Xian

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Chapter 2.7: Nearly Free.

“I’ve talked often about the blinding effects of love. Yet you fleshlings often use the terms love and lust interchangeably. “The need to breed” muddies appreciation of true aesthetic beauty, and ignores those of personality. After all, sex is such a basic function for you, that even if your “partner” were ugly, dumb, and charmless: you would make due if there were no other options available. Now before the celibates declare me their champion or the nymphomaniacs say I’m kink-shaming them: It’s not sex I take issue with, just your mortal perspective on it.

Sex between immortals, for example, is perfection. Our boundless stamina lets us go at it for as long as we wish, and allows for creativity and experimentation that would kill the rest of you. It is also far more honest, in that it is only ever done for pure pleasure, or out of pure love. Yet you mortal things, as always, turn the beautiful into something merely useful. What ought to be an exploration of the senses, has been broken into a tool for validating your own base worth. For so often do you creatures cover the empty places in your soul, with whatever warm body is available…

********

The Aurelian highway, Atma had never seen it before. Riding along it was overwhelming at first. But the vibrancy of this place, the almost rhythmic tap of hoofs and the scrapping of wheels on stones, and the chorus of thousands of people in the massive road. There was no other word for it except Alive.

She smiled and stared with wide eyes at exotic fabrics, beautiful breeds of horses, and even a man with heavy muscles and olive skin wearing golden armor wrapped in green robes. Babs, riding beside Atma, caught sight of him too.

The Death Knight waved at him. “Jose!”

The man turned towards the call of his name, and a cocky smile stretched across his lips. “Dame Barbara. How could I have missed you till now?”

“Well you know, I tend to blend in with the crowd.”

A confident laugh leaped from the man. “Nonsense! Even bloodied and bruised you are the finest sight a man could ever see.”

Babs shook her head, a strangely happy laugh escaping her masked face. “You know whenever I hear you say something like that, I feel like I ought to use the term workplace harassment...Then I remember I can tear your soul out of your chest and I feel a little safer at night.”

“You would miss me, my good lady.”

“Never on purpose Master Reyes.”

Babs turned towards the rest of the party. “Master Jose Reyes here runs a theatre train that performs from Ulq all the way down to Glassblade.”

She then turned back to Jose, even leaning in his direction. “Now I bet you wouldn’t mind a bit of extra help on the last leg of your journey now would you?”

The Theatremaster flashed a brilliant smile. “From you my beauty? I would accept any favor. Come! My carriages await, and quite a bit of wine too!”

Atma was not much of a drinker, but wouldn’t put it past Babs to take the occasional mug of ale, despite being undead. She looked at the remaining De-Fuoco’s though. It had been two days since Francesca had died, two days since they had buried her.

Absalom was his usual silent self but now seemed to be actively avoiding contact with Lucia. The young wizard herself was as vocal as ever and hadn’t shed a single tear since the incident. But Atma knew the young woman wasn’t sleeping at night, and despite this seemed fresh and ready to act...ready to kill.

Lorenzo though...he hadn’t said a single word in the whole two days. He had dug Francesca’s grave, buried her in it, and then remained silent. He did nothing, except perhaps hunt. During such excursions, he would usually go out alone, and bring back an excess of catch, and usually held Francesca’s bloody axe in his weapon hand while his own sword remained sheathed.

He’d then eat his fill, and sit apart from the others. Even when provoked or insulted by Lucia, Lorenzo wouldn’t say a word. The situation was so familiar to Atma that she was beginning to get scared. Abram had turned into a monster after such a phase.

And Lorenzo, while sweet and good-natured, was far more fragile than Abram ever was. The toll of their travels was evident in their looks. But still, they rode on, and once the party had come to Jose’s wagon train, their host practically demanded they dismount and sit at a wooden table.

“Now-now, you are my guests and I demand my right to make feel hospitableized...or whatever the proper term is. But please! Sit and I will get you food and drink.”

He cast a melodramatically outstretched hand towards Babs, who had already dismounted and was now casually taking a book from her saddlebag, and spoke in an equally theatrical, though admittedly sonorous tone. “You see how much I love you, fair dame? That I would serve you by my own hand?”

“Make sure you wash it first.”

“Of course! I’m a poet, not a barbarian!”

