Xian

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Chapter 3.1: Waking up.

“We’re coming up on the end now, are you excited? Regardless, I am nothing if not a generous creature, and I will try and explain some of the deeper meanings of this conflict. I’ll even throw in a few personal notes for context.

In my innocent youth, I was enthralled by stories of the ancient days, specifically those of brave heroes and knights. I had not thought anything of my being a dragon when I offered my services directly to the Goddess Bellona, for I found her more beautiful than any other. Apparently, I was not the first to do so, and getting that attention from draconic royalty instead of a “stocky neck-beard” was a breath of fresh air. Her words, not mine.

But the more conservative elements thought me a child, who only joined the order for a quick thrill. But I proved them wrong, over and over again, until the Goddess herself descended to knight me. There were good days before then though, even in my earliest training. I remember sitting with my fellow initiates in the mess and boasting of all the great things we would accomplish. Most of all, I remember how many of them died, in the service of such dreams…

********

The morning after her tell-all, Atma woke up in a plain room within the Magis Eques fortress. The sunlight streamed through the curtained windows and Atma had to blink a few times before she finally ducked out of the beams. After stretching a bit, doing a few exercises, and summoning a few weapons and dismissing them back again, Atma dressed in a new set of dark brown and boiled studded leather armor.

The armor featured runes across the cuirass and sabatons, which would protect from most direct spells. Atma had already made a few modifications to its structure, rendering it sturdy and flexible. One thing she hadn’t tinkered with was the tabard that she was now required to wear as part of her uniform: A field with a Griffin holding a scimitar in its beak.

“I suppose I’m part of a family again...hopefully it will be better than the last one.”

After donning her armor, and making certain it was secure, Atma left her room, and locked the door behind her. After making her way down the overlit stairs, walking through the main entrance hall, and passing by one of the priests of Justice, who wished her a good morning, she finally made it to the dining hall.

Beautiful plate glass rounded the entry hall, while the dining room was a single chamber of more than 1500 seats and many a grand table to accommodate them. On the west side of the room was the head table, reserved for the Chapter Master and other senior officers. Babs was there, seated on the far left of the high table. Atma waved quietly, not wanting to garner any attention from the hundreds of other people here, while Babs waved openly and indicated she would join her student shortly.

“Well, there goes the quiet first day.”

Not all, but most of those dining for breakfast, turned their heads towards Atma. There was a strange mix of awe, jealousy, and curiosity in the crowd’s collective eyes. It wasn’t a malicious sort of attention, but Atma still didn’t like it. Even as she sought a place to sit down, she thought of how she had hoped to earn her place organically.

Atma had already observed that she was more combat proficient then several of the full knights, let alone the many students. But she had wanted to prove that on a mission. Now, with Babs’ rather public acknowledgment, everyone would know there was something “special” about her. In fact...

“Hey! Sit here with us!”

“No! With us!”

People from all across the room were lobbying for her presence on their part of the table. But despite this onslaught of noise, Atma saw someone that she did want to sit with.

So as she moved towards the young man, Atma made a few apologies. “Sorry, I have a friend waiting for me. I know, I’m sorry.”

There were a few groans of annoyance but the noise lowered to a conversational level, and Atma was able to find her seat at the end of one of the long tables. Across from her, wearing a suit of light plate armor, covered in Magis Eques iconography, was Absalom. When Atma seated herself, the young man looked at her with a pleased smile, which she returned. “Good morning, Absalom.”

He nodded and even passed Atma a bowl of fruit that was going up and down the table.

She accepted, took a few grapes and an apple, and passed it to the next person in line as she talked. “I didn’t know you were joining the Magis Eques.”

Absalom gave a bright smile. He then tapped his mouth with a gloved hand, and then made a voiceless pose of singing. The young demon tried to follow along. “They took you in because of your blessing?”

Absalom nodded, and Atma tilted her head as she placed a waffle on her plate. “What about Lucia and your brother?”

Absalom shrugged his shoulders. Then he raised his hand to a position a few centimeters below his shoulder, pointed in between the space, and then made an angry face.

Atma chuckled a little as she once again passed a serving dish to someone else. “I’ll assume that she got angry.”

