A Reckless Charge

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.

Is this where we meet, again? shewondered. She wasn't sure if it was the same place she had last seen her mentor, Matthias Kellikanos, but it was close. Close to the place where she had stumbled into a demon's trap, over a decade ago. Close to the place where he had stood his ground, bidding her to go for help as demons converged upon them. A desperate deed, intended to save her life. She had escaped, and lived, but he hadn't died. He was one of them now.

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 off its feet. She pinned the 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 its throat.

Aurianna's fellow paladin Roland Tempus galloped towards her. Sunlight glinted off his silver breastplate as he approached. "Pull back!" He shouted as she wiped down her sword before replacing it in the sheathe.

"Why? It seems they sent nothing but these weaklings," She scoffed, retrieving her spear from the dying imp.

"This was a trap to lure us out. Matthias is leading a regiment of Ravenous–" the explanation turned into a scream as a winged demon tackled him off his horse. Without hesitation, Aurianna pierced her spear through its translucent wings. A shrill shriek of agony filled the air, giving Roland just enough time to thrust 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 Clydesdale's back. The obedient beast was already going full gallop before Roland could protest.

If you pursue Matthias on the battlefield, it will end in tragedy.

Just three days before, the oracle had foretold this. Matthias' presence at the battle. Her chance at ending him, and his reign of terror. Her chance to finally right her worst mistake. Matthias would fall, and finally he would find peace. She owed him that much.

Up ahead, she could see him. 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 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 and great fanged maws and a black scaled hide 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. He saw her, and charged as well. 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 head first 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 he'd called her when they had been master and apprentice. "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, taunting her with lessons from a decade past.

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 muddy. Charging with the horses wasn't going to work a second time, so she jumped down, swatting the horse back to safety. With a running jump, she launched up with her spear to knock Matthias off his steed.

He brought his shield up to deflect the thrust, only to find himself tumbling backwards 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.

"Clever. You learned well, even after we parted." 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. With determination and a deep breath, she thrust forward, but he saw through it. He dodged with an easy feint, and captured her spear under foot. Wresting it from him sundered the blade from the shaft. She landed in the mud, 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.

Still, she had the sword on her back. Another of his lessons. In an effort to buy more time, she threw the splintered shaft at him. It stuck his legs, and it took a few steps to regain his balance. Long enough for her to draw her sword.

He came at her with a powerful lunge. With two hands on her sword, she braced for the attack. His demon form was far stronger than he had been as a paladin. Straining her divine strength, he pressed the deadlock. They were both slipping in the mud, trying to gain control of the impasse, until he stepped into her space. Her sword flew from her hand and landed several feet away from her, sticking up in the mud.

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? Was he considering showing 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. 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.

The Ebon Fortress

Matthias led Aurianna through the iron doors into the throne room, a dusky space a hundred yards on a side lit by screaming, burning humans in blackened cages. Demons of all descriptions milled about, hooting and mocking and hurling abuse at the captured Paladin. A warty thing the size of a mule oozed over, then swelled up. "Matthias the Fallen," it boomed, "seeks audience with the Lord Baath-Me'el!"

"Let him approach the presence." The voice was soft, almost gentle.

Matthias jerked the leash, and the court howled with laughter as the Paladin nearly fell. As they walked, demons and human servants of the Lord loudly commented on her appearance, or made crude suggestions about what they could do with her.

The throne rose before them now, a simple thing of carved dark wood incongruously perched on a dais of human bodies fused together. Upon it sat Baath-Me'el himself. He was deceptively human in appearance, and handsome in a way that reminded Aurianna that devils were angels fallen from grace. Long blonde hair poured over his shoulders, and he wore an open-necked tunic of white silk and gold, and breeches of dark blue velvet. His six wings were skeletal, charred and fleshless.

"Kneel," Matthias ordered. Even this small act of defiance, was met with unfounded cruelty, as she was thrown to the floor, sprawled on hands and knees.

"And what have you brought me, my pet?" Baath-Me'el asked, faintly curious.

"A gift, my lord. The Paladin Aurianna."

Amusement glittered in the devil's inhuman, golden eyes. "The one you sought to protect, not long ago?"

"The very same, my lord."

He stepped from his throne and approached her. "Stand," he commandeered in a voice that was silky, yet forceful. She stood, meeting him eye to eye, refusing to cower before him. His touch was gentle, caressing her cheek, but still she flinched. That was all the resistance she could muster.

"Such a lovely gift," the elder demon mused, as he cupped her chin, "You shall be rewarded well, Matthias." Her disapproving glare was met with triumph. His fingers grazed her neck, so that she could feel the sharpness of his claws against her skin. Threatening to squeeze the life out of her.

"Tell me, Aurianna," he began, spitting out her name as though it tasted foul in his mouth, "Why are you here, before me?"

"I was captured," She responded, confusion in her golden eyes. Baath walked around her, running his hands through her dark hair.

"Obviously," He replied in a dry tone, one that elicited laughter from his court. Behind her, he brushed aside the hair from her neck. His lips grazed her ear. "You could have run. All your fellow paladins did. Perhaps this is what you wanted, to be brought here. To serve me, as Matthias does." One arm snaked around her hips, the other held her face towards him as the dark grin lit up his features. "A woman like you is rare indeed. Swear me fealty, and you will be mine, alone."

"Never!" She struggled against him, managing to twist away from his touch. The court hooted in glee and the demon backed away.

"Shame. I am still going to have you, however." He declared with his back to her as he made his way to his throne. Once he was seated, he looked to Matthias, "Strip her of her armor."

The court howled and jeered in anticipation, then crowded closer as the former paladin drew a dagger. Twisting the chain around one fist, he drew it tight. "A final lesson," he murmured, pitching his voice for her ears alone. "You will be his. Defiance will only prolong your torment. Trust on me on that, if nothing else."

She glared at Matthias, focusing her fear and disgust into hatred. His last teaching, long after he relinquished her as his pupil. It wasn't angry or condescending or cruel. It was only empty. She didn't respond. There was no response to give. He had done this to her, brought her here, subjected her to this. There would be no absolving his conscience.

The dagger sliced through the leather buckles of her breastplate, sending it crashing to the floor. He kicked it aside, then gripped the underlying chain mail at the throat with both hands. There was a moment's hesitation, and then a shriek of rending metal as he tore the mail like cloth and threw it aside as well. The quilted leather jerkin beneath was also discarded, leaving her naked before the court.

It was hard to keep her composure as her defenses were ripped away. She bit her lip hard as the leather jerkin was torn from her. The glint of the knife caught her eye, and for a moment, she considered going for it. She'd never make it out alive, not with a measly dagger, but dying in the process would be preferable to the torture Baath Me'el had planned. Preferable to ending up a soulless demon, like Matthias.

"Submit," he told her as if he sensed her plan, "Because your defiance will change nothing."

Baath-Me'el rose from his throne once more, allowing his silk robe to spill down his body and pool at his feet. His nude form could have been chiseled from the finest marble, broad of shoulder and narrow of hip, without any hair to disguise the play of his muscles. He walked towards her, golden eyes exploring the rounded contours of her body, and he smiled.

There was no warmth in that smile. Only lust, and a pitiless hunger. One alabaster hand caressed her cheek, then trailed down over the swell of her breast. His skeletal wings surrounded her, scraping over her back as he pinched her nipple. "Already ready for me?" he laughed, finding the sensitive flesh erect in the chill air. He caught her wrist, holding her tight as she tried to break away. "Good."

"No...' she protested, whimpering now, as her strength began to leave her. A loud grunt filled the room as she hit the floor, a counterpoint to the mocking laughter of the court. Sharp wings of bone held her wrists in a Y formation and struggling against it only caused the razor juts in to cut into her skin.

His hands cupped her breasts and traced the plains of her stomach in a mockery of a lover's caress. He leaned over her, his breath hot on her face. "Perhaps, once, you dreamt of having Matthias like this?" he purred, forcing his lips against hers. "Well, he will have you as well." His tongue thrust into her mouth, fingers tangling in her hair. "When he gets his turn."

She couldn't bear to look at Baath, not now while he leaned over her, knowing what was coming next. Knowing she was powerless to stop him. She turned away, seeking some distraction, find it in Matthias. Once, he had been her mentor, and in most cases, the bond between a paladin and their acolyte was strong. And in her case, as Baath already deduced, Matthias had also been the subject of many teenaged fantasies. Before he sacrificed himself, for her. Now Matthias would never be any of that to her, merely the man who presented her up to her rapist.

Rising up over her once more, he held her hips steady with inhuman strength. With a single motion, he drove himself into her body. "Mine!" he roared in triumph, "Before my court, and before the Goddess that failed you, you are mine!"

She shrieked as he impaled her. Tears slid from her eyes, as her back arched. Pained cries were drowned out by cheers from his court. The minutes stretched out as her assault continued. Breaking her down, as it was intended to do. It could only end in two ways. Like the broken, lifeless paladin corpses who had been dumped before the Seraphim Wall, raped to death. Or like Matthias, selling her soul to make the torment stop.

His lips caressed her cheek, a tenderness that stood in contrast to the debasement she experienced, and his breath was hot and moist on her ear. "You will always remember," he murmured, tracing her earlobe with his tongue, "that as you were raped your body proved itself traitor. That no matter what you may claim, your body hungered for the seed of your rapist."

Despite how she resisted, straining against his movement, his words were prophetic. Even as her mind revolted at his touch, her body responded. Opening and welcoming and accepting. Tears streamed down her face as her body convulsed. She released a defeated whimper and her body went limp.

His thrusts became relentless, bruising in their force as he ravaged her body. Fingers dug cruelly into her hips as he filled her with his seed, to cheers and applause from the court. Without warning he pulled out, letting the last spurts of his orgasm splatter over her stomach. Where his seed met her skin it raised welts, branding her with a scar of her violation.

Dismissively he rose, cleaning himself with the scarlet cloak she'd worn until Matthias had stripped it from her. "Whore," he mocked. "You were just raped, before my whole court, and you loved it." He threw the stained cloak across her body, offering her a grotesque parody of modesty. "But I should expect no more from a slave of the War-Whore."

Laughing, he scooped up his own robe and pulled it on. "My court!" he called. "Am I not a generous Lord?" Screams of assent met his question, and he laughed even louder. "Then I offer a gift. This Paladin! Use her as you wish, for my amusement! I require only that she survive, and remain more or less intact."

The Demon Traitor

Matthias watched through narrowed eyes as Baath-Me'el returned to his throne, grateful for the helmet that hid his face from view. His Lord would know his thoughts if he cared to scrutinize him, but it was rare for Baath to bother. Matthias was obedient to his lord.

And what were the fallen paladin's thoughts? Boredom and disgust, mostly. He understood the purpose of this ritual. To break her will, render her powerless before the demons and their terrible lord. But it didn't make it easier to watch. Particularly when the focus was someone he had cared about, back when tender emotions dwelt in him.

Aurianna had been his greatest, most talented student. She possessed greater faith, a natural talent for war, and more charisma than he ever had. And, in the days when he still breathed and still walked in the light of Afodisia, he'd been proud to have been her instructor. Knowing she would surpass his skills had warmed his heart, and he'd come to love her as a younger sister. And perhaps as something more, although he would never have allowed himself to think that. Not when she was his apprentice. But all that was over now.

Her torment went on into the night. Demons didn't need sleep, so there would be no rest for her. Not unless she gave in. Or died. He found pity for her then. It would have been kinder if he'd just killed her.

Matthias clenched his mailed fists as twin demons, Nabron and Kimzhal, finished with her. Throwing Aurianna to the floor, and laughing at her whimpers. Soon, it would be his turn. He would join the others, degrading and humiliating her in an effort to stamp out what...

"MY TURN." The new voice boomed, low and deep and earth-shaking.

Laemohn the Defiler

Matthias' impotent rage turned to ice as he watched the next rapist lumber forward. Slender tentacles wrapped around her legs, pulling her thighs apart. Connected to the tentacles was a monster, eight feet tall, on four legs. Four tentacles arms extended from each side of it and two long fleshy extremities grew out from where its neck would be. Afodisia, he swore, hoping the goddess might hear her former servant this once - for her sake. Not him.

Up until this moment, Matthias had believed that he was dead to horror. In his decade of service to Baath-Me'el, he had raped and murdered. Slain entire villages and made heaps of their skulls. Consorted with and survived among the foulest brood of creatures to stain the earth.

Laemohn the Defiler.

To the end of his days, Matthias could never reconstruct what happened. One moment, he was watching the latest of Aurianna's violations. The next, his hellfire blade was shearing deep into the demon's flesh. He wasn't speaking, just screaming in a monstrous rage that drowned out the demon's agonies. Aurianna collapsed to the ground as Laemohn jerked his tendrils free to try and ward the fallen Paladin off, and he hacked through them as well. His blade rose and fell like a cleaver, and the stink of seared demon flesh filled the air.

On his carven throne, Baath-Me'el applauded. "If you wanted her so badly, my slave, you should have simply said so."

Chest heaving with his exertions, Matthias lifted his blade and pointed it at the Demon Lord. "Enough! This ends NOW!"

Baath-Me'el leaned forward, fixing his golden gaze on the fallen Paladin. "Do I hear you correctly?" he purred, voice like silk. "Do you presume to command me in my own throne room?"

Matthias was grateful for the armor he wore, armor that concealed his features. Because he could feel the blood drain from his face at those words. What had he done? He was... no, there was an out. He could claim that he wanted Aurianna. Declare his willingness to kill any who opposed his desire. And then he could have her, before the entire court. Slaying Laemohn was extreme, but the only crime here was to flout the law and fail to get away with it. Hell, it would even increase his standing.

He considered it. For a moment, he considered it. His life was horrible. Monstrous. And yet, he had no desire to die.

But... something prevented him. Some unexamined shred of emotion he'd thought long-dead. "She leaves," he said, voice cold and hard and hollow. "She leaves now. With me."

Baath-Me'el sighed. "And I had such hopes for you, Matthias. But, one should never trust an Oathbreaker." He smiled, revealing perfect white teeth. "I speak from experience." Rising, he waved his hand at the court. "You may have them both," he announced. "But, when you finish, bring Matthias to me."

The fallen Paladin sucked in a breath, gritting his teeth against the agony as his demon-soul awoke and tore at him. "Satsuysena," he murmured, and his voice strengthened as the words of the spell thundered out. "Satsuysena! Earthshaker! By the binding of the Gods, I summon you. Satsuysena! Earthshaker! Build up a bastion against my foes! Satsuysena! Earthshaker! By the binding of Eloridian I command you!"

The stone floor rumbled and shook, responding to the magic - not divine magic, but not devil magic either. Magic that could be harnessed by those who knew the words. As the demons advanced, howling for blood, spear-like stalagmites erupted from the floor, impaling several and hedging more out. It wouldn't hold them long, but-

He felt the surge of power as Barabel appeared, blades in hand. "Fool!" he snapped, raising his weapons. "I'll..." The words cut off in a gurgle as Matthias drove his hell sword through the demon's chest.

"You always did talk too much, Barabel," Matthias snapped, drawing strength from the demon's death. Then he kicked the fallen blades over to Aurianna. "Up, woman!" he thundered as the first of the demons cleared the stony barricade. "You fight now, or accept that this is your fate!"

Aurianna dove for the blades, wrenching them free of the demon's dead hands. Standing on shaky legs, it was clear her torment had taken a toll on her. Still, there was fire in her eyes, fire that inspired a strange feeling in him. One he hadn't felt in over a decade, since the demon become his soul. Hope, he realized. There was still hope for her.

A sinewy fiend charged her now, and she brought her left blade up, slicing open its chest and spilling its internal organs on the floor. Pivoting to the right, she stuck her blade through a succubus' stomach. Half eviscerated as Aurianna tore the blade about out.

The twins who had last violated Aurianna had stormed past the barricade, weapons before them. Matthias spun sideways, allowing Nabron's spear to glide past him as he slashed a vicious

backhand at Kimzhal. The demon parried, but staggered backwards. He faked another blow, stepping to take advantage of the demon's disorientation, then reversed and thrust. Nabron gurgled in agony as the burning hellfire blade tore into his chest.

Kimzhal screamed in agony and fury as his twin - his brother and lover - toppled to the ground. Matthias gave ground under an onslaught of mad fury, barely able to parry hammer-blow after hammer-blow from the demon's bearded axe. Kimzhal gripped his weapon with both hands and brought it up but Matthias seized the moment and hacked low. Kimzhal staggered, mewling in shock as his leg was sheared away. The mewling ended as the fallen paladin crushed his head with a blow from the burning blade.

Behind them a gluttonous brute was attempting to box them in. A gorgortox, he recognized. Over ten feet tall, and twice as wide, there was no way over or around, only through it. Aurianna took off in a sprint, until she pushed off on the balls of her feet. She soared through the air, knees bent underneath her, blades up on both sides on her. Her swords sunk into its abdomen, and she used them as climbing knives. Pulling one out just to plunging it back into its guts. The gushing blood made the trek quite treacherous, but Aurianna did not relent. She got about halfway up its chest before the gorgortox toppled over, blood flooding the throne room.

Matthias longed to wipe the sweat from his brow. It was streaming down his face, dripping into his eyes. But that would mean abandoning the protection of his helm. So, he shook his head and glanced around. There, like a sculpture of Afodisia herself, stood Aurianna. Painted in blood and posed above the fallen shape of Gorgortox, she glared at him with an expression of mingled curiousity and hatred. With her blades stuck in the demon's chest, she was left without a weapon. Fortunately, one of her slain rapists dropped a spear, a spear the Matthias kicked over to her.

He gestured towards the spiral staircase at the far corner of the room. "That way," he called. "Our only hope is to make our way to the Carnelian Tower!"

Baath-Me'el, who had still not stirred from his throne, gave him a curious look. "Oh? And how will that help?"

Matthias' chest heaved beneath his armor, and he grinned like a mad thing beneath his helmet. "Because, my Lord, you never revoked my authority over the Ravenous."

The fallen angel raised an eyebrow. "And what does that have to do with anything?"

There was a horrendous crashing sound, and inchoate roars of pure hatred as the iron double doors that guarded the throne room collapsed. Through them swarmed the steel-scaled horde of the Ravenous, rending and tearing all in their paths. The assembled demons turned their attentions from Aurianna and Matthias, suddenly intent on defending themselves or fleeing the monster tide. Matthias' laughter echoed, reaching a mad crescendo as he answered. "Because, my Lord, they cannot fit up the stairs!"

With that he threw himself into motion, reaping a crimson harvest as he hacked his way through the panicked demon mob. "Run, Aurianna! Run!"

Aurianna slashed in a wide circle before her, carving a path to the staircase. The weapon's power left large swaths of dead in its wake. A winged demon slammed her against the wall as she made her retreat, leaving deep gashes in her shoulder with its razor claws. Pushing it back with a free hand, she impaled it on a stalagmite that remained. She held the heavy spear before her, bracing for impact as she charged forward to the stairs. The spear grew heavy, skewering several demons and she was forced to abandon it. Still, she made it to the tower, as he covered their escape.

By now, the court's attention was on subduing the Ravenous, trying to pry away his influence over them. This was satisfying, Matthias decided. Demons borne of the unyielding hunger, turning that insatiable famishment upon the Court of Lust.

Matthias took the stairs two and three at a time, only daring to allow himself to begin to hope as the thick stone deadened the sound of the conflict behind him. At the top of the first flight, he saw one of the doors standing open and bloody footprints leading into the room beyond. He was no master tracker, but it didn't require genius to determine that Aurianna was within. In the intervening few minutes, she'd found time to improvise a toga-like gown out of a crimson cloak. It didn't suit her, and it was saturated with blood and other fluids now, but this was hardly time to care. "Up," he said, gesturing.

"Up?" She questioned, doubt in her eyes. That was new, but he recognized where it came from. It was a wonder she trusted him at all. Necessity more than anything, he imagined.

"We need to go up. There's no access to any of the other towers from down here." In truth, there was no access to anything else from this tower. Not unless you could fly, a talent Matthias didn't possess. But she didn't need to know that, or to know his true plan to escape. If she did, she would fight him on it, because it smacked of madness. Madness and death.

But what other options did he have? Did either of them have, now?

"Come on," he snapped, heading back out the door for the stairs. "While the Ravenous are still covering our escape." Without looking back, he headed up the stairs two at a time. Doors flashed by as he sprinted, faster than should have been possible in his heavy plate armor. Finally, the only way left to go was a trap door in the ceiling.

The view from the flat crimson roof of the tower was breathtaking, in a horrific way. In the far distance stood the Veliky Mountains, grey and grim against a darkening sky as they ran east to west from horizon to horizon. The middle distance was occupied by the farms of the serfs, teeming with an unnatural life as the crops that grew there swayed in time to an unnatural wind. The lands around the fortress were burnt and broken, seething with rivers of blood-like water and steaming with thick, dense clouds.

"Matthias, why are we up here?" She asked, whipping her head back and forth. "Why did you bring me here?" She demanded, anger raising her volume. The question could be taken a couple different ways, as, "in why did you bring me to the top of a tower with no way down?" or "why did you bring me, your apprentice, to a demon's keep just to be raped and abused?" She slammed her hands into his armored chest, the futility of her action mirroring the futility of their escape.

Her questions would have to wait, based on the way the Carnelian Tower began to shudder underfoot. And that was a good thing, really - not the shifting tower, obviously, but the answers. Because he wasn't sure he had any to offer. Instead they broke into a sprint together, leaping as their support gave out. The tower fragmented, collapsing into massive demonic grave.

If it wasn't for the unholy vitality granted by his demonic soul, he would never have been able to make the leap. Not with the armor her wore. As it was, he crashed into the curtain wall like a cannonball and clung for dear life. He scrabbled at the wall, trying to find a purchase with his booted feet, something - anything that would allow him to shift his grip and drag himself to the top. And then, just as he was almost resigned to plunging to his death or capture in the courtyard below, Aurianna grabbed his wrist. She was deceptively slim, but the vitality of her goddess burned in her. With a bulging of steel muscles, she dragged him up onto the wall before collapsing to the ground.

Matthias lay beside her for a moment, gasping for breath. Then he grimaced as the demon in his soul flexed its talons, demanding sustenance. Suddenly, he was acutely aware of the stench of sex and gore on the woman next to him, and of the pulsing of her veins beneath her soft skin. With a snarl, he forced himself to his feet. He still had reserves, after all. "We're not safe," he said, pacing the twenty yards to the far edge and peering down over the wall. A moat of blood boiled some sixty feet below them, spanning ten yards before it lapped at the broken, dead earth beyond.

Aurianna grimaced, hugging her own knees. "I know." The words were sharp, laced with pain. The demon in his soul prevented him from feeling sympathy towards her, but he understood, at least.

"We have to get out of here. The Ravenous will only distract them so long." He pointed at the hills beyond. "The Vale of Scathan," he said, indicating a notch illuminated by the setting sun. "We need to make for there. It's the shortest route to the Seraphim Wall, and your only hope of escape." He chuckled a little, voice hollow and empty. "We won't lose the trackers, so we may as well go the fastest way."

Now he was offering her his hand. "I can make it. With a running jump, I can make it. Come on."

She looked over the edge and shook her head, "What's the point?"

Matthias made a tutting sound at her words. "Have you forgotten my lessons, Ari?" He shook his head. "A Paladin's power isn't in muscle and skill, although those things matter. A Paladin's power is in faith, and in the strength of the Gods." He tore up a chunk of stone and flung it, hitting the far side of the moat. "Afodisia could make that jump easily."

Turning, he took her hand. "But doubt is easy, isn't it? When all hope is lost, and you feel abandoned." A grim chuckle. "But, you're not me. You were always stronger than I was. Even before I betrayed and abandoned Her."

She didn't respond, but he didn't expect her to. Without warning he jerked her arm and pulled her close, using the motion to sling her over one shoulder. "But, for now, I'll handle it. I sold my soul, but I gained power in return. Enough for this." He backed up, heels brushing against the far edge of the wall. Below them, the mummer of demon voices roared and crashed like the tide. He started running, building speed as his armor clashed and clanged and Aurianna bounced on his shoulder like a sack of grain. Before it seemed possible, he grunted and leapt, hurling himself high into the air.

There was a heart-stopping moment of weightlessness as he reached the top of his jump, the world spreading out beneath them and the moat of boiling blood yawning wide to receive them. And then he struck the ground with the force of a cannonball, armor crashing as he drove himself knee deep into the broken stone and earth of the far side. A grunt, and then another grunt followed as he tore his feet loose from the craters that imprisoned them. "Come on," he started, setting her feet on the ground. "They will regroup soon enough, and we need distance before they send the hounds after us."

An Uneasy Alliance

The sun rose as they made the trek through the demonlands. Her torments must have lasted most of the night, even if it felt like much longer in the midst of it. She felt that much, each step jarring as she trudged along.

There were no words with Matthias, as they moved. There things she wanted to say to him, as well as questions, but still she walked in silence. Why had he done it? And after all that, why had he saved her? She didn't have the energy for his answers. Not now.

By the time the sun was up and bright on their eyes, they had reached a small pool with a bubbling spring. "You'll need to bathe," he declared. "This water's pure."

Matthias went for the knot on her makeshift robe, but she smacked his hand away, tensing as her bare skin struck the gauntlets. It didn't stop him from undressing her, triggering memories of being stripped before Baath's court. Triggering memories of violation, still sticky on her skin. He was going to hurt her, just like the others.

"Don't fucking touch me!" With a primal scream, she tackled him, digging her shoulder into his midsection. Driving with her full strength to knock him to the ground.

His body slammed into the ground with a thunderous clamor. His head landed against a protruding rock, hitting it unevenly and hard. Still on the ground, his neck bent in an awkward angle. "Shit." Had she killed him? And why was that thought upsetting, after what he put her through? Backing off and away, Aurianna watched him rip the mangled helm from his head.

The face beneath the helmet was familiar, but the differences were shocking. Before, he'd been red of cheek, with laughing hazel eyes and shaggy auburn hair and beard. His profile had been strong beneath the beard, his nose aquiline and his chin square and strong. Now, the profile was the same, minus the beard. But the ruddy skin was pale now, white as death, and his eyes glinted with red flame, and there was a hint of fangs in his mouth as he spoke. The auburn hair had turned jet black.

He hurled himself forward, catching Aurianna about the waist and carrying them both into the water with a loud splash. Straddling her, pinning her legs beneath his as the waves of the impact lashed about them, he grabbed her by the throat with a mailed fist and dunked her beneath the water. "I need you clean," he snapped.

She howled as his full plate weighed her down. With thick metal fingers wrapped around her neck, she had a hard time taking a deep breath before being plunged into the cool water. A weak scream leaked from her mouth as she went under. No sound, just two bubbles. There was a moment of helpless terror before he let her up.

All around her, the water turned pink from the blood run off. Her body convulsed, replacing the water in her lungs with air. Her fingers tore as his gauntlets, struggling to pry his steel grip from her throat. She caught his red eyes leering at her, filled with the familiar look of lust and hatred she had seen in the eyes of her rapists.

"Are you going to rape me now, too? Is that why you took me, to keep me for yourself?" She accused, as her free hand moved towards his sword. If she could keep him angry and distracted she could grab his blade and gain the upper hand. "Are you upset that you had to share me with others?" she snarled, pulling the blade free from his sheathe. The angle was inelegant, but she hacked at his side and arm until he let go, putting all her strength into an overhead slash. In the water like this she had an advantage, nothing weighing her down, unlike this full armor.

Matthias gave ground before her onslaught, as molten soulmetal - the ruach that had been forged into his armor - burned into his wounds and along the length of his arm. Another blow, and another, and another, and suddenly he was having to tear away a ruined, half-molten breastplate that sizzled and steamed as it struck the pool. "If this was about taking my turn," he snarled back, ducking away from a backhand that would have severed his head from his shoulders, "I'd have waited my turn!"

She pressed the attack, letting the hellfire blade melt away his defenses. Taking this small measure of revenge, stripping him as he had stripped her. Her pain became rage, and she sliced and ripped away his armor. "I don't believe you! How can I believe anything you say?"

The blade slashed past him again, igniting the padded jerkin covering his chest. He tore it away as well. "I was... third after Laemohn!" He stumbled backwards, then leapt backwards and landed at the edge of the pool. "And I could have been next, had I wanted to push the matter!"

Bare to the waist now, it was clear that the corpse-white pallor of his face was typical of his skin. He resembled nothing so much as a chiseled (and scorched) marble statue, chest hairless and heavily muscled. "This is about keeping the Hounds from following us!"

There was a moment's hesitation before his bare fist lashed out. Splitting her lip with the force of his backhand and staggering her backwards. A savage kick to the stomach doubled her over, and he kicked the hellblade away as he slammed her to the rocky ground beneath them. He leaned close, his breath hot on her face and his body smooth against hers. Just as Baath Me'el had been. "Or were you hoping that's why I brought you here?" His free hand squeezed a bare breast." You certainly enjoyed the Dark Lord. Were you hoping for more of the same from me?"

She wanted to struggle more, to break free, but her abuse weighed her down. He weighed her down, with the trauma she suffered because of him and his body against hers. Instead, she cried, not even believing he might take pity on her. Tears were all she had left now. "Don't, please. I'll get cleaned off. I won't fight it."

He pushed himself up on one arm, staring down at her with burning red eyes. "You won't fight it," he repeated, so close she could feel his words on her skin. "I can feel that."

"Why did you take to Baath Me'el?" She sobbed. "Why didn't you just kill me? Why save afterwards?"

He eased his grip on her throat, sliding it up to cup her cheek and brush away a tear. "I would have spared you," he whispered, cool fingers stroking her hair, "if I had possessed the strength." He kissed her then, lips soft on hers. A gentle comfort, compared to violence she had survived. "But I was never as strong as you." His lips trailed down her jaw and along the pulsing vein in her throat. "Only you could have given me that strength. The strength," he murmured, his fangs scraping over the thin skin of her throat, "To betray a second master."

She gasped as his fangs pierced her neck, finding the sensation incredibly intense. There was a brief spike of pain as her skin resisted, building to a burst of pleasure as they sunk into her flesh. Hands that had fought him just before now gripped him tight, unsure if she wanted him to stop or continue. Leaving her torn between hatred and gratitude.

They gasped in tandem when he pulled off, finding herself relieved and disappointed. His tongue traced the wound, sealing the flesh and leaving nothing but a bruise behind. Neither spoke for a few moments as Matthias eased up off her, his wounds healing over as her blood flowed in his veins. His expression was a curious mix of guilt and desire. Before either could speak, a howl split the silence and his head jerked, looking in the direction of the sound.

"Hounds?" She sat up. Soon the howls were numerous, and it was difficult to pinpoint where they came from.

He didn't answer, but his actions told her enough, as he helped her to her feet. "My sword! Your spear! We must fight!"

"My spear?" Had he already forgotten how he broke it before? Fury rose in her again, but there were more pressing concerns. "Why don't you have a second weapon?" She searched for something she could use to defend herself, "Weren't you the one who always told me to keep a backup on my person?!"

He looked for his own sword. "I was busy. You remember, there was something of an impromptu escape?"

