Xian

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Chapter 1.7: Digging In

“Necromancy! The torture of the innocent dead into ghastly servitors of darkness and fear…is legal in almost every corner of Caminus and Yishu. They even have master’s courses at some of the Arcane Universities. Though such training is disgustingly inferior to the powers wielded by independent practitioners. Let alone those who have ascended into Lichdom. This is due to the many limitations placed on such studies by the “civilized world”.

Legally speaking, a caster may only animate vacant corpses or fractured spirits, as these entities are not considered sapient creatures. In fact: true necromancy belongs to the gods alone, and those serving as their Death Knights of course. Yet these powers were stolen long ago, by those unchained by any higher power. You mortals have given the name “Demon” to such entities. As if painting them with language would make them any less dangerous…

********

In this hallowed tomb, in these dark and closed quarters of stone and crumbled bones...sleep was the only solace. But sleep had never come easy for Atma. She never tossed and turned, only shivered and dreamed. But as far back as she could remember, she only ever dreamed of memories, and how helplessly she wished she could make them different.

But these present memories were different. Memories of a loving brother, looking for her amongst vines and swampland. He called her name loudly and looked about with amused eyes that perfectly matched her own. Just as she was about to spring out and surprise him, a great light shone down on the ground between the siblings.

It changed the surrounding swamplands, wild grass rose from the mucky water, and the vines twirled into full oak and maple trees. The light was so powerful that Atma had to look through cracks in her outstretched fingers.

Finally, the light abated, and a figure appeared at the center of this new patch of paradise. Huddled up against a tree was a woman in white and gold robes of a far eastern style. They were dirty and caked with blood and soot, and her deep brown skin was bruised and callused on the knuckles. Of greatest significance though, were her wings. Magnificent constructs of silver light that shimmered in the air, and then vanished as the woman crumpled into a sitting position, her back against the trunk of a large oak in the center of the new wood.

Without thinking, Atma and her brother ran over to the creature, who looked up to them with clear emerald eyes more resembling actual gemstones than anything of flesh and blood. As Atma’s brother conjured a set of splints and set them against a broken arm, the creature let out a weak grunt and slapped aside the splints before trying to shuffle away...only managing to stand farther along the trunk of the tree.

Atma put a hand on her brother’s shoulder. “She’s scared, big brother.”

“She’ll feel something worse if she doesn’t let me help her.”

“But we’re strangers, I wouldn’t like it if a stranger put a bunch of cloth on me without asking.”

Her brother looked ready to protest but then shook his head in defeat. He approached the angelic creature once more and spoke in a relaxed tone. “This is my sister Atma, and we’re trying to help you...if you’d stop being so jittery.”

Atma pushed her brother and he stumbled a little. “Big brother that’s mean, look how scared she is.”

Atma leaned towards the woman, the sun glinting over her own olive skin and her strangely violet hair. “Sorry, my brother’s just in love with you so he isn’t thinking clearly.”

The brother blushed and wore a startled expression. “Excuse you!?”

“You know it’s true! The dashing squire, running to the rescue of the beleaguered maid...I thought you’d be more original.”

The two siblings argued for a while longer before they noticed the woman smiling at them. Brother and sister looked at each other a moment before the elder raised an apologetic hand. “I’m very sorry about this. We’re usually much more composed.”

The woman had sat back down and spoke with a kind, if weary voice. “That’s a shame. Brothers and Sisters, who are as honest as you two, tend to be very loving.”

The siblings looked at her, entranced, or perhaps surprised by the weak, but still beautiful melody of her voice. It made Atma smile, but her brother shook it off, clearly wanting no enchantment of any kind. “What’s your name?”

The woman let out another weak grunt, prompting the brother to edge towards her again. This time applying splints and conjured bandages without any interference from the now weakly smiling angel. Who, despite her weakened state, cast an optimistic air in both speech and body. “Well little one, I have quite a few names to tell you the truth....”

