Xian

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Chapter 2.1: The Daring Escape

“Well that was fun, wasn’t it? There was intrigue, death, revenge, death, family drama, and more and more DEATH. I hope you also got a good picture of True Demonhood, specifically The Demons of the Forge. From their hands come the soul tearing Black Blades, the singularity vessels, and god-smiting Mors Deus. For all their inherent power, the demonic hosts would not be able to survive, let alone claim as many victories as they have, without such an arsenal.

Yet not all demons are so potent. Do you notice I often use the adjective True whenever I talk about powerful demons? Well, that’s because not all Pure Demons are True Demons…That doesn’t help does it? Ok: One day, after smoking some interstitial herb, True Demons decided to turn mortals into demonic creatures through the use of otherworldly contrivances. And of course, these Lesser Demons are nowhere near as impressive as their elder kin…

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The hounds were finally beaten. They were piles of ash that shrank behind Atma as Babs flew towards her on shadowed wings and picked her up in one move. The De Fuoco children ran behind with the hellfire first following and then subsiding once the roots covered it up. They then ran further through the catacombs on and on. As this happened, Atma noticed that the roots that reaching down into the catacombs were withering, and oozed with the same ichor that ran from her veins...only black instead of silver.

Atma clutched her wounds. “Babs, let me walk.”

The black plate mask turned towards her, and then righted itself onto its course. Then Death Knight took her time to set Atma down on the ground. The De Fuocos, by contrast, were stilled in various states of confusion and horror. Though Atma sympathized with them, she felt more inclined to act, a walked towards the crumpling roots. She then reached out her hand, grasping one of the plants and examining the ichor, or rather venom, that dripped from it.

After a few moments, she pulled her hand back in defeat. It was clear that there was nothing she could do for the poor tree, and even trying would carry the risk of marking their position.

Lucia was nowhere near as broken up. “Nice thought, but that tree’s about as dead as we are.”

Lorenzo turned to his sister with a creak of armor. “Lucia-”

“No! Father dying is one thing, but now Mother too?! We’re noble scions without any protection and surrounded by rival families.”

“We have Dame Barbara. She swore to protect-”

Lucia looked at her brother with the most confused and indignant expression she could muster. “Yes! Brilliant! We have the protection of people being hunted down by an invincible fiend in silver armor, and a witch that can summon hellhounds with the same ease that it takes me to spit!”

“Well...Well we’ll beat them. And even if we can’t then...we’ll survive some other way.”

“How Lorenzo? How will we survive?”

Before Lorenzo could answer her, Francesca stepped forward. “Because Mother told us to. It was her last request because she knew we were strong enough to carry it out. And if father made us anything...it was strong. So for her sake if not ours, we need to keep going.”

Absalom kept silent, looking up and around at the others, waiting for a response. They only nodded, with a grim sense of determination in their eyes. Absalom did not match their intensity, but he turned towards his sister and nodded as well. The solidarity made Atma smile until Babs tapped her on the shoulder.

“We better get out of here.”

“Do we know which way we’re going?”

Babs looked ahead into the tunnel, gauging something. Then she cracked her neck and addressed the entire party. “Listen up. You may not like your dad, but he bought us time and showed us the way out. You can grieve, but only after we get out of here alive...and get to a safe distance from the Imperial Flame. Preferably a few miles.”

There was an exchange of glances between the De Fuoco children. The only one excluded from this was Lucia, who made ready to deliver more indignant commentary.

Only for Atma to interrupt her. “I know what you’re thinking. Abram is hunting the two of us, but not you.”

Atma pointed between her and Babs, then continued. “So why should you journey with us, since we are the danger. Regardless of my teacher giving her word to your dead parents?”

Lucia remained silent but nodded grimly. Atma took a deep, perhaps even nervous breath, obviously not used to, or rather not comfortable with, delivering bombshells of this kind. But deliver it she did. “You were seen leaving with us. In Abram’s mind that makes you leads, if not our outright accomplices. If and when he finds you, he will manipulate or torture you until you give him what he wants. Then he will kill you.”