She found a stick she could use as a staff. Not a great option, but the only one she had now. Without armor or even clothes, she would have to rely on wits and agility to survive. A nearby tree gave her an idea, and she swung a long leg up to perch herself upon a branch.

Matthias scoured the ground a moment longer, until he dove towards the pond. The burning blade had boiled the water, still bubbling as her pulled it out. And just in time, for the first of the hounds was upon them.

Hounds. The name gave the impression of canines. And like so many things of Hell, this was deceiving. They had been human once. Human, but warped and twisted, locked into masks of iron that left jaws exposed, their other senses stopped so that they could perceive only the living souls of mortals.

There were half a dozen of them, naked save for helmet and harness. They snuffled, hunched and crawling. One of them rose to its feet, turning its blind gaze up at Aurianna. It threw back its head, and uttered a piercing, ululating scream.

Matthias killed that one first. "Hurry!" he roared, lying about with his blade. "They are weak - weaker than a demon, anyway! But the Hunt follows in their wake!"

She stayed atop her branch, using the length of her stick to smack away her pursuers. Five had surrounded her tree, clawing at her sanctuary. The pathetic creatures leapt at her, reaching for her, catching the branch with their talon like hands. She smacked at the hands that clung to the bough, resonating with a sickening crunch as she shattered the small bones of their fingers. One tried to climb up the trunk, but she thrust her staff down on its head. It fell to the ground, and knocked another over, both creatures landing in the still boiling water. Horrid screams filling the air as the skin singed off. The spring turned murky red as it dissolved the once humans.

With a sickening sizzle of burning fat and a stench of burnt pork, Matthias chopped the hindmost down. The next in line spun, howling until his darkly burning blade skewered its masked face. It collapsed, binding his blade for a moment as the last Hound leapt at him, and so he abandoned it to catch the twisted once-human thing with both hands. It shrieked as he slammed it into the ground, then shrieked once more before his armored boot crushed its skull to pulp.

"That's all of them," Matthias said, brushing sweat slick hair back, "But there will be more, soon. I suggest we don't wait around for them." He offered her a hand down and she froze for a moment before taking it. There's wasn't time to argue with him now.

Matthias looked over his ruined armor before discarding it away. There wasn't enough left to do him any good. The robe she had taken from the Ebon Fortress was still intact, but reeked something foul, even over the stench of burnt hound corpses. "Here," Matthias called from behind, offering up the remains of his own cloak. Black and heavy wool, it was warm for daytime. But it would cover her, and that was what she needed now. "If we don't make it to the Seraphim Wall by nightfall, there will be much worse hellspawn hunting us."

"What about you?" Aurianna asked, as she secured the cloak over her, "The Order will kill you, if you return."

"There is nowhere left for me," Matthias answered, voice hollow. "Not the Seraphim Wall. Not if I dared Mount Fearfire. Not anywhere, in life or death."

"So, you're just resigned to die?" She turned to face him, noting his distant stare.

"A quick death at the hands of a paladin would be preferable to being captured by demons." He met her eyes now, "Again." Guilt and anger and shame prevented her from responding with more than a listless nod.

It took the rest of the day before the great grey bulk of the Seraphim Wall loomed in the middle distance. A hundred feet high and stretching from horizon to horizon, it had been built at a terrible cost in life to do one thing - defend the lands of mortal men from the armies of Hell. And for more than a century, it had succeeded. At its center was Caerhold, the main stronghold for the Order of Afodisia. It housed a thousand paladins and an additional five hundred laborers.

As they drew close, the sounds of The Hunt drew closer still. Aurianna knew the lift would not descend if demons raged just outside. Had they traveled all this way for naught? Was this her grave, surrounded by the corpses of dead allies and enemies?

They hid behind worn down ramparts. There was no hiding, not for long, but they needed a miracle, or at least a plan. Over the distance, hundreds of hounds howled as they approached. Just behind them stood the hulking Horned Lord of the Hunt, nine feet of pure muscle and nature's fury. With Muck green skin dappled with black fur and glossy black eyes, it called out "Matthias, our Lord is displeased. Your reach has exceeded your station, and worse yet, you failed."

"I'll hold them, as long as I can" Matthias said, echoing what he had told her before he had fallen to the demons the first time. "You should be able to make it to Hopeshire keep before I lose their attention." He stood before she could argue, drawing their foes from her position, "I've not failed yet!"

She couldn't abandon him. Not after he saved her from his fate. Not again. But what could she do without armor or a proper weapon? Nothing but divine intervention could save Matthias now. Would the Lady of Love and War intercede on behalf of a forsaken paladin? The answer was concrete, much to Aurianna's surprise, and right before her. A golden spear stuck out of the ground, pinning down the bones of a long dead Balor. She yanked it free of its last victim, marveling at the beauty of its artisanship. This time would be different.

Aurianna readied herself to charge, until she was distracted by a sound from the seraphim wall. Did she hear the word "FIRE!" called from the top? Overhead, golden arrows flooded the sky, raining down on the hounds. The holy bolts tore through the defenseless hellspawn, leaving piles of dead littered along the battlefield. Matthias hadn't stopped his advance, his fiery blade carving into the first wave of hounds to evade the arrows. Luring the Horned Lord towards him, and away from the wall. He managed well for a time, but it was clear he was accustomed to the protection armor offered. Particularly when the Horned Lord landed a solid backhand, tossing him ten feet through the air

Aurianna charged then, vaulting over dead hounds to leap at the master. Her spear found the demon's gut, piercing all the way through. He struck back with a wide swing. Blood and viscera ripped free with her spear, as she jumped back to evade. Weaving and dodging like moonlight on flowing water, she eluded the blows of the demon. She twisted her body in spinning jump as the horned lord lunged at her, thrusting her spear into the fiend's throat. All around her the hounds were dispatched, wailing their death cries.

"As Afodisia promises, she delivers," Bellowed from the top of the Seraphim wall. "Behold the return of the Paladin Aurianna." She could just make out the slim figure of the older priestess, clad in her golden hooded robes.

Afodisia was watching over her still, in the form of her oracle. And Matthias as well, as she found his knocked out but still alive. Her conviction strengthened her as she lifted Matthias and carried him towards the lift. The Goddess had a plan for them yet.

The Order of Afodisia

The assembled paladins cheered as Aurianna rode up the lift, supporting her burden. At the top of the wall, one of them, Mykel Kallekos, Lord Commander of the Order of Afodisia, removed his samite cloak and draped it over her shoulders. "Lady Aurianna, we are heartened by your return. When you were captured, we feared the worst?"

His voice trailed away as he recognized Matthias. "Afodisia," he breathed, hand falling to his sword. There was awe in his expression. "You have captured the traitor Matthias! How did you?"

"Through the power and grace of Afodisia," Oracle answered, her voice warm. "But you have been through much," she said, resting her slim hand on Aurianna's shoulder. "We will not speak of it, not here. When you are ready, I will listen."

Two more Paladins emerged from among the gathered warriors - Jeoram Sanal, a lithe figure with long hair as golden as his armor and eyes, and Barnabas Whent, a broad-chested bear of a man with hair and beard the color of coal and armor of silver. Jeoram drew his broad golden blade as Barnabas took Matthias from Aurianna with an expression of disgust and threw him to the ground. "You have been burdened with him long enough," Jeoram said, raising his blade. "Let us return his head to his Master, as a warning."

"No!" She stood between him and Matthias, pushing Barnabas out of the way. "You can't! He saved me!"

"Aurianna," The Lord Commander rebuked her, "We can't spare him just because he is an oath-breaker twice over. He took you captive in the first place."

"Please, Jeoram, don't do this!" She pleaded, dropping to cover Matthias with her own body. Jeoram looked to Mykel, who nodded, and then back to Aurianna. With arms wrapped around her waist Barnabas pulled her away.

"She right," Oracle declared, inseting herself in between all the parties. All eyes turned towards the priestess now. "He served the demon lord for a long time. Surely, he has quite a bit of valuable information he can share with us. His years of service to the church and his recent heroic acts afford him a trial." She declared, her soft voice commanding authority.

She had come out of nowhere, two years before. Introduced herself as Oracle, and proclaimed herself the Goddess' prophet. There had been doubts, at first, until her visions had lead the Order to unprecedented victories over the demons. Just when hope for humanity was beginning to die out, she was a beacon in the darkness, leading the way. Now, she was the high priestess of the Afodisia, commanding the same respect as the Lord Commander, who had been chosen by popular vote.

Mykel sighed and nodded. "You are right, your holiness. Take him to the dungeons." Jeoram gave Aurianna one last concerned look, before helping Barnabas carry him away. Mykel turned his attention back to Aurianna, stroking her hair that way a father might. "Are you alright? I can't begin to imagine what you went through."

Aurianna didn't answer with words, just clenched his cloak tighter around herself. Instead, Oracle spoke up for her. "When she is ready, she will tell us what transpired at the demon keep. For now, I should tend to her wounds." With a gentle hand, she led Aurianna away.

There was cold stone beneath his chest. Cold stone, and a chafing bite of steel. And weakness. And hunger. He lay there in a stupor, unaware of the passage of time. Finally, blindly, he stirred.

"Awake, are you?" There was hatred in the voice. Deep and black, but human.

With effort, he twisted his head. A golden figure was silhouetted by iron bars. Matthias could feel the loathing pouring off him. "Uuhh," he grunted.

"You'll live, for now," the golden figure said, and the words were not hopeful. "Praise Lady Aurianna's kindness for that, traitor." The shape spat, and the gobbet landed on his forehead. "You've a future of interrogation to look forward to. Interrogation, and then death."

"Yuuhh," he said, then forced himself up on his hands and knees. "You think I fear death?"

The bars opened, and the golden figure entered. As if from a distance, Matthias watched it draw back its mailed foot. Watched the kick swing forward. The pain of the impact was numb and distant, and he sprawled onto his back from the force of the blow. Then a second kick sent him crashing into the wall. The golden figure loomed over him.

"For what your kind did to her," Jeoram said, crouching low before him and driving his gauntlet into Matthias' teeth. "You will."

Oracle's chambers were typical of most of the paladins and priests of the Order. A smallish room with a bed and a hearth, and little else. In Oracle's case, the finite remaining space was filled with books, crammed into every available crevice, and a half dozen strewn about on the bed and mantle.

Oracle tended to a clay teapot heating over the fire. Water bubbled, and she poured some into in to a cup, it's strong aroma filling the room. She handed the cup to Aurianna "Try to drink it all."

Dark liquid swirled in the cup, so thick it obscured the bottom. "Moon tea?" she asked, after a long inhale. After Oracle nodded, she drank down the cup, not daring to spill a drop. A stronger dose than she was used to, so she coughed to chase the taste from her mouth. As bad as it tasted, it was better than the alternative. Oracle placed a small wooden box in her hands.

"One cup, once a week for a month. Should take care of any…lingering effects." The euphemism spoke loud enough, roiling Aurianna's gut. Her torment had not stopped just because she escaped the Ebon Fortress. "Lie down. Let me look at your wounds."

Oracle rubbed sanctified oil into Aurianna's pale, scarred flesh. Her hands - warrior's hands - were strong and callused, but her touch was gentle. The ministrations were more healing ritual than massage, after all. "These marks," she murmured, fingers trailing flame along scabbed wounds, "they tell much. More, perhaps, than you are willing to say."

She chanted words in the language of the Gods as she applied more oil to the Paladin's lacerated flanks. "More than you wished to bear. Than anyone would wish to bear. I see much, with the Eyes of the Lady of Love and War. More than I desire, most days, and more than I can bear on some. If I had my wish, I would pluck these Eyes from my face, and see no more."

More flame licked the wounds, cleansing and healing them with the power of Afodisia. "But, we all have our burdens. And I will listen, if you wish to lay yours down for a time."

A few quiet, uncomfortable moments passed before Aurianna spoke, "You tried to warn me."

The bed shifted as Oracle got up. "I did." She answered simply, as she rummaged about in a chest. "Perhaps I condemned to your fate, in trying to prevent it. I might see with Her Eyes, but even I cannot comprehend the grand scope of Her ways." She pulled out a white dress, and held it up for Aurianna. "Should fit you."

Aurianna accepted the dress, slipping it over her head. It felt good to be covered again, and she was too sore for armor. "I just want to go back, to before all this."

Oracle flashed her a sad smile "There is no going back, only forward. I'm afraid your ordeal has but just begun. But you're stronger than what happened to you. Our Lady has great faith in you, even when you don't have faith in Her." Oracle stroked Aurianna's cheek, as the words and reality sunk in. "They are serving dinner in the barracks. You should try to eat."

"I used to teach on this subject," Matthias said from the corner of his cell. "Before I was elevated in rank, I mean." There was no response. Not that he expected one. The Paladins hadn't stationed a guard, and for good reason. He wasn't going anywhere.

"First, take stock of your situation. So, let's see..." He examined his chains. "I've been starved and beaten, in a granite cell, with sanctified steel bars. Chains of the same sanctified steel weigh me down and," the links clinked as he examined them. "Yes, the Rune of the Chain, to bind my magic. And the Demonqueller Rune, to bind the devil that is my soul."

He chuckled grimly. "And the only possessions I have are my pants. So that brings me to step two: make an honest assessment of your chances."

Matthias' crimson eyes, puffy and black around the sockets from the recent beating, gleamed as he looked around. "I am," he concluded aloud, "well and truly fucked."

Still laughing, he began to sing, loud and off key.

"Eleven saintly Paladins

Silhouettes stand against the sky.

One in front with a blade held high

Come to cut my sins away."

The tune was a hymn, 'Lady, Hear Our Prayers', traditionally sang by lovers to be wed or by warriors going to battle as they approached the altar of Afodisia for her blessing. But the words, telling a story of a criminal defying the Order and awaiting death, were new. New, and failing to fit the meter in places. But it didn't need to be perfect.

It just needed to anger someone enough that they'd kill him.

"Lady Aurianna!" Jeoram sprang to his feet as she entered the barracks. Many paladins applauded her return. A few cheered. All stared, their expressions a mixture of curiosity and horror. There had been no official word of what had befallen her, but, well, she had not been the first Paladin to be captured by the Fallen Lord of Lust. Only the first to escape alive again. And everyone had seen what befell their captured comrades, when the demons discarded the bodies before the wall. She tried to smile, but it felt strange on her face. Instead she brushed thought her hair.

"You've returned to us." Jeoram pulled out his chair, offering it to her, "Do you need anything?"

She nodded at Jeoram, sitting and keeping her head down. "Food, please. And water." He reached for her hand but she flinched away. She couldn't bring herself to look at him. With his golden eyes, his blonde hair draped over his shoulders, and his chiseled body. He looked just like Baath Me'el.

"Of course." There was disappointment in his voice. "Food and drink it shall be!"

Matthias tossed the wooden spoon into the wooden bowl with a splash. "Worthless."

The Paladin paused at the door, curious. "Better than you deserve, traitor. Stewed beef and barley, even a little onion. Oracle's orders." He sneered. "If it were up to me, I'd let you eat rat or starve."

"May as well," Matthias answered.

"Hmm?"

Matthias grinned, showing his fangs. "I need blood," he said. "Living blood. This stew's no more use to me than hearth ashes."

The Paladin walked away. "Gonna have a rough time then, ain't you?"

"Oh," Matthias answered, "I've no doubt of that."

Jeoram returned, bearing a platter of roasted beef, and leeks with garlic, and bread with honey and butter. The platter clunked a little as he placed it on the table, and then he sat a pitcher next to it. "You are home," he said, stroking some hair out of her face.

Aurianna tried to eat. She was quite famished, after all she survived that day. Each bite was difficult, feeling every pair of eyes in the mess hall weighing upon her. They reminded her of Baath Me'el's court, of the audience to her defilement. Her heart pounded, and the pulsing of her blood thunderous in her ears. Her lungs grew heavy, until each breath took considerable effort.

"I need air," She told Jeoram, still not looking at him, standing before she finished speaking. He reached for again, but she pushed his hand away. It wasn't fair to him, she knew. He wasn't the one who hurt her. But emotions were rarely rational, and her emotions right now were in control, leading her through the temple grounds. Her room became a sanctuary away from the stares and whispers and pity. Tears and sweat flowed, leaving her face damp.

It took several deep breaths to calm herself. Hunger gnawed at her gut, giving her a physical sensation to drown out the turmoil within her mind. She needed to eat, needed to keep up her strength. Even if she could hardly taste the food. It filled her nonetheless. Now she needed rest.

She placed the wooden box from Oracle on the table, not thinking about it, until she heard a metallic clink. Strange, wasn't it just moon tea leaves? Inside the box, buried under the dry, fragrant leaves, rested a small key. She turned it over in her hands, examining it. Knowing what it opened only confused her more. What does this mean?

She didn't have the energy for this, not tonight. Her ordeal was over; she survived. Tomorrow was another day.

The next morning, after breakfast, Oracle arrived before Matthias' cell. Had there been any justice in the world, well, he'd be dead now. So, if there had been any sense of drama in the world, his prison cell would be darkened and she would just see his eyes gleaming crimson in the shadows. Sadly, the Order lacked any sense of drama. The room was well lit.

But, she had interesting eyes as well, didn't she? Golden eyes, eyes that saw the beyond. She wore long white robes spun with golden embellishments and her forehead was tattooed with the symbol of the Goddess.

"You wouldn't know it, but we have much in common, Matthias. I sacrificed my past, so humanity can have a future." The words carried a hint of bitterness, a bitterness he recognized. "And, like you, I suspect, no one else understands. The future is not some straightforward image that is easy to comprehend. It's a mosaic, piecemeal and confusing. Each choice branches off into paths that branch off into more paths. I think I do more harm than good in trying to interpret it. Perhaps another similarity between us?"

"The Goddess has chosen, us, Matthias. Chosen us to bear these burdens that no one else can. Aurianna still needs you. You yet have a role to play and Afodisia will not let you die until you have fulfilled your duty to her."

"My duty?" he said, smiling. "To Aurianna? Or to Afodisia? You will recall, I believe, that I betrayed both." He shifted a little, listening to his spell-shackles clink. "I betrayed Afodisia for Aurianna, in fact - sold myself to Baath-Me'el to give her time to escape." His keen ears caught the whisper of movement from stairs he could not see, and his grin became feral. "And then she confronted me, and I gave her to the Dark Lord and his court for their amusement." The distant whisper of movement stilled.

"And you saved her." The Oracle cut him off, "And now that she is safe, you hope we will kill you."

"I know that you will kill me," Matthias countered.

"You no longer have a say in the decisions of the Order," the Oracle reminded him. "And whether you believe me or not, you still have a part to play. And I believe that your punishment will be to live."

Matthias glared at her, rage and despair flooding through him. "I had her as well!" he snapped, lunging forward. The Oracle didn't flinch was he slammed into the bars before her. "And she begged for me!"

"Pity," the Oracle answered, turning to walk away.

"I'll have you too!" he bellowed, tearing at the bars with mere human strength. "Before your altar!"

"Perhaps," she remarked, strolling into the stairwell. "I, too, feel pity. Upon occasion."

"Ah, Jeoram. I did not expect to meet you here," the Oracle said, stepping to one side as he nearly caromed into her. From the rage in his eyes, it was clear he had heard what Matthias had said.

"Oracle," Jeoram acknowledged, trembling.

She rested a hand on his breastplate. "Be at peace, Jeoram," she said, meeting his eyes.

"I, that is." His face spasmed, rage and sorrow warring on his features. "How? That thing! It. It–"

"I know."

"Then why do we let it live?" he demanded. "What knowledge does it possess, that we allow it to pollute our temple? That we continue to throw it in the face of-"

"Because it is the will of Afodisia."

"But... but... why?" His voice cracked with pain. Tears gleamed in his eyes, and Oracle brushed them away.

"Because she is strong, and she can bear much. Will bear much. And because strength grows from great burdens." The Paladin started to speak, but she placed a slim, olive finger on his lips. "Hush, now. Go to her, Jeoram. She will not admit it, but she needs love and acceptance. She needs you."

Her smile was sad and gentle as she watched Jeoram struggle with himself. "All right, yes. You, you're right. I will. But–"

"Shh." she said, pushing him towards the stairs. "Go now. Support her."

The paladin nodded again, then headed up the stairs. She waited until he was out of sight, then sank to her knees with a muffled cry of anguish. "And do not take her to the altar, I beg you," she sobbed, tearing a dagger from her belt. The edge gleamed silver, and for a dozen heartbeats she contemplated driving it into her eye.

"Why?" she whispered, sheathing the weapon. "This knowledge, Afodisia, it is more than I can bear. Why me?"

Returning to Normal

"I need new armor," Aurianna announced, when she arrived at the temple blacksmith. "And I need you to restore this spear."

"Is it true you slain The Horned Lord with this?" The Blacksmith, Helbert, asked, examining the spear. Aurianna didn't hid the proud smile that grew on her lips. Helbert let out an appreciative whistle, stroking his long greying beard. He was well into his fifties, but still built like a rock, stout and sturdy. "The base of this weapon is quite solid, not much to here but apply a whetstone to the head. I would reinforce the fitting, make it harder for it to come off in the heat of battle. Maybe wrap some leather around this end, for improved grip. It would be a sin before Hemares to do much more," he said, referencing the God of crafting and innovation. "Yeah, I can have this ready for you tomorrow. As for armor, let's see, you wear a breastplate, right?" He led her to the back of the forge.

"I did, but I think I might want something lighter, easier to move in. Maybe chain?" she suggested.

He nodded. "Thinking a tight chain shirt. It won't limit your movement much, and it will provide basic protection. Of course, it won't help you against bludgeoning, and it's not hard to get past, if your foe is determined." He clarified, pulling out a chain shirt that was mostly completed. "Try this on."

It was a black leather chest piece with interlocking chains on the inside for extra support. In the center was a large golden cross, with crimson inlay. A bit loose on her yet, but she liked that it was light, yet sturdy. The smith was taking her measurements, when he got an inspired look in his eyes.

"Why don't we try some solid metal bracers? It will give you a nice degree of protect without limiting your movement much. Especially since your arms are going to in your opponent's reach when you are using that spear." He retrieved a pair from a shelf, strapping them to her forearms. They were impressive, a deep crimson with gilded crosses, efficiently crafted for maximum protection at minimal encumbrance. "We can add some metal plates to your sides around your stomach and thighs. They will be on the outside, and separately attached, so if you are in the field and finding they are getting the way more than not, you can remove them yourself."

"Thank you, this is perfect." Suited up, she felt like a real warrior again. The first step towards putting her ordeal behind her.

By early afternoon, her armor was fitted and she left to find Jeoram. She needed to get her life back to the way things were, and he was a big part of that. He was in the training yard, shirtless and glistening in the afternoon sun. Any other time, she might have enjoyed the sight, but trauma edged at her thought today. With a deep breath, she pushed it down, "Jeoram!"

He turned, and smiled. That handsome smile that had won her heart a dozen times over. "New armor? It suits you," She returned his smile, pushing some hair back behind her ear.

"I wanted to apologize about last night," she started, and he shook his head. He started to speak but she cut him off, "No, I insist. What happened to me had nothing to do with you, and I shouldn't treat you like it does. So, I want to make it up to you. Maybe, this evening, we could have dinner together?"

"I would love to have dinner with you, Ari," he said, running his fingers through his sweat-damp golden hair. "And..." he bit off the question, shaking his head. "No..."

Instead, glancing about, he stepped close and cupped her cheek. His kiss was chaste and gentle, lingering just a little. She tried to return his affection, but her body was stiff. He pulled away before it got awkward. "I love you," he whispered, "I plan on showing just how much I love you. Tonight and, well, as long as you'll let me."

Then he laughed again as he stepped back. "But for now, I should attend my lessons in the Scriptorium. I'll see you after Vespers, with dinner!"

She had business to tend to before this evening and that business took her towards the dungeons. Towards Matthias.

"This is my day for guests, it seems," Matthias grumbled. He looked up from where he sat, resting the back of his head on the cool stone. "The Oracle. Two Inquisitors. And now you," he said, staring at her. "A social call?"

He was in bad shape. His eyes were sunken in and bruised in places. His cheeks were gaunt and even his collar bones were pronounced. It hadn't yet been a full day since he last feed on her, but he looked like a man starved for the batter part of a week. There were more bruises too, along his ribs and legs. They had traded blows yesterday but, she didn't think those were from her. Besides, when he had feed on her, he healed his wounds. These had to be new; someone here at the temple must have given them to him. Still, she found sympathy difficult. Getting beaten hardly anything compared to what happened to her. What he put her through. Still, it worried at the back of her mind; their oaths before the Goddess forbade such petty cruelties.

She entered his cell, confident that the chains would hold him in place. No words, not yet. It was almost a complete reversal of the day before, with him bound and nearly nude before her, completely vulnerable to her desires.

And what were those desires? Answers mostly. He owed her this much, but she was ready to negotiate if need be.

"So, is it my blood you want, or will any do?" She broke the silence, leaning against the bars of the cell, arms crossed over her chest.

"I'm hungry, Aurianna. Almost starving. I'll take your blood, again, if you offer it. But I'd eat an infant right now." His answer came quick, with an impatient snap. He was holding something back. No need to prod though. He needed her blood. She didn't need to hear that he wanted it as well. With fingers gripping his chin, she forced him to look into her eyes.

"I will let you feed, and in return, I will have answers. Understood?" She didn't wait for a response, instead unsheathing her dagger. There was tension in his body as she removed a bracer and sliced a shallow cut, letting her blood roll down in arm in a slow stream. She tempted him, watching his eyes as they followed the trail of blood. With fingers tightened on her wrist, she stemmed the bleeding. He would tell her what she wanted to hear. "Why did you capture me?"

"As a prize. I have, well, had a duty." He said. Was that really it? A droplet of blood splattered his lips. Shuddering, he licked it away and lunged for her arm. She let another droplet drip from her hand, then pulled it away as he groaned with frustration. Just a taste.

"You are going to have to do better than that, if you want it from my veins." A few drops splattered on the stone floor. "Did you enjoy watching me get raped?"

"Yes. I'll still be remembering it, when they burn me at the stake." His answer turned her stomach. She clenched her fist, and offered the wound, letting him lap at it for a few moments. His mouth was hot and hungry on her skin, but still, she pulled away.

"So, if not for Laemohn, you would have gladly joined in?"

"…yes." She could see the truth in his eyes, as he tried to avoid looking at her. Her own eyes welled with tears, and she couldn't even look at him as she brought her arms to his mouth. A moment's hesitation, then he gripped her wrist, bring it to his lips, drinking deeply from her. Her body and mind warred, hating him even as she quivered. Why did it have to feel so good? Heat rose in her body, even as he siphoned her warmth. It took an effort to pull back, but she still had questions. "Why did you save me?"

"I don't know."

Rage replaced building desire. She climbed on top of him, pulling his hair to force him to looking into her eyes. "You don't know? You don't fucking know?! Why did you save me? I was your prize, wasn't I? A gift to garner the favor of your dark lord? You enjoyed watching my desecration, and you wanted your turn. WHY?" She screamed in his face, her voice echoing through the dungeon.

"Because I fucking hate you!" he roared back. "Because I sold my soul to your rapist! Because I betrayed your Goddess for you, and you didn't have the fucking sense to run for your life when next we met!"

Both were breathing hard, meeting each other's glare with despair and fury. Then she gave him her wrist again, collapsing into sobs against his bare chest. She wanted to kill him. She wanted to run him through on her spear as he begged her forgiveness. She wanted to fuck the growing hardness she felt between her legs, until he gave her back all her blood as his seed. She wanted to let him drain the last bit of life out of her, so she didn't have to feel anymore. That last option appealed more and more as tears streamed down her face and dripped on his skin.

"Do you want me now?" Her voice was as weak as her body.

He pulled off of her to answer, "Yes." The word was a strangled sound, filled with lust and hate. For several heartbeats, she held his eyes. He was hard beneath her, and tempting. It would be so easy, to rut away the shame and guilt and pain. To lose herself in lust, and take from him watch had been taken from her. Her lips hovered over his, still wet with her blood. An inch more and she'd be kissing him, as he kissed her yesterday. So easy, just an inch between them.

She jerked him to his feet, instead. "I'm going to go now, she whispered, voice cruel and sweet, "and see Jeoram. And I am going to let him take me, over and over and over again, until he pushes your memory out of my head."

He stumbled as she threw him against the wall, then collapsed to his hands and knees. "You do that," he laughed, as she slammed the bars behind her. "Let him fuck you raw, Ari!" She stalked away down the hall, and he raised his voice so she could hear him. "And when he's balls deep in you, riding you hard, look at him! Look at him, and see how he compares to your first!"

Hopeful Beginnings

Matthias' words followed her as she returned to her room to bathe. Rinsing the blood and sweat from her body, rinsing away their conversation from her skin. All these years later, and still he knew how to get under her skin. Like his fangs in her wrist…

She shook her head, pushing down the dark thoughts. Matthias wouldn't occupy her thoughts tonight. She refused to give him the satisfaction. Instead, she turned her attention to dressing for her dinner with Jeoram. The dress the Oracle had given her the night before would do. It clung to her breasts, flared out over her waist and ended around her knees, covering injuries that hadn't yet healed. Not fancy. The same sort of thing common girls wore, but she rarely chose anything so feminine. She hoped Jeoram would like it. There was no more time to fuss, as she heard a knock at the door.

By sheer accident, Jeoram had managed to match the mood she wanted to set. He wore a simple white linen shirt and black breeches. Just a man and a woman, enjoying dinner together. Not paladins.

"Am I in the right room?" Resting the basket on her table, he stepped forward and took her in his arms. "I was looking for Aurianna, not Afodisia herself." His compliment had her blushing as he kissed her. This time, she returned the kiss with a need he would not have seen in her before. Still, she craved Matthias, but Jeoram was her lover. Loyal and devoted, he deserved her. Not the traitor. His tongue slipped between her lips, thrusting within her as his hands to explored her body. With a shudder, he ended the kiss. "So," He cleared his throat, "Hungry?"

A rumble in her gut reminded her of the blood she had lost. "Oh, I am starved!"

"As am I," he assured her, his breath hot on her face. "Oh, yes. The food." With an embarrassed chuckle, he began to unpack the basket. "I brought chicken, and potatoes in butter, and greens. And wine."

There was space on her bed for him to sit beside her. Instead, he took the lone chair. That was a good thing, she decided. She loved Jeoram, and wanted him, but she also wanted to go slow tonight. And she needed to eat.

"I missed breakfast to go to the blacksmith early, and my fitting took me until after lunch, so this is the first real meal I've had today," she said, setting the plates and goblets he had brought along.

"I thought as much, I didn't see you at either meal, and believe me, I looked. So, eat up. You still need to regain your strength." He carved the chicken and served her first, a thick slab of breast meat.

A little of everything went on her plate, but she hesitated over the wine. After feeding Matthias, she was almost anemic, and it wouldn't take much to get her drunk. But maybe that was what she needed. Let the wine dull her mind, so she could allow herself to enjoy Jeoram, free from any lingering doubts. Look at him, and see how he compares to your first! With a forced smile, she poured her glass of wine, and drank deep. A newer red, tart and a little sour.

