Xian

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Chapter 3.3: Evening Blues.

“When I had grown into my knighthood, I was given free rein to quest and fight wherever I saw fit. Such was Bellona’s faith in my abilities, and such was everyone’s trust in my character. Over the years, my infatuation with the Goddess cooled, for such are the ebbs and flows of a young heart, mortal or otherwise. Instead, my lady and I enjoyed a mutual respect, and I was only ever called upon for the most important of tasks.

I don’t think I realized how important that interest was though, for its cause was the same that drove me to decipher the mysteries of magic, perfect the skills of the sword, and learn the arts of people: I was incomplete. I thought the way to solve this was by relationships with other people. With them, I could understand what I needed to help in myself, and what I could give to others. What a fool I was. To seek in other creatures, what had always been mine…

********

After working for many hours, Atma decided to take her break on the easternmost tower. Sitting with her back to the city and the wide-open river stretched before her, Atma wondered if she could see the incoming Taiyang army. Abram had always focused on his forging skills, and expanding on his monstrous strength. Atma was more focused on the utility of her demonic abilities. Agility, reflexes, and even a foray into an enhanced sense of smell (until a journey into the Adder’s Fall stables convinced her to refrain) were among the experiments.

Now though, Atma tried expanding her sight...with some trepidation. “Alright...here it goes.”

With a little opening and shutting of the eyes alongside a transfer of magic through her body, Atma was able to magnify her vision. It was a horrific experience. The first thing she noticed was an incredible number of brown ridges, and then the sun glaring off them in so blinding a fashion that she had to close her eyes again. She then tried turning around, only to open her eyes towards a very intimate and awkward encounter between two squirrels.

Suppressing the urge to vomit, Atma once again turned away and tried to reverse what she had done with her eyes. Yet her magnified sight turned itself toward the blinding sun and she felt a stunning pain rush through her eyes and seep into the rest of her skull. It was so much that she fell to the floor while tears fell from her closed eyes and several ragged breaths tore from her lungs.

Through all the pain though, a small and irony sensing smile came to her lips. “So much for self-improvement...”

Gritting her teeth, and knowing there were worse things than curiosity coming for her, Atma was able to fix the damage she did to herself. Through sheer will and long honed focus, the pain began to ebb away. The process was still exhausting though. So she stayed on the floor, flat on her back, and let the sweet feeling of hardwood cushion the many new knots in her back.

Much to the amusement of a bubbly though discerning voice. “Glad you came back up.”

Atma smiled and opened her eyes to see Babs’ skull mask and long hair staring down at her. Not the most appetizing sight to wake up to, but one that Atma had gotten used to. The Death Knight dropped a hand, which Atma grabbed, and raised the young demon to her feet. Babs then guided her apprentice to a (slightly) more comfortable seat on the crenelations.

The negligible comfort of the space elicited a “hmmm” from Babs. “Can you forge a chair?”

Atma shook her head. “No, I haven’t explored my forging abilities nearly as much as Abram has. He even made something that captures and plays music.” Memories of intricate sounds from all sorts of instruments and voices came into the young demon’s mind. They were warm, if somewhat painful recollections.

The sense of loss was not lost on Babs. “Sounds like an inventive mind.” She was genuine in her condolences. Sensing not only the loss it had given Atma but also conscious of how much potential Abram had lost in his obsession.

This empathy did little to comfort Atma. “He was...”

Still conscious of the discomforting air, yet hoping to turn it around: Babs took a seat on the ground, with a strange amount of grace, and let out a relaxed sigh. “How come you never tried?”

Atma shrugged her shoulders. “I never liked forging. It always seemed so fake.”

“It’s potent though.”

This conversation wasn’t new for the Young Demon. Her answer was well-practiced, though her eyes shone with deep thought, “Yes. But I never needed it. I never needed to make a chair because I was fine sitting on the grass. I never needed a knife to open things cause my hands were always strong enough. And I never felt the need to record something because...well it’s silly.”

“No, go ahead.”

Atma looked to the sky, seeing the trees, feeling the wind, and last rays cast by the setting sun. “All the sounds I liked to hear always came back to me.” She hugged her knees to her chest, her short hair brushing against the boiled leather.

Babs was quiet for a moment, though Atma had had the distinct feeling that her teacher was searching for whatever was beguiling the Young Demon. The Death Knight lifted her chin a bit, and an almost matronly concern tugged at her voice. “Are you nervous about the battle?”

“Yes.”

“You’ve been in fights before. Including some pretty dangerous ones.”

Atma shook her head, remembering those fights. Of how cold she’d become in the moment, and how that made her scared, and ashamed. “I never liked them. Not the end anyway.”

Babs tapped her fingers on the steel on her armor, thinking about something. Then she leaned forward. “Atma, what do you feel when you kill someone?”

Atma kept her eyes to the ground but shrunk into herself a bit. “I run through every reason I did it. Whether they were going to hurt someone, or me...and I try my best to not let my emotions get in the way of what I need to do to survive.”

