Xian

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Chapter 1.5: Past Discretion.

Not all in Leo is grim and futile. Such reprieves are indeed buried beneath war and political trash, but there are in fact some people who try to do good in this world. Even among the worst dregs of noble privilege, there are paragons who more than earn the title of noble. And when one of these luminaries is lost among the ambition of his peers, even I can shed a tear or two.

These tears are of course joyful ones. What other reaction can I have to those fools who consider themselves “good” or even “heroic”? To sacrifice of themselves for the sake of strangers and the cold comfort of law? There is nothing more pathetic. Some do make it further than others I suppose, and some even earn my attention. Yet none have appreciated this honor, despite the wonders it does for their career. After all, the only good Hero: is a Tragic Hero...

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Oaken wood, laden with forest green finish and a side trim of crimson red. Such was the festive appearance of Skywood Hearth, seat of house De Fuoco. But amidst these bright colors, the odd bit of dust and torn manuscript could be seen on the floor. These were then lazily gathered up by a servant or guard, who usually just replaced it somewhere else.

Atma, feeling the gentle breeze that parted branches for a flurry of leaves, smiled. She breathed in the fresh air as she was perched on a balcony overlooking a garden and swimming pool. And watched over this grand old place with a confused eye turned towards the servant’s cumbersome labors.

“It’s all so beautiful, why not keep it that way?”

She received no answer, only a slight clearing of the throat from behind her. She turned and saw Lorenzo standing at attention, nervously looking at his shoes. Atma still had her mask and hood up, the sunlight touching naught but her eyes and the top bridge of her nose. Those cat pupils shrunk and grew, before she put an arm over them, shielding them from the over-bright light.

This caused Lorenzo some concern. “Are you alright Atm-I mean my lady? You wandered off.”

“Sorry, I heard running water and followed the sound.”

Lorenzo looked over the balcony and into the swimming area, surprised. “Have you never seen a swimming pool?”

Atma shook her head. “Not much time to relax in the water when you’re training to fight.”

“But you love the water? Enough to run to it when you hear it?”

“Oh yes. We hardly saw clear water at home, it always seemed so beautiful to me.”

Lorenzo went over to the railing on the balcony. “But you still hadn’t seen a pool?”

“Silly isn’t it?”

“I suppose.”

They stood there looking over the grounds a bit longer, and beyond that to the edge of the town, and even further over the wide forest and surrounding planes. These lands were beyond beautiful and should have felt peaceful. But from here, at their epicenter, the air crackled with magic. So much so that it made those sensitive to it quiver. Atma herself had to suppress a faint shiver in her hands. But Lorenzo seemed quite used to it and showed no signs of strain.

She turned her gaze away before he could catch it, and looked back towards the Manor’s interior. “Does the rest of the manor look like this?”

She pointed at the walls, at the bright colors and sheen of still flush wood.

At which Lorenzo smiled with pride. “Of course, all of Skywood Hearth is beautiful. It’s a living thing you know.”

“Really?”

“Oh yes. The manor is home many nature spirits, they turned their tree-home into a house.”

Atma’s eyes lit up with curiosity, she tilted her head in anticipation. “Why?”

Lorenzo looked confused and had to ponder the question. “Charity I suppose? Our family’s magic focuses on pure arcane forces and nature spirits are pure magic so...I actually don’t know.”

Atma thought on this and reflected on what Babs had said about there being a previous family, most likely an elven family, in charge of Skywood Hearth and the lands surrounding it. Elves of a magical temperament were often more in touch with nature than their more politically minded cousins. And would receive much aid in return. So how were they deposed?

Atma wondered at this. “If they were deposed at all, Count De Fuoco seemed courteous enough, if a little over-serious.”

Even with her thoughts, Atma felt awkward in the silence. A feeling that was cemented by Lorenzo’s lingering gaze. He then took notice of her noticing and blushed a little before smiling nervously and looking away, trying desperately to find something to do with his hands.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to stare I just...did.”

Atma shrugged her shoulders. “It’s alright. So, did you want to show me the rest of the manor?”

“Of course, if you’ll just follow me?”

Atma did so and was led through the house. It was luxurious. The furnishings were of fine wood and leather, and artworks from a dozen distant locales depicting figures of import, islands of paradise, and religious phenomena dotted the walls. It continued this way throughout many rooms. It was the same in the atrium, the armory, and almost every room in the manor.

