Xian

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Chapter 2.3: Charting a Course.

“Angels. I ought to find them reprehensible, but even my hollow heart quickens in their presence. The conviction in their eyes, the perfection of the bodies, the grace of their movements…they are simply beautiful. But Angels, like anything with a soul, are diverse in all their qualities, especially the flaws. The divine fops are all too aware of this truth, remembering well that the first sinners came from their own ranks.

So every angel is assigned to the role most befitting their temperament. One which will keep them happy for all eternity. Many of them are so happy with their role, that they ignore everything else. They are no better than machines. But once in a hundred generations, an Angel will have the courage to leave their cave and enter this broken world of ours, doing everything they can to repair it. Yes, even I can admire a beautiful fool…”

********

It had been two days since Atma and her companions had left Skywood. It was hard riding, with few stops, except to hunt or forage. Magically conjured food sustained them, but even its making required some sustenance of its own, which could only be recycled so many times. So Atma and her companions had stopped for the day and were now looking for food in a forest. Atma had decided to hunt on her own and had been quite successful. She’d caught two rabbits, and was now eyeing a third. This rabbit was quicker than the others. And once the creature had sat still, it did so out of fear.

Atma traced the rabbit’s gaze and found the source of that fear: a snake. “Hmmm...”

Atma thought briefly on killing the rabbit, then turned her bow on the snake and cut it in half with a single shaft. The previously paralyzed rabbit was spooked, but free, and sprinted out of sight. She then looked at the two catches she had strapped to her back and wondered why she didn’t just kill a third. Why did she feel sad about killing any of them? Then she remembered why: Miranda.

Upon thinking of her name, the young demon even felt a strange warmth on her shoulder and turned to face it. There was nothing there, except for a memory. The woman of dark brown skin with a weak, though glimmering smile looked up at Atma from beneath a tree...that same tree from what passed for home, secluded in that dingy swamp.

Atma closed her eyes, trying to deny the memory. “No...I won’t...I can’t.”

But Miranda had been her friend, and what little remained of her was still pleasant to revisit. So Atma opened her eyes and remembered that face staring up at her.

The woman it belonged to held a hand up and waved for Atma to come over and sit. “Atma, are you alright? You look angry.”

The young Atma, this memory of Atma, walked towards the angel with angry stomps and a disappointed look on her face. Even the way she sat down was kind of tantrum, and she still refused to speak.

The angel regarded her for a few moments, with a slight but puzzled grin. “What’s wrong?”

Atma didn’t even turn to her when she spoke. “Abram’s becoming a knight.”

“I see, are you not allowed to-”

Atma frowned. “No...I have to be a scout.”

“That sounds more exciting to me than being a knight.”

Atma was so shocked she stood up. “What!? But knights are the best! They get to wear the coolest armor, and the prettiest colors, and fight the biggest bad guys.”

Atma made a few cutting noises and motions with her hands to illustrate the point at the end, which elicited a gentle laugh from Miranda. “But scouts travel to all sorts of places, some of them very beautiful. You might even see a fantastic creature that you’ve never seen before, even in books.”

After saying this, Miranda looked at her various injuries. They were healing, but still present and very painful. “And trust me, fighting the biggest bad guys isn’t as fun as the poets make it out to be.”

Atma pouted a little, but eventually calmed herself and sat down across from Miranda. “What’s wrong with beating the bad guys?”

Miranda considered the question, with a worried face. As if what she said next could have unfortunate consequences. Eventually, this expression gentled, and became more like that of a teacher, patiently instructing an eager student. “How do you beat the bad guys?”

Atma was confused at this question with so obvious an answer, yet she obliged her elder. “By fighting them, and winning.”

The angel nodded, while her gentle smile began to shrink. “That’s right, and how do you win?”

“When they can’t fight anymore.”

Miranda nodded again, a tinge of nervousness in her eyes. Atma waited for another response or cue but received none.

So she tried expanding on her answer. “Well, you kill them.”

“That’s right...you don’t have to do that all the time, but that’s how it usually ends.”

Atma was surprised at this, it was very different from what she’d learned from her other teachers. “Why wouldn’t you kill them all the time? Don’t bad guys deserve to die?”

Miranda reclined as much as she could, resting her head on the back of the tree. “That’s always an interesting question, isn’t it? What do people deserve? Well, let’s say they do deserve to die. What if I told you, that it’s still very sad that they have to die?”