Jose then walked off, calling out orders to the other members of his train. They followed his instructions, dutifully preparing seats in the wagons for their new guests, and giving Babs the occasional hello or even a hug. For the others, lavish breakfasts of crispy bacon, eggs, and even fresh fruit, were placed before them as they were hurriedly seated into haphazardly, though comfortably cushioned chairs. The De-Fuoco’s greedily ate their breakfasts while Atma calmly and carefully picked what she might eat. As a demon she had no reason to eat at all, being able to subsist on the background energy that existed within creation and various states of reality.

But she still had the sensation of taste and a love of salty bacon and juicy grapes. ”It’s been a while since I could sit down and eat a full meal. The last time was at Skywood...funny meal that turned out to be.”

She ate her food at a slow pace, enjoying every morsel and relishing in the taste. Her companions gobbled their portions up greedily and regretted their choice a few moments later as their stomachs ached and sleep began to overtake them. Luckily their places in the wagon train were ready, and they were guided to their rest. Atma on the other hand said she would prefer to ride with the guards and Babs.

To which Jose said: “Ah! Our intrepid Death Knight has found a protege! Then of course you shall ride in the van. And I shall regale you with all the stories your mistress is too embarrassed to share.”

Atma gave Babs a nervous look as she prepared her mount.

But the Death Knight merely shook her head, and let out a resigned sigh. “You’re going to find out sooner or later. Might as well be from someone who was actually there...most of the time.”

Jose let out a hearty laugh as he climbed atop his horse. “Indeed, our Dame Barbara is a muse to many. Though she settled down after meeting a strapping young man on the-”

“That young man stayed young.”

Babs’ answer had come out curtly and had a hint of viciousness to it. Jose’s smile shrunk into a more silent and empathetic look, and he nodded. Clearly, there were some stories he knew not to share.

Then he brightened up again. “But, back to being a muse. I recall a voyage across the Zephyran Sea when young Barbara was only recently ascended to knighthood, and I was merely an engineer with a silver tongue and a cant few plays in my mobile library.”

Babs leaned towards Atma. “He means his knapsack.”

Jose either didn’t hear her comment or just didn’t care. As indicated by his continuation of the story in the same tone with which he started. “On that voyage, we had learned of a young dragon with steel scales who was extracting tolls from the merchant ships that were sailing in the area.”

Atma’s interest deepened even as she mounted up and took hold of the bridle.

Babs again shook her head.“This story gets kookier every time you tell it, Jose.”

Jose waved his hand as if slapping away the comment, then continued.

“She means I enrich the story each time I tell it. Regardless of poetic license, our gallant and beautiful Knight told the captain of the ship to give the money to the imperious reptile, even volunteering to bring it herself. And she did, but with a twist. In its arrogant assurance of victory, the dragon took the chests with him in its claws and flew off. A few moments later, one of the chests opened mid-flight, and a crossbow bolt flew into the base of the dragon’s tail, with a hemp cord tied to it.”

“The dragon’s flight course was completely thrown off, as it halted into a steady glide, unable to direct itself without its tail; which as you know acts as a dragon’s rudder. It flew back into the sea, and in range of the ship’s scorpion batteries. We filled it with three bolts the size of horses but before we could finish it off with another round, our heroine resurfaced on the floating dragon’s back, beckoning us to stop. We were shocked, but complied.”

Atma turned towards Babs with a curious look on her face. “Is this true?”

Babs nodded. “Except for a few things. I actually missed my first shot but was smart enough to pack a second loaded crossbow, I didn’t miss with that one. And yeah, they hit with three bolts but they had fired off ten...at a sitting target.”

Master Reyes laughed with some embarrassment as they rode ahead of the moving train. “The crew were mostly rookies looking for a simple job, not a high seas campaign. But regardless. Your mistress learned that this Dragon was as much a victim as we were, as his cache of eggs was being held hostage by a crew of pirates. Well, that incensed our leading lady to no end. And with her usual charisma, she persuaded the ship’s crew to attack said pirates and retrieve the eggs. The dragon meanwhile, turned into a humanoid form, that of an orc strangely enough, and had his wounds tended to in that guise as we sailed to the pirates’ lair.”

