Xian

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Chapter 2.9: The Lion’s Arms.

“Now we come to a truly important subject: Dragons. There is no finer species in this or any cosmos, and none shall ever come close to competing with us. Angels and Demons come close I suppose, and some variations of the undead are charming in their way. But mortals? Never. The gods? A bunch of up-jumped usurpers and talentless white knights. For we of draconic purity were created by not god, and instead willed ourselves into existence.

We clawed our way from being mere pockets of metaphysical essence, to soar amongst the winds between the material and immaterial. But we have weakened since those times, content with merely being above our neighbors. Though immune to age and disease, we are now physical, and our connection to the primordial is so tenuous, that physical death may now be final. Though I, and some of my more enlightened kinsmen, have pursued other paths…

********

Ulq was not anything that Atma had expected. Given that this was meant to be the last stop of their journey, the young demon had great expectations. She had envisioned great palatial towers brushing against the clouds, floating mansions that hosted magics from all across the globe.

Instead, she found narrow and crowded streets. She passed by stalls selling random trinkets and more than a few obvious charlatans. Finally, she saw teenagers posting graffiti on the walls...Atma couldn’t have been happier.

The smile and wonderment on her face were so infectious that Jose let out a great and hearty laugh. “By the gods, I’ve never seen a more lovable reaction to this place.”

Atma’s eyes widened with every sight she saw. This place wasn’t a towering citadel of any one culture, but a great collection of all the world’s’ cultures. Taiyang teahouses competed for business with Dantean Coffee huts, children from different races played beneath the doors of temples of the gods, while philosophies and theologies were shared and debated in both open forums and in the same buildings where mages practiced their magic.

Babs took a moment to pat her horse on the base of the neck, as it seemed to be getting nervous. “He’s been coming to this place for over a decade now, and it still hasn’t grown on him.”

Atma took a moment to check on her own mount, who was far more casual than both his kin and his rider. In fact, the undead horse showed no interest in anything whatsoever. Except in the occasional grounded pigeon, who he would spit on.

This made the young demon laugh, but more than that it kept her looking at the city. Many of her teachers had praised the stoic looks of ancient cities of marble, pristine in their bare simplicity. Or of the regal quality of Taiyang’s great settlements, of their organized use of color and mystical enchantments. Ulq though was far more chaotic.

Old temples of stone and new shops of wood alike were bathed in rich colors of all kinds. Vibrant greens, vital golds, and rich reds were awash in this city. It was lively, overwhelming, and sometimes quaint, depending on which part of the city you were in.

They passed by one curiosity during the latter section of the party’s ride, after Jose had left them to inspect the city’s theatre house. In this older part of the city, more kept and most assuredly more expensive was a small brick house. Atma saw it and directed her mount to saunter in that direction. Lucia looked at this and seemed ready to begin her usual tirade of jabs and condemnation, but Absalom put a hand on her shoulder and shook his head.

Babs nodded in his direction. “Thanks.”

The silent bard responded with a soft smile. And with that Babs rode over to Atma. The Death Knight took a look at the house, and a soft laugh escaped her. “Yeah, it’s beautiful isn’t it?”

It was a simple home. With red brick walls, brown wooden roof, and a chimney. It was a simple cottage house and nothing more. But there was also a small porch at the front, with a garden below. The cottage was a place of quiet amidst the hustle and bustle of the city, and even hosted a family of cardinals. Atma was tempted to dismount and look around but she thought against it.

Instead, she turned her still be-wondered face towards Babs. “Who lives here?”

“Me.”

Atma was genuinely surprised. “This is your house?”

“Yep. I like the city, but you know...sometimes I need some breathing room.”

“Are you a gardener?”

Babs laughed. “Oh hell no. Raising corpses is one thing, but digging your hands through vines and freakin bugs?”

Babs shivered a little. “I don’t do bugs. But my roommate tends to most of the yard, I work on stuff like the plumbing and the furnace...and the cooking, and the security, and the booting out the occasional ex-boyfriend. Her ex-boyfriends, not mine.”

“Who’s your roommate?”

Babs made a point to try and peer through one of the windows but then shook her head. “Well she’s not home, and I don’t sense her around here. She’s probably at work right now so, you’ll see her at some point.”

“Is she a Magis Eques?”

“Nope. She is a doctor of the Royal Medical Corps. They focus on a practical and more scientific approach to medicine instead of using relying on magic. Occasionally they’ll receive religious support but they’re mostly on their own...as much as any state-funded organization is on their own. Come on.”

Atma cast a final look at the house before riding back into line with Babs. She caught a bit of a scowl from Lucia, but it didn’t bother her. Absalom seemed as enraptured by the city as Atma was, though he didn’t smile at so much as study the place.

