Xian

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Chapter 2.5: Battle in the Woods.

“The mighty Demons of the Forge, otherwise known as “Artificio” in the Domestic Elysian. Of the many Demons that left Paradise, these are losses that the Angels morn the most. For the demons of The Beyond owe much of their continued survival to the Artificio. Since Artificio are born with access to a “Mindforge” from whence they can channel magic into physical materials, which they can then shape into any weapon or device they can visualize.

But the training required to use this power is so grueling, that even a Demonic intellect can break from it. As a result, survivors place more importance on the perfection of their craft than on the simple goal of domination, as it the only way for them to reach their full potential. Some Artificio even leave the demonic legions entirely and search for anything that will aspire them to greater invention. Such inspirations include history, romance, and even family…

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The thundering of hooves, the breaking and thrashing of leaves on the trees, and the war cries of over twenty vengeful riders, this flurry of sound and brutality washed over Atma like a harsh tide as she and her companions instinctively focused on a single course of action: Break through the enemy center.

So they rode with that intention in mind. Babs’ drawn sword, Francesca’s axe, Lorenzo’s blade, and Lucia’s staff were practically screaming for blood. Atma though saw the arcane etchings on the enemy weapons and recognized her brother’s craft.

“Better numbers, and comparable equipment...We won’t come out of this unscathed.”

So thinking quickly, she conjured a much larger version of her bow and fired an enormous shaft into a tree that was in the path of the attacking elven center. The shaft pierced directly into the tree’s roots and caused it to topple onto several of the incoming riders, except one. This one, a mage, released a stream of flames from her outstretched hand and completely burned away the section of trunk that was about to crash onto her. She smiled in triumph, and Atma responded with a piteous look.

“She doesn’t understand.”

Being the only one in the path of the escaping party made this mage the sole subject of their wrath. Specifically, Lucia, who cast a beam of arcane energy at the mage, who was just barely able to block it with her own magic. Now that she was distracted, Lorenzo rode in and sliced into her side with his sword. Killing her and casting her into the ground.

Lucia smiled at the tactic’s effectiveness. But as the party rode through the opening that the mage had created with her burst of flame, Atma noticed an unhappy expression on Lorenzo’s face as he looked back at the dead elf woman. Before she could think on it further, her focus was torn to the remaining fifteen elves chasing them, their hunting bows drawn and preparing to fire.

Atma found this strange. “We’re in range, why aren’t they already firing?”

When Francesca tried to turn her horse towards a different direction than straight ahead, veering left, three shafts flew from the enemy bows, two missing their mark, and the last biting directly in her armored shoulder. The wound was not deep, but it was a nasty scratch and hurt like hell. Looking at the arrow closely, Atma recognized that it too bore Abram’s markings.

She screamed at Francesca. “Dump the shoulder guard! Now!”

Not bothering to ask why, Francesca did as she was told, but not fast enough. The pauldron began to crumble on its own, boiling down into liquid metal, seeping into Francesca’s shoulder.

The young woman screamed but powered through and with a smoking leather-gloved hand shoved off the burning metal before it ate into the rest of her armor. The cloth on her shoulder though was twisted, and burned into her flesh.

Tears flowed down the young woman’s face, but only controlled breathing escaped her mouth. She’d pull through. More arrows came flying towards them. Lucia thrust her staff into the air, and a great wall of energy sprang from it and encircled the party...to no avail. The arrows twisted in the field and then broke through it, speeding through and biting directly into the undead mounts.

Lucia cursed under her breath but Babs called out. “Don’t worry, they can take it.”

Atma inspected the horses and came to the same conclusion. The mounts wore no armor, and so no metal would melt into their bones. Their nature as undead, likewise made them durable and unfeeling to all but the worst pain. Despite this, Atma couldn’t help but wonder where they were being corralled by their pursuers. They were equipped for a fight and had been able to encircle them. What other plans did they have in wait?

She looked forward and got her answer. ”Damnit.”