Master Reyes shook his head at the memory as if struggling to believe it. “By Bellona what a fight that was. The dragon had spun the story that we had been convinced to join the pirates in their work, after killing our captain. Once we had entered the pirate’s cove and spread out among their numbers, we attacked. While our enemies were distracted, Dame Barbara and her new draconic companion raced to the storehouse where the eggs were being kept, only to meet the pirates’ true benefactor, a vicious red dragon in a masked humanoid form named-”

Babs cut in, with no emotion in her voice. “Xavier Bonaparte.”

Jose only nodded. “Yes, Xavier Bonaparte. Strangely enough, this vile creature let his steel counterpart take his eggs back, and let us escape. Or so we thought. He had said that he had grown bored of his piratical henchmen and now had no further use for them. So he had used his fell magics to collapse the cave with all of us in it.”

“The steel dragon hurried out with his unborn children, before handing them off to Barbara and then staying behind, keeping the cove from collapsing onto us with the strength and weight of his true draconic form. As soon as the eggs were aboard the ship, however, and we were outside of cove, Babs dove back into the water with the same hemp cord she had once tied to her crossbow and swam to the Steel Dragon’s rescue. And to all our surprise, she succeeded. She swam back to us as the cove half ways sank into the depths, with the dragon in his orcish form tied to her back.”

Jose smiled and looked to the sky, still keeping that disbelieving look. “Gods I’ve never seen such determination in a mortal creature as I did when your mistress swam from that wreck. But it served her well. The dragon gave us his gratitude, and a safe route through the sea should we decide to keep to it. As we sailed away though, we saw a rowboat with a few of the pirates making their seperate escape.”

Jose’s face became serious for a moment but then softened. As if he had been debating whether to continue or stop. He of course kept to his story. “We considered whether or not to help them, but our new draconic companion told us they were already doomed. When we asked him what he meant, we found the sun itself blocked by the shadow of massive crimson wings and saw a great beam of white energy burst from a mouth of razor-sharp teeth that disintegrated the tiny rowboat in a single moment.”

“As our crew was overcome with terror, and I swear this is true: The red dragon’s yellow eyes turned to us, and the bastard winked. He then flew off with a single beat of his wings and was gone. By the gods, I’ve seen entire castles that would look quaint compared to that beast.”

Babs chimed in, keeping her casual tone. “You never said the steel dragon’s name.”

“Oh yes. The young dragon and father was named Martin. He was an amiable fellow once he got to talking with the rest of us, and left with our dear dame once we had taken to port.”

Babs shook her head. “Nothing happened between us you horny bastard. Besides, he needed protection. He was afraid of what Xavier might do to him, and his kids. I told him he could try and join the Magis Eques, which he did. He’s a full Knight now and even works as one of the liaisons to the Queen of Leo. His kids are squires too.”

Jose beamed with pride. “Yes! A happy end to a worthy hero. And certainly one deserved.”

Babs remained focused, almost still. “Yeah, more so than most.”

Atma detected the sadness in her mentor’s voice and wanted to alleviate it somehow. “You know, I was wandering the swamps around Adder’s Fall before you found me. I was scared at first, until you started talking. I think...No, I know that Jose is telling the truth. Maybe not about all the details...but about who you are. You certainly helped me, and as far as I’m concerned: you’re a hero. So, whatever hurt you go through, I think you should remember all the help you give to others. And maybe let some of that stick on to you...or however you want to put it.”

Babs looked over at Atma, her head inclined as if surprised. “How old are you little girl?”

“Nineteen.”

“You could have fooled me.”

Jose smiled again proudly. “Indeed, she speaks with a philosopher’s wit and an actor’s grace! You should try and write stories, my dear! I would happily put them on. We could even give you a stage name! Let’s see...Ah! The Beguiling Stranger! Or perhaps...The devilish muse...no-no those are stupid.”

The rest of the journey proceeded at a steady pace. Jose would come up with new names, tell various stories, only for Bab’s to correct him, and then ruminate on some of his own time as an engineer. Atma found many of the stories to be on the romantic side but found them to be not so outlandish as to be unbelievable.

Finally though, as the sunset and the moon rose, the wagon train came to a stop. The travelers decided to make camp next to a stone fort of the Royal Mobile Corps. The soldiers there were amiable enough and didn’t bat so much as an eye at Atma’s appearance.

