Decades old guilt guided Aurianna’s spear, each strike and thrust piercing through the heart of prophecy. Each parry and dodge seeking to avoid a dreadful future.
In the training grounds of Caerhold, she traded blows with fellow paladin Jeoram, and the rhythmic clash cut through the early morning calm. The weapons, while wood, were thick and durable, crafted to withstand the force a divinely gifted paladin could wield. And they still hurt, evidenced by Jeoram’s sharp cry as her spear struck true.
“I yield,” he gasped, holding up one hand. Aurianna rested on her practice spear, taking the moment to catch her own breath. Jeoram stripped off his shirt, muscles in his chest rippling delightfully. She was tempted to do the same, as the fabric of her top stuck to her skin but declined. If she did, it would likely be the end of their sparring session this morning, with more clothes coming off. Another time, she would have liked that, but today guilt and shame from a decade ago worried her mind. Fighting was the only thing that could quiet her whirling thoughts.
“Let’s go again,” she insisted, shifting her feet into a fighting stance.
“No. That last hit knocked the fight out of me.” Jeoram rubbed the back of his neck, where she’d landed her finishing blow.
Aurianna laughed into her closed mouth. “All the more reason to spar again. If we were on the battlefield, you’d be dead now.”
“If we were on the battlefield,” Jeoram countered, “I would have had a hearty breakfast first.” Golden rays of sun caught on his hair as he brushed it back behind his head. “As much as I love getting sweaty and worked up with you early in the morning, I am going to need something to eat before we go again. And then, perhaps, maybe even some breakfast?”
Aurianna snickered, turning her head before she could get lost in his warm golden eyes. Like her own, they were a sign of Afodisia’s blessing. Not every paladin possessed them, but they often represented Her most gifted servants. Like Oracle, whose warning still ran through her mind and even now sharpened her resolve.
If you face Matthias on the battlefield, it will end in tragedy.
“You can get some breakfast if you want, I need to train more.”
“Humiliating me five times in a row isn’t enough for you?” Jeoram cocked his head and a smile, but Aurianna didn’t let herself get swept away in his warmth.
“I need to get stronger, so I can surmount Oracle’s vision.”
“Oracle’s words were a warning, not a command.” Jeoram frowned. “You can’t fight Matthias. She said it would end in tragedy.”
With a huff, Aurianna shook her head. “Allowing him to yet live, while he slaughters allies and innocents alike is the true tragedy.”
“It’s been a decade. You have to learn to let go.” He tucked a lock of dark hair behind her ear and caressed her cheek with his thumb.
His gaze was too much, and she looked down. “Sutter’s Pass was razed just last month.”
“Aurianna, you aren’t responsible for his crimes. He’s a monster, not you.”
“He’s a monster because of me. I need to be the one to end it.”
Jeoram sighed and took her hands in his. “Okay, then we will face him and end his reign of terror. Together.” He paused. “And then, when Matthias the Traitor is but a memory, we can put this misery behind us, and begin our future together.”
Aurianna wore a smile, but Jeoram’s declaration brought on more remorse. Matthias too had a future he looked forward to, before he sacrificed it all for her. “Together,” she agreed.
“His death will bring glory and honor to the goddess, and to you. My own lady of love and war.” Her face grew warm, a pink blush crossing her cheeks. He pulled her closer, drawing in a deep breath through his nose. “We’ve spent all morning on war. Now I think you owe me some love…” His voice trailed away as his lips brushed hers. The heat of his mouth and his body against hers chased away the last dregs of morning chill. Maybe she could let down her guard, for just a little while–
“Lady Aurianna, Lord Jeoram!” The messenger’s voice split the tranquility, she nearly jumped out of Jeoram’s arms. They weren’t really doing anything, just kissing, but guilt from ignoring her duty crept back up. She didn’t answer the messenger, just nodded in acknowledgement, but her heart thudded in response, her earlier blush burning hotter on her cheeks. Clearing his throat, the messenger continued, “Lord Commander Mykel is calling together a detachment of paladins to head for The Sundering.”