Everything he looked at was subject to a critical, though non-judgmental eye. Occasionally some house or staple of Ulq would earn a gaze of puzzlement, while others would win a slight smile. Lorenzo rode along in silence. He still longer looked despondent, or despairing. But whenever someone tried to talk to him, he could at least manage one-word answers like “yes” or “no.” Atma took note of this and yet, with plenty of good reason, kept her distance.

“Is he honestly sorry...Can I even forgive him if he is?”

There wasn’t much to talk about in the last leg of their urban ride. Atma took in more of the town, a few people looked at her markings: Some with admiration and some with concern. To most people, they were just strange looking tattoos after all.

Then at long last, the party arrived at that their destination: the regional headquarters for the Magis Eques. Named Pryderoar, after the Magis Eques Sylvia Pryde: Who stood atop the battlements of this fortress, when it was no more than palisades and mud, then raised her sword and let out a defiant cry towards the invading forces of the then-nascent Taiyang Empire.

What was not common knowledge, but known by Babs and Atma as they exchanged a nervous look, was that Taiyang’s response to her defiant roar was a single volley of cannon fire enhanced by the Imperial Mages. The volley leveled the entire fortress, and Sylvia Pryde was buried beneath the rubble. The Taiyang commander then had his mages search for her body, which they found.

He then had the broken body hung from the ramparts of the rapidly constructed fortress that would become Pryderoar...after seventeen years of occupation by Taiyang. And it was not force-of-arms or the indomitable will the people that cast the Taiyang aside, but a command from the Gold Dragon Emperor himself.

It had simply read: “Your work is done, return home.” And that is just what the Taiyang army did. Much to the confusion of the Leo forces that had taken the fortress and the surrounding area that would become Ulq.

Atma herself had thought long and hard about these events, as they had been basic history in her early lessons with the Imperial Flame. As she looked across the thick almost hill like walls, and the twisting and snake-like towers of red gemstone, she asked Babs a question.

“The Dragon Emperors...they have a connection to the gods right?”

Babs let out a snort. “Well, to hear it from our sides’ propagandists, the Golden Dragon Emperors and Empresses have a direct line to the gods of destruction.”

Babs then made a sweeping and overly dramatic gesture with her hands pointed to the heavens, her voice dripping with mock reverence. “But no mortal may touch the minds of the gods! Not even a dragon! And thus! The Dragon Emperors have gone mad!”

Lucia, joined in on the conversation, with actual curiosity in her voice. “What’s the truth then?”

Babs put her hands back to the reins and seemed to consider something. Then, as they passed through the gate, and after she waved at the stocky guard in his booth; she let out an exasperated sigh, and straightened herself.

“Alright kids: Class is in session. Golden Dragons are heavenly entities of Justice and Enlightenment that came to the material plane and decided to “help” us lowly mortals. Some are doing just that, and act like the over lenient professor you might have at a new-age university campus... others are a bit more involved. The “logic” for these people goes something like: “Rulers should be just, I am the justest of all, therefore I alone should rule.”

Atma recognized a pattern that was similar, if much less subtle, to her Brother’s. But her curiosity on the matter still wasn’t satisfied. “What’s special about the Emperors?”

“Well, most Golden Dragons are not connected to the gods. And considering how mundane that kind of connection is, that isn’t surprising.”

Lucia was taken aback. “Having a connection to the gods is mundane?”

“When you have priests with magic, angels with flaming swords, and the occasional prophet cropping up every few hundred years...yeah religion is pretty commonplace when you think about it. Even I talk to Anubis when we’re not being hunted and sidetracked.”

Lucia seemed to accept this line of thinking, albeit haphazardly. “I suppose...Wait, your god is Anubis?”

Babs nodded. “Yep, but back to the Emperors: Golden Dragons do not have a connection to anyone god or pantheon. But to the forces of creation itself.”

Atma’s brow furrowed in frustration. “Creation itself? As in the cosmos itself?”

Babs made a show of massaging the bridge of her nose, which Atma was confused by since it was encased in magical steel but she put those thoughts out of mind once

Despite her clear annoyance, Babs resumed her lecture. She even tried to illustrate some of its finer points with hand gestures. “I hate this part. So there’s the cosmos, physical creation, and then supposedly, There’s something beyond and within the cosmos: The idea of creation itself. The nerds think that there was a raw plane where all things, good or bad, started out as a raw idea. Then those raw ideas spawned from this...I guess metaphysical pool and formed the building blocks of creation.”

Lucia lit up for a moment. “That’s where magic comes from isn’t it?”

“In it’s raw “ideal” form, sure...I forgot how much I hate talking about this. But where most Golden Dragons have a connection to the physical cosmos, and therefore a distilled reading on the idea of creation: The Emperors supposedly have a connection to the idea of creation itself. And therefore, can see into the very nature of all creation, the possibilities surrounding all creation, and how to reach its most ideal future...which is supposedly why Taiyang is unbeatable at the moment. And why they left us to stew around after the first war.”

