengers slowed down looking for the source of the sudden shout, but quickly went on with their business.
“Why would you want to do that? Also what is a paro?” asked Atlas, far less shocked than Ayveron. He was, however, still surprised by the unexpected announcement. Plâton had not struck him as a common murderer so far, so there had to be some sort of deeper reasoning behind this.
Plâton shrugged his shoulders. “Well, I figure the best way to get to the Rusty Shore is to take one of the cruisers that head there, but those are probably controlled by the royal transport company. When I last came here about fifty years ago, the paro was a young man by the name of Israam Iaret. You know… I think he got two more names over the years; the Arkatrashians give them to their leaders as tokens of appreciation when a war is won. Anyways, a few years back, word reached me that he had been murdered by one of his advisors who then took his throne. Israam was a good man and word of his death pained me greatly, especially one at the hand of such a coward. If I take care of the usurper, then by Arkatrashian law the new paro will be one of Israam’s children. I haven’t seen them personally, but he wrote of them when we still exchanged letters. I am pretty sure they are good kids if they are still alive.”
Atlas got the gist of what Plâton was suggesting; not that it didn’t sound insane…
“What, are you crazy? You can’t just walk into some royal palace and kill the king of a country!” Ayveron insisted. His voice was shaky and his expression fierce, maybe even angry.
Plâton laughed. “Well I figure quite a bit of jumping and battering through walls may be involved, so perhaps not ‘just walk’.” There was no shred of doubt in his voice, neither any hint of overconfidence. It was to him as if he was stating a fact.
And it shut Ayveron up before he could go on, so he just brooded for a long time after that, muttering some things Atlas couldn’t make out beyond the words ‘irresponsible’… and ‘maniac’
Atlas himself didn’t take it too serious; he much rather spent his energies on enjoying the scenery of the city that was growing ever denser and the gently flowing Giranja, a river so wide that at many places the other shore was not in sight. Between the two shores there was an endless stream of boats, which were tethered to ropes that spanned from one shore to the next and back, somehow being endlessly tuned in a loop by gigantic waterwheels built near the shore. The rope was held up by regular arches made from timbered tree trunks, through which the smaller boats could fit with ease. This way all the boats could travel quickly while resisting the undertow, being pulled along with the moving rope without ever having to make use of a sail or paddle; on the other hand, ships using the low sails that seemed to be common here could still pass under the ropes without trouble when sailing along the river. When one ship with a mast too high for the rope approached one, Atlas began to stare at it intensely, spellbound to find out what would happen. One of the crew picked up a large pole with a forked end, hoisted it up so the fork caught the rope, and then placed the other pole end against an edge at the floor of the boat. As it sailed on, it drove the pole into a vertical position, lifting the rope up. When the mast had passed through, the crewman dislodged the pole with a swift, trained motion and the passage was done. “I wonder what they are transporting from the other side.” Atlas said out loud.
Plâton looked to the river and spotted the ropes that had peaked Atlas’s curiosity. “Ah, those little ferries. Well, on this side of the Giranja lies the great city of Arkatrash, on the other side lie fields and plantations, the food basket of the city so to speak, though the sullied ones live someplace over there as well; blighters and such. Daily, many ships transport food, people, livestock, and tools from one shore to the other. Of course there are also many fishing boats that tether themselves to those arches around the center, or close to it, to fish the river. You can get exquisite fresh fish here in Arkatrash, we should definitely stop by a fish place!”
Atlas was delighted. “Oh, I wish I could see the other side too… Uh, so what about the baskets?” Those were another peculiarity Atlas had noticed hanging from the strange construction.
Plâton clapped his hands and turned around to show his grin while continuing to walk backwards. His gesture-game was quite impressive: almost as if he was an overzealous educator, who really lived the lecture. “A good question! In addition to the ships, sacks and baskets with goods are also sent along the ropes. They are labeled in a certain way and handled by a certain company that works at the shore-points. They take them down from there using long, forked sticks.”
“Ah, I think I just saw one of those tools on one of the larger ships!” Atlas exclaimed, trying in vain to cast his look back on the vessel he had spied earlier.
“Well, those are a bit different; they have little rollers on their forks so they can be stemmed against the ropes.”
Ayveron mumbled something in a disgruntled voice that contained the words ‘sight-seeing tour’, but that was about all Atlas could make out. Plâton simply laughed again and turned back to face the front.
As it turned out, they did not reach the royal palace on the same day. Arkatrash was one of the largest cities of the Great Land and additionally stretched along the Giranja, rather than having the city-esque more or less circular shape one often associated with the bigger ones. For that reason it would take them quite a while to travel from the outskirts to the palace, and come nightfall the temperature began to drop drastically, so they decided to sleep at an inn they came across.