The woman stared off, looking as if she was trying to find something. After a few moments of deep introspection, she leaned back in her tree. Relieved by some unseen comfort. The angel then sat up and addressed the siblings in a friendly manner. “My name is Miranda. That’s what my friends call me anyway.”

She outstretched a beckoning hand towards Atma. “And you’re Atma?”

Atma nodded and shook the woman’s hand. Once that was done, Miranda turned a surprised glance towards her impromptu physician. Noting the expertise with which he applied his conjured doctor’s kit. “And my brave Doctor? What’s his name?”

Her brother didn’t even look up from his work. But just as he was about to give a reply, a familiar voice broke into Atma’s consciousness. “ATMA!”

“Babs?”

And with that response, the memory broke. Atma rose from her sleep with a start, her eyes illuminating the half-buried hallway she had fallen asleep in. Babs stood across from her, the black and skull armored frame somehow free of dust and grime. “We finished the dig.”

“Did we find the passage out?”

“Not exactly...”

Babs extended a hand and Atma grabbed it, lifting herself from her seated position. After Atma dusted herself off, she followed Babs through the winding of the catacombs. On more than one occasion, the young lady was forced to bob and weave through displaced coffins, and dangling bones. This was not the case for Babs. For the Death Knight was scaring the dead and the various containers of these dead away from her very stride...only for them to instinctively pop back into Atma’s way.

Even with these inconveniences, she kept up with the veteran knight, and only stopped when they had reached their destination. This corner of the catacombs was a wide space dotted with pillars. Coffins still lined the crumbling walls but were outnumbered by the rotting wooden benches scattered about.

The arrangement reminded Atma of a chapel. But the Northern runes chiseled into the surrounding walls raised a few questions. “This place isn’t dedicated to Anubis…But would worshipers of the banished gods really hide this far south?”

The runes seemed to bother Babs as well, who waved for one of her raised skeletons to break that piece of the wall down with necromantically powered hands. The death knight then brushed aside a few strands of her conspicuously flawless auburn hair and pointed towards a giant pit in the ground.

“My boys have been working on this for hours, and look what they found.”

Atma did as she was asked, and saw the host of skeletons with amethyst flames in their eye sockets. They were digging with iron picks and half-broken shovels at a concave field of green energy, which looked very much like the field currently above the rest of Skywood Hearth.

Atma folded her arms and glared at the unfeeling magic. “So the field extends beneath the town as well.”

Babs carefully guided her risen servants back to their various places of rest, even as she voiced her discontent. “Yep, so avoiding a fight is looking-.”

Atma turned her glare towards the Death Knight. “I’m don’t think you ever wanted to avoid this fight. Considering all your history with this place.”

Bab’s kept at her work, her only concession to her charge being a casual shrug. “You’re probably right.”

Atma’s glare suddenly grew very cold, and even angrier. Yet this fury didn’t seem to bother the more experienced Death Knight, who finished up the final parts of her work and then summoned a few ghosts, who departed in separate directions. So there Atma stood, in livid silence.

Until Babs said: “You’re a big girl, use words.”

Atma collected her thoughts, then folded her hands behind her back in an all too practiced military fashion. “We are already on the run from the Imperial Flame. Why did you confront De-Fuoco so openly?”

“You heard my story. Someone killed a friend of mine, a dear friend, and got away with it. I guess that annoyed me.”

“I understand, but we are already risking our lives. I am risking my life to get to your order, and you promised-”

Babs turned to address Atma, just as one of the ghosts she’d sent forward returned to her and then dissolved. “I know what I promised, and I’m sorry about the wait. I’m grateful for all that you’re doing, and that you’ve trusted me this far. But if you think I’m going to ignore injustice when it’s right in front of me, especially when it’s been going on for years...you’ve got me dead wrong.”

Atma was not satisfied with this answer. “Worse things are coming for Leo than its own corrupt nobles-”

“You’ve got your reasons for running away right? Well, I have reasons to stay and fight. Same motive different destination.”

Atma stared at her only friend for a while, then unfolded her hands and placed them on her hips. “I know what it’s like to lose people.”