Atma nodded in realization. “They had enlightened us already.”

“That’s right. The emperor figured that since we had grown stronger and more organized since he sent his legions after us, that he had succeeded in some roundabout way. So they left. But word on the street is that they’re coming for round two, so we’ll see.”

Atma and Lucia exchanged curious glances at each other, wanting to know more. Then they both realized this may have been the first positive interaction they had with each other. Atma smiled, enjoying this fact, while Lucia’s eyes widened in surprise. She then shook her head and smirked a little. Atma left the young wizard to her comparative privacy but smiled at this small victory. The conversation had been so involved, that Atma hadn’t taken the time to observe her surroundings...they weren’t particularly notable.

Pryderoar was both externally and internally a place of war. No beatifications and no fancy works of art or displays of royal prestige dotted the place. Instead there weapon racks, engines of war such as cannons, trebuchets, and even a Fulcrum: A magical apparatus that allowed magicians to focus their power into a single vessel, who would then unleash said power on the enemy. The walls were also bare, except for the occasional collapsible murder hole and the sigil of protection: either made by a priest or a mage.

Babs motioned for them all to dismount. “Time to meet the grownups kids, so look your best.”

They all did as they were instructed, if at different paces. Then followed Babs as she climbed a short flight of steps into what looked to be a great cathedral of sorts. Atma deduced that this was a recent addition, as not only was it of a different style then the alien architecture of the rest of Pryderoar, but it was also of a different material, that being marble and some welded steel.

But the roof of this cathedral was not pointed or arched in the typical style. It was flat and oval-shaped, reaching into the sky not quite as distantly as another famous cathedral bell tower.

“I wonder if we’ll see what’s up there.”

Once they climbed the flight of stairs, a great set of doors opened before them. Waiting inside was a massive church-like environment, filled with Magsi Eques. In the upper levels, Iguana Folk wearing silk vestments wove glyphs and hexes that hung in the air. Dwarven and Orcish priests chanted hymns to gods of light, justice, war, and even death before stain glass windows. And on the hallowed ground: Elven Blademasters danced with their swords, quicker then mortal eyes could see...and quick enough to impress, though not scare a demon’s eyes. By contrast, the humans in the room looked mundane.

Every culture had its unique way of praying or preparing for battle, and the humans seemed content to meditate, clean their weapons with holy and magic oil, or merely whisper prayers in different tongues. It was a fine collection of powers and skill though, perhaps even more so than the Imperial Flame.

Babs caught her young wards admiring the training of her fellows. “Yeah, they like to put on a show from time to time. Then again...well, you’ll hear about it soon enough. Come on, we’re going upstairs.”

Lucia looked up at the many long and twisting staircases of the cathedral. “We’re not walking up there are we?”

“Honestly I think you could use some cardio. But no, we’re taking the teleportation glyphs. Their range is crap but at least they can fit more than two people now. Hell, I remember when we had to take them single file.”

Babs ushered them to a large stone circle within one of the rooms of the Cathedral. Waiting for them was a dwarven knight in breastplate and chain, and wearing glasses.

He spoke to Babs with a crisp and proper tone. “Good to see you after so long Dame Barbara.”

He gestured towards Atma. “This is one you talked about?”

“Sure is.”

“And these are the De Fuoco scions?”

Lucia spoke up this time. “In the flesh.”

The Dwarven knight regarded the De-Fuoco ken for a moment and fixed a curious eye on Absalom. “You didn’t mention one of them was god-blessed.”

Lucia frowned, Atma mouthed an “ah, I get it”, Absalom suppressed a nervous grin and Babs shrugged her shoulders.

“His siblings didn’t seem keen on talking about it, so I let it slide.”

The Dwarf furrowed his brow, revealing his radiant glowing eyes. “You haven’t said anything about it, my boy?”

Absalom frowned slightly and seemed to be pondering something which caused him immense frustration.

But the Dwarven knight nodded in understanding. “The Blessing of the Muse. Always an interesting case. Well if you are so inclined, we can teach you how to master such a power. Though you seem to have a basic grasp of it yourself.”

Babs patted Absalom on the back. “He took me on.”

The Dwarven Knight smiled. “Very promising. But we’ll have to explore that later. For now, The Chapter Master will see only Dame Barbara and the young demon here. The others will be fed and cared for, all hospitality granted. ”

Lucia was about to protest when Absalom put a hand on her shoulder. He smiled and put a hand to his belly.

His sister rolled her eyes. “Fine, I guess I’m hungry too.”

She looked at Atma with a fierce glare. “If they say anything about us I don’t want to be left dark. You understand me?”

Atma smiled and nodded.