Once out of their earshot, Babs whispered the reason in Atma’s ear. “Nobody’s “officially” seen a demon of the forge in centuries. They probably think you’re a thinblood, like other people have. And I’m sorry to say it, but even with the markings you don’t look particularly demonic..”

Atma smiled at that and noticed that many men and a few women were looking at her. The same way Lorenzo looked at her when they first met. It was a little awkward for her, and she instinctively reached for her non-existent hood.

But Babs placed a hand on her shoulder. “Just own it.”

The Death Knight’s voice was clear yet also had some gentleness. It was enough to comfort Atma, who nodded and then stood a little straighter. She even relaxed her face a little, knowing that the group was finally in a safe place. Not even Abram could have set a trap for them here. The change in her stance and demeanor was noticed by everyone, as she discovered upon returning with Babs to the center of the parked wagon train.

Lucia, sitting awkwardly next to Absalom, who strummed an un-enchanted but still beautiful tune on his guitar, was the first to comment. “Well look who’s perking up. It’s almost like we didn’t lose someone important just a few days ago.”

That made Atma shrink back a bit. And she wore a shamed look on her face as she sat down among the group.

Jose, who was sitting there as well, stood up and stared daggers at Lucia. “Selfish child of a girl! It is precisely for that reason that she ought to look happy. When do we need happiness most, if not in times of sorrow?”

Atma looked up, not quite smiling, but intrigued by this line of reasoning from Jose.

Lucia, true to form, did not relent. “So what? I should be jumping up and down with joy?! I should be celebrating the fact that my sister died!?”

Atma looked around at the others. Absalom had stopped his playing and was looking worriedly at his sister. Babs stared down any strangers who tried to sneak in and listen, those who tried left as quickly as they came. Lorenzo was staring at the fire in the center of this gathering. He looked vacant and completely uninterested in anything that was happening. Atma wanted to say something, but couldn’t find the words.

She looked back up at Jose and saw him direct a pitying look towards Lucia. “No child, we celebrate that they lived at all.”

Lucia seemed ready to leap forward and tear at Jose with her teeth. “I lost my sister! We lost our sister!”

She fumed, but that was not enough to dissuade Jose. Who pulled up the crate he had been sitting on before, a little closer to Lucia. “I am truly sorry for that. I too have lost a sister, and a wife...and a son. But do you see me weighed down by them? No. To carry the people we love as if they were weights dragging us down, even if they are but ghosts and memory, is a sad waste of life. Both yours and theirs. Instead, let them be the wings that carry us into greater heights of joy and hope.”

“What if they didn’t want to be somebody’s wings?! They had their own lives! Their own dreams...and now they’ll never get to live them.”

Jose smiled pointed toward the stars, as if for emphasis. “That is why we must live in their place. Perhaps we won’t be able to live out their fantasies and hopes, we have our own after all. But we tell their story, and show the good that was in them while they lived. And that inspires others to find dreams of their own, perhaps the same ones that our loved ones held.”

Lucia quieted down after that. She curled up and hugged her knees, while Absalom came in a bit closer and placed an arm around her shoulder. She curled up closer, tired, and drifting off to sleep. Lorenzo got up and walked away. No one went after him, content with the fact that the area was well protected. Jose, satisfied that he had made his point, sat next to Babs and Atma.

The young demon smiled a bit more broadly. “I know some people who could learn from your talk. My brother...Abram.”

Babs shook her head. “That’s ones a bit far gone I think.”

Atma’s smile shrunk, not quite disappearing though. “I know.”

Jose looked between the two of them, not quite sure how to insert himself in the conversation. After a few seconds of silence, he found a solution, only to be cut off when Atma stood up.

“Do you know where I can find some jasmine? I’d like to make some tea, I’ve...had some trouble sleeping.”

Jose smiled again. “Of course! There’s an herbalist on the other side of the fort. It’s a bit of a walk though, you should take a horse.”

“Thank you but I think I’ll go there on foot. I tend to think better on my feet.”

“Of course. Take care, my young savant! We shall await your return!”

Atma smiled back, Babs waved goodbye, and then she walked off. The night air was wonderful to breathe. And it surprised Atma. She thought with such a long and populated road, that there would be more than a little refuse and horse leavings. But as if in answer to her questions, she saw several teams of people wearing the royal colors, and dressed in aprons while wearing gloves, cleaning up the road of its various eyesores. Atma felt some admiration for them.