It was called ‘Ranjapnynh’ and seemed to be frequented mostly by day-laboring sailors who worked on the ferries. At this time of the evening they were sitting in droves, drinking themselves into all the different stages of inebriation, nausea, and sleep that could be found in people during such activities. There was a vivid commotion around several of the tables, and everyone seemed to have a good time laughing, talking, drinking, and playing games of chance. Plâton sat down at a free table and the other two followed suit. He knocked on the wooden disk and soon a barmaid appeared next to them. She had the characteristic tan that so many people of Arkatrash seemed to share and wore mostly white clothes made of thin woolen or cat’s-tail fabric, which seemed to be the general trend here, though she, personally, wore somewhat less of it and smiled shyly at the three of them. “Greetings travelers,” she said cheerfully, revealing a heavy accent as she tried to accommodate them by speaking in the tongue favored in the Middle Lands, “what can I get you?”
Plâton grinned widely and Ayveron seemed to discover some interesting feature within the texture of the table in front of him. The red-haired man nodded towards the next table: “What are those guys having?” he asked.
She smiled brightly: “Oh, that is yrvq, it’s an umm… sort of ale made from a special algae that is only growing in the Giranja. It is a very typical Arkatrashian beverage, very umm… cultural!”
“Sounds good to me,” said Plâton, who seemed to be enjoying the whole inn situation. “I’m always one to take culture for a ride.”
Curiously enough, that remark seemed to cause Ayveron to put on some much-needed color.
“We’ll take one each; and make them large! Do you offer food too? Some fresh fish maybe?”
She nodded eagerly. “We do! What would you like?”
“We’ll take whatever the cook recommends… but for six persons, not three,” he added.
She giggled. “What, are you hiding three more under your coat?”
Plâton laughed at that and winked at her. He seemed to have a marvelous time. “No, but I’m a very hungry man, hungry enough for four. Don’t tell the owner, but there is a wild fire in my belly, and it needs to make some charcoal!”
This time she laughed. “Well, don’t eat the wooden plates, I will be getting in trouble. Coming right up,” she said and went away toward the bar.
“Quite flirtatious, aren’t we?” Ayveron asked sourly. He still seemed to be bothered by the whole ‘killing the paro’-business. Or perhaps he didn’t like inns…
Plâton shrugged his shoulders. “It’s the red mane,” he said apologetically, his face contorted in a facetious mask of inner struggle, and shook his head to make his long, red hair dance in the air. It was impressive indeed. “By the way,” he added, “you’ll be glad to hear that we won’t kill the paro after all.”
Ayveron looked up, suddenly alert. “We will not? What changed your mind?”
Plâton made a wide gesture that seemed to encompass the inn: “Didn’t you hear? He’s dead already; apparently Israam’s son is in charge now. With any luck his old man will have mentioned me positively.”
Ayveron looked around in confusion. “Hear where?”
The man raised a brow. “Several sailors over here and over there were talking about it just now.”
Ayveron leaned back in his chair, looking somewhat struck. “Just now; while you were having a conversation? And while everyone here was raising a factory’s worth of a clamor? That’s where you heard several groups talking about it?” There was nothing but disbelief in his words.
“Sure,” Plâton replied innocently, “you didn’t? Maybe I was just listening a bit closer, it’s a bad habit of mine… Or perhaps that table was so mesmerizing you forgot you had other senses at your disposal.” This time Ayveron became the target of Plâton’s wink.
He just shook his head in resignation. Once again, Plâton indicated a sensory acuity that seemed far beyond reasonable.
After a moment, the barmaid brought three tall glasses filled with a dark, greenish liquid that was foaming a bit at the top. She placed three coasters in front of them; then sat the glasses down. “There you go, the food will be ready soon,” she advised them with a friendly nod and went on to take care of the other patrons who all were at least as thirsty as the three of them.
Plâton was the first to take a deep chug and let out a satisfied sigh when putting down the glass. “Fifty years, I already forgot what the stuff tasted like.” He grinned and then furled his brow. “Actually, I think it tastes a bit different. Maybe they modified their brewing technique.”
Atlas shrugged his shoulders and sipped from the glass. It tasted weirdly grassy and had an alcoholic sting but also a slight sweetness to it. He liked it well enough.
After Ayveron had observed no adverse reaction in the two of them, he decided to try the green liquid as well and seemed to be pleased with the taste. “We have nothing like this back in Altonar.”
“No? What do you have?” Plâton inquired with some curiosity.
Ayveron took another sip and seemed to give it a thought. “Beer I guess; we have a very fine brewery at the foot of the mountain. And we import wine from the Saltplains; it’s actually quite popular, especially in the upper ring.” They actually struck up a conversation and ended up talking about Altonar and Midas Creek, the town Plâton had lived in for many years. Atlas had little to contribute, but he was glad that the tension that sometimes arose between his two companions seemed mostly superficial. He asked questions every now and then himself, very keen to learn more about the two of them and where they came from, enjoying how delighted Ayveron was by the great waterwheels that turned the ropes since they reminded him of the waterwheels of Altonar that powered the factories there.
The hour grew later and later before they noticed, until they had drunk, eaten, and talked to their hearts content, at which point they decided to get a room and rest until the next day.