While Lucia, looking regretful at her tone, relaxed her face, and smiled. “Thanks.”

She then walked out of the room with her brothers following silently behind, after which they were lead off by another knight in full armor. Atma watched them go, and then looked up at Babs.

Who gestured towards the roof with her thumb.

“Alright Nelson, take us up.”

“Of course.”

The dwarf raised a hand with a ring on its index finger, and suddenly Babs and Atma were atop the massive roof of the Cathedral.

As Atma inspected the place, the occasional wind blowing in her face, Babs was curiously silent, and noise from the city below came as a whisper in her ear. The young demon recognized banners from all over the world, posted across the battlements. She saw weapons and armor placed lovingly and well cared for in racks and stands. Finally though, she noticed a massive distortion of light, resting beneath the sun.

She looked at it closer. “Um...I don’t mean to be rude but, I can see you.”

There was a pause, then a great but sharp laugh that resounded in the air, and for all Atma knew carried to the people down below. But she knew that wasn’t the case, as there were mystic wards that flared open at the tower’s walls. The laughter’s tone, though welcoming and calm, almost sounded like a roar, which shook against Atma’s ears ever so slightly.

Yet loud as it was, the voice was warm and inviting. “So, thine eyes are not simple vestiges. How Excellent. Thou art truly blood of the Beyond. But I have forgotten mine courtesies.”

The distortion righted itself. And shining against the light of the sun with its wings stretched so wide that they braced against the edges of the tower, and even against the wards, was the massive form of Silver Dragon.

Atma couldn’t believe her eyes, only Miranda’s beauty could have competed with such a radiant creature. His scales were of perfect symmetry, his massive arms and legs were muscled yet supple and agile looking like a panther’s, his head bore two great horns uplifted like that of a unicorn, and his wings, though massive, were possessed of both membrane and feather. His eyes though were a collage of colors, reminding one of a sunset sky.

He smiled big and wide, but not so much as to reveal his fangs. “I gather thou hast not conversed with my breed of life till now?”

Atma shook her head, to which the dragon smiled, and bowed its head.

“Then I am honored to be the first. In this age, much hath been found and perfected, and thus the wonder of discovery and innovation hath been lost. Fear that life hath become like clockwork, doth possess me at times.”

The Dragon’s voice, though deep and powerful, had no discernible accent. This didn’t exactly surprise Atma, as a Dragon was not necessarily bound by nationality or individual culture.

Babs walked forward, with a significantly less enamored weight to her step. “How’s it been, old man?”

The Dragon snorted but kept his smile. “Many have I considered kin young Babs, but among mortals, thou alone hath made it such a truly...familial experience.”

“Does that mean I’m your equal?”

“In class and mind if not in power...and in admission: Girth.”

The dragon cast a mournful glance at his own body. And Atma followed it, somewhat confused. There wasn’t any noticeable flab or deformity. And if even she couldn’t see it then how could it be there?

Babs leaned over and whispered in her ear. “It’s vanity kid. Not even the best dragon lets go of that.”

The Dragon’s ears perked up at that, and a slight growl of annoyance escaped his jaws. “Thy speech is just if also hurtful and not even barely demanded. But we have waylaid this conversation enough. I am Tristian the Dusk Smiter, and I extend to you my gratitude, young demon, for joining us. I gather from a mere glance that this journey has not been lenient with you.”

Atma looked at Babs, who nodded and encouragingly gestured for her to go ahead and speak.

Atma did so. “It has certainly been a long walk from Adder’s fall to here.”

“You bear such weights well. Pride ought to accompany you in this fact. But such things come later, and you more than most shall have time enough to acclimate to such lessons.”

Tristian paused. Before his smile faded, and his eyes became serious. “Tell me of Miranda...and your brother.”

Atma looked over at Babs, who gave a gentle and encouraging nudge.

Atma gulped down. “I don’t suppose I could have a-”

A chair floated in from the side and placed itself next to Atma.

She looked up at Tristian. “Thank you, sir.”

“Of course child, at thine leisure.”

Atma sat down in the chair, fell back in it. She stayed like that for a few moments until she leaned forward and her gaze remained fixed at the ground, far from meeting anyone’s gaze.

“Alright. A few years ago, while Miranda was still alive...”

************

The sun was up, and the heat with it. Such things hadn’t bothered her before, but now sweat trickled down her brow and her bones ached. It wasn’t all awful though.

Though she was surrounded by swampland, she had landed in the one patch of solid greenery for miles, and beneath a big enough tree to provide a bit of shade. Her company had also been wonderful.

Atma was a keen, witty, and passionate lover of life in all its myriad forms. The whole world would be at her feet when she grew up, and so many people would love to meet such a prodigious and kind-hearted young lady.

But after thinking about it, perhaps some people would better be saved for later. Babs was still raw from her losses. It may have been years ago but grief was not so linear a thing. Miranda smiled at the thought of her old friend, and then grew sullen again.

