Xian

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Chapter 1.3: Expository Magic

Do you know what really shouldn’t mix? Politics and everything else. But if you’re going to press me: it’s Magic, Politics should never mix with the arcane. For Magic, to put it plainly, is our way of reaching into the deeper mysteries of the universe. Through it, we can gaze into the esoteric truths that encapsulate our existence, and enrich our lives in all conceivable fashions, and many inconceivable.

Yet in this world, magic has been broken into disciplines and schools. As if magic were the product of some utility-based industry. And like anything that becomes a tool, the mortal idiot shall use it in the service of phallic measurement. Slapping down all in his way with whatever modicum of mystic power he has, until some other “bigger” idiot does the same to him. Such is the way of baser natures, and beneath them have been buried the higher mysteries …

********

To call the De Fuoco lands idyllic would be an understatement. Untouched by war or famine, the rural county was a center of agriculture and scholarly acumen, away from the bustle of cities and industry of greater Leo. As her party rode beneath the sun touched trees, Atma gazed wide-eyed from behind her shroud and hood. In her old home, only the most tenacious of mice, snakes, and ravens would dare voice themselves. But here there were bluebirds, rabbits, and even a pair of beavers building a damn.

Being surrounded by such a vibrant display of life filled Atma with wonder and elation. “I’ve never heard so many different sounds before...”

The chirping of birds, the breathing of the wind...and the patter of footsteps beside her mount. Atma looked to her fellow riders talking among themselves, primarily questioning Babs over her adventures as a Magis Eques. Away from the conversation though, was Lorenzo. His only focus seemed to be Atma herself, an innocent smile on his face and wide eyes that seemed to be making a story all their own about the mysterious girl of formidable ability.

When Atma took notice, the boy looked away with a nervous blush on his cheeks. She tilted her head to the side, not knowing exactly what to make of his awkward, though unintrusive attention. She decided not to press the issue for now and looked back to the woods. “It’s beautiful here.”

Lorenzo snapped to attention, almost desperately grasping at a subject he knew as well as the magics he studied. “Indeed, my lady. We owe it to the barons and the tenants, and all the free folk who make this land their home. They all work hard to preserve-”

Constantine drew the party’s attention with a mocking laugh. “Please. It is the magic of our family that maintains this county. Were it not for the arcana we waste on the dirt, our vassals would starve and die.”

Atma was surprised at this. Not at the arrogance of the statement, but of its ignorance. It was almost fascinating, and the young woman felt compelled to needle at it. “Isn’t it the duty of a Count to maintain their domain?”

Constantine responded haughtily. “Yes.”

“Then how is doing that through magic a waste?”

The other De Fuoco siblings cast nervous expressions at each other. Whether it was out of fear for Atma, or something else was ambiguous. As for Babs, she remained implacable behind her mask, her listening or ignoring of the conversation beyond the sight of even the keenest of observers.

Constantine paid no heed to any of this, instead making grandiose gestures in the hopes of cementing the importance of his words. “We are no petty lordlings burdened by charter, we are Wizards first and foremost. Our title as Count is simply an acknowledgment of our quality.”

“But even Mages-”

“Mages!?”

That term incensed Constantine, and the expressions of fear from the other siblings turned into ones of defeat and annoyance. Clearly, this wasn’t the first time Constantine had been provoked into the oncoming rant.

Babs, to Atma’s now decreasing surprise, remained stoic. Immobile except for the occasional glance at the birds on the tree line. She even held out her hand, which soon hosted one female Cardinal. The bird chirped and sang solely for Babs’ benefit, perhaps blocking out Constantine? Regardless, the young wizard defended himself against the perceived insult.

“Mages are up jumped bookworms, grasping at those little magics stuck between dusty tomes and half charred grimoires. Even worse are the Mystics, granted arcane might through the coincidence of birth, or more likely, intercourse with some vaguely divine creature. But most disgusting of all are the Warlocks. Bound through eldritch pacts, lapping up whatever scraps of knowledge their masters allow, they are slaves to power. Wizards alone are the true masters of magic. Traveling through other planes of existence, mastering the forces through true exposure to the otherworldly elements, and then conferring that power to a single successor. And on the cycle goes, producing the most powerful of arcne prodigies.”

Atma’s response was immediate. “It’s a mix.”

“What?!”