“It takes dedication to work a job like that. But it’s money in the pocket I suppose.”

Once Atma got to the base of the fort, she looked around at it. It was a simple construction: high stone walls coated in alchemists skin, flat-topped towers that afforded a commanding view of the area, and a garden on the western edge of the fort that ran all the way to the other side. When she saw the edge of the garden, and it’s sapphire rose bushes and a few hedges carved into various animals both common and fantastic, Atma knew exactly which way she’d take to the herbalist. Her smile turned into a look of wonder, as she entered the garden grounds.

“It’s so alive here...”

Crickets sounded out in the night, the wind blew a gentle kiss across Atma’s hair, and the scent of flowers was carried with it. Two guards, one man, and one woman were sitting together on one of the benches. They looked at the stars, and Atma could hear the man giving many a clumsy, though inoffensive comment about the stars and the woman’s eyes. The woman frowned a little, not quite impressed. But she still sat there, enjoying his company. And from the look on her face, she admired the sheer effort that the man was going through to make everything work. So she kept up a smile, and that made him smile. And they stayed there. Atma left them alone and continued on her path.

“Who would take the time to make a garden outside a fort? This place must have belonged to someone else before The Crown.”

Atma realized that she probably should have remained more focused, as Babs might get worried. After all, she had gone to get something and bring it back. But this place, it wasn’t just beautiful, it was comfortable. It was made not to impress, or force an air of power: but to be enjoyed. Every carving of the stone paths and the loving care put into maintaining all the garden’s herbage seemed to say so. Atma couldn’t help but take it all in. Then she spotted something: jasmine plants. They were in a corner of the garden that was as well-kept as the rest of it, and there was even a small sign that said:

“For public use, at the price of public courtesy. Take no more than Five stems, unless in possession of a certified herbalist or alchemy license. Magic countermeasures are in effect.”

Atma reached out with her own magic and sensed that there were effective, though not excessive magics, protecting this jasmine plant, and the rest of the garden. So, not wanting to disturb anything or cause an incident, Atma took only the allowed amount of jasmine, picking what she needed as gently as she could, and then turned to leave.

A few feet away from her though appeared Lorenzo. He looked as he had been for the past few days, but now there was something very alert and worried in his eyes. He looked scared. As if he was running from something. Atma though recognized a few telltale signs of a deeper conflict.

“He’s trying to work himself into doing something...what is it though?”

She smiled gently, putting the jasmine away in her bag as she did so. “Lorenzo? Are you alright? Well...are you doing any better I mean?”

He just stood there, that same alert and somewhat frightened look on his face. Atma had an initial thought to walk over and perhaps grab his hand, maybe snap him out of this daze. But her instincts drew her attention to the boy’s heavy breathing and other signs of stress.

So she kept her distance, even as she kept a gentle tone. “I know I’ve said that I’m sorry already. I just...I just feel like I can’t apologize enough. It’s awful, to lose someone you love.”

He remained as he was, and Atma began to step around him. “I know what it’s like to lose someone precious. It’s like a piece of you dies inside but...but I think that Jose has a point. We shouldn’t let those things drag us down. We need to move forward, and enjoy the life that those people left for us.”

Still no response. Only that wild stare. Atma felt fear growing in her stomach, something was about to happen, she could feel it. But she also didn’t want to hurt anyone. So she kept at her talking. “You’re in pain. And if there was any way I could console you-”

Lorenzo snapped to a straightened stance immediately upon those words, and his stare became focused. “You’d console me?”

“Yes...”

“How?”

He walked closer, in slow steps. Atma felt scared, unable to move, but then she cooled herself. Reading his intent, she conjured a small bar of metal in her hand behind her back. The threat was there, but she did not want to act on it too soon. So she tried to appeal to the boy’s reason.

“I’d be a shoulder to cry on. Someone to talk to. We’re friends aren’t we?”

“There are other things you could do. Things that a woman does for a man and a man does for a woman.”

He was right in front of her now. His eyes met hers, and if he saw the blatant disgust in her eyes, he did not acknowledge it.

His voice came out in a whisper. “Don’t you like it? Don’t you like it when I look at you? I’ve seen you blush, even under the hood I could see it clear as day.”