“Does it work?”

“No.”

Atma’s grip on herself tightened, and every word took an armies’ worth of effort to speak. “And now I’m walking into a battle. More blood, more lost lives, and more of that numb feeling that...that I have to force on myself so I don’t feel like crying. I always feel like crying whenever I see that look in their eyes: That last look in their eyes.”

There was growing anguish in the young demon’s cat-like eyes. And it’s only counter was Bab’s eyeless stare. But that familiar tenderness kept in her voice, marred only by the air of loss. “What do you think they’re looking at?”

“It’s like they’re looking at everything they’ve left behind and just realized that they’re losing it all. And knowing that I’m the one taking it from them makes me feel like I’m every bit the monster that The Imperial Flame tried to turn me into...I hate it.”

Babs twiddled her thumbs for a moment, letting Atma shed a few tears into the dry stone. Then brushed aside a few strands of her hair, and gave Atma as straight a look as she was able. “I think I might be the wrong mentor for you.”

“Why?”

“Well, any normal old person would have some sermon about living life to the fullest, and you sort of got that with Jose...I’m a little different though.”

Atma looked expectantly up and Babs, who kept her gaze but seemed to be struggling for words. The Death Knight felt compelled to answer, yet the young demon noticed her mentor tapping her fingers along her arms, and heard what might have been shuffling within her black armored boots.

It didn’t take long for Babs to recognize that no words would make the situation any less horrible. So she decided to get it over with and cleared her throat before adopting a more clinical and instructive tone. “What kind of person do you think would shepherd the dead?”

Atma was perplexed by this question. But she recognized the signs of incoming self-deprecation. So she sat a little straighter and tried to head it off. “Someone kind enough to help those in need, and decisive enough to know when to let them go.”

“You forgot vicious enough to use them as magical fuel. But even the kindest person has a limit on how much shit their willing to crawl through. No, the only person who makes death their mission, is someone who likes it.”

A pitying look came into Atma’s eyes. And the Young Demon couldn’t help but feel sad that the woman before her couldn’t accept her own quality.

This seemed lost on Babs, who talked on. “The first battle I was ever in, was when I was still an initiate. A hundred knights and their squires were sent to arrest Lord Friedrich Reichman for abuse of authority. Well, our commander was an idiot and accepted Reichman’s petition for parlay...inside his lordships keep. Also like an idiot, our commander brought all of us into the castle. You know what happened? Crossbow bolts and fire blasts.”

“The Knight Commander and his horse fell like a sack of bricks, and most of the experienced knights joined him in the first few seconds, including the Knight I was apprenticed to. Everyone was afraid, everyone except me. I used the bodies of my master, and another idiot I can’t remember as cover against enemy fire and managed to get inside the keep itself, where Reichman was. His first look was one of surprise, but it turned cocky real quick. He said if I surrendered myself to him, right there on the dining table, that he’d let the other knights go. I took my sword, took a bolt to the shoulder, and then killed the other guards who were way too slow on the draw.”

Atma kept listening, wondering where the story was going.

The tension in Babs’ voice was palpable, and she seemed to be reliving the moment as she retold it. “Once I was alone with Reichman I stripped him down and then shoved him into the courtyard, my back to the wall and my sword at his throat. I asked nicely and he told his soldiers to throw down their weapons. I asked nicely again but with the top of my boot to his sack and he brought all of them into the courtyard as if to surrender. Once that was done, and the surviving Magis Eques encircled them...I cut Reichman’s throat and said: “Our turn now.”

Atma’s eyes widened, and Babs continued. “The enemy, some of them just teens, didn’t have a chance. Some of them reached to weapons that were on the ground and were the first to get cut down. And not one person in our unit said anything, not until the fight was over. When we were burning the bodies, and packing the rest of the Reichman family, including his five-year-old son away for trial by the Crown, a few of the knights came to me and said what I had done went against every law of chivalry and common decency. I pointed at the blood on their swords and asked if they’d be in the same court. They shut up after that, especially when the other initiates cheered me on for saving them. And do you know what I felt?”

Atma closed her eyes, hoping it wasn’t the answer she was expecting.

Babs gave it anyway. “I felt amazing. Having the power of life and death in my hands, being able to succeed where my supposed elders failed, and being praised for every moment of it was intoxicating. I felt like a god, and I wanted that feeling again and I got it over and over. I was promoted to a junior knight of Bellona two days after that and took the most balls to the walls assignments I could get my hands on...and I didn’t give a second thought to anyone stupid enough to draw steel against me. Not until I met two people.”

Atma raised her head, knowing the answer. “Miranda and...and your husband.”

Babs lowered her gaze, looking almost ashamed. “I met Miranda while I was training to be a knight of Bellona. Seemed to be a good fit. But Miranda came to our training and showed exactly what a seraph of battle could do with just a training sword. To my credit, I lasted the longest, a full ten seconds. But she invoked the whole Herald of Paradise shtick and showed me the ropes of being a bit more charitable, while still being hard as iron. She brought me to where Reichman’s son was being kept, and how he was being abused by his new keepers. Even I had a problem with that, and it took me a few more tries but I realized that there was more to killing a person than just the act itself. Every life is tied to the rest, and I needed to think, even if only a little, about which ones I was taking.”