There was a small pond in front of them. And levitating on a small block of ice were two elven mages in ragged clothes. One of them held the ice block aloft with a gesture from an outstretched hand and twirled the other above a rising wave of water from the pond. As Atma drew another arrow from her conjured bow, the mage thrust her hand forward, and the wave surged toward the party. The other mage thrust his own hands forward, and lightning surged from them and into the wave.

Babs saw the wave coming and called out again. “Hold!”

The command elicited some looks of confusion, but all did as they were bid. As the charged wave came crashing down. Babs’ ebon flame wings burst from her back, grew, and then enveloped the party entire. The wave crashed over them, lightning crackled against blackened flame as the water turned to steam, which obscured the surrounding area. Babs took heavy breaths beneath her mask, and Atma noted beads of sweat dripping through her auburn hair. She trotted forward on her mount.

“How long can you maintain this?”

“Not much longer, unless I start using souls. But after seeing what the arrows did to Lucia’s shield, I couldn’t think of anything else to do.”

The flames grew fainter, and Babs’ breathing became ragged.

“Alright kid. Can you conjure a phalanx of shields? Ones that will hold out against their arsenal?”

Atma nodded. And Babs turned over to Absalom and Lucia. “Can either of you use wind elements?”

Lucia looked at her brother, and Absalom nodded.

Babs’ breathing started to grow more ragged, and her attention was fixed on maintaining the fading black flames. “They’ve got us encircled again, and the steam outside might be charged still. So I need you to make a gale that blows it away from us and into them. After that, Atma will make a small barricade for us so we can get our bearings before making our next move. We clear?”

Everyone nodded and prepared for battle, Absalom took out a flute from his pack and placed it to his lips. Atma placed her hands together and conjured small disks of layered material between them, ready to cast them around her.

Once that was done, Babs took one cursory look and then whispered: “Now.”

The wings dissipated just as Absalom played a tune on his flute. Wind burst from it and cast the steam into different directions. Cries of pain could be heard beyond and within it, as well as the crackle of lightning. Once the steam had settled, Absalom stopped his playing and Atma spread her hands and cast the disks about the area. They grew into large circular shields and wrapped around them in a tight tortoiseshell, with only the slightest of openings in between.

Babs was hunched over on her horse but remained aware and present.“Lorenzo, Francesca: Give me a sitrep.”

The two siblings parted to different sides of the shell and looked through the tiny openings in the shield wall.

Lorenzo spoke first. “Some of them are down I think. But the rest are drawing bows.”

Francesca spoke up next. “Lightning mage is still up. He’s...he’s cradling the other one in his arms. I think she’s down.”

Bab’s remained silent for a moment. Then spoke. “Nope, she’s just playing possum.”

Francesca turned in surprise. “How can you be sure?”

“I can’t see any specifics, but I can sense the number of souls outside. She’s still among the living. There’s others out there too, somewhere...Atma?”

“Yes?”

Babs’ breathing became more ragged. “Can you split and move the shield wall?”

“I can try.”

“Good girl. Now-”

Before Bab’s could say anything else, several thumps against the shield wall were heard. Then the shields began to melt into each other. Babs sat straight in her saddle and thrust her sword forward. Several ghosts surged from it and flew towards the pond.

The Death Knight called out. “Break that side, now!”

Atma did as she was commanded and the rear of the wall disappeared. Just as Babs had said, the water mage had been playing possum. Both mages thrust their hands forward, magic crackling through the air, but all too late. They saw the ghosts rushing towards them with spectral weapons, and for just a moment, fear took hold.

The delay was just enough for the ghosts to close the distance and cut into them. Ghostly blades tore through both mages, leaving no wounds, but two crumpled bodies. Then from the trees, two archers emerged from their hiding places atop the branches, and let loose arrows.

One sped towards Atma, who conjured another shield just in time to block it. The shield then began to melt, but Atma dissipated it. But the other arrow had found its mark, right into Francesca’s chest plate. The impact knocked the young knight in training from her mount and cast her to the ground, where she screamed.