They ate in silence, though she found herself staring at him several times. Studying him. Jeoram smiled in those moments, and once reached out to take her hand. She managed a quick squeeze, before returning to her food. Whether she was reassuring him or herself, she could not be sure.

Finally pushing her plate away, she drained the last of her wine. Dark, haunted eyes met his, and she tried several times before she managed to speak. "So, you still want to be with me? After everything?"

He shifted, moving to sit next to her. His arm went around her shoulder as he pulled her close, and she rested against him. "Yes," he said, kissing the top of her head and inhaling through his nose. "I want you, Aurianna. Since... well, since I was old enough to understand what that might mean." His free hand cupped her cheek, gently turning her face so he could meet her eyes. "Almost losing you, made me realize just how much I love and need you. I want profess that love upon the altar, before Afodisia and the whole Order." He smiled big then. Expectantly.

"Wait, do you mean– "

"Marry me," He interrupted, dropping to a knee before her. "Take me for your husband, and I will never let anyone hurt you again. I want you as my wife, Ari. I want you for my whole life. Forever." He produced a golden ring from his pocket then, slipping it on her finger before she could even answer.

"Jeoram, I love you…" She started, caught completely off guard by his proposal.

"Then say yes," he insisted, planting gentle kisses on her hand. Doubt lingered in her mind, but Aurianna nodded, pulling him up and closer to her. He pressed wine stained lips on hers, until he forced them open. Another kiss, deeper and fiercer, his tongue pushing into her mouth. His free hand slid down her throat and over her chest, cupping her breast as his tongue explored her mouth. She tried to pull away, but he held her close. "Now and forever," he whispered, teasing her nipple with his thumb. "Now."

Finally, she twisted way from his grasp, "I need a drink." The bottle shook in her hands and wine spilled down the side of the goblet. "Can we go a bit slower? I just need you to hold me." Her voice broke, which she covered with a drink. Let him fuck you raw, Ari! Another drink, deeper, drowning out Matthias' suggestion.

"All right," he agreed, leaning forward and kissing the wine away from her lips and chin. "As slow as you want, I promise. This night is for us - for you." He brushed a loose strand of hair from her face and tucked it back behind her ear. "By the Goddess I love you, Ari. I always will."

She finished another glass of wine, letting her mind drift away along a burgundy current. The wine had warmed her, or perhaps that was Jeoram, his body hot against hers. Somehow, cuddling had turned into kissing, with her back down against her bed. He followed her, twisting a little to land on top. "Are, are you sure?" The words came between deep kisses as he ground against her. With his weight on one arm, he tugged at the neck of her gown. Fabric slipped over the curve of her shoulders and the swell of her breasts. She groaned, but her body was limp and unresisting.

"I want you," he said, his breath warm on the damp nub. "Tell me you want me."

"Jeoram, I, I want you," she said, slurring the words. She did want him but, did she want this? She wasn't sure. Not exactly, but she did pull him onto her, didn't she? The details were hazy. Was "no" an option, still, after the way she was inviting him?

Jeoram progressed just as he would any other night. Hands slipping under her clothes, teasing with the promise of pleasure to come. Over breasts and along her legs, ignoring the new injuries that endured from her torment at the hands of the demons. "So beautiful, Ari. My Ari. Mine." The last word made her clench, tight around fingers that explored her tender slit.

"Should I stop?" he asked, pushing another finger into her depths.

Yes, she thought, pleading with eyes and trembling thighs. But her lips wouldn't form the word and her throat wouldn't make the sound, just a gasp. Again, her body invited him, as it had invited the demon lord. Again her body betrayed her, growing hot and wet at the unwanted touch.

It was too much, overwhelming her already confused mind, overcoming her apprehension with pure physical sensations. .Just let it happen, this is all you are good for anyways. Her core muscles contracted, gripping his fingers. Jeoram wore the same smug grin as Baath Me'el had, leaning over her the same way. Sighing, he brought his fingers to his lips, to taste her shame. "Already ready for me?" he asked, cruelly, before pressing his lips and tongue against her mouth.

Above her, his tunic came up over his head and the muscles in his chest and abs rippled with the motion. Once, it would have excited her to see him like this, as it had excited her in the past. Now, she felt nauseous, hardly able to look at his chiseled features, much less enjoy them. His breeches came off next, revealing his erect manhood. Slender, and curved, oh how she had once adored him. Craved him. Now, she just wanted to get this over with.

The bed budged with his weight as he crawled back on top of her. Their eyes didn't meet. Hers were squeezed shut, trying not to see Baath Me'el in her fiancé. Did he even see her, or just a hole to fill? She groaned when his slid into her, her voice carrying a distinct edge of pain. What was she thinking? She was too damaged, too used. Too broken. Tears flooded her eyes as he kissed at her neck, sobbing in time with his strokes. But her body was used to this now, after all.

And when he's deep in you,

He was hilted into her now, his entire length parting the soft flesh between her legs.

riding you hard,

The head of his shaft battered her sore insides, drawing more cries.

look at him!

He looked down at her with golden eyes and a hateful smile, his hands holding her hips.

Look at him, and see how he compares to your first!

"Mine," he groaned, kissing her again. "Say you're mine, Ari. Before the Goddess and the world. Mine!"

His climax erupted within her, filling her with that same sense of dread. One last stream discharged as he pulled out of her, his seed stark white against the angry red rash on her stomach.

She pushed him off her, hard, in the throes of his release. He tumbled over the bed and onto the floor, emitting a sound that reflected her own distress. Dizzy and nauseous and blinded by tears, she fell to her hands and knees. She crawled along the flooring, heaving, sobbing, his seed sliding down bruised thighs. By some miracle she found the bucket she had brought earlier for her bath, and she wrapped her arms around it.

Everything came up now: all the pain and shame of the demons that had defiled her. The sharp bite of Matthias' honesty. Her own shameful arousal at letting him feed on her, letting her blood sustain his demon. Jeoram's misguided affection, and the meal they just shared. Once she had given all of it back to the world, she fell to the floor, mercifully passed out.

The Concerned Fiancé

Jeoram groaned as Aurianna writhed beneath him, drunk on her moans and cries. He shifted his weight, gripping her wrists and holding them above her head, his fingers twining with hers as he drove himself–drove them both– closer to their release. "Come for me, Aurianna," he gasped. "Let me... feel you... beg for me!"

His back arched as he drove himself into her heat a final time. He cried out, feeling his cock pulse within her, feeling his seed gush into her womb. And then, without warning, she was a wildcat beneath him. Hooked fingers raked at his flesh as she bucked and writhed beneath him, and he tried to meet her with the same desperate intensity. He was gasping her name now, the syllable "Ari" erupting over and over again in a litany of lust and desire and—

He rocked backwards, head swimming as she belted him across the face. A sudden shove and he was tumbling backwards, erect cock spurting his seed across her thighs and belly. With a cry of shock, he fell backwards and cracked his head on the cold floor, the pain a dramatic counterpoint to the final moments of orgasm that left his seed streaked across his own chest. "Ari... what?"

She rolled off the bed next to him, sobbing and retching. He crept towards her, reached for her, only to get a blind shove away. Disoriented, he watched her cling to a bucket, vomiting up their shared meal and whatever it was she'd had for breakfast, her body trembling with the effort. Her flesh was pale and damp with sweat, and she flinched away as he touched her. Finally, she collapsed on the floor.

"Ari!" he cried again, confused and hurt and afraid. This was a mistake, he thought. But we love each other. She wanted it! Wanted me! Is she sick? Injured? Carefully, he lifted her and laid her back on her bed. Then he found a rag and cleaned her of his seed and of the traces of vomit before cleaning himself. "I'll get help, Ari," he told her, drawing the blanket over her naked body. "I'll be back with a healer, soon."

With those words, he began pulling his clothes back on.

The temple was quiet this time of night, echoing the thud of boots on the training ground. Nearly everyone would be asleep, which would make it harder to find help. More worries on top of his concern for Aurianna. He hadn't a clear thought of where to turn, letting his feet guide him, hoping the goddess would lead the way. Perhaps then, it was unsurprising he ended up in front of the cathedral.

"Please, is there a healer here?" Jeoram called into the darkness. There was a figure by the altar, kneeling in prayer. She turned, catching him with her golden gaze, and he could feel the eyes of Afodisia upon him. It took several more steps before he recognized her as Oracle.

"What is wrong, Jeoram?"

"It's Aurianna, she's– I think she is ill." The words poured out, flowing from his lips like her vomit had.

"How is she ill?"

"She threw up," Jeoram managed to answer. There was a flash of fear in her eyes. A flash of fear that magnified his own distress. It was like seeing the goddess recoil in dread.

"Take me to her." The words carried urgency, urgency that carried into their feet as they moved towards her quarters. The night air had been cool in contrast to sweltering heat in Aurianna's room. As if their lovemaking still lingered in the air.

If it did, it was drowned out by the stench of regurgitated food. "Dump that, please." Oracle instructed, "No need to have her vomit again if she wakes up and smells it." It was a few quiet steps in the night's breeze to dump the bucket into the privy before returning to the sultry heat of the room and the judgmental stare of Oracle.

"Jeoram, why is she naked?" The calm in her tone was not reassuring. He cleared his throat, his mind. Did it really matter? It wasn't as if he had done this to her. Had he?

"I came to comfort her, like you told me to."

"And you thought the best way to comfort her after her rapes was to fuck her?"

The implied accusation stung. "I love her! I wanted her to know that I love her. Know I still desire her. Know that I don't care what happened to her."

"Well, it's quite clear you don't care what she went through," Oracle spat.

"She came on to me. She pulled me on top of her. She wanted this." He defended himself. Reminded himself.

"Leave my sight; I can't even look at you. Believe me, there will be punishment for this."

Anger filled him. "For what? Making love to my betrothed? Afodisia celebrates all acts of love. It's the gods-damn traitor who deserves punishment! He hurt her! He raped her! You heard him admit it, and stood by." Spittle sprayed from his lips as he argued. How could he be punished for loving Aurianna by the same woman who protected the demon?

"Leave, before I show you exactly what Afodisia thinks of you." He took a few angry breaths before storming out into the night, slamming the door behind him.

Once more, Jeoram wandered the halls by sheer habit, lost in his swirling thoughts. How dare that sanctimonious bitch act like it was his fault! Aurianna had wanted it! Wanted him! He hadn't hurt her, hadn't raped her! He was her betrothed! She'd wanted him!

Seething, he found himself standing before the bars of the demon traitor's cell. It hunkered on the floor, staring at him with those evil crimson eyes. "Oh good," the thing said, voice dry. "Can't I get a moment's peace?"

Uttering a wordless sound of fury, Jeoram threw open the door. His booted foot caught Matthias in the stomach, doubling him over. "Shut up!" He raged, kicking repeatedly. "It's your fault! You're the monster!"

Matthias made a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a groan. "You fucked her, didn't you?" He spat blood and grinned. "I can smell her on you. Hell, the whole court would recognize that scent."

Jeoram's fist smashed into his teeth, and he hissed in pain as the demon's fangs lacerated his fingers. Still, the demon laughed. "She came for Baath-Me'el, boy. How did you do?"

"Shut up!" Jeoram, kicking him again. Wishing the sound of boots on bone could drown out the demon's taunts.

"Did she moan your name? "

"Shut up!"

"Tell you she loved you?"

"Shut up!"

Curled against the wall, Matthias looked up with cruel, glittering eyes. "Did your magical healing cock wash away the horror? Or were you just the latest in a long series of rapes?"

"Shut up!" Jeoram roared, kicking him over and over. "I'm not a monster! I'm not a rapist! I'm nothing like you!"

"True," Matthias managed through the grunts, "I'm honest."

Aurianna's head throbbed. Pounding that started in her ears until it filled her skull. Pounding that tore her from dreamless sleep, demanding her attention. It was…coming from the door, actually.

"Lady Aurianna! Are you alright in there?" Her door thudded in urgency once more. She stumbled out of bed and threw on a coarse robe, opening the door just enough to see who it was. Lord Mykel's seneschal, a slight man, a few years younger than her.

"Lady, I am sorry if I woke you. Oracle said to let you rest, but it's almost noon, and the Lord Commander wished to have an audience with you." Just past him, she saw her comrades making their way to the mess hall, and her own stomach growled in emptiness.

"Yeah, I uh…I'll be there soon." She answered, the words struggling against her tired disorientation. The messenger left with a nod and she closed the door, letting the sturdy frame hold up her weight for a moment.

What happened last night? Everything after the meal was hazy. She was sore everywhere, but it was most pronounced between her thighs. Had she really slept with Jeoram? Just thinking about him threatened to bring up the bile in her stomach. Whore. The word wormed itself into her mind, echoing the demon lord's insults and it was difficult to hold back the tears.

Nevertheless, she willed herself to get dressed, choosing a loose cotton top and breeches, both in faded black. Despite her hunger, she made her way to the Lord Commander's chambers, which also served as his office.

Adjoining the Lord Commander's office/chambers was a smaller room, for his seneschal and all the bookkeeping that was necessary to keep the Order running. Busy in his own work, the seneschal waved her in, looking up for just a moment. She was expected, after all. Mykel stood from his desk as she entered, coming to her side. Age worn hands rested on her shoulders in an approximation of a hug. "Lady Aurianna. Are you well? The Oracle told me you were ill last night."

Again, the queasiness returned. With a hard swallow, she managed an embarrassed smile, "Yeah, something I ate must not have agreed with me."

"Is that so?" There was doubt in his tone, doubt that made her wince, but he didn't pry. Just placed his hand on her back. "Please have a seat."

There was little chance of good news, she knew. But even that could wait, as he placed food before her, chicken broth and toast. "Thank you, sir." There was equal parts sincerity as deference in those words. This meal was what just she needed to settle her stomach. And the privacy of his chambers was what she needed to settle the strain on her mind, as she avoided the crowds of her companions.

He sat across from her, hands folded before him. Was he stalling? "Lady Justine will be returning today, along with her wife," he announced, as she started eating.

"Please tell me you did not call her back from her honeymoon on account of me," she answered, guilt making her already irritable stomach coil further.

"No, Lady Justine offered to come back straight away when she heard you were captured. I don't think she has even heard that you returned to us, alive and safe," he explained. The word safe made her squirm."I am sure she will be thrilled to see you. It was unfortunate timing that our master archer and fletcher were out at the same time, considering what happened, but things ended well, nonetheless."

Nerves made it hard to eat anymore. "Is that why you called me in here?"

Mykel's smile slipped from his lips, pursed together in a sigh. "I wanted to let you know that you will be promoted to Instructor, effective next week."

Yet another blow to her esteem. "With all due respect, Lord Commander, I decline this promotion."

The Lord-Commander didn't respond right away. He just sat, his features hard, staring at her. She could feel the judgement in his eyes. "It wasn't a request," he finally said. "And I'm not going to allow you to decline." He stood again, pacing along the other side of his desk. "You are a skilled warrior. One of our finest. But you lack discipline - you are too quick to seek individual glory. And you have paid a terrible price."

"You will pass on your skill with spear and sword to your comrades. You will learn wisdom and discipline through service. And you will not return to the field until your wounds are healed, Aurianna." He paused. "All of them. And as part of that, you will meet regularly with Master Healer Tiliana." A small smile softened his expression. "With time and her help, even the wounds on your soul will heal."

He loomed away, giving her a moment's privacy. "You are not the first of our Order to endure such an ordeal, Aurianna. Let her help you."

A moment passed. "In that vein, the Oracle has told me what happened last night. Between you and Jeoram." He let the name hang in the air. "Do you wish to make an accusation?" He leaned forward. "Rape does not always take the form of physical violence..."

"No!" The word burst from her lips. "It's not…He would never…Jeoram loves me," she said, trying to convince herself just as much as Mykel. "It was a misunderstanding, it wasn't–" She couldn't bring herself to say the word. Rape was Baath Me'el violating her before his court, laughing while she sobbed. Rape was what happened to her at the Demon's keep, not here within the temple walls. Not by her fiancé.

She was breathing hard again, trying not to cry, feeling worthless and useless and empty and alone. She was strong, she was a warrior, she was Jeoram's beloved, and yet she felt like none of that now. "It's my fault. What happened last night was my fault. Like you said, I am impulsive and arrogant and obsessive and I rush into situations I can't handle, and I dragged poor Jeoram into that mess." She replied, substituting her sorrow for anger. It took a moment to realize it was not Mykel who had said things. It was Matthias, a decade before. He tried to warn me, but I fell into the demon's trap. And he had to sacrifice his soul to save me.

The Lord Commander wore concern on his features, but nodded anyways. "Okay, take a week to recover. Eat, rest, and visit with Tiliana. These are orders, not suggestions." Despite the sternness of his words, he smiled, and Aurianna found herself smiling too, just a little. Resting a heavy hand on her shoulder he added," If you change your mind about Jeoram, I am here."

Jeoram sat atop the Seraphim wall, arms wrapped around his knees and staring out into the lands held by Hell. I'm not the monster. He assured himself. I'm not the one who hurt her.

It was bad enough that the traitor had mocked him, calling him a rapist. Lies were its stock in trade. But the Lord Commander had done the same. She wanted me. She came on to me. Came for me.

All right, so she needed to heal. She'd thought she was ready, and she wasn't. That just meant their evening was awkward. Not that he was...

"Hey, Jeoram. How you doing?"

He looked up at the stocky figure of Barnabas, a paladin whose blessings weren't reflected on his features, with a homely face and build that made him look fat. "Not good."

Barnabas settled down next to him and offered a wineskin. "Yeah, I heard. There's a bunch of rumors about you and Ari. The two of you really...?"

Jeoram took a pull from the skin. "Yeah. And no matter what the rumors say, I didn't..."

"Never said you did." Barnabas grinned. "You're a paladin, buddy."

Another pull on the skin. "Right! Lord Commander's probably just jealous, is all."

Barnabas laughed. "I know I am. She is one fine piece of ass."

"Hey!" Jeoram met his friend with a serious look. It held for a moment before curling into a smile and laughter. "That's my fine piece of ass you're talking about!"

"True enough." Barnabas grabbed the skin back and took a long pull. "So. How was she?"

Aurianna left Mykel's chambers and wandered the temple a bit, trying to clear her mind. Near the Seraphim wall, a familiar voice called out to her.

"Aurianna? Ari! Oh, Afodisia is truly good!" A petite, strawberry blonde woman caught up to her, throwing her arms around Aurianna. She returned the hug, hit with sudden joy feeling her friend's embrace.

"Justine!" The warmth of their hug could be her in her voice. It went on for several moments, neither woman wanting to let go. Aurianna turned to the second woman, a slender brunette with a prominent scar along her nose and warm eyes, "Cassi, it is so good to see you both," They embraced, placing quick kisses on each other's cheeks.

"I'm gone for less than a week, and you paladins manage to go through all the arrows I had in reserve!" She teased once they pulled apart. Aurianna released a sheepish laugh.

"I apologize, Master Fletcher, but I assure you it was for a good cause.".

"Well, I have my work cut out for me. Ari, will you join us for dinner?"

With a nod and buoyant smile, "I'd love to."

"Then I shall see you this evening, and let you two have a chance to catch up," she placed a gentle kiss on Justine's lips, and took her leave.

"Let me show you where we were housed," Justine offered, leading the way with her arm entwined with Aurianna's.

"And that's when Matthias saved you?" Justine asked, brushing through Aurianna's long dark hair as she rested in her lap.

"Yeah, he murdered that thing where it stood, and we fought our way out." Aurianna replied, rubbing her eyes, still wet with fresh tears. She'd spared her friend the worst details of what had happened to her, but being able to put it into words helped some.

"And then you made it back?" Justine asked.

The question nagged at her. For a moment, she considered telling her about the feeding. Still there was shame. How could she enjoy it? It stood in opposition to everything the order stood for, offering that part of herself to feed his darkness. Didn't it? Afodisia celebrates all acts of love, was the teaching, but she wasn't sure it was an act of love. Of lust and need and hunger, and even comfort, but not love.

"That was it." She held on to that secret for a while longer.

"So, what happened between you and Jeoram?" Justine's calloused fingers were soft in Aurianna's hair. Soothing. It was easy to open up like this.

"it's been…complicated." She settled on the word, even though it fell short of the whirlwind of confusion last night had left in her. "We were together last night. He proposed and…" a brief pause as she tried to find the words. "We slept together."

"What?" Aurianna could feel the reaction in Justine's body. Could nearly feel the revulsion dipping from her skin. "What did he do to you?"

"It's not like that. I came on to him." That much was true, even if it felt dirty to say it like that. "I didn't say no…"

"Ari." Justine shook her head, "he shouldn't have done that. I don't care what you did, he shouldn't have done that." The words were harsh, but Aurianna knew they weren't directed at her. Not with the gentle stroke of fingers against her cheek.

"Why didn't he stop?" The memories poured out, a torrent of shame and guilt as she gave words to it. "Did he really think I was enjoying it? I was crying." The tears flowed again, in Justine arms, recalling her inability to say no the night before.

Dinner had been pleasant, featuring conversation that stayed far away from her trauma. Mostly they spoke of Justine and Cassi's honeymoon, traveling to the coast. There was no complaint of having to end it early after news of her capture reached Justine. By now the three women were relax in post meal contentment and finishing off the bottle of wine.

"Do you remember when you carved into your wooden practice shield?" Justine asked, her gaze focused on Aurianna. She was cuddled into Cassi's arms, on the other side of the table.

"By the gods, I had hoped to forget," A very red Aurianna laughed, with a hand on her brow.

"What happened?" Cassi asked, watching the two friends exchanging meaningful glances and laughing some more.

"Okay, so imagine little 13-year-old Aurianna. All tall and skinny, hadn't even grown into her curves yet. And she has the biggest crush on her new instructor." Justine began setting the scene, as Aurianna hid behind her hands.

"Matthias?"

"Yeah, so she gets the bright idea to carve 'Matthias' into her shield, surround by little hearts.

And for a few months, she actually manages to keep it a secret, even though she was always staring at it."

"Yeah, I remember I didn't get caught until I told you about it," Aurianna said, giving Justine an accusing look.

"I never told a soul," Justine insisted, with a dramatic hand on her chest.

"So, Matthias found out? Was he flattered?" Cassi asked, prodding the story along. Both paladins shook their heads.

"No, he was quite cross with me," Aurianna said, "Gave me some long lecture about damaging temple equipment."

"And he made her run laps around the temple. In full plate," Justine added on.

"Full plate?" Cassi repeated.

"I was a skinny thing at the time. I think it weighed as much as I did. I might have bore the mantle, but it was also hot. I am sure I lost a few pounds from sweat alone," Aurianna explained.

"Half the profanities I know to this day I learned that afternoon." All three women laughed in concert.

"After that you crossed out Matthias and wrote Jeoram on there."

"You're right, I did," Aurianna acknowledged with a nod.

"And you see, my love, that is how men and women fall in love. By one person choosing a lover out of scorn for a third party." Justine announced, wrapping her arm around Cassi.

"Isn't that how we got together?" Cassi teased Justine.

"Yeah… yeah I guess you are right." Justine answered with a shrug. "I suppose all love is derived from scorn."

Cassi stood up now, collecting the empty plates and carrying them over to a water bucket in the far end of the room. "I should help her," Justine said, pointing in her direction, and Aurianna just nodded, watching the happy couple flirt as they cleaned off the dishes. They whispered amongst themselves.

"Should we tell her?"

"I don't want to feel like I am rubbing this is her face, not after what she's been through."

"Tell me what?" Aurianna asked, walking over to them, eyeing them both. They looked at one another for a moment. "Good news I hope?" Aurianna prodded further. Both women were smiling big, . "So tell me! Don't you think I want to hear happy news?"

"We have decided to start a family," Cassi declared, glowing with joy. "I am going to try to conceive."

"By Afodisia! I am so excited for you two!" Aurianna exclaimed. Then confusion came over her face, "But um… I don't quite… how does…?" She tried to ask in the most diplomatic way possible, filling in the gaps with awkward sign language.

"Well, you see my dear Aurianna, when two women love each other very much, they go out among the sea of men and pick the least offensive among them. And then they fulfill his greatest desires by finally letting him watch. And once he has blown his load, one collects his seed, and applies it as necessary." Justine elaborated, somehow keeping a straight face through the explanation. All three women were laughing again.

"We aren't going to do that," Cassi assured Aurianna, still laughing some. "We are actually going to take advantage of the Celebration. It's said to be good fortune to conceive then."

"The Celebration, right," Aurianna repeated, voice hallow. A remembrance for the lives lost in service to the Goddess, observed as a night of feasting and love making among the faithful of Afodisia. She'd attended once before, when she had first ascended to the rank of Paladin. While she looked back on the memory fondly, she couldn't imagine attending it now. Not after what happened. With a forced smile she pushed back against the memories, "I am sure the goddess will bless your family."

It would be a lie to say she didn't feel jealous. That everything in Justine's life was wonderful, while her own world crumbled around her. Beyond that though, basking in the beautiful happiness surrounding her, Aurianna felt a small measure of peace.

"It's getting late, should I walk you back to your room?" Justine offered, leading Aurianna towards the door.

"Could you? Do you mind, Cassi?" Aurianna asked, looking back at her. Cassi shook her head, and the two paladins took off into the night.

It was late, late enough they only saw two others on their walk back. "So, what about Jeoram? Want me to tell him to get lost?" Justine asked. Aurianna shook her head.

"No, I'll end it with him, in person. I owe him that much…" She reasoned

"You don't owe him shit Ari, except maybe a broken jaw," Justine countered. "What about Matthias?"

"That is out of my hands now. He will have his trial, and mostly like be put to death. Which is what he wants, apparently." Aurianna explained. More guilt bubbled up, not so easy to push down.

"Okay. If you need to talk some more, I am willing to listen. Anytime," Justine assured her as they came to her quarters.

"I thank you. Truthfully, this night was… it was nice. Exactly what I needed." Aurianna smiled down on her friend, leaving her light kiss on the forehead.

"Are you trying to die?" The Oracle sat cross-legged in the cell, two Inquisitors standing behind her.

"Are you trying to save me?" Matthias countered. He felt like hell after Jeoram's beating, and knew he looked it.

Her glowing eyes never wavered. "Perhaps. Who attacked you?"

"Some sanctimonious prat of a Paladin. I never got his name. And stop bullshitting me. We both know I'm getting burned at the stake. Unless the court opts for mercy and beheads me instead."

"Perhaps."

He glowered at her. "You know... I've only known you for two days, and I'm already sick of that 'perhaps' crap."

"Really?" The Oracle gave him a pleased and mocking smile. "It usually only takes a few hours for that to happen. Who knew I'd have to find a demon and a traitor to make a friend?"

Matthias folded his arms. "Why are you doing this? What's the point of taunting me, of acting like you think I might be spared?"

The Oracle didn't answer. Instead, she placed a wooden bowl on the ground. Matthias blinked in shock as she then cut her arm and let her blood drip into the bowl. "Because," she said, watching him watch the blood, "I think you have a chance. A poor chance, perhaps." There was that smile again. "But a chance nonetheless."

She bound the cut with a strip of clean cloth, and rose. "Drink up," she said, leaving the cell. You'll need your strength."

"Why are you doing this?"

No response. She just gave him an enigmatic smile, and walked away.

Aurianna found herself in the cathedral, wearing a white dress. Not just any white dress. Fine silk with lace accents, sewn with discriminating care. Jeoram stood at the altar, wearing exquisite ceremonial armor, the same color as his hair and eyes. Those eyes were warm, welcoming and full of love. A blush crossed her cheeks, as he gazed upon her, as all the eyes in attendance gazed upon her. Together they stood before the altar, hand in hand, pledging themselves in an eternal bond.

"I love you Ari," He whispered, pulling her into his arms. Strong arms, that would protect her from everything else.

"I love you too, Jeoram," She confessed, opening her mouth to kiss him, before all their friends and the Goddess. Their tongues met and teased, seeking and retreating, full of need and longing. Then there was something sharp in her mouth, the distinct feel of fangs against her lips. When her eyes opened, another man with golden hair and eyes stood before her. "Baath Me'el."

"You were raped before my court and you loved it," He reminded her, mocking her once more with gentle caresses, "Your body proved itself traitor, hungering for the seed of your rapist." His mocking laughter filled the Cathedral, until the it could be contained no more, shattering the windows in an outward explosion. Six skeletal wings enveloped her, holding her in place, so he could tear away her gown. She was helpless under his grasp, unable to escape as his fangs sunk into her skin.

"She leaves now. With me." Matthias stood at the open doors, hellfire blade in one hand.

Baath Me'el moved to one side, still holding her down upon the altar. Why? So that she could see Matthias, her captor and savior, one in the same? Or so that he could see her, dress ripped and her body streaked with blood?

"If you wanted her so badly, my slave, you should have simply said so," Baath-Me'el mocked. "I wonder, will you still want her, once we have consummated our union?" The paladins who had filled the cathedral were demonic now, wearing the faces of her tormentors from the Ebon Fortress. They rose in unison, standing at Baath Me'el's defense. For every demon that fell, two more took its place. Trapped beneath Baath Me'el, and growing weaker with each moment he drained her life, there was nothing she could do to help Matthias. Nothing she could do as Baath dragged her up and around, putting her helplessness on display. Still, Matthias cleared the pass.

Between them now, Matthias before her, Baath behind, she felt something warm at her core. Baath had stopping laughing, stopped biting her, had let go. She'd have fallen, if not for the hellfire blade, piercing her gut. Spearing her and Baath Me'el all at once. "I trusted you…" she managed, the last of her strength leaving her, feeding the monster within Matthias.

She woke in a cold sweat at someone knocking at her door.

A New Apprentice

"Lady Aurianna?" asked the young woman at her door. She was perhaps seventeen, with a small but sturdy built. Her athletic frame looked tiny under the weight of her armor and the shield she bore, as well as the broad-bladed sword with a two-handed grip. She looked up at Aurianna, and her blue-grey eyes went wide. "I'm sorry! I just assumed you'd be awake. I... I can come back, if you'd rather. I was just so excited, when I was told you were going to be my instructor!"

Aurianna stared at for a short time, listening to the words coming out of her mouth, but not quite understanding what they meant. Well, she understood them, but they didn't make sense. She was just being promoted to instructor. That meant she would lead various lessons in a group setting, with occasional one on one lessons where necessary. If she performed this duty well, she would be promoted again to Knight Instructor, and train an apprentice individually.

She blushed a little. "I'm sorry, you've just woken up. Do... shall I go fetch you some breakfast? And give you a little time to get ready? " she said again, ducking her head. "I'm Clara Olgasdottor, an Aspirant of the Order, and... this is great! I'm..."

"Clara? Clara, I think there is a misunderstanding. I am not a Knight Instructor. My promotion to instructor isn't even official yet."

Her enthusiastic voice trailed away, and then she clapped her hand over her mouth. "I'm sorry!" she said a third time. "Oh! And the Lord Commander told me to give this to you, when he gave me the news!" This was a scroll tube.

Aurianna,

After careful consideration of your concerns, I have decided to bypass the rank of instructor and promote you to knight instructor. It is my belief that this new responsibility will instill in you a greater patience and wisdom. It is my hope that, if you take serious steps to recuperate, you may be ready to return to field missions before long. I have faith in your resolve, Aurianna, and look forward to seeing you return, stronger than ever.