“Abram...”

He was sweet, he was brilliant, and possessed of a rare willingness to act when he needed to...he was also a young man in love. Though Miranda, like many angels, had wondered what love might feel like, those thoughts would always wash away under the tide of work and the higher ideals of reason, loyalty, and universal justice that her kind aspired to.

But even if she had been able to feel something akin to romance, she was convinced that it would not be what Abram felt for her. What he felt was...a fantasy: an infatuation with a woman in need, the same way a young man might love and help his mother. The fact that Miranda was much older than him also made the situation uncomfortable, even wrong.

There was nothing wrong with a man being chivalrous and dashing as he was. But there was little doubt that Abram’s attraction would only endure as long as he was in the position of strength. No young person, especially a teenager, could be expected to let themselves feel weak or vulnerable.

“He’s trying though...”

Abram was not quite like that though. The poor boy had the will of a soldier, the mind of a philosopher, but the soul of a poet. He had even been savvy enough to account for the age difference. And had concluded that since they were both immortal: they could wait for each other. He had even said that he would wait an entire three centuries, and even more if it came to that.

That last bit made Miranda blush a little, hearing such conviction directed in her favor. But those feelings didn’t change the fact that she was quite grown, though admittedly young as far as angels were concerned, and Abram was a teenager. Any love between them was wrong, and nothing would change that fact. But those were leisurely thoughts. She had other, more pressing issues.

“I can’t sense anyone and I can’t feel magic, even my own.”

Perhaps it was the swamp itself. Though she couldn’t sense the taint of corruption, there was a certain heaviness to the air and roughness to her surroundings that went beyond and device of nature. If she could get out of the swamp...

“I don’t even know how big the swamp is. Maybe the kids would know?”

She did intend on taking both Xian siblings with her once she recovered. They deserved far more than what the Imperial Flame had in store. From the sound of it though, many of the young initiates did as well. That thought weighed just as heavily as the situation with Abram. Miranda shook her head.

“Focus on what you can do now, with what you have.”

Footsteps grew closer, clomping through the mud with light splashes of swamp water. Miranda recognized them as Atma’s and got ready to stand. She didn’t want to Atma to see her weakened...but she failed. As soon as she started to stand, a great weight rose in her throat, and she fell back into the tree. She coughed, and then spit out sapphire ichor, which then evaporated soon after hitting the ground. Miranda looked at this with horrified and pained eyes. She thought quickly about why this was happening and realized the answer.

“Poison, the dragon’s teeth were poisoned...”

She coughed out more blood, just as the young Atma came into view. The girl raised a hand to her mouth, trying her best not to scream.

Miranda raised a bloody hand to try and calm the girl, delirious, and not thinking straight. “Dot...don...www...”

“What’s wrong Miranda!? What’s happening!?”

Miranda could hear her own words in her head and struggled to bring them out.

“This won’t kill me.”

“Thi...whoa...ki...”

Atma brought out a canteen of water and rushed towards Miranda, whose eyes grew increasingly hazy. Atma hurriedly unscrewed the top of the canteen. “Here! Drink some water!”

Miranda held her hand up, blocking the water.

“Let me go Atma. This body will pass, but I’ll be back, I’ll come back for both of you.”

Llll...m....ghhhh....”

Atma’s panic grew even further, then she tore off a piece of her clothing and made a haphazard pillow for Miranda, and laid her on her side. “Don’t worry, I’ll get help!”

Miranda tried to gurgle out a few more words but passed into unconsciousness just as Atma ran into the swamp and out of view. When Miranda woke up, she felt strange. No longer dying, but just out death’s reach. And she felt like she was floating.

As she blinked, her sight began to clear. She had a steadily clearing picture of her current circumstances...and she wished she had stayed unconscious.

“Please...please no.”

Miranda saw that there were chains wrapped around her limbs and that she was suspended above a dark pit, essentially cocooned in chains with only her head poking out. The air was cold, the torchlight was weak, and she smelled the stench of blood.

When she looked about to see where that smell was coming from, Miranda saw several corpses in various states of decay, all of them in the process of being dissected. The scent of disinfectant and alcohol did nothing to lessen the smell, and upon seeing the various glyphs and hexes on the wall, Miranda was thankful that her mystic senses were deadened, as she might have been overcome with the sheer amount of malice within the room.

A shrill male voice cut into her ears. “Marshall Kiernan is expecting us to ready by this evening. Pick up the pace!”

There was a clatter of glass vials and the crackle of electricity. Miranda looked to see where the noises were coming from and saw two figures.