Lucia thrust her staff toward one of the elves and a burst of arcane energy shot forward and enveloped the head of one of the archers, leaving a naked skull. The body hadn’t even fallen before Bab’s summoned ghosts surged towards the other archer and cut into him as well. He tumbled to the ground, not one mark on him but the bruises from his fall.

Lorenzo left his mount and ran towards his downed sister. “Francesca!”

He tried to help his sister. The arrow had pierced the cuirass and bitten into her chest, and the armor itself was already melting into her. The helpless brother tried to get the armor off from his sister but only got a handful of liquid metal on his gloves, which was already burning through. Absalom rode towards him, played on his flute, and wind burst forth from it and cooled the liquid metal. Embedding itself in his brother’s thick gloves but not melting through it.

This did nothing to calm Lorenzo. “Help her Absalom!”

The middle child of the De Fuoco family leaped from his mount and landed next to his screaming sister. He repeated his performance and cooled the liquid metal that was on the surface of his sister’s body, but she wouldn’t stop scream.

As she replaced the melting shields with new ones on top of the shield wall, Atma thought her friend was screaming from residual pain, but then had a horrible realization. “Big Brother how could you?”

The metal on the surface was cooled and would leave disfiguring scars, but the wound made by the enchanted arrow beneath had been open, and burning metal had seeped through. The poor girl was being melted from the inside.

Atma looked towards Babs who nodded and twirled her free hand. The ghosts flew around the shield wall, and screams from the unopened side erupted. Babs then charged towards them just as Atma brought down the shield wall. The archers were in disarray, some of them cut down by the ghosts, while the others futilely tried to take shots at them, only to be cut down by The Death Knight.

Lucia took one look at Francesca, closed her eyes as she gritted her teeth, then rode at the remaining enemies with an open and angry glare. One of the elves who had been riding away found himself entangled in arcane netting. But this all happened in the corner of Atma’s vision. She had already ridden towards Francesca, dismounted, and crouched by her dying comrade.

“Please...Please...”

Atma put her hands to Francesca’s chest. She reached out with her magic, felt it pulse through the metal, and then through the liquid burning in the woman’s body. Atma than said a final prayer and made a pulling motion with her hands. The metal within surged from and burst from the wound and out from the melted chest plate, a spike of crooked steel protruding from the armor. Atma looked at this hopefully, but heard Francesca cough, and felt blood spatter on her face. She had been too late.

As he held his dying sister’s hand Lorenzo wept and plead with his sister. “Don’t die, please don’t die.”

There was no response except for choking sounds and coughed blood. Francesca’s eyes were awash with tears, and she looked at Atma as she and gurgled out her final words. “I really wanted...I had really wanted to go on an adventure...”

She spat out blood, then her eyes widened, and stayed open. She fell back into her brother’s arms. Lorenzo stared at his sister’s body in disbelief, cradling it and sobbing. Absalom’s flute dropped from his hands, which then shot up to his mouth, blocking the muted screams that threatened to escape from it, as he leaned back onto his horse for support. Atma paused, wanting to weep, but knowing they might still be in battle.

She looked towards where the remaining attackers had been. She saw only bodies, and Babs dismounted, guiding her horse towards the weeping assembly. Lucia, likewise, was dismounted. She walked angrily towards her siblings, her arcane net tied to her mount and dragging her captive through the crushed leaves and dirt.

Then she stopped, her petite frame looming over her dead sister and weeping brother. Absalom looked at Lucia, his eyes demanding an explanation as to why she hadn’t stayed and tried to help. Her words were confident, but her voice shook as they left her.

“She was already dead, we all knew that. But we can still get one thing back.”

She dragged the net from its hitching post on the undead horse’s saddlebag. Pulling its contents before the remainder of her party. The elf was a tall man, covered in tattoos, and wearing cured leather armor. The armor was old but well kept, and bore a noble crest. Atma saw it, a red oak tree in a white field. It was the crest of the elven family that had occupied Skywood before the De-Fuoco’s. Before she could say anything, Lucia continued.