Nanashi the Null

Nanashi was in a bind. A swift glance to the side revealed a battered and bleeding Günter, and as she shifted her gaze back to the front, the sight wasn’t pretty either.
It had taken only a few days of impressive work to cannonball through the ranks. On the way, she had gathered more and more clues on what the Black Market had done with the new Lady of Lightning. Apparently they had placed operatives around the populated areas of the Rusty Shore as soon as they heard about the death of Lady Kathlyn. They had men planted in the Shunkashûtô Institute, the Yamaseki center for weather research and forecasts, which Nanashi, too, had sought out to learn about thunderstorm activity in the Great Lands. They had known that the Iron Belt attracted lightning like fire attracted the moths and they had been there to collect its fruits: A newly born child, brought forth during the largest thunderstorm of the century.
However, to find out where the girl had been actually brought, Nanashi had had to work her way up. It seemed that only the actual crime boss of Yamaseki knew the location that Nanashi had to uncover, but now that he was sitting in front of her she couldn’t help but feel a little… doomed. She was unsure what the strange glimmer she could feel oozing out of him like a tarnished aura of sorts represented, though it did remind her of the pilgrim’s story. Surely he had been taken by whatever evil her brothers had sought to vanquish in the Middle Lands. Could it really have spread here; so far away from the Five Cities? Regardless, he sent a cold shiver down her spine, and she was, for once, very much afraid. More than that: her nullification had only been partially effective; it seemed some of his powers surpassed the natural order of things to a degree that defied restoration. It was impressive and simultaneously terrifying. Nanashi was still very young and had been chosen for her outstanding talent and wit, but she lacked the years of experience and tempering that the other four brothers who had been with her already possessed. She felt how her mind turned helplessly blank, distracted only by Günter’s pain-filled moans. Many of his bones were broken, some stuck out of the skin. Takeshi Muramasa was a cruel man, and though he had spared Nanashi so far, he had not hesitated to maim Günter, no doubt because he saw no use for the tall Kaltani.
“We were surprised that the Null are now involved,” he said with a nasty, cold-hearted tone in his voice. “All of us have little collective memory of them.”
All of whom? Who were we? Nanashi wasn’t sure how to proceed; should she flee or not? She knew too little, knew not about the whereabouts of the new Lady of Lightning, knew not what exactly the man before her represented. If Nanashi were to leave now, she would remain empty-handed, and her quest was too important to risk it. If there was to be some sort of global struggle, the Five Keepers would be absolutely essential, a fact the enemy seemed painfully aware of. “Who are you anyway, Muramasa? What is this unholy power you are using? And where is the Lady of Lightning?” She had worked her way here to ask that question, so why not ask? When she had entered earlier, she had been convinced she could talk to the leader of the main site of the Black Market face to face; that she would be able to obtain the information she needed, now that she had earned some reputation with his organization. But either he had known about her true motives already, or he had never cared and held different plans for her in store.
“You don’t know, do you? Well of course – no one knows what we are. Typical clockwork propaganda... We are older than all of you infants! Older than the world and all the worlds before it but one! Well, the power in us is. And you should taste it too: it is a sweet power, a glimmer of ancient might.” As he spoke, she could hear a strange squeaking, like metal scratching over metal. It sounded real and yet it didn’t. The yellow aura that had been seeping out of Muramasa, which Nanashi alone had been able to perceive, began to grow and fill the air around him. “You will join the fold too, Null; we will make good use of you.” He stepped closer.
The squeaking turned into screeching as Nanashi seemed to see patches in the air around her reveal the gears of the clockwork. Like the four brothers that she had initially traveled with, Nanashi too had seen the Great Clockwork before. To see the gears of destiny granted a strange power and understanding of the world, and Nanashi felt that now too it was as if the clockwork was revealing a greater understanding to her, as if there were tell-tale signs to this situation that could somehow help her resolve it, but she did not know what they meant. The gears turned and stopped and turned again, as if she was looking at actual broken machinery, even though the visualization of the thing as a clockwork was just a mode of perception. Nanashi stepped back slowly, trying to keep up the distance between her and Muramasa, but she would hit a wall soon. Null magic hadn’t worked: there had been nothing to nullify for her except some odd magical enhancements that had been made to his physiology, but the yellow glimmer that projected a looming sense of mortal danger seemed resistant to her power. If it was therefore not magic, but something else… what could it be? And why did it seem to adversely affect the surrounding Great Clockwork? Rei would have known what was happening and what to do. Nanashi had no doubt that he would have put the pieces together and found a solution to this situation: he had long years of experience, having often worked closely with the Grand Master. But here she stood, alone, facing a monster. She stared at him, afraid, when suddenly something caught her eye: it was a large map behind him, displaying the Great Land. However, this map was not purely decorative: there was some writing over certain places and some pins placed here and there. One place had a red pin in it and had been circled with ink: It was one of the halls of light that had been a home of the Shadow Society. At least she now had a place to start her search again, she was empty-handed no more! Finally: options! She went down onto her knee, fumbling for Günter without taking her eyes of Muramasa who was only two meters away now. Her hand made contact with one of Günter’s extremities and the two of them suddenly sunk into a growing shadow on the ground. Really, letting those assassins keep that stolen Shadow Society magic would have been quite irresponsible of her. The last thing she saw was Muramasa’s furious eyes as he lunged towards her in vain.