One was clothed in very heavy cloth and leathers and wore a plague mask and chemical stained gloves. The other one a was much shorter girl, dressed in black and amethyst robes, and had long blonde hair that she occasionally had to brush away from her empty black eyes. The girl looked up at Miranda and grew distressed, even looking back at the doctor. While looking at Miranda she brought a nervous and “shushing” finger to her lips.

The doctor didn’t even bother to turn, as a gravelly voice escaped the mask. “Is the angel awake?”

The girl gulped down and shook her head. “No, sir.”

There was a snort of disappointment from the doctor. “Oh well...I suppose-”

The doctor brought out a set of scalpels and turned to his chemical-laden workbench. “-we can use her for parts.”

As the doctor sprinkled powder on one of the knives, and then set it aflame, the girl looked at it with a horrified expression, darted her eyes towards Miranda, and put her hands up in appeasement. “Wait! Sh-She’s awake...I guess I was wrong.”

The doctor extinguished his scalpel, put it down, and then brought the back of his hand across the girl’s nose. She fell to the ground with a small cry of pain, and Miranda could hear the trickle of blood. The angel struggled against the chains with what little strength she could muster. She was only able to make a few weak clinking noises.

The doctor turned towards the angel, cackling. “You’re wasting your energy on this one. Evangeline’s in line to be a warlock, worthless tool that she is.”

Miranda’s breathing grew hoarse, though that didn’t stop her from tugging at the chains as hard as she could. “Evangeline, Abram’s friend…”

The young warlock, stood up, holding a sterile cloth to her bleeding nose. There were tears in the young girl’s eyes.

The doctor turned towards his assistant, and his voice became low. “You will stop crying or I will whip you until you are no longer able to cry.”

Evangeline cleaned off her eyes and nodded quickly. “Yes, sir.”

“Good girl, now set up the wards.”

The doctor turned away to his work, and Evangeline wrapped the cloth around her face like a bandage, staunching the bleeding if only just.

She walked up towards the suspended Miranda with a quivering lip. “I-I’m sorry.”

Miranda whispered. “It’s not your fault...do what you need to do...”

Evangeline nervously looked back at the doctor, making sure he wasn’t paying attention. When she was satisfied, the young girl came closer to Miranda. “Are you...Are you Atma and Abram’s friend?”

Miranda squinted, almost struggling to understand, but she nodded her head. It was enough to give Evangeline some needed courage and a closed smile. “I thought so. He...he doesn’t look at me the way the other boys in the dorm do. That made me really happy when we first met. Some of the other initiates said he liked boys but I could tell...I could tell he was in love with a girl...er...woman.”

Evangeline looked back at the Doctor, who was busily examing his implements. So Evangeline turned back to Miranda and brought her voice to a whisper. “Listen...I haven’t known Abram for long, but he’s been nicer to me than anyone else here. He even stood up for me when the doctor got angry. Well, angrier than usual. He doesn’t know that you’re here but If I tell him where you are then...then maybe you can get out. Just...I need you to promise something to me. ”

Miranda looked at Evangeline, into those strange black eyes. But they didn’t seem empty at all. They were sad, but also hopeful.

Miranda nodded and Evangeline smiled. “Please take me with you when you get out...I don’t like this place. My...my parents didn’t care when they brought me here. They said I should be thankful, and that I was going to be a knight. I don’t think they make Knights here...not real ones anyway.”

Miranda nodded again, much quicker this time. No child deserved to be treated like this.

This brought a bigger smile onto Evangeline’s face. “Ok, we’ll get you out of here soon.”

Evangeline left her with that. After a few minutes, Evangeline dropped one of the vials onto the ground. It broke and scattered some kind of viscous liquid across the stone floor. That earned her another slap, and an order to get more of the liquid from the storehouse. The Young Warlock made a show of supplicating herself and running out the door scared.

The doctor cleaned up the mess, and as he did so, his broken voice crawled out from her plague mask. “Don’t look at me like that, angel. You won’t be around for much longer anyway, that poison is still coursing through your veins. We took some of it out, but only just enough to keep you from expiring. There’s still enough left to keep you weakened. So save your energy and your scorn.”

The doctor disposed of the broken glass and spilled chemicals into a furnace on the wall. As he did so, Miranda didn’t take her eyes from him. She saw the way the doctor would stoop, the slight limp in him walk, and the whiplashes on his wrists that peaked from underneath his gloves and sleeves.

Miranda closed her eyes and felt pity. “The abusers becoming the abused...does it ever end?”

The doctor turned from his work and saw Miranda staring back with heavy eyes. He laughed and swaggered over in her direction. “What’s that for? Do you hate me, little angel?”

Miranda shook her head and then turned away from her, closing her eyes and mouthing silent prayers.

The doctor kept staring at her, tapping an impatient foot. Her voice blared out again. “Then what? Why did you look at me that way?”

She kept at her prayer, not looking at the broken woman, or even inclining her head in his direction. She did hear his approaching footsteps though.