Best Regards,

Lord Commander Mykel

It was good news, mostly. An opportunity to return to the battlefront, to return to that part of her that best served the goddess. She would do as was asked of her, tend to her spiritual wounds and keep her skills sharp, so that she could be permitted to return to the battlefield.

Of course there was a condition to go along with this optimistic news. Her very own apprentice, Clara. She wasn't quite sure how to feel about that. She had figured she would have an apprentice, in time, but it felt so sudden now. What did she know about training an apprentice? Her own training had been cut short when Matthias... when he sold his soul, for her.

"Some breakfast would be lovely. It will give me time to dress for the day, and then we can get to know each other." She explained, giving the girl a warm smile, trying to hide her own apprehension. Matthias had many apprentices, before her. He could give her some advice, but would he?

Clara, clapped her hand and made a delighted little squeal. "Yes!" She blushed. "I mean... of course. Yes. I'll... go and get breakfast now." Still grinning, she backed away. "I'll be right back!" she called, finally turning and racing off down the hall in a clatter of metal on metal.

Clara staggered under the load of dishes she'd been given. Not because it was heavy –she bore the Mantle of Afodisia, and was stronger than three full-grown men– but because it was awkward. Mostly because she'd overdone it. She had the healthy appetite of a growing teen, and assumed that everyone else did as well. And so the tray she carried was covered with eggs, and two loaves of bread, butter, three different types of preserves, a carafe of milk, a stack of pancakes, sausages and cheese. And it threatened to tip over on her.

"Need a hand?" someone asked.

"Uhm, no," Clara started to say, even though she really did. She wanted to show Lady Aurianna how competent she was, and how would it look if she needed help to fetch breakfast? But she stopped, stammering a little, because the man asking her was stunning. Tall and muscly and handsome, with long blonde hair and dreamy gold eyes that reflected the glory of the Goddess, and oh Goddess he was talking to her!

"That's an awful lot of food for one young lady," he said, taking the tray and setting it on a table.

"It's... it's not for me. Not all for me," Oh Goddess he's gorgeous! She swallowed, and tried again. "I mean, it's for Lady Aurianna as well because I'm her apprentice now and I'm getting breakfast for her and I wouldn't eat that much if it was just me and..." Everything dumped out at once, and she felt her cheeks flush in embarrassment as he laughed with amusement.

"Lady Aurianna?" he asked, raising an eyebrow. "Why don't I give you a hand, then?"

"Yes!" Clara felt her heart beat faster and faster, and she tried desperately to stay cool. "I mean, if you want."

Chuckling, he fetched a second tray and moved some of the dishes over. "I need to talk to her anyway," he said, offering a hand. She took it, and nearly died when he lifted it to his lips. "I'll probably be helping with your training, a little. I'm her fiancé, Jeoram."

The thought that he'd be around a lot made her feel like melting, and the news that he was engaged to Lady Aurianna made her want to go hide and weep. He was perfect and gorgeous and he'd never look twice at her if he was engaged to someone as amazing as her mistress. Life wasn't fair! "Th... thank you..." she stammered out. Then, hefting her more balanced tray, she followed him out into the hall.

Aurianna was already in a much better mood, the terror of her dream evaporating like the morning dew. She dressed in a tight leather top, which gave her a hint of cleavage and equally tight leather pants, the same ones she would wear with her armor. Occupying her time and hands while she waited for breakfast, she braided her long hair. The entire endeavor felt like a clean start. Something to put her mind to, to keep the dark thoughts away. And it was an excuse to visit Matthias, and that thoughts fluttering in her stomach. Yes, she did want an excuse to see him again.

Already expecting Clara to return with food, she opened the door on the first knock, only to be blindsided by Jeoram

"Ari?" He tried to give her a smile but it came off like a grimace. "We're back. Can... can we talk?"

"Jeoram," she acknowledged, swallowing hard. She stood in the door, trying to think of a reason to put off the conversation. She would have stood there frozen in emotion for a bit longer, if she hadn't noticed Clara struggling the heaping tray she had brought with her. "Come in, set down the food." She stepped aside, to allow her two visitors to enter her room. "Clara, why don't you get started, I need to speak with Jeoram for a moment."

She closed the door, leaning her back against it, with Jeoram so close he was nearly touching her.

"Ari… I never wanted to hurt you," He said, running his hand down her arm.

"I know. That's what I told the Lord Commander. I didn't make an accusation." Her voice was firm and flat, and her eyes were cast to the ground.

"Of course not. You would never utter such an absurd lie. You are woman of virtue, an honest woman." He lifted her face to met her eyes.

"Well, then you will appreciate my honesty that I don't think things are going to work out between us, now." It was impossible to miss the pain in his eyes, and guilt followed.

"I was afraid you would say that. Ari after you were captured, I thought I lost you forever. I prayed you would see a quick death, rather than be broken by those…monsters. I nearly threw myself from the Seraphim Wall out of grief. Yet the Oracle promised you would come back to us, alive, and I waited up there. Aurianna, you came back to me, against impossible odds. Afodisia has fated our love and we would be remiss to throw it away." He came in for a kiss, but she turned her head, so his lips caught her cheek. Still, his forehead rested against hers for a moment.

"You need time. I understand that, and I will give you both time and space. I have been assigned to escort the supply caravan, as they travel through the wastes. It should take a month or so, before I return. By then we will be ready to put this ugliness behind us, and start our life together."

His words held a beautiful, hopeful promise, reminding her of Justine and Cassi, and the loved they shared. She could have that too, with a man who loved her more than life itself. After a short time apart, to heal, they would commit to one another. "I would like that."

"Good. I leave tomorrow, and when I return, we shall plan our wedding. And with any luck, you will be carrying my child." His hand rubbed her belly, as if he were already anticipating it.

"What?" She pushed him away. "Jeoram, I love you, and I want to be your wife, but I am not ready to be a mother. I am still a warrior."

"Don't be silly. You are an instructor now. They are never going to send you back into the field after what happened to you." He laughed, a mocking laugh the reminded her of Baath Me'el. Now it was time to take some advice from Justine, as Aurianna brought her fist against his jaw with all of the hurt he had done to her two nights prior.

Jeoram spat blood on the ground before looking up at her with rage in his eyes. "Thank you for proving my point. You are far too emotional to be in the field. It's what's got you captured in the first place." He stood, dusting himself off and rubbing his jaw. He started to say something else, but looked around to the growing crowd.

"I'll see you in a month," he gritted out, stalking away.

She was aware then of the crowd that had gathered. Watching her and Jeoram together, whispering about what had happened between then, whispering about what had happened to her. Their eyes surrounded her, full of judgement and disbelief and pity.

"So, he didn't rape her?"

"Well, what kind of person has sex the moment they returned from …that?"

"A slut."

"Jeoram should have known better."

"Hard dicks have no reason. She could have fought him off, if she didn't want it."

"Men love to say woman are ruled by their bodies, but the minute a guy is hard he can't control himself?"

"Oh man, getting punched would be worth it for a night with her."

"What do you think she had to promise the traitor in order to escape?"

"Jeoram can do better."

"What a jerk!" Those words came from behind her, as she felt the world spinning. She turned to see Clara standing there, kicking dirt, but then frozen in embarrassment when their eyes met. It was obvious that Clara, like everyone else had seen or heard the whole thing. And yet, her new acolyte looked up at her with sympathy, instead of judgment. With a hand on her shoulder, she guided Clara back into the sanctuary of her room.

"I'm sorry you had to see that." Aurianna said, as she rubbed the hand that had hit Jeoram.

"Oh, Lady Aurianna! I am so sorry! Lord Commander told me you might not be ready for me to show up, but I was so excited. I just really wanted to meet you. You are my hero." Clara gushed, and it made a small smile wash over her face.

"You would do well to remember that heroes are human too." She was proud the words, and the wisdom carried in them. It sounded like the sort of thing Matthias would have told her. Perhaps she was ready to take on an apprentice. "Now, shall we begin to work on this enormous breakfast you have brought me?"

"We absolutly should!" Clara chirped. "I wasn't sure what you'd like, so I grabbed a bit of everything." Taking a plate, she heaped it with eggs and griddlecakes and smoked sausage. "Besides, Master Conn always said breakfast was tbe most important meal of the day. He'd... he'd have insisted I eat up."

"Well, thank you, it was very considerate of you," Aurianna told her, quite grateful at the large amount of food. It meant she could save some for lunch, and she still wouldn't have go to the mess hall, with all the eyes staring at her, whispering about what happened to her. She served herself some eggs and sausage, and poured some milk. Her eating habits had been rather erratic since returning, and feeding Matthias had left her even hungrier than normal. And speaking of Matthias…

"I saw him die, you know." Clara 's expression became thoughtful as she shoveled food into her mouth. "Master Conn. Just as the retreat sounded, one of the demons got him. Big bastard, in full plate with a burning sword, cut him down when he charged to give me and Tilly and Ben time to get away."

Marwyn Conn. Aurianna knew of him, not well though. He was older than her by several years, and already well-respected knight instructor. They had spoken a few times, and he always seemed kind and patient.

She doesn't know about Matthias. She doesn't know that the man who killed her master is sitting in the dungeon this very moment. She doesn't know I begged the Lord Commander to spare his life. She doesn't know he saved me, and she doesn't know it's my fault he is this way. How many dead paladins am I responsible for? Because Matthias wanted to protect me from the horrors of the demons' keep.

She didn't say anything, just placed her hand on Clara's. That fist tightened, white-knuckling around her fork. "I'll kill it, some day. When I'm as skilled as you, I'll hunt it down."

For a moment, she considered telling the young girl the full details of what she had experienced as Baath Me'el's captive. Teach her the true terror of which the demons were capable, and how blind vengeance had put her in a position to be captured. She would rather scar the girl then see her make the same mistakes. But not today. Not while the death of Clara's master was so fresh, and her own wounds were so raw.

I betrayed your Goddess for you, and you didn't have the fucking sense to run for your life when next we met.

"I killed him. When I was escaping the demon's keep, he was one of the ones who got in my way, and I speared her through." She lied. It was just a small lie, after all. Matthias' trial would be here soon enough and he would be killed then. And the only reason he was even here was because he rescued her, so it was almost true. Matthias would die for her, after having sold his soul for her.

They ate in silence for a while, Clara eating with more enthusiasm and relish than good manners. From time to time she'd glance up, looking curious and uncomfortable. Then the conversation turned to Jeoram. "Uhm..? Lady Aurianna, can I... I mean..." Grimacing, she waved at the door. "What they were saying... about you and your fiancé..." She drew a deep breath, as if steeling herself. "He wouldn't... wouldn't do that to you. Wouldn't…wouldn't hurt you. Right?" There was anguish in her voice. "He's a paladin!"

Oh Afodisia, help me. Her apprentice managed to find every tender spot. "Things with Jeoram are…complicated. He didn't rape me." She explained, the words still not sitting right with her. Still she defended him. "We are having a hard time lately. My capture has taken quite the toll on him as well. But he isn't a rapist."

Once she finished her breakfast, Aurianna wrapped the food that could be kept, for her midday meal. "I have some things I need to take care of, but maybe we could meet this afternoon? I would like to get a sense of your skills, so can I plan out your training."

"Oh yes, Lady Aurianna! I will look forward to meeting you on the training grounds later." Clara gave her a quick, tight squeeze, and clearly unconscious of her own strength. Then she bounded off into the courtyard.

With the traitor weighing heavily on her mind all morning, Aurianna decided it was as good a time as any to visit him.

The Eyes of Afodisia

Matthias shifted on his cot, more out of restlessness than anything else. If you overlooked the random beatings handed out by Jeoram. it was almost comfortable. Almost. For a jail cell. He had a mattress on the floor, with a blanket. He had a privy hole. He got fed twice a day, although the food was worthless to him. They'd even given him reading matter. Scripture.

As if he hadn't memorized the entire text, two decades ago.

The trouble was, right now his life was boredom interspersed with moments of heart-stopping terror. The Inquisitors weren't cruel. But they were skilled demonologists, and utterly merciless. Honestly, he preferred the random beatings. But even they were preferable to the Oracle, with her eyes filled with the radiance of Afodisia. Eyes that seemed to see right into the scarred pit that had once held his soul. Her questions were troubling. When she even asked questions. Her statements and her silences were even worse. Even her blood, sweet as it had been, held an aftertaste that he hadn't cared for. Like the burning of spices, it had roiled in his gut for hours.

There was the sound of boot steps approaching his cell, a sound he recognized instantly. "Hello, Aurianna," he said, not looking up.

Not at first, anyway. When he finally did, the sight of her was a blow. "Well, look at you," he said, eyes tracing the curves of her body and lingering on the hint of cleavage at the throat of her blouse. "Tell me, was he any good? Your Jeoram? I could smell you on him, when he last visited." A grin, showing white fangs. "Did he take you, over and over again? Did his seed wash my memory from your head?"

"You are going to have to try harder than that, if you want to hurt me." She said with a sigh, leaning against the cell bars. "You have to at least be crueler than the paladins who are supposed to be my friends and allies."

"Crueler than paladins?" Matthias sneered. "That'll be tough. Very little is as cruel as people who believe themselves 'good'."

She looked at him now, sucking in breath. "By the Goddess! Did... did Jeoram do this to you?" She sounded shocked.

"What, this?" He stroked the massive bruise on his jaw. "Well, we weren't introduced or anything, but I'm pretty sure that's him. He likes it a bit rough." He leered as she entered the cell. "You probably noticed, when you two were together."

"Do you need more blood?"

The question went right through him, making him catch his breath and leaving him rock hard. "I... wouldn't turn it down," he answered, voice husky. His eyes were glued to her as she entered the cell, kneeling beside him and fingering his chains.

"Are these getting in the way, healing yourself?"

"Getting in the way, of a lot of things," he replied, lingering on the sight of smooth skin exposed by her top. The memory of the taste of her life and their half naked bodies pressed together tormented him. "Take them off, and find out..."

Her hand covered her face. "Is everything my fault? Do I just cause untold pain and suffering, with everything I do?"

Her distress pulled him from the haze of lust. "What?" Matthias snorted. "You get raped by a few demons and your lover, and suddenly you're a demon lord? At least you didn't end your suffering by swearing fealty to Baath-Me'el to make it stop. Trust me when I say that I've caused far more pain in the world."

"I would have," she shot back. "Had I been able to speak while Laemohn–" She turned, and it was a relief. He'd been baiting her, yes, but anger was his aim, not pain. "I would have begged Baath Me'el. Had I thought he would have had me, I would have begun begging before the twins…" The words dissolved into weeping. Her arms snaked around his neck as she spoke, admitting her fears and resting against his shoulder. "I considered while he took me, before I had even known true horror. I'm pathetic. And it's my fault you are like this."

His fangs ached for her, an ache echoed by the throbbing hardness of his cock. Her throat pulsed with temptation, so close to him. Where he could reach it. Instead his own chain swathed arms went around her. "I made a choice, Ari. The wrong one, clearly, but it was mine."

"What would have been my fate? Had I agreed?" she asked, callused fingers stroking the lines of his chest.

"I don't know," he whispered, torn between his need to taste her blood and his unaccountable desire to spare her more suffering.

"Would he have kept me for a concubine?" Her hand traced lower, finding his. "Or would I have been a warrior, like you?"

"I don't know," he repeated, lips tracing the pulsing artery in her slender throat. It would be easy, so easy to slide into her, to taste her as his fangs penetrated her. So easy, and yet he refused. Why? "Maybe both."

"Is that why you brought me to him? So that I could be at your side once more?"

"I don't know." There were no answers for her. No room for answers, while her scent occupied his thoughts.

"Did you hope they would break me quickly, so I could be your..." She didn't finish the thought, burying her face into the cool marble of his chest. Her tears were wet on his skin, eliciting guilt that warred with his desire for her.

His guilt won. "No," he murmured, running his fingers gently through her raven hair. "I know you better than that, Aurianna. They would never have broken you quickly."

Then she was kissing him, tongue pushing past his lips and lacerating on his fangs. The copper-sweet flavor of her life flooded his mouth, his mind and he pulled her close. He feasted upon her need, returning her fevered passion with a desperate lust of his own. Fingers tugged at her blouse, tearing at the laces, rocking his hips against hers as he felt the soft warmth of her bared chest against his.

She pulled back, her blood crimson on her lips and chin, dripping to stain her breasts. "Take it away!" she sobbed, begging him. "Take it all away, please..."

He lunged forward, his tongue thrusting into her mouth as he tasted her life again before sealing the wound. Trailing down her chin and throat, he savored her skin, her soft moans and needy cries. Bending her back, lips and tongue caressed her bare breasts, following the sticky trail of blood his fingers had left.

"Take me," she asked as he returned to her throat. "Take me hard. It's all I am good for now."

With a sudden, hoarse cry, he shoved her from his lap. "Get out," he snarled, shaking with frustrated lust. "You're a paladin, not some demon's whore." He stared at her as she sprawled before him, legs spread and upper body bared, trembling with the effort required to not bury his fangs and cock in her, to bleed and fuck her.

"Is this what you want?" he asked, rising. "To give up? To betray your Goddess? To prove to the Order that you are nothing more than the broken plaything of Hell?"

He wanted her. Wanted her shuddering beneath him as he fucked his seed into her, wanted her screaming his name as her blood coursed down his throat in time with the shuddering convulsions of orgasm.

"GET OUT!" he bellowed. "Get out, and don't come back!" And with a shuddered roar of frustration and anger, he threw himself into the far corner of his cell.

She stood then, glaring down at him. Lust became rejection and hate, filling the space between them. He wasn't sure if she was going to beat him or force him or both. Either he would have deserved. Instead tears filled her eyes, cutting him far deeper. "I'm…I'm sorry. For everything." She turned away from him, and it took all his resolve not to reach for her.

"I am, too," Matthias whispered as Aurianna fled the cell. "I'm sorry."

That look in her eyes. He'd seen that look before, in the Court. And he was relieved and disappointed that she'd left. The thought of her, taking him without regard to his own desires, made his already hard cock painfully rigid. His hand wrapped around his iron shaft as he imagined her pushing him back, her cunt squeezing around him as she pinned him to the floor. His eyes closed as he stroked his shaft and imagined he...

"I told you that you had a chance," an amused voice remarked.

His eyes snapped open. "Enjoying yourself?" he asked, his hand still gripping himself.

"Perhaps," answered Oracle.

"Why are you here?" Matthias asked. His hand pumped his cock as he stared at her, trying not to meet her gold eyes without looking like he was avoiding them. The effort needed to push away Aurianna left him sapped, yet regret gave him the energy to be irreverent. He bucked his hips at her, grinning. "Looking to show me some more pity?"

"Why didn't you fuck her?" The Oracle asked, ignoring his posturing.

"What?"

"It's a simple question," she answered. "Aurianna invited you. Even begged. Why didn't you?"

"How long were you watching?" he demanded.

"Why didn't you?" she repeated.

Matthias didn't answer. He didn't have an answer. Oracle smiled that irritating, knowing smile. "Think about it. When you have answer," she said, golden eyes trailing down his body, "maybe I'll show you pity."

With that, she left. Matthias sunk into his fantasy once more, visualizing Aurianna astride him. As his pleasure built, he could see her in his mind. Eyes closed as she fucked him with abandon. When he could hold back no longer she looked down at him with irises of burning gold– the eyes of Afodisia. His cry was hoarse and shocked as he came, his seed spattering on his stomach and dripping down his hand.

Why didn't you fuck her? a half-remembered voice asked as his mind reeled and his chest heaved from the force of his orgasm.

And still, he didn't know.

Surrounded by Loved Ones

After fleeing Matthias' cell, carrying the agony of the last few days, Aurianna supposed it wasn't surprising she ended before the healer's chambers. "Master Tiliana?" Aurianna called as she knocked , her voice quivering. An elder priestess answered, a delighted look upon her wrinkled face, smoothing the wild silver curls.

"Lady Aurianna! I had hoped to see soon." The small woman wrapped Aurianna in a hug, her frail body seemingly strong enough to hold up Aurianna's burdens. "Are you ready to begin, my child?"

"Yes," she said in a soft sob, letting the tears stream down her face.

It was late afternoon when finished meeting with Master Tiliana. After that outpour of grief and Matthias' well justified rejection, Aurianna needed physical exertion to clear her mind. The training grounds were mostly empty, save for Justine, who was cleaning up after her archery lesson.

"Ari! I heard the good news!" Justine called. She tended to the archery butts, removing the practice arrows from her last group of students.

"The good news?" Aurianna repeated, confusion in her tone.

"You hit Jeoram, right? I am so proud of you." Justine gushed as she replaced the bows on the weapons rack.

Aurianna grimaced. "I'm not. He said something rude, but he wasn't trying to be mean. He was only looking out for me, and I overreacted."

A wordless sound of frustration escaped her friend's lips. "Why are you always defending him?" Justine argued, "I get that he's good looking, but seriously, you have to see that he isn't good for you."

"It's not that easy. We've been through so much. It's hard to just throw it away."

"I know, Jeoram was there for you after Matthias…" Justine trailed off, and sighed. "Clearly you need to work through your feelings about Matthias. Might as well talk to him while he's here and still alive."

Hard to do that when he threw me from his cell. Clamping down on the errant though, she just nodded.

"Lady Aurianna?" the voice cut through her thoughts, "Oh, hello Lady Justine!" Clara came up now, joining the two in their conversation.

"Afternoon, Clara. Are you here for archery training?" Justine asked in a warm tone. How was it so easy for her to move from frustrated friend to patient teacher?

"Oh well, I…" Clara seemed to think about it for a moment, looking up at Aurianna. "I'm not sure. Is that why we are here, Mistress?" Justine looked at her friend and then back at the girl.

"Oh yes! Aurianna has been promoted to Knight Instructor. And I was assigned to be her apprentice!" Clara announced in her giddy tone.

"Knight Instructor? So you outrank me now?" Justine asked Aurianna. The earlier animosity was replaced with a teasing note.

"No I don't believe so, Lady Justine. You are still Knight Commander of the Seraphim Wall, so while at the temple you are higher ranked. But if we were in the field…" Clara thought for a moment, "if we were in the field, Lady Aurianna would out rank you."

"Well, Clara, you are in good hands. And it should please you to know you are already exceeding your Mistress in this area. She knows I won't even let her pick up a bow unless I am wearing full plate first."

"Well, if you are going to dress in full plate, perhaps I should just aim at you?" Aurianna shot back.

"In that case I would be fine. You never hit anything unless you aren't aiming for it." Justine countered, with a self-satisfied smirk on her face. Both women laughed now, the tension between them fading away. "Well, I imagine you two have training ahead of you." Justine pulled Aurianna into a hugged, tight and quick, before jogging off, "I need prepare for the Celebration tonight."

Covering his discomfort with a chuckle, Aurianna turned towards Clara. "Why don't you show me what you can do? Is the broadsword your primary weapon?"

"The broadsword?" Clara echoed. "Yes. It my mother started teaching me, even before I was accepted to the Order." She unsheathed the heavy blade, steel rippled and mottled by pattern-forging, and hacked deep into the side of the first practice dummy.

The impact sent the dummy spinning, making it lash out with a simulated flail - a leather sack filled with sand at the end of a rope. Clara ducked under the swing and came up thrusting, driving the blade into the dummy and halting the rotation. The other four dummies were similarly vanquished, although her form became a little sloppy as she proceeded. Finally, standing above the wreckage of the last dummy - she had reduced it to kindling with a series of two-handed blows - her lungs worked like bellows as she looked proudly back at Aurianna. "Not... not too bad..." she gasped. "Against... dummies... at least..."

"Your Mother?" Aurianna felt a pang of jealousy at the mention, a primordial loss in her soul. When she was younger she could still remember the soft face that had belonged to the woman, but now all she could summon was long black hair, not unlike her own. Her earliest memories were of Lord Mykel bringing her to the temple, and being raised by temple priestesses. "She trained you well. Was she a paladin?"

"No, we lived in the Monsford, part of the Ten Kingdoms, but right on the edge of the demon's claim. You have to be able to defend yourself out there, even if you aren't blessed by the Goddess." Clara explained, her voice slightly hollow.

"I don't even warrant a visit from the High Inquisitor?" Matthias grumbled, noting the inquisitors outside his cell. They weren't ones he recognized from his time in the Order. Of course, it had been a decade, and changes were to be expected.

"High Inquisitor Rielle Leonhart has recused herself from your interrogation," one inquisitor noted, the hint of a cruel smirk underneath his stoic expression, "for obvious reasons."

Rielle Leonhart. Hearing her name stung, so familiar and yet so alien in that combination. Not that it was hard to piece together. She married someone else. And why wouldn't she? He abandoned her, after all.

Hiding the pain behind an impish smile, he spoke as the inquisitors drew the binding circle, "Obvious reasons huh? Like the fact that we used to fuck?" The inquisitor before him, the younger of the two, wore her repulsion on her features, but didn't react otherwise. There would be no abuse, he knew. Not if they were under Rielle's authority. She always was good at separating her emotions from her work, and she'd have instilled that into her subordinates.

Despite his audacity, Matthias sweated inside the binding circle, dreading the next question. He dreaded all of them, in these interrogations. They always started with the same, ensuring that the binding was properly applied.

"What is your name?"

"Matthias Kellikanos," he heard himself say, even as he tried to refuse.

"Who were you, within the Order?"

"A Knight Instructor, charged with training Aspirants into Paladins."

"Why did you betray the Order?"

He hated this question more than any of the others, because it dragged the shame and horror if that day back into the light. "Because I had been tortured and raped for more than three days, without rest. Because I would –and did– do anything to end the suffering."

That was the ugly truth. It wasn't to save Aurianna, not at the end. He'd surrendered to buy time for her escape, yes. But he'd been confident enough in his faith and courage to believe he'd die before he gave in. Still, the demons had broken him. And in less than three full days.

"Why did you help the Paladin Aurianna escape?"

"I don't know," Even the compulsion of the binding circle couldn't make sense of that act.

And then the real questioning began.

Mykel leaned over his desk, hands folded together. "How do you propose we move forward with Jeoram, Rielle?"

Across from him sat a woman with steel grey hair and eyes. Her features made her seem older than she was, and the serious expression she often wore only reinforced that perception. "There isn't much I can do, Lord Commander. It's not even a case of 'he said/ she said.' Aurianna and Jeoram are saying the same thing, and the only person is disputes that wasn't even present during the alleged incident." Her tone was matter of fact, laying out the situation in logical strokes. "What he did was indefensible, but not against our code." Mykel held her gaze for a few tense moments before releasing a frustrated sigh.

"I expected as much," he admitted, pouring a couple of glasses of brandy. He pushed one to Rielle and took a sip, "I just feel powerless to help her. Again."

"I think you made a judicious decision, all things considered," Rielle said, offering a sympathetic smile. She would understand his feelings, having figured the secret he kept from Aurianna years ago. "Send Jeoram away from the temple for a month or so, and give Aurianna a chance to recover from her ordeal. And if she changes her mind about what occurred between her and Jeoram, I will be ready to move

forward on charges."

Mykel took another drink, finding some comfort in Rielle's reasoning. "How are you doing, anyways? With…well, everything." The question was awkward, as he knew he had been preoccupied.

"I'm fine." The words came too quick, too easily for a woman in Rielle's position. Matthias had been her lover for many years, and they had already been engaged when he took over Aurianna's training. It was that very training that had pushed back their wedding date.

"I imagine this is hard for you. Having him here again," Mykel prodded.

She finished off the drink. "I've moved on. It's been over a decade, after all."

"Have you visited him? Spoken with him?"

"You know I recused myself. Our relationship was far too intimate for me to be impartial with him."

"And I didn't mean as High Inquisitor," Mykel challenged. "Getting a second chance with a lost love is a rare opportunity. This could be your chance to find closure."

Rielle meet his eyes with a hard level gaze, "I spent enough time mourning Matthias. I have closure, and there is nothing more to be gained from visiting that demonic mockery of my fiancé, save reopened wounds. If there is nothing else, Lord Commander, I have work to do."

Aurianna dreamt she was back at the Ebon Fortress. Nude as Matthias dragged her through the Demons Lord's court, tossing her on her hands and knees before his master. Baath-Me'el stood over her, his eyes washing over her nudity.

"Paladin Aurianna," his voice boomed, "Do you wish to serve me, as Matthias does?"

"Yes," she exhaled, meeting the lust in his eyes. A pleased smile grew upon his lips, as his hands worked his breeches.

"Then show me your loyalty," He demanded, motioning to his stirring cock. She crawled over to him, a sultry slink, and brought her mouth to his meat. Lips wrapped around his shaft, slick with saliva as she slid down his length. Baath-Me'el eyes closed and his head tilted back.

"Hmmm, Matthias, you have brought me a lovely and obedient gift," The demon lord moaned, tangling fingers in her dark hair. His hips rocked slightly against her mouth. "As reward, you may share her with me."

From behind, she could hear the sound of metal clanging upon the stone floor. Her mouth did not stop moving, even as strong fingers traced her spine and held her hips. She could feel him, hot and hard, rubbing the entrance to her sex, and she bucked her hips in anticipation.

"Thank you… my lord," Matthias moaned out as he thrust into her. Even with her mouth full, a pleased moan could be audible. A concert of carnal indulgence, all three moving together, against and along with the others. Both fiends reached their climax within her softness, filling her with their demonic essence.

"Rise," He commanded, pulling away from her now, "Rise before my court, Aurianna, the Demon-kissed."

"Yes, my lord," Upon standing, her body changed, transformed. An erotic vision of demon inspired lust, and large, leathery wings expanded from her back. Turning to Matthias, her blood red eyes glowed in excitement as he handed her a hellfire spear.

The dream shifted, as they tend to do...

The arch of the Great Cathedral soared overhead, white marble painted every color of the rainbow by the brilliant sunlight streaming through the stained-glass windows. The golden statue or Afodisia stood before him, spear raised, and before the statue stood Aurianna in sheer white robes. She extended a hand. "Come here."

He stumbled backwards, acutely aware of the blood on his hands and the monster in his soul. "No," he whispered. "You deserve better."

She walked towards him, letting the thin gown slip to the floor. "I want you. Since you first accepted me as an apprentice, I wanted you."

He backed away, shaking his head. "No," he insisted. "You don't want something like me." He stopped short, unexpectedly backing into someone. Olive fingers slid over his chest as a slim, soft body pressed into him.

"She does," the Oracle whispered, lips tracing his spine.

"You know what I am," he protested, shivering as her fingers slipped into his breeches and curled around his hardening cock.

"Yes," Aurianna whispered, kissing him. "A demon." Her lips trailed fire down his chest as she slowly knelt, tugging his pants down. "And a man." Her breath was warm on his shaft as the Oracle offered it to her, and he gasped aloud as she took him in her mouth.

"A monster," the Oracle murmured, small hand stroking his cock in time with the agonizingly sweet action of Aurianna's lips and tongue. "And yet, one with a conscience. One that remembers love."