It was all one gaudy and repetitive display of wealth and decadence, along with the occasional mystic bauble. Even the instruction rooms, the chambers where mage acolytes; men and women who were studying bits and pieces of Wizarding lore to expand their knowledge, were not immune to this. It all seemed terribly useless and almost disdainful to Atma, who looked at the wealth of this place with an uncomfortable eye.

Lorenzo was sympathetic to this, he even looked uncomfortable as he gestured at the different objects of the house. “Even I’m not used to it you know.”

Atma was startled, her attention snatched from the gaudy banners laced along the hallway. “Oh, I didn’t mean to-”

“It’s alright. When I was old enough to wander the rest of the manor, I was completely put off by how opulent and, well...shiny everything was.”

“You were kept in?”

Lorenzo grimaced, and he shrank into himself with embarrassment. “Well, I wasn’t let out of the family apartments until I was seven. I was told that most noble children experienced the same.”

Atma found this strange but tried to keep an open mind. “Alright then...wait a moment, you weren’t allowed outside of the apartments for seven years?”

“Yes?”

“Not even to go outdoors? Out in the sun?”

The boy was stunned and scrambling for a response. Before he could come up with one, a refined and imperious voice washed over Atma’s senses like a tidal wave. “A scion of a noble and mystical line need only be sustained by the magic of our birth chambers.”

Atma turned on quick and noiseless feet. She saw a human woman, tall and thin, with her walk somehow unaffected by the grand weight of the jewelry on her hands, ears, and all the rest of her. Even her shoes featured precious stones along the side of the soles or top of the lacing. Atma recognized the swirl of magic within the depths of those gems. It was very likely that the shoes had some sort of mobility enchantment on them, maybe even flight.

The possibilities filled into her mind as she braced for a confrontation, such was the force of the approaching woman’s voice.

But the lady merely smiled over Atma, seeming to gloat over some unseen victory. “In such an environment, a child is nourished beyond the realm of more pedestrian comforts.”

Lorenzo walked forward, placing himself between the woman and Atma. “Mother, it’s good to see you. I had thought to see you after the hunt.”

His mother lifted an eyebrow. “Yes, I’m glad you returned without injury. Considering what happened after that belt incident.”

Lorenzo kept a pleasant smile on his face but stiffened. His mother ignored this, and instead kept her eye on the ruggedly dressed and masked Atma. She made a point of avoiding a direct look into Atma’s eye’s, a difficult move but one that was somehow accomplished with a great deal of poise and authority.

Though perhaps not as impressive as she though. For the lady of the house looked exhausted from the berating of her son. “I have the honor of being Carmina De Fuoco: lady of the house, and Countess of this paradisial land.”

“My name is Atma.”

Carmina loomed over the younger woman with a dangerous look. Atma wondered at this, and then remembered something from her early years of study. Despite not wearing a dress, Atma managed a polite, if awkward curtsey, and kept her cat-like eyes pointed to the floor. “My Lady.”

The Countess De Fuoco nodded in approval. “Well, at least you have some manners, however delayed they may be. You are one of the guests we are entertaining? The apprentice?”

“Yes, my lady.”

“And who is your teacher?”

“Ba-I mean, Dame Barbara, of the Magis Eques.”

Carmina stopped at this, contemplating the information. Then, without warning, she adopted a more pleasant air, even clasping Atma’s hands in a warm and gentle grip. “Well, we are delighted to host two members of the Magis Eques beneath our roof. I take it Lorenzo is showing you the house?”

She looked at Lorenzo with a curled smile, and he nodded hastily.

This new air unnerved Atma. “Does she realize how artificial this seems, even a little?”

The answer seemed to be no, as Carmina continued her pleasant smile and even flourished towards the expanse of Skywood. “Well, our home is open to you. Lorenzo?”

Her son stood at attention. “Yes, mother?”

“Bring our guest to the main hall, it’s nearly time for dinner.”

“I was actually just...never mind. We’ll meet you there presently.”

Carmina gently bowed at both of them before leaving in the direction from which she came. Atma was confused at this and turned to Lorenzo. “Why doesn’t she just walk with us?”

“She’s not dressed for dinner.”

Atma continued looking at him, still confused. The boy was clearly used to such a reaction, as he casually gestured with his thumb towards his departing mother. “Would you want to get all that jewelry dirty?”

“I’ve never seen that much jewelry.”

“You haven’t been to many noble houses I suppose, strange for a Magis-”

Atma hastily interjected, even keeping her hand movement and such to a minimum as in the hopes of looking more refined. “I’ve spent most of my time on the road, and the place where I trained was very militaristic. We focused more on the fighting parts of being a knight then on the pomp.”

