Xian

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Chapter 1.9: The Cretinous Approach.

“Family is a curious thing. No creature, whether mortal or immortal, can go without it. Even when our own blood betrays us, we seek familial bonds in friends and mentors. We give of ourselves to these people, and if all is fair, they give to us as well. We all seek companionship on the stormy sea of life and hope the great love we share with others is reciprocated. No matter how cliched or childish such love might seem.

To be made happy and make happy, to hold and be held…We all seek such a connection, and even the illusion of such a thing is powerful. So powerful in fact, that many fools have abandoned good reason in its name, thinking themselves unworthy of the genuine article, and settling for its echoes. For as wonderful as True Love might be, its loss renders the individual shattered and vicious. And yet, those playing at heroism fight to turn such pain into power, even as ugly truth rails against them…

********

On they marched. They trod upon cobblestones roads beneath tile-roofed houses, and on stone steps between temples and banking houses. Finally, they marched on white wood panels ascending up a great staircase into Skywood Hearth itself. Even beneath the ghostly light of the all-encompassing energy field, Atma couldn’t help but find the manse as beautiful as she did a few days earlier. But now it was a different kind of beauty. Not of something living. No, more like a thing ancient, something that had been loved and tended too in the distant past, and was now left alone.

“Is it all because of the De-Fuoco’s? Or maybe something else?”

Before she could contemplate further, Atma felt the push of a sword pommel against her back. She turned as far as she could with bound hands and saw the armored and helmeted Mage Knight in De-Fuoco colors, who had done the deed. He nodded his head toward the manses’ gate. “Move it.”

And move it she did, right alongside Babs and the De-Fuoco trio, with Constantine leading them forward. They were flanked by the Mage Knights wearing the De Fuoco colors, whose armor was caked with mud and grave dust from the journey into the catacombs.

But now, the jailors walked triumphantly into the manse, their broken prisoners in hand. There were no crowds following them, no jeering or similar mob activity. There was only a silent walk, save for the clinking of chains and the clatter of steel boots against the ground. Atma looked about, and caught only glimpses of scared servants going about their work, essentially hiding.

She thought on this, doing her best to search only with the sides of her eyes. “They’re so scared...do they always look like this when their lord deals “justice.”

As they finally reached the doors of the manse proper, Atma saw the town’s elven population. They were being kept in cages, a few hundred people rounded up and placed between steel bars while tall golems, humanoid constructs of steel covered in runic insignias, watching over them.

Arcane beams of light shot out from their eyes at anyone who tried to so much as poke their arms through the bars, leaving no more than a charred stump in place of a hand. Atma grimaced, reminded of her earlier training...of harsh taskmasters with bloodshot eyes, of a brother who protected her...and then didn’t. But forward they went, through the double doors, and then into the luxurious and now dimly lit halls of this breathing home.

“How much pain has this place seen?”

As if in answer, the wood of the house itself creaked where once it did not, and the ceiling seemed to climb ever higher as if running from the prisoners. Atma cast a glance at Babs, and saw only the blackened skull and determined pace that was the Death Knight’s mask. But all the rest seemed gone.

The easy confidence was subdued, her proud chin turned towards the floor, and even her lavish hair seemed suddenly tame. Atma looked away and wondered if this was the real Dame Barbara, the real woman when stripped of all finery of person and wearing the air of defeat. If that wasn’t the case, then this person in front of Atma was a supreme act.

Before the young demon could think any further, Babs’ voice, soft and bubbly, yet clear and audible, echoed through the empty halls. “Sorry about this hon, I didn’t think it would take this long.”

Atma looked at Babs, the skull mask staring right at her with blank eyes. She somehow sensed a real apology behind that mask, and in those words. So the young demon accepted it with a weak shrug. “It’s alright. As you said, you had reasons for staying.”

“Yeah, but in retrospect...I’m making you a double fugitive here.”

Atma considered this, her expression hidden behind her now replaced mask. “I don’t know, that sounds rather exciting to me.”