“Why is it sad?”

There was a pitying and almost regretful look on Miranda’s face. “No one is ever born all bad...some might not be born all good either, but that’s what life is for, change and growth. When you kill somebody, that growth stops, any chance of redemption or a chance to do beautiful things with that redemption is gone.”

“So we should always try to redeem the bad guys?”

Miranda considered her answer, taking a deep breath before giving it. “You should, but sometimes you can’t...sometimes you don’t have the chance. Not everyone who’s the bad guy thinks that they’re the bad guy. Sometimes they think they’re doing the right thing. Even worse, they might think they’re the only ones doing the right thing.”

“That’s when you kill them?”

Frustration ran across Miranda’s face, yet it was not directed towards Atma. Something else was had earned her ire.

Whatever it was must have been something truly horrible. Because she sat as straight as the tree would allow her, and did her best to emphasize her next point. “I don’t have an answer for that. But when there are other lives at stake, when other people’s stories are being ended or made into footnotes by another...well, there’s only so much you can do. So yeah, when the bad guy doesn’t see reason, and they keep doing bad...usually you have to kill them.”

“Have you killed a lot of bad guys?”

Miranda’s face turned very sad, she didn’t cry, but she looked like she wanted to. It was as if some great force was holding back tears that desperately wanted to escape.

Yet they remained bound within her eyes, and Miranda fell back into the tree yet again. “I’ve killed enough to know that I don’t like it.”

Something about that answer made Atma very uncomfortable. When she found the reason, she could help but hid her eyes, turning them to ground. “Did you come here to kill more?”

Miranda was shocked by this question but voiced her concern gently. “Why would you ask that Atma?”

Atma kept her gaze at the ground, now scared...and sad. “Well, master Kiernan says that Abram and I are demons.” She felt tears trickle from her eyes and saw them fall into the grass. “And Angels kill Demons, and you’re an angel so-”

Miranda pulled the crying girl in for a hug. Holding her as close as her injuries would allow. “I would never hurt you Atma. Not ever.”

“You’ve fought other demons before. So why not us?”

“Because they chose to hurt people, and I stopped them. But you and your brother, you’re still just kids. You have a whole life of choices ahead of you, and I think you’ll choose to do good.”

Atma wiped the tears from her eyes, and could finally look up at Miranda. “Is that why you came here? To teach us about good?”

“No, I just fell here after...well, after fighting a bad guy. A really bad guy.”

“Who?”

Miranda looked up at the sky as if said bad guy might drop down and listen in on her conversation. She knew such a thing was impossible, but peered into the distance anyway. Atma had reasoned that their battle must have been horrific.

When Miranda did speak, it was with undisguised venom. “A red dragon, a very old and vicious red dragon.”

“What did he do?”

“He hurt a friend of mine, took everything she had. That’s really all I feel comfortable saying.”

Heavy footsteps clonked along the swamp floor. Atma could tell from their cadence that whoever was walking was trying far to hard to be stealthy.

She didn’t even turn to address who was making the racket. “We can hear you, big brother.”

The footsteps stopped, then clonked on at a regular pace. Abram of course walked out of the foliage. Atma stared at him wide-eyed. He was in full silver plate armor, engraved with runes, that would ensure the armor magically grew as he grew.

Atma also saw something that she didn’t like. “Abram...what’s with the bucket on your head?”

Abram adjusted the helmet he was wearing. It was polished and strong looking, just like the rest of his armor, but it wasn’t a knight’s helm. No, this helm was strange and archaic. Shaped like the helm of an Elysian Hoplite, from the ancient days.

It was clearly a work of pride, and the young knight wearing it was indignant at it’s being critiqued. “I made it myself. What’s the problem? It has full coverage and maximum eyesight. I’m thinking of putting a hard and transparent material in the eye slots.”

“Like glass?”

Abram’s tone became excited, and a slight smile crept into his features. “No, something much stronger. I don’t have it finished yet, but I’m working on it.”

Miranda looked at Abram with an approving eye. “Well, I think you look very sharp Abram. You wear the armor well.”

Abram stood a little straighter, with more confidence. Though Atma knew her brother better than most, and she could tell he was blushing beneath that helm. But not wanting to embarrass him any more than normal, she kept her peace.

Miranda though, had her share of questions. “Are you happy being a knight?”