“That was when we were strangers. That was before you were delirious with grief. Lorenzo, please don’t-”

“Why not?”

She raised her chin and spoke more clearly. “Because I’m not...I’m not doing it out of pity, and I won’t do it so you can feel strong again. So please, just walk away. We can go back to the train, and no one-”

He leaned in closer. “I want you.”

She stopped him with her empty hand, closing it into a fist at his chest. Her face and tone had no more gentleness. “I don’t want you.”

His expression changed, his face was more determined than before. He pushed forward, aggressively. She simply brought her hand up from his chest and across his face in an open backhand. The move was calculated, but the weight behind it was instinctual: She hit harder then she meant to and left a huge welt on his face.

He seemed just as much shocked as he was hurt. But there was another flurry of emotion across his face: that of awareness. As if the pain was a sort of anchor.

Atma could see thoughts passing through Lorenzo’s eyes at a rapid pace as he brought his hand to soothe his face, and looked at her. He was surprised and angry at first. Then he looked sad and ashamed.

His breathing was ragged, and his lip quivered. “I’m...I’m sorry I...”

He struggled for words, and when they would not come he ran back in the direction of the wagon train. Atma kept a sharp eye on him until he was out of view of even her catlike eyes. Once he was gone, she collapsed into a seated position, leaning on one of the hedges. She looked at the metal she had conjured, the weapon she had not used, and dispersed it. She also took note of her breathing. She was taking in air as if she had been starved of it for a month. She just sat there for a few moments, taking in all that was happening around her. Until her eyes rested on a familiar sight peeking out from behind one of the rose bushes. She looked back at the ground but directed her voice towards the eavesdroppers.

“How bad was it?”

Babs walked out from behind the bush with Jose close behind her. They both had their swords drawn.

Jose lifted his blade towards Atma. “This bad, my dear.”

Atma shook her head in disbelief. “I never thought he was this far gone. Not even Abram was this far gone. I can’t even think of how horrible Lorenzo must-”

Babs cut in as she knelt down and she lifted Atma’s chin. “Don’t you dare.”

“What do you mean?”

Jose sheathed his sword, his customary smile replaced by a grim stare pointed in Lorenzo’s general direction. “Grief is no reason to abuse others. No matter how deep it may run. I think we should-”

Atma stood up, almost bumping into Babs. “No. Please just...just let him stay. He said sorry. I think...I think that he was just going through a-”

Babs set the tip of her sword to the ground. “What? Was he going through a phase? That’s not gonna cut it Atma. He tried to force himself on you, even after you told him no. He’s unstable.”

“And what happens when we tell him to go away? What happens when we cut him off from his only family?”

She stepped closer to Babs, almost looking at her eye level. “What happens when he becomes another threat in my life, stalking me every waking moment?”

Babs didn’t even flinch. “What if he already is?”

There was an intense moment between the two, with neither woman looking to back down.

Finally, Jose stepped forward, the awkwardness of the situation plain on his face, and he proposed a compromise. “What if we confine him to a separate part of the train? And he’s under watch? How about that?”

The two women continued their standoff. There was no malice in Atma’s eyes, but there was a great deal of defiance.

Finally, Babs sheathed her sword and brushed a few strands of her hair out of her face. “That’ll do for now. But if he makes a move again, I’m breaking his hands and dumping the rest of those idiots in the woods somewhere. Let them fend for themselves if they’re gonna be this stupid.”

With that, the three of them walked back to the wagon train. The walk was silent and awkward, with no distractions or trouble cropping up. When they arrived back at the campfire though, Absalom was sitting in the dirt next to the campfire with his face buried in his hands.

Lucia was still in her seat and turned a lazy glance towards Atma. “He came onto you didn’t he?”

Atma was shocked enough that she stopped in her tracks. Which was all Lucia needed to confirm her suspicions.

The young De Fuoco smirked. “Thought so. He always was a little turd.”

Absalom looked up at his sister, the displeasure on his face might as well have been poison streaming towards Lucia.

But she just shrugged her shoulders. “It’s true. He’s always acted like the heroic Knight. Of course he’d break down once he found out he wasn’t any holier than-”

Atma’s voice came out in a panic. “Where did he go?!”