Matthias didn't respond, couldn't respond. All he could do was groan in pleasure as Aurianna's hands slid up his thighs, one cupping his balls and the other his ass. As Aurianna's mouth and the Oracle's hand became unbearably sweet on his shaft. And then the air was cold on his wet cock as she rose, and he could taste himself on her lips as she kissed him. "I want you," she purred, taking his hands and pulling him towards the statue. "On the altar, before the Goddess."

"Ari," he gasped, pulling back, "I'm–"

Her hand wrapped around his cock and tugged, not rough. "What I want," she growled, giving him a playful, hungry look. Then she released him and sauntered to the altar. She smiled, leaning back and stroking her belly, "Now, are you coming here, or do I have to do this," she moaned, cupping her sex, one finger slipping inside, "myself?"

He crossed the room, hands fisting in her hair as he kissed her. Her delighted laugh became a shuddering cry of delight as he thrust deep into her. "Ari!" he groaned over and over again, in time with the motions of his hips as his cock slid in and out of her slick walls. Her legs flexed around his hips as she met his every thrust, and she called his name and invoked the Goddess in joyful abandon until his tongue filled her mouth. And then their cries of pleasure mingled as her orgasm clenched around him and his throbbed against her walls and they anointed the altar with their shared pleasure.

Talking, Like Adults

"Matthias…"

Aurianna moaned as the sunlight hit her eyes. For the moment, everything was pleasant, except being alone in bed. Her entire body ached sweetly, covered in a light layer of sweat, glowing in passion of their lovemaking. It had been a long time since she dreamt about Matthias like that. Not since she was a teenage girl, still exploring her budding desires. It was different then. Safe. He was just an older man with too many scruples to take advantage of his young acolyte. Now…she wasn't sure what he was now. A contradiction, at best. An alluring contradiction.

Guided by hunger, Aurianna dressed in a white robe and made her way to the mess hall. It was easier today, to be in the crowd of the mess hall and not lose her mind. With new drama playing out, few took notice of her. That invisibility was welcome. She served herself a mixture of breakfast foods, some hash browns, sausage, eggs and cheese, mixing the ingredients in a bowl to be eaten all at once, fitted inside another empty bowl. Across the dining room, Jeoram sat with some of his friends, his jaw still purple. Their eyes met and there was no warmth there, merely acknowledgement. She hadn't planned on taking this meal here anyways. With breakfast in hand, she made her way to the dungeon.

"Matthias?" she called, echoing her dream. He was sitting on the floor on his cell, crimson eyes following her. "I know you asked me not to come back, and if you still feel that way after I have spoken, I will leave."

He shifted, opening his mouth to say something before shaking his head. "Go ahead," he said, waving his hand at the wall. "Plenty of room."

"I wanted to say sorry about how I acted yesterday. Thanks for throwing me out, whatever your reasons were." She leaned against the bars, rubbing the back of her neck. She bit her lips as their eyes meet.

He chuckled, expression bleak. "I'm not certain why I did. Some instinct for self-preservation, perhaps."

"I was hoping we could have a meal together?" she offered, holding up the empty bowl. "Talk, like adults?"

"That's probably not the best decision for you, but..." His voice trailed away and eyes locked on her as she cut her arm and filled a wooden bowl with her blood. "Sure."

The hunger in his voice and gaze made her shudder. Clearing her throat, she started "I know I can't trust myself if you feed on me, but you can still drink it like this, right?"

"Right," he answered. His gaze felt physical on her skin as she bandaged her arm and slipped into the cell. She sat down and slid the bowl across the floor, conscience of how close she was to him. Careful not to get too close. He picked it up, hand unsteady as he brought it to his lips.

"I hit Jeoram." She flashed him a wicked smile. "Yesterday morning, just before I came to see you."

"Good for you. I've considered it myself, but, well," He held up his left arm, jangling the Demonqueller Rune. "Like this, I'd just get myself a far more severe beating."

"I wanted to tell you yesterday, but you were taunting me and my pride got in the way." She played with her food, scooping some potato and egg onto a piece of cheese. "Didn't want to admit you were right about it."

"Nice to know it benefited someone. I've been trying to provoke you and him both for…" He stared into the bowl, as if the answer could be found in the blood. "What, three days, now? Four? I've lost track of time."

The remark dampened the mood in the cell. They were quiet for a few more moments, focused on their food and not the growing tension. When it became too much, Aurianna spoke, "I was promoted to Knight Instructor. Already assigned my first acolyte. Clara Olgasdottor. Sweet girl." She took a couple more bites, before adding, "I have no idea what I am doing, and I am scared of messing this poor child up."

"Is that what this is about? Advice?" Chuckling, he shook his head. "Well, start with the basics. Weapons training. Tactics. Theology. Combat theurgy. Then... well," he shrugged. "Try not to have to find yourself in a position where you're selling your soul to save her life. That never ends well, I promise you."

"Oh, I am quite aware," Aurianna replied, meeting his eyes with a half smirk on her face. She watched him lick the bowl clean, holding back a shiver. It warmed her to know he wouldn't waste a drop of her.

"And you should eat better. Spinach and liver would be ideal."

"Is that for my benefit or yours?" She asked, giving him a feisty look. But he continued.

"Both. Liver and spinach strengthen the blood, and you've lost a lot of it recently. But even more importantly, you should probably not come back down here again. Continuing to associate with a demon, particularly the demon that captured you, is going to raise ugly questions." He grinned, showing teeth and lips that were crimson. "That won't end well either."

Aurianna sighed. "It's not like I can avoid the rumors."

"True, " he said, trying to interrupt, "but you can avoid feeding them."

"At least this way I get to see you," she continued.

"I'm flattered, but really–"

"Besides, I don't see you as a demon. You have to admit the man is still there, somewhere." She clasped the robe close to her, wrapping herself in the memory of his love. It was strange to think that, his love, as if the demon would let him feel such tender emotions, but the Matthias she dreamt of last night still had love in his heart.

"Everything that made me a man," he countered, "is bound into a signet ring worn on the little finger of Baath-Me'el's left hand." He looked away, but she could see the flash of anguish on his features. "Oh, sure, I'm still male. But, I have no soul, Aurianna. Not anymore. Just... just a demon, filling the void."

He shoved the bowl across the floor, and drew back as she reached for it. Because of yesterday, no doubt. "You should go," he repeated.

"I won't come back, if you don't want me to. But don't do this out of some favor for me. You have done that enough. I can decide for myself what I want." She took the bowl, coming close now. Dangerously close.

"I do want that," he said, voice empty. He shook his head, before glancing up with a predatory smile on his lips. "You taste better than the stew my jailers keep giving me." A sigh, and he looked away. "But, if you really want to do something for me? If you want to return the favors I've done you?" His crimson eyes glittered as he met her gaze once more. "Kill me."

"Perhaps." She stepped out of the cell, back turned towards him.

Matthias snorted. "What? Have you become the Oracle now?"

She didn't look back. "When the bitter taste of my trauma leaves my mouth. You are not the only one who suffers from living."

Vehement laughter followed her as she left the cell behind. "But you still live, Aurianna. You still live, while I merely exist.

The morning was spent training. Physical exertion to distract Aurianna from the swirling thoughts in her mind. Of Matthias. And Jeoram. And demons and assault and shame. Fighting was what she knew, what she was good at, what made sense. It wasn't complicated; it was her purpose in this life, the purpose the Goddess had chosen her for.

"You look like you could use a drink," Justine called, when she finished her routine. With a breathless nod, she took the wooden cup and gulped it down. The water felt glorious against her parched throat.

"Thanks." Aurianna brushed sweat drenched hair out of her face. "How was the Celebration?"

"Lovely," Justine said with a nod, "but it will be a month yet before we know if it was fruitful."

"Have faith. Afodisia knows when you will be ready for Her blessing," Aurianna placed a hand on Justine's shoulder.

"How are you holding up?" Justine asked, studying her. Looking for some sign she might fall apart, perhaps.

Aurianna shrugged and managed a lopsided smile, "Each day is a little easier."

"I know you'll move past it, stronger than ever. And on that day, Goddess willing, you, Cassi and I will have a lot to celebrate."

Aurianna turned away, covering her blush with a laugh. Justine's meaning was not lost on her. "I didn't know you and Cassi felt that way."

"Believe me, if I were an asshole like Jeoram, I would have invited you to share our bed by now."

"I knew you wanted to fuck her." The voice, hoarse and full of venom, came from behind them.

"Jeoram!" Aurianna gasped, not believing the poor timing.

"I thought thing were okay between us, but now I hear you are vilifying me to your friends." He snickered, while Justine rolled her eyes.

"Not everything is about you Jeoram. Did you ever stop to consider Ari's feelings?" Justine sneered, standing up to him despite the dramatic difference in their heights.

"I am always thinking about her!" he snarled, before turning lips into a vile grin. "At least now I know why you hate me. Jealous that Aurianna loves me and not you."

"Give me a fucking break! You are just a replacement for Matthias," Justine mocked. "That's all you have ever been to her."

"Justine, please!" Aurianna tugged her friend away, as the crowd gathered once more. She could feel her heart pounding, filling her ears with the sound of pulsing blood. Her lungs shrunk, unable to hold any air. She bolted off, away from the two people she once cared for and the gathering group of supposed allies.

Jeoram watched Aurianna bolt, then turned back on Justine. "With friends like you, she hardly needs enemies," he snapped.

"And what's that supposed to mean?" Justine demanded.

Jeoram gestured after Aurianna. "We've got our problems, yes. But I'm not the one throwing her rapist in her face!"

Justine snickered. "No. You just became one of her rapists."

Jeoram flinched as if he'd been slapped, and his golden eyes narrowed with fury. "She's my fiancée!" he snapped back, balling his fists. "I love her–"

"Then why did you rape her, you self-righteous–"

"Don't throw your judgements on me, you frigid bitch!"

"–asshole!" She was in his face now. "And how dare–"

"Just because you can't get a man to fuck you, that–"

Justine slugged him, a right cross across the jaw. Jeoram staggered, then came back with a solid punch to her solar plexus and murder in his eyes. She doubled over, retching, and headbutted him in the groin as he tried to kick her.

"Brawling like children!" Mykel roared at the two bruised Paladins standing before him. "Before the whole practice yard! No, not like children - they have more sense!" He paced before them, eyes cold. "Like animals! Like two dumb, vicious animals!"

"Sir," Jeoram began, "I–"

"Shut up!" Mykel bellowed, wheeling on him. "Not one more fucking word out of you! Out of either of you!" He glared at them both, chest heaving and fury turning his face scarlet. "You are not common thugs. You are paladins. And by the Goddess you will act like paladins or I will have you both flogged until you cannot walk!"

"He–" Justine started.

"I don't care!" Mykel snapped, cutting her off. He fixed Jeoram with a look of steel. "Your detachment leaves in ten minutes, Paladin. Join them. And when you return, you will have learned to keep a civil tongue in your head. Is that clear?"

"Sir–"

"Is that clear?"

"Yes, sir," Jeoram gritted out.

"Go."

Turning on his heel, Jeoram limped from the room. Mykel ignored him, glaring at Justine. "I expected better from you. Jeoram is headstrong. Reckless. An idiot –not to put too fine a point on it. He's a weapon. But you." He sighed. "You are an Instructor, Justine. I expect you to be able to keep a calm head on your shoulders. Not respond to provocations from hot-headed boys."

"Sir, he was–"

"I know what he was saying, Justine. I've talked to the dozens of witnesses in the yard." His eyes bored into hers. "This will not happen again. Do you understand me? Call him out, or let it go. But I will never speak to you about brawling like this again. Am I understood?"

She swallowed, and nodded once. "Understood, sir."

"You are dismissed."

Stiffly, she turned and stalked towards the door. "Off the record," he said as she reached for the knob, "I hope you cracked his jaw."

Breath deep. "I am not at the Demon's keep." Hold it in. "I am at the temple." Exhale, slowly. "I am safe here."

Twice more, Aurianna recited the mantra, just as Tiliana had instructed her. "I am safe, here."

"Lady Aurianna?" There was a rapping at the door. "Are... are you there?"

Clara, from the sounds of it. Aurianna forced herself up from her bed with one last deep breath. There was another knock, before she opened the door. She wore a forced, but it was washed away with the upset look in Clara's eyes. Without warning, Clara threw her arms around Aurianna.

"Oh mistress! Justine and Jeoram were fighting, over you. And she hit him, and then he hit her back. It was terrible!" Clara tried to explain. A few deep breaths later, Clara began to calm down, but added in a cold tone, "She said he raped you. Why does she think that?"

Aurianna cringed, cursing Justine's principled outlook. Things were often more complicated that she was willing to believe. Guiding Clara to the bed, she sat beside her acolyte. "Things with Jeoram were my fault. I wanted some affection after my ordeal, and he was confused," Aurianna said, repeating this same explanation, needing to believe it herself.

"Why couldn't he tell he was hurting you?" Clara questioned, her face solemn. "Why didn't he stop?"

"I don't know," she responded, bringing her knees up against her chest. Matthias could tell I was only hurting myself. Why couldn't Jeoram? "I don't know."

"Queen's Knight to King's Three," Matthias said.

Seated just outside the bars, Lord-Commander Mykel moved the piece and frowned at the board. "The Frigian gambit?"

"Perhaps," Matthias answered, folding his arms and leaning back against the wall.

Mykel looked up, brow furrowed. "I see the Oracle's been talking to you."

"Perhaps," Matthias said, with the barest hint of a smile. His fangs made the expression menacing, but Mykel didn't flinch away.

"And you still think you're funny, don't you?" The Lord-Commander moved a piece.

"Perhaps." Matthias craned his neck, examining the board. "You've brought your Archangel out. A bold move."

"Boldness was what got me recommended for this position," Mykel pointed out. "Why did you do it?"

Matthias didn't hesitate. "Moving the Queen's Knight out is a–"

"That's not what I meant, and you know it," Mykel snapped. There was anger in his expression. Anger and sorrow.

"Yes, I know," Matthias replied. "Archangel's Footman to East Rook's Two." He watched as Mykel moved the piece. "Because she is far more important than I ever was."

Mykel's only response was a long, level look. Matthias met his gaze for a moment, then glanced at the board. "You trained me, Mykel. You know what I was capable of. At best, I was a competent trainer and a mediocre Paladin."

"There's no such thing!" Mykel snapped.

Matthias held up a hand. "I know, I know. You always stressed that. But," he shrugged his shoulders. "I was a middling swordsman. An average archer. Good at the job, but never great. The only talent I ever really had was teaching. But Aurianna?" He leaned back, resting his head on the stone wall. "She was marked for greatness. You just had to look at her to know it. Power and grace, and potential that she had just begun to reach."

"So why did you do it?" Mykel repeated.

"At the time? It was the obvious choice." He stared at the far corner of the wall. "The Host of Baath-Me'el was closing in. If we had both fled, we'd both have been taken. She was my student, and far more valuable to the Order than I ever was." Another shrug. "So, I ordered her to... well, I lied. I told her that I'd hold until she could bring reinforcements. That it was my duty to keep the Host from drawing near the Seraphin Gap."

"And then?"

"Well, I didn't lie entirely," Matthias answered. "You remember the Gap –a breach in the Wall nearly a mile long. So I stood my ground, and I fought until I was overwhelmed. And the Host was so delighted to have a paladin to play with that they dragged me back to their Fortress." His face hardened with remembered agonies.

"And you never tried to escape?"

Another shrug. "When they... finished. When they were done... I was one of them. Voluntarily." He held up a hand. "No, no. I made the choice. I could have, if I'd been strong enough, made them kill me instead. But." A shudder. "They're very, very good at what they do." He looked back at Mykel, crimson eyes glittering. "I'm not the man you remember, Mykel. And I'm not the boy you trained. I'm a soulless husk, a demon wearing that man's skin."

Mykel stared at him long and hard. "Then why did you rescue her? Again?"

"I don't know," Matthias shook his head. "Because I wanted her for myself. Because, in the end, I'm no better at being a demon than a paladin. Because I'm trying to commit suicide in an elaborate and protracted fashion." Because she calls to me, to some part of me that was all but destroyed, although he refused to follow that thought. "Because I'm a traitor, and it's in my nature to betray my master."

Mykel stared at him a little longer, and then his lips crooked in a small smile. "Perhaps."

Hidden in a storage shed as night fell, Clara was kissing a boy her own age, with dark skin and thick braided hair. Laughing, Clara slapped his hand away from the laces of her blouse. "Nuh-uh, William," she said with a smile, kissing him again. "I didn't say anything about–" She stopped cold as she heard the door open, and both teenagers gaped towards it. It wasn't as if they'd been doing anything, but well, William was down to his undershirt and Clara's tunic had clearly been tossed away, and there'd be no illusions at all about what they'd been up to.

After a heart-stopping moment, the door closed. Clara sagged against a crate, exhaling with a half giggle. William, still shaken, made sure the door was closed once more. "That that was close."

"Yeah," Clara agreed, nodding. Then she bit her lip and gestured with a finger. "C'mere." Soon she made a purring sound as his tongue slipped into her mouth and his hand cupped her breast. She wasn't sure if he was a good kisser –Sue was her only basis for comparison, and neither of them had had a lot of experience– but he was good enough. The feel of their tongues sliding over each other, and of his lean, hard body against hers, it all felt good.

His hand slipped away from her breast, tugging at the laces of her blouse once more. She slapped at it again, giggling, then sighed as he nipped at her ear. "Hey," he whispered as their hands dueled between their bodies, "it was your idea."

"Why didn't he stop?" she'd asked, horrified.

"I…don't' know," Aurianna responded, huddled into herself. "I don't know."

The memory, combined with William's playful words, made her freeze. He stopped as well, feeling the sudden change in her posture. "Clara?" he asked, confused. "What? did I do something?"

"I," She drew a sudden, shuddering breath and wrapped her arms around him. "You'd never hurt me, right?"

"Goddess, no!" William exclaimed, horrified at the suggestion. "I– you– I," He swallowed, hard. "You're my friend, Clara." She grimaced. He still couldn't say that he loved her? Could she say it to him? "Is this about?"

She kissed him gently on the cheek, arms wrapped around him. "Can you just hold me?" she asked, nuzzling his stubble rough cheek. "For a little while?"

Dueling with Destiny

Days turned into weeks, and the weeks turned into a month. Time passed and life settled into rhythm that felt comfortable, and ordinary. There were visits to healing master Tiliana, which got easier each time, and visits to Matthias, which got harder. Harder to resisting touching him, staring into his eyes, giving into to the desire to let him feed directly from her flesh. In many ways, he made her feel both safe, and terrified. Alive and empty. At peace, and wanting something more. But as his trial grew closer now, so did the prospect of losing him forever. He was resigned to die, but she was not ready to lose him.

She needed a distraction. Exert herself, or be consumed by thoughts of him. Her golden spear gleamed in neglect. Oh, how she wished she could take it out to the battlefield, and baptize it in the blood of a demon. She had been making progress with Tiliana, but still the lord commander confined her to the temple, neglecting to assign her missions in the demonlands.

Still, it didn't mean she couldn't practice with the spear. Honestly, she would need to train with it some, wouldn't she? Feel its weight in her hands, and how it differed from a practice spear. Learn what force was needed to drive it through her foe's ribcage, and to pull it free once more. With her weapon in hand, and her mind made up, she made for the training grounds,

She stood with her spear in both hands, one hand at the base, the other about two-thirds the way up, the shaft parallel to her shoulders. Her left foot pivoted, and the spear followed, swinging in the wide arc to connect with the shoulder of a training dummy. A downward thrust to the right hit the dummy's leg and her left foot came up to a mid-kick. She snatched the spear up close to her body. It opened the burlap covering on the dummy, from the groin to the chest.

She lunged, long and low, hitting a target at the end of her range. With a quick cut to the right, the spear was back across her chest. Spinning the spear to protect her leg, she moved, timing the deflect with each step. It was heavier than the practice spear, and it took a few steps to find the rhythm. On the last step, once she was confident she had it, she thrust again, testing her full reach.

"Impressive, Aurianna. If you keep that up, you will be a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield. I look forward to your return." She turned to face the Lord Commander, wiping the sweat from her brow and flashing him a proud smile.

"You don't have to wait, Lord Mykel. I am ready to be back in the field already," She insisted leaning on her spear.

"Are you now?" He studied her, rubbing his stubble-rough chin. "Oracle did ask for you to head up her guard as she makes the pilgrimage to the Temple of Athera. It would leave tomorrow."

I would miss Mathias' trial but maybe that's best. Brushing the thought away like the hair in her face she asked,"So, you are considering it? How can I prove that I am ready?"

He looked around, and picked up a wooden bastard sword and shield, motioning for her to grab a practice spear with his eyes. Lord Commander Mykel Kallekos was a great bear of a man. His shield was nearly thirty pounds of forged steel and he handled his four-and-a-half-foot blunted training blade like a foil."Duel me. If you win, you will be assigned to her protection detail." He announced, as a crowd began to gather.

Mykel made the first move, a hard-overhead strike, which Aurianna deflected with a spin of her spear. While he was off balance, she swung her spear around to hit him in the chest, catching on his full plate. She followed up with a lunge, which recoiled off his shield. A high, quick feint had Mykel parrying and opened up his stance for a slash against his midsection. Without his armor, that would have been a killing blow. He responded with his own wide swing, just missing her.

They traded blows. A high strike. A mid swing. A low thrust. She was crouched down, pinning his sword. She pushed the butt of her spear up, hitting him in the back of the head. A backhanded shield bash had her rolling along the ground. Closing the distance, he lunged. She stepped into his attack, pushing his sword into the ground again. Bashing his shield against her side, she released his blade, jumping back to avoid a follow up attack.

A high swing from her spear forced him to block hit with his shield. She swung against his open side, and Mykel caught her spear under his arm. Holding her spear in place, he hacked at her. Her only defense was to bring up her bracers. He kicked her hard in the gut, releasing her spear and sending her tumbling. She swung her spear in a wide circle, forcing him to keep his distance until she could return to her feet.

Both were breathing hard, watching the other for an open, for a plan of attack. She rushed forward, holding her spear before her in the appearance of a lunge. As he braced to the attack, she pushed the tip of her spear into the ground, vaulting up into the air. At the height of her jump, she smashed the butt of her spear into his chest, and knocking him on his back. She landed over him, spear tip pressed against his throat.

Applause and cheers filled the training grounds, and for a moment, Aurianna was acutely aware of the eyes on her now, the crowd surrounding her. She repeated in her mind the mantra Tilianna had taught her. I am not at the demon's keep. I am at the Temple of Afodisia. I am safe here. She looked around at the faces of her comrades, and for the first time in a month, did not see demons. It was as if she could breathe again, relieved of some tremendous burden. Her hand extended to Mykel, offering him a help up, and a respectful handshake.

"Wooooo!" Clara screamed, racing across the field and hitting Aurianna in something like a cross between a bear hug and a ballista bolt. "That was great!" And then, realizing that she'd just tackle-hugged her mistress in front of the Lord Commander, she hurriedly backed away. "Ah... I mean, that is–"

"No," Mykel said, laughing. "No, you're right. That was great. Your instructor fought extremely well." He crossed his arms and looked down at the blushing Aspirant. "But perhaps a little more decorum?" Clara blushed deeper, and Mykel laughed again before turning back to Aurianna. "And you did fight well, as I anticipated. You are a credit to the Order, as I always knew you would be."

"Thank you sir, I will not let you down."

"Gather your things, and say your goodbyes. You and Clara leave at first light tomorrow." He instructed, patting her on the shoulder. He hesitated, as if intending to say more. Instead, he bowed to Aurianna and crossed the field to place his practice sword on the rack.

Clara looked up at Aurianna with wide eyes. "Me as well? What... where are we going?"

"We have been assigned to protect the Oracle as she makes her pilgrimage to the Temple of Athera, the goddess of wisdom and family," Aurianna explained, standing up and dusting off herself. "It takes a couple months' time, there and back, so take the rest of the day to relax. And get a bath, because it will be awhile before we can again. I am heading there now!" Aurianna said laughing, tying her sweat drenched hair behind her.

After luxuriating in a warm bath until the sweat and ache of her duel faded away, the rest of the afternoon was a blur. She packed a satchel in preparation, filled with traveling gear. After a few glasses of wine with dinner, she reenacting the duel for a cheering crowd. Pleasantly lightheaded, she returned to her room, but not for sleep.

There was one last person she needed to say goodbye to. One last thing she wanted to do before it was too late. She changed into her favorite dress, brown leather that was tight about her waist and breasts, and flared over her hips. She left her hair loose, cascading over bare shoulders and back. The last detail she picked out didn't affect her look. Just a pouch tied to her belt, holding the key Oracle had given her in a box of moon tea leaves, over a month ago.

It was time to find out what the key opened.

One Last Night

The sound of boots on stone echoed as Aurianna made her way down the dungeon steps. This time of night was cool, but her blood simmered in her veins, growing hotter as she drew closer. She was thankful for the dim torchlight in cells, hiding the rosy blush on her skin. "Matthias? I hope I didn't wake you."

He was sitting in his usual spot, up against the wall. "No, Ari, you didn't wake me." Crimson eyes glanced up at her. Was she imagining them lingering over her? "I've been a little preoccupied. Thinking about tomorrow."

"I wouldn't be here for your trial. I was assignment to guard Oracle as she makes her pilgrimage. I leave tomorrow." His eyes were still on her as she opened the cell. She could feel them, but couldn't meet his gaze. Not as she imagined him sentenced to death tomorrow.

She played with the pouch on her belt, letting the weight of the key inside sway side to side. "I don't know what is going to happen with the tribunal, but I can't leave without closure between us. Can't leave without knowing, one way or the other," She joined him on the floor, closer now then when they shared meals together. Closer than she had been since the day he threw her out.

He shifted, but not away from her. A good sign, she hoped. "What are you talking about?"

The words spilled out, "Ever since we fled the Ebon Fortress, I've wanted you. I want to feel you, inside me. Your body, your fangs, I want all of it Matthias. I've dreamt of you, dreamt of us, together. I need to know if...I need to know what it means."

Matthias shuddered, eyes wide and mouth parted. "Ari," he started, shaking his head, "It doesn't mean anything–"

She silenced his protests with her lips, unwilling to hear disagreements tonight. He didn't respond at first, his body shaking as she pressed against him. Had she misunderstood? Had she imagined the desire felt from him? Had he only ever pitied her? She pulled away, eyes squeezed shut to hold back the tears, "I'm sorry, I'll–"

With an inarticulate cry, he pushed her against the wall, a hand fisting in her hair as he kissed her. His free hand wandered down her proud leather-clad form, bunching fistfuls of her skirt and then exploring her bare thigh. She lifted her leg in response, wrapping it around his waist as his hips ground against hers and their tongues twined in their joined mouths.

For a minute it continued, his hardening shaft grinding into her. His tongue fucking her mouth. her inarticulate sounds of pleasure at the feel of his body against hers. And then he broke the kiss, pulling her hair as he did. Her head followed his hand, bearing the smooth column of her throat to him. His tongue was fire on her skin as he traced the pulsing vein in her neck, and then he bit her.

"Goddess," She exhaled, fingers tanging in his hair still unable to believe how good this felt. His cock seemed to grow even harder against her as he fed, and her stomach coiled in the thought of having him. Mostly pleasant, but the shadow of fear lingered.

She pulled his mouth off her neck, chasing away doubts in a needy kiss. A needy kiss he returned, lips and tongue tasting of her blood. His hand cupped a breast, tugging at the top of her dress until he pulled it away, leaving her exposed. She moaned into his mouth as his fingers toyed with a swelling nipple. Needing to breathe, she broke the seal of their lips and rose over him. Breast near his lips, and fingers still tangled in his hair, she begged him, "Bite me, again."

Matthias didn't need to be asked twice, wrapping crimson lips around the erect nub. She could hear his moan as his teeth sunk into the yielding flesh. His hands gripped her back, pulling her closer as he lapped at the wounds and bit again, piercing her skin over and over again. Longing became maddening, core muscles aching for him. Without thinking, she gave voice to her yearning, "I want you inside me."

He twisted, reminding her that strength wasn't the only part of infighting as he crashed to the ground atop her. Pushing her skirt up over her hips, he groaned aloud as he discovered she wore nothing beneath. "I can tell. I can smell your arousal." The flat planes of his chest pressed into her breasts as he leaned over, kissing her again. His breath was hot on her lips as he spoke, "Tell me what you want."

She wanted to be playful. To flirt and giggle and bite her lips. She tried to force a smile, but it wouldn't come. Instead, she was honest, "I need to know I'm not broken."

"You aren't," he whispered, hovering above her. His hand was gentle yet insistent upon her thigh. Spreading her, so he could slide in even close. The warm grin on his face became mischievous as the head of his shaft teased her, "But you might be when I am done with you."

There was a brief moment of utter terror as she waited for him to enter her. A deep-seated fear that she would never enjoy this again. That he would hurt her, just as everyone else had hurt her. That, despite her posturing, she really was broken.

She closed her eyes against the fangs that dug into her throat, losing herself in the sensation of her life leaving her body. Her hands wrapped around his neck and back, holding his body against hers, clinging to him until the fear passed.

When he slid into her, several competing emotions bubbled to the surface. She choked down a sob; gasped out a pleased moan; laughed in relieved elation. Tears slid down her face, as her nails dug into his back, the absolute joy she felt in this moment eclipsing anything else. There was just the barest resistance between them, a friction that ignited bliss within her. She collapsed upon each retreat, only to part around his length again, gripping him in her desire.

"Matthias!" His name was loud in the silence of the night, resonating within his cell. Each stroke was slow, drawn out, sliding into her depths. Every inch of him filled her, replacing fear and shame with joy and delight. Guided by her thighs wrapped his hips, Matthias moved faster, matching the pace set by the beating of her heart. Soon, their bodies slammed together in a riotous eruption of passion and need.

She arched into him now, her slickened slit tightening around him, forcing him to thrust harder. She wrapped arms around his back, holding him closer to her, letting him experience her climax through her.

She was a complete mess of laughing and sobbing and moaning as her orgasm fluttered within her. The exultation of the moment got in the way of her better judgement, and as he continued to melt into her soft folds and she opened herself to him.

"I love you."

He didn't say it back. He didn't say anything, just stared down as he moved in her. His grip tightened around her hips, pulling her closer, driving himself even deeper. With a wordless cry of release, his seed flooded her depths and he spent himself into her womb.

Still, there were no words. Just the two of them breathing hard in unison, his body heavy against hers as he collapsed against her. Her fingers still dug into his back, holding him close. Needing that closeness if he wouldn't speak the words. He stoked her cheek with his thumb. "You deserve better, Ari. Someone better than me."

"Shh, don't say that. I am glad I had you. Glad we shared this." She nuzzled his neck, wishing she never had to let go. And as the key on her pouch weighed upon her mind, she realized she didn't have to. "You don't have to die tomorrow."

He sat up at that, eyes guarded as her looked her over, "What do you mean?" Before she could answer, the sound of boots descending the stairs filled the dungeons.

Upon the Altar

Jeroam made his way down the stairs, followed by a half-dozen of his men. They'd returned less than an hour ago, and he'd initially gone looking for Aurianna. She wasn't around, though, preparing to escort the Oracle on a pilgrimage. He'd nodded his approval of that –she wasn't ready for a real mission, but a simple task like that would be right up her speed. Let her feel useful once more. Get those silly notions out of her head. But, since she wasn't around, he'd suggested to his men that they go pay a visit to the traitor. Soften him up a little, as it were, for his trial. All of them had lost friends or family or both to the demons, so they agreed.