Babs shook her head and chuckled softly. “Yeah, the outlaw lifestyle has its perks, but I’ve seen how it ends.”

“I haven’t.”

Babs looked back at Atma and the amusement in the Young Demon’s eyes. Then with a final look towards the ceiling, that might very well have been a prayer, the death knight nodded. “Well, we’ll get there when we do. For now, we ought to look our best.”

Atma turned her head forward and saw that they had been brought before another set of double doors. These seemed to be very recent additions. They were adamant gates, forged into the house with magic. Atma knew this was true from the burn marks against edges of the door that touched the walls. The wood was fused, or rather melted into the doors and vice versa, a combination of artifice and nature. She had seen such things before, but always with a bit more elegance.

There was a sense of pride and harmony in the blending of sapient craft and willowy nature in those past works, the ones that Miranda had shown her at any rate...but this, this was forced. An unwanted coupling of elements that seemed intent on pulling free of each other the first chance they got. It was through these now parting gates that Atma was ushered through, and the rest along with her.

Upon entering, she couldn’t help but feel disheartened by the faint light that pierced through the crystal geode windows at the back of the room. This appeared to be the Count’s personal audience chamber, his court so to speak. It was a large and stone covered room that was empty except for banners bearing the De Fuoco crest, and a single blackwood throne that sat atop an elevated flight of stairs. At the steps sat Carmina, dressed in well-tailored if simple robs of emerald green. Her face was riddled with fear and worry. Count De Fuoco himself stood by the throne, his left hand behind his back, and his right hand rhythmically tapping on the arm of his seat.

Upon seeing Constantine, he smiled. “Excellent my boy, you’ve done well today.”

Constantine bowed deeply, and Atma looked from the corner of her eye as Babs rubbed the tips of her armored fingers together. As this was happening, Constantine rose from his bow and spoke in a slightly strained voice. “My pleasure fath...my lord.”

Count De Fuoco waved a hand for his son to come forward just as he walked towards Constantine. The heir advanced sheepishly and met the embrace of his smiling father.

The count beamed with pride. “You’ve proven yourself a good son, Constantine.”

There was another pat on the back from the jubilant father, and then the pair parted. Count De Fuoco’s smile shrunk into a grim emoteless mask, and he walked in quasi-military lockstep towards his traitorous children. “If I ever felt more disappointment as a father or shame as the master of this house...I cannot remember it.”

Carmina stepped up to her husband. “Cosimo we discussed this.”

“And I gave my final word on the matter.”

“I did not give mine!”

Man and wife stared at each with daggers in their eyes. Finally, Cosimo straightened up and smoothed his hair while his eyes raced between a myriad of unseen thoughts. “Your mother is convinced that your treason is born of some kind of altruism. I am convinced that you all need of strict reeducation...Those of you who are of my blood at least.”

Carmina touched her husband’s arm. “If we kill them, the Magis Eques will bring all the-”

Cosimo wheeled around on his wife. “There are rumors of troop movements from Taiyang. Both the Crown and their dogs are busy preparing for that. Besides, these two are on the run from something, and I suspect they haven’t managed to get into contact with their superiors for some time.”

Atma raised her masked face. “If we die here, it won’t go well for you.”

Cosimo didn’t even look at Atma and kept his gaze on Babs. “You need to teach your servant respect. Although...you never did have much in the way of courtly manners.”

Babs shrugged her shoulders. “I have my moments.”

“But not in the face of nobility?”

“Hmmm...when your nobility washing into your character, maybe you’ll see me bow. Or curtsy I guess.”

Cosimo laughed out loud, with a slightly mad tint in his voice. “Still defiant and ever so charming about it. In that country girl way, I suppose.”

Cosimo seemed about to say something, then smiled. He backed away with a confident swagger, and then stood tall once more. “I heard you’d died. I imagine that’s the reason for-”

He indicated at the armor and skull mask Babs was currently sheathed in. “-This?”

