House of Swords (Part 2!)

The climb was uneventful, but took almost the entire afternoon, ascending another thousand feet of worn and overgrown stone laid paths and stairs, all to reach a fair sized outcropping. From above, it was fairly unassuming, but close to the ground, a ghost of the past lurked within the vines and wildflowers. Stones, worn down from hefty sized bricks, littered the flat crop, making obscure mounds of surviving brick and mortar mixed about halved and shattered stonework. She scraped her boot across one layer of vines, revealing the base of a pillar.

These were the bones of an ancient fort, built between the fall of Byzantium and the Islamic conquests, some several hundred years ago, exchanging hands dozens of times before its complete destruction by the warring Russian Tsars and Ottoman Sultanate. She had long forgotten who exactly leveled it though, and in hindsight, it didn’t really matter.

If anything, it made life easier now.

She stopped where the mountain rose suddenly and ran her hand across its surface. Beneath the vines, was an arrow, etched in the stone, which she followed left keeping her hand to the mountain rise. Another arrow pointed up, and she took hold of worn notches hidden in the mountain, and began her ascent, following old footprints she had first put down centuries ago. Three hundred feet up the cliff face she clambered, well beyond where the vines fell away. Wind rushed over her, a riptide that threatened to tear her away from her ascent, something that had happened many times before when she was younger.
She dug in with her fingers, grasping the rock face with strength beyond human, dredging up energy she had taken and left in reserve for years. Beneath her long gloves, intricate patterns began to flare across her skin, pulses of red light coursing along veins. Only her arms maintained a steady glow, and her eyes too she knew, they would be wreathed in flame as her curse kept her going.

Then, she found it, the second arrow, directing her to the right, across the wall. With such intense wind, there would be no jumping today, just slow, deliberate mantling across the cliff. When she tore out a handhold, or one fell away from years of erosion, she punched a new one in and kept going. Deliberate, methodical steps, measured over decades of repetition.

Maybe leveling the fortress hadn’t made life so easy.

Her reaching hand wrapped around a corner, which cut straight into the cliff, and she knew she was there. An alcove none would notice without a drone or helicopter staring directly into it, where once a tower had connected it to the outside world. She slid around the corner, hugging handholds until she was a few feet within and her hair stopped waving like a red banner in a storm. Beneath her feet, sand coated boards made for level ground, and before her, a candle rested in its anchor to the wall. A flashlight would undoubtedly be a better choice, but it had a certain, pleasing aesthetic, one she remembered with fondness. A simple thing that never had to change.

She lit the candle, lifting it from its anchor, and entered the crevice, her little light illuminating the way along smooth walls.

Inside, the air was dry and ice cold, refreshed by mountain gales pouring in through smaller tunnels and crevices in the cliff side. A deep breath chilled her to the bone, bringing ice to her heart. She loved it. Not even the Arctic circle had this smell of home.

The path opened up to a cavern, dug out and refurbished, darker than night thanks to her absence. Heavy curtains were left drawn aside, which she rubbed between her fingers to gauge the wear of the fabric. Pests were rare, but rot and mold could always develop if moisture entered the sanctuary, something she constantly battled with.

Somewhere within the darkness, she caught the shadow of movement. The room whispered an echo of metallic footsteps.

Tsatse smiled. ”No welcome home?” her lips rolled out in the long dead Latin language, last used in her form when cannons pummeled the walls of Constantinople.

A shadow rose from behind a low separating wall, easily eight feet tall, and broader than any man she knew. With each step that brought the goliath out of the darkness, the room echoed with metallic whirring, heavy steps making the boards creak beneath its weight. A red laser lit up on her chest, quickly joined by four more.

”Whom do you serve?” The giant, mechanical shadow spoke, their voice booming in the otherwise silent room, with a grating sound on their simulated voice. It could almost be described as feminine, were it not for the heavy filter.

She beamed at the shadow with a confident smile, ”I serve no man, for I am their wrath. I serve no god, for I am their curse.” She paused, ”For I am War, and all shall break upon me.”

The room fell silent. A second passed by, then two.

The red lasers fell away, and electrical lights befitting a warehouse cracked to life, illuminating the massive, vaguely human looking machine and its heavy machine gun, an American M2. The boxy metal head had no eyes, just a complex sensor that looked sort of like a pane of stained glass, but she could feel it staring into her.

”This would go much faster if you just showed me your hands.”

Tsatse chuckled, strutting forward to drop her bag on the plastic covered couch that lined the low wall. ”Oh come now, you enjoy it. It sounds great.”

The metal giant turned to face her as she passed, ”Its over dramatic. Who do you intend on entertaining with all that?”

”Myself, of course!” Tsatse strode past again, drawing the curtains shut to prevent light from escaping. ”You have to humor me just a little, I don’t have anyone else to keep my Latin sharp these days.”

”Hrmph, you could have at least programmed me with the option to switch languages on my own,” the machine set the heavy weapon down against the arm of the couch and proceeded to assist in reviving the room. ”Its not my fault people keep dying. They should have thought of that before starting wars.”

”And pray tell what language you'd prefer?” she asked, waving dust away from her face.

“American. The dialect of English I was originally programmed for. One that is arguably far easier to speak properly as well.”

Together they lifted a hinged table that lined the center wall, with Tsatse blowing away the cloud of dust that came with it. She let out a sigh, “Fine, but only because you asked oh so nicely.”

“Indeed,” the machine responded, reaching over with a long and heavily armored arm to lift its weapon back into its titanium grip before marching off the strip and clean it, even though it hadn’t been used at all.

“Matriarch, make sure not to clean too hard, you’ll-"

“Strip the rifling in the barrel, I downloaded all the necessary media and am well aware of how to care for my equipment."