The De-Fuoco’s looked at each other. First with fear, then with that same determination from before. Lorenzo in particular seemed the most invigorated. “Very well then, we shall follow your lead.”

Atma kept a professional air, but couldn’t help but blush a little as she turned back to Babs. Whom Atma could tell was definitely smirking behind her mask. And when that was all done, the party continued on their way.

Everyone was able to walk on their own two feet by this point. As they went further on, the company felt the air grow lighter and easier to breathe. Even the tainted roots were few and far between.

Finally, they came to a large open area, a chamber that looked very much like Skyhold’s very own grand dining hall. Only the floors were rune inlaid stone, and the walls featured hieroglyphs, the same as those in the other section of the catacombs. This site was enough to stop Atma in her tracks, and survey the rest of the room. Babs had had the same reaction, and between the two of them, the rest of the party knew to stop.

Atma’s narrowed eyes looked between the walls and ceiling and were just barely able to determine the room’s larger purpose. “This place, it’s a binding chamber.”

The hieroglyphs depicted a battle between elves, perhaps aided by an angel, against a monstrous creature. The battle must have been costly, as all but one elf and the angel woman were dead by the end. The creature, badly depicted in the glyphs, but composed of some twisted amalgam of exposed musculature, with claws, spikes, and crawling about on all fours, was bound beneath the roots of a great tree. The very roots that trailed down into the center of this room.

Only these roots were now withered, dripping with blackened venom. And they appeared torn and tattered as if something had ripped its way out. Babs drew her sword, the soft screams of the souls within magnified by the surrounding silence. She then waved her hand forward, and six spirits in ghostly armor appeared in the air, flying through the room.

Atma herself, conjured not her customary scimitars or bow, but instead cupped her hands at her side and prepared her trump card. “If the chamber’s occupant was released...then I’ll have to use it.”

The air around her outstretched hands distorted, and when she drew her hands from the rift, they held a silver hilt, inlaid with emerald gems. She drew further and revealed the weapons straight and black blade. She held it in a defensive form. And as her grip adjusted to it, a loud growl rang out from the walls, catching the attention of even the wandering sentinels that Babs had conjured.

The growl became a voice. “I am awash with nostalgia, and joy. Truly, am I in the presence of kin? It has been so long since I have been among my equals in existence.”

The walls seemed to shrink, though Atma knew this was from her own unease, not any magic this new foe possessed. The De-Fuoco’s at this point drew their weapons: Lucia her staff, Francesca her axe, Lorenzo his sword, and finally Absalom, who plucked the strings from his guitar, which then folded into picks.

The voice rang out again. “How beautiful you are, lost child of The Beyond. But why travel with such mundane...well almost mundane companions. The undead are charming in their own way I suppose...”

Babs made a hand signal to move forward, but keep close. The party then advanced into the chamber. Not a hand trembled, and all of them were ready for the oncoming battle. Fear became an anchor of safety, and motivation, rather than cause to run.

The voice came yet again. “I see...you are not the one who freed me. And I see only just bound wounds upon you. No, you are not my savior, but perhaps their prey? Otherwise, you would not act so, when in the presence of kin.”

Atma wasn’t sure what to do, as she couldn’t find their enemy. “Where is he? Maybe if the magic in this room was still active I could…Wait, that’s it!”

If the runes and hieroglyphs in the room were once magical, Atma could use them to analyze the overall structure of the room. She genuflected and placed a hand to the ground, knowing that her plan was dependent on whether the carved writing counted as arcane engineering, which luckily it did.

As she channeled magic through the mystic web created by the runes, there was a faint tingle in her hand, and then her eyes lolled back into her head. As one might look at a diagram, so did Atma see every crack and space within the chamber. Most interesting of all was the reverberant nature of the chamber. You could probably hear the incoming footsteps from the adjacent passages minutes before they were even close to the chamber itself. Not only that, but there was a second level to the chamber, directly below, and a large breathing shape within.