Babs didn’t move a muscle, and her inaction elicited a further amusement from Cosimo. With this in mind, the Count De-Fuoco pointed a condescending finger at Babs and fixed Atma with a lethal stare. “Tell me, girl. What do you know of your teacher?”

With shock in his voice, Lorenzo, who had been silent up to this point, rattled against his chains and nearly pulled away from his captors. “Let them go, father! We’re the ones who betrayed you! They only-”

“Silence child, they aren’t worth your pity...no more than the elves we’ll be using for kindling outside.”

That elicited a slap from Carmina, which echoed throughout the hall. Cosimo was unsurprised and took the comparatively mighty blow in stride. Not even looking at his wife, or registering the surprise and obvious horror on his children’s faces, he kept his gaze fixed on Babs. Even as his voiced needled Atma. “Your mistress has quite a history, and since she aired my dirty laundry, I feel it’s only fair that I do the same.”

Atma cast quick glances about the room and saw the Mage Knights man all the doors and entrances to the throne room. Catching herself from looking any further, she did her best to resist Cosimo’s taunts. “Whatever you say, it doesn’t change the fact that Dame Barbara has always done right by me.”

“Perhaps, but your mistress is guilty of some hypocrisy. You might have already suspected this, but she was not always a Death Knight. No, she was once a bright and fine-looking girl.”

Carmina stepped forward and tugged at her husband’s shoulder. “Cosimo I beg of you, don’t taunt this woman any-”

He shook her off and continued. “In fact, our mighty Death Knight settled down with a family.”

The Death Knight in question held her gaze and her stance like a statue. Atma stole another glance at the Mage Knights, who were weaving incantations of protection around the doors and adamantine gate. She then took her gaze back to Cosimo, who stood imperiously, gloating over the still defiantly tall Babs. “That’s right. She was something of a homebody, even during her adventuring years. So, after she became a knight, she used her clout to pick up a nice house, a darling husband and managed to squirt out two rascally kids. One boy, one girl.”

This got Atma’s attention. And she and saw the tightening grip of Babs’ hands across her chains, as wells the flicker of violet flame between her fingers. But the only people who could see it, the De Fuoco kids and the Mage Knights, remained silent on the matter.

Leaving the Count free to continue his abuse. “But an Elven knight, in crimson armor, came to her home. He had heard of her prowess and demanded her help in some enterprise that, even my snoops in the court couldn’t discover. Whatever it was, our Great Dame said no to his request. So, he killed her family, and left her in the dirt, wounded and broken. It makes one think.”

Cosimo looked seriously at Babs, wrapped his hands around his arms, and got right in her face, though he was a few inches shorter than the Death Knight. But this did not bother him, and despite the worried and horrified looks of everyone in the room (save for Constantine and Babs), he kept on talking.

“It’s so strange, so strange...that my friend, the defiant and brilliant friend that I had all those years ago, would not be hunting down every elf within the whole of Leo until she found the killer. That’s why I didn’t believe it when Constantine told me your name in private. I’d heard the great stories of a black armored “Angel of Anubis” of course, but I never figured it was you. After all, you should certainly have better things to do then chaperone a single runaway.”

Babs hadn’t moved the entire time and had managed to settle her hands the moment Cosimo began to walk over to her. But now, she turned her head and stared at him through the blank slots of her skull mask. “So you’re the leading authority on what I do with my life? That about right Cosi?”

Cosimo raised his chin, and his voice became wrathful. “The elves once kept us as slaves, and even now the many elven nobles throughout Leo hold us in contempt.”

Babs stepped forward, her chains clanking on the ground and around her armor. “Our master wasn’t one of them. He didn’t deserve murder.”

“A means to an end. A stepping stone from which I and my family can do great things.”

“And the elves in your fief? The ones you swore to protect, and have got tied down in cages? What about them?”

Cosimo’s voice echoed throughout the room, underlined by a petulant shrieking. “A preemptive strike, before they can become something resembling a challenge!”