Abram thought on this question and came up with an answer. “I don’t know...but it’s my duty to be a knight, so I guess so.”

Miranda chuckled. “You should still be happy about who you are and what you do. And being a Knight is a full-time commitment. If you aren’t happy with it, then you have a lonely time ahead of you.”

Abram shrugged. “I wish that was true. They’ve stuck me with a partner.”

“Oh?”

Abram frowned. “Yes, a magician named Evangeline.”

“That’s a pretty name.”

The young knight rolled his eyes. “She certainly thinks so. She asks all sorts of questions too, like: What I look like under my helmet, what magic can I do, do I like animals? It was a lot to take in.”

Miranda seemed to like this girl already. “She sounds like the perfect partner for you.”

“I don’t think I’m going to like her.”

Atma stood up, dusted off her clothes, and realized that this opportunity was too good to pass up. “Of course you won’t. You only have eyes for one woman after all.”

Abram’s embarrassment was obvious, and Miranda bit her lip. Her expression one of awkward amusement: not wanting to laugh, but finding the situation funny all the same. Before Abram could run over to Atma and strangle his little sister, Miranda sat up and waved her hands to keep them apart.

“Alright you two, behave now.”

Both young demons obeyed, albeit grudgingly. When they settled themselves, Miranda made them both sit down.

Once that was done, she looked over at Atma. “Now Atma, say sorry to your brother. It’s his special day after all.”

Atma rolled her eyes but did as she was asked with a sincere tone. “I’m sorry Abram.”

Abram paused for a moment then put a heavy hand on his sister’s shoulder, which Atma curled up to, as it was warm, even with the armor. This affection made Abram’s eyes were light in a kind manner. “I forgive you Atma.”

Miranda nodded with a sweet and approving smile. “That’s good. Now Atma, stop teasing Abram about this. He doesn’t have any feelings for me, right Abram?”

Abram stiffened again, seeming to shrink beneath Miranda’s oblivious gaze. This was not lost on The Angel, whose face turned from sweet to concerned. “You don’t, do you?”

Abram didn’t say anything, but as he turned: Atma felt that same feeling on her shoulder, only colder, and firm. She turned with a conjured blade and found herself staring at Babs, who loomed over her, gripping the blade with her undented gauntlet.

The young demon looked about, returning to the present time. But her breathing was ragged and heavy. Babs responded to this by lifting her unoccupied hand and poking Atma in the forehead twice. The resulting feeling wasn’t hard enough to hurt, but it was certainly annoying. Enough to make Atma try and back a few steps away.

Having achieved this, Babs’ casual voice emanated from her mask. “You awake now kid?”

“Yes, I am.”

Atma could practically feel Bab’s eyes narrow at her. “Uh-Huh.” While pushing away her obvious skepticism, The Death Knight gestured towards the direction she’d just came from. “The others are back over there, making camp.”

“Alright.”

Babs regarded her for a few more moments, and the young demon traced her gaze. The markings across Atma’s body were faintly glowing, her hands were shaking, and her knees looked ready to buckle. This memory had taken a strangle toll on the young demon.

Which the Death Knight picked up on. “I don’t have to carry you again do I?”

“No I-I’ll be fine.”

“Okay then, let’s get moving.”

The two of them walked towards the campsite, brushing off foliage and other obstacles that got in their way. While slapping away the odd branch or two, Atma looked around and noticed there weren’t many birds flying out, though she could hear their calls. Puzzled by this, she intensified her search. What was out there that even her demon’s eyes couldn’t see?

Babs noticed this intensity and turned her head to her shoulder. “Careful, you’ll burn a hole in something.”

Atma continued her search even as she responded. “Do you think it’s going to rain?”

“What gives you that idea?”

“None of the birds are out, but I can’t find any rain clouds.”

Babs regarded her charge as they kept moving, then turned her eyes back to the path they were clearing. The Death Knight looked as if she were considering her student’s words, very carefully. “Are you worried about rain?”

“No, I’m actually excited.”

This surprised Babs. “Really?”

Atma looked to the sky.“The rain always seemed so dirty at Adder’s Fall. It clung to your skin, stained your hair...and stunk. Miranda told me that the rain isn’t like that in other places though.”

Babs didn’t show much of a reaction, she just listened. But when Atma finished, the veteran warrior had her own words to share. “Miranda would say stuff like that all the time. Always with the poetics...I can’t tell you how much it got on my nerves.”