Atma stood up and re-gripped her sword. “He’s below us!”

Her words were both warning and doom. The floor beneath her buckled and erupted in a shower of stone and earth. Luckily the sentinels which Babs summoned flew in and picked the party up before they could fall victim to the crumbling floor. They were held aloft for a few tense moments, but then the dust settled.

Out from the now present maw rose a huge claw. Raw musculature pulsed with a demented heartbeat encrusted beneath a layer of dirt and wrapped in torn branches and twisted roots. Then the other claw came up. It was as the other, and together they pulled up a massive, skinless, and reptilian body. It was not quite as big as the chamber itself, maybe ten meters in length, three in height. Its head was narrow but sported several fan-like ridges that dripped in in an all too familiar venom. Its tail was like that of a scorpion’s, but Atma knew the tail’s true power.

And as it waved in the party’s direction, Atma slid her hand across the flat of the Black Blade. An ethereal glow enraptured it, and once it had finished, Atma cut with it through the air. That ephemeral glow became a shimmering field that expanded...just in time to block the massive wave of hellfire that erupted from the tail.

The sentinels then flew to the sides of the shield, placing the De-Fuocos on what safe ground remained. Babs though, waited until the fire died down. The creature was fast and had used the onslaught from its tail as a distraction.

For once the flame had been launched, the monster had scrambled to find a way under the shield, which it did. It then leaped forward to try and swallow Atma. But her sentinel flew up in time to dodge, and Babs’ own escort dropped her straight down in the Demon’s path.

Atma thought on this. “It will only slap her aside, unless...”

As Babs dropped down in the demon’s path, the monster smiled a toothy grin. Atma guessed that he expected Babs to act in this clichéd fashion: leaping into his maw, sword in hand, and ready to slash through his soft inner tissues.

Instead, the demon sprayed venom from its frills, and each drop passed right through Babs’ now ethereal form. The Demon’s eyes widened in terror, as Babs passed right through him, in an ethereal ghostly form, then phased through him. Once she was at the tail end of his body, Babs became physical again. There she cut the scorpions appendage off, letting it fall to the ground and leaving a small burst of hellfire that disappeared as quickly as it had flared. One of the sentinels then grabbed and lifted her again just as the demon crashed through yet more stone and dirt.

Pressing her advantage, The Death Knight called out to Atma. “With me.”

Atma nodded, and the sentinel holding her dropped her just above the demon’s impact point. The dust settled once again, and Atma was greeted with a crumpled, quivering pile of raw musculature, drenched in boiling venom and rapidly drying ichor.

The demon’s voice came out in a quiver. “I’m afraid I’ve beaten you, dame knight, in the eternity of things...”

The Demon began to melt away, but that did not stop its tirade. “I’ve been confined in this body...this physical trash for so long that...well, I have grown tired and am not in my prime. But now I am free of this tether, at last.”

Babs flew towards him, brandishing her blade. “No such luck my friend.”

The demon’s darkening eyes looked at her misty blade, saw the fumes wafting from his body drifting towards it. He groaned. “Not just a Death Knight, but a shepherd of spirits...you think yourself powerful enough to contain that which is outside death and life?”

“We’ll find out.”

Before Babs did anything else, Atma stepped forward. “Can you really contain him?”

Babs’ grip on her sword remained firm. “I have to try, otherwise he’ll just reform and come back to kill again. Unless...”

Babs saw the Black Blade in Atma’s hands and shakiness of their grip. The tremor infected the Young Demon’s voice as well. “Is this the only way?”

“If you want to be a Magis Eques, you’ll have to start demon-slaying sometime.”