Lorenzo nodded at this before showing the way to the Main Hall. It was a short walk, though they had to pass around several servants and even a few knights wearing the De Fuoco colors. The display brought a proud smile to the young man’s face. “Father always welcomes the finest of our men at arms to the main hall for dinner.”

Atma had different opinions on the matter, due to a much darker education concerning politics. But upon seeing the happiness on her host’s face, she felt some pity for him. She even forgot that he couldn’t see her smile. “That’s very kind of him.”

Lorenzo heard only the tender sentiment in her voice and even straightened himself out a bit to seem more dashing. He then opened a final door for Atma. Where the atrium of Skywood Hearth was opulent and made to confer upon all who entered how powerful and wealthy the De Fuoco’s were: The Main Hall, where much of the house’s traffic flowed through, and where feasts and meals were hosted, was far more functional looking by comparison.

Elevated slightly above the ground and with ash-colored floors, the main hall was lit and heated by four great hearths that flanked the dining areas. On a column supported platform directly above, composed of silvery looking wood and with six staircases (four ascending and two descending), was where the main family dined.

The rest of the Family, save for Carmina and Absalom, were already sitting down at the main table. Count De Fuoco bade his youngest son join them with a gesture of his hand. Lorenzo followed the gesture in a rather lock stepped fashion and rushed up to the platform, leaving Atma alone to navigate her way through the servants, knights, and their respective buffet lines until she finally climbed one of the staircases. A place at the table was made for her next to Francesca and Lucia, the latter of whom was fussing with bits of her food.

Atma was about to ask her younger sisters’ reason for this before Lucia responded with a blank look and a curt tone. “I’m trying a new diet.”

That was the majority of Lucia’s dialogue for the evening. Francesca was far more talkative by contrast. The junior knight, for she had finished her squiring and was now in the midst of officially becoming a knight of the Emerald Leaf, chatted at Atma about combat techniques, the beauty of the current season, and even about the intricacies of magic.

Francesca even had a few theories about how Atma’s own magic functioned. “You’re not bookish enough for a mage.”

Atma, at first motivated to keep her origins a secret, now felt self-conscious about her “look”. “I like to read as much the next person...the next literate person.” She then realized how arrogant that sounded and tried to defend herself. “Oh-but not that I think many people are il-”

“And I don’t see a wizard’s crest. Unless you’re hiding it under all those rags.”

“Um, I don’t-”

Francesca held up a hand to silence Atma. “No. Sorry. It’s your business and I shouldn’t pry. I think your modesty is very refreshing.”

“Well, thank you. Actually...these are the only-”

“The studded leather jerkin and the rags are the only clothes you have? Not to be rude but...really?”

Atma nodded innocently as she looked at the food with greedy eyes. She hadn’t seen such a feast in a long time. But this was a public place, and she didn’t want to remove her mask. Lorenzo noted this and walked over, but he stopped as soon as Francesca put a hand on Atma’s mask. The younger woman froze for a moment and fought every instinct to slap the hand away, though the strangeness of the situation was enough to stun her anyway.

A strangeness that Francesca casually waved away. “Relax, I’m just opening it at the top.”

The young dame then cut off and speared a piece of meat with her fork. “Here, eat this.”

Before Atma could protest, Francesca already lifted the foodstuff above her mouth and shoved it in from the top opening in the mask, all without looking at Atma’s concealed face or pulling the mask out too far.

And of course, she chatted up Atma while doing so. “So how did you learn to fight like that? With the teleportation and such? I’ve never seen magic like that.”

Atma struggled to chew fast enough to give a reply and failed. So, Francesca resumed her discussion. “Usually I’m stuck with the typical magic blasts, wand twirling, and...Lucia’s experiments.”

Lucia was still fiddling with the food on her table. But she was also holding her staff, and Atma could see the faint trace of magic emitting from it. The trail led to a table that hosted the gate guard from earlier. Atma could see that the food on his plate was being arranged into words.

She thought the young wizard was being more than a little indiscreet and thought to offer some advice. “Wouldn’t a wand be more practical milady?”

Lucia remained completely monotone and didn’t even look away from her toy. “Wands are for boarding school rejects.”

“That’s certainly an extreme response...”

“Real wizards use staves.”

“Um, alright.”

Francesca leaned over towards Atma and whispered in her ear. “Lucia has very specific opinions on magic...wait, that’s it! Are you part dragon perhaps? I’ve heard that many with draconic ancestry have eyes like yours. So do other things I suppose...

