Of Lovataar and Liberation

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Act 2: Exierunt ut Vinceret | In Memoria, Adytum



Of Lovataar and Liberation


Jerusalem, Palestine
February, 205 CE

Mosaic

It was market day in the city. The streets were bristling with locals and traveling merchants. Smells of cooking fish, baking bread and the crush of humanity filled the air. She wrapped her robes tightly around her as she worked her way through the crowd, wary of her perceived vulnerability as a woman out alone in the market. She stopped by a stall selling shawls and other woven goods, when she noticed a man staring at her from several stalls away. When she made eye contact with him, he turned away to look at the goods on offer. Subtle, she thought.

She selected a shawl and held its gentle blues up to the afternoon light. She could feel her observer moving further away, but never out of direct line of sight. She wondered what had caught his attention. She wore the cloaks to hide herself as best she could, but she knew attention from men was often forthcoming. Especially when not welcome. There had been a time when she had cultivated such attentions, reveled in the way she could manipulate men and women at the Court just by a look or an opportune smile. But that had been long ago in another place. Another life.

Now, she mostly wanted to be left alone. Men, especially in this new age, felt entitled to a woman’s body in ways she despised. She set the shawl down and offered the vendor a handful of silver denarii for cloth. She slipped the shawl into her bag and moved down the line of stalls. There were twenty or thirty people between her and the admirer, but she felt his gaze on her back as she turned down another line of stalls.

When an alley opened to her left, she ducked down and slipped between the stone buildings. She leapt onto a windowsill and climbed to the roof. She laid on the dusty roof tiles and glanced below to see the man in the cloak dash into the alleyway. His hood came down as he ran, and she saw the telltale gleam of bronze at his eye and neck.

Mekhanite.

She pulled herself way from the edge of the rooftop and turned over so she had her face to the sky, feeling the afternoon warmth seeping through her robes. She draped her arm over her eyes and let her thoughts drift off to another time centuries before, when she had left her family behind.

"Where will you go?"

"I want to see my homeland again," she told her brother and lover. "There is not much left, but the old magic still sings among the rocks. I shall abide there for a time."

You will not stay there. Though it may have been the first place you opened your eyes to at your birth, it was never your home.

She’d told him she’d go to her disciple and finish their work on the plan, laying the groundwork for any number of weapons her people could utilize in the coming months and years. She’d not wanted to leave him in that dark place, but she could not have stayed any longer. If she must mourn, she would do so in the sun and under the stars.

She had very little purpose, other than waiting for the appointed time for the return. She was in Jerusalem to meet a certain person and had taken her time exploring the city. A city apparently crawling with Mekhanite paladins hunting for her. A trio of voices from below her in the alley brought her back to the present with a snap.

One of the voices dominated the others, loudly shouting in Latin with a metallic twang to the pronunciation: “Spread out, my brothers. I saw her come into this alley and I know she’s alone. Vulnerable.”

Vulnerable… how confident.

She watched them separate, the dominant voice heading deeper into the alley on her side while the other two rushed away down a side branch. Careful of where she cast a shadow, she crept along the rooftops of a several adjoining stone buildings, always several steps behind her hunter.

She thought back to her time before meeting the Ozi̮rmok, and the conflict that came with the politics of Court life in Adytum before their revolution. Century after century of violence, either physical or social. And always, she was seen as vulnerable. Because she was beautiful? Because she was a woman? Only the Ozi̮rmok and Nadox had ever treated her as capable without factoring for the calculus of her gender.

The Mekhanite was checking each building he came across, peering into windows briefly before moving on. He stopped in front of an open door, a small residence tucked beneath a larger one, with a small stone staircase headed down into the earth. He was sticking his head in to look around the space and she took the opportunity to leap down behind him. She took several running steps and just as he was turning to look in her direction, she pushed him into the open space.

He fell forward, striking his head on a wooden table. She closed the door behind her and latched it. He was stirring, the telltale clicking of brass gears somewhere under the cloak. She stripped out of her robes to just a sleeveless shift she had been wearing underneath. She placed her foot on his back, between his shoulder blades, and pressed down.

She bent down and pulled the cloak away from his back, baring the bronze plates up his neck and across his shoulders. He started to push against the floor, fighting her weight pressed down on his back. She reached around his face and with a nail slit a shallow cut along the bare skin under his eye. She backed off and watched as he fought, struggling into a seated position with his back against the wall. Fine tremors rippled along his body beyond his control, the wound on his face bled, and his breathing sped up.