Atma stole a final glance at the Mage Knights, whose incantations had finally been set. With that knowledge in mind, she gathered arcane energy in her hands and sent small wisps of light into the hands of the De-Fuoco children.

Any chance that Cosimo had of seeing this was taken away by Bab’s now raised and angry voice. “I always knew you were insecure, hell who isn’t at times. But to grow up into such a jaded, vicious, and self-righteous little shit? What the hell happened Cosi?”

The Count raised his voice, desperately trying to match her tone. “I grew up! I was tired of being held back by birth! By the system! And all the rest! So I took hold of my life. And now, for those of my children who have earned it, I’ve made a bright future.”

Lucia looked up at her father, a cold look in her eyes. “Where is Absalom?”

Cosimo snorted sarcastically. “Brooding as usual. Maybe composing another song.”

Babs looked at Atma, who nodded. This exchange wasn’t lost on Cosimo, who then had a sudden realization. “Godsdamnit-“

Babs broke her chains and manifested her sword from the air. Reaching into a window of pure shadow, and pulling from it the mirror-like blade. A chorus of faint screams could be heard from it, and the mirror blade even seemed to shift and distort in the light.

Before he could react, Cosimo found a knife in his leg, courtesy of Constantine, whose eyes now glowed with a violet hue. The Count looked at his dead son in horror, frozen and impotent in his fury. Carmina, perhaps more on instinct than intent, projected an energy shield just in time and intercepted the next blow. As this was happening, Atma manifested two scimitars in her hands, and cut her bonds with the blades. As she turned though, she found Francesca and Lorenzo frozen and confused.

The thought of fighting their father and the sight of their rotting brother must have been too much for them. Lucia on the other hand melted her bonds with a concentrated fire spell, burning the locks on the chain from the inside, and protecting her from any spillover from the molten metal. She lifted her hand. In response, her staff, which was resting in the hands of one of the undead mage knights, flew to her prepared grasp.

Upon seeing her befuddled siblings, Lucia voiced her impatience. “What the hell are you doing!? Stay on task!”

That seemed to snap the other siblings back into focus, just as a green light shone atop the adamantine gate, and through that light came Absalom, floating softly through the air, with his guitar in hand. He took one look at his surroundings, noted the undead, and then with a mournful look in his eyes: brought his hands to the strings.

Lucia screamed out: “Cover your ears!”

Absalom began playing a soft and beautiful tune on his instrument. In response, Constantine closed his eyes, and fell to the ground, permanently dead. Lucia shot of bolts of fire at Absalom through her staff but he simply floated in the air and dodged.

From the same light that Absalom had crawled through, a few regular knights and men at arms jumped. Five of them got through before Babs pointed her sword at the green light and a burst of violet flame shot from it and devoured the light. The wood surrounding the area became twisted and gnarled, and the entire manse shook and a great screech of pain could be heard.

Babs cursed under her breath. “Sorry old girl.”

Babs took stock of the situation, then let out a disappointed grunt. She took off her cloak, and from her shoulders emerged two night-black raven’s wings, wreathed in the same violet flames as the rest of her magic. She rose into the air, and though she was staring down Absalom, she directed her voice towards the De-Fuoco kids. “Take care of the guards, I’ll handle your brother.”

Francesca was already advancing towards the now shaken guards but cast a glance towards Babs. “But-”

“Don’t worry, he’ll make it through. I promise.”

Francesca seemed to take the veteran Dame at her word and charged forward. Covering her charge was Lucia who fired off bolts of flame, and then Lorenzo. The young man was charging into the guard’s flank, sword in hand.

Babs than cast a final glance towards Atma. “Looks like you have the boss, little one.”

Atma looked over at Cosimo De-Fuoco, who had pulled the knife from his leg, and was now rushing his wife into a secret passage that was hidden beneath the throne. Atma threw one of her scimitars into the throne, shattering it and causing pieces to cover the passage just as Carmina had gotten through, but before Cosimo could descend.