All eyes turned to the girl, except for Babs, who gently shooed away the bird perched on her gauntleted finger.

Though put off by Constantine’s emotional fragility, Atma continued her assessment. She cleared her throat and hoped for the best. “You seek out and study lore, like mages. You make pacts between master and apprentice, like Warlocks. And you pass that knowledge on through blood or at least a specific line of magicians, not unlike a mystic bloodline. If anything, you are either the evolution or more likely the origin of the different magical traditions.”

“Excuse you!?”

Atma’s did everything she could think to understand this little man’s frustrations, and failed. She felt some strange displeasure at not getting through to Constantine, and curiosity at the cause of said block. “I apologize, but I don’t see the reason for your anger.” ”

“Oh, you don’t do you?”

“No, as by this logic, you are either the origin or culmination of magical study. Which would prove the validity of the Wizard’s power, if not the exact reasons behind it.”

The other De Fuoco siblings waited excitedly for Constantine’s response. But for perhaps the first time in his life, Constantine was at a loss for words. No doubt he was trying to find some reason to protest with eloquence but could find no way of doing so. Finally, he took in a long breathe and simply said: “No.”

Babs broke her silence with a loud sigh. “What the hell is wrong now?”

“Your apprentice has oversimplified the literal magic of Wizardry, and I find it disrespectful and insulting.”

“Pretty sure that last point’s redundant, but I understand where you’re coming from.”

That got everyone’s attention. The whole party turned to look at Babs with bewildered expressions. All except for Constantine, who wore an all too natural smugness on his face. “You understand me? You really do?”

“Yep. You and your family have worked hard to build your power in the wizarding tradition, and with pretty clear results. Of course, you don’t want to be lumped in with amateurs and bookworms.”

“Well thank you, I’m glad you agree with-”

Babs held up a pausing hand. “Hold up a sec: I said I understood you, not that I agreed with you.”

Constantine blinked in surprise. “What does that have to do with-”

“I get that you’re proud of your family and what they do, but that isn’t much of a reason to think less of other disciplines. Especially if they can still get to your level.”

“Why the hell is that?”

Babs remained implacable behind her mask, though her tone remained serene and inviting. “I can make out a list if you’d like?”

“Why not just tell me now?”

The Death Knight pointed forward. “Cause we’re at your place.”

The party stopped before a large set of steel gates, housed within walls of twisting wood that gleamed white in the sun. Atma could see from the sheen that the walls had been alchemically treated, most likely to prevent fire or magical related destruction. Beyond this defense was a small town, with barely a hint of chimney smoke rising from the mostly stone houses, and a secondary wall beyond that.

Behind that second wall was a stately manor of that same alchemical wood, the shadowed west of which was of a darkened green tint, while the east gleamed the same white as the outer walls. Atop the rectangular towers, scattered amongst the fortress town, were streamed banners marked with a golden leaf on a blue field. Yet despite his guests’ wonder, Constantine’s vehemence had not abated.

“How do you know this is our abode, Dame Knight?”

“Well, the road ends here. Plus...”

Atma did her best to track Babs’ gaze, with Lorenzo being the only other to do the same. Difficult as it was to gauge her from the emotionless metal skull that was her face, the two young people were able to track Bab’s sightline towards one of the gate guards. He was making eyes at Lucia and getting the same treatment.

Atma had to suppress a laugh behind her shroud. “Not the most subtle way to go about it...”

Babs’ head turned back to Constantine and remained innocent in her tone. “Plus the horses seem too comfortable for anywhere but home.”

The noble scion let out an indignant huff while Francesca elbowed him for his rudeness. Ignoring her, he road to the gate atop his exhausted steed and turned a commanding eye to the gatehouse guard.

“Trevor! The heir has returned.”

A gruff and contempt laden voice rang out from the gatehouse. “Yes, m’lord.”

With that, the gates opened to a rather unnoticing crowd. Most of the civilians went about their daily business with most of them hurriedly making way for the party of horsemen. Some of the robed monks and “magelings” (as Constantine called them) even took the time to bow and hurriedly babble out:

“Good day, My Lady.”

“Good health to you My Lord.”

Those that did pay any attention to the party however were most taken by the sight of Babs. The tall women with the luscious auburn hair, and the jet-black skull laden armor atop a white steed. Babs of course didn’t take any notice of their notice, until a cry rang out through the streets.

