Atlas [ Chapter 12b ]
“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.”