Xian

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Chapter 3.7: Atop the Battlements.

“Battles are always a chaotic and confusing affair. As much as we might praise the leader who fights at the head of their army, there is one fundamental flaw with this philosophy: They can’t see what’s going on. Yet in most battles, a leader cannot communicate orders at all, as the chaos of battle often prevents mass coordination. This means that much of a battle’s success depends on the officers commanding individual units.

These men need to be level-headed, adaptable, and strong-willed. Otherwise, the surrounding chaos will shatter them. There is a drawback though. In a typical battlefield, an officer sees his men who he must lead to victory and the enemy who wish them dead. In a siege, an officer sees homes, families, and fires consuming both. And what he sees, so will his soldiers see. There’s nothing quite like surviving hell, only to realize you helped make it…

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It had all happened so fast. The Golden Dragon had arisen and then struck down their defenses so quickly. Now Atma was fending off arrows and elemental blasts amidst the shattered walls of Ulq. The blast had also caused the Fulcrum towers to overload. From what Atma could deduce, the mages operating them had used what magic they had to contain the blasts.

And they succeeded. The towers had only collapsed rather than explode across the city, with the mages inside. While the damage had certainly been mitigated, there were still several openings in the walls, which the many tens of thousands of surviving Taiyang soldiers charged through. Atma took a shot with her bow at one of the enemy officers and struck true. “If I can take out their officers, it should slow them down long enough for us to shore up.”

Atma decided to shift positions and rushed across the ruins of the western walls onto the rooftops of neighboring barracks and even a few houses. Surveying the battlefield, she saw that the Taiyang had managed to craft barricades around their entry points at the walls, securing the way for their main force to charge through. With the blood of their comrades and the sight of their emperor fighting in the skies, these soldiers charged into battle with a fanatical abandon. This overwhelmed the many men of arms and knights that had been posted to the west.

But that was not Atma’s main concern. “Where is Babs?”

The Death Knight had fallen into the depths when the towers started collapsing and had pushed Atma over the edge just in time. Try as she might, the young demon could not get her mentor out of her mind. “I have to keep focus. I have to concentrate on the battle.”

She realized that she couldn’t do much from on high so Atma looked to the ground for any signs of resistance from the defenders. She found it, a few dozen men at arms and a helmeted Magis Eques in black armor with golden trim had filled a barricade on the main road into the city center.

So the Young Demon darted from rooftop to rooftop until she flipped from the one nearest to her comrades and landed next to them. Their first reaction was to turn with their swords drawn. Then they recognized the colors she wore, as well as her general visage.

The Magis Eques kept his sword in hand as he directed his troops. “Keep behind the panels! And stack those pikes! The last thing we need is for some steppeman to charge over and topple us.”

Atma saw just such a horseman charging toward them. He was ahead of several more horsemen, clad in lightweight armor, and wielding enchanted bows. She turned to the black knight. “Do you have any light mages?”

“I’m a Paladin of-”

“Cast into the mirror.”

Atma whispered a few incantations and conjured a multifaceted crystal lens, which she then threw it into the air. Guessing her intent, The Paladin channeled a massive beam of scorching light into the lens which then reflected hundreds of beams into the onrushing horse charge. Many of them were burned, several of them were killed, and those that were left retreated. Atma dispersed the mirror, and the Paladin halted his casting.

Though he did not halt his praise. “That was a brilliant maneuver, squire. But I doubt that’s the last of them.”

Brilliant or no, it had taken some effort to not only conjure a mystic mirror but also hold it aloft and strong while discharging the raptures of divine magic. So Atma was grateful for the moment to take some much-needed deep breaths. “What do we do now?”

“We have to hold this position until our people can regroup. Lord Richard has already gone to the eastern wall to bring forces from there.”

Atma’s expression became grim, though she managed to keep the tension from claiming her voice. “So the Imperial Flame has secured the east?”

The Paladin nodded, too occupied with the surrounding chaos to notice Atma’s fear. “It would seem so. Perhaps they will rally here. Regardless, you’re making our job much easier. I doubt that we can hold on our own. Especially if the other bulwarks collap-”

Out of the corner of her eye, Atma saw a squad of imperial bowman preparing to fire from a nearby rooftop. As she was about to dodge, the paladin brought his arm around her and took her beneath the barricades while crying out: “Take cover!”