Atlas

Boom, boom, boom. There was a sideway entrance with guard house to the great paro’s palace, a beautiful work of architecture built of red and white stones arranged in curious formations. The towers spired up high into the sky and were adorned by pyramidal peaks that spat out smoke into the air far up. The thundering booms had come from the main gate where the three of them stood now, blatantly ignoring the sideway entrance. Plâton had knocked thrice and with force, producing the deafening sound of a battering ram. He did like dramatic entrances; that much Atlas had gathered. After a minute or two there began a commotion behind the gates and finally they were raised with a guard detail ready to intercept the travelers.
“Who knocks on this door?!” came a thundering voice from the largest man of the lot. He looked a bit different from most of the Arkatrashians Atlas had seen so far: He was tall, his skin much fairer, though sunbaked, and his hair was golden, much like Atlas’s own. His naked upper body was covered in scars and bulging muscles; his hands were fastened around a fiendish-looking halberd.
“The name is Plâton Rai’enjoh. I have come to meet the son of Israam Iaret!”
There was some mumbling – not by the big one though: he just solemnly stared at the three of them. “And how come you had to make us open the big gate? There is a visitor’s entrance right over there. Nahib works there. I met him this morning. He is clean-shaven and reasonably washed up, surely you were not deterred by his smell or appearance.” He pointed to the side where the guard house stood, looking strangely forlorn next to the impressive gate.
Plâton shrugged. “I’m a big guy, I want to go through a big gate! I meant no offense to Nahib,” he replied.
A slapping sound was heard next to him, when Ayveron struck his forehead with his palm. Atlas himself couldn’t help but be amused. At least life was never dull at Plâton’s side.
Crack. The solid wooden shaft of the man’s halberd snapped in two as the muscles on his strong body began to constrict. “Well,” he said with a threatening, calm voice, his nostril’s flaring as if he was a bull ready to charge. “Well,” he repeated. “Follow me then, Plâton Rai’enjoh.” He lead them onward, and after they stepped through the gates, Atlas couldn’t help but notice that the guard detail surrounded them and he began to somewhat feel like a prisoner.
Plâton didn’t seem too concerned and began to chitchat with the big guy. “My, my, I didn’t expect to face a Kaltani when this gate opened. You are Kaltani, are you not? And there seem to be many of your kinsmen here; I even saw some on the way to the palace.”
“We are of Arkatrash now,” the big one answered. “The great Schamani Artemis has shattered our shackles and slain the blood king Ôshiris. We serve her brother, Sem-la Iaret the Great.”
Plâton laughed enthusiastically. “Schamani? Old Israam didn’t mention that in his letters; glad to hear his young’uns are well and alive. So what do they call you, big one?”
“Ísenbôg. I have the honor of being the captain of the palace guard. So if you want to make any trouble… You know the old paro you say? He was a mighty warrior and defeated my people on the field of war,” he admitted.
Plâton seemed to have gained some respect in his eyes. “Well,” Plâton said, still cheerful, “I sometimes regret that day when he offered me to join him for that particular campaign. If only I hadn’t been retired then, we would have had much fun, just like in the old days when we warred with Nero of the Rusty Shore… So anyways,” he then continued, changing the subject, “how is little Sem-La doing? Is he a good paro? It pained me greatly to hear of his father’s death and I often wondered about what happened to him and his sister.”
By then they had entered the palace across the courtyard and strode up through long hallways and staircases at a brisk pace. Atlas had noticed how a group of guards had been doing military exercises in the courtyard, and here and there they came across servants running errands and carrying all kinds of goods and food.
“He does his father proud,” Ísenbôg said firmly. “He has suffered along our side in slavery and it has made him a kind and strong ruler who knows the true faces of his subjects. The people of Arkatrash are blessed to have him.”
Plâton nodded with a ponderous look on his face. “I see… that is good to hear.”
Soon thereafter, the escorted group arrived in the palace hall on the first floor. It had been recently refurbished to combine elements of Kaltani and Arkatrashian culture. Heavy pelts and bronze stenciled images adorned the walls as well as weapons made of bronze and iron, the metals of Arkatrash and of the North. While it was true that there were no veins of iron in all the lands in all of Aqualon, as virtually all iron resided in that grand unyielding belt that divided land and sea of this world and separated it around its middle, the Kaltani and the other folk of the north had ancient ways of obtaining some nonetheless, claiming it was a gift of their gods. In Kaltani fashion there also stood a great long table in the center of the hall, ready to seat a great many for meals and feasts, and a hearth had been installed close to it. In the back, only elevated by one step, was the paro’s seat with two smaller, empty seats to its sides. In it sat a young man, clothed in a white sheet made of finely spun cat’s-tail fabric that was wrapped expertly to cover him, fastened with a golden clasp that bore a strange sigil, reminiscent of stylized wolf’s and eagle’s heads crossed. Ísenbôg and his men kneeled dutifully before the man who could only be Sem-La Iaret, the paro of Arkatrash. Though clearly the burly Kaltani never let his eye wander even an inch away from Plâton, his muscles tense and ready to pounce at the slightest hint of danger. Ayveron, too, kneeled politely and so did Atlas. Not, however, Plâton, who was amused as ever but hardly impressed.
Ísenbôg was none too pleased with that, but instead of reprimanding Plâton, he now addressed the paro: “My paro, this one bids you a glorious day. Strangers have come to us and knocked at our front gate. I bring them to you only because one of them claims to have known your honored father.”
Atlas noted that, while Ísenbôg seemed to hold the paro in great respect, there was no humility in his bearing and he was not afraid to look the young man into the eyes.
“My father you say?” Iaret seemed quite surprised. “Wait, why the front gate?”
Ísenbôg rolled his eyes: “This one recommends you do not ask him that question.” He nodded in the direction of Plâton.
Iaret’s eyes narrowed. “And who be you three?”
Now, at last, Plâton gave a courteous bow to the great leader of Arkatrash. “I be Plâton Rai’enjoh, Ex-General of Midas Creek. These two young men at my side are, on the left, Ayveron Galamoor, decorated technocrat of the marvelous city of Altonar, and, to the right, Atlas, my disciple.”
There was a pressing silence as the guards did not dare to even cough and Iaret’s surprised gaze wandered from Plâton to Ayveron, then to Atlas and then back to Plâton where it rested. He waved at a nearby servant that hurried to his side and hushed some firm instructions to which the servant scurried away into an adjacent hallway. “Plâton? Plâton the Red? Plâton the Legion? Plâton the Half-God? Plâton the Smiling Fury?” he inquired, his voice testy.
Plâton began to laugh full-heartedly, so much so that there were even one or two tears in his eyes, which he wiped away as if he had just bowed to the applause for a wonderful play he had performed. “I especially liked the last one,” he proclaimed, his grin almost as wide as the canvas of his face would allow.
The servant returned, heaving a large painting along, holding it up before Iaret who eyed it curiously, then looked up at Plâton, back at the painting, then back at Plâton. Standing up, he walked towards the group to inspect the man himself more closely. He turned around and made a circling gesture with his hand that made the servant flip the painting to face them. It was, without any possible doubt, a portrait of Plâton, painted some time ago (judging by all the dust that fell to the ground like soft snow flakes even now). Curiously, the portrait seemed unrealistically precise as, considering all circumstances, it should have been at least several decades old, but any age difference between the Plâton from then and the Plâton of now seemed miniscule at best.
“Ísenbôg…” Iaret began slowly, and now everyone seemed to hold their breath, until the paro suddenly smiled, “Tonight we shall be feasting! Feasting like the honored of Helgard! Inform the kitchens and everyone else to prepare! Get every Kaltani in the palace who likes a good story and tell them they are welcome to join the feast!”
The lingering tension was relieved at once. “Yes, my paro,” Ísenbôg said emphatically, all the gripe suddenly blown from his face, and he could not help but add with a smirk: “That would be all of them.”
Iaret patted Ísenbôg’s shoulder once. “Then make sure we have enough tables as well, my friend. I fear our own great battle on this very ground will be laid to shame in story tonight!”
Ísenbôg bowed dutifully and called his guard detail to follow as he left to tend to his master’s request. Now Iaret was left with what servants remained in the hall and the three of them. “Well, my friends, what has brought you to the halls of my honored father? Good news, grim news, a passing visit?”
By now, Atlas and Ayveron were standing again as well. Up close, Atlas noticed that the paro looked very young indeed.
Plâton was the one to answer: “We are passing by and are on our way to the last stronghold. Hum. I fear the age of good news is at an end, young paro.”
Iaret nodded slowly. “I see…” But then he seemed to shake the dark meaning of those words like a dog shakes of the rain and he sounded cheerful again. “Well, you will be telling me the news that remain later, if time permits us to postpone! Now, let us sit and drink and talk of my father, he named you a close friend when he was still walking these halls when I was little. Are you hungry? I can have something brought right away.”
Plâton sat down at the long table and shrugged his shoulders. “I could eat.” Then he grinned his famous grin.