“But have you ever had the opportunity to do something about it?”

Atma looked at the ground. “Yes, I failed...I don’t want to fail again.”

Babs walked over to her. “Hey.”

Atma looked up to see the vacant skull mask staring at her. The rest of Babs was in a very relaxed looking stance, even as she placed a hand on Atma’s shoulder. “You remember how you felt? When we were traveling through the grasslands?”

“A little...I remember it felt nice, I love the woods and the feeling of wild grass against my skin.”

Babs patted her on the shoulder. “Well, stick with me just a little longer, there’s a whole lot more to see. I promise.”

“You promise?”

The Death Knight placed her free hand on her chest. “On my word as a Magis Eques: you will enjoy a life on the road, without any psychotic demon knights or pompous aristos nipping at our heels. After we end this mess anyway.”

As Babs let go of Atma’s shoulder, the echoes of approaching footsteps captured both their attentions. Much to the veteran soldier’s annoyance. “Looks like my scout got the timing wrong.”

Babs put a ready hand to her sword, and Atma conjured a bow and arrows, aiming, drawing...and then putting them away. Even in the dim light, Atma recognized Lorenzo De Fuoco walking towards them, torch in hand. Accompanying him were his two sisters Francesca, in full battle array, and Lucia; who was tightly clutching an intricate staff.

Before Atma could say anything, the eye sockets of Bab’s helm glowed with light. Apparitions rose from ground behind the De Fuoco scions and surrounded them. They brandished cruel weapons from chains to jagged knives, and even wore strange armor of an ancient design.

Despite their intimidating visage, Francesca instinctively swung her enchanted axe and connected with one of them...only for it to be parried by the ghostly scutum of its intended target. Seeing this, Babs let her hand drop from her sword and strode towards the beleaguered siblings. “You don’t have a bunch of goons covering your blue-blooded selves, so I’m gonna give you the benefit of the doubt. Why are you here?”

Francesca still held her axe in a striking position, perfectly practiced, yet rigid with fear. “We came to help you dammit! Not to fight ghosts, as exciting as that would be…”

Lorenzo lifted his torch a little and squinted to see Atma. Upon locking his eyes with hers, his expression was so joyful that Atma felt a little embarrassed. This was not lost on Babs, who waved a hand and dismissed the ghosts.

She then fixed the De Fuoco kids with a pointed look. “So I know why Lorenzo’s here...you two just chaperons?”

Francesca chuckled a bit. While Lucia ignored the comment and traced a long circle in the air with her staff. Silver light shone between the rims of the circle and then softened into a clear window. In this image, soldiers bearing the De Fuoco crests rounded up elves and put them in cages. Before the images could continue, Atma conjured several ethereal torches that illuminated the rest of the room.

As she was doing this, Atma noted where the demonstration was headed. “Your Father wants to exterminate the elves.”

Francesca and Lorenzo wore shamed faces, while Lucia’s face remained grim and determined. The young wizard then planted her staff in the ground, dispelling the mirror and trembling a little as she did so. “This isn’t the first time that our father has been...an idiot.”

Babs inclined her head. “You’ll need to give us more than that kid.”

Lucia shifted a little, the same way Atma did when she was overwhelmed with unwanted memories. Yet the young wizard persevered and regained her proud demeanor. “I studied our family heritage a few years ago, thinking it would make our father proud. When I pointed out some inconsistencies, specifically in how we came to own Skywood Hearth and the surrounding county, he became angry. I told him that I only wanted to protect our family and that my learning these secrets would help keep them from our enemies…then he slapped me. And said that it would be better for the whole family if I just kept my mouth shut, like a good daughter should.”

Atma heard the ring of truth in Lucia’s voice but was curious about something. “You wish to depose your father for moral reasons?”

“No, for ethical reasons.”

Atma blinked, while the other De Fuoco siblings let out sighs of annoyance. Francesca was the first to comment though. “Lucia wants to keep the family’s dirty laundry private, while Lorenzo and I want to save ACTUAL LIVES.”