One man-at-arms was not fast enough. He took several arrows to the chest and one to the face. He fell to the ground with not so much as a whimper. This simple move had put the defenders into a precarious position, and even under arrow fire, Atma could hear the Paladin cussing. “Damn it, Ra preserve us if they order a charge now.”

Atma kept her head down even as flecks of wood and ash flew around her face, and she did her best to keep calm amid the fighting. “Do they still have Cataphracts?”

Atma felt the vibrations of thundering hooves on the road, which was answer enough for her.“What do I do now?”

The Young Demon thought of what she might be able to do and found a solution. So she turned to the Paladin. “Can you still cast?”

With the possibility of survival now in his mind, a bit of confidence returned to the Paladin’s voice. “I can cast for days.”

“I’m going to send up another lens. I don’t know if it will stop them this time but-”

The Paladin nodded hastily, guessing her intent. “It might blind them and give us time to set up the pikes. Make it so then.”

Atma threw up another conjured crystal lens just as the Paladin hurled another ray of light. This lens was constructed differently from the other one. Instead of scorching beams, the lens cast a bright light that blinded everyone beyond a certain angle. This meant that the oncoming chargers and their archer support were bereft of sight, but the Leo soldiers could go about their work.

And what work they did, because they finished just in time for one of the Cataphracts to blindly ram into a mess of spears. With that in hand, Atma darted off to the rooftop where the archers were perched. Drawing her conjured short swords, she deftly cut through several of the enemy soldiers. Those few lucky enough to survive retreated to a different position. All except one, the commanding officer, who was most likely staying to cover his squad’s retreat.

The man took out his own short sword and engaged Atma in combat. Despite his bravery, it took only a few blocked strikes for Atma to see the wide disparity in not only strength and speed but sheer technical skill. So she batted his sword aside with her left-hand blade and thrust the right-hand blade into the man’s leg. The officer kept struggling and even tried to tackle Atma, using the sword embedded in his leg as leverage.

Keeping her cool, Atma sidestepped the man while twisting the embedded sword in a vicious circle. This move cut the officer’s leg in half and left him splayed out on the rooftop. More out of anger than pain, this man started cussing and screaming while pulling himself up again with his arms. Atma put a stop to that by grabbing him, hoisting him like a flour sack over her shoulder, and then jumping and darting back into the defender’s barricade.

Once she touched down, covered with a fair amount of blood, she placed the Taiyang officer behind the barricades next to the Paladin. The other men-at-arms had finished with the pikes and were now using bows to stave off approaching enemies. Atma herself decided to brace up against the wall just in time to avoid an ice bolt aimed at her head. Crouched down with both her fellow knight and the bleeding Taiyang officer, she took a few moments to catch her breath, and think about whatever the hell might happen next.

The Paladin, who was looking at the imperial lines through a notch in the barricade, made no secret of his approval. “They must have put you through a hell of a boot camp at the Imperial Flame.”

Atma simply nodded and pointed a thumb at the captured officer. “He was leading the archers. He might know their current battle plans.”

The Paladin looked over at the officer in question, who was muttering something under his breath in his native language. Atma did her best to listen and decipher his words but hadn’t heard as much of the language as her brother did. Annoyed at her ignorance, but hoping to find a way past it, the Young Demon looked to her superior for guidance. “Do you know what he is saying? Given that you are posted-”

The Paladin shook his head. “I’m a new arrival, to be honest. I haven’t spent enough time to be fluent. But I think he might know what we’re saying. He’s an officer, and he’s part of the invasion force. He’d probably be coached in Leonic common, if only a little.”

The officer’s eyes twitched a moment. Atma recognized it as a reaction to the Paladin’s comment, and so did the Paladin. Prepping himself for a hard task, this knight of black and gold loosened his shoulders and brought his sheathed dagger from his belt. “Alright my friend, you’ve only got one way out of this: And that’s to talk.”