Atma conjured another scimitar and took a deep breath. “One day, I’ll get to pick my own battles…”

The music Absalom was playing became more and more impassioned and even violent. He looked in frustration at the undead knights and found them still standing. He then fixed his glare at Babs, who shrugged her shoulders innocently, even as her sword shimmered, and a chorus of screams had grown to match Absalom’s playing. Finally, he stopped his playing, and instead began to cast bolts of lightning at Babs, who either slapped them away with her gauntlets or took them on with the thick of her armor.

She then flew towards Absalom and they engaged in an aerial duel. All this happened at the edge of Atma’s perceptions. Her primary focus was Cosimo, who had no more boasts to offer and instead weaved his hands through the air.

Atma charged forward and attempted to carve into the older man with her scimitars. But he simply snapped his fingers and teleported a few feet away from her. Once he had gained som distance, he shot off a bolt of lightning at her. Thinking quickly, Atma shifted her swords into a massive scutum shield. The lightning crackled along its surface, yet the light was too much for even Atma’s eyes, for a while anyway.

She grew used to this barrage of brightness and turned to see her opponent weaving more circles into the air. The lightning barrage was now pouring from a floating orb of a bluish tinge. The newly conjured circles then flew at and surrounded Atma.

Once in place, each one poured forth fire, ice, more lightning, and even acid, respectively. Atma spread her hands to both sides and the shield encapsulated the space around her, blocking out the attacks made against her.

Cosimo wondered at this. “That is not your mistress’s magic. Nor anything taught in an academy...and you’re far too tactical for a mystic. Most of them would go insane if that much flowed freely through their body.”

Atma bent some of her shields, angling them so that flames and acid streamed through the path of least resistance, and right back into Cosimo. But the crafty wizards’ defenses were up, the Orb that had been firing lightning exploded into a display of light that dashed away both streams of attack and the sigils conjuring them. But with the orb gone, Atma had an opening.

She took one of her shields, leaving the ones at her flanks and head intact, and then transformed it into a crossbow. She fired a transparent bolt at Cosimo, who threw a ring of arcane sigils at the bolt’s trajectory. Once the sigils intercepted, they wrapped around the bolt just as it was about to dig into Cosimo’s neck. The bolt than dropped to the floor, and was entangled and then crushed by the sigils.

Cosimo smiled. “Constantine told me of your encounter, and the trick you pulled with your swords.”

“He didn’t learn from his own mistakes”

Atma’s reply had been cold, firm, and with a very animalistic glare in her glowing eyes. But that did nothing to dissuade the arrogance and the very human fury within Cosimo’s own eyes.

Which were now narrowed at the exact details of his son’s death. “I had assumed it had been the more ungrateful of my children, from treachery. Or perhaps that whore of a death knight, at least it would have been a worthy end against a powerful foe.”

Cosimo spread his hands, casting more arcane sigils about the ground. From those sigils rose energy constructs of humanoid shape. Jagged mouths rippled across their material, and they all spoke in Cosimo’s voice. “But to die to you? That is but the first of many insults to be avenged.”

With that, the constructs reached into the ground, and the entire mansion shook. Branches of twisted wood and stone sprouted from under the feet of each clone and stabbed towards Atma. She managed to cut a few of them down but several managed to pierce right through her chest. The branches then lifted her into the air, and with a casual wave of his hand, Cosimo used them to send her flying into a wall.

The wall cracked slightly as she impacted and slid down but then regenerated itself. Lorenzo saw this and ran to Atma with a fierce passion that tore out from his lungs. “Atma! Are you all righ-”

Yet his chivalric charge was halted by a grisly sight. Silver ichor, not blood, flowed from Atma’s wounds. And as the mask and hood she wore tumbled off her head, her sharp features and messy short hair were once again exposed.

But now, the lines of gold, and the veins around them pulsed at a rapid pace. The silver ichor burned into the branches, and an unearthly scream rang throughout the mansion, or rather, from the mansion. Cosimo waved a trembling hand, and what was left of the branches retreated to his feet and those of his constructs.