"Now," Arthur was asking, "you're sure we won't get in trouble? I'm already on the Lord Commander's shit list. I don't need more trouble."

"I'm sure," Jeoram laughed. "There's nobody down here at this time of night. Nobody but the traitor, that is."

"Matthias…" The distant voice echoed up from the dungeon.

Barnabas laughed. "Sounds like someone else worked that out, went looking for a little privacy."

Jeoram nodded, frowning. Something sounded familiar about that voice. Voices, actually, because they grew clearer as they reached the hall and headed for the stairs.

"I love you."

Even louder as they approached the traitor's cell.

"You deserve better…better than me."

And both voices sounded more and more familiar as he turned the corner.

"You don't have to die tomorrow."

"Afodisia..." he breathed, shock and horror filling his voice.
The scene before him was one of his nightmares. Aurianna, half-naked and tangled up with the naked body of the traitor. His men shifted behind him, laughing uncomfortably as he stared. Betrayal gripped his heart –he loved her! Even when she'd accused him of rape, he'd loved her!

Did she moan your name? Tell you she loved you? Did your magical healing cock wash away the horror? Or were you just the latest in a long series of rapes?

The feeling of betrayal hardened, becoming icy hate. And now, rather than turn to him for comfort, she'd crawled down to whore herself out to a demon.

Ignoring the chuckles of his men, he tore open the cell door.

"Dirty, fucking, whore!" He raged, tearing into the cell like wildfire. She still hadn't disentangled from his arms as she stood, the traitor's body covering her from the eyes of him and his men. Jeoram tore Matthias away, hurling him on the floor, signaling for his buddies, "Hold this fucker down."

"What the fuck is wrong with you, Aurianna?" He sneered, slamming her into the wall. Wanting to hurt her, to repay the hurt of catching her with another man. He didn't even give her a chance to dress herself or cover her shame. The whole order should see her shame, should see how she betrayed the Order, in betraying him.

"I…" she started, glancing away. She refused to look him in the eye as she prepared a falsehood. Just like last time.

"You try to ruin my life by lying to the Lord Commander about me raping you," He charged, tightening the grip on her shoulder.

"What, Jeoram that's not– "

"And now I find you down here fucking your demon rapist?" He slammed her into the wall again. She met his gaze now, eyes filled with hatred.

"You're the only rapist I see in here," She said, the words like venom upon her lips. The accusation broke his control, and he threw a right hook against her ear. Her knee smashed up into his gut, knocking the air out of him. He was only disoriented for a moment, just enough time for her to tackle him back into the bars. Fists came fast and furious, pummeling his face and inciting his rage.

"Get this bitch off me!" he called out, gurgling his own blood. Three sets of hands grabbed her now, restraining both of her arms and wrapping around her waist. She kicked and flailed, but three men's strength was too much for her to overcome. Jeoram took advantage of her defenselessness, bringing another hard left-cross against her jaw. A powerful uppercut into her diagraph left her coughing up blood.

"You whore," he spat, using her hair to twist her head. "Look at you, scarred by his teeth and dripping with his seed. How long have you been fucking him?"

"She..." the demon started to say.

"Silence that thing," Jeoram said, not even looking. "But leave it alive. We don't want him to escape justice tomorrow." Chuckling, he gave Aurianna a nasty smile. "Or you, demon whore." The terror of realization in her eyes was satisfying.

"What do you have in mind?" Barnabas asked from where he leaned against the wall.

Jeoram glanced at him, then turned his attention back to Aurianna as she began to struggle. A solid kick to the abdomen, followed by a vicious blow to the kidney put an end to that. "If she can fuck a demon," he laughed, "then it shouldn't be any hardship to fuck a Paladin."
Barnabas and the others –even the three beating Matthias– looked at him.

"Really?" asked Arthur, who hadn't bothered to hide his appreciation of Aurianna's half-dressed body. "You're shitting me, right?"

Jeoram laughed again. "You all heard her. She's not a paladin anymore. Just the demon's whore. Probably escaped the demons on the flat of her back." Turning, he half-dragged her by the hair behind him. "C'mon. We need to cleanse this bitch." Pausing at the door of the cell, he looked back at the three men working Matthias over. "Don't worry. We'll save a piece for you."

Arthur and Barnabas scouted ahead. Jeoram dragged Aurianna through the halls, pausing to slap or kick her anytime she tried to struggle or cry out. Finally, he pushed open the doors of the Cathedral and shoved her in, laughing as she stumbled and fell to the floor. Behind her rose the altar, and then the great golden statue of the Goddess with a spear in one hand and the other outstretched.

"In here?" asked Ulric. "You sure?"

"Can you think of a better place to cleanse her?" Jeoram laughed, picking her up and throwing her violently into the altar. Drawing a knife, he stepped forward and held it before her face. Then he began to cut the leather dress away. He wasn't gentle, and blood was drawn more than once. "Shut the fuck up, whore," he snapped, when she cried out at the sharp pain. "You bled yourself for your demon, willingly enough."

Ulric and Barnabas grabbed her arms when she tried to lash out at that, bending her back against the polished wood. Laughing, Jeoram sheathed the knife and began to undo his belt. "Cheer up," he told her. "You promised you'd fuck me on the altar, remember?" He slapped her again. "I'm just giving you what you said you always wanted."

As the other paladins laughed, he forced her thighs apart and drove his cock deep into her.

"Oh Afodisia! That feels good!" Clara moaned, giggling and gasping excited. Between her thighs, William's fingers brushed the outside of her breeches, rubbing into her slit.

"Yeah, you like it?" He asked, running the tips of his fingers down the length of her womanhood. Her cotton small clothes created a delightful friction. "You are getting hot down here."

The teenaged couple had stolen into the Cathedral, to spend one last romantic evening together. They had packed a meal, and a half bottle of wine, which they didn't manage to finish. By now, both were tipsy and half naked, exploring each other's bodies.

"Right there!" Clara dug fingers into William's arms, as he found a sensitive spot. With a teasing smirk, he pressed against it. She squirmed, both spreading herself wider for him, and slinking away from the sensation. Only her teeth biting into his throat could hold back her cries.

"Do you want to touch mine?" he asked, getting bolder and sliding a finger under her small clothes. She nodded, already working at his pants and reaching in to find his hardness. It sprung out to meet her fingers, and she stroked him, watching his reaction as her own bliss grew.

"Oh Clara!" William's eyes rolled in the back of his head, and he teased her clit in response. Both teens moaned and sighed, fumbling their way around each other's body. William grew even harder and twitched in her hands, until she felt something hot and sticky splatter her fingers and his pants. With a nervous, handsome smile, he kissed her. "I should clean off."

"So should I!" Clara laughed, and wiped her fingers on his pants.

"Hey!" His protest was half-heartened, with that giddy smile on his face.

"What? You already stained them!" She didn't want to stop, but he yawned, and she knew she should try and get some sleep tonight. Still, she didn't move, just watched him as he dressed.

"Should I wait for you?" He asked, noting her half naked state.

"Nah, I have more clothes to find and put on." She crawled around the floor, finding her tunic under a pew.

"Okay." William gave her one last glance, wearing a conflict smiled on his face. "I'll miss you." Clara managed to find the rest of her clothes, and dressed, still giddy from the drink and her own excitement. When she heard the cathedral door open, and she peaked out, to see if William had returned.

What she saw far worse than an overexcited teenage boy. Bloody and bruised, Lady Aurianna stumbled in and fell onto the floor. Clara saw four men follow behind her, three she didn't recognize, but the one last one was Lady Aurianna's own fiancé, Lord Jeoram.

Clara gasped into her hands, holding back any sound as she watched him throw her on the altar and cut off her dress. Silent tears streamed down her face as Jeoram forced himself between Aurianna's thighs.

Matthias was curled up in his own private world of pain, hardly able to tell the new blows from the old injuries. He knew –remembered from past lessons at the hands of masters of pain– that presenting a smaller target would make him seem weaker. More beaten. And, unless these crude children were the equals of Baath-Me'el's Court, they'd take that for victory. And so, he endured, fingers white-knuckled around the small leather bag that he clung to like a talisman, wishing he had something to pray to.

Finally, it ended. One of the paladins spat on him as they left, joking about 'their turn'. He tried to uncurl but found he lacked the strength. And, even if he could, what would be the point? He'd be trapped in his cell, and they'd have...

Aurianna.

Fucking bitch. Aurianna hadn't screamed, hadn't cried, hadn't done anything but glare with those damned golden eyes of hers. One last grunt and Jeoram sheathed himself inside her, emptying his animosity inside her. Still, she glowered, refusing to blink or look away.

Averting his gaze, he looked upon the statue behind her, the Goddess they all served. The goddess she betrayed, by lying with the demon and offering him freedom. The statue shared that unflinching gaze, judging him. Afodisia celebrates all acts of love. But there was no more love in his heart, not after she torn it from his chest with her infidelity.

Resentment sent his hand across her face again, but she didn't even flinch. Didn't stop staring. Bloodied lips curled into a half smirk, and they both came to the same realization. The goddess stripped him of his divine gifts.

Aurianna betrayed me, and now Afodisia had forsaken me. He might not be a paladin anymore, but neither was she. Not once they finished with her. Assuaging himself with thoughts of her coming torment, he forced a smile, "Who wants next?"

The three men laughed, offering suggestions to use her all together. Jeoram turned, still feeling the judgmental eyes of the Goddess on him as he pushed the door out into the courtyard.

Clara cowered behind the statue, wishing she could find the courage to do something. Anything. Because they were... were... Oh, Goddess, they were Paladins! Paladins didn't behave like– didn't, didn't rape. They didn't rape, and joke about it! And yet–

Bile rose in her throat. She wanted to vomit, both from what they were doing, and from her own impotence. Her own cowardice. Why didn't she have her sword? Or even a knife? Armed, she could–

Could what? What could she do, against three armed Paladins? She was good against practice dummies, good against the few minor demons she'd fought. But, not against three armed and trained men.

No, she was a paladin! Or she would be! She could charge out there, grab one of their swords, and... and...

And get disarmed, and thrown to the ground. Raped, just like her mistress. The idea, combined with the horror of watching her mistress being raped by paladins, left her paralyzed with dread. Finally, she cowered back down behind the base of the statue, eyes closed and hands over her ears, trying not to see or hear what was happening. She was just a kid! Just a scared, half-trained kid, and the realization drew hot, bitter tears from her. One hand pounded the floor in frustration.

And brushed something hard and cold. She looked down, seeing the hilt of a broadsword just barely protruding from the space beneath the altar. A scrap of parchment was bound around the handle. Hand shaking, she untied it and read it.

You're stronger than you know,
it read, written in a bold, graceful hand. Help her.

There was something about the bag. Something within it, that penetrated Matthias' pain-fogged brain. Untying the leather thong took too many tries with his swollen fingers, but finally, he managed. He emptied the pouch into his hand and stared at the object glittering in his blood-stained palm.

A small, oddly-shaped key.

Flight from the Temple

Aurianna went limp as they violated her, remembering how to survive. Perhaps she could have fought them off. They had lost their divine gifts, just like Jeoram, but they were still armed and outnumbered her. There was still a chance, perhaps, once they finished. They'd be content and sluggish and she could catch them off guard. Unless the other three arrived by then, in which case she'd be dead. Eyes squeezed shut, she tried to make peace with that inevitability. Searching her memories for some comforting words Matthias might have left with her.

"Very little is as cruel as people who believe themselves 'good'."

Obviously.
Agony threatened to break through her distractions, and tear welled up and rolled down her cheeks. Was it weakness, to cry now?

"You deserve better, Ari. Someone better than me..."

Is this what I deserve, Matthias? Suddenly she was rather hurt he hadn't said "I love you" back to her, even if it were just a lie.

"Get off of her!" A familiar voice shrieked into the night, one that made her recoil in even more fear than anything these men could do to her. Clara, why are you here? Please run away, please

The key fit the lock!

Matthias' injured hand shook as he held his breath, not allowing himself to hope. His grip slipped once as he tried to turn it, and he swallowed and tried again. This time, he was rewarded with the softest of clicks. And the Demonqueller rune fell from his wrist.

Rage and fury surged through him, blotting out the pain and despair. He laughed, low and dangerous. Pain? He'd show these amateurs what pain was! He pulled himself to his feet and gripped the bars. Locked, of course. So he tore it loose from its sockets.

Squeezing into the hall, the demon began to hunt.

"Why are you doing this?" Clara screamed, batting a sword away. "You're paladins!"

She'd had no plan. Plan? Goddess, she barely had any clothes! She was half-naked and fighting for her life against three armored men with greater skill and experience. Finding the sword and the note had bolstered her courage, but she'd choked on her actual attack. She'd never killed a man, and had pulled her stroke.

"Yeah, we're Paladins," one of the men laughed, forcing her back with a lightning quick attack. "Just doing our part to fill a sinner with the grace of the Goddess."

As much through luck as skill, Clara tore the man's blade from his hand with her parry. She tried to press her advantage, but was forced back by the other two. "Sinner?" she repeated, "she's–"

"Spreading herself for the demon downstairs," another of them interrupted, throwing her back on the defensive as he hammered at her. "Turned traitor, too."

"Liar!" Clara shouted, hacking back at him.

"Saw it meself," he taunted, "screaming his name and conspiring to free him. She–" The next few words were cut off by the clangorous impact of Clara's blade on his breastplate, and the clatter as he crashed to the ground. Before she could follow up, however, she was thrown back on the defensive by the third rapist. And the first, who'd drawn his dagger and was circling her.

"She's your mistress," noted the third man as he hammered at her defenses. "Bet she taught you a thing or two. Maybe we'll find out if you're as good as she is."

Sudden terror clenched Clara's heart. She was just able to block the next strike, doubting herself again.

"Sweet young thing like you," purred the first. "Bet you're nice and tight."

"Hell," laughed the first, "I bet she's alreadAAAAA!"

"Don't fucking touch her!" Aurianna snarled as a blade erupted from his chest in a shower of gore.

Blood sprayed across Clara's face and torso as the sword tore free. The sight of her mistress, hurt and still fighting, lent steel to her spine. Just like in practice. She spun, chopping her broadsword into the dagger man's hand. He screamed as his hand was sheared away, only to stop suddenly as a backhand blow took half his skull off.

She was moving again as the dagger man went down in a welter of blood and brains. The last man standing parried desperately as she pressed the attack, steel ringing on steel like an anvil. He tried to say something, tried to beg for mercy, but she wasn't listening. Whatever the thing before her had been, it was just another monster now. And her last blow shattered his sword and clove through armor and flesh and bone.

It was over.

Clara surveyed the room. And then, with a cry of horror and anguish, fell to her hands and knees. Shaking, sobbing, she retched and heaved, emptying the contents of her stomach onto the floor.

Aurianna crawled over to Clara, who hadn't the stomach to take the life of men. Sobs echoed in the spacious emptiness of the cathedral, and out of fear the sounds would draw the wrong attention, she pulled Clara to her, smoothing her dark hair and shushing her.

"Clara… Clara, I am so sorry." Aurianna whispered. Her own silent tears fell into her acolyte's hair. It would have been easy to sink into despair, join Clara in lamenting the cruelty of man. Instead, she soothed Clara, watching over her shoulder for movement at the entrance.

"Mistress, they're paladins! They were paladins and, they…Oh Goddess! Why, why would they…?" Clara asked, unable to bring herself to say the word. Digging her nails into her arms, she let tears speak the horrors she didn't dare name. With a ragged gasp, she found the words again. "Why did they say you were with a demon?" Tear streaked eyes met Aurianna's now, and she didn't have an answer for her.

"Clara, I will tell you everything, but first I need you to help me. You can help me, can't you?" She pleaded, hoping beyond hope that Clara would give her the trust she knew she didn't deserve. Clara nodded, wet eyes threatening to break into tears once more. "More men are coming, to hurt me. If you are here, they will hurt you too. I need you to get help. Please, get the Lord Commander. I'll hold them here, as long as I am able."

Aurianna put on a brave face, one she remembered from a decade ago, and looked upon Clara for the last time. Not because Clara wouldn't obey her. Clara was a good student and would listen like she was supposed to. No, the sight of their dead accomplices would turn would be rapists into murderers. It might be possible to fight them off long enough for someone to come to her aid, but she hasn't confident. Not half drained and already assaulted.

"Okay, Mistress, I will be right back. Please, stay safe." One last tight hug and Clara disappeared out a passage just off to the side of the altar. Just as that door closed, the large double doors burst open, filling the cathedral with raucous laughter.

"Some fucking demon rolled over like a little bitch! And speaking of bitches, where is she? Did you guys save some for us?" there was no answer from the empty room.

"Holy fucking shit…" The carnage was apparent from the first steps into the nave. Hesitation drifted across their features. "She fucking killed them..."

There is time yet to turn back, she prayed in silence, hoping they would think better than proceeding. But they pulled their weapons and drew closer. Her only hope was bravado, taking credit for Clara's kills to scare them off. Stepping out from behind the statue, she let them catch sight of naked steel, and called out, "Run now, before I do the same to you!" She stood still, firm, hiding the fact that she would probably fall over if she took more than three steps.

One man came at her with a powerful lunge, invading her space with his strike. With a quick sidestep out of the way, she grappled him, pulling his body to hers and finding an opening between under his breastplate. She filled him with her blade, and he coughed blood down her back. Using his dying body as a shield, she pulled back further, just evading her foes, until she hit the wall. She pushed the dead paladin at his comrade, managing to trip him. Without anywhere to move and nothing to protect her, she was opened for an attack. Her only defense was to block with her forearm, but without bracers, the blow struck true. The sword cut deep into the meat of her arm, and she lost grip on her blade.

"Any last words, traitor whore?" He asked, pushing his sword under her chin.

Clara ran, ran as fast and as hard as her divine gifts would permit. She hated the idea of abandoning her mistress, but Lady Aurianna was right. They needed help. Unarmored and barely armed, they were no match for men girded for war. So she ran, looking for anyone. Anybody who could help, knowing as she ran that the Cathedral was mostly abandoned at this time of night. That's why she and William had chosen it in the first place.

Please, Lady of Love and War, she prayed, not stopping. Please grant me a miracle! Please, Lord Verrier, intercede with your mate on my behalf!
Ahead, she saw an armored figure. Putting on a burst of speed, she caught up with him and grabbed his arm. "Sir, Please! My mistress, Lady Aurianna…" And then her tongue froze in terror.

Jeoram smiled down at her. "Oh? Tell me more."

The demon stalked through the corridors, following her scent. There was little of Matthias left, at this moment. Awakened after weeks of deprivation under the Demonqueller rune to a world of pain and injury, the monster that filled a hollow soul within him took nearly complete control. And it was hungry. And the little bit of Matthias' rational mind that was left knew that it was a good thing the cathedral was empty, now. Because the demon would kill whatever it could.

The yawning doors of the chapel came into view, and both Matthias and the demon tensed at the ringing of steel on steel. He slunk close, peering inside, and crimson eyes narrowed in hatred. She was his, and he could smell the stink of other men on her. And they had wounded her, sought to kill her! Snarling in rage, he charged across the floor.

Aching, trying to catch her breath, Clara stumbled behind Jeoram. She'd been so surprised, so horrified, that she hadn't been able to defend herself when he kicked her in the stomach with his mailed boot. And now he used her long hair as a leash, dragging her in his wake.

"Nothing against you personally, you understand," he was saying. "Hells, I figured you were good for her. But, well, I can't let her live, now. Because I'm fucked if I do."

"You're fucked anyway," Clara spat, grabbing at his wrist. "The Goddess has–"

Jeoram cuffed her to the ground. She might be faster and stronger than he was, now, but he had the benefits of experience and a weighted steel gauntlet. A mailed foot caught her in the abdomen, and she mewled in pain.

"I was betrayed!" he snarled. "By Aurianna and the Goddess! I just gave that whore what she deserved!" He leaned down. "Or didn't she tell you how she was fucking her demon master in his cell? Tell you how she conspired with him, to betray the Order?"

He kicked her again, disrupting any ability she had to discern truth from falsehood. Then he dragged her along once more. "So, she'll have to die. And I'm afraid you will, too. I don't need anyone contradicting my story of finding her murdering my men at their prayers. And you?" He looked back at her, a nasty look of hunger on his face. "You'll be found in the demon's cell, raped and slaughtered. What a pity, that you were entrusted to a woman who turned on the order."

Blood flooded down Matthias' throat as he bore one of the men to the ground, fangs buried in his throat. He swallowed the man's life in great gulps, and with each swallow, his strength returned. And with each gulp, he realized what he was drinking. Men. Not Paladins, men. They wore the trappings, but the gifts of the War-Whore had abandoned them. And so he worried at the man's throat, tearing the flesh further and letting the blood spurt faster. Finally, he brought carmine lips to the ear of the dying man. "You'll still be mine, when we meet in Hell. And you'll taste just as sweet, there."

The second former paladin came for him, swinging his blade. "Traitor!" he roared.

Matthias rolled away and catching up the dead man's blade. "You and I both, Paladin!" he taunted, batting the man's strike. "Where is your strength?" Ducking under the backhand slash, he darted in and caught the man by the throat. Laughing, he hefted the man into the air with ease. "Where is your speed? Where are the gifts of your goddess?"

The man tried to kick him. Matthias slammed him to the ground and stomped his knee. The man screamed as the poleyn deformed under the blow, and a sickening crack filled the air as the joint burst. Still laughing, Matthias crushed his other knee. "Traitor? You judge me?" He sneered and drove the point of his captured blade into the man's hand. "Then call on your goddess! Beg her for aid!" The blade slashed across his face, splitting his nose in two. "You fight in her holy of holies! Surely she will hear you?"

Clawing at the flagstones, the man gabbled for mercy as he tried to drag himself away. Laughing more, Matthias tore the faulds from his armor. "I believe you wanted to give her some?" he asked, raising his captured blade and slashing. The man shrieked in agony, clutching at his crotch as blood spewed. Kneeling, he pulled the man's hands away and grabbed. The muscles in his arm bulged, and there was a sickly wet rending sound that made the man screech in further agony. "Then do it," he laughed, pressing the mangled ruins of the man's torn penis and testicles into his hands. "Give them to her, and I'll let you live."

Jeoram's face had gone white. Bloodless. From his position in the narthex, he'd seen it all. Unarmored, unarmed, hell, undressed, the demon had destroyed two of his finest warriors. And Aurianna, despite her injuries and being outnumbered, had also killed one. He stared in horror, everything slipping through his fingers.

An impact made his knee give way. Crying out, he released his grip on Clara's hair in a wild effort to catch himself. Another blow sent his arm off true, and he crashed to the ground. Before he could recover, he was hoisted into the air and sent flying. The collision sent him bouncing head over heels in a clangor of metal on stone.

Clara's chest heaved with exertion and fury. "You son of a bitch." The way the words made more hostile as they came between breaths. He rose to his knees, and she drove a fist into his face with all the power her gifts afforded her. "Rape my mistress? Threaten me?" She hit him again, rewarded by the sharp crack of bone as his nose flattened. "I'm going to kill you with my bare hands!"

"Just get the demon, next," Jeoram snorted, blood streaming down his face. "Because your mistress was fucking the thing that killed Marwyn Conn!"

"What?" Clara stopped short, stunned by the accusation. "No. No, it's not true!"

I killed him.

"Mistress! Tell him! Tell him how you killed the demon that killed Master Conn!"

I speared him through.

"When you escaped? Tell him you speared it through!" Clara begged Aurianna. Jeoram laughed harder now.

"From what I saw she was the one speared," Jeoram mocked, climbing to his feet now. "That thing right there killed your former master, and knowing this, she still fucked him."

"Mistress?" Aurianna stumbled towards her, falling into his arms. His blood-soaked arms.

"Clara, I'm sorry," Aurianna exhaled, shaking hard, "I lied. I lied about Matthias, and I lied about Jeoram. I just wanted to protect you, but I failed. I'm sorry Clara, I failed you."

Clara stared at her now, as the demon traitor held her mistress, held her with the same hands that had killed Master Conn. Was Lady Aurianna a traitor? Jeoram was a rapist, despite her assurances. Perhaps Aurianna, too, was not what she appeared to be.

You would do well to remember that heroes are human too.

Clara could see it, in the way her mistress' eyes glowed, carrying genuine pain. Whatever her faults, she didn't betray the Goddess. Clara turned towards Jeoram, who had taken the opportunity to flee.

"Girl," Matthias snapped as if sensing her intentions, "get over here."
Clara whirled. "You don't give me–"

"Your Mistress is wounded!" Matthias interrupted. "And I possess no healing magic. Tend to her."

She stared at the naked, blood-drenched figure of the demon –the demon that had killed Master Conn– and then looked at the wounded, pain-etched features of Mistress Aurianna. Grimly, she nodded and crossed the Sanctuary. Matthias pressed his lips to Aurianna's forehead, leaving a sticky smear of blood behind, then released her and stepped aside.

As Clara examined her mistress' wounded arm - the most obvious of the many injuries inflicted on her this night - Matthias began to strip one of the corpses. Despite herself, Clara stared in shock. "What are you doing?"

"I need clothes," he answered. "Unless you want to flee the fortress in company with a naked demon?"

Clara didn't respond, not right away. Too busy trying to remember the words of the prayer that accompanied the ritual of laying on hands. Stumbling through it, she managed to stem the worst of the bleeding. Then, shuddering a little, she tore clean strips from a dead man's cloak and bound Aurianna's wound. "I" she whispered as she worked, "I don't understand." There was pain in her voice. "Why?"

She didn't know what she meant. The horrors she'd seen that night? The fact that her mistress had lied about killing the demon? That her mistress had had sex with the demon? So, she latched on to what Matthias had said. "Flee?"

The trousers he'd settled on were a little loose at the waist, and an inch or two too short. "All of us are covered in blood, and we're ankle deep in Paladin corpses," he answered, cinching a belt down. "And that bastard's probably going to sing a lovely little song about two defectors setting a demon loose, and slaughtering them."

"But that's not–" Clara began, only to be cut off.

"Paladins are human, girl. I'm sure they'll apologize to your corpses when they learn the truth." He buckled a sword belt around his waist and cleaned his new sword on a cloak. "But it'll be healthier for all of us if we wait far from here while they figure things out." He yanked a boot off a dead man. "Stay if you want. But I'm taking Ari and leaving."

Aurianna had covered herself in one of her attacker's cloaks, once the magic had relieved the worst of her injuries. With hands on Clara's shoulders, she offered advice. "I don't know if you should come with us or stay. I just want you to be safe. If you decide to remain here, go to the Oracle. She should be able to give you sanctuary while the inquisitors work through this mess."

Clara just shuddered. The Oracle terrified her, as much as any demon as she had ever faced down. Including the one in this very room. The Oracle had never spoken to her before. Except…

You're stronger than you know. Help her.

"I'm coming. I don't trust that thing around you," Clara declared, steeling her resolve. Aurianna flinched in place of Matthias but nodded.

"Okay, gather your things. Only what you need, but make sure your armor and weapon are amongst it," Aurianna instructed in broad strokes."Meet us in the stables as soon as possible. We have a slim window to escape, and it is closing fast." Clara nodded and took off, not wanting to disappoint her mistress.

Clara stood in her room, trying to decide just what "the essentials" were. She has dressed already, durable traveling clothes beneath the padded jerkin, and then chain mail and breastplate and bracers and greaves. Her mother's sword and a dagger hung from her waist, and a rucksack sat open on the bed she shared with Sue.

Extra clothes, she decided. Two sets went in, followed by her prayer book and scriptures. A hair brush went as well along with, after a moment's hesitation, a worn and faded rag doll. It was the only other thing she had left from her mother, and she'd be damned if she left it behind. Finished, she slung the Oracle's sword across her back and shrugged on the pack.

Then she hesitated, mixed emotions raging through her. Reaching a decision, she grabbed parchment and pen and ink from Sue's supplies and scratched out a quick note. Then she hurried from the room.

In the hour before sunrise, the temple was still. Empty. It was the only way the blood drenched paladin and demon traitor made it to her room without notice. Soon it would be frantic with alarm, and they had better be far away by then if they hoped to survive.

When Aurianna let the cloak drop to the floor, it took all Matthias' willpower to not shove her against the wall. He could still smell her attackers on her, and his demon took that as a challenge. Wanted to fuck her, fill her, mark her as his. And so, he forced himself to gather her packed belonging as she dressed. Trying to distract himself from thoughts of the feel of her flesh against his, or the sounds she'd make as he took her hard and fast.

His demon was a simple thing. All lust and instinct, with no rational thought.

"Anything else you can think of?" she asked, handing him a bundle of armor plates.

Your cunt stretched around my dick and your blood in my mouth as I fill you with my seed. "No." The bundle clanked dully as he slung it over his shoulder. "Let's go."

"Jeoram!" Balthazar gasped at the sight of the blonde man stumbling into his room, his face a mask of blood. "By the Goddess! What...?"

"Au...Aurianna," Jeoram gasped out. "She... she's betrayed us."

"What?" Balthazar's voice was incredulous.

"Didn't... didn't want to believe it myself. But..." he paused, composing his features in a mask of shock. "She... freed the traitor. Slaughtered my men... in... in... in the Cathedral."

"Gods," breathed Balthazar. "Wait here! I'll sound the alarm!"

Clara was saddling the third horse by the time Aurianna and Matthias arrived. All three were Percherons - a dappled grey mare, a chocolate gelding with a white leg, and an ill-tempered brown and white stallion that she secretly hoped would throw and trample the demon - and she'd selected them for endurance rather than raw speed. "There's a sack of oats for each," she said, cinching the saddle down. "I'd rather have a pack horse, but..."

Bells began ringing.

"But we're fucked if we don't ride now," Matthias answered, holding the stallion still as his eyes rolled wildly and he tried to pull away. Irritably, he punched the horse between the eyes, the mounted as it reeled from the blow. "Shall we?"

Cleaning up the Aftermath

Justine was roused by the sounds of the bells ringing in her head. Even with the urgency in the alarm, it was difficult to pull herself away from the warm naked embrace of Cassi. She rubbed sleep from her eyes as she dressed, not bothering with armor. Her position was at the top of the Seraphim wall.

"Justine, you are the only one who can hit them now," called Jaegr, waving her over. Moving to meet him, she pulled her longbow from the rack. "There," he motioned toward a trio on horseback, just at the edge of her range. She drew the bowstring and aimed.

Dawn arose over the Vale of Scathan. The rosy sunlight illuminated the Velicky mountains and spilled into the underlying valley, reflected back in the golden glisten of the rivers. The morning was bright enough that the three could not hide in the shadows, and their features were not obscured to Justine as she fixed them in her sights.

By the Goddess, No! Clara…Aurianna…Matthias, Justine felt her heart seize as their features could not hide who they were. "Justine, now! Before they escape," came her orders, as her hands began to shake in conflict. She loosed her arrow and watched as it came within inches of Matthias' head. Gasps could be heard from behind her, but she didn't care, throwing down her bow.