Lucia didn’t even flinch from that comment, and Atma recognized a certain apathy in her eyes. Though whether it came from malice, awkwardness, or perhaps an effort to shield oneself from pain, Atma could not tell. Yet this sudden focus on Lucia did not go unnoticed and the young wizard retorted her curious look with one of indignation.

Before Atma could say her apologies, Babs put a hand on her shoulder and stepped between them. “Okay, I get it now. Did anyone follow you?”

“What do you mean?”

“You left the house together. If your father’s paranoid enough to slap his own kids, I think he’s ready track them.”

This realization prompted Atma towards yet another. “The Mage Knights can use invisibility.”

With this information in mind, Atma looked around for some kind of disturbance. She knew that even her eyes couldn’t pierce their magic, but it could notice a few key details. Key details like the many sets of foot and handprints on the dusty ceiling. She drew her bow again and fired into one of the spaces in between the prints.

Instead of the ring of steel on rock, there was the ever-familiar sound of metal stabbing through cloth and then flesh. After that, there was a shimmer of light on the ceiling, which revealed the form of a cloaked figure, clinging with clawed hands. The body than clattered to the ground and several more cloaked figures revealed themselves. From behind the De-Fuoco siblings came their eldest brother, Constantine.

He held a triumphant face, which faded into disappointment, as he saw the looks of horror from his brother and sisters. “Come now, you all can’t be serious about this. You must have known that you’d be tracked.”

Francesca shouldered her axe and put her hand towards a pouch on her belt. “Please Constantine, you know that what Father’s doing is wrong.”

“You see! This is why father banished the tutors! Because they were filling our heads with pointless moralizing! All that matters is that these insurgents are trying to take from us what is rightfully ours!”

The statement was delivered with such megalomaniacal glee that everyone was taken aback by it. Following it was a silence, during which no one moved, and no one’s gaze so much as shifted. Finally, Constantine’s impatience got the better of him. “We owe everything to father! And you’re going to give it all up for the sake of people who used to enslave us?”

Atma, against her better judgment, spoke up. “It’s been centuries since slavery was permitted in Leo. And to hold people accountable now for the actions of their ancestors-”

“Silence you harpious trash! For all I know you’re another damn knife-ear! In fact...”

Atma conjured swords up prepared for the inevitable attack, but it never came. Indeed, in place of his customary arcane blast, Constantine raised a jeweled ring on his hand, and from it, a gust of air burst forth. It was so intense that Atma had to stab her blades in the ground to prevent being knocked over. The effort distracted her from the loosening of her hood and mask until finally it tore from her face and was lost to the wind. While Atma would hide herself in most circumstances, her life was in danger. So, she stood with defiance in her eyes, and a sword in each hand, ignorant of the fear positively dripping from everyone but Babs.

Constantine stepped back, his practiced arrogance the only thing holding panic in check. “I-I knew it! No mortal creature could conjure soul bound objects, not with your...proficiency. Y-you...you’re part demon.”

Atma raised her blades into a defensive posture, remaining stoic. Her sharp-featured face was clear and unblemished, unmasked by her short-cropped violet hair. Golden glowing lights shone at the base of the neck, and most likely spread down to the rest of her body. They glowed with an ethereal light that seemed to pulse with each beat of her heart. Her catlike eyes were as steady as her heartbeat, and showed an intensity that seemed perfectly suited to her features.

When he saw this, Constantine struggled to find a way out, reaching for anything potent enough to distract his foe…so he kept talking. “What kind of thin blood are you exactly? Certainly not a vampire, nor lycan...perhaps an Archon? Or-”

“I’m afraid you’re under a sad misconception, sir. I am no thin-blood.”

The Mage Knights who had kept their hands on their swords drew them but were then pulled back by ghostly hands and choked into the dirt. Constantine tried to run but was held in place by earthen hands, which had taken hold of his feet just as Lucia thrust her staff into the ground. “You’re not hiding behind father this time big brother, nor ever again.”