The Sundering was the last place she’d seen Matthias, when he bid her to escape and he stood his ground against a demon ambush. A vulnerability along the Seraphim Wall, which was all that stood between the lands of men and the demon’s claim. In recent years, the forces of hell concentrated their attacks to further weaken it.
“Why?” Aurianna asked, pulling away from Jeoram.
Horror flickered across the messenger’s face.
“A body was delivered, mangled and desecrated, before the Seraphim wall.”
The battlefield provided many targets for Aurianna’s weapon, but few worthy of it. Certainly not the dead imp she kicked off her spear. And none were the man she was looking for.
She scanned the field, looking for the commander of the demons. Two more imps charged her position, flailing with claws and shining teeth. One imp wailed as she smacked it with her spear, knocked it off its feet. She pinned it down with her spear. The second imp swiped at her, claws scraping against the chain mail that protected her stomach. With a short bark of a laugh, she unsheathed the sword behind her back. Black blood spurted as she opened the imp’s throat.
Aurianna’s fellow paladin Roland galloped towards her. She blinked against the sunlight that glinted off his silver breastplate as he approached. “Pull back!” he shouted as she wiped down her sword before replacing it in the sheath.
“Why? It seems they sent nothing but these weaklings,” she scoffed, retrieving her spear from the dying imp.
“We got the order to regroup and prepare a pincer attack. Otherwise Matthias his regiment Ravenous are going to pick us off–” The explanation turned into a scream as a winged demon tackled him off his horse. Without hesitation, Aurianna thrust her spear through its translucent wings. A shrill shriek of agony filled the air, giving Roland just enough time to stab his dagger into its black heart. He pushed the fiend off and she offered him a hand.
“You okay?” she asked as he caught his breath. He nodded while dusting himself off. “Good, you won’t mind if I take your horse then.” She launched herself by her spear onto the percheron’s back. The obedient beast was already going full gallop before Roland could protest.
Just as Roland had warned, there was Matthias the Traitor. The hellfire blade in his hand crackled and spat as it carved into a paladin’s chest. Matthias laughed as the blade drank deep of the paladin’s blood.
He brought his arm up, catching the attack of a second paladin on his ruach-forged shield, tempered in the souls of fallen humans. Once, the force of a weapon wielded by a paladin would have driven him to his knees. Now he turned it aside with casual ease and riposted, driving his burning blade through layers of sanctified steel, leather, muscle and viscera. The paladin howled a dying scream as the blade tore loose from his guts.
“Charge!” he roared, holding his blade aloft. “Death to the enemies of Baath-Me’el!” And the Ravenous, demons taller than a man, with savage claws, great fanged maws, and black, scaled hides harder than cast iron, roared and slavered as they hurled themselves forward. There was no strategy to their assault: nothing but insane fury and insatiable hunger as they rent and devoured all in their wake. And when they could eat no more, they vomited up great gouts of acid-laced flesh and continued.
Foul, loathsome beasts, the Ravenous. The battle line of the Order of Afodisia broke under their assault. Laughing like a mad thing, Matthias urged his steed, a coal-black stallion of the pit, forward. Few of the Order had withstood the Ravenous. None withstood him.
With her spear primed to strike and her heart hardened, Aurianna set the warhorse to charge at full speed. She ignored the stinging stench of sulfur and the piercing wails of the Ravenous, as they fought over the remains of fallen warriors. Matthias saw her and met her charge. The rest of her companions fled in the opposite direction. Some were able to escape, but others were cut down on by the Ravenous. She was the only paladin running headfirst into the fray, but she refused to back down. If she could kill Matthias, then her death would have meaning.