Lucia paused for a moment as if trying to comprehend Atma’s words. With a roll of her eyes, Lucia gave her answer. “He didn’t say. He just gathered his things and left.”

Babs had her arms folded to her chest. “Did he take his horse?”

Lucia seemed confused. “Yes. Why are you ask-...oh that idiot.”

Babs snapped her fingers, and in the distance, a great whiny could be heard. Then came the clomping of hooves. Finally, the undead mount that Babs herself had provided Lorenzo cantered straight into the campsite, with its rider struggling to unfasten himself from the stirrups.

Everyone there took a moment to regard Lorenzo, who finally stopped struggling and let out a sigh of defeat. He relaxed, successfully unfastened himself, and climbed down. Once he hit the ground, Babs walked up to him, grabbed him by the throat, and brought his ear close her face.

Atma knew better than to try and listen to what the Death Knight was whispering, but she had some idea from the dead look of shame on Lorenzo’s face. Once he nodded, Babs let him down. He walked past Atma, his siblings, and all others present without so much as a glance, and then crawled into one of the wagons.

Jose looked at this, a slight smile on his face. Then he clapped his hands together. “Well, I think it’s time we all retired for the evening. Goodnight all. We shall escort you to your accommodations.”

They all nodded, except for Atma and Babs. They, not needing much for comfort, stayed outside. Babs leaned against a crate, and sharpened her sword, while Atma rolled out a cushion and a blanket. She looked up at Babs, wondering what she had said to Lorenzo. But then she put it out of her mind, satisfied that, at least for tonight, the matter was settled. Staring at Babs now, Atma also wondered if the Death Knight had ever slept in the past.

“Of course she did...right?”

She had been human at some point. She had said as much. And in those times, Atma wondered, what did she dream of? Would she sleep now if she could? And what dreams would she have now? Atma knew she was thinking about this to distract herself from Lorenzo.

Thoughts of self-blame began to bubble up, though she dismissed them quickly, knowing that they were wrong. Feelings of pity for the boy crept into her mind and were hushed by Jose’s words and Lorenzo’s apology. An hour passed, and more and more fears and thoughts slid across Atma’s consciousness, barring her from sleep. And she knew why. Even with all her training, for all her strength, Atma was worried that something might happen.

“Gods...it’s happening all over again...”

She wasn’t a warrior right now, nor a demon of the forge. She was a child, a girl that was scared of being hurt. And despite her attempts to banish that away, gritting her teeth and whispering prayers, Atma could not banish this from her mind. Then she heard something, a shifting of armor. She opened her eyes and saw Babs sit right next to her. The demon looked up at her guardian, into those blank eyeless eyes, and then felt a soft and unarmored hand at her cheek.

“It’s alright, I’m here.”

Atma sat up and came in closer to Babs.

The older woman straightened out her hair onto her shoulder, then patted Atma’s. “Come on, lean on me.”

Atma did so, disoriented as much by her own thoughts as by this sudden warmness from Babs. She then noticed some apprehension on the part of the Death Knight. Who was taking in heavy and measured breaths, as if preparing for something.

Atma was curious. “What are you doing?”

“It’s something...It’s something that I did to calm my kids. And sometimes my husband, he suffered from some mental issues. Nothing serious but he could get anxious, and then the kids would get scared and you get the idea...so I would sing to them.”

“Really?”

“Yes, but you have to be quiet now. Okay? Because...Because I haven’t done this in a while so I’m a little rusty.”

Atma was flattered that Babs would try something like this for her, if also a little confused. But she could tell that her guardian was trying, and rested on the older woman’s shoulder. “Alright, whenever you’re ready.”

A few more breaths, and then a melody escaped from Babs’ mask.

“When the Night comes into your mind,

and The Cold assails you most unkind

I’ll be at your side, your hand in mine.

And when Morning rises,

and The Heat washes over all to find.”

I’ll be at your side

your hand in mine.

And in the time in Between,

when all crashes together with no end to be seen.”

I’ll be at your side,

your hand in mine.”

It was a quiet tune, and Babs’ voice seemed too soft to be coming from an undead juggernaut. But Atma heard the charity in her guardian’s voice, as well as some sorrow. This woman wouldn’t just keep her safe, she would pull her up to face her own fears. And this thought gave her some comfort. Eventually, Atma drifted off into a dreamless sleep: The first in many a day.

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