Tsatse shook her head. She remembered the first time she saw the war machine, eight years ago during the worst of it when there were still professional armies fighting to remain independent. It was near one of Luthor's industrial complexes, originally a on the forefront of research for military contracts but had switched straight into production mode when Luthor launched an all-out assault on the free world. Dead of night, with artillery drumming in the distance, she had slipped behind the perimeter fence after ghosting a patrolling squad, adopting one of their uniforms to make things easy, then ditching one of the bodies in a ditch where it probably wasn’t found till morning. It’s the little things people forgot in movies, like making use of the now dead soldiers as a helpful diversion and put the base on lockdown, with no one suspecting the one who reported it perpetrated it.

The complex wasn’t too terribly big, so it wasn’t too long before she found it. A warehouse, one of many, filled with giant killer robots, right out of modern SciFi shooters, standing ominously in the dark.

Truth is, she had intended on stealing designs, but once she found the orders detailing how the program was being scrubbed, well it then became all too easy to wake one up, task it to follow her, then disappear into the night. Nobody even questioned her when she said that she was taking ol' murderbot out to hunt down their mysterious new assassin. After all, her squad just got wiped, and she was just raring to get even. They tasked her four more just to keep her safe.

Simple truth in life: pretending you belong gets you far. Everything else is specifics, like how nobody would miss five bots soon to be scrapped anyway.

Of course, she wound up deactivating the other four, flew them out in a plane and that was that. They’ve been serving as spare parts ever since, and Matriarch… she's developed her own quirky personality of sorts. Probably spends too many hours watching media, movies and whatnot.

It took a while, but soon enough she had the place looking lived in again. Her go bags stayed packed, though she did pull out the clothes to be washed, which found her playing electrician again to find out why the washing machine wasn’t running. Turned out the thing had just been unplugged, probably by Matriarch looking to save power. Not like she needed it anyway.

Tsatse changed into some more comfortable clothes she had stored away, cutting open an air sealed bag labelled ‘pajamas' which felt near heavenly, and returned to the center room to begin figuring out which cans needed to be replaced and which still had edible food. Matriarch's heavy metal clanking drew near and passed her by, probably doing something or other, she didn’t know. Matriarch was less guard and more roommate, and even had her own room. No bed of course, Tsatse had returned the first year after recovering Matriarch to find it precariously hidden away in a closet, carefully broken down so it could be reassembled, and honestly, she didn’t have a second thought after.

She did however have second thoughts once she scooped out the can of spam though. When she turned to go to the entrance, she locked eyes with hooded man of white complexion, his verdant cloak being the only piece of attire other than his exposed undergarments. And shoes.

The intruder was totally silent, his arms folded, his face a permanent scowl, and neither moved for what felt like a good while, until finally Tsatse shook her head, never losing eye contact.

“Would it kill you to wear some real clothes?” she asked, lightly tossing the pan of botched food back on the stove. “Or knock?”

The man arched a single brow, and brought a loosely curled hand up, summoning a section of door in mid air, which he knocked on, before it disappeared once again.

Matriarch burst out into the center room, a much smaller rifle in hand to address the intruder. “Contact, identify yourself, now!”

Tsatse rolled her eyes. “Let it go Mattie, he snuck in behind both of us again.”

Matriarch made a robotic sighing noise and lowered her weapon. “That is no excuse.”

The man held up a hand and put Matriarch in sleep mode.

Again, Tsatse rolled her eyes. “Great. Now I’m going to have to listen to her complain about being shut out again.”

“Why do you even keep that machine, dear sister?” he asked, his deep, ethereal voice causing the very ground to vibrate, with an echo like several dozen people had spoken the same as he did.

“Who else should I trust to keep the lights on, Akrasiel?” she snipped, “You? Or are you still too preoccupied jumping between hosts?”

“You know that is not the name I go by in this world, sister,” the man replied, though she knew far better what he really was.

“I am never calling you,” she raised her fingers in air quotes, thoroughly unimpressed, “the ‘Spectre'.”

His face remained unchanged, locked in a sort of sour scowl he always seemed to have. Reminded her of some soldiers she used to know after being taken off the field for excessive violence, though she guessed that was right on the nose with Akrasiel. He only bothered to look down to ensure his feet touched the floor soundlessly, before looking right back up at her. “And what is it in a name, sister, that bothers you so?” he questioned, “You go by several, and most know you not by your given-"

“Do you give Samael the same talk when you visit him?” That cut, she saw it in his eyes. “Do you think Samael was given the option to choose his name when he was cast out?”

“This is not why I have come to you, Abaddon.” His voiced boomed, bringing the room into silence. “I do not have any conflict with my brother, he and I walk different paths, and we both serve Him in our own ways. Do not mistake His intent.”

The silence stretched between them, but somewhere in the room, she could tell the Presence was watching.

“Sister, I have come to warn you,” he said, his voice returning to a low rumble, “There is a darkness spreading on this Earth, growing from within its depths. Left unchecked, it could threaten the very fabric of the multiverse that we govern, and so soon after resolving the last major conflict of realities.” He paused a moment longer to ensure the gravity of the situation settled in, “Sister, I fear that your daughter may well become the price of this reality's survival.”

Power spiked in her veins, her uncovered arms previously smoldering like coals after a fire suddenly ignited once more, rapid pulses of light shooting through her veins. “Do not threaten her in this. I am war, and if there is to be a war, I will be the one who suffers it, not her.”

“I am sorry, sister-"

“Don’t you even dare call me that again,” she growled. “You come into my home unannounced and threaten my daughter, a girl who never had a choice in the matter, and you dare to pretend we're even close enough to be considered family?” Her argument filled the air as she closed the gap, sweeping over the wall onto the couch and marching right up until she was in his