Matthias had a weapon, now.
In the early hours of dawn, he doubled back to the ferry, wanting to ensure that Aurianna and the girl, Clara, had made their escapes. He found a scene of battle, the rotting remains of two demons, one impaled on a harrow spear, the other sprawled amongst scorched craters and dried blood. The tattered remnants of the girl’s jerkin lay on the ground as well. Had she been wounded, or Aurianna? He used the jerkin to clean the blade. Spears weren’t his preferred weapon, but he had learned them, along with sword and axe and mace.
Flies buzzed in the background, hovering around demon corpses, as if trying to decide if they could be eaten. After he’d finished cleaning himself off he’d gone back on the hunt. The hunt was all he had left, since Dark Choir had twisted his mind, leading Aurianna to abandon him. Less than a mile from the river, he’d stumbled across three more of the Dark Choir, and a small taste of revenge. Striking without warning, he’d killed all three before they could attempt to warp his mind. The third one he’d drank down, filling the gnawing emptiness with bitter metallic blood.
A shadow flickered, drawing his attention. Glancing upwards, Matthias reached for his spear. Three black-winged demons soared overhead, bearing barbed cruciform lances. The one in the tail glanced downwards, then cried in a harsh voice. As one, the three banked left and circled back towards him.
Matthias didn’t wait. Seizing his harrow spear and coming to his feet, he tossed it into the air and sunk it into the abdomen of the lead demon. She shrieked in agony, clawing at her guts as she tumbled from the air, and he leapt to meet her. Kicking her own weapon away, he tore his spear from her body and drove it into her throat. Blackish blood gushed from her mouth and nose, and then she lay still.
Something tore into the flesh of his back, ripping and pulling as he stumbled forward. He tried to sag to his knees and couldn’t, hooked by the barbs in his muscles. He grunted in agony as the barbs pulled, trying to drag him into the air, and he forced himself to reach up and catch the shaft. Razor-edged ridges grated the flesh of his fingers and palm as he pulled, and he screamed in agony as he released it once more. There was time for a quick impression of flayed flesh and red-black blood streaming down his fingers to soak the earth, and then the other surviving demon swooped down at him.
In desperation, he tore himself from the barbs in his back, screaming in agony when pieces of muscle and skin ripped away. Dodging the other lance was more luck than skill as he stumbled and fell to the ground beneath the swing of the demonic weapon. His left hand closed around the shaft of the harrow spear, and his fangs bit through his tongue as he forced himself not to cry out as he rolled and slashed with the blade. The demons beat their wings, rising away from his strike.
Concentrating, allowing his demon more and more control as he fought the pain and the injuries, he rose to his feet once more. ”You bitches want me?” he laughed, voice becoming cold and inhuman. “Come on, then. I’ll tear your wings away and devour your corpses!”
One of the succubi laughed. “We will take our time on you, little lust demon.” Then she sniffed the air. “You stink of the War-Whore, demon. Perhaps our Mistress will wish to play with you, instead.”
Matthias whirled when a shadow alerted him to the motions of the other demon, and he lashed out with his spear. His tattered back screamed in protest, and his strike fell short. The winged demon’s blow did not, and barbs bored in his left thigh. She jerked at the weapon as she soared past, and he was torn from his feet and dragged behind her. Before he could react, the other demon’s lance embedded in his ribs, and he screamed aloud as he was pulled into the air.
Gasping in pain and wishing he could pass out, the harpies bore him west.
Waking up alone, in a bed, proved disorienting to Aurianna. Where was Matthias? Clara? Where was she, and how did she get here?
A knock at the door drew her attention. The room was simple, all whitewashed walls and sturdy handmade furniture. A dresser, a wardrobe, a single bed with a mattress stuffed with straw and a comforter stuffed with down and goose feathers. There was simplicity in the design that was calculated to allow the beauty of the wood itself to shine through. Clara entered, dressed to match, wearing a dark skirt of homespun wool, and a white blouse and a brocade vest in black and gold. All in all, she looked every inch a farm girl from a successful family.
The scabbarded sword at her side, and the hard set of her eyes, did not match that impression.
They had made it to Monsford, Aurianna reasoned, and they were safe, but not for long. Not with Hydranes approaching. And not Matthias. He was still out there, alone in the wilderness without a weapon. The memory stung, but at least Clara was safe.
“You... you’re looking better...” Clara managed, the words strained. Then her lip trembled, and her eyes watered, and the bed bounced as she threw herself down next to Aurianna and embraced her. “Lady be praised!” she cried out, voice cracking with the emotions she was trying to keep in check. “I thought... oh, Goddess, I didn’t know if you’d make it!”
Aurianna held Clara against her, with her good arm, running fingers through her hair. “I guess the Goddess isn’t ready to bring me home yet.” With a strong effort, she moved her injured arm into her lap and winced as the muscles pulled.
Clara sat up straighter, “Oh, I forgot. I... I didn’t hurt you, did I?”
“Not too much. Besides, the pain means I stand a chance to keep it.”
They sat in silence for awhile, Matthias weighing on Aurianna’s thoughts. Rage at what he’d done mingled with guilt over leaving him behind, and all she was left with was a bitter taste in her mouth.
Clara sighed, twisting the fabric of her skirt anxiously. “I... uhm, I need some... some advice.”
Clara fell silent again, gnawing her lip. Meeting Aurianna’s eyes, she continued, voice brittle with strain. “Monsford is... it’s probably, possibly, uh...” She swallowed hard. “The demons are coming. And... and everyone’s... everyone’s going to, to fight. To try and... and keep them back. Keep them out of the Kingdoms.”
She fell silent again, wiping her eyes and struggling with her voice. “I... they... there’s no... no way, you know? My fa.... my people, they’re... they’re brave. And they’re good fighters. But... but that Host outnumbers them. A lot.”
Shaking a little, Clara wrapped her arms around her shoulders. “So... so I’m going... to the Mountain. To... to the Dragon. Lord Verrier.” Her head turned away, eyes closed tight. “And I... I don’t... don’t know... if... if I’ll... be... coming... back...” She began rocking back and forth, voice falling to a whisper. “I’m scared, Mistress.”
“But Lord Verrier… You said he protects the mortals of his lands.” Comfort was Aurianna’s intention, but uncertainty seeped through. This was a huge force, larger than she had ever seen come for the Seraphim Wall. And here she was, too injured to help.
” I’m going... to the Mountain. To the Dragon. Lord Verrier.” Her head turned away, eyes closed tight. “And I... I don’t know... if I’ll... be... coming... back...” She began rocking back and forth, voice falling to a whisper. “I’m scared, Mistress.”
“Clara, what do you mean?” Aurianna asked, grabbing Clara with her good hand, refusing to let anything else slip through her fingers.
“I am…The offering…for Lord Verrier…” Clara explained, shaking hard, barely able to speak the words.
“No! Offer me instead. The world doesn’t need me anymore, not a broken paladin,” Or a demon’s whore.
Clara shook her head, “You wouldn’t make the trek, not in your condition.” Looking up again, Clara forced a smile through the tears. “Besides, you can heal. You can be a great warrior again. Afodisia isn’t done with you yet, remember?” Clara stood
An older woman declared, leaning against the doorframe. She also looked like Clara, albeit, an older, experienced worn version of her. “Once you’re able, you are to get moving as well.”
“To join Clara? Aurianna asked. She moved to hang her legs off the side of the bed, as if to prove she would be able to make the trek in place of her acolyte.
“No. To go with the rest of the noncombatants to Kirstad,” The older woman informed her. Noncombatant. The word was a punch in the gut.
“Like hell I am. I can fight,” Aurianna, protested, jumping to her feet.
“You can’t even move your arm,” Clara countered, “and your spear is two-handed.”
“Give me a sword. I can fight with my left.”
“With your off hand?” The disbelief in the woman’s voice was another blow.
“From what I saw you need everyone who knows which end of a sword to hold to fight,” Aurianna asserted, “I can fight. I am not useless.”
The older woman just sighed. “Fine, you can stay if you are so certain throw away your life.” She offered her hand, “Ingrud Kelvasdottir, Clara’s Aunt, and Mayor of Monsford.”
Aurianna vented her frustration on a wooden training dummy. Or she would have been, if trying to fight with her off hand wasn’t causing even more frustration. Oh. she wasn’t terrible. Merely mediocre. Below average. The left arm was sluggish compared to its twin. Not used to leading, to driving the attack. When it followed its partner, and it thrived. But her right arm hung limply at her side.
“I had heard there was a Paladin here, but I wasn’t expecting Afodisia herself!”
Aurianna cringed. Not the first time she heard the comparison, but it highlighted her irritation as she failed to live up to the gifts the Goddess had bestowed upon her. Besides, that was what Jeoram used to call her.
“You shouldn’t blaspheme. I am but a pale shadow of her glory. Especially like this,” she replied, sheathing her sword. Abating the urge to stab some innocent bystander. Or embarrass herself by trying and failing. She glanced towards the source of interruption.
“She wouldn’t have given you those eyes, if She did not want Her children to see Herself in you,” the older man teased, twinkling in his worn blue eyes.
Aurianna didn’t respond, just blinked. This was slightly less frustrating than fighting poorly with her off hand. The man was certainly a strange case. Taller than her and thinner, he must have been well into his sixties. His hair was frayed silver and hadn’t been brushed in months.
“Shouldn’t you be evacuating?” Aurianna asked, leaning against a nearby post.
“Oh no, I have far too much work to do here to evacuate. But shouldn’t you, broken paladin?” He shot back at her.
She stiffened at his remark. “I can fight,” she argued, clenching both fists, despite the pain that shot through her right arm.
“Oh, like a green girl,” He laughed, a little too loudly to be appropriate. “Tell me, girl, you want to be really useful?”
Aurianna scowled as he threw insults at her, hurt by their accuracy. And yet, his last question caught her off guard. “What do you mean?”
“You don’t have to be broken. I think I could fix you,” The old man asserted, rubbing his chin. “Almost certain I could.”
“I…don’t understand. Are you some kind of healer?”
“Hmm? Oh no, nothing like that,” The old man laughed once more, as though her remark was amusing.
“So…You can help me?” Her tone was sharp, frustration replacing the brief glimmer of hope.
“Oh, well, yes. Your arm is injured. Why wait for it to heal when you can just replace it?” he asked, as though the question made any sense.
“I...uh.. .what?” Patience wore thin.
“I have a few pieces that I could embed there, should return you to full range of motion. Then you could actually be an asset to Monsford,” he explained smirking. Aurianna’s blank expression spoke louder than words, so the old man, continued, “Follow me to my workshop, I’ll show you what I mean. I’m Otis by the way…”
Hydranes stared down at the tribute, cruel eyes laced with a hint of curiosity. He strung up by chains hooked into the meat of his arms, hanging a few feet off the ground.
“What is Baath Me’el’s rebellious slave doing all the way out here?” She questioned. Before he could even answer, two of her servants drove heated rods into his thighs, preemptively ensuring his honesty.
Matthias felt no shame as he screamed in agony. He’d learned that it actually made torture easier to bear. Slightly. So he shrieked in anguish as iron rods pierced his thigh and pressed into his bones, roasting them. “Killing... your... demons...” he gasped. Then he retched at the scent of burning meat.
Hydranes laughed, then gestured. Bloody meat was forced into his mouth, and he drank it down by reflex. His wounds spasmed around the barbs and hooks in his flesh, trying to heal, and he whimpered in agony as the wounds sealed and tore open once more.
“Where is that paladin cunt I smell on you? Baath Me’el wants her back so badly. I want to see what all the fuss is about.” Her black lips curled into a sinister smile.
He went mad for a second, screaming and struggling against his chains, heedless of the new injuries he inflicted. The hissing kiss of sharp, hot iron driving into his belly stopped him short. “Mine, bitch! She’s mine! I’ll kill you! I’ll rape your corpse in front–”
The rant cut off in a high, keening wail of utter agony. The barbed spike in his gut twisted and pulled, and he screamed again as it tore from his flesh and dragged a perforated loop of intestine behind it. Laughing, Hydranes seated herself on a chair shaped from a living human body. “Oh, I do so love the strong ones.” Negligently, she gestured at an attending demon. “Fetch the worms.”
Strapped down to a chair, there was little else Aurianna could do but scream as Otis applied the metal joint directly to the bone. Far more painful than the injury that wounded her, the injury he was trying to “fix.” And fix was a rather appropriate term for it, as he used blacksmith tools to attach armor directly to the joints, enchanted by magic to move her control. A roundabout way to regain use of her arm, but what choice did she have?
“You need to stay still. And quiet. The procedure is delicate,” he chided her. Then stopped for a moment, looking down on her, with a curious expression on his face. “I forgot to offer you something for the pain, didn’t I?”
“ARGH! Fuck! Yes! Fuck!” Aurianna cried out, aware of the cold metal bonding with the bone. Otis walked away for a moment and brought back a thick leather strip.
“Here, bite down on this,” he instructed, oblivious to the incredulous look on her face. Nevertheless, Aurianna accepted, screaming into the leather as he attached a bolt to her elbow.