Atma was afraid to ask, yet knew she had to. “What about your husband?”

The Death Knight went quiet for a moment, and upon speaking sounded as if she were far away. “I told you how we met. But I don’t think I got across just how...how simple he was. Not simple like an idiot. Just very direct, very sure of what he was doing, and very moral and just. Maybe that’s the blessing of simple people, they just keep to what’s right and don’t complicate things. He hadn’t ever killed a person in his life or won any wars. But he still married me just because...just because he loved me.”

Babs began twinning her hair around her finger, clearly nervous and unsettled. And yet, The Death Knight’s voice had carried a happy air. It felt like heat from the embers of a fading flame. “I learned what it was like to be normal. To have a home and people in it. Seeing my kids get a scraped knee hurt me more than any crossbow or fist, and I loved every moment of it. When I was a soldier, I could only take life. But as a wife, as a parent...I made it and helped it grow. I had hopes about what I would see next and what new joys would jump into my life. All the great things my kids would grow up to be, and what new small and wonderful thing my husband would do just to show he cared...and then I killed them all. Even if Xavier made me do it, it was my hand that killed my family...my children...”

Babs suddenly became conscious of the hair she’d twinned around her finger, and hastily unwrapped it. “I prayed to Anubis to bring my family back...and he spoke to me: “Should I also bring back the families you took before them? And all the futures you destroyed?”

The Death Knight took a deep breath after that, clearly pained by the memory. Such pain that her words sounded forced and bitter. “I realized that Xavier had proven his point. For the first moment in my life, I felt the full force of every life I had taken...because I had finally realized how precious it was...and how necessary people like me were.”

Atma had an inkling of where Babs was going with all this. But she had to be sure. And so asked with a trembling voice: “What do you mean?”

“You can be strong or you can be happy but you can’t be both.”

Atma thought on this for a few moments. Her brow furrowed in undisguised frustration. This disappeared though, replaced by a hopeful look concealed behind a neutral tone. “Can I say something?”

“Sure, I’m getting tired of my voice anyway.”

“I think that having a good life makes you strong enough to protect it.”

Babs was in disbelief, and some actual fury crept into her voice. “Didn’t you listen-”

But Atma wasn’t going to back down, and she stood up from her seated position. “I did, I heard that the life you had with your family was so wonderful that you had to make sure everyone else could have the same. Even if it meant hurting yourself. But you have friends, you have me...I can’t help but remember what Jose said about letting the dead, lifting us up instead of dragging us down. I don’t think you would fight as hard as you do unless you knew there was a place for you in the lives you protect.”

As Babs put her hands on her hips, probably ready to shoot back some rebuttal.

But this was not to be, for Absalom came running into the tower. “The seers are reporting magical interference.”

The Death Knight seemed almost relieved by the report. “Which means that the Taiyang are making their move.”

Atma looked along the walls, and saw several soldiers rushed in with longbows and various other implements of magic and war.

Babs motioned with her hand. “You and Absalom come with me. We’re heading to the western wall.”

Absalom followed after her. His eagerness to be useful was clear, and he must have hoped to inform his own assessment of the battle. “You think they’ll try and cross the river? Won’t they just shell us from a distance?”

The fatigue and despondency in Babs’ voice were replaced by a decisive edge that carried into her stride. “We can keep them at bay as long as the wards are up. Maybe even long enough for the Royal Mobile corps to support us instead of whatever the hell they’re doing right now.”

Atma kept up with the Death Knight, annoyed that the previous conversation was unresolved, yet focusing on the immediate situation. “The Royal Army still isn’t sending in support?”

A derisive snort escaped Babs’ skull mask. “All we’ve heard back from the generals and apparently the Queen herself is that the royal forces in the area will be occupied elsewhere. So it’s up to us.”

The Young Demon was put off by this, and engaged in a nearly desperate search for the reasons behind such an incompetent move. “There must be something else going on. Do you think our communications are compromised?”

“Tristian checked them himself. We were in the clear until the Imperial’s brought the curtain down. Damn interference magic...”

Absalom chimed in, perhaps sensing Atma’s tension and hoping to provide some alleviation. “So we’re going to protect the scrying tower?”

Babs looked towards the large tower in question, taking in the alien spiral at its top. “Yep, in case they send in infiltrators, or to supply some magic if they try to worm their way in with some kind of curse.”

Atma thought about this. She didn’t like how much of the battle she wasn’t privy to, all the different variables filled her mind with unease that threatened to spiral into fear. With one fear taking the helm.

“If anyone else was directing the assault, I’d think we’d have a chance. But Abram’s been so many steps ahead of us this entire time, and yet we never met him on the Aurelian. What kept him from looking for us? What was so important that it kept him from hunting us down when we were in plain sight?”

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