“No Penelope come back!”

Atma caught sight of a pair of children running out from one of the streets chasing a small puppy, possibly a dachshund, which was on a collision course with the cantering horses. Atma was far back enough that she was able to stop, and was about to cry out hold until a line of ethereal figures burst from the ground between the two parties.

Both the horses and the dog stopped in their tracks, screaming or whimpering in varying degrees of fear. Atma instinctively looked towards Babs and saw the knight’s gauntleted hand grasping her partially drawn sword. In that small gap between the sheath and the hilt, the once clean and shining blade was covered in a dense fog with countless mouths writhing as if they were trying to break forth into the open.

Atma considered a chilling possibility. “Are those all...”

Were those the faces of people Babs had struck down? Where these souls now trapped within the misty steel of her weapon? Babs was a death knight after all, with power over the dead. And while most of their ilk had power over corpses and even the blood of the living, Babs might be powerful enough to hold sway over the very souls of the dead.

Ignorant to Atma’s growing concern, Babs sheathed her blade, then dismounted. The ethereal figures disappeared, and with an audible shush from the skull mask, the horses calmed. The puppy though kept shaking and whimpering, her eyes fixed on Babs. She walked towards the dog but was blocked by the two children, both little girls of no more than four and a half feet.

The one who had cried out earlier did so again. “Get away from her you...you freak.”

Francesca nearly leaped from her stirrups. “That’s a nice way to say thank you! Dame Barbara saved your-”

Babs tilted her head towards the offended noblewoman. “Thanks, Francesca, I’ve got this.”

The protests halted and Babs turned towards the defiant, and fearfully shaking trio. She then unfastened the armored gauntlet on her left hand and then removed it revealing...a normal hand of dark brown complexion, much like one belonging to a native of the Caliph Theocracy.

She knelt and held out said hand. “See? Just like yours, maybe a little bigger.”

The dog moved hesitantly from her owner’s barricade and sniffed Babs’ hand. The little puppy then licked and cuddled it, earning a behind the ears scratch from Babs and an affectionate “aww” from the onlookers. The dog then leaped into one of the sister’s waiting hands and licked her profusely.

The remaining sister turned her smiling face towards Babs. “Thanks, scary lady!”

The other sister blurted out. “Ellie! That’s very rude.”

Babs raised her hands, waving them disarmingly. “No that’s alright. It’s kinda the point.”

The kids laughed and let out a few “thank you’s” before Babs shewed them back home. As she put her gauntlet back on, Atma caught site of several calluses and scars. The most prominent of which stained her palm and finger-tips, as if she had gripped some red-hot object.

Atma looked at the sheathed blade again, wondering if it might be the cause. “She did it so casually, surely she wouldn’t-”

Her thoughts were interrupted by Lorenzo. “Your master is amazing...or mistress...Teacher, yes that’s it.”

Atma was sheepish in her agreement and adjusted her mask and hood as if that nervous expression might somehow creep free. After her gauntlet was back on, Babs remounted and the other De Fuoco siblings called for the onlookers to clear the way. This wasn’t hard to do, as there was a renewed mix of awe and fear from the crowd towards Death Knight, known to be a Magis Eques now that everyone got a look at her armor.

The party trotted on farther until they reached the manor, where they were greeted by an entourage of armed guards and a tall human man in noble regalia.

Constantine halted his ride and struggled to maintain his arrogance. “A grand reception father, especially for a simple-”

“Silence child.”

The command hung in the air, lingering in Atma’s ears as if it had been meant for her. The others seemed to be affected in like manner. Except for Babs, who dismounted and was already in the process of setting up her horse in the stables. The Count, a tall man with a mustache and a swimmer’s build, regarded this behavior with studious interest.

Which in turn earned Atma’s attention. “Is she the first Magis Eques he’s seen? Surely the first death knight?”

Atma’s thoughts were interrupted when she was asked to dismount by one of the manor’s staff, an elven woman with blue strands in her black hair. Atma did as she was asked and thanked the servant for her help, all the while apologizing for not hearing the elf woman the first time.

Lorenzo dismounted as well but remained with his other siblings, standing in military fashion before their father.

The Count De Fuoco held his gaze on Dame Barbara, who finished fastening her mount to her post and then turned. After making a show of looking around for what his lordship was staring at, even scratching her head, Babs let out an: “Oh, sorry. Been on the road for a long time, your lordship.”