“If you don’t hate me, then why were you looking at me like that?”

Only more praying. Miranda heard the whirring of a wheel and the clatter of chains. She felt herself falling slowly to the ground, and heard the Doctor’s voice again, this time with a bit of panic in its tone. “If not hate then what!?”

Still more praying. Then a flurry of footsteps and the feeling of naked knuckles across her cheek. It didn’t so much as push her, Miranda had suffered much worse. She finally opened her eyes and saw the doctor staring down, panic raking his body. He then ran back to his workbench, only returning when she had a filled syringe. The syringe carried a clear liquid and was topped by a long needle.

The doctor looked at it lovingly. “This will reinvigorate the poison in your body. And not even the purest healing magic will be enough to save you. So tell me, why were you looking at me?”

Miranda looked into the man’s eyes and saw a violent and primitive fear that not even the goggles of his mask could conceal. She thought for a moment about what to say, and then gave an honest answer to the question. “Because I pity you.”

The doctor stumbled back, surprised. Then she snapped back, and her voice came out in a weak and panicked shriek. “How dare you!”

She stabbed the syringe into Miranda’s neck and emptied it into her veins. The pain was immediate, first in her neck, and then through her entire body. Despite all her effort, all her training, and years of fighting all manner of hellish pain, Miranda let out a horrific scream that tore through her own ears. She could barely make out the sporadic giggling coming from the doctor, as her vision became clouded, and the door to the lab suddenly opened.

The doctor turned, only to be thrown across the room and pinned to the wall by the massive lance poking through her chest. She’d been killed in an instant. Several sets of footfalls rang in Miranda’s ears, and she felt herself falling again, then felt the cold floor on her cheek. Then there were voices, panicked, and young. One of them rose above the others though, and silenced them, it was a boy’s.

“Just close the door Atma! Evangeline, you brace it up with wards and maybe some tables. I’ll...I’ll try and help her.”

Footsteps rang out again, and then the sounds of magic projections and moving furniture cut into Miranda’s ears. She felt tears racing across her eyes, and tasted her own ichorous blood on rapidly drying lips. Then she felt herself being lifted off the cold floor, a warm hand on her cheek. She gasped for air and smiled weakly.

“Abra...Abram.”

“I’m here Miranda. I can...oh gods...”

She brought a hand up to the one that was on her cheek, she squeezed it weakly but received a much warmer grip in return.

Abram’s voice cut in again, barely retaining control. “I’m sorry I didn’t get here sooner. And I...I told Atma to come and get me before she went to the doctor but she was scared. She’s here helping though...I don’t...I don’t think I can get you out of here Miranda. I didn’t make a plan, I just heard you were in trouble and ran right to you and now we’re all stuck here. Even Evangeline, bless her. I have no idea why she’s helping us...”

Miranda felt herself on the edge of death but held on. She couldn’t die now, not with the children here, not after they had all tried to do. It was her fault anyway.

“I shouldn’t have taunted the doctor, I should have recognized the damage...”

She tried to speak, but could only cough or move her mouth.

Abram’s voice maintained some composure, but just barely. “I’m sorry. I promise, if we get out of this, I’m never going into anything blind again. I’ll always plan and nobody will ever get hurt again...no one who doesn’t deserve it anyway.”

Atma’s voice came in. “Abram they’re breaking down the doors, they have hellfire weapons! I don’t think the wards will hold.”

Abram’s grip intensified. “We’re going to die here. You, me...Evangeline and...and my sister. Atma...”

The sound of shattered doors, and the heavy footfalls of steel treads. Atma screamed in pain and Evangeline yelled out a bunch of cusses in many different languages. Miranda felt the grip on her hand tighten.

Abram’s voice came in again, not one drop of sorrow or doubt contained within, only focus. “I love you...and I’m sorry.”

Miranda was confused, and then felt a sharp pain pierce straight through her chest. The pain was such that it actually brought her back into focus. She looked down and saw a sword thrust through her chest. She looked up and saw Abram, his face emotionless, his catlike eyes dead. But his free hand was still holding hers.

He whispered. “I can’t let my sister die here...I’m sorry. Please believe...please believe me when I say that I never wanted this to happen.”

Miranda tried reaching up at him, tried to bring a hand to his face, tried to tell him she understood. Then she looked at the blade in her chest, it was a Black Blade. Her face turned to horror, and looked for a reason for the weapon’s use on Abram’s face...the boy didn’t understand what he was doing.

She desperately tried to explain but only coughed up more ichorous blood. Then he twisted the blade, and Miranda screamed. She felt herself being torn in more directions than could be counted, felt her sight fracture like glass. She saw what was happening now, what had happened throughout her life, and all the rest of it. Then there was only this moment. The sensation of being killed, the feeling of her soul being twisted and broken, the sound of her screams.

