On the Path, Part 3

Before Aveline could speak, Faolan disappeared from her side and dashed toward the staggered beast, swift and silent as a wolf without a pack. The wounded Knight was captivated.

The girl was fast. Very fast. Aveline noticed that her small-statured savior wore no armor apart from the shield and wondered if madness or bravery were behind such reckless actions. She knew well how fine a line separated the two in the heat of battle.

The Knight tried to flex the fingers around her sword’s hilt, but to little effect. The right hand would not hold. With a groan of frustration, she grabbed Durendal in her armored left hand. Vision swimming from blood loss and hunger, she gathered her legs beneath her weary body and propped herself up with the weapon. A wave of cold shuddering washed over her. Before now the Knight had never been so grievously wounded and in that moment was made painfully aware she had in the past relied too often on her comrades for safety.

Beneath her gauntlet the sigil glowed more sickeningly bright than ever before. Aveline felt her mangled arm slowly repairing itself, the sensation bizarre and unsettling. She looked from the bloody wound to the young girl ahead and the dark enemy beyond. For the first time since the bleak nightmare of the void, the Knight was genuinely glad to have been so cursed. She parted her lips and gave quiet thanks to those whose souls restored her. Despite the girl’s obvious determination, Aveline would not allow anyone to face such a formidable foe alone.

The obsidian creature struggled to disentangle itself from Faolan’s trap and grew increasingly frenzied with each passing second. Wherever the line touched crystal skin, it seemed to burn, eliciting teeth-rattling shrieks of pain. Clouds of grey shadow rose from multiple points of contact and Aveline realized with surprise that Faolan’s wire was enchanted. Who was this girl, to be so armed?

Thin limbs cloaked in darkness swiped at their bonds. Great ditches were riven where claws thrashed. As the monster twisted and crawled, it rolled mindlessly around the clearing, trampling grass until it smashed into the tall, forgotten monolith at the center of the glen. Cracked blocks of time-worn stone thundered to the ground in a heap of ruin and dust around the creature. Finally, it righted itself and pulled against the spear anchored in the tree. A mass of roots exploded out from the soil as the tree toppled and the spear was dislodged from its home with a burst of tiny wood splinters. The beast celebrated with a roar.

The battle had truly begun.

Faolan raised her sword and shield and danced between the demon creature’s tall legs. She seemed possessed of unusual cunning, striking only when opportunity allowed, dodging and ducking when necessary. The small silver blade rent deep gashes in her enemy’s gloomy hide. And though the beast had the advantage of size, it was nothing compared to the young warrior’s speed. Where Roland had trained Aveline to exercise brutal efficiency, Faolan’s movements were beautiful; her body in harmony with the ebb and flow of the violence around her. 

Still, the Knight wondered how long she could sustain the attack before fatigue took its toll. No armor slowed her, but none would protect her if the tide turned for the worst. Aveline focused on clearing her vision and mending her arm, hoping she would not be too late to make a difference.

“Retreat and gather yourself!” The Knight shouted.

Faolan danced away from a thunderous blow that sent the frustrated beast sprawling. The young warrior moved to the edge of the melee and without turning responded. “Run and hide? Never. Expect as much from a witch.” The girl spat with disgust onto the trampled grass.

Aveline was taken aback and gaped in surprise. She muttered under her breath as Faolan advanced on her quarry with the swagger of confidence only the foolish can manage.

The dark creature and the callous girl engaged again in their brutal ballet. And though she acted the aggressor and her attacks were accurate, Faolan seemed to inflict no lasting damage. Each wound, too shallow to last, was in a short while regenerated beneath a swirling cloud of shadow. Cracked obsidian was quickly replaced by a dark glassy surface. And though the change was subtle, it was obvious the girl's strength was flagging, just as the Knight had feared. A grimace of frustration undermined her steely countenance. From one moment to the next her once graceful movements were slower, her reactions less harmonious, her breathing more ragged. White puffs of exhausted breath took shape around her head.

The beast grew impatient of the game and reconsidered its tactics. It turned its smooth, eyeless face toward the tiny human and backed away, lowering its great horned head. Jets of steam shot from its abyssal mouth as the creature dug its taloned limbs into the ground. A low avalanche growl reverberated from deep within it. Alarmed by this sudden shift, Aveline recovered herself and stood. Injury be damned, she could no longer sit idly by.

The creature charged. The Knight ran.

Faolan brought her shield up in time, but it was not enough. Long, black obsidian antlers struck polished silver with immense, unavoidable force. Like Aveline before her, the young girl was thrown backward and tumbled head over heel before sliding to a stop in the mud, the beauty of her battle but a memory. The girl did not move. The beast stamped and brayed in apparent victory before lowering its head to charge again.

Aveline needed time. She launched past Faolan to stop several yards ahead of the obsidian creature. There in the dirt, as she had hoped, the girl’s silver spear waited like a misplaced treasure. As the enormous monster trampled toward the Knight, she flicked the weapon up with her foot to catch it with her wounded hand. With no time to wonder if the arm had strength enough to throw, Aveline snapped the spear forward at the encroaching enemy. The enchanted javelin embedded itself with a crack in the twisted creature’s face. Shards of obsidian rained down as the monster howled in pain and frantically struggled to dislodge the weapon.

From behind the Knight, a small voice admonished her. “Don’t need your help. Leave me be, witch.”

A bolt of relief shot through Aveline’s heart, but she had had enough of this nonsense.

“You fight bravely, but I am no witch.”

Possessed now by a volcanic rage, the howling creature charged again at the Knight and the young warrior. Within striking distance, it reared up on its hind legs and thrust its talons as it had before. But this time, Aveline twisted aside to evade the blow, deflecting sharp obsidian with the flat plane of the sword’s blade. Her arm held fast against the onslaught.

“I am the Knight Aveline of the Kingdom of Valerius!”

She lifted Durendal and let the momentum of the weapon spin her body, blue cloak billowing behind her. Faolan watched in awe despite her misgivings. As the beast retracted its thin, crystalline arm, the Knight brought down her sword with a bold shout and a confident grin. Now was her chance.

The long sword glowed silver and white, the air around it hazy with the energy of her intent. Black crystal cracked and split. With one powerful slice, forearm was separated from body. The demon creature bellowed at the Knight, its frenzied jaws snapping open and hot breath spewing forth. The heat of the thing was overwhelming. Shadow gushed from the wound. The creature staggered, then crashed to the ground in a mess of dirt and darkness. Before it could recover, Aveline sprinted to the thing’s left arm and severed it as well.

Incapacitated and made vulnerable by the loss of its appendages, the creature stumbled backward away from the Knight, dragging its torso in the dirt. It seemed incapable of regenerating such trauma. Though she and Faolan were victorious, pity and regret flickered in Aveline’s heart, for it was not in her nature to inflict such cruelty.

But all thoughts of sympathy soon evaporated when the creature opened its mouth to speak…