14. Astral's Vow

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They found the cart alone and toppled on its side, with all their precious produce trampled and muddied in the road, not but a half-league down the path from where Phalanx Andromedon had escaped for his life. The mule – as far as the eye could see – was nowhere in sight, smell, nor sound.

"Damn." Astral let out a controlled sigh and rose to a stand after inspecting a smattering of ruined carrots now floating amidst a murky puddle near the middle of the road. He took another whiff off the wind, but there was only the smell of the blood that stained his robes and the remnants of Regina's fear that clung without mercy to everything like a reeking protective dome.

He turned on one hoof to face the children. They stared at him a few feet up the road, huddled shivering and scared, unsure of this strange world around them, and the evil it offered behind its walls of firs and sycamores.

The mere sight of them raked pain over Astral's heart. This was the last thing they deserved to bear witness to. I vowed to keep them safe, but despite good intentions, the universe has called my bluff to keep them blind to further danger...

"Oh, bother..."

Astral looked around until he found the blanket Dwain had used to hide beneath, crumbled and filthy by the rear of the semi-capsized wagon cart. He picked it up, unfolded it at the corners as wide as his arms would go, and flapped the excess mud and grass, and vegetable guts off, like a whip. He then cleanly folded the blanket over one arm and hobbled back towards the children.

Regina was massaging Dwain's slumped and trembling shoulders the best she could without pricking herself on his spines. As Astral drew near, she lifted her chin at him. Sad and confused eyes penetrated Astral. Dwain's own gaze had fallen, staring off into the nothingness of his own broken mind.

"Here." Astral draped the blanket around both their bodies. But Regina shrugged out of her end and folded the corner around Dwain, to cover his shivering limbs completely. She hugged her adoptive brother tight, burying her face into the blanket.

Astral sighed. He lowered himself beside Regina with some effort, stared off at the ruins of their cart and produce. "What a mess all this is. Please forgive an old porcine, children."

He felt Regina's little paw on his shoulder blade. She rubbed slow circles against his upper back, as if to remedy Astral's own dour feelings.

"It will be okay," she assured him gently.

Astral appreciated the gesture. But the fact of the matter was there was no way he could lift the cart back onto its wheels all on his own. Not even all the Mana Energy in the world granted old and frail Astral Ages the strength needed to do so. They were alone now, in the middle of the woods, exactly between KeetoTown and the Hollow. Out in the open, with the uncertainty of danger hiding in the trees and shrubs all around them.

Regina's paw fell away when Astral shifted to reach inside his robes. He withdrew his long-curved smoking pipe along with a pouch of duskroot and matchbook. With shaky hoofs, he started to prepare everything in his lap.

They were too far out of the way in either direction to head back or forward. It was possible, maybe, to gather up whatever goods hadn't been ruined – but how much could two mentally-frail children and an old porcine carry on their own? It would be nightfall before they ever arrived at KeetoTown's gates without the aide of Phalanx and the cart.

Astral took a look in both directions, feeling Regina's silent gaze on him. Who knew how long it would be before the next traveller or merchant came along and found them?

Who knew how long until the next set of bandits, either...

Astral took a deep squinting puff off the end of his pipe as he thought and thought and thought on what it was he should do. He held the harsh-tasting smoke down his throat for a long while as he sat there in deep reflection.

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