“I actually don’t like talking about my family- ”

That comment only fueled Francesca’s interest. “Well, that sounds dramatic. But fine, I wish I didn’t have to talk about family either. And don’t even get me started on primogeniture...”

Atma couldn’t help but chuckle a bit. Yes, the knight was a talker, but she was genuine about herself at least. “They’re none too shy about giving their opinion. Except for Lorenzo, he’s a little tamer than the others, and the middle boy hasn’t said a single word. What was his name again?”

The middle son in question was named Absalom, and he was absent from the table. Instead, he was at the upper end of the hall and was currently playing a strange tune on what Atma recognized as a guitar, an importation from the Duchy of Cortes. It was a relaxed song that contrasted with the boisterous and feastful nature of the environment. But it lent a quiet dignity to the place.

As Atma pondered the tune, she felt a heavy hand on her shoulder, it was Babs in her full death knight regalia. “Hey, kiddo.”

Everyone at the family table looked up from their plates and marveled until Francesca spoke up and broke the reverent air with a gasp of awe. “Dame Barbara! How did you-”

“You learn a few tricks on the road, even how to sneak into a crowded room in full armor.”

There was still that innocent manner in Babs’ movements, exacerbated by her young voice. Her further strangeness was compounded by the contrast between her emoteless skull mask, and her long hair which shone in the hearth light. No one could keep their eyes off her.

Not until Carmina De Fuoco stepped onto the family dining area. No longer clad in luxury but in a more subdued gown of forest green and wearing a thin diadem of copper, exposing a natural and fierce beauty. The lady of Skywood Hearth swept across the room and lowered herself into a seat at her husband’s right hand.

Count De Fuoco kissed her cheek and pointed at a seat next to Constantine. “Dame Barbara, if you would like to sit-”

Babs waved a hand towards the other end of the table, and a simple chair of wood and cotton cushions materialized from the empty air. “Thanks, but I can manage.”

“Your mastery of the mystic arts is formidable Dame Knight.”

“Not really. Your predecessor let me keep this chair in the manor’s ley line during my apprenticeship.”

Everyone at the table became silent. As Absalom’s music played on, and Babs sat in her chair without a sound, the tension grew. All of the De Fuoco clan waited for their patriarch to speak, but the old gentleman with the hawkish face wore a nervous smile.

Finally, he swallowed his unease and looked up at his rather impertinent guest. “Indeed, my old master left the estate to me. Such was his will in the event that none of his heirs proved worthy.”

“And his granddaughter?”

The Count grimaced at her mention, but then smiled and waved it off. “A capable servant, with an eye for dust and muck, but with no talent for magic. She is therefore incapable of being a suitable custodian.”

“Strange, that shouldn’t be possible if she inherited her family’s Wizard’s crest. Unless someone else took it.”

De-Fuoco continued his smile, though he began anxiously tapping his foot. “One might think that you were accusing me of something Dame Barbara.”

Babs shrugged her shoulders and then edged a little closer to Atma. “Not at all, I’m just laying out the facts...and maybe a few hypotheticals.”

“Some of those hypotheticals carry real insult...Dame Knight.”

Babs nodded in an understanding fashion. While Atma, feeling a little awkward, cleared her throat and made ready to leave. “My apologies, good lord. I’m sure that my mistress is merely tired from our long march. Perhaps if we could be excused?”

Count De Fuoco blinked, and despite how uncomfortable the rest of the head table was looking, he maintained that same confident smile. “This feast was for you. It would look quite strange if you suddenly left it.”

Babs put an urging hand on Atma’s shoulder, gently calling for her to sit down. The young woman, reluctantly, did as she was told. Though her many finely honed instincts compelled her to hastily take note of the various exits in the room, and gauge the battle strength of all those present.

While Atma did all that, Babs apologized for her perceived rudeness. “I’m sorry, I’ve spent so much time on the road that...I guess I’ve forgotten my manners.”

The tension seemed to lessen with that, and Count De Fuoco smiled more graciously. “Of course, I understand. In fact, why don’t you tell us one of your stories from the road? I’m sure my children would learn much from it.”

Several cheers of “yes” and “that’s a great idea” rang out around the table.

The chanting only stopped when Babs stood and held a hand up in appeasement. “Alright, let me get my memory straight...Ok, I have a story that might educate and entertain.”