She remained like this, unable to escape the pain, unable to feel anything but horror...then it multiplied. It wasn’t just one blade, but two, then three...six...and more. Then her mind went silent, no awareness, only silence...and the rush of voiceless thoughts that were not her own, rushing off in countless different directions. And she stayed like this, with no hope of escape.

*********

Atma clenched her teeth, and Babs walked forward, brushing her tears away with a handkerchief. Atma smiled and nodded her thanks.

Tristian looked at her seriously, seemingly absorbing every detail of the story. Smoke rose from his nostrils, then he snorted, producing a small burst of white-hot flame.

“When thou art settled, relay to me the aftermath.”

Atma gave her thanks, and then took a moment of silence. It wasn’t easy to revisit these things, let alone tell them to other people.

But she regained her composure and continued her story. “After he killed her, Abram claimed that this had all been a plan of his. He said he to make the angel suffer as much as he could, and then kill her. Evangeline and I knew he was lying, and so did Kiernan. But the other knights saw the Black Blade in Abram’s hand, and were taken in by his power.” She remembered the cheering voices, the cold look on Abram’s face. More tears came, but she wiped them away. “They thought that he was just an eager and exceptionally skilled monster. And they figured that fostering someone like that was worth more than the sacrifice of an angel or the life of a deranged scientist. So we were spared, and allowed to continue our training.”

Babs looked up at Tristian, who returned her stare with a grave look.

The dragon turned back to Atma. “He killed Miranda to bring you all salvation then?”

Atma nodded, and Tristian’s voice became curious. “Then for what reason does his hate pursue you?”

Atma’s eyes became vacant, and she looked as if she might cry again. Then she took a deep breath and continued. “He only realized that he had used a Black Blade, a year after. When he found out, after studying it...something in him broke. He would shout about how if he had known about the power he had in his hand that he would have just cut his way through and freed us all.

“I thought that anger would pass. I thought my brother would come back. But then Evangeline told me he disappeared. We went out to find him and he was looking at the Black Blade, we thought that he was going to kill himself with it. Instead, he turned to me, and he said:

“I can’t do anything now...but when I have the chance, I will put you through everything she went through.”

Atma buried her head in her hands. “Evangeline was speechless. She said sorry to me and tried talking to Abram, he just ignored her. He blamed me for...distracting him. For blinding him from his true course...he said that I was as responsible for Miranda’s death as the Order was since I told them about her. I tried explaining that I was scared, that I was only trying to get help...but he wouldn’t listen.”

The young demon fell back into her chair, almost looking older just by recounting the conversation. “He just walked away...and that was the last time he ever talked to me. After that, when our training was finished, we were deployed to missions. He earned fame his brutal strength and the brilliance of his strategies. I was kept on auxiliary duty because they thought I was too soft. I found out later though that Evangeline had blackmailed one of the mission commanders to keep me away from Abram. She didn’t want him to get a chance to kill me. Then one day, I was out on patrol...and Babs found me...and then all the rest.”

Babs and Tristian exchanged a glance, then looked back at Atma.

Babs spoke first. “Well, it looks like you’ve got more friends than you admit...maybe we can get Warlock girl to help us out...But for now, what are we going to do boss?”

“A new face shall be inducted into our ranks.”

Atma looked up with a surprised face. “So soon?”

Tristian laughed. “Not soon enough, I think. Before such festivities though, you have earned rest…and should know that Miranda is not altogether gone.

“How?”

“Our lost comrade soars paradise yet again, perhaps with sufficient clout towards her masters, she might descend once more.”

Atma’s became hopeful, and her eyes flared with hope. “Miranda’s ok?”

The Death Knight was grim, more so than in her other moments of seriousness. “No, not even close. Her soul’s been split into more pieces than can be counted…but an Angel doesn’t die like we do. Those pieces of soul can flare up and interact with us if we find them. I guess if we found all of them-“

“We could bring her back.”

Babs paused, seemingly debating how to best tell yet more unpleasant truths to her protégé, and her apprehension showed in her speech. “Angels can only be brought back with the consent of their peers, and not all of them were happy when Miranda came down to Caminus. Especially that one bitch...”

None of these obstacles deterred Atma’s hope, nor the childish energy when she stood to ask more fervently. “But it could really work?”

Babs remained stationary and gestured towards Tristian. “The Old Man’s more sentimental than I am. And to be honest, we’re not the only ones your brother has hurt over the years. He has a lot to answer for.”

Atma nodded with some sorrow, then realized something. “He was headed to Ulq as well...and he was ahead of us. Why hasn’t he made his move?”

Babs looked up at Tristian, who closed his eyes.

A few moments passed, then the dragon’s teeth clenched, and a low growl escaped his jaws.“His ambitions have moved past shadow...now he looks for war.”

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