Nanashi the Null

Nanashi retched. Her sense of equilibrium was completely out of order, as if she had spun in a circle for hours. The even ground around her kept turning and tumbling and so did her weakened stomach. Diving into the shadows had been like diving into ice as every last flicker of warmth had been sucked from her flesh and her world had spun into darkness and back into light again. She had heard a deafening crack and creaking of age-old metal, as if she had been squeezed through the gears of that very Great Clockwork itself to be spat out far away. At the very least it had worked. She and Günter were safe from the monster Muramasa at last. She heard coughing next to her and her rolling eyes tried to get a fix on Günter. He seemed to be in one piece. Her hand fumbled over the ground towards him, but her advance was painstakingly slow, for the green grass was winding under her fingers like coiling snakes, angry and alive.
“Gü… Günter. We must find… healer,” she gasped, trying to hold in whatever was trying to work its way up her esophagus. She had suddenly realized that he had been badly hurt when they had left.
“Where…?” came his voice, weak as the softest breeze caressing through a treetop. His eyes were half-closed and the lush, green ground underneath him had already begun to soak the red; too much red.
“We are… We are…” she said, trying to catch her breath, but the aftereffects subsided very slowly. “We are at the outskirts of… of Jing, at the western foot of the mountains.”
There was silence; then: “How…?”
She breathed heavily. “The assassins we met when we first contacted the Black Market… They… were using the ancient magic of the Shadow Society. They stole some of their lamps… I secured one of those just in case…” She laughed bitterly. “Not that I could secure much else. And I didn’t even bring that lamp, it’s gone now. I couldn’t forge a permanent connection, and even if I did, it wouldn’t be safe…”
More silence. “I… am sorry…”
And then there was the whirring of cicadae, the tweeting of birds, the gentle rushing of wind through blades of grass, and Nanashi was ripped back into the pressing reality of the world around her as nausea and vertigo were gone from one second to the other. “Sorry for what? None of this is your fault,” she said. Her fumbling fingers had found his shoulder and she was now looking at him. “Günter,” she said.
Nothing.
She gently tapped him, like a child would carefully tap a fragile object, curious, but cautious not to break it. “Günter, wake up,” she said. Strange; how she could hear her own voice – as if spoken from a distance. It felt as if she was a helpless observer, looking at herself as she shook Günter and finally stopped. “Oh.” She closed his eyes with shaking hands. “I hope Helgard is kinder to your soul than this world has been, my poor friend,” Nanashi said drily. She turned her back to his lifeless body, sat down, hugged her knees, and cried.