Absalom nodded and rolled his eyes. As Atma took a few more bites of food, she noticed that Absalom was simply looking at his plate, and seemed sad. She put her fork down. “Are you not hungry?”

Absalom looked a bit frustrated. Then, with some determination, he brought his hands to his chest in an apologetic fashion. Atma was surprised at this. “What do you have to be sorry about?”

Absalom once again became frustrated, and even a little embarrassed. He took a deep breath, shook his head, and then used his fork to tug around the food on his plate. Atma saw that he was organizing them in a pattern, specifically a letter. First came the letter “L” and before Absalom had finished sculpting out the letter “O”, Atma placed a hand on his utensil hand.

“I understand.”

Once more Absalom lifted his hands close to his chest apologetically, and his face mirrored this.

Atma managed a weak if understanding smile. “You didn’t do anything.”

Absalom lowered his hands and stretched them out slightly as if he were presenting something. And his face twisted into a sort of “Obviously” look.

Atma sat back and raised an eyebrow. “And you think that’s the problem?”

Absalom put his hands back on the table and looked mournful.

Yet Atma was there to assuage his fears and placed a hand on his. “You can’t take responsibility for everything your brother does. Believe me, I know.”

Absalom was silent for a few seconds. Then after gently taking his hands from hers, he clasped his palms together as if to say thank you.

At this, Atma’s smiled broadened a little. “You’re welcome Absalom.”

He then went back to eating his food, though this time it was Atma that paused. There was something on her mind. She mulled it over for a long while, even as she eventually took a few bites from her apple. Finally, when Absalom was finished, and he looked at her with some concern, no doubt noticing her absence in thought, Atma presented her dilemma.

“Is it hard to be blessed by the Muses?”

Absalom thought on it for a moment, then made a balancing motion with his hands. Atma had caught on to most of his sign language at this point. “So there’s good and bad to it?”

Absalom nodded. “And you’re okay with that?”

Absalom thought a little and then made a “sort of” motion with his hands. Atma thought about this. Straitening her posture as she caught some of the other initiates looking over at her. “Do you wish you could communicate more easily?”

Absalom’s features were taken by a sad frown. Yet when Atma’s expression began to darken, Absalom raised a placative hand and shook his head. He mounted a happier expression on his face, all to keep her happy.

But Atma had seen the truth and had the power to do something about it. So after clearing her throat, the young demon said: “I could make something that could help you talk. But, I also know that your silence is a big part of you so I don’t want to pres-”

Absalom waved his hand for her to stop and then nodded with a broad smile. Atma looked confused. “So you want my help? Are you sure?”

Absalom nodded again, still maintaining his vigor. His enthusiasm was contagious and Atma couldn’t bring herself to oppose it. “Alright, give me a moment. Do you mind if I touch you? I’m only going to put a hand on your chest.”

Absalom blinked a bit, then nodded in understanding. Atma was happy to be comprehended.

“I need to sense the magic that’s tied your voice. That way I can figure out how to tinker with it without hurting you.”

Absalom kept his smile and inclined his hands in a welcoming manner. Atma then reached a hand forward and placed it on his chest. She closed her eyes for a moment, and then upon opening them, found herself transported. No longer was she in the dining hall, but a great void of starlight constructs. She was surrounded by a multitude of glowing webs and trickles of light that wandered among them. She walked toward and grasped one of them in her hands. Light coalesced into her palms, and her tattoos glowed a soft sapphire blue. She made a connection with the source of this web, the core of Absalom’s soul.

Reaching out to and through the magic present in Absalom, Atma saw that there was indeed a touch of the divine woven around the fabric of his soul and body. But it was a streamlined connection and one that was easy to read. So she studied the various intricacies present in this blessing and then stored them in the mind forge that all Demons of The Forge possessed.

Once that was done, she crafted something that would further streamline the connection between the divine blessing of the Muses and Absalom’s soul. Closing her eyes, and opening them again, she found herself back in the dining hall, her hand still on the chest of a slightly embarrassed, but still focused Absalom.

She ignored that though and lifted her hand before outstretching it. “Here you go.”