"Even I miss, on occasion," Justine snapped, fleeing the wall before she could be further questioned.

Mykel swallowed his glass of brandy, poured another, and glared at the Oracle. "You said he had a chance at redemption!" She started to speak, and he cut her off. "And look at what happened! Six paladins dead! Six! Because you wanted to show pity to–"

"Mykel." The Oracle's voice was suddenly inhuman, stern and beautiful and impossible to ignore. She rose, radiant and terrible, silver and gold light streaming from her body to wash all shadows from the room. "My Oracle speaks with My voice, My son."

Mykel fell to his knees, struck with awe and terror and love. Unable to speak, he felt tears course down his cheeks. The divine figure before him smiled. "I know the source of your grief and anger, Mykel. Be at peace. My daughters and even My wayward son are not the canker within My order."

The light faded, and the Oracle sank heavily into her seat. "I..."A desperate breath cut off the words, "I believe I'll have that brandy, now."

Exhausted and heartsick, Sue entered her room. Clara… Clara wasn't a traitor. She couldn't be! But... they were saying she'd helped Lady Aurianna and the demon kill six paladins! And she'd fled with it! With them! She couldn't be a traitor, but why else run?

Weary, she almost missed the letter on the small table. She didn't even see it until she'd pulled her tunic over her head and tossed it into a corner. Casually, she glanced over it. And then she froze, rereading it carefully and gasping with shock. Fatigue forgotten, she grabbed her tunic once more. The... Lord Commander himself needed to see this!

"What can you tell me about what transpired here, High Inquisitor Rielle?" Mykel asked. It was easier to maintain composure around Rielle, her detached demeanor setting the tone of the meeting. Rage still boiled underneath, but he needed answers before he could make any decisions.

The High Inquisitor was a stern woman, who inspired more fear among his paladins than most demons. Quiet and analytical, she was damn good at her job, discovering and rooting out corruption within their ranks, and well as interrogating captives, such as the demon traitor who had escaped the dungeons just last night.

"Six dead bodies, with three distinct set of injuries and causes of death. These two, Barnabas Whent and Arthur Pentdraven were killed by a large blade. Their killer used powerful wide strikes to cause maximum damage. Arthur's right hand was completely lacerated while holding a dagger. His head was sheared off cleanly, suggesting the person responsible for this was incredibly strong. This is further supported by Barnabas' injuries, where his blade was shattered and he was cleaved into through his armor. This evidence leads us to believe Aspirant Clara Olgasdottor is responsible for these deaths, given her noted strength and weapon of choice, the broadsword.

"Ulric Sturmworg and Gilling Vekelson were both killed by single thrusts deep within their bodies that pierced all the way through. Both men were wearing armor, though Ulric was found without faulds or breeches and was punctured under his groin. Based on the precision of both strikes, we believe the Paladin Aurianna Kallekos was responsible for these deaths.

"As for Bryn Corfield and Reinier Voskes, both men were torn apart with teeth and bare hands, to the point it is difficult, if not impossible to piece them back together. The complete inhumanity of these attacks leads us to believe that only the traitor Matthias Kellikanos could have done this."

"Is that consistent with the testimony of Jeoram Sanal?" Mykel asked, praying there was something else here, something more. Would he really have to pass judgment on Aurianna?

"Parts of it, yes. All these men were killed in the Cathedral, where their bodies were found. However, blood splatter found in Matthias' cell suggests that the altercation began there. Nine sets of foot prints led out of the cell. Most were indistinguishable, but there were two sets that we can clearly identify, as Aurianna's because of her smaller feet, and Matthias'because he was not wearing boots. From what we could tell, Aurianna was dragged from his cell, and lead to the Cathedral."

That assertion drained the blood from Mykel's face. "Dragged? Why?"

"We aren't sure, but we have an idea," she started, lifting a tattered brown dress in gloved hands. Stained with blood and cut down the middle, it no longer kept its shape. Mykel swallowed hard. "Based on its size and similarity to her other possessions, we believe is Aurianna's, and she wore it that night before it was forcibly cut from her body."

"Forcibly?" His voiced raised, and his knuckles whitened over the pommel of his blade.

Rielle looked up at him, studying him, before continuing. "Yes. Blood seeped into the very fibers of the leather, in places where it was cut, suggesting that she tried to resist. Are you sure you want me to continue sir?"

"She was raped," He said out loud, grey eyes burning into the dress he held in his hands. "Clara and Matthias came to her aid."

"It appears so, yes. It's the best explanation for the evidence we have before us." Rielle said with sympathy in her eyes.

"And where is Jeoram Sanal?" There was a calm in those words that just contained the rage lying underneath.

"He has not been seen since he made the report to Guard Captain Balthazar. He must have slipped away in the ensuing chaos of the escape." Rielle admitted, sympathy in her gaze becoming shame, "I submit myself for punishment in this lapse, sir."

"No, that will not be necessary," Mykel turned away, pushing down his anger. "Jeoram is responsible for this. And he will pay."

"That was a miserable shot, Justine," the Lord Commander scowled. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table and peering over his steepled fingers. "I expect you to be the best."

Stung, and aware that she'd let Matthias live, Justine lashed back. "I'm not perfect, Lord Commander! Only Afodisia..."

He smiled. It was weak, the first shadow of a true smile he'd had since the alarms had rung, but it was genuine. "Can grace our most flawless archer with the gift of inaccuracy?" He sighed and leaned back.

"Matthias may deserve death, but not for anything that happened today. And it was the grace of our Goddess that stayed your hand."

Justine's mouth worked for a moment, then closed. "...what?" Then she watched, dread pooling in the hollow of her stomach as pain and fury crossed the Lord Commander's features. "What happened, then?" She didn't think she really wanted to know.

"Aurianna was–" He broke off at the sounds of a commotion outside. Raised voices.

"Get out of my way!"

"You can't go in there! The Lord Commander–"

"I have to see the Lord Commander! Now!"

There was an outraged squawk, and the sound of something being knocked over, and then his office door burst open. The slim, blonde figure of Susanna Orlan stood there, breathing hard and clutching a scrap of parchment in one hand. "Clara's not a traitor!" she burst out, waving the scrap of paper in one hand, and then lunging into the room as the Lord Commander's Seneschal tried to grab her. "Lady Aurianna didn't murder anyone!"

"My Lord!" the flustered Seneschal gasped, grabbing Susanna by the arm. "I'm soURK!"

Susanna kicked him in the balls, then leapt forward and slapped the parchment on Mykel's desk. "She's not!" she protested, loudly.

"Susanna..." Mykel began, more amused than anything else.

"Read it!" Susanna shouted, practically begging.

"Aspirant Susanna Orlan!" Justine barked. "Is this how you address the Lord Commander of the Order?"

Flinching, Susanna jerked to attention. "No…, " she said, blushing and clearly looking like she wished she could just be struck dead. The enormity of what she'd done was, apparently, just now sinking in. "I... that is..."

Mykel raised a hand and read the letter. His jaw tightened, and his eyes hardened. He slid it across to Justine. "Read it."

Justine picked it up, scanning the lines. "Sue," it read, "I'm leaving. Lady Aurianna was - Goddess, I can't believe it - she was raped! By her fiancé! And by three of his men! And I killed them. Two of them. And it's not safe for us, Sue. Not now. I don't can't trust anyone right now. Not after that. Goddess, her fiancé! I don't know where we're going, Sue. But we have to run. You'll hear a lot of terrible things about us, once we do. Please, please believe me that I'm not a murderer! I was trying to help her!"

Her hand closed in a fist, and fury danced in her eyes as she looked back up. "This... this is..?"

"It corroborates what the High Inquisitor found in the Sanctuary," Mykel said, voice flat.

Justine's fingernails dug into her palms, and suddenly she was on her feet. "I'll kill him! I'll kill that son of a bitch! Where is he?"

"No." Mykel's voice cut through her tirade, but she was having none of it.

"No?" She slapped her palms down on the desk. "You should have let me kill him when I punched him! That son of a bitch is–"

"Not our first concern!" Mykel roared back, catching Justine off guard.
"He will face justice - I promise you that! But not now!"

"He–"

"Is worthless! But Aurianna is not!" His eyes bored into hers. "You want to help her? Then pick three of our best, trackers and Paladins familiar with the Demonlands. And go find her!" He slumped back, suddenly tired. "And bring her home."

"I..." she nodded. "Yes, yes sir." As she turned to leave, Mykel stopped her.

"And Justine?"

"Yes?"

He waved at Susanna. "Take her with you, as your apprentice." He smiled. "If she's got enough fire and steel to brave my Seneschal to see justice done, she's got enough fire and steel to brave the Demonlands."

Justine held her wife close to her as the moonlight filtered through the nearby window. Her hands moved down to Cassi's breasts, shifting with each serene breath. She cupped the soft mound, feeling its weight against her palm. Cassi winced, eliciting the softest whine.

"Did I hurt you?" Justine whispered into her hair. Cassi shook her head, kissing Justine on the cheek.

"No, I've been tender all day. Can you just hold me? So that I can memorize your scent before you leave?" Cassi pleaded, cheek to cheek with Justine now.

"Whatever you desire, my love," Justine announced, letting her lips trace the smooth muscles of Cassi's neck. Her tongue lapped at the salty sweet sweat. Her chest pressed against her lover's, bringing her mouth up Cassi's jaw and cheek, and against her lips. The kiss started softly, and built into a crescendo of love and need between the two women, until Justine was straddling her, holding her hands over her head as lips and tongued converged. Breaking off the kiss to rest foreheads together, Cassi spoke.

"Justine… I think…I think the seed has taken hold."

Justine's green eyes grew wide, sit up over her wife now. "You mean…?"
"I am carrying your child," Cassi proclaimed, smiling with overflowing happiness. She brought Justine's hand down to her stomach, and Justine quivered at the touch. Imagining the life growing within her, the news so happy and enormous she couldn't help the tears forming in her eyes. Cassi just smiled. A warm and joyful smile. "So, you have to come back to me, okay? No matter what." Justine nodded, happy tears streaming down her face.

"No matter what."

The Lord Commander drank until the memory of meeting Aurianna faded from his mind. She was a girl then, and he doubted she remembered. Still, he could recall the woman, and how her hair smelled of wildflowers…

"Lyara?" The young paladin called his heart in his throat, fearful his once lover resented his five-year absence.

"Mykel? Is that you?" Turning around to meet him, hazel eyes beamed. "By the Goddess, it is you!" She was tall and slender, and though she lacked the muscle of a warrior, she had a deceptive strength about her. Like silk covering steel. Mykel took the woman into his arms, wrapping her in the love they had missed in his absence. His entire world was her warmth, and the feel of her chest moving as she breathed, and her hands, in the middle of his back…

"Mommy?" A small voice called out, from beneath them. Mykel looked down at the child and saw the spitting image of the woman he held, save the golden eyes that resembled the Goddess.

His disappointment was crushing. "You married?"

Caressing his face, she shook her head. "There is only one man I loved enough to carry his child. And he never asked for my hand," she responded, laughing, with mischief in her eyes.

"So, she's my…" He tried to ask, but the words failed him.

"Come here Aurianna," Lyara called to the child, who ran into her mother's arms. She planted a kiss on the girl's forehead, while she lifted her up. "This is Lord Mykel. He is a paladin."

"What's that?" the child asked, nuzzling her mother's neck.

"He fights the monsters." The mother explained, pride in her voice. Aurianna golden eyes glowed in amazement.

"Nice to meet you," she said in a child's cadence.

"Nice to meet you too, little Ari," the Paladin managed to choke out, rubbing her head.

"Go play now, hun," Lyara instructed, putting the child down. She laughed, picking up the broom by the side of the house to play "paladin." Lyara and Mykel watched her for a moment, amusement by her antics.

"Her eyes…" Mykel said, not quite forming the thought. Instead, he turned back to Lya and took her hands in his. "Let me take you to the temple. We will wed, and I will provide for you both."

Lyara shook her head. "If we go to the temple, they will take her from me." She murmured, resting her head on Mykel's chest.

"Then I will stay here, with you two." He held her closer, watching his daughter duel shadows.

"You would abandon your duty to the Goddess?" She asked, and he could hear her hope in the words.

"You are my duty now. And her." He swore, kissing her.

Into the Demonlands

Aurianna, Clara, and Matthias had just escaped with their lives, but once they were out of sight from the Seraphim Wall, Aurianna knew they were safe. Safe from the Order anyhow. Six dead bodies would serve as warning against pursuing them. But they were still in the demonlands, and they would have to keep moving. The paladin, aspirant, and demon could handle themselves for a time, but Baath Me'el would still seek to claim his former slave and captive.

That evening, they found shelter in a cave near a pond. Though, even pond seemed a generous description of this oversized puddle. But it was enough water to refill their water skins and let the horses drink, and possibly even bathe, so it would do. So, they built a fire by the water and left their supplies in the cave.

"You should sleep first, Clara, while Matthias and I take the first round of watch," Aurianna instructed, removing the bulk of her armor.

Clara grimaced. "No, you should sleep first, mistress. You've..." she hesitated, and looked down. "You've been through an awful lot."

Aurianna remained stoic, cringing on the inside. She didn't want to think on all that. "I am too keyed up to sleep yet. We both should be able to rest if you sleep soon."

Clara watched her for a moment, nodding. Unlike Aurianna, Clara seemed too respectful to argue with her instructor. "All right. I'll go get some sleep. But you be sure to wake me up for my turn at watch." She rose, then glared at Matthias. "And be careful."

Matthias chuckled, "Oh, my. You'd think she doesn't trust me." Drawing his sword, he examined the edge before taking a whetstone to it. "Almost as if she's got the idea that I'm a demon and a traitor." Several minutes passed, spent on honing the edge of the sword. Then he looked up. "Speaking of demons, we're on the wrong side of the Wall for anything resembling safety. Any thoughts on where we're going, other than away?"

"I wanted to ask you the same thing. I hoped you might have an idea from your time serving Baath Me'el." The name and memory were still bitter, but pragmatism came first. His knowledge could be useful.

"We could head for Monsford."

Clara peeked out then. She'd removed her armor, but brought her sword, demonstrating a healthy respect for the danger they were in, even now.

"Never heard of it," Matthias said, looking up for just a moment before going back to sharpening his sword.

"It's my hometown," she explained, leaning against the cave mouth. "A little over a fortnight's travel to the northeast."

"Deeper into the Demonlands, then?" Matthias scratched his jaw. "That's hardly–"

"It's not part of the Demonlands," Clara countered. "It's on the river Sarn."

He furrowed his brow in thought. "That would be... holy shit!" he looked up now, eyes wide, "The Godslayer?"

"The Godslayer?" Aurianna repeated, searching her brain. Glancing between both of them, it came to her, "The dragon?"

"We call him Lord Verrier," Clara snapped. "But yes, it's the southernmost town of the Ten Kingdoms."

Aurianna looked over to Matthias, "If you don't have a better idea, let's go there." He nodded without argument, resuming his work on his sword. Aurianna stood and approached Clara now. "Why don't I help with your stuff?" She unpacked the girl's bedroll, laying it out on the soft dirt. A ragged bundle fell loose and landed on the ground. Clara lunged to pick it up, so fast Aurianna was only half certain she'd seen it in the first place.

"What was that?" Aurianna asked.

"Nothing! Nothing, it just…reminds me of my mother," Clara admitted, looking down at the doll in her hand. The pain in her voice threatened to bring up Aurianna's own trauma, but it gave her an idea. No need for both of us to have nightmares this evening.

"Lie down. Why don't you tell me about your mother?" Aurianna asked, finding the brush among Clara's belongings. With Clara's head in her lap, she brushed through her dark hair. Stories of the woman's love and strength filled the cave and Aurianna's heart, and she listened until Clara talked herself to sleep.

Back outside, the moon sat full against the horizon above Matthias. Intimate, almost romantic. At least, it could have been, under different circumstances. Aurianna took off her bracers and boots now, dipping a toe in the clear water. Brisk, but tolerable. Better than carrying last night's horror on her skin still. "I'm torn between bathing now, and going to sleep clean and refreshed, or waiting until tomorrow when the water would be more temperate."

"It's quiet now," Matthias said, looking around. "No guarantee that tomorrow will be. Probably better to do it while it's quiet."

His scent drifted on the breeze, and it reminded her of last night, as well. The pleasant parts, at least. "You should as well. You stink of me," she teased, choosing on focus on the playful, rather than the torment.

"I'd hardly call it a stink. I rather like smelling of you." He flashed a smile but it faded quickly. "You're probably right, though. And you should go first." He looked down. "I'd love to join you, but it would be a bad idea."

Her recollections turned dark, and she brought one leg against her chest. "I understand. You are right." She nodded. The moon reflected on the water until her free foot splashed, ripples interrupting its perfect circle. Grief bubbled up, filling the silence and space between them before he spoke again.

"You said something. In the cell. I don't know if you meant it, or if it was the heat of the moment. But I…" He shook his head. "I can't feel emotions like that, Ari. Demons don't love. They don't experience friendship or caring, or hells, anything like that." A sigh. "I feel a possessiveness. A–" His hands worked, groping for words. "A desire for you. A need. A hunger."

His eyes glittered in the shadows. "I can't love you. I can only feel that you are mine. And I'm not even capable of feeling embarrassed that you might be appalled by that. Because my demon doesn't care."

"I get it. You don't need to love me. Jeoram often told me he loved me and, well, we know how that turned out." She wrapped her arms around both knees now, wishing he would have opted for comfort over honesty right now. "I don't need you to say it back, but you don't get to complain if I say on occasion." She replied, ending her comment with a smirk. "Besides, not everything you've done can be explained away by possessiveness, or need or hunger. You don't have to call it love, but, there is something more there."

Matthias offered her smile. " If that is what you believe, fine. I know I am no match for your stubbornness. Regardless, after what happened, you need to rest and heal. And I won't let you if we both get in that pool. Because I crave you." His smile turned into a sexy smirk, and he stroked her cheek. "So I'll keep watch while you bathe, and then you keep watch while I bathe. And, when you're ready, we can decide what we're going to do about that craving. Deal?"

Tension escaped in her laugh, wondering if he realized he was proving her point. No need to rub it in, she decided, walking around to the other side of the pond for her bath. Trusting Matthias was precarious, but tempting his demon was foolish.

The water was too cold to relax, but Aurianna appreciated the chance to bathe. Rinsing the sweat and blood and everything else from her skin felt as if it could cleanse her soul. A silly belief, she knew, but one she clung to tonight. She could get by for a time on false confidence.

The moon hung high overhead as Clara emerged from the cave, yawning and stretching; half the night gone. She waited by the mouth of the cave. First out of concern for Lady Aurianna, worried that she wouldn't be able to rest after what she suffered through, but even after she was fast asleep, Clara hesitated. It was just sinking in that she'd be spending the rest of the night with the demon. With a deep breath to steel herself, she walked towards the pool.

"The water's not freezing," Matthias observed, not turning. "Wash up, if you like. It may be a while before you get the chance."

"Strip down in front of you?" Clara scoffed. "Not likely."

"I'm not the boy I can smell on you, girl," the demon laughed, "and if I wanted you then I'd have you, clothes or no. But suit yourself."

Blushing and shuddering, Clara sat down and leaned back against a rock. Yeah, this was going to be a long night.

When Aurianna closed her eyes, Afodisia stared back at her. The same statue that watched over her violation, unmoving as Her servants desecrated every tenet.

Jeoram held her down, reveling in her torment once more. One of his partners in crime, a vague and shadowy figure of dream logic, stood beside the altar. "Open up bitch," he demanded, insistent fingers tight in her hair. He forced his cock between her lips, stroking in time with Jeoram. "You like that slut?" He taunted, his manhood disappearing in her mouth.

Aurianna met his glance now, not with the golden eyes of a paladin, but red as the demon traitor in the bowels of the temple. Her fangs caught his meat, preventing him from forcing it down her throat. Blood spurted, and she sucked now, drinking his life as it flooded her mouth. Screams of agony filled the cathedral as his hardness diffused over her tongue. Teeth held him in place, not allowing him to move, lest she rip his shaft away from his body. Death cries were mistaken for pleasured moans, and his eyes bulged from his head as his life slipped away. Too similar to orgasm for Jeoram to notice.

Aurianna sat up, raking his claws down Jeoram's chest, and leaving deep trenches of flesh and scar tissue. "Fuck me as you die," She whispered, pulling Jeoram into a blood-soaked embrace. Refusing to let go, her fangs worried his throat in time with his thrusts, until the only blood left in his body filled his cock. Jeoram's corpse dropped into a bloodless heap, as Matthias burst into the Cathedral.

"I'm sorry, I didn't save you any," she said, faking guilt with a scarlet smile.

"Hmm, I'll just take it from you then," Matthias chuckled, pouncing upon her.

Matthias and Clara were silent for a time. He contented himself with staring out into the darkness, aware of the uncomfortable shifting of the girl. When she did speak, her voice was laced with bravado.

"Did you hurt her, my mistress? Did you force yourself on her?"

"There was no need to force myself on her, girl." He laughed. "Hells, she fucked my brains out. Threw me down on the ground and–"

"Why would Lady Aurianna even want you?" Clara interrupted before he could offer further details. "She could do much better. Easily." There was offense in her words, but he just let out a quick laugh.

"I couldn't begin to answer that," replied Matthias. "I knew she had a crush on me, back when she was younger than you. She didn't think I knew, but she carved my name in the back of her shield. Decorated it with little hearts." There was something approaching fondness in his expression. Then his eyes went distant, as a vivid image of Aurianna's face dripping with blood filled his mind. He cleared his throat and it faded away.

"But, no. That doesn't explain it at all. Maybe she's confused my hunger for her with love. Maybe she's just clinging to the thing that saved her from worse torments in the Ebon Fortress." The only answer he could offer Clara was a shrug.

The image returned, growing stronger as he tried to ignore it. Blood dripped down her throat and breasts, and more coated her hands as she straddled Jeoram. He cried out in agony, body convulsing as she fucked and fed on him.

"Maybe she just wants to get fucked good and hard, and likes the bad boys." He shifted his weight on one leg to stand. "But I didn't hurt her. It took a while before I did anything to stop her from being hurt, but I didn't hurt her. Not unless you count drinking her blood."

"I'm sorry, I didn't save you any," she admitted to him, faking guilt with a scarlet smile.

"Hmm, I'll just take it from you then," he growled, pouncing upon her.

Clara's eyes narrowed, and he didn't miss the how her hand rested on the hilt of her sword. "Why didn't she just kill you?"

He shrugged. "Dunno. She probably should have."

He pinned her against the altar, his hard cock slipping deep into a slit well-lubricated by a dead man's cum. His fangs sunk into her shoulder as he pounded into her, and she cried out in mingled pain and pleasure as the force cracked the stone beneath her. Talons tore into his back and fangs tore into his throat, and he drank deeply as she drained him.

Stiffly, Matthias rose to his feet. "I'll be back," he said, voice thick. "Just got to go relieve myself."

Clara didn't respond. Matthias lurched toward the cave entrance, staggered by the way Aurianna's sex gripped his cock like a silky vise. She screamed her bliss, clinging to him with claws and arms and thighs as he fucked her brutally. His blood and hers lubricated their bodies, letting her slip and slither against him as she shifted and bounced with each thrust. His own talons dug into the meat of her ass as he used her, more blood trickling down his fingers. He jerked her head, fist tight in her hair, and lapped their blood from her crimson-slicked breasts.

Well away from the cave now, and out of sight of the girl, Matthias tore open his breeches as her fangs tore into his chest, spilling more blood as she drank hungrily. His talons raked down her back, slicking his hands with her blood, and he drove his meat harder and harder into her slick flesh. With a sudden, wild cry, he pulsed within her and her walls convulsed around him, her body draining him of his seed as her fangs drained him of his life...

Gasping, Matthias braced himself against the stone wall of the pass with one hand and his spunk dribbled down the wall where it had splattered.

"Well..." he gasped, "at least I got my pants off, this time."

The Morning After

Dreams from the night before left Aurianna a touch raw as she awoke. Was it just a dream, or had Matthias taken her while she slept? Would he do that? That question thought made her tense and bite her lip hard, leaving her somewhere between intrigued and frightened. Perhaps closer to frightened, given the violence of her dream. When she fantasized about killing her rapists. But there was no blood and no new marks. Just a dream. Setting her mind towards the day, she donned her armor.

"Didn't sleep?" She asked Matthias, putting her hand on his shoulder. Bare skin awoke memories of clawing at him while he fucked her, but she pushed it down with a deep breath.

Matthias looked up from where he leaned against a stone, absently resting his hand on hers. "Not much," he admitted. "But I don't need much, really. The demon's awake when I sleep."

"Yeah," Clara said, covering a yawn. "But he snarls."

"That's fortunate for you," Aurianna decided. "And us, I suppose, if you can stand watch most nights."

"For the most part," Matthias agreed, stretching as he rose, "although you'll probably want to let me sleep some."

"Oh?" Clara sounded curious, now. "Why? I mean, if you don't need sleep?"

"The demon's awake when I sleep," Matthias answered. "I'm rational. But the demon? Pure instinct. Instinct, and no concern for what it does to others."

"Oh," Clara repeated again, sounding disturbed.

"I wish I could take a night off from the rather vivid dreams I have been having" She admitted, looking away from him, hoping he wouldn't press the issue. I dreamt I fucked you to death, is probably not what he wanted to hear.

"You and me both," he answered. "My nights aren't as restful as I'd like when I sleep. Still, we should probably get moving."

"We should try and hunt before we start traveling for the day," Aurianna countered, grabbing her spear, "I'd like to make these rations stretch as much as possible. Clara, why don't you make sure the horses are fed and watered and ready to go."

Approaching her initiate now, Aurianna whispered in her ear, "I'll take him with me, so you can bathe in privacy if you like. Just keep your wits about you."

Matthias, for his part, ignored them in favor of examining the stream bed and selecting a dozen smooth, egg-sized stones. When Aurianna gestured, he slipped them into a pouch and followed after her.

"Not a bad idea," he whispered. "Whatever we kill, though, let me bleed it. It'll help sate my hunger." His nostrils flared as he sniffed the air. "One of my hungers, anyway." As he spoke, he drew a stone from his pouch. A single lightning-quick throw later, and a rabbit shrieked as its head was crushed. He trotted over and scooped it up, biting into its side. After a sound of distaste, he wiped blood from his mouth.

"Not much there. But it'll still make a decent meal for you and Clara, right? Shall we try and bring a few more down?"

Aurianna nodded. "A few more, yes. Like you said last night, we have a measure of peace, for now, might as well take advantage of it." The hunt would focus her mind for the moment, and as long as she continued to fill her mind with distractions and responsibilities, dark memories couldn't catch up.

Roused from an underground den, several brown rabbits darted out, scattering in every direction. With a lunge, Aurianna managed to skewer one on her spear and the corpse was still twitching as she lifted it to Matthias. In most cases, her spear was slender and precise, but compared to the small rabbit, it was big and tore a huge hole in its abdomen. Blood poured from the wound and down Matthias' chin as he tried to drain it. By Aurianna's estimates, he had more on him than in him, and the thought made her laugh. She brought a hand up, to catch the blood dripping down his face.

Their eyes met and he brought her blood-soaked fingers to his mouth. Lips made warm by blood felt enticing, leading to sighs as he licked and sucked at her digits, and reminding her more of the dream. Distanced from the immediate the horror of it, she thought of it fondly. The savagery in which he took her, filled her, was suddenly appealing if only to sate some animalistic need. She wasn't ready for him again, but dammit how she wanted him. He was hers, finally, but still they couldn't act on their passion.

Fucking Jeoram, jealous piece of shit. She should have killed him that night. Wished she had killed him. Wished Clara had sheared his head from his body, or Matthias had ripped out his entrails and string him up by them. Not that it would undo the damage he had done to her. Thinking of her own injuries made her incensed, and with that, she took an angry kiss from Matthias' blood soaked lips.

Her lips found his, her mouth hot and demanding as her tongue thrust into his mouth. With an animalistic growl, he tangled his hands in her hair and pierced her tongue with his fang. Coppery sweet blood filled their joined mouths, and he sucked it off her tongue. His hands tugged at her jerkin, desperate to find the smooth flesh beneath.

With a gasp, he pulled his mouth away. "Stop me," he gasped, lust and greed in his gaze. "Stop me, or I will fuck you raw here and now."

In that moment, Aurianna didn't care. She needed Matthias, to hold her, to comfort her, to make her feel whole. If that necessitated that he fuck her to do so, so be it. She was so desperate for his touch, for anything that would push the grief mind.

"I don't care! I need you," She pleaded, "I need–" She couldn't finish before he was kissing her again, pushing her into a tree and letting her feel his growing hardness.

"I will use you," he snarled, "without mercy, until I am spent."

It wasn't sexy talk, intended to entice her. It was a promise and a warning. "Matthias…" She whimpered, terror and pain and need in her eyes.

A piercing shriek rang out, crystallizing her pain into focus. Pulled from her despair, she pushed Matthias off. "Clara!" She called out, picking up her spear and taking off back towards camp, without bothering to check if Matthias was following her.

"Clara!" Aurianna called out as she made out the figure of her apprentice, wet and half-clothed, crouching on a rock.

Half-dressed and shaking and wide-eyed, Clara crouched on a large rock. Her hair clung to her face and back in long, wet ropes, and she was wildly throwing chunks of stone at a small brown snake. "Go away!" she shrieked, pitching another missile that shattered and pelted the animal with rock fragments.

"Go away!"

She was frantically throwing rocks at something Aurianna still couldn't see. "Clara!" Aurianna called again as she grew closer, "Clara, what's wrong?" Her young apprentice pointed to the small snake, and at first, Aurianna was confused.

"The… snake?" She asked her incredulous. Smashing under the butt of her spear, she sighed, both in relief and frustration.

"Mistress, I am sorry, I just hate snakes so-What happened to you?!" Clara started apologizing, before seeing Aurianna's lips and chin dripping with blood. Aurianna could feel her life still warm on her lips, and trickling into her mouth. She bent over the pond and splashing some water over her face.

"Nothing, it's nothing," Aurianna tried explaining away, in vain as Matthias came up behind, similarly covered in blood.

"A snake?" Matthias said, staring in disbelief.

"They're gross!" Clara shot back, shuddering. "Legless squirming slimy things…"

"They're dry, not slimy," Matthias interrupted.

"They're horrible!" she insisted. "And they're... what are you doing?"

Matthias had picked the dead snake up. "Lunch," he said, holding it up. "There's a decent bit of..."

"I'm not eating snake!"

After a moment's hesitation, he grinned. "Funny. I'm pretty sure I smelled a boy on you..." Then, he knelt by the pool and began washing the blood from his face and chest.

Terrors in the Shadows

The forests grew thicker as the three traveled, and the shade from dense foliage provided relief from the sun for most of the day. Evenings were cool, even cold at times, but the days were warm. The ancient trees towered over the dusty road, mostly untouched by the taint of the demonlands. New growth was not so fortunate, twisted and gnarled into dark mockeries of nature. Juniper leaves laced with aberrant red veins like the pulsing of blood. They would have to travel deep into the demonlands before they would reach Monsford, and hopefully, safety.