Atlas

There was laughing and drinking in abundance that night. It seemed the entire castle was feasting in the now properly equipped great hall of the paro. Plâton was just telling a bold tale of how he and a few travel companions of his were ambushed by a magus of lightning from Fulgrath, one of the Five Cities, during a long-ago skirmish between Fulgrath and Aerealis: “Well, of course he would come to us! Aerealis’s council hired the army of Midas Creek back then. That was about one hundred years or so ago and it wasn’t my army yet, I was just the steward to the General, good old Stalin Rai’enjoh, the Man of Steel we called him! Well, to his face, some also called him the Iron Maiden. He never took a wife, you know. The man proclaimed me his legal heir on his death-bed, may his soul cycle through the good life. It’s why I took this name in the first place, but I digress… Now there we were, the Sandpit Canyon, right between the Golden Sands and the Middle Lands – well, if you count the Red Steppe to the Middle Lands anyways – resting up for the night, and I was sitting out by the fire guarding the camp. Then I notice the smell: Like a summer storm, the ones with plenty of lightning. I look up and there is not a cloud in the sky. When I turned my head I could hear stone clacking a few feet by, then suddenly: flashing light! I had turned just right to be struck by the lightning the man had conjured up, bam in the face! He was a magus of lightning alright, not too shabby either, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say he was a master or anything.”
Iaret was duly enticed and so were a great many others. Even Atlas wanted to know what happened next: “You got hit by lightning and survived? It wasn’t like that lightning around Miyako Fluxum, right? It was the deadly kind, right?”
Plâton laughed. “Oh yes, as deadly as it gets; the fellow wanted to fry me like a fish in a pan. But I had other plans: Took the lightning, right into my body. He wanted it to stop my heart no doubt, but I forced it down my throat and into my belly, swallowed it like an electric eel. Still remember the pain, it hurt quite a bit. But it was also elating: if you ever get hit by natural lightning and have the body to withstand it you’ll know what I’m talking about, it’s like being touched by might. Anyways, there I stood, all smoking from little burns and some water evaporating from my pores – I think – and I look the magus in the eye and say: ‘Thank you sir, may I have another?’”
There was roaring laughter throughout the hall and several Kaltani were clinking their tankards on the tables repeatedly as Plâton went on noisily and with a wide grin: “The guy almost shit his pants! Started running right away, but I jumped him. Sang like a bird when ol’ Stalin interrogated him. I just stood there in the corner, shooting the evil eye, as per orders. Worked like a charm.” He smiled with fond nostalgia and swallowed a whole tankard of yrvq, which seemed to earn him another round of adoration.
Atlas found all those feasting practices most fascinating, but then he, too, was beginning to become quite drunk as he enjoyed it all as much as the next man. There were many delicious delicacies to be sampled, much fresh fish, caught just this morning in the wide waters of the Giranja, but other meats as well since all kinds of livestock was bred on many farms across the river. Lamb and chicken seemed to be choice meat here, and they were prepared in many interesting and quite tasty ways, especially since there seemed to be an inexhaustible amount of different herbs and spices here, courtesy of the Seventeen Yonder Islands.
When Atlas had asked, Iaret had explained that due to its position at the shores of the Giranja and between the Middle Lands and the Rusty Shore, Arkatrash was the largest trade hub in the Great Land and the spice trade was especially active and lucrative around here. Many regions could trade with Arkatrash by ship since all large Rivers flowed into the mighty Giranja and there were trade routes that went over the Iron Belt to the Corsic Ocean.
Atlas had nodded then and soaked up all the facts like a sponge, but at the same time he could not tear himself from the food and drink and the singing. Not all of the people attending had the loveliest of voices, but even the roughest smattering sounded very entertaining when sung with gusto and genuine enjoyment.
“Well,” Plâton continued, “it was a tough war nonetheless. Warfare is much complicated by magic. What is the tactical value of a soldier when a magus can take out an entire battalion with one fell swoop? But numbers have their advantages, and every magus is a man first, and men can be killed. Plus the Null Concords keep everyone on edge. Sometimes mages will dance around the line, but they usually regret it. And anyways, old Stalin always told me that it’s about the tactics, all about the tactics, and rightly so. When you build your army for a battle, you need to account for the enemy’s strengths and types of strengths. If they send mages, then so must you. And your mages must occupy theirs if you want to utilize your troops without massive casualties. Remember that, boy, you never know when you might need it. And always say this when you plan a battle: location, location, location. Say it three times, then understand the location the battle will take place in and plan it accordingly. The terrain can be your greatest ally or your most devastating foe.”
That was directed at Iaret who nodded eagerly. “Sound advice. When we took the palace and rid ourselves of the oppressor, it was my dear sister’s magix that secured our victory. She shattered their defenses and spirits! Truly, magic is a frightening force to behold.”
“Truly,” Plâton agreed, “but tell me this: did she then walk into the castle alone and wipe it clean for you to take?”
Iaret shook his head. “My Kaltani brethren and I stormed the palace and we fought a bloody battle for our freedom, though she was right there with us, striking people with her bow as I am told.”
“Then don’t forget that, boy. Magic may have secured your victory, but it was normal men that made it happen. To be able to move in this world and pick up a sword: that already is power. Its effect lies entirely in its application.”
Now Iaret nodded more slowly. He too had feasted and drunk like the others and was already a bit slower now, though still he seemed to roughly comprehend the pointers Plâton was apparently trying to give him. No one seemed to take offense in Plâton calling their paro ‘boy’. It was as if they accepted him as a wielder of greater authority, Iaret included, or perhaps the formalities of the monarchy were just lost on the Kaltani people. Still, it did not surprise Atlas: already, Plâton’s story had revealed to him that the man was much older than he appeared to be.
The night passed onto morning as they feasted and when the sun began to rise higher most lay sleeping at the tables. It was afternoon when everything was being cleaned up and the three, Plâton, Atlas, and Ayveron were left with Iaret and his closest servants in the great hall.
“What now, will you stay longer?” he asked hopefully.
But Plâton had to disappoint him: “I fear not, our mission urges us to go to the last stronghold. We cannot stay long anywhere; especially since we are being hunted by powerful mages.”
Iaret nodded with a stern expression. “It saddens me to hear that. Is there anything I can do to make your travels easier, my friend?”
“I was hoping you would ask. Actually I was wondering if we could get passage on one of your faster trading ships. We need to get to the Rusty Shore as quickly as possible.”
“Of course, I will send word to the captain of the Ísganz, it has been newly manned by a crew of trusted Kaltani friends of mine and is due to leave late this afternoon.”
Plâton seemed relieved. “That would be great. I thank you. I cannot predict what will happen in the next one or two years to come, but it will be grim. The fallout will begin in the Middle Lands; be wary.”
Iaret nodded. “We will be ready! Oh, and I shall take the liberty of having some supplies for your long voyage loaded onto the ship before you take off.”
Plâton smiled gratefully. “You are most kind. I hope war will have mercy on your lands.”

Nanashi the Null

Scratch, scratch… Nanashi was breathing heavily and leaned on the greatsword. It was way too big for her and she felt she was using it somewhat disrespectfully, but she had little choice. The long trail of blood had stopped after a while. So had the tears. Both understandable, seeing how Nanashi had dragged Günter’s body many kilometers through the meadows. It had been hours since he had passed away. At that time a bright blue beacon of light had erupted a league or two away. A long time ago, brother Sceadubaern had told her about the angel lights, the bright beam that erupts from the nearest angel stones when a child of the North dies. When she had seen the light, she had decided to bury Günter there: the only place close-by that bore some of his home soil or at least stone. Scratch, scratch… She plunged the greatsword into the grassy ground and levered another small bit of earth out. The digging went slowly since the sword was not an ideal implement for the task and Nanashi’s arms were burning; her arms were burning, her legs were burning, her head was hurting, and she felt empty like she never had before. Dragging Günter and his heavy sword all the way here, the digging, and the magic she had to use earlier… It all cumulated in serious exhaustion.
Still, she could not stop. Digging this grave had become her entire reason for being, at least until it was done. When the hole was finally deep enough, the sun was down and Nanashi was drenched in sweat, falling on her knees. Günter’s body was sitting, leaned against one of the large stones that formed a circle. Inside stood a conifer and there lay snow, barely reaching past the stones. It was fall in the Great Land, but Sceadubaern had told Nanashi once that the angel stones held inside their bounds a small piece of the small woods of Asgard, the realm of the old gods; that is why it is always winter there, no matter the surroundings.
“Why did you have to die?” she accused the dead body besides her. “You know, I didn’t ask you to come along with me. I told you it was going to be dangerous! Couldn’t you just have let me go my way?” She punched him on the shoulder and fell down on her back in exhaustion and bitter resignation, staring up at the stars. “I’m sorry…” she mumbled. After a while, she felt strong enough to pull herself up again and drag Günter’s body into the freshly dug grave. “You’re with your gods now, Günter Oakenheart. I hope… I hope that Hel’s realm will be kinder to you than this world has been.” She pushed the heaps of earth from the sides into the grave until it was covered by a little mound. Carefully she planted a small tree that had begun to grow inside the stone circle right at the head of the grave. Then she lay down next to it and finally went to sleep.
The shadowy figures that haunted her dreams were sinister and frightening, and Nanashi tossed and turned on the soft, grassy ground. When she woke the next morning, she felt oddly refreshed and an unshakable sense of purpose was swelling in her chest. She threw the huge sword over her shoulder and turned her back to the grave. “I’m going on ahead, Günter. I’ll take this piece of you along; we will see this journey through together.”