Confronted with this, he threw fire on the contaminated parts of the tree, seemingly ignorant of all other concerns. While he did this, Lorenzo looked at Atma with widened and shocked eyes, for as she walked forward, the wounds in her chest began sealing themselves with a burning hiss.

Cosimo was so occupied with burning away the infections on the branches, that he did not see Atma fold her hands over and over until they spread and conjured a great hammer. She then took said hammer and smashed it into Cosimo’s shoulder. The old wizard cried out in pain and fell to the ground, his clones dissipating. When Atma, her eyes aflame with rage on account of her still burning wounds, lifted her hammer up for the killing blow, Lorenzo ran forward and shouted at her. “Wait!”

Atma heard him but her back was already into the swing, which glanced off the upraised and magic encased hand of Cosimo De-Fuoco. The magic then spread into a sphere, barricading the Count behind a thick field of transparent arcana. In response, Atma formed the hammer into a large drill and then drove it into the field. The energy contorted and bent, almost like it was pushing against the drill.

For reasons that she didn’t understand, and consciously ignored, Lorenzo ran up to Atma and yelled: “Let him stand trial! Please!”

As Lorenzo screamed these words out, Absalom’s unconscious and smoking form slid across the floor. Babs then flew over and descended to the ground next to Atma and Lorenzo, her wings vanishing in a flash of violet light. Her sword was still drawn, but as she looked at the still squirming branches of Skywood, and the silver ichor that began seeping into the ground, her fury abated.

With a disappointed growl, Babs placed a firm though calming hand on the Young Demon’s shoulder. “He’s the only one who can heal Skywood, and keep the people from starving.”

Atma stopped her bloody work, and the drill dissipated in her hands. She then raised these bruised and bloodied things to her chest, feeling the impressions that laid there. They would soon be gone, after a day or two. But they still hurt, and Atma had to sit down on the steps beside her.

With his life no longer in immediate danger, Cosimo dropped his shield. But before he moved forward, Babs lifted her sword to his throat. Her luscious Auburn hair was still, and the empty eye sockets of her skull mask seemed ready to bite into something. “You’re going to move slowly to the branches. If I see you conjure anything other than healing, even as much as a match’s worth of fire, I’m taking your head off.”

Cosimo nodded as much as he could manage, before kneeling at a measured pace toward the squirming branches. He wove his hands around the branches, and arcane sigils wrapped around them. They cut the pieces of the wood that were covered in ichor, and entwined rather than regrew the now restored wooden veins. The branches retreated into the earth, and Cosimo stumbled from the ground. “What a fine mess my children have brought me.”

The energy field that had been around the town shattered like glass. The pieces of it dissipating before they hit the ground. Atma opened her mouth to ask a question, but Babs answered it before the words escaped. “Skywood needs to rest up. After being twisted to save its master’s ass and then being handily...defied, the old girl needs her rest.”

When the De-Fuoco children gathered around their father, they all had a different reaction. Francesca’s was one of muted and angry confusion, Lorenzo was dripping with sadness and some pity, and Lucia flashed an uncontained and toothless smile. But then they went to their brother Absalom. Strangely enough, it was Lucia who helped him up, practically cradling him in her tiny arms.

Francesca bound his hands with the rope she kept in her pouch, and Lorenzo took a handkerchief from his pocket. He then wrapped it around his brother’s mouth and gagged him with it. As he did so, Absalom woke up and tried to burst forward, only to be calmed by Lucia’s hand across his cheek.

“Shhhh, it’s okay, this is for your own good...I’ve got you now.”

Absalom looked at his father, most likely seeing what Atma also saw. Cosimo was beaten, slowly weaving his hands around broken branches and drawing out tainted ichor which he then froze with arcane ice and then left on the ground. The young bard than looked over at his brother’s corpse. The vacant eyes and the accelerated decay that came from being a necromantic puppet had already set in. Surrounded by such sights, Absalom’s eyes teared up, and he collapsed into Lucia’s arms.