“We can take satisfaction from the people who killed her...piece by piece.”

Absalom looked at his sister, his hands now at his sides, gripping tightly. He shook his head and looked ready to stomp away.′

Then the captive elf spoke. “Your father killed our Lord and left his guards and servants in disgrace. This is...this is only justice!”

Atma studied this man carefully, her initial impulse to beat him to death with her bare hands, even visualizing the deed. But she heard the fear in his voice, desperation.

He may have been speaking his true feelings, but there was another motive behind it. “The trembling in his voice...what is he trying to do?”

Lorenzo still held Francesca’s body and didn’t even bother looking towards the elf as he spoke. “Your name is Albrecht isn’t it?”

The elf looked towards him, being careful not to look at Francesca’s body. “It might be.”

Lorenzo’s gaze was fixed on his open-eyed sister. “Francesca told me about you, she said that you were a gardener...that you grew the most beautiful lilies in town...did she ever say that to you?”

Albrecht’s lips trembled, but whatever nervousness he felt, he fought through it. “What the hell does it matter? She was a De-Fuoco, she got what she deserved.”

Lorenzo’s tone became stern, and even Lucia starred at him with some surprise and fear. “Deposing our father, going against the man who raised us, was her idea. Do you know why?”

Albrecht’s breathing became rushed and heavy, his eyes sneaking an occasional glance at Francesca but never lingering on her for more than a moment. Lorenzo finally turned towards him, keeping the firm yet controlled tone. “Because she said that it was wrong to imprison you all. Because she said that you deserved as much respect and dignity as any human, regardless of what your ancestors had done to ours...you deserved your freedom, and your lives.”

Albrecht met Lorenzo’s harsh gaze and looked fearful. Atma and the others watched this in silence, wanting to say something but fearing what might happen. The young demon looked at Babs, who had ordered her ghosts to inspect the perimeter for more traps and ambushers. The Death Knight was watching intently, yet seemed relaxed and more in control than the others.

Albrecht began his reply. “Our lives and our freedoms were not hers to give back to-”

Lorenzo held up Francesca’s body to where Albrecht could not avoid looking at her. And the elf’s eyes met with her frozen and pained gaze. Lorenzo was now screaming. “Look at her! Look at the woman who called you a friend and tell me she deserved to die! Tell me she deserved this!”

Albrecht stared into Francesca’s face with an opened and horrified mouth. Seeing this did not deter Lorenzo though. “Tell me she deserved this you self righteous bastard!”

Albrecht’s eyes began to tear up, and then he leaned forward within his cage and sobbed. “I’m sorry! I-I didn’t want to come but-but-but the others said they’d kill me if I didn’t. And I looked at the one who sent us, I looked into the Silvered Fiend’s eyes as we stood before him and...I was scared, I was a coward, I’m sorry!”

Lucia turned and kicked Albrecht in the groin. Absalom gulped down, clearly wondering what to do, and even Lorenzo seemed genuinely shook by Albrecht’s confession, though still raw from his anger. Lucia, dusting off her boot, spoke unabated though. “You’re sorry? You shout about justice for your race, judge our sister, and then say you’re sorry?”

Albrecht was still keeled over in pain, looking at Francesca’s face and then turning between the other’s as he spoke. “I-I did only what I was commanded, I was-I was scared.”

Lucia loomed over him, gripping her staff firmly. “Are you still scared?”

Albrecht looked up at her. Atma noted something though, there wasn’t fear in his eyes. No, it was anticipation. Lucia put a hand over the top of her staff, then swirled it around as a bloom of flame gathered and rose above her.

She looked at Albrecht with hungry eyes. “Let me take care of that for you.”