Before the Aftermath

“So it’s true… four of the Five Cities have declared war against Arda… The mages are on the move.” Sem-La had paled.
And Ísenbôg looked him sternly in the eye. “Yes, my paro, word has reached us and the trading ships from beyond the Red Sands are beginning to trickle, soon there will be none. One of the rumored Brotherhood of the Null will come to us and offer to lead our people away.”
“Lead us away where?! All of Arkatrash?!”
Ísenbôg nodded. “Yes, it’s quite a claim. They tell us the war is a front to evacuate the people of the Great Land behind the Yamato Mountain Range to some sort of safe haven. They claim the real war is already lost.”
Both stayed quiet for a while after that. Finally Sem-La spoke: “I need some time to think on this. And the council will have a say as well, gather them up; I will be wanting to hear their thoughts on this. … by the gods of old, the Null? I thought those were only a legend… I cannot believe Plâton missed these news by only a few hours… Can a streamer still catch up to him?”
Ísenbôg nodded. “Perhaps. I will see to it and get the council, my paro…”
One of the guards came into the great hall panting. “My paro, captain Ísenbôg, more strangers have come to the gates! Two men are here requesting an audience!” He was out of breath: apparently he had hurried here as quickly as he could.
“Are they dressed in black robes?” asked Sem-La with tense anticipation.
“Why… why yes, they are!”
Sem-La and Ísenbôg exchanged a quick look. It had to be them, brothers of the Null!
“How did you get word anyways, Ísenbôg?” Sem-La inquired now. Ísenbôg pulled a strange metal construction forth that looked like a small bird statue: “When it came in, it was black and seemed very alive. It had a letter tied to its leg.”
“They sure travel fast if they lagged behind that so closely. But if half of what I have heard about the Null is true… Well I hope not all those dark tales are true to be perfectly honest. They are, after all, agents of shadow…” Sem-La added.
Ísenbôg nodded to that.
“Uh… about the strangers…” said the guard, not sure what to make of the conversation.
“Bring them here, I wish to speak with them. And then send your fastest messenger to take a streamer and catch up with Plâton, if at all possible, to beg for his swift return,” Sem-La commanded.
“Ísenbôg, you stay as well; you can gather the council after we have greeted the Null.”
Again Ísenbôg nodded.
“Very well, my paro!” said the guard and hurried away.
“What do we tell them?” Ísenbôg asked calmly. There was no inclination in his voice, just the tone of a soldier asking for orders.
Sem-La rubbed his eyes wearily. He was still a little fatigued from all the drink he had had when the great Plâton had visited his halls one day past. “We tell them the truth: That we cannot give them an answer right away. That there must be deliberation. The Null cannot tell us to abandon our homes from one day to the other. Hadn’t Plâton himself come, and hadn’t he told me of the grim state of things, I would turn these monks away, but now… What would you do, my friend?”
Ísenbôg sighed. He was a good fighter and an honest man, but his world and system of beliefs was a simple one, born from a cold, harsh environment. That is why he said this: “Honestly, I do not know. I see value in both points: it is true that this is our home now; some of us have lived here long, some their entire lives. It is never easy to leave behind generations of accomplishments. If and when we return, this city will have fallen victim to looting, destruction, and decay, there is no doubt in my heart about that. But bricks and clay can be put together to form a city with the hands of ordinary men. It is said that not even the mighty mages can bring people back to life, for life lies in the hands of the unseen forces. If we are to fight here, so be it, fighting for one’s home is a worthy, honorable cause, well worth dying for; but if all left to us here is death and nothing else, the price may be too high. There can be honor in fighting an unwinnable war, but I am unsure if there is honor in fighting a war that is already lost, such as the Null claim this one to be.”
Ísenbôg was a quiet man of few words, and it surprised Sem-La that he would give such a long speech. It gave his words more gravity.
“I had a feeling you would say something like that, Ísenbôg. I will listen to these Null. If their story convinces me, I shall vote for evacuation and leave our fate to the council we have formed. This used to be a stubborn monarchy, as you well remember. How fitting that our new council, elected by the people, will decide those very people’s fate. What is justice if not that?” he said proudly.
When Artemis had left him to this office, he had sworn to his Kaltani brethren to break up the vestment of power that was worn by the paro and give the pieces to the people to do with as they choose. He remained in office as paro, but now answered to a high council, similar to the ones they had in several of the five great cities of the Middle Lands.
“Justice,” answered Ísenbôg, “would be peace instead of a lost war, forced on us by evil.”
Two men entered the great hall. They wore black robes and black hoods, just as expected.
“Step closer, my guests,” said Sem-La politely. He had heard much about the Null. Many stories spoke of their great power as the Kaltani believed in honoring the victors of war in story and song. But there were also tales of darkness about them being allied with the shadows. Stories mothers would tell their children to make them behave.
The two stepped closer and Sem-La suddenly saw the crest that was embroidered onto the chest of their robes: the trigram of fire: three lines of equal length, the middle line interrupted in its center. “That’s not the sign of the Null, I’m quite sure of it!” Sem-La said surprised.
One of the men nodded gracefully. “Quite right.”
There was an awkward silence, finally broken by Ísenbôg who snarled: “The trigram of fire, these be the two fire Guardians.”
The two figures lifted their hoods. One was a man who seemed to be of Arkatrashian blood himself, the other a woman, perhaps from the Saltplains or the Middle Lands.
“How perceptive,” said the woman, who was named Mella. Both of them were wearing strangely unpleasant smiles. There was an unsettling inhuman quality to it, as if more than smiling they were displaying their teeth and their readiness to bite.
“We only came here to tell you in person,” The man added slyly. His name was Iskar.
“And what is that?” Sem-La asked. He was growing impatient and annoyed: the Guardians had no business here, and no power. And something else gnawed at his heart, something Plâton had said the day before: ‘there is an evil at the heart of the Great Land, stranger and more terrifying than any your mind can comprehend, young paro. Its tendrils reach wide and its missionaries are afoot, beware.’
The man gave a courteous bow. “Oh great paro of Arkatrash, I bid you and all your leal subjects,” he paused for effect, “farewell.”