The Taiyang officer continued speaking under his breath. Though he upped the pace and his hands tensed up against the cloth portions of his armor. He was gripping the bloody fabric tightly as if preparing for something. Worried that he might be trying something duplicitous, Atma closed her eyes and listened closely to what he was saying, paying close attention to the tone and inflections he said each word. She let her demonic intellect analyze and decipher at least the emotional tone if not the exact meaning of the officer’s words.

The Paladin though kept on his interrogation. “I saw you send your troops away, and cover their retreat. That’s very brave of you. But you’re bleeding out now, and the only way that stops is if you cooperate.”

More mouthed words in Taiyang, and a tighter grip on his clothes. But Atma was close to a breakthrough. The bleeding officer seemed to be accepting something, most likely his death. But there was also something else, a tinge of regret and sadness...a longing for something. The Paladin continued though. “I’m not one for killing prisoners, but if it means saving my energy for healing my friends, I will finish you.”

Just as the Paladin was about to draw his knife, Atma stopped him with a firm but unobtrusive hand. “He’ll slam his face into it if he gets the chance.”

Both the Paladin and the Officer turned their heads to the young demon. The officer seemed shocked, while the Paladin’s body language denoted further admiration. So he brought his dagger back to its sheath. “What makes you say that?”

Atma looked at the Officer, seeing an all too human mix of sadness buried beneath conviction. Both for her comrade, and to reach out to her captive the Young Demon said: “He’s praying that his wife and daughter will meet him in Paradise, but not for many years. He’s ready to die.”

Her face became one of pity, and the sympathy in her voice came from a very deep and vulnerable place within her. “Will you let us heal your leg, I’m amazed that you’re conscious right now.”

The officer kept eye contact, but it was clear that he was growing faint. “You know I cannot let you do that. It would make me an accomplice to the fighting against my sisters and brothers. Benefiting from your arts I mean, generous as they are.”

“You don’t have healing magic in Taiyang?”

The Taiyang officer’s eyes started to flicker open and shut, though he put in a monumental effort to keep awake. “We practice healing through what you might call alchemy and the hard sciences.”

“I see. Regardless though, you believe that accepting healing will mean you have betrayed your country and your fellows?”

The officer bobbed his head up and down, in a rather exaggerated fashion. The effort made Atma smile, though it was bereft of any mirth. He was a brave man, but Atma needed him to cooperate. So she took a gamble and felt a bitter irony in how her brother would do the same. “Will you be betraying your wife and daughter by leaving them alone?”

The Officer sat a little straighter. “How dare you use my family like that?”

Atma pushed through her lingering doubts, though her hand was gripped tightly around her knee. “I know, it’s a low blow on my part. But you have a choice in front of you now. Which is more important? Being a loyal soldier? Or a good father? One that’s alive to see their children grow.”

The officer let out a soft chuckle. “It is clear which one you think is right.”

“And you? That’s something of theirs that you’re gripping beneath your uniform isn’t it?”

The officer released his hold, reached into his pocket with a trembling hand, and brought out a locket. It was marked with Kanji that spelled out: “Sun and Stars.” He looked at it for a moment, and just as reinforcements from Ulq’s garrison, as well as a few knights bearing the Queen’s colors, rode in, he closed his eyes. Tears streamed down his face, and his chin lowered in defeat. “Very well. I will tell you what you need.”

Atma smiled and took his hand, much to the confusion of the Taiyang. Who was at the same time coming to grips with his current situation, and somewhat grateful that this strange young woman was being nice to him.

Atma was simply happy that she’d have to kill one less person, though she kept such thoughts from invading her tone as she spoke to the Paladin. “Could you heal his leg? You heard him promise to-”

The Paladin raised a hand for her to be quiet a moment, as he was examining the Taiyang officer for any sign of hidden motive. But he must have found nothing. For he set about channeling soothing holy light into his hands and concentrating it into the now healing leg of his wounded foe. The Taiyang officer gazed at his wound with an almost academic fascination, then sunk his shoulders and slid back against the barricade.