As Lucia was about to wave her hand towards Albrecht, and the flames began dancing toward him; Atma saw the man close his eyes, while a look of relief passed over the rest of his face. She rushed forward trying to stop the attack, wondering if there might be some trap in wait. But she was beaten to it by Babs, who merely gripped the top of Lucia’s staff and extinguished the flames.

The young wizard stared at Babs. “The hell are you-”

“Look at his face, and tell me he doesn’t want to die.”

Lucia paused, looked at Albrecht, and saw the disappointment in his face. Along with fear as he looked at Babs.

Atma finally spoke up, and to Albrecht. “You’re afraid of what Abram will do to you if you go back to Skywood, aren’t you?”

Albrecht looked at Atma, shaking as he gazed into her catlike eyes. It kept up, even as he spoke. “Truly, I am sorry that Francesca died. But...But you have to understand, my fellow elves and I...We’d been living in abuse for decades. We had to do something, and even though I didn’t want to do this I...I couldn’t fault my fellow knights for wanting act.”

Babs looked over him and sheathed her sword. “I remember you now, you were just a squire when I left.”

Albrecht took a moment to size up the Death Knight in front of him. Realization dawned on his face. “Little Barbara Corsange? We had heard...we had heard that you died with your family. The old captain wept for you.”

Babs’ arms were folded in front of her, and the sun cast her shadow right next to the kneeling elf. A casual tone came out from beneath her mask. “That was kind of him.”

Albrecht looked up at her with some confusion in his eyes. “Then you-you understand. You know what was taken from us, you must understand that-”

“Yeah, I understand. I wanted to kill Cosimo where he was standing when I first saw him again. So yeah I completely understand your need for justice, I even sympathize with it.”

Albrecht became hopeful, and Atma couldn’t help but feel disgusted by the almost eager tone in his voice. “Then you agree-”

Babs’ voice cut through the air. “No. I said I understood you. Not that I agreed with you.”

“But-”

“An eye for an eye is one thing. But killing an entire family? Killing children who had nothing to do with the abuses you suffered, just so you can pat yourself on the back and say “I hurt the other guy more?” That’s not justice...that’s not even revenge anymore. It’s just more murder.”

Albrecht looked at Babs with a stone face, though his hands trembled. “What are you going to do?”

“I’d like for you to tell me what Abram’s plans are. Anything you might have overheard.”

Albrecht shook his head. “If he finds out-”

“Albrecht, if you don’t tell me what I need to know, I’ll show you just how much of little Barbara died all those years ago. I’ll start slowly. I’ll tear your soul from you piece by piece. A little bit of yourself washing away from you with each touch of my hand. And each time you’ll grow a little weaker, a little more vacant until you’re left as a vegetable drooling out on your chapped lips...then I’ll take the last part of you, and you’ll be dead. But I’ll still be able to read what’s left of you. I’ll get what I need.”

Albrecht looked at her, into the unfeeling metal skull.

More words came from her. “I’m willing to do it. Are you willing to suffer it?”

Albrecht seemed to be considering his options. But Atma was anxious and knew her brother all too well. Though he may have armed the elves, he did not accompany them himself. That meant that he was planning something else, that his focus was on a different and more dangerous way of killing her and the people who might get in the way. So she stepped towards Albrecht with a cold look in her eyes.

That broke him. “Alright-Alright! I remem-remember that he told us that our only objective was to stall you, to coral you away from the main road. We were only supposed to attack you directly if the chance of victory was absolute. When the others saw you had split up...they thought the chance had come”

There was a momentary silence. Then Babs spoke again, her gaze not leaving Albrecht.

“Lucia, let him go.”

Lucia couldn’t believe what she was hearing. And her brothers looked up at the Death Knight with like confusion.

But the sister spoke first, and loudly. “Are you serious!? He’s-”

“I know what he’s going to do. Just do what I ask, please”

Lucia fumed but did as she was told. She tapped her staff on the ground and the arcane net fizzled out of existence. The moment it fizzled out, Albrecht stood up, drew a small knife from his belt, and charged at Babs. The fully armored knight merely took one step forward and brought the other foot straight into Albrecht’s chest. There was a crunch of bone as he flew back and fell on his ass. His breath came out ragged as he starred up into the air, futilely trying to get up.