The great hands of stone began to tighten their grip. Then a series of sickening crunches erupted from Constantine’s body, along with a tide of screaming. Seeing this, Francesca took her axe to the stone hands, and Lorenzo cried out towards Lucia. “What are you doing!?”

Lucia was just as indignant and was already conjuring arcane energy in her free hand. “He’s always been father’s lapdog and he won’t stop now. He has to be put down!”

“He’s our brother!”

Lucia ignored Lorenzo’s words. But she had been distracted long enough for Francesca to wade in with her axe and break open the stone hands constraining Constantine. The young dame in training then took a knee and lifted her brother onto his feet. “Easy, don’t move so fast. You’ve got a lot of-”

A soft glow enveloped Constantine and then disappeared just as quickly. Once it was gone, he pulled a dagger from his sleeve and plunged in between the plates on Francesca’s knee. She screamed out but was then silenced by a hand over her mouth, as Constantine pulled her up and backed up through the tunnel, holding another knife at his own sister’s throat. “Well you little shits, thanks to healing magic 101, my little sister’s efforts to crush me were futile. Now if you’ll just let me-”

Atma threw a blade past Constantine’s head, and he smiled. “Ha, that was the worst thr...Oh shi-”

Constantine’s profanities were cut short by an ephemeral blade through the back of his head and shooting out through his mouth. Francesca looked with wide eyes at her brother’s corpse as it crumpled to the ground. The other two De-Fuoco siblings looked up at Atma, now perfectly illuminated by arcane light.

Lorenzo was in shock, but Lucia wore a smile of pure contempt. “About time someone killed him.”

Lorenzo couldn’t believe his ears. “How can you be happy about this?”

“He was going to kill us.”

“That doesn’t mean we should be happy for his death!”

Lucia shrugged. “I’ll mourn for people who matter.”

As they argued, Francesca knelt by her brother’s corpse and closed his eyes. Atma could see her lips moving as well, though no sound came from them. Out of curiosity, and some regret, Atma walked over to the young knight. “I’m sorry. Maybe I should have-”

Francesca shook her head. “Don’t. You saved my life, I can’t really fault you for that. And at this point...at this point, he was too far gone. For all we know he might finally be at peace. I remember when he used to read poetry to us when we couldn’t fall asleep. Then he started training in magic, and I suppose the power and status of being a so-called prodigy went to his head. He still read poetry sometimes though. And he treated our middle brother Absalom well...he did that much right at least, even at his worst.”

Francesca mouthed a final prayer, and then left her brother’s body on the floor. Not knowing what else to do, but not wanting to leave the young knight alone, Atma took a look at the arguing siblings, whose fury hadn’t let up by an inch.

Out of the corner of her eyes, the young demon could see that Babs, in complete opposition to the arguing siblings, was very calm. She was inspecting the bodies of the Mage Knights but took nothing.

This elicited Francesca’s curiosity, and she stood up to talk with Atma.“What’s her story anyway? Besides what she told us at the Skywood?”

Atma herself struggled for an answer. Eventually, she just let out an exasperated sigh and did what she could. “I know she’s skilled, very cagey, and even when she’s reckless: she usually has a way out.”

“So she’s a strong warrior?”

“Experienced is a better fit for this one...and I think the mask is more than just for show.”

Lucia and Lorenzo finally quit their argument, and this got Babs attention. “You’re done? Great. Nothing like a pro v anti fratricide argument to get the blood pumping.”

The debaters in question were taken aback by this. But Francesca and Atma seemed to appreciate the undisguised venom in the Death Knight’s voice. Though such venom was quickly replaced with a decisive edge once she drew her sword. “Buckle up your stomachs kids, it’s about to get real uncomfortable in here.”

Babs drew her sword then pointed it at the corpses of the mage knights, and Constantine, all of which rose into standing positions. The others looked at this with some mixed reactions, but the Death Knight remained in perfect focus.

“You can shriek later. For now, we act.”

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