There was an exchange of looks between the two women, brief...but very serious. Then Atma nodded, walked forward, and raised her blade. The Demon’s eyes widened, and his voice became a scream. “Wait! We are kin! We might have fought, but even this you...I-I am a Bellos! A fighter demon of-of the third circle. We are long friends of the Artificio-PLEASE!”

Atma raised the sword, and still, the demon pleaded. “No! Please! That sword...IT-”

And with that, Atma brought the blade down up the creature’s head. There was not one but at least a hundred screams, as the sword evaporated, blade and hilt. Its vapors twisted about the body of the demon, seeming to tear or perhaps swallow whole parts of it. Then other vapors, of different colors and textures, were pulled from the demon’s rapidly decomposing mass. Each of them coalescing into a great storm.

Some tore free and wafted into the air, others sloshed about in obscure shapes, and then faded away quietly. The body itself didn’t even thrash about, instead, it dissolved entirely, and the great vapor that absorbed it dissipated into the air, with slight traces of it scattering in different directions. It was clear to more enlightened eyes that the Bellos had devoured many souls in its day, and now that its soul was shattered…

“So are the other souls it took…”

Atma fell to the ground, breathing heavily and considering her actions. “When they said it was a soul cleaver, I thought they were exaggerating but now…all those people…”

Babs knelt beside her. “It separates the soul from the body. The people that the demon consumed aren’t gone, they’re just free. Some of them are even here right now.”

Atma was tired, sad, and shaken. She’d had more than enough conflict today, and could only manage another weary plea. “Do you promise?”

“I do. Your brother gave me a crash course when he threw five of those at me. Wove em around like puppet strings. He’s a bastard, but he’s a tough bastard.”

Atma was even more confused and fearful. “Wait, then how did you survive?”

Babs lifted her misty sword for Atma to see. “I don’t bind souls, I’m more of a safe harbor, a glorified rest stop. So, getting hit with a Black Blade only strikes the bonds I have with other spirits. Meaning all I need to do is let go of one of my guests, and the rest of me stays fine.”

Atma’s eyes widened. “You sacrifice a soul?”

Babs shook her head. “Nope. Tether gets cut anyways, so I just toss it before the venom trails back to the rest. No one gets hurt. In fact-”

Atma looked up to see, the sentinels descended from the ceiling, accompanied five strange and tired looking ghosts. Babs stretched out her hand to the spirits in a welcoming manner, and they each took the hand one by one, disappearing after each individual contact. The Death Knight then gestured for the sentinels to resume recon.

As the phantom warriors did so, The De Fuocos climbed down to where Babs and Atma were sitting. The siblings were physically and mentally exhausted by what they had seen today. So Atma and Babs indicated for them to sit down, which they did with enthusiasm. The party sat took in a few well deserved breathes, and didn’t say a single word to each other for the entire break.

Then, as if drawn by some unseen summon, Babs got up and made for the opposite exit. “Alright kids, scouts say they’ve found a way out. Let’s move.”

No one complained about that order, though some had more trouble moving than others. Those special few, such as Absalom and Lucia, got a helping hand from Atma. To which Absalom smiled in thanks while Lucia only grunted. Once they got moving, the party marched undisturbed until they came before a set of dusty looking doors.

Before Lucia or any of the De Fuocos could belt out a suggestion, Babs just walked up and punched the doors...which then flew forward in a big bunch of assorted pieces. The party walked outside just in time to see the setting sun.

Even Babs enjoyed the sight but quickly refocused as she dusted off her knuckles. “I was hoping we wouldn’t have to do this, but since people are hunting us anyway...”

She snapped her fingers, prompting six great rifts to open around the party. Amidst the crackle of their arcane energies and the tremoring of the ground, six massive steeds emerged from these gates. They were mighty and handsome beasts, some of which even had glowing eyes and flaming hooves. But these mythic features diminished into more typical ones, and so the horses appeared as mortal, if still exceptional, mounts.

Each member of the party raced over to their horse, a smile on most of their faces...except for Lucia’s. “Really? Riding out into the sunset?”