“You don’t like poetry?”

“Uh-uh.”

“That’s so strange.”

Babs chuckled. “Kid, I’ve met, killed, and inspired poets all over this country. And they always have the same froufrou bullshit reaction.”

“Which is?”

Babs massaged the temples of her mask and grunted as if she were trying to pry something out of an old machine. “I don’t know what to call it...Artsy-ness? It’s all a bunch of glossy language and wishy-washy day-dreaming. I’ve got enough going on in the real world, I don’t need some weird existential garbage floating around in my head too.”

Atma was taken aback by this. But this didn’t stop her. As she looked at the ground around her, seeing grasshoppers and even a pair of foxes run about on the forest floor, a few things came to mind. “Poetry doesn’t have to be flowery, neither do stories. They can be indicative of real life, and how beautiful it can be.”

Babs snorted. “More thoughts out of Miranda’s head?”

Atma took offense at that last comment. “She was your friend, and you knew her longer than I did...why does this surprise you-”

Bab’s words started coming out in quicker succession. “It doesn’t. I heard every kind of platitude from that angel, and I loved her for it. But she’s dead now, and she’s taken all her clichés with her.”

“Just because she’s dead doesn’t mean she was wrong.”

Babs actually stopped and turned, crunching branches beneath her steel boots. She then removed her still sheathed great sword from her back, brought it in front of her, and leaned forward on it. She gestured around the woods as she spoke. “Okay, you think poetry can talk about the real world instead of some artsy crap? Be my guest.”

Never one for being put on the spot, Atma did her best to escape her teacher’s challenge. Even as her knees wobbled. “But Abram-”

“We haven’t seen any sign of your brother in days, and we’re in the woods. Also, if he does get close, you’ll start having a seizure again. So we’ll get advanced warning.”

Atma had a surprised and indignant look on her face.

But before she could voice any more protests, Babs waved them off with a steel-clad hand. “Nope. We’re nipping this right in the bud. So, tell me a poem about the “beauty of the world” right now, and make it good.”

Atma was annoyed with this scenario, but she also wanted to prove the Death Knight wrong. She noted every detail of her surroundings, thought about recent events, and then took a deep breath before beginning: She wondered at the sky, and occasionally at trees as she spoke.

“This world is dark, but that’s not wrong.

My drink may be stark, but so is my song.

I look around, and see the world.

Bad fortunes abound, such is the world.

But here I stand, my heart in my chest.

Here I stand, ready to do my best.

The birds sing, even in the storm.

The wind sings, even to the worm.

This drives me on.

Through every hurt, and every sin.

I will not be curt, nor retreat within.

I will walk in the sun, my head held high.

I will walk in the sun, my ambitions are nigh.

For though I am hounded on, I make new friends.

For though I am preyed upon, I keep old friends.

Good or bad, the memories are kept.

Good or bad, away I am not swept.

For I am the master of my soul, and love all things free.

For I love all things with a soul, and will see them free.”

Babs listened to every word of the poem, only moving to return her sheathed blade to her back. When Atma settled from her recitation, the Death Knight, looking defeated, cleared her throat for what may have been an apology. Then their attentions were caught by the growing noise of approaching hoof falls.

Drawing their weapons, The Death Knight and the Young Demon were not focused on the De-Fuoco children riding towards them while screaming (save Absalom, who looked no less distressed). No, their eyes were on the incoming elves with custom-crafted weapons.

Babs whistled through her mask and to her horse, which was running alongside the De-Fuocos, prompting it to gallop even faster. The horse reached Babs, and she quickly mounted it. Atma had already run forward and jumped up on her own horse. Despite the clear enthusiasm of the pursuing elves, the undead horses that thundered before them would not tire and could run faster.

Yet even this speed did not content Lucia, who looked towards Babs with a quizzical expression “Why don’t you just fly?”

Babs shook her head. “Takes a lot of energy, and makes way too much noise. If someone is trying to scry for us, they’ll lock-in.”

“So what? We just keep riding until they tire out?”

Atma raised her voice. “No, we walk into their encirclement.”

The De-Fuoco’s and their keeper looked forward and saw Atma’s words come true. More elven riders were coming in from the other side. This earned a laugh from Babs, who drew and then one-handed her greatsword. “Let’s see you make a poem about this.”

Atma shook her head, conjured her bow, and the battle was joined.

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