She cradled him with genuine love but looked at her father with a lethal eye. “You see what you’ve done old man? If you had just kept your games to-”

“I did what I did for the family, and for all the other families that were under the heel of elven arrogance.”

Babs edged her blade closer to Cosimo’s throat, only just managing to avoid a cut. “Our master never touched or abused any of us. He was a good man. He was-”

“He did it out of pity! He knew that his wretched species had to pay for its sins! All I did was forward the bill.”

Lucia kept her gaze steady, and merciless. “And now we have to pay for your sins, father.”

Cosimo looked at his other children and seemed to take pity on their sad faces, before finally resting his eyes on Lucia’s merciless visage. He continued his work but looked away from her. “I’m sorry I’ve been so harsh on you Lucia, I never should have struck you...I apologize, truly.”

Lucia cared nothing for his apology, querying Babs instead. “Where will you be taking him?”

“Up to Ulq, there’s a Magis Eques division there where we can-”

“What if he died here?”

The space was silent. Cosimo had finished his work by now but was now looking off into the distance, frozen by what he just heard…and his part in making. Babs looked him up and down, and let the blade drop from his throat. He collapsed onto his knees, his gaze vacant.

Lucia’s betrayed no emotion on her face, and her eyes just barely softened when she met Absalom’s gaze again. “Did father tell you to burn the records? Did he?”

Absalom, gagged and bound, stared at his sister with shocked eyes. But he nodded all the same.

This knowledge invigorated the young wizard, and her excitement built with each word she spat out. “If you take him in for trial, the first thing they’ll want is evidence. All of which is gone. So he’ll walk free. But if he died here, from unknown circumstances, or suicide-”

Babs sheathed her sword, still regarding the now muted Cosimo. “Ya I get the picture. What I don’t think you realize that I do realize, is that I know that if pops here gets in trouble with the laws, his titles and lands will be confiscated and held by the crown...away from you.”

Lucia blinked in surprise and received the barest shift of Babs’ unreadable gaze. “I’ve been at this a long-time little girl. I know raw ambition when I see it. That, and I have a basic grounding in Leo’s basic legal framework, being a knight and all.”

Lucia, still holding Absalom, grew angry. Her teeth became clenched and her hands trembled with fury. “Father may have failed but that’s no reason to punish the rest of us. We’ve been trained to rule this land, to lead its people. And the Skywood has already been bound to our bloodline and wizards crest, who else could-”

“That’s way beyond my paygrade. But as far as leading and ruling this county goes...”

Babs looked over the De-Fuoco children, then rested her gaze on Lucia. “I can’t judge all of you. You’re kids, and even Absalom and that little shit Constantine were just acting out of loyalty to their pops. You though...You can hold your brother as tightly as you want, but I’d bet you’d drop him if it bought you even a moment of power.”

The two women stared each other down, and Atma made ready to get between them, to hopefully find a peaceful end to all this mess. But as she stepped forward, an impulse of almost physically sharp fear cut it’s way into her mind. It lingered within her mind, crawling through her nerves and sensations with little abandon.

She knew what this was. Someone was searching for her, searching for her through the tendrils of magic that linked all things but most especially those gifted in magic. Even above the gifted were those who were bound to, or born of magic, who were the easiest to track through scrying. But such beings were usually keen enough to set up spells or defenses to prevent such tracking, and Atma was one of those people.

Yet now those defenses were being systematically broken down and causing a massive backlash within her entire body. Because no amount of defense could prevent scrying from taking effect if the caster and target were close enough, especially if the caster had a proper focus.

Such as the subject’s blood, or the blood of a close relative.

This knowledge in particular haunted the Young Demon. “No-no-no, not now...why now of all times!?”

Atma collapsed to the ground only for Lorenzo catch her on his shoulder, which she leaned on. Cosimo too was knocked out of his defeated stupor, and curiously looked over at Atma, only for Babs’ misty blade to unsheathe and come over to his throat again.

The Death Knight didn’t glance back at her apprentice but called out to her. “Atma, are we about to have company?”