"It's been a while since I went home," Clara said as they rode. "I went with Master Conn," she glared at Matthias as she spoke the name, "and an armed merchant caravan along a different route."

Matthias, unperturbed by the teenager's wrath, stared ahead. "The Dragon Road, I assume?"

She nodded. "Yeah. But, I think we're on the wrong side of the Sarn for that. So, I think our best bet is to head northwest until we find it, and then follow the river." She thought for a moment. "It's way too wide to ford, but there's a ferry once we reach home."

"Northwest to the Sarn," Aurianna repeated, keeping pace with them, "Follow to the river to the ferry, and we should be there."

Three days of traveling in the demonlands had been peaceful. An unnerving thought, because the demonlands had only grown more populated and dangerous since the demons had emerged from the hells. Peace was a lie, and the longer they went unhindered, the worse the foes that would emerge. By now Aurianna was on edge, seeking enemies in every breeze. Vigilant against walking into an ambush. Again.

Her vigilance paid off when an almost indiscernible whistle in the trees caught her eye. Aurianna looked over to Matthias, who had noticed it as well, based on the knowing look he gave her. She gave her apprentice a glance, bringing one finger up to her lips, and then touching that finger to her ear. Two more passed by, on either side of the tree line. They were surrounded, but by what?

The answer came in the form of quiet demonic murmuring preceding a large flame blast that landed at the hooves of Aurianna's horse. The animal reeled, raising its legs to avoid the flame, but it did not buck Aurianna, who kept a firm grasp of the reins. She could see where the spell had come from, even if she couldn't yet see the source. The woods were dense, and the horse was already spooked. "I am going in," Aurianna whispered, "Hold my horse, Clara."

Clara caught the reins as Aurianna tossed them to her, then watched as her Mistress disappeared into the trees. On the far side of the unoccupied horse, where he'd been riding out of mutual agreement,

Matthias looked around. "Where are the others?" he asked, wary.

"You think there's more than one?" Clara asked, loosening her mother's sword in its scabbard.

"Until I find out otherwise, yes." Matthias drew his own sword. "To be careful, if nothing else."

Slipping between two dense conifers, she caught the sight of a red fiend on a branch, whose staff was larger than he was. It hissed as he saw her, and conjured small arrow of flame. Striking the tree beside her, the flames dispersed along the elder wood. She lunged with her spear, snaring the imp in the thigh, and knocking it from the tree. Before it could stand, she thrust again, closing the distance between them. It tried to block with its staff, but she drove it from its talons, clattering along the roots making up the forest floor. A second stab found it's throat, and it was gurgling blood as it tried to cast a spell.

Two more appeared, twenty and twenty-five feet away, preparing more spells. She ducked behind trees, closing the distance by moving from cover to cover. Spells sprayed over the wood, hellfire searing as it just missed her. Coming up at the side of one, she pinned it to the tree, her spear shattering several ribs upon entry. It's death cries brought several more out of hiding, the red glowing eyes filling in the gaps in the trees.

One of the crimson-skinned fiends snarled a word of dark power, and flame lashed from its staff. It made more sounds, possibly cursing, as Aurianna dived out of the way. The others flickered in and out of the trees, exposing themselves just long enough to cast a quick spell. None of them were powerful sorcerers, but these numbers could wear her down.

Ice flashed past, and lightning. Still they danced in and out, still they laughed and snarled and moved among the trees to give themselves cover. And then one of them screamed in mid-spell, gagging as a broadsword clove its skull in twain. Clara kicked the corpse aside, hacking a second nearly in half with a backhand stroke as she tore her blade loose. "Your horse is fine!" she called, dodging behind a tree as a gobbet of liquid spattered and burned on the trunk. "I tethered them at the edge of the woods."

Moving with a speed greater than that of an ordinary human, Clara broke cover and charged the next closest of the casters. Before she could reach it, though, a pale blur caught it up and hurled it across the clearing with an impact that shattered the bones of both the thrown and the target. Matthias grinned, then ducked back as lightning crackled past him. Ducking and rolling to avoid the spell as well, Clara crouched behind the roots of the same tree. "Show off," she muttered.

Surrounded by over half a dozen fiends, Aurianna was slightly outnumbered. Spells were coming from all directions, and she was on the defensive, just able to deflect and dodge, but effectively pinned down.

Clara got the one slinging spells from behind Aurianna, giving her the breathing room necessary to rush a shaman about 15 feet away. As she grew close, her target was struck by another one, thrown a distance until both ruptured from the impact. Matthias, she growled, both impressed and jealous.

The numbers seemed increase as they distanced themselves from the main road. They weren't strong but three turned into five, which turned into twelve,

"I got three," Clara declared, huffing, her blue-grey eyes still wide for more signs of the minor devils.

"Four," Aurianna spoke up, meeting Matthias' crimson eyes, daring him to go higher. He held five fingers and a smirk. She snickered, shaking her head until she detected some movement behind him. Pushing him aside, she leapt up to catch a last one in the right eye, following it down as it landed in a clearing.

"Five!" She yelled back, working her spear out of its skull, "That makes us even!" She stumbled back as she pulled it free of its last victim. Bringing her eyes up, she saw three hulking brutes approaching now, fanning out in her direction. Similar to the hounds she had fought with Matthias before, the things before her were vaguely human. They wore the same iron masks, that covered the face save the jaw. Pale, grey skin was cut in places and exposed the pulsing muscles underneath. Loincloths were sewn into the skin about their hips, and the remains of armor could be seen on one.

She brought up her spear as the first brought in a wide swing with its halberd. Metal on metal clanged out, sending birds fleeing from the nearby trees. Aurianna swung in a wide arc to push her attackers back, but one caught her blow on the outgrowth of bone on its arm. She had to kick her legs out in a twisting jump to avoid a blow from a second opponent.

Clara reached her first, bringing her broadsword up to deflect the follow up strike. With a little pressure off her, Aurianna pierced her spear into the hell spawn's shoulder, driving it backwards, and away from its allies, and her own. It brought its weapon up now, slashing at her forearms to release her spear. Her bracers absorbed most of the impact, but still she pulled her spear back, trading blows with the brute for the time being. For her part, Clara did well, shattering the powerful misshapen bone of its arm when it tried to defend her attack.

"What the hell are these things?" Clara demanded, as she clove flesh and shattered the forearm of one of the new fiends with a two-handed blow. The fiend's only reaction was a sort of clucking hiss as its jaw lolled open and drool dripped from yellowed, broken fangs.

"No idea!" Matthias yelled from across the clearing. He was wielding a staff in his left hand now, using it to parry glittering staff thrusts from two of the sorcerers as he tried to hack one down with his sword. Wary now, they moved like greased lightning and avoided his strokes.

The broken-armed fiend turned from Aurianna to Clara, grabbing at her with its good hand. She drove the point of her broadsword into its guts. "I thought you commanded these things!" she snapped back.

One of the sorcerers moved too slowly. Matthias tripped it with his captured staff, and his blade bit deep into its spine. "There's a whole lot of weird shit in Hell, girl!" he shouted back, smashing its skull with his heel. "I didn't see it all!"

The skewered fiend, still clicking and hissing, blood dribbling from its mouth, dragged itself up the broadsword towards Clara. With a small cry of surprise and disgust, she tore her sword free and kicked the half-bisected thing away. "Great," she muttered. "Just great."

Aurianna was still being wolf-packed by the other two, one trying to close in as the other kept her attention. Wishing she'd been able to grab a shield along with her armor, Clara shifted her grip on her hilt and moved in to support her Mistress once more.

With their Halberds in hand, the eliminated one of Aurianna's key strengths with her spear, her reach. What's more, that despite looking like the hounds, these things were not as easy or uncoordinated as the foul hellspawn. Two on one seems to be a rather close match indeed.

Ducking under a high stab, Aurianna jabbed one in the jaw with the butt of her spear, and flipped the tip out as she came back up, slicing the fiend vertically from gut to throat. The grey skin didn't bleed as it was cut away, merely peeled to reveal the pink insides working to bring down their target. It retaliated with a hard overhand swing, with she only just deflected by spinning her spear. The one behind her took the opening, smacking her hard in the flank with its halberd.

The blow sent her rolling along the ground, getting to her knees. The fiend charged her, and she brought up her spear out of instinct, impaling driving itself on her spear but still swinging its weapon. Blocking with her bracers, Aurianna avoided decapitation. She kicked its knee, shattering the joint with the weight of her boot. Kicking her legs out and swinging in a wide arc, she opened its throat, ending its miserable existence.

One on one, Aurianna stood much better odds, parrying the wild thrust the demon came at her with. She trapped the head of his weapon on the ground, and brought the base of her spear into its chin, hearing the crunch of bones as the jaw shattered. The demon showed no reaction to the pain, hitting her calf with the broad side of its weapon, knocking her slightly off balance.

One of the fiends caught Aurianna in the back, sending her rolling. Clara spun and stepped to intercept it, only to have the creature turn her blow aside and catch her hard in the abdomen with a slash. Her breastplate spared her life, but the impact took the wind out of her and sent her crashing back into a tree. Before she could draw breath, it was on her Mistress. And then the golden blade of her spear erupted from the thing's back as it impaled itself. Wheezing and gasping, Clara forced herself forward and chopped deep into its shoulder, sending gore spraying as she tore the broadsword free once more.

"Two!" she declared, wiping down her blade as Matthias dispatched the last of the shamans.

"Two?" Matthias asked, tossing the now-broken staff aside. He used a scrap of cleanish cloth to wipe his blade off, and sheathed it. "I got..." he counted, quickly, "seven, myself."

Not seeing any reasonably clean cloth around - except what she was wearing, Clara opted to wipe her blade off on the grass. "Yeah, well, those wizard things were little. It only counts for three real kills."

Aurianna laughed, and then winced immediately, rubbing her lower back where one had managed to strike. The armor had done its job, protecting her from the sharpness of its blow, but the impact was not mitigated in the slightest. She would be bruised there for the better part of a week.

"Okay, remind me that I need to wear the plates with this armor," Aurianna called to no one in particular, rubbing her side as she made her way back toward the road and their horses.

"Sure," Matthias agreed, then paused. "Wear the plates with that armor."

Taking Precautions

The smell of roasting rabbit made Matthias' mouth water.

It was one of the many jokes about what he'd become. Food still smelled good. He could even enjoy the taste. But it did nothing to nourish him. He could, quite literally, starve with a full belly. One of the many little indignities heaped on him by Baath-Me'el.

Dinner conversation was sparse. All of them were tired from a hard day's riding mingled with fighting. By the time they found a spot to set up camp for the night the sun was low in the sky, and it was dark before they had settled down to eat. Clara was exhausted enough that she could barely scowl at him over the roast rabbit. Shortly after eating she fell asleep, wrapped in a cloak and using her breastplate as a pillow.

Matthias leaned against the boulder, letting the sun-warmed stone warm his bare back. He yawned, then rested his head on Aurianna's as she leaned against his shoulder.

He tried not to smell the blood pulsing through her veins.

"Should we be worried?" Aurianna asked.

Her question gave him something focus on other than gnawing hunger. "Hmm?"

"Three days in the demonlands, and only one attack. Where are all the demons?"

Her questions were good; she learned something in the past 10 years. Still, he wished he had a good answer for her. "I don't know. Even if I hadn't betrayed Baath-Me'el over a month ago, I still wouldn't know. The host of Torment reigns in this region."

"Hydranes?" she asked, "I guess I didn't realize the demons had their own regions."

"It's not something the demons like to admit," he explained, finding it easy to fall back into old roles with her. Teaching had always been his strong suit, "They like to present a united front to the humans and the Order, and are even capable of working together in short bursts. But they war with each other almost as much as with humans."

"So, should we be worried?" She asked again.

It was a fair question, but all he could do was shrug. "All we can do is continue to be vigilant."

"Did you want to try and sleep tonight? I could keep watch," She offered, holding his hand.

Another yawn. "Probably a good idea," he agreed. He licked his lips as his hand caressed her cheek, lifting her face to his. "Unless you'd rather..." he began, lowering his mouth to hers. And then, before their lips met, he yawned yet again.

Chuckling, he shook his head. "Or maybe not." Instead, he kissed her on the forehead. Rolling himself in one of the horse blankets he peered up at her, crimson eyes glittering in the darkness. "Try not to dream too loudly," he muttered, voice indistinct with fatigue. "I need the rest..."

Het got a few hours rest with faint, fuzzy images before her dreams touched his. But this time, the dream was different...

She was in his arms, her body warm against his. The scent of sex was still in the air, and their bodies were still entwined. But he was already spent, laying in the pleasant aftermath of sex and enjoying the sensation of closeness. "I love you," she whispered against his lips.

He wanted to be bothered by his inability to reciprocate the feeling. Oh, he could say the words. But they'd be meaningless. So, caressing her cheek, he said what he could. "You are mine," he murmured, kissing her forehead.

Her disappointment was apparent in the sudden tension in her body against his. He shifted a little, exploring the planes and curves of her body, finally letting his hand rest on her stomach. Was it his imagination, or did he sense something? "Mine," he repeated, lips curving into a gentle smile. But even as he said it, the implications of what she would be carrying struck him. Something more demon than human, an outcast in both worlds. "Mine," he repeated sympathy and sadness in his voice.

Waking up was difficult, more difficult than usual. He didn't want to leave the pleasant warmth of the dream, or of Aurianna pressed against him and the thought of what they'd created together. But the sun was beating at his eyes now, and he could hear movement and speech. Aurianna's voice, sleepy and sad and angry all at once, "Boil me some water, please Clara?"

And he smelled the herbs.

Sitting up, he blinked as he looked around. Clara was just beginning to rise, and he motioned for her to sit. "I'll get it for her. You rest up a little." Struggling to his feet, he picked up the kettle and made his way to the little spring they'd found last night. It wasn't a lot of water, but taking the time to fill the kettle let him wake up.

Bringing it back, he set the kettle on the coals. "Something may be stalking us," he announced. "We'll want to dismantle the camp and do as much as possible to disguise our passage." He glanced at

Aurianna, catching her gaze. "Take precautions, you understand? Just in case?"

Aurianna nodded, coming into understanding. "Thanks, for this," she said, pouring the water into the cup she prepared, "Clara, why don't you water the horses, and we can start riding for the day soon."

Clara looked from Aurianna to Matthias and back to Aurianna again before wordlessly agreeing, leading the horses away without argument.

The liquid in Aurianna's cup turned from clear to the dark brown. "Did you sleep okay? I hope I didn't dream too loudly for you." Playful words couldn't hide the tension in her posture. She drained the cup in a single gulp, coughing into her closed mouth.

"Well enough," Matthias answered, watching Clara lead the horses towards the spring. "You dreamed... audibly. But it was a comforting dream." He smiled a little, but the smile faded as he watched her drain the cup. "A pleasant dream. But... perhaps not a pleasant reality."

Sighing, he squeezed her hand and settled back against the rock. "What are we going to do, Ari?"

Her gazed drifted and her voice was uncertain, "We will be safe in the Ten Kingdoms, won't we? For a little while, at least…"

He gestured towards the north. "Not our destination, but after that? After we've found someplace safe to lick our wounds and reequip ourselves." It wasn't what he wanted to say, and he knew it. He was dancing around a yawning chasm that he couldn't quite see.

Licking his lips, he continued. "I know I want to hunt down that blonde son of a bitch. Make him hurt, and beg for death." He flashed her a smile that was full of fangs. "And that's just for what he did to me. For what he did to you, I don't actually plan to grant his pleas." A pause. "Unless you ask."

She simpered, pleased by his words and not hiding it well. "That is a plan I can get behind, but I want to kill him. I owe him that much."

He fell silent. "And after that? I suppose I'll need to find a way to kill Baath-Me'el and most of his court. For the same reasons. I'll probably get myself killed, but it'll be something to do with myself. Because..."

Because I can't have what I want, he didn't say, remembering the dream. Because I can't be what you want.

She stopped him now. "If you are going to face Baath Me'el, I want to be there. By your side. Together, we can repay the hurt he has caused."

There was hope in her words, but it left him frustrated, and he jerked his hand from hers and wrapped his arms around his knees. "I should have made him kill me, Ari. If I had, then none of this would have happened." He sighed. "You'd still be safe in the Order, and we wouldn't be dragging your apprentice in a desperate, damn fool flight from the Goddess to the Godslayer."

Wrapping her arms around him, she brought his head to her chest. "Matthias…you can't blame yourself for everything that happened. I didn't go through half what you did, and I wanted to end it any way I could. If I had listened you over a decade ago, and not rushed headlong into a demon's trap you wouldn't have had to sacrifice yourself in the first place."

Matthias leaned back into Aurianna, relaxing into her softness and the warmth of her arms around him. "But I am responsible for a great deal if it," he said. "Had he killed me, I would never have dragged you before his court in chains. And then you would never have... well, gone through what you did."

Her cheek grazed his, and her lips were soft, pulling from depths of self-pity. "Perhaps, but consider this: if you had gotten him to kill you, and we avoided all this mess? Well, I would be of the Order still and probably married to Jeoram at this point. Believe me when I say this is a far kinder fate."

He chuckled. "All right," he smiled, returning her kiss, "good point. Somehow, I doubt he'd make good husband material." He caressed her cheek, pulling her down into a deeper kiss. "Though I might not be much better." Demonstrating, he bit at her lower lip, just hard enough that she could feel his fangs scratching her skin.

"Just so you know," Clara called, "I can see you two from here. I'm not trying to watch, but all I have to do is turn my head."

Matthias laughed again, shifting his hips in trousers grown tight. "Yeah," he muttered. "She's right. And while I don't mind an audience, it might be a touch awkward with her watching..." After a final quick kiss, he sat up. "You know this country, girl! How much farther to the Sarn?"

"Three days, demon," she called back. "Maybe four, if you two keep dragging your feet every morning."

"I wasn't planning to use my feet!"

"I'm sure I don't want to know," Clara called. "And yuck. And can't we leave him here, Mistress?"

Binding the Demon

Two days after the attack, they finally reached the river Sarn. The water moved along a gentle current, and trees lined the banks. Orange light reflected off the drifts, filling the stream with glittering brilliance, and darkened by the time they settled their campsite. Aurianna pulled Clara aside, "You can bathe first. We'll be nearby by. Just, no screaming over snakes this time, yeah?" Embarrassed laughter and acknowledgment followed as Aurianna mussed up Clara's hair. Turning, with hunger in her gaze, she beckoned Matthias to follow her into the woods.

Matthias had shown great patience since declaring his hunger for her, but he couldn't last much longer. Not with the demon in his soul, making demands. Hell, her own patience was waning. She wanted affection and passion and completion, but more than any of that, she needed control. For whatever reason, the demonlands were quiet, and while they were quiet, she would slake her desires upon Matthias.

Sunset filtered through the trees as they walked. Aurianna knew what she wanted, a location far enough away from Clara that she wouldn't hear them, near a tall tree with an overhanging branch. She didn't speak when she found it, didn't explain, just tossed one end of the rope over the branch, and held both ends in one hand.

"Come here," She demanded. His eyes held a question, but he didn't let that get in the way of her invitation. His arms went around her waist as hers went up over his shoulders. His warmth was welcome against the creeping chill of the evening. His lips proved even more welcoming, parting for her tongue so she could savor his taste. The kiss deepened, fed by their need, carried by the moans with their shared mouths. She caught his hand before they threatened to explore her body, tying them to one end of the rope. The kiss once he was realizing what she was doing.

"I was not talented in my demon binding lessons. Adequate, but not nearly as skilled as I was in handling a spear," she explained, winking with the words, "but I still remember a few things. Like, that it's important to reapply the bindings frequently before the demon gets out of control." Once his hands were bound together, she let go, tugging on the other side of the rope to pull his arms up taut.

Keeping the rope looped in her hand, she stood on tiptoes to kiss him, intending to force him to endure whatever she wanted. The journey down his figure was slow, languorous, her mouth sampling his skin, salty with sweat. Her hands traced every inch of his musculature, immense strength lying just underneath.

"I don't have any demon binding magic to call upon, in order to bind you to me. So I am going to have to find another means subjugate you to my will." She announced, pulling his length out, stroking him harder now. She kept a firm grasp of the rope, know that if she let go, he would take her, fuck her raw, just as he had already promised. Maybe another time, but not tonight. Not with trauma lingering in the back of her mind.

Matthias groaned as Aurianna's lips closed around the bulbous head of his shaft. "You always did... have a mastery of... spears..." he gasped, hands gripping the rope as he tried to buck his hips and drive his meat deeper into her mouth.

He groaned again as she looked up at him, smiling around his cock as her head drifted back with his thrusts. She kept just his tip in her mouth, tongue laving his opening as one hand slid up and down his length. "It seems you still... remember... some of your training…" he gasped out. "Establish dominance... bind the demon to... your will... and compel him to... obedience..."

She went slow. She would not move at his pace, he would move at hers. Taking only the head for the time being, she waited for him to calm himself. Once he was done trying to fuck her mouth, she continued, taking inch by inch between the silken walls of her cheeks. If he tried to force her to take more, she would stop again, and subject his cock to the cool night air. Waiting for him to whimper with need before plunging him back into the sultry sanctuary of her mouth.

His body arched, as he gripped the rope and tried to drive himself into the teasing wet heat of her mouth. "Fuck..." he groaned.

The rope creaked as Matthias gripped it with both fists, groaning and snarling as Aurianna fucked him with her mouth. He writhed under her sweet torture, moaning and snarling and blaspheming. Her free hand slipped between his thighs, gripping the meat of his ass as she took him even deeper. The blunt head of his cock met her throat, pushed in, and her every swallow massaged him. With a sudden roar of release, he felt his seed gush from his cock, pumping into her mouth and throat. The wild bucking of his hips was met by suction and a greedy slurping sound, and he uttered a long moan as she sucked his meat dry.

"Time to check if the binding was successful." Releasing the rope meant tempting his demon. How might he repay her teasing? How might he turn it back on her? Thrill threaded her desire, left her shivering against a night that wasn't so cold. Still, she stood firm, challenging his demonic nature.

"You will repay the favor, with your head between my legs. You will bring me to orgasm with mouth and one finger, and you will not feed on me."

Matthias slammed Aurianna against a tree, roughly dragging at her pants as he did. "Mouth and one finger, hey?" he growled, lifting one thigh over his shoulder as he knelt before her. "Remember... you wanted this."

His mouth covered her mound, tongue playing her slit as he did. It this posture, she was spread open for him, lips parted and dripping with her need. He groaned at the taste, tongue savoring her before his lips fastened roughly on her clit. As he sucked and tugged, one finger thrust into her channel. He grinned, feeling her drip down his hand as he finger-fucked her.

"Oh, Goddess…" Her body shook in the tension that had built up over the last several days, and her hips ground against his face. Wet muscles quivered around his finger, quivering that spread through her body. No pain, only pleasure. "Afodisia!" she praised, trying to nullify his earlier blasphemies by invoking the Goddess.

His tongue replaced his finger, thrusting deep into her. The finger, slick and hot with her juices, left a damp trail as he slid it further back. He circled the tight ring of muscle at her rear, then slowly thrust the slick finger in. One knuckle, then two, tongue fucking her cunt the whole time.

His grin glistened with her lust. "Didn't say how to use the finger," he leered. And then his lips found her clit as he fingered her ass.

"Ma..Ma..Matth...Matthias!" she cried, stumbling over the syllables in his name. This had only ever hurt her, but he was slow. Gentle. Measuring his pace against the demands of her body. His touch rehabilitated past pains into pleasure, teaching her body about bliss. She would give herself to him, give him everything she was and possessed, and in return, he would give her a world of delight. So, she surrendered to him, the tight ring of muscles enveloping his finger until euphoria found her.

Ecstasy and relief trembled along her thighs until she could no longer support herself. "You are mine," She said into his mouth, tasting her pleasure on his tongue, before pulling away to catch her breath. "And I am yours."

Aurianna nuzzled Matthias, giggling in between deep breaths. "Do you want me?" She took a kiss as he answered, testing his reaction, his hunger. "Could you be gentle?" She asked, the words shuddering as they left her mouth. Firmness was called for now, dominance, insisting the demon obey her instead of asking, but she couldn't help herself. Not as fear pooled in the back of her mind once more.

"Gentle?" Matthias echoed, voice thick. His hands shook as he tore at the lacings of her blouse. "I had planned to tie your hands behind your back," he snarled, squeezing the soft globes of her breasts, "and loop it around your throat, and pin you against that tree with my cock." He gripped her throat with one hand, fucking her mouth with a tongue that still tasted of her orgasm.

The hand on her throat tightened just a little and then slid away. Instead, it caught a fistful of hair and pulled, dragging her mouth from his as her neck arched. "Remember," he growled, fangs tracing over her skin as his lips slid down her throat, "you wanted this..."

Aurianna gasped as his fangs pierced her flesh, melting into his arms. Since they'd begun traveling, she resisted the urge to let him take her blood directly from her veins. The heat of his lips on her skin contrasted with the sharp bite of his teeth, combining into an intoxicating sensation that tore down her defenses. With fangs buried in her skin, she was his.

Matthias' tongue sealed the bite, and he leered at Aurianna with crimson lips. With a sudden movement, he pushed her onto her back, pinning her to the ground with a hand on her throat. His other hand gripped his thick cock, lazily masturbating himself as he pressed the head against the lips of her sex. "Say you're mine," he growled. "Beg me to use you."

"Matthias, I want you, I need you, inside me, filling me, making me whole. I want this, more than food or water or, my next breath. I am yours, Matthias, and I need you."

Matthias' blood-stained grin became more feral, more predatory, as Aurianna begged him. Begged for him. Swore herself to him. "Mine," he snarled, rubbing the head of his cock against her clit. "Bound by blood and oaths, you are mine!"

With a single thrust, he buried himself in her, his hips slamming into her and his balls slapping her ass. "Mine to use!" Holding himself still in her he leaned forward and kissed her roughly, and she tasted her own blood on his lips. His hand tightened on her throat as he did, restricting her breathing.

"Don't call up that which you cannot put down," he whispered, his length still within her pulsing cunt. His free hand squeezed her breast, and he pinched and twisted her nipple as his tongue invaded her mouth once more. "And it takes more than just this sweet mouth to put me down..." He flexed as he said it, making his cock throb within her.

"Now," he purred, rising into a kneeling position and gripping her hips, "I am going to fuck you without mercy until you learn that lesson." He began moving, pounding his cock into her with bruising force. With every thrust, her body jerked and bounced. "You will cum, over and over while I use you until you can make me orgasm!"

Oh. how she tried to fight this invasion. She clenched her core muscles, squeezing him, but he just stroked harder, ravaging her. Her legs wrapped around his thighs, holding him within her, but still every thrust rocked her entire body, rubbing her ass raw against the hard ground. All that remained were exultant cries, tinged with pained whines.

She was tossed over, forced up on to her knees so Matthias could fuck her more, his cock hitting her even deeper, harder from this angle. Harder and deeper, as he pulled back her wrists and made her arch her back. She couldn't let this continue. He would break her if this kept up. Oh, she wanted to believe that Matthias would never hurt her, at least not in a way she didn't like. But, there was the demon to account for. The demon that was all instinctual, all base desire, no rationality, no concern for what it did to others. Who was fucking her now? Matthias, or the demon? Was there as much distinction as she had thought? Had hoped?

She had to do something, anything, but it was hard, hard to think as he plunged into her again and again. Somehow, she wrested a wrist from his vice grip, bringing it to her slick sex, brushing against his cock entering her, teasing her clit. She was bucking into him, meeting his rhythm, not just taking him anymore, but also fucking him back.

He snarled as she wrenched a hand free from his grip, and tried to snatch it back. "Who said you could do that, Mistress?" he laughed, grabbing a fistful of her hair instead. Pulling on it like reins, he continued ravaging her. And then his rhythm faltered as her fingers stroked his cock. Releasing her other wrist, he pulled her hair harder and slapped her ass. "It won't work, Mistress," he laughed, slapping her ass again. "I'm going to use you as my plaything until I finish!"

Ari's only response was to stroke them both, fingers playing over his shaft and her clit as he fucked her. And now, with her other hand free, she had the leverage to fuck him back. Drawing on her strength as a paladin, a strength equal to his infernal power, her cunt swallowed him and her ass slammed into his stomach every time he thrust deep into her.

"This... changes... nothing!" he snarled, gripping her hips with bruising force as he tried to take control once more. His words burst forth in gasps, exploding out as her body met his. "You're... still... mine… to... use!" He tried to force her to hold still, to submit to being fucked without mercy, but she was too strong for that. She continued fucking back into him, inner walls squeezing him like a vice and fingers stroking his shaft as he plowed into her.

With a shocked cry, he threw his head back, roaring her name as he drove himself deep into her one last time, gasping as the first hot rope of his bliss spray into her womb. She wasn't done with him, though. Her walls clenched around him as she continued moving, continued fucking his climax out of his pulsing shaft, and he was helpless within her. All he could do was cling to her, shuddering and gasping as she drained his cock dry. Finally, utterly spent, he collapsed against her.

"Yours, Mistress," he whispered, breath hot on her sweat-slick skin. "Your bound demon slave, bound to your soul by ties of seed and blood." One hand trailed along her side, then slipped beneath her body to cup her breast. "But understand that I will try to wrest control from you." He smiled, and bit at her shoulder. "From time to time. So you'll need to practice your binding rituals frequently."

Yours. She smiled at the word, liking the way it sounded coming from his lips. Yours. It was enough, enough for her, enough for now. Yours. It was a triumph, a revelation of her own strength, and prowess. And the sign that he needed her, too.

For a few moments, it was nice, to just lie in his arms. Exerted muscles burned away the cool touch of the night and the scent of their combined lust hung in the air. Breathing in tandem, they both fought to catch their breath, to recover from energetic passion.

It didn't last long. The ground was hard and flecks of dirt stuck to their sweat-slick skin. They needed a fire, and blankets, and clothes at least, in addition to their bodies wrapped around one another. So, she forced herself to sit, wincing at the effort it took to accomplish that much.

"My demon slave, hmm?" She asked, running fingers along his arm, now awkwardly wrapped around her as she tried to get up. "Can I order you to carry me back to camp? After fucking, I don't know if I can walk that far."

"Carry you back to camp, Mistress?" Matthias chuckled, making a half-hearted attempt to pull her back down into his arms. "I think that, perhaps, it could." Abandoning his efforts, he stretched like a great cat.

She realized her voice was hoarse, and her throat was raw. "Did I scream that whole time? Do you think Clara heard?"

"I wouldn't be surprised if the girl heard us." A pause as he struggled to sit up, and then another as he drew her close and kissed her. "I wouldn't be surprised if they heard us at the Seraphim Wall."

Another kiss, and this time he lingered over it as his free hand explored her body. Then, with a laugh, he swatted her rear. "Come on. Let's find our clothes."

Somehow, they managed to keep their hands off each other long enough to dress, at which point Matthias scooped Aurianna up in his arms and carried her back to camp. In retrospect, she probably could have walked, but this was so much better.

"So," Clara asked, not looking up at them, "Did you find what you were looking for?"

"Oh, yes," Matthias replied, voice laced with dry humor. "Several times."