Babs had already mounted her own steed. He a great beast of a horse, with black hair, and armored head to hoof in chain and plate. He seemed happy to see his mistress again, and she returned the feeling with a pat on his neck. “Well we tried sneaking through the woods, then we ran into you all during your horse hunt. Maybe a bit of speed and flash will get us further.”

Lucia shook her head but mounted up anyway. Once they had all done so, the party flew off across the plains, through patches of wood, and finally onto the main road. The De Fuoco children cast a backward glance, and Atma followed their gaze, knowing where it lingered. “I did the same when I left home.”

The walls of Skywood town stood proud but shrank in the distance. Far more disturbing and persistent was the withering husk of Skywood Hearth itself. The great tree looked further and further gone as it faded out of view, becoming black and dripping until finally withering into a dry pale husk. Its branches twisted and shrank until they were not but stubs.

Tears streamed down Absalom’s face, but he brushed them away with his sleeve and turned back to his riding. The others followed his example. Wearing worried but motivated looks on their faces.

Once more though, Lucia broke the mold and lingered on the dying sight. “They’ll all pay. Abram, that witch, and even Father’s ghost...I’ll drag them all down and climb over their corpses.”

Francesca kept her eyes on the road, keeping a deadpan expression. “That sounds difficult, trying to climb over a ghost.”

Lucia stared at her sister with fury and confusion in her eyes, but when she received no further commentary from her older sister, the young wizard kept silent. Save for that brief exchange, not a single word passed between the riders. They simply rode on and did not stop until the stars shone over them and they were deep in the woods adjacent to the main road. They set up a campfire, ate what magical food that Absalom and Lucia conjured up, and then went to bed. All except Babs, who kept watch.

But even though she was tired and bloodied, Atma was scared more than anything. Despite her best attempts to relax, Atma could not fall asleep, for the day’s events weighed on her. She finally got tired of trying not to be tired and rose from her cot to join Babs. As she walked over, trying her best to be quiet, the Young Demon heard Lucia’s voice. The young lady was shivering, and crying in her sleep. Atma had already been sorry for what had happened over the past few days and now felt even worse.

But as she walked forward to try and help, Babs’ voice came to her in a whisper. “Leave her be. What she’s going through won’t be cured by a hand on the shoulder or an extra blanket anyway.”

The Death Knight stood up, walked over to Absalom, and kicked him softly. He looked up and paid close attention when Babs pointed a thumb at Lucia while speaking to him in a gentle if concise tone. “Go hug your sister.”

Absalom didn’t need to be told twice. He moved with his blanket, draped it over Lucia, and then raised her up to where she leaned and slept on his shoulder. He balanced and let himself rest on to a tree, only stopping when he was sure they’d be comfortable. When he had, it was not even a minute before Lucia’s trembling stopped, and she relaxed into a sound slumber.

Absalom kept a cautious and caring eye on her for a few moments, before drifting off into sleep himself. This brought Atma a smile, as she remembered those times when she would shiver, only for Abram walk over and they’d huddle together in the cold of Adder’s Fall.

She thought on this until she felt Babs dropping her own cloak on her shoulders. The Young Demon wrapped herself in the cloak but still sat upright and hugged her knees. Now that there was finally some breathing room, Atma felt it was a fine time to ask a few questions…silly as they might be. “Do the Undead not get cold?”

“Not in any bad way.”

“Why the cloak than?”

Babs gestured at her ensemble in grandiose fashion. “All part of the knightly regalia, there are certain expectations after all...and a few perks when you say yes to them.”

“Like what?”

Babs thought on this, even looking up at the moon. When she finally had her answer, the Death Knight sat straight and listed off her reasons. There was even quite a bit of head movement and gesticulation as she spoke. “Well, lots of things. Simple ones like wealth, a bit of fame, and a nice place to crash when you’re done.”

