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.