Soon he was in striking distance of her spear. She threw it, but he deflected. Her spear bounced off his shield and landed in the mud. No time to be discouraged, as she followed up with a blow from her sword. He met her blade with his own, parrying with a laugh. Of course. He knew her moves, knew where she would strike. He had taught her how to fight, after all. Had she rushed into a fight she had no chance of winning? Had she let her guilt get in the way of her common sense?
“Sloppy, Ari,” he taunted, using the nickname from a decade past. “Didn’t I teach you better than that?” He wheeled his steed about as she cantered in a circle around him. “Do the unexpected!” he shouted, echoing bygone lessons. Despite the battle, the carnage, the blood on his hands, he seemed more instructor than enemy now.
She ran the horse in a tight circle, making her way back to her launched spear. It took a moment to dislodge it; blood and viscera had turned the ground into slush. Charging with the horse wasn’t going to work a second time, so she jumped down, swatting the horse back to safety. With a running jump, she lunged up with her spear to knock Matthias off his steed.
He brought his shield up to deflect the thrust, only to find himself tumbling backward off his mount as the shaft of the spear caught him in the shoulder with great force. He struck the ground with a heavy, dull thump. His sword deflected her second spear-stroke more by luck than skill, and he rolled to his hands and knees. Her boot caught in the sludge of dirt and blood, preventing her from following before he could stand.
“Clever. You learned well, even after we parted.”
“I’ve outgrown your teachings,” she spat. With an effort, she freed herself from the muck.
“Have you now?” He lifted his blade and advanced on her. “Show me just how much you’ve learned, Ari.”
Prolonging the battle would only make things harder, she knew. Already, muscles burned from exertion. With determination and a deep breath, she thrust forward, but he saw through it. He dodged with an easy feint and captured her spear underfoot. Arms heaved, trying to reclaim her weapon, but instead it splintered, the wooden crack as loud as her pounding heart. She landed with a splash in the sludge of the battlefield, her weapon now worthless in her hands. Not good. She was a master with her spear, and he knew that. He knew exactly how to defeat her. Sparing a split second, she glanced about, weighing the possibility of escape.
No, she still had her sword to fall back on. Another of his lessons. In an effort to buy more time, she threw the splintered shaft at him. It struck his legs, and it took a few steps to regain his balance. Long enough to draw her sword.
He came at her with a powerful lunge. With two hands on her sword, she braced for the attack. Metal screeched along metal, ringing in her ears as her planted herself firm. His demon form granted him far greater strength than she remembered. Straining her divine might, he pressed the deadlock. They were both slipping in the soggy mire beneath, trying to gain control of the impasse, until he found purchase, and stepped into her space. Her sword flew from her hand and landed several feet away from her, sticking up in the ground.
This was it. Staring into the thin slits of his full helm, Aurianna pushed down her fear. Her strength couldn’t save her now. Perhaps his humanity could. “If the Matthias I knew is truly gone, it should be easy for you to cut me down where I stand.” She didn’t want to be captured. His fate was too terrible to comprehend.
Matthias just stared. Did her words have some effect on him? Would he show her the mercy he was denied when he sacrificed himself? The moments stretched on as she waited, filled with questions. Would she live? Would she die? Would she wish for death?
“The Matthias you knew died more than a decade ago,” he declared, raising his free hand. Power surged through him and manifested as crackling black flame leaping outwards to engulf her. Burning by freezing, it squeezed her heart, taking the fight out of her. She only screamed once before she crumpled.
“Barabel,” he called.
There was a shifting in the air, and a young man, with bone-white hair, crimson eyes, and ram’s horns, stood next to him. The demon glanced down at her. “Pretty.” He licked his lips, “Very pretty.”
“Bind her,” Matthias commanded.
Barabel gave a lascivious, predatory smile. “Gladly. Will we be casting lots for her, or do you simply claim first rights?”
“Neither,” Matthias said. “She will be presented to Baath-Me’el.”
The demon’s expression was almost sympathetic.