She made a show of clearing her throat, then sat back in her chair and projected her voice for all to hear. “This is from my old apprentice days. I hadn’t even heard of necromancy yet, and my sword skills were about as well developed as you might expect fora skinny twelve-year-old. But I remember one other student, who was studying magic. He had the book smarts for it, but not the raw power. Still, he built up an impressive skill list and even tutored some of the older kids.”

Babs paused for a moment, seeming to gauge her audience. Atma who had already been doing the same for the past few moments, saw that most of the De-Fuoco family was patiently and enthusiastically listening. Except for the Count, who had raised a trembling hand to his mouth, and was now leaning uncomfortably in his chair.

Atma knew that her guardian must’ve seen this, but despite what Atma considered a warning sign, Babs continued on her story. “You see he loved the craft of magic, it’s intricacies, and the art behind it. But like most bookworms, he got picked on by those with more obvious talents. And when he hit a roadblock with his studies, well...I tried talking him through it. By the time we were making progress, an old knight from the temple of Bellona visited Skywood Hearth where we were both studying. The old man asked if I wanted to come along and let him show me the ropes of killing bad guys with both sword and spell. And me being a young kid, raised to look up to warrior princesses and saints of battle, said yes.”

Francesca and Lucia were fascinated by this story, Lorenzo too sat there enraptured by the thought of “what came next.” But Constantine and his mother Carmina noticed a gradual shift in The Count’s mood. The lord of Skywood Hearth now wore a sad look, with a small tear in his eye.

Babs continued. “But I was scared of leaving. You see, the boy and I were each other’s first kiss and...well, we were young and didn’t want to leave each other. So I asked him to come with me, and he said no. He asked me to stay, and I said no...He said he didn’t want to live in someone else’s shadow, and he said he’d found a way to make sure he never did.”

There was a pause. And even behind her mask, it was clear that this tale was affecting the death knight. She pushed through it though, with a lift of her chin and renewed vigor in her voice. “That put me off a little, so I was the one who left. I didn’t hear anything from the boy for twenty-five years...but one thing had continued, I always got letters from our old teacher, the former master of Skywood Hearth. Twenty-three years ago, about the same time our host got his noble title...the letters stopped because my old teacher had died.”

Count De Fuoco now looked with wide and frightened eyes at Babs, but she continued. “Just goes to show you...if a man feels weak and desperate enough: He’ll do anything. No matter how stupid or selfish it might be.”

No sooner than Bab’s finished did Count De Fuoco stand up and snap his fingers. Mage Knights in full armor, wearing De Fuoco colors materialized from the air, prompting Atma to prepare herself for battle. “Invisibility spells, did Babs see through them?”

Fury and fear spread across Count De Fuoco’s face, and he gestured at Babs with flailing and crooked fingers. “Guards, Kill the death knight!”

Atma sprang into action, leaping from her seat with her conjured weapons in hand! Then she found herself falling into the grass outside the manor, with Babs standing over her. “Let’s go, kid. We’ve outstayed our welcome and I won’t be able to teleport on the leyline once he closes it off.”

“How did we go from being honored guests to-”

“Because old man De Fuoco murdered his master and stole his family’s magic, as for why he didn’t just kill the rest of them...”

Babs remained silent and pondering for a moment until a great light shot up from the manor and blanketed the skies overhead. The light spread into a great dome that encircled the town.

This elicited a facepalm from Babs. “Great...This is kinda my fault I guess, I never was much for subtly.” A despairing groan escaped from behind her mask. “Course, I didn’t expect the guy to go full-on homicidal either.”

Atma stood up and conjured a bow for herself, along with some arrows. “Perhaps we could hide out with that girl you talked with, the grand-”

“Nope, that’s the first place they’ll look. Besides, I already told her to hide out somewhere else, in case something like this happened.”

The younger eyes widened and it was all she could do to keep from raising her voice. “You said you didn’t expect-”

The Death Knight gestured at Skyhold while some hint of defensiveness crept into her voice. “I thought he’d throw us in jail or do something schemier. I didn’t think he’d be stupid enough to attack a Magis Eques and her apprentice in front of witnesses.”

Raised voices and an alarm bell rang out, and Babs grabbed on to Atma with a plated hand. They ran quickly, dodging civilians and hiding behind walls from guards. Finally, they reached the entrance to the catacombs ahead of any pursuers. The entrance was barely lit in the dark, casting faint shadows on the wild and intrusive grass that seemed to be creeping onto the walls Babs nodded at Atma to go through the large and intimidating iron doors, and with quick steps, the two fugitives proceeded to hide in the tombs beneath Skywood town.

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