Rather than get close, and take the chance that he might get to his feet and stab her, Babs drew her misty blade. She then hefted it by where the blade met the guard and threw it like a spear into Albrecht’s chest. He coughed up some blood, twitched a bit, and stilled.

With her work done, Babs turned towards Atma. “Is what he said true?”

Atma turned to meet the Death Knight’s covered eyes. Looking for clarification, and somewhat shocked by everything that had happened.

The Death Knight spoke again. “Is Abram so ruthless that he scares seasoned fighters to suicide?”

Atma looked at Albrecht’s dead body, hoping for an answer somewhere in the dead man’s eyes. As she turned back to Babs, she gave one. “He is now.”

Babs stepped forward and retrieved her blade, cleaning it off against her gauntlet. “I guess that’s something to consider if I fight him again.”

She sheathed her blade and then knelt by Albrecht’s body. She closed his eyes, and the tiniest whispers could be heard from her mask.

Then they hushed, and the Death Knight stood up. “We need to move. Take your sister and hitch her to her mount, comfortable as you can. Then we ride.”

Atma and the brothers moved to do as she said, but Lucia stepped forward.

“Stop!”

Much to Atma’s surprise, she complied, and so did the others. All except for Babs’ who was straightening out her horse’s saddle.

Lucia stomped on the ground with her foot. “Turn when I’m talking to you damn it!”

Babs continued her work, inspecting her horse’s saddle. Lucia looked at her with fury and shock on her face. And Atma felt compelled to intervene. When she stepped forward though, Babs held up a hand to stop her. Atma complied, even as her eyes darted between the two quarrelers. Yet the Death Knight remained ignorant of the situation entirely.

Until finally she finished her work and turned to face Lucia. “Come on. Get it out of your system.”

Lucia proceeded to do just that. “Alright, you butch whore...You promised our mother that you’d keep us alive. The hard truth is that you didn’t. So what the hell gives you the right to tell us what to-”

Babs’ voice came out in a firm and even tone. “Out of respect to your sister, I really wanted to avoid this conversation. But if you want to talk about hard truths then try this one: If I hadn’t been here, then all of you would have died instead of just one of you. Now if you can’t make peace with that I understand, and I am sorry, and you can brood over it on your own time. But if you take the time we could be using to get the hell out of danger to throw a tantrum than I will beat you unconscious again and drag you by your heels until we are out of said danger. We clear?”

Lucia was still very much furious, but now she was also muted, confused. Atma recognized that look. She was wrestling in her mind for some retort: some way to win the argument. But the young wizard was failing at that, which was evident to all watching.

With that settled, Babs turned back to her horse as she spoke. “Mount up, now.”

Lucia stood defiant for a moment. But then relented and mounted back on her horse. Lorenzo and Absalom wrapped up Francesca in a blanket, but Atma walked up to them before they finished wrapping up her face.

“Wait.”

She raised a hand to the dead girl’s face, and finally closed her open eyes, and softly shut her mouth. She finally looked peaceful. Absalom looked at Atma and nodded in thanks before finishing his work. Lorenzo though, couldn’t look at Atma. Once Francesca was secure, Everyone went to their own mounts. While preparing theirs, Atma saw the stains of tears across Lorenzo’s face. But the tears themselves had been replaced by a look of frozen waste and emptiness.

Atma reacted instinctively. “I’m so sorry Lorenzo.”

Lorenzo didn’t even look at her. “Not as much as I am.”

He then climbed onto his saddle and rode up to Babs, who had taken the lead. She held a hand up and waited until everyone was mounted, then gave the order to move on. As they rode away from the carnage and through the eerily quiet forest, Atma looked worriedly at Lorenzo. She saw from the corner of his face that same empty and despairing look. It scared her.

“He looks like Abram did...when Miranda died.”

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