Before Atma could answer, Francesca, who had gone over to the broken windows, turned towards the others with a frightened look on her face. “The people are rioting outside, humans, elves, everybody! And they’re being led by...my gods, that must be the largest man I’ve ever seen. And he’s covered head to toe in-”

Babs again kept her gaze at Cosimo. “In silver armor?”

Francesca nodded. And Cosimo gritted his teeth. “I’ve heard reports about a similar man leading the attack on Stonehause...you’re running from him?”

Before Babs could reply, Atma still leaning on Lorenzo’s shoulder, placed a hand next to her beating heart, calmed it, and then stood up. “Yes. His name is Sir Abram Xian, and he’ll do anything: deceive your people, burn this house, and murder all of you, if it means getting what he wants.”

Cosimo gulped down nervously, bet kept a straight face. “Sounds like a man of brutal and keen focus, I’ve had some experience with such people. And I think I can help you.”

Babs kept her blade to Cosimo’s neck. “What’s your price Cosi?”

The Count’s eyes shut for a moment, and a lifetime of regret passed through his features, if only for a moment. Then they were open again, and he was back to his domineering self. “First, Dame Barbara, I need you to swear, on your honor as a Magis Eques: That you will escort my children and wife to Ulq, away from this carnage.”

“You don’t plan on coming with us?”

Cosimo smiled. “Whether it’s the courts, my daughters’ intrigues or Abram Xian’s plated fist...my death seems inevitable. But I would very much like you to save my children. And in return, I will buy your escape.”

Babs kept silent for a moment, then lowered her sword. “You’re going to fuse with Skywood aren’t you?”

Cosimo nodded, and Babs chuckled. “Well, that’s one way to go.”

With that, the Death Knight turned towards Atma, scooped her up with one arm, and walked over to the blocked tunnel...much to everyone and especially Atma’s shock.

In fact, the young demon did her best to wriggle out of the bigger woman’s grip. “What are you doing!?”

“You’re too slow kid, and you’re still wounded.”

Babs kicked over the destroyed throne with a single blow, opening the way. From beneath that opening came Carmina De-Fuoco, who looked furious and then confused upon seeing her children and husband.

Before the lady of the house could say anything though, Cosimo interrupted. “They’re taking the children to safety. And you’re going with them.”

At these words, a sort of calm rested on Carmina’s face. She then Countess walked over to her husband, batting away the hands of her pleading children, even Lucia rose to try and pull her back towards the tunnel. “Mama please!”

“It’s alright, my bright girl. Even I can feel that monster’s power, and your father will need help to hold him off.” She kissed Lucia on the forehead and patted her on the cheek. “It’s your time now, so go seize it.”

Once she reached her husband, Cosimo looked down and away from her in shame. But Carmina took his hand and raised his chin. “Till death do we part, at the best and worst of times...I meant it when I said it, I think you did too.”

Cosimo looked up her, smiling weakly. “Well, I suppose that’s that then.”

He looked over to Babs. “I’ll buy you all the time that I can, just get our children away from here.”

Francesca helped Absalom into the tunnel, while Lorenzo futilely pulled at Lucia’s hands, and the young wizard screamed out. “Mama, please! Leave him! You don’t need to-”

“I do my love, we’ve had our time together, I’d rather end it here with him than linger into yours. Go. Go out and live the way I taught you.”

Cosimo embraced his wife but looked out to Lucia. “I was too hard on you all...I only wanted the best for you and I kept you from being the best you could be. I hope you forgive me someday but for now...I’m so sorry, and I love you.”

Lucia was frantic at this point. She screamed and eventually tore away from Lorenzo, only for Babs to walk up, punch her right in the stomach, and then hoist the young lady on her free shoulder. As the escapees turned into the tunnel, Atma glanced back at Carmina and Cosimo. They held each other tightly, and then they nodded a discreet thanks to her, before standing up, and turning towards the other door, marching off to whatever fate awaited them. That was the last she saw of them, for she then closed her eyes, and dreamt of her own lost family.

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