She paused a moment, stroking her masked chin. “Let’s see, what else...Bigger perks like a big group of friends and comrades to come home to and share experiences with. I guess a sense of purpose is what most people are looking for when they join an order. Not that they always keep to it. And uh...Well, sometimes it’s more personal than all that. Sometimes it’s just goodwill.”

Atma tilted her head, finding the answer incomplete. “Goodwill?”

Babs nodded. “Yep. Goodwill from people. Sometimes gratitude too. Enough to get you married.”

Atma let out a surprised “huh” before continuing. “Really?”

“Oh yeah. For instance, you could be hunting vampires in some rural countryside and put them all down. Only for the last one to leap from the shadows and bite into you. You put her down, so she can’t turn you, but the bite still freaking hurts.”

The Death Knight lifted head and groaned. “Now this would be embarrassing enough. Then one of the locals, a very...uh...healthy, but soft-spoken man, offers to patch you up. You tell him to get lost, but he insists. And after about a week of awkwardly living in the same farmstead as you heal, the guy finally gets to courage to...well I wouldn’t call it courting but he certainly tried his best. And when he thinks that’s not enough, he tries even harder. And sometimes that all you need.”

Atma sat there with rapt attention, earning a chuckle from Babs. “I’m not much of a wordsmith, but I think I know a little more about the heart than some of them. Marriage will do that to you, then kids happen if you’re blessed.”

There was a silence after that, Babs seemed to have drifted off. Staring at something she had no real desire to see.

Atma was still curious though, despite her better judgment. But she still felt guilty for doing so, and that could be heard in her voice. “May I ask what happened? To your family I mean.”

No answer came, and Atma was worried that she might have crossed a line. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have-“

Babs waved away her apology. “It’s fine, you’ve already heard one version of the story. I might as well set you straight. I was married, and I did have children...I was in love. In love with my man, my son and daughter, and life in general. So much that I retired and started hunting game instead of demons and monsters...that didn’t sit well with some people though. One man...one person in particular.”

There was a cold quiet again. But Babs took another deep breath and continued. “He’s a red dragon, known as the Crimson God. And his name...his name is Xavier Bonaparte. The rumor was that he was a monster among monsters. A butcher of cities and a killer of whole families. This thing came up to me in my home and demanded that I join some asinine quest he was organizing. He said that he only took the best of the best, and I ought to be honored that he was considering me.”

Babs sniffed inward, as if to choke back tears, though none passed through her mask. She shook her head after that. “But I said no. And then he...”

Babs gripped her armor, plate clinking and chain shaking beneath her muscled hands. “He cast a Geas on me while my guard was down, and put a sword in my hand. Then as my husband came back with our children...Xavier pointed at them and said: cut off their heads, and place them at my feet.”

Atma’s eyes widened, and she instinctively looked around to ensure that no one else was listening to this tale.

When she was satisfied that no one was, she turned back to Babs, who had composed herself. “I had never begged before in my life, not once. But I...I begged. I begged Xavier to let me go. I begged my husband to run away and take our children. Then I screamed and wept. And so did my family until...until they didn’t. Then I did as Xavier asked. I placed the heads of my family at his feet. And he stared at me with his golden eyes, his damn blond hair blowing in wind, and he said: “Now you too, are a monster.”

Babs became silent again. Then she shook off her horror and finished her tale. “So I took up the sword and my knighthood again. I brushed up on my magic, and have been fighting on for about ten years now. Then I found you.”

Atma thought about this, but before she could say anything else, Babs looked away. “You better get some rest Atma. I sure as hell won’t be getting any.”

The Young Demon didn’t put up any argument and sank back into her makeshift bed. Despite all she had heard, Atma still had a question on her mind.

“How did she become a Death Knight and an undead?”

She let the question pass though. Knowing the answer would come when Babs was willing to share. Contented with that knowledge, and banishing the horror of the day through sheer will, Atma fell into another stormy sleep.

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