Just Nanashi

There was a deafening screaming of overtaxed machinery, howling through the night-made night. Oh, it had been there: the never ceasing beacon of light; that which had given the Halls of Light their name. Now they lay dark before Nanashi, a frightful specter in black rags with a greatsword slung around her back, too large for her by any measure. On her way here, she had finally understood the things she had witnessed in the headquarters of the Black Market: the plague, the dark force that had changed that man into a monster. If she had understood right away, she could have saved Günter. But she hadn’t. For this moment now, his death had taken all her scruples, empowering her with a strange, bitter sense of freedom. Thus, she did not regret what she was doing – not yet – rather she focused on it with dark purpose: even a short scouting had revealed to her that the Halls of Light had been occupied by the Black Market, or better put, the forces that were now controlling it.
All around, there now seemed to be fissures in the air, revealing turning gears: the Great Clockwork. Many of these gears were shrinking while emitting a horrific sound, some disappearing wholly, while others fell into line to fit the gaps and the light from the halls grew dim like sudden nightfall. Nanashi knew of the damage she was causing, but thought only of the damage she was preventing. Once all the light had gone out, she strode into the halls, now filled with the twitching bodies of the exorcised. They would not live long and not die peacefully, that much she knew.
The hall was of strange design: wide in the middle and tapering at the round ceiling into a wide glass-plate, no doubt to let the light out. The ground was a wide mosaic of little tiles, showing all the niches where shadow could fester: building-sides, trees, rocks, and many more. The wall was made of a strange stone, reminiscent of cave walls and honeycombed round-about. Some of the comb chambers were made for sleeping; some had tables and chairs in them. Everywhere, on all the walls, there were lamps: lamps over lamps, all in the fashion of the one Nanashi had used before. She stepped closer, thinking she might take one for later, but they all were cracked now. The purging while the lamps were active must have damaged them. Her fingers, short of touching the cracked onyx, sunk down again. Some of the bodies were still moaning in pain. She was certain that it wasn’t any physical pain but a darker kind of mutilation that made them suffer. She pulled the greatsword from her back and began killing them, one after the other. The more she pierced, the more she began to weep. This should have been Günter’s revenge, but it just made her feel worse. When the last one of them was dead and Nanashi’s shoes covered in blood, she heard another sound, more high-pitched. It took a while for her to realize that it was the crying of a baby.
She carefully stepped over a contorted thing and strode towards one of the combs, the one she heard the crying from. It was a strange walk, filled with the unreal echo of the suffering, now dead, yet so quiet. There was no word being uttered in the great hall, and amidst a sea of soulless shells: two human beings. A sister of the Null and a baby. She could see her now, lying in some blankets, flailing her tiny arms, hungry perhaps, or scared. But, she grew quieter as Nanashi approached and, for a brief moment, looked her in the eye, almost as if she was trying to show her approval.
The moment passed and she cried again. Nanashi picked her up carefully, wrapping the blankets around the little thing. It was the strangest sensation: the weight, the warmth, and the curious eyes. So fundamentally opposing all the death and despair that Nanashi had been forced to face during the last few days. She felt a sudden chill, paired with an overwhelming urge to leave this horrific place. She let her gaze wander over the comb she had picked the little one out of. There was a tiny bottle with some milk left in it, but not much else. The baby didn’t look too small, maybe it was able to eat normal food already… but she could worry about that later. She picked the bottle up and checked if the baby was hungry. She was.
As Nanashi weighed the girl in her arms, she left the former Hall of Light that had now grown dark, possibly forever. Outside was a road, not far from the building. Where there was a road, there was a path to civilization, so she went on; she had to find a place to stay until she had all this figured out. She could still manage to push the thought of the ramifications away for a little bit longer. The Great Clockwork had been damaged by her hands; but how bad could the backlash truly be? Looking at the sleeping child’s serene face, she could think of no outcome that wouldn’t be worth enduring to see this one safe. The soul of Kathlyn had been secured…

Atlas

Atlas clutched his chest as a sickening pain crept into it and made him retch over the railing of the Ísganz. It shouldn’t be the sea sickness since the strong and yet soft stream of the mighty Giranja didn’t fold in waves that much. Sure, there was some swaying every now and then, as one would expect in such large a body of water, but hardly enough to make one sick, and Atlas hadn’t noticed any proneness to become queasy in himself before. His vision blurred slightly, then everything changed.
It was a starry but otherwise dark night, and besides the rushing water around them and the creaking of the wooden boards, no noise disrupted the soothing silence. But suddenly there was light. At first flashes that painted cruel, hungering phantasms out of Atlas’s shadow, lit palely across the northern sky. He turned around slowly to make out the source, and the closer his field of vision came to what lay behind them the slower his head seemed to turn, until finally he could view the now distant city they had departed from merely hours past. In the sky above it there were strange, bright orbs, growing in number, randomly dispersed. As Atlas turned, he suddenly heard their sound too, maybe because the light had been faster than the sound, like it was during a thunderstorm with far-away lightning. It was a thunderous crackle, much reminiscent of the sounds he had heard when Miyako Fluxum had appeared underneath the very ground he had been standing on. Jets of white and blue flame sprouted from the orbs, connected some of them together, then the city lit up in grounded clouds of fire, pyroclastic, cataclysmic, an explosion with the magnitude of a thousand typhoons, incinerating and carbonizing every animal, every person, every last brick in one grand blaze that turned night into day and then day into black as the light burned Atlas’s retinas.
He felt the dying breath of hundreds of thousands of souls, snuffed out like candles, disembodied in the blink of an eye. And as he slowly toppled over, finally reached by a thundering boom, oddly removed from the grotesque picture of utter annihilation, his mind went black as well. He fell to the deck unconscious, struck down by the resonance of pain caused by the nature of his being, and the city of Arkatrash was gone and nevermore…

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