He was despondent, and his sadness was accentuated by his clear annoyance at speaking Leonic Common. “I suppose it’s time for my part then...Well, my soldiers and even the Cataphracts were meant as a delaying action. We would break your lines if we could, but the main push is from below us, through the sewers.”

The Paladin’s voice became tense with worry. “You mean they could already be under us?”

The Taiyang officer waved away the concern. He was still dazed from blood loss and his decision, yet powering through all the same.“I suspect it will take some time for them to navigate the sewers, our maps were outdated. But they could be getting close to us at this point.”

Just then, a nearby manhole cover began to shake. The Paladin drew his sword, which blazed with golden light, and Atma conjured her bow, keeping an arrow aimed at the cover.

When it popped open, a black armored hand peeked out, holding a familiar skull mask. An experienced though strangely bubbly voice rang out from the sewer entrance. “You guys dead yet? Start cussing if you aren’t.”

Atma couldn’t keep the excitement out of her voice. “Babs?”

“Well, that’s certainly a good sign.”

The mask disappeared and then resurfaced, now being worn by the seemingly indestructible Babs. Though to be fair there was a fair amount of dust and grime across her usually immaculate armor, and her hair was more than a little disheveled. And the eye covers on her mask were also broken, revealing amethyst eyes that seemed to take in the light around them. She walked confidently towards the barricade, even as a few enchanted arrows from the enemy bounced off her armor.

Following behind her from the sewer were the De-Fuoco kids. Lucia looked comparatively pristine, though alert and on edge. Absalom was talking to himself, but waved and smiled at Atma, who returned the gesture and sentiment. Last was Lorenzo, who held Francesca’s axe in his hand and spoke not one word. Once they were all assembled, Babs took a look at the Taiyang officer. “What have we got here?”

Atma told her the current situation, as well as the Taiyang battle plans. The Death Knight was silent as the Young Demon spoke. Though once Atma was done, Babs let out a triumphant: “Hah! Jokes on them. I crashed into one of the sewers and found these three there. These two=”

She gestured at Absalom, and the punched Lucia lightly on the shoulder, eliciting an embarrassed though uncharacteristically grateful smile.

She then told the rest of the story”-thought they might come through the sewers too. And her CO sent them to check it out.”

Atma congratulated Lucia and Absalom, who seemed more than a little sheepish about the whole situation. Yet Lucia’s satisfaction with her work eventually bubbled into view. “It was nice to be right about something...well at least something that didn’t hurt everybody.”

Babs gestured over at the Taiyang lines. “Regardless. I summoned a few spirits, made a few bone golems, and collapsed the sewers they were going through. Reconstructions going to be a nightmare once the battle’s done but at least there’ll still be a city left to repair.”

Atma couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief. She even ran a hand through her hair just because she couldn’t believe things were finally turning out so well. “So we can win?”

The Death Knight pointed at several of the Taiyang formations and even took a gander towards the incoming spirit knights of the Imperial Flame. “We’ve got half Taiyang army gone, and we’ve cut off their advancement. I can’t think of anything that could give’em the edge now.”

Just then, a great roar of pain rang out from the sky. It was so loud and piercing that several of the soldiers, including Atma, had to cover their ears. Then there was a great reflection of light in the corner of her eye. Turning to it, Atma saw the silver dragon Tristian fall through the air and crash straight into the city square. The earth shook and a great gust of wind and dust blew through the bystanders. Atma looked towards the downed dragon and saw a massive bite mark in his throat.

Babs and the Paladin ran over to their chapter master, only for Absalom to pull them back with a gust of conjured wind. Which was fortunate because a great beam of golden energy cut into the area where they were about to run through and left a massive crater.

Babs’ breathing became heavy at this point, though she still clapped Absalom on the shoulder. “Thanks, but Tristian still needs help.”

As she said that, there was a triumphant cheer from the Taiyang lines. In unison, the defenders of Ulq turned towards the enemy, just in time to see them charging with reckless abandon.

With undisguised enthusiasm, Babs drew her great sword. “So who wants to kill a bunch of dragon fanatics?”

There were affirmative grunts and even a few cheers from the now some two hundred strong Leo soldiers in the street. But Atma’s gaze was fixed on the Golden Dragon, who was surveying the city with a predatory gaze...which now became fixed on their position. Atma desperately searched for a way out, but decided to act on impulse.“No time to think...ACT!”

Just as the Dragon was about to release another energy blast from its mouth, Atma knocked an arrow in her bow and shot it towards the dragon. The Emperor’s Avatar merely twisted it’s body slightly, and avoided the shot. His amusement was clear. “What poor effort from such Inconsequential Scum! Did you think even a fraction of my power could be felled by such amate-AHHHHH!”

A great cry of pain tore from the dragon’s throat. Atma had teleported to the launched arrow as soon as it soared behind the dragon. She then loaded it, and fired again, this time hitting her mark at the back of the neck. She then teleported to the arrow with her short swords drawn and began stabbing into the beast. The cuts were shallow, for the dragon’s naturally thick hide was also enriched by divine power. But her swords were still of demonic craft, and however the shallow the cuts were, they were still cuts. The serpentine dragon twisted in the air trying to knock Atma off. Thinking quickly, she turned her swords into hooks and latched onto the dragon’s hide.

Though even this took a great effort. “Ok, I’m scared...but I can do this. I just have to win this fight, and the battle will be over.”

Then something unexpected happened, the dragon halted. Before she realized what was going on, Atma felt herself being lifted away from her perch by a telekinetic force. She fought against this, keeping a tight grip on her hooks, and even eliciting a pained tone from the dragon. Whose voice had gone from booming to quiet. “Ah, a demon. Well, now that I am used to the pain-”

Atma felt all of her limbs snap backward with a resounding crack, and she screamed out louder than she ever had in her life.

Yet the dragon cared nothing for such things and continued its’ monologue. “-I believe I can take this battle seriously.”

Atma felt her neck twisting and did all she could to fight it. But the pain in her limbs was too much, and the sounds of battle were breaking her concentration even further. She wasn’t sure if she’d die of a broken neck, demonic physiology being what it was. But she certainly had no intention of finding out. “What weapons have I conjured, is there anything…Absalom!”

She focused on the ring she had made and teleported away from the dragon. As the pressure on her neck disappeared, she gasped for air and fell towards the ground, only for Absalom to catch her.

The young man had some trouble processing what was going on. “Shit-shit-shit. Alright, we need to get you to-“

Before he could finish, Absalom’s words were cut short by the thunder of hooves. An imperial cataphract charged in from behind them. Absalom narrowly dodged his lance but was still knocked to the ground by the horse itself. To his credit, Absalom managed to shield Atma from the initial impact, and even the resulting tumble.

They were both on the ground now, though Absalom still had her reasonably shielded. “Are you alright? What the hell did he do to you?”

Atma gritted her teeth as her limbs started to realign, one sicking crack and pop at a time. “Nothing I can’t work through. Where are-“

The Young Demon then felt herself get pulled from the ground and then thrown through the city at an incredible speed. She didn’t even have time to process what was happening, until she crashed through the main doors of Pryderoar itself, and tumbled into the main hall.

She felt completely broken again, but was still alive thanks to her demonic physique “I have to move...focus...heal...”

Turning her demonic insight toward her own body, Atma was able to quicken the healing process of her limbs. She focused on her legs first and was able to realign and use them after a few seconds, despite her pained screams.

Then she started moving and turned her efforts toward her main hand. “I have to make a Black Blade. If I can hide somewhere, get the drop on him. Maybe I can-”

As she stumbled to the door, she saw a massive wall of golden light burst from the floors outside of it. The wall then grew in size, and surround what might have been the entirety of the castle.

Atma then heard the sound of wings and the barest heat of incoming energy, prompting her conjured up a great wall of demon forged shields, just in time to block a burst of divine power. Her shields bent and started melting into each other, but they held. Finally, the energy stopped and Atma opened a light hole in her defenses, just wide enough to see the great golden beast staring back at her. Behind him was a massive opening in the wall, most likely of his making.

But this Avatar of the Emperor made no move to attack. He simply raised a clawed finger and gestured for Atma to come closer. “Come, demon of the forge. Let us discuss your future.”

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