She managed a graceful curtsy, despite the armor, which elicited a smile from Count De Fuoco. “It is good to see such a well-mannered peer. I know now that my suspicions were inaccurate.”

The skull mask inclined to the side, her hair blowing in the breeze. “Suspicions?”

“A Knight of your bearing and manner would surely have the courtesy to NOT invoke necromantic energies on my property.”

The Death Knight seemed genuinely embarrassed by the comment. “Oh, that.” Though not for long, as she rose from her pose and stood straight, her left hand on her hip. “I had to save a puppy.”

Count De Fuoco was puzzled, then he nodded his head in understanding. “Would this be Penny?” The De Fuoco children were shocked that their father guessed correctly, while the man himself simply smiled. “A true master knows their subjects.”

Though the smile was quickly replaced by disapproval. “You would know this if you spent more time with your people and less time abusing my horses.”

The answer from each of his children was the same. “Yes my lord.”

He did not acknowledge them. Instead, he walked over to Babs, and gave a low bow.

“Now for a proper greeting.” He rose from his bow and made a grand sweeping gesture to his home. “Welcome Dame Knight, to Skywood Hearth. Will you be staying with us?”

“Of course, your son offered us a bunk here.”

The Count raised an eyebrow. “Did he?”

“Yep, in his own quarters no less.”

Taking in the full meaning of her words, Count De Fuoco rose from his bow in a start and looked at Constantine with literal fire in his eyes.

Babs waved her hand dismissively. “Now-now, I can handle comments like his in stride. But everyone gets tired, your lordship.”

Count De Fuoco calmed down and then waved his children away, who dispered in different directions. All except Lorenzo, who approached his father with a nervous expression. “Father, if I may I’d like to-”

“You may. I must retire and commune with the other counts of the dukedom. The Montrose invasion of Stonehause brings us opportunity and danger in equal measure.”

With that, the older man left. His son offered to show Atma and Babs around the grounds of Skywood Hearth. The two travelers agreed, with Atma showing a bit more eagerness to tour the new locale then she might have wanted. Babs was about to accompany them but stopped to look at the young elven woman who had helped Atma from her horse.

The Death Knight walked over to the woman, tapped her on the shoulder, waited for the young lady to finish her curtsy, and then whispered something into her ear. The younger woman nearly jumped into the air. “Truly my lady?”

“Yep, and just Babs.”

“Of course, thank you.”

The Death Knight then took a few silver coins from a pouch in her armor and put them into the servants’ hands. The girl then ran off into the town as fast as her thin legs could carry her. Feeling the confusion of the young people behind her, Babs turned and addressed their concerns. “I asked her to buy some bread from the bakery we passed. I caught a whiff of their goods while we were in town.”

Atma knew for a fact that Babs did not need food. Perhaps she was still able to taste things? Regardless, there was still something her guardian wasn’t telling her. And Atma felt she had a right to know. “What else did you tell her?”

“I said that if she bought a full loaf of bread, one of the big ones, that she could keep half; and any change that was leftover.”

Lorenzo gushed. “That’s amazing, I never thought I’d see such kindness towards a stranger.”

“Actually, I knew her grandfather.”

“Really?”

“Yup, he was the former master of this estate.”

Lorenzo fell silent after that, looking into the empty pits where Babs’ eyes might be. For a long moment, there wasn’t any sound but the rustling of the wind and the pounding of a distant Blacksmith’s hammer.

But the young noble mustered up the courage to speak again. “I’d heard stories about the old family, I never thought Amelie was a member. Especially since Constantine always said-”

“Lorenzo.”

“Yes, Dame Barbara?”

“Just Babs hon.”

Lorenzo smiled, regaining some of his former joviality. “Alright then, what do you need Da-umm, Babs?”

“Could you go ahead and show Atma around? I know my way already.”

Lorenzo nodded and walked up the manor’s front steps, opening the door for Atma. She followed after, taking the hint that her current guardian didn’t want to be disturbed. Before entering though, she looked back to see Babs’ skull mask regarding the town with those same empty eyes. It made Atma wonder what kind of gaze was hidden beneath. Hoping she would get those answers eventually, Atma massaged the back of her neck, then left for her tour.

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