In her hand was a steel ring, inlaid with a sapphire gem. The jewel was in the mouth of a sculpted dragon with a closed eye, and mixed streams of runes and kanji flowed around the band. Absalom looked at it with some hesitation.

This fear was not lost on Atma, who pulled her hand back just a little. “Only if you want it Absalom. I can always keep it away for later, or maybe you could I guess. It is yours after all.”

Absalom shook his head and motioned with his hands, politely asking if he could take the ring. Atma gracefully placed it in his outstretched hands. The young man gulped down, and then put the ring on his left ring finger. There was a slight pulse of blue lightning from the ring to his throat, which provoked a rough cough from Absalom.

Atma leaned forward and kept him from smacking his face into the table. “Are you alright?”

“I think so.”

The voice was a smooth basso, with a dark quality and grace to it. And of course, it was Absalom’s. Atma let him go for a moment, and he took stock of his situation.

“I think...I think this is my voice.”

Atma saw the mix of joy and confusion on her friend’s face and almost felt as if she were intruding. “It’s a nice voice. Very lovely in fact...in a manly way of course.”

The young man was still in a state of fascination, at a sound he thought he’d never get to hear. “That’s kind of you to say.”

Absalom blinked a few times and cried soft tears as he looked at the ring on his hand and then leaned forward and embraced Atma. “Thank you! Thank you so much!”

Atma hadn’t’ received many hugs but she had to admit that this was one of the nicer ones she had experienced. So she responded as best as she could, and after an appropriate amount of time, they parted from the embrace.

Absalom chuckled. “You don’t have a lot of experience with that sort of thing do you?”

Atma made a show of looking indignant but struggled to suppress her own knowing laugh. “For your information, no. No, I am not.”

“Well, thank you. And you’re going to keep hearing that for a while so I suggest you get used to it.”

Atma didn’t know how to react to all that, though she found his words quite charming. “I’ll just have to manage somehow.”

Despite this, Absalom still held a look of utter disbelief on his face. His smile somehow grew even broader than before. He even let out a few experimental “hmmm...” and “uh-huh” noises.

As soon as he started to garner attention from the others at the table though, he stopped and went back to talking to Atma. “You asked me if it was hard to be blessed by the Gods. But I have been meaning to ask you something as well…Or at least of how I could. Only if you’re ok with it though.”

Atma nodded, happy that Absalom was happy. “Of course, go ahead.”

Absalom paused a moment, considering how to say what he wanted to say. But his face became focused, and he got straight to the point. “Is it difficult to be you? To be a demon living with the rest of us I mean?”

Atma had expected a question like this and had been considering her answer for some time. Before she could respond though, a whistle rang out through the hall, and an aged but commanding male voice rang throughout the hall.

“Get to garrison! Now!”

Everyone in the hall immediately stood up and marched off in different directions in an organized fashion. All except Atma and Absalom, who had no idea what they were supposed to do. As they were about to ask one of the full knights walking past them, Atma felt a hand tap on her shoulder and turned to see Babs standing behind her.

The Death Knight motioned for them to follow. “You two are with me: Come on.”

They got up without any question or protest and wove their way among the crowd, following Babs for whom the other Magis Eques parted for as if she were some religious icon. Even so, the walk was a tedious repetition of the walk to the dining hall. Until it got to the towers. Some minor teleportation gates connected to the top, but there was a long line for those, reserved for engineering squads going to the different sections of the wall.

So Babs opted to take the stairs. Atma and Babs were fine, but Absalom, fit as he was, was still just a mortal creature. And Atma worried for his health on these stairs. Though to her surprise, Absalom seemed just fine, not even breaking a sweat.

Along the way, Atma caught sight of Lucia and Lorenzo. The former was accompanying a squad of mages into another part of the tower, and the latter was in tow with some foot soldiers. Lucia spotted the three of them and waved casually, but there was a sincere look of concern in her eye for all of them. Lorenzo caught one look at the ascending three and immediately cast his eyes down, focusing on his stride.

This didn’t bother Atmain the slightest. “I’m not ready to talk to him, I don’t know when I will be.”

A minute more and Atma finally made it to the top of this particular tower. It was a wide topped tower with a Fulcrum mounted on top of it. Atma could see the whole of the city and the countryside from this tower, with the only block to her sight being the massive spire where Tristian made his home.

Now that they had a come to a stop though, Atma had questions to ask of Babs. “Why are we being deployed?”

Babs turned and looked up and down and Atma. She then moved forward and straightened out the tabard the young demon was wearing. “Surprised none of the stingier grunts gave you grief over this.”

“Babs...”

“I know, give me a sec. I’m trying to wrap my head around everything too. But the long and short of it is this: Our scouts, who barely made it back alive, saw a massive force of 100,000 thousand Taiyang soldiers headed our direction. They also saw the banners of the Imperial Flame hanging around the camp.”

Atma swallowed. “Abram?”

“Not sure. If he is with them though, my gut tells me he won’t join the battle until things get dicey. Well, dicey-er I guess.”

Atma tightened her fist.

But before her teeth grated on each other as well, Babs put a hand on her shoulder. “Look at me.”

Atma did as she was asked and felt a seriousness to the grip on her shoulder that demanded her complete attention. Once it had been given, Babs continued. “You’re not on your own anymore, and I’m not just your keeper. You’re my student, my soldier, and I’m your commander. You do what I say, and you don’t go lone wolf. You hear me?”

Atma nodded. “Yes ma’am.”

Babs clapped the younger woman’s shoulder and shifted her mask a bit. Then she turned to face Absalom. “That goes for you too kid.”

“Of course, Dame Barbara.”

Babs reeled back in surprise. “Holy Shit! You can talk?”

Absalom cast a glance at Atma before looking back at The Death Knight. “With a little help, yes.”

Babs nodded, understanding the situation. “Well, no offense but that makes things a lot easier.”

“None taken. Plus, now I can sing that ballad Jose sent me without shattering everyone’s eardrums. So that’s one reason to survive.”

Atma looked over the ramparts. “When will they arrive?”

Babs conjured a ghostly raven before sending it forth. “The scouts reported back less than a half-day march. Which is what has me worried.”

“What do you mean?”

Babs’ voice grew grave, and a more analytic quality to her tone started breaking through. “Well, I’d like to think Leo’s scouts at the border are good enough to warn of a massive invasion force. In fact, I’m positive they did.”

“And?”

“And usually the Queen would send a few divisions of the Mobile Corps in response. But I was there when Tristian talked to her through the mirror. She just told us to hold the city and to accept any who surrendered with open arms. I even leaned on the representative she sent to us and he parroted the same thing.”

Atma dared to let a bit of hope creep into herself, and her eyes lit up with a before untended fire. “So she believes we’ll win?”

“I guess but she’s not filling us in on how. So either she’s worried our communications are being monitored by the Taiyang or she’s just playing her cards close her chest. Which would be a crappy thing to do, considering the loss of life we’re about to have.”

Absalom blinked, and then shifted his eyes between the other people present, who were too busy with their work to listen to the conversation. He leaned forward and hushed his voice. “It’s going to be that bad?”

Babs nodded. “We’ve got the garrison, soldiers in transit, and the Magis Eques stationed here with their retinues and trainees. That puts us around 30,000 troops. Which is fine against feudal assholes and the occasional barbarian horde. But against 100,000 Taiyang and however many Knights of the Imperial Flame? We’ve got our work cut out for us. Especially if one of the royals is with them.”

Atma gulped down with some fear. “A dragon half-breed.”

“Or even a full-blooded one, Anubis forbid. So for now, we get ready, and then we fight.”

Atma and Absalom looked at one another before standing at attention. Atma spoke up for both of them. “What do you want us to do?”

“Walk with me. Do what I tell you, help where I tell you.”

Babs made a hand motion towards the Fulcrum, which she began channeling mystic energy into. Atma and Absalom followed suit, doing the same as their commander. Once that was done, Atma followed Babs along to every Fulcrum that needed a charge and dedicated some energy to it, that was her morning and some of the afternoon.

But she did her duty, and the many thanks she received from her fellow Knights and initiates made the work that much faster. And it was a good thing too because otherwise, Atma would have done her utmost to disassociate herself from most of these people. Since in the back of her mind, she knew many of them would be dead before the day was done.

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