The tremors built in intensity until he had to hold his legs from visibly shaking. His voice waivered. “What did you do to me, witch?”

She smiled as he attempted to stand for a few minutes and then gave up, falling back against the wall. “I cannot move. What have you done?”

“You Mekhanites are so fond of replacing parts of your bodies with brass and steel, but you still need flesh. I am familiar with the ways of flesh.”

She saw one of his eyes had been replaced with a red gem which partially lit up the dark basement hovel. There were plates of bronze bonded to his face, leaving only small strips of skin exposed. She had slit a thin line just below his natural eye but above the uppermost plate sitting. From the cut small tendrils of flesh were protruding and gripping the bronze plating.

“What do you want with me, man of bronze?” she asked.

“You are Lovataar, queen of the abominations.”

She laughed. “I am not a queen of anything.”

He spit. “High priestess then. Witch.”

“Closer to truth. What do you want from me?”

“Eradication. Burn out the rot at its root.”

She shook her head, grimacing. His limbs pulled tight, as if lashed to four horses; he gasped in pain.

“Why do you think so little of us, Mekhanite?”

“You and … your kind,” he coughed. “…you and your kind… abominations… unnatural.” A trickle of blood flowed from his natural eye and mouth.

We are unnatural? You replace your skin and organs with metal and we are unnatural?”

“Your god is all that is cancerous in this universe. And you are its creatures, its servants on Earth.”

“We. Have. No. God. We kill gods, you metal buffoon.”

She clenched her fist and tendrils exploded from every exposed patch of skin on the Mekhanite, wrapping themselves around his body. Each left bloody trails across the bronze plates and the cloak as his limbs were brought in tight against his body. He whimpered as he slid into a supine position. Before she left, she draped a ragged blanket from one of the hovel’s beds over his limp but breathing form.

Lovataar donned the robes over her slip, pulled them tight against her body, and lifted the hood over her head. She wiped at the few droplets of blood that had marked her face and hands, then slipped down the length of the alley and away from the market.

sarkicism1

An hour later she found her way to the trades district near the city walls and entered a glass lantern maker’s workshop. The last of the afternoon sun was beginning to set beneath the horizon behind her as she entered.

“Sorry, miss. If you’ll be wanting some custom work done, you’ll have to come back in the morning,” an older man from the back of the workshop called out.

“I did not intend to buy a lantern from you, but I would if it would lead me to what I want.”

“And what would that be?”

“I have heard that Jacob, son of Ephraim, works in this shop.”

“He does. What do you need of him?”

“Well, Jacob… I was hoping you would speak to me of the other realm. Of the veil which separates the waking world from the gods and even the spirits of the dead.”

“There is only one god, the Most High. But what makes you think that I would be the one to inform you?”

“I have heard tell of your knowledge at that art called Kabbalah, mapping the aethers and the face of God.”

“I have studied the texts.”

“Have you heard the term ‘Nevermeant’?”

He froze, his eyes wide.

“Please, I ask because someone I love very much has become lost in its seas.”

His face softened. “Then your loved one is almost certainly lost.”

“They are made of stern mettle. Let us assume the experience would not have destroyed them. What would it take to pull them back to the waking world?”

He began to speak and did not stop until many hours had passed, and the sun had long set. When she left, her tutor well paid and her curiosity sated, she returned to her rented room. She had not finished writing her letter to Nadox until the sun rose again on the morn.



Constantinople, Byzantine Empire
July, 1271 CE

constantinople

She woke with a start, even the light silk slip covering her body stifling in the summer heat. Lovataar stood from the bed and went to the intricate enameled shutters hanging over the bed. She tossed the shutters open and let the breeze from the Lycus river below flow into the room. The apartment was situated high in the noble district of the city, overlooking the river. Behind her, there was stirring in the bed.

She leaned on the windowsill, letting the air flow through her slip and hair, cooling the sweat on her skin. She looked at the Byzantine nobleman in the bed, slowly waking from their joint midmorning nap. One eye opened and looked toward her form, backlit from the summer sun.

Vestēs Asylaion Spartenos yawned and smiled at her. She wondered again why she was here.

“Hello, my darling,” he said.

“Dear Vestēs, you look liable to fall back asleep and waste away the day.”

“Mmmm.”

“Is this what the noble Court Vestēs do in the great Byzantine Empire? Sleep away the daylight hours?”

“My duties are mostly diplomatic and bureaucratic, but it’s not my sloth that keeps me to this bed my dear. If you were not so energetic in our lovemaking, I might have spare energy. But, alas, I must reserve my strength to satisfy your passions.”

She smirked. That, you only barely do, she thought.

She bent to the table below the windowsill and poured herself some wine from the dwindling carafe.

“Will you pour me one as well, my love?”

She had never claimed to love him. She loved very few, and certainly not someone so vapid as this. But he was pleasant to look at and pleasant to sleep next to, so she did not correct his misapprehension. She poured him the last of the wine in another goblet and carried it to him in the bed. He is no Ion.

“Asylaion, you know I cannot stay forever. When will you introduce me to the chief of the palace? My family expects me back in another month, which means I should leave soon. You said he was your uncle, and that you could introduce me.”

“My uncle is the Kouropalatēs, it’s true. He is my mother’s brother and he is very fond of me, as he has no children of his own. And I will, Serena! I keep my promises.”

She scoffed and turned back to the window. The white walls of the luxurious apartment were cleaned daily by servants, who brought the Vestēs his wine and food while he was at home.

“Don’t be mad, my sweet! And don’t go running off, back to the darker alleyways of Paris! Stay here with me.”

She shook her head without turning back to him. Paris. She had not seen Paris in nearly a century. She was just sick of this city, and its Christian oligarchical nonsense. Better to go back to Prague and see Nadox, this endless wandering was going to eat her alive. She had no home, just a series of luxurious apartments in European cities, men trying to bed her, and no purpose. She had told him that she was from Paris, that she came from a noble Frankish family, and that her name was Serena.

He thought her some petulant child no doubt. She looked to be nineteen years old, as it did her well to let men underestimate her.

“Serena, did you hear me?”

She turned to look at him. “Yes. I heard you. But what I heard was sweet nothings about my staying in this city and becoming your whore, while you fail to produce an introduction as promised.”

He stared at her, but she turned back to the river and drank more of the wine. Why had she ever let him think she was seduced? She was so bored. Why bother to couple with anyone who was not a Klavigar or Ion? She grinned when she thought that the only other person with her perspective on time outside of her extended family was Bumaro, but then, he would not find that so funny.

His hands found her bare shoulders and his lips found her neck. He cooed at her like a lost puppy, as he turned her face to his for a kiss. She let him. I could eat you alive. And yet, because I am a woman, you treat me as your property already owned.

“I do not want you to be my whore. I love you. Be my wife! Think of the prestige your family would earn. And think of the trading contracts for your father. Besides, I would provide for your every desire.”

Gods’ blood, but he likes to hear himself talk.

“Convince me, Asylaion. Introduce me to your uncle and show me you actually have the connections you have promised for a week.”

“Tomorrow, there’s a function at the palace, I can introduce you then. I was going to invite you anyway.”

She turned and smiled at him, willing the annoyance to leave her face. “Thank you.”

He patted the bed and she walked over, leaned over him and whispered in his ear. “Food.”

He laughed and rang the bell for his servants.

sarkicism1

The Palace of Blachernae was crowded with Emperor Theodore Lascaris’ supplicants and family. Lascaris was first Emperor of this new state, Nicaea, but for all intents and purposes it was Byzantium. Lovataar had been here centuries before, and the pomp, the affluence, the blind arrogance was the same. Much like her home in Adytum, before the Ozi̮rmok came. Brilliant opulence almost completely unfettered by any limitations.

Asylaion took her arm, wrapping it around his own and insisted on introducing her to three or four functionaries before finally taking her to the refreshments. “My uncle is hosting a series of visitors; we just need to wait a little while.”

She nodded absentmindedly as she took a goblet of wine from his outstretched hand. At least the wine and food at such functions were usually superb. But then, thoughts of the celebrations upon the establishment of an Adytum free of Daeva rule brought up memories unwelcome. Ion had been gone for nearly 1500 years, and she had left Nadox only a century later. Except for the occasional letter sent his way, she had only spoken with him twice in that span of time. He was busy with his machinations and the revolution of his flesh, but she wondered if he missed her. She certainly missed him. And of course, Ion. But what she missed most was purpose.

She had come to Constantinople for one reason, to establish in-roads for her brother’s agents, such that trade and supplies could be ensured for the scattered tribe of the Nälkä. If the plan was to continue to unfold, she was sure support from an Imperial power would be beneficial. She’d not informed Nadox or her disciple of this plan, it was born out of frustration. So much time, so little purpose. Her great work already accomplished and yet not completed until all the moving parts came together.

A duty to wait.

Asylaion touched the small of her back. She looked at him and smiled. He breezed her around the palace banquet halls, introducing her to dozens of petitioners of various noble stations. She remembered very few of the names, as she guessed Asylaion was showing her off. A woman as property. A concept that was still so alien to her, being raised as a Daeva and then in the freed Adytum. She hated this new world. Even if she did not need Ion back by her side, she would have waited for the plan if only to reset society back to equal footing for all individuals no matter what gender they identified with.

“My uncle is ready for us, that’s his manservant over there.”

She nodded, following him away from the gathering and into an antechamber with a very well dressed older man surrounded by retinue.

“Ah, so this is the lovely Serena my nephew has been telling me about!” The older man took her hand in his and kissed it.

“I’m pleased to meet you, my lord.”

“And I, you, Lady Klavigar.”

She froze, his hand still gripping hers tightly. She pulled her hand from his and turned away just in time to see Asylaion darting from the room. Betrayed, made a fool of. Damn him. She turned, her nails extending and the veins in her arms bulging as her system flooded with adrenaline, her will asserting control over the flesh.

“Now, Lovataar, none of that,” the “uncle” said. Vents opened in the floor in a rough square formation around her and flames as tall as she rose from the openings.

“I would like to speak to you before the holy inquisitors come for you, but first…” The older man looked to his side and nodded to a subordinate. She felt the floor give way and she was suddenly in a cage too narrow for her to lay down in. The metal was hot from the flames and scalded her skin. She cried out as the topmost layer of skin burned in parallel to the bars. The cage was lowered and then pulled horizontally until placed over a shaft before being dropped like a stone. As resilient as she was, she still lost consciousness at the impact.

sarkicism1

Two weeks they had interrogated her, caged in a heated cell such that her skin blackened and crisped but never such that she would die. Any normal person would have perished after the first day of this Mekhanite torture, but she was Klavigar.

What mattered was that her ‘host’ promised Bumaro’s inquisitors would arrive any day and begin their trial. All because she was an “abomination.”

She grabbed the bars of her cell and pulled with all her might, but the heat burnt the palms of her hands and forced her to release her grip. She was weak from lack of sleep and minimal food. Her halkost’s regeneration prevented her body from taking too much damage, but as the burning was constant, she could feel her strength waning.

She drifted, not asleep but not fully awake until she heard a clanging metal sound and the metal started to cool. She looked up and saw the guard with two individuals staring at her, the cage door open.

“My master bids you be careful, she is not to be underestimated,” the guard was saying, his halberd pointed at her chest.

The two individuals looked modified, with brass and steel parts covering much of their bodies. One of them had a bronze grill instead of a mouth. His voice was metallic and distorted.

“Know your place, guard. Do not speak down to the Chosen. Now bind her.”

The guard pressed the halberd lightly against her chest, just enough so that the heated point burned her breast through her ragged robes. Distracted as she was by the searing pain, she barely felt the manacles shut around her wrists and ankles.

She was roughly pulled to her feet and half dragged out of the cell. The two inquisitors glared down at her as she was hauled into another cell and bound to a torture device. Her arms were bound to iron manacles held above her head, her back arched on a rounded drum of some sort and her ankles bound again but spread such that she could not quite find her purchase.

The inquisitors glowered at her from across the room for several minutes as they spoke softly to one another. Then one of them stooped over her as the other circled behind the device.

“You will tell us where your fellow Klavigars domicile, and you will tell us quickly, witch,” the one in front of her spoke. She could feel the spittle from his mouth as he growled the words.

The one with the grill instead of a mouth stood slightly behind the machine and began to circle to the mechanical apparatus stationed on her right side. As he passed, she extended her fingers as far as they could go and forced her ailing body to grow her nails. She almost missed him, but she felt the nail on her index finger glance off the bronze armor bonded over his loins. She could feel the flesh underneath the armor, pulsing with blood.

He started to back away, but she pushed with all her might. Dislocating the wrist in the process she plunged first one nail, and then three, through the armor and dug into the space behind his manhood. He gasped, bending over. The other looked up in alarm but was too late to do anything as she absorbed the grill-mouthed inquisitor’s flesh into her being and felt the strength returning, the burns closing.

The inquisitor that had bent over her pulled a short sword, but she had already ripped her way loose from the manacles. Lovataar sunk fingers into his eyes to the knuckles. She felt his brains leak out as she withdrew her nails. Both Inquisitors sunk to the floor, dead or dying.

She ripped the manacles around her ankles free from the torture device and pulled her robes across her healing body. Lovataar strode from the torture chamber on bare feet, the manacles clanging against stone with every step.

Guards fell once they were within a stone’s throw of her as her halkost began producing one virulent plague after another. If they were enhanced Mekhanites, she slipped within their guards to cut out their hearts, punching through armor and cloth like it was paper. She had taken daggers from two of the guards and had to defend against a few feeble attacks, but they were flesh under their modifications.

She walked out of the prison’s front entrance and saw the man who had captured her trying to saddle a horse, casting panicked glances back towards her. She let one of the daggers fly, puncturing his left thigh. He shrieked as she bent over his shuddering body.

“If I had the time or the inclination, I would have liked to set you on fire, my host. Let the last fiery moments of your life be a willing testament to the lack of respect you showed a Klavigar.”

She pulled the knife from his thigh and he screamed.

“But I do not have the time, so take my gift. The gift of eternal life, from one who served at the right hand of the Ozi̮rmok. You do not deserve it, and I hope it gives you much pain.”

She walked down the dirt road along the front of the prison. His screams intensified behind her as his body expanded and contorted to allow for the added mass and new tissues. Before she had walked to the end of the road and turned a corner around the walls of the prison, he had begun tearing up chunks of the street and buildings with his great red paws. Protrusions caught fleeing guards and prisoners alike and pulled them into his maw. She could still hear their cries as she made her way to the city gate. She left Constantinople that very moment, bedraggled and dressed in rags once meant to impress the Imperial family. And yet, despite the pain she had endured, Lovataar smiled.



Lisbon, Portugal
December, 1851 CE

lucienmanor

Lucien, once Kalākāran, placed a bowl in front of her. She sat at the head of a large dining table in his opulent manor. He sat adjacent to her on the right. “I hope you like it; I tried my best to recreate klȗrgȁt.”

She dipped the spoon into the broth and brought it to her lips. She smiled. “Yes, it is very close. Thank you.”

The soup had a similarity to borscht but with a coppery aftertaste, no doubt due to the inclusion of blood when making the stock. There were other subtle differences to the original dish, but she was touched by his attempt to make her feel welcome.

He sipped at his wine and took some small spoonfuls of the broth into his mouth. He dabbed his lips and spoke again. “It’s been almost ten years since I saw you last. What have you been doing, Master?”

She picked up the glass of wine in front of her and raised it to him in a silent toast; he did the same. It was rich and sweet, complicated. Like her feelings being in his company again.

“I have been wandering mostly. Studying some of the occult, experimenting with some of the outlying Nälkä communities, and experiencing the world. I even went to America for a short while.”

“Ah, America, they seem rather brash there.”

She laughed. “They are. But they’re young. Also, troubling.”

“How so?”

“There are men there organizing, in partnership with those in England, who would study the occult. And if they discover something, they lock it away. Hide it from the normal humans. I think they could be trouble for our people eventually.”

“From an ocean away?”

“Do not forget the Darkwater Lodge and Natau family are effectively in Louisiana, not an ocean away. Besides, the world is smaller than it was: a month at sea and one can cross the Atlantic. We had best keep an eye on this American Secure Containment Initiative.”

“I’ll pass the word along, I’m sure the others will have made note. But I apologize if this is too forward of me… you seem unwell.”

“Are you saying I look tired, Lucien?” She looked at him from the corner of her eye as she sipped more of the broth.

He laughed. “No, that is not what I meant. You look stunning as always. I mean to say, you seem not yourself.”

“And what is this self I do not seem like?”

“Driven. Passionate. A leader.”

“Who am I to lead?” She raised her voice slightly. “Where is my army? Where is my part of the plan? Ah yes, it is fulfilled. I merely wait. More than two thousand years, I have been waiting!”

“Ion surely knew–”

“Oh, certainly they knew how long they would be absent. And I think Nadox knew. But all I was aware of was it would be ‘a long time’. Waiting for more than twenty centuries is quite long enough, don’t you think?” She tossed the spoon into the bowl with a splash.

“My lady…”

“No, Lucien, listen. Do not adopt this modern man’s worldview of women with me. I was a Daeva and then I was Klavigar, long before the Christ was born. We have watched Rome and Byzantium and a dozen other empires crumble. If you speak to me as women are spoken to in ‘polite society’, I will take your tongue.”

He was silent for a time and then got up to retrieve the bottle of wine from the mantle. He poured her another glass as he spoke. “My apologies.”

“No, I should apologize. I hate the way society has shaped its view of my sex. I have wandered this ‘modern society’ watching each wave of modernity improve the technical aspects of life and barely touching the social. To know that every handsome cab driver that sneers at me or is a touch too lecherous, I could end in the space of a breath… it’s not enough to have power, if society treats you like you do not.”

“You seem lost,” he said.

“What am I here for? Just to wait for Ion? I want to be doing something of worth.”

“Well, even if the great plan did not factor in for your necessity, I could certainly use your guidance.”

“About what?”

Love, for one. But the work as well.”

“Love? What do I know about love? The loves of my life are spread around the globe and beyond, I have not seen them for hundreds of years. Saarn is the only one that checks in on me. Orok is buried under his temple, and Nadox has imprisoned himself in his Cloister. Me? I wander. Love is a wistful memory, Lucien. I have obligations.”

He looked uncomfortable. “Then, I apologize, again.”

“I will wait for the appointed time; I will act when it is my time to act… but despair is my constant companion. All I can hope is that when the Ozi̮rmok returns, they have some purpose for my life. For I have failed in finding one of my own.”

“Then, let us talk about the work.”

sarkicism1

They spoke deep into the night about the work he was doing with the carrier organism they had created so long ago. They had made a disease so devastating that it could wipe out most of the world in months. But Lucien had ideas to use the work as a basis for other things: intoxicants, the basis of stem growth in Nälkä soldiers, and the foundation of whole new forms of life.

Before he went off to bed, he warned her that she had caused a stir in the manner of her travel. Forces watched him, even if they could not do anything about it. He was afraid the fire of this attention would burn her as well. She reassured him, she had been burned many times before and had grown calluses.

She sat by a fire in his manor’s library with some brandy and an open book, but she wasn’t reading. Lovataar stared at the crackling fire and sipped at the brandy. She wore a man’s riding pants and blouse tucked in, but she had cast aside her boots and riding jacket.

Suddenly, one of Lucien’s servants burst into the room panting. “Where is Mr. Dutoit, Madame?”

“In his bedroom, I believe. Is there something wro–” He was already gone, racing up the stairs. She shook her head at his rudeness and sipped more brandy. A moment later she heard the pounding of someone descending the same stairs rapidly.

Lucien approached her in his bed clothes and dressing gown. “We have company. We need to go from this place.”

“What is it?” she asked.

“Mekhanites. An entire squad of them. Surrounding the villa.”

“And were these the forces watching you, Lucien? Or the ones that were following me?”

“You were followed?”

“Oh yes, at least since Paris. I thought they would spring a trap on the road, but then I made it to your manor without incident.”

“Possibly they were intimidated by you.”

“It never stopped their lunacy before, I told you about Constantinople, yes?”

He nodded. “Well, come then, let’s get you out of here.”

She pulled her boots on and picked up her riding jacket. “Lead the way.”

He ran back to his room, pulled on some clothes while she waited and then she followed him through a series of hidden panels in the walls. He led her down a hallway that led to the stables, reaching for a door when the wall of the manor caved in.

He tried to leap back but a metal-gauntleted fist struck him in the right temple, sending him to the floor. Lovataar kept her grip on Lucien’s forearm as he fell, twisting so she forcibly dragged his unconscious form away from the melee. She bent to pick up Lucien’s dagger and turned towards their attacker.

She was nearly eight feet tall, covered head to toe in hardened armor plating. Even the space for her eyes was crisscrossed with mesh. The plates sat on top of one another, slightly offset, so each step or movement created these quiet slipping sounds as well-oiled plates moved against one another.

When her voice came, it was cavernous and metallic with an underlying lyrical tone that made Lovataar think the woman had once had a beautiful singing voice.

“My coterie will not interfere. The perimeter is being maintained, but you are mine, Klavigar.”

Lovataar stripped out of the riding jacket and held the knife towards her assailant.

“You have nothing to say, witch?”

“Talking with you zealots is always a waste of my time. Say your piece and then I’ll kill you.”

The towering woman laughed; it was a very unpleasant sound with so much of her inner workings being converted to machinery.

“Are you so sure you’ll kill me?”

“Enough posturing, you plate mailed idiot.”

“Fine, your death will mean so much to the cote–”

Lovataar lunged, driving the dagger into one of the mesh-covered eye holes in the woman’s armor. The mesh caught the blade and prevented it from penetrating more than a finger’s width. The Mekhanite reached up, grabbed the wrist holding the blade, and wrenched it way from her face. Lovataar felt the bone snap in the forearm the giant had grasped. She gasped in pain as the Mekhanite dropped her onto the floor.

“So confident and yet, you attack with a knife? Look at me, you abomination. You thought a dagger would suffice?”

Lovataar stood, bracing herself against a wall and then passed the blade to her good hand. She was amazed she hadn’t lost it. The bone in her right arm was setting and fusing, the muscle rippling under the skin. It was extremely painful.

The giant Mekhanite extended a shimmering steel blade from the back of her gauntleted right hand. At its full length, the blade was equivalent to a gladius. The giantess held her feet wide and beckoned the Klavigar forward.

The muscles along Lovataar’s arms, legs and back bulged, adding mass. Her riding pants strained, the seams split along her thighs. She approached the Mekhanite carefully and feinted with the knife. The giant parried with the wrist gladius but instead of backing away, Lovataar plunged forward and gripped the right forearm of her assailant. She pivoted, heaved and added her strength to the giant’s momentum, causing her to stumble into the corridor wall. The Mekhanite’s shimmering blade sunk into the plaster, blackened from the heat coming off the weapon.

The giant howled and ripped her sword from the plaster, showering the unconscious Lucien and Lovataar with debris. She leveled the blade at Lovataar, and it burst from her wrist with the force of a gun. The Klavigar did not have the time to dodge so she twisted such that the blade struck her in the right shoulder. She screamed as the blade plunged into her flesh, cutting tendons and shattering bones. She dropped the knife and grasped the blade, gripping the cable that trailed from the weapon to the giant’s wrist.

The Mekhanite tried to reel the weapon back to herself, but Lovataar held it firm, ignoring the burning crackling sensation. The giant growled and whipped her arm, yanking the blade free of Lovataar and reeling it back in. The cable slid into some unseen cavity in her gargantuan arm as the weapon locked into place.

Now, I will say my piece. You have haunted our order since the war, making no effort to hide yourself in your wanderings. Poisoning the world with your flesh magics. I will take your life, I will not prolong this experience but I cannot wa–” The Mekhanite interrupted her rant with a visceral scream reverberating out of her metal throat.

Lovataar stood, her left hand over the wound in her right shoulder, feeling the bones and cartilage reconnect. The wound still bled – the burnt flesh resisted knitting together – but she barely paid heed to the discomfort. The Mekhanite was on her knees, clutching at her right arm. The banded metal plates that covered her arm bulged first at the wrist and then continuing up to her shoulder. The banding bent and split, pushed open by the roiling flesh of the arm.

“What is this?” the giantess growled.

“The end of you.”

The armor plating had almost entirely separated from the Mekhanite’s arm, the flesh expanded and rippled, extruding tendrils to several dozen points on her body. The tendrils ripped at the armor plating, causing various shallow wounds across her form. Finally, the bulging bands around her shoulder and down into her chest burst open, spraying Lovataar with the Mekhanite’s blood. The giantess shuddered and slumped down onto the floor, a pool of blood spreading beneath her.

Lovataar bent over the form. “If you survive this, remember that you labelled us abominations. I will gladly paint myself in your blood to lay claim to the title.”

She walked back to Lucien and picked him up with her good arm, turning to the gaping hole in the wall that led to the stables. She put her disciple over a horse and tied the reins to her own mount. She cinched her riding jacket close against the cold and urged the horse forward.

They only encountered one Mekhanite leaving the property. The man took one wide-eyed look at Lovataar covered in the giant’s blood and turned away without offering resistance. She continued on for several miles, and once she was sure they were not followed, rented a room at an inn in the city.

In the night, as she watched over the closest thing she had to a child, praying that he would wake, a grim thought took hold in her mind.

I will fulfill my obligation. I will return Ion to the waking world. But I will no longer be a catspaw. Ion shall grant me the purpose I crave in reshaping this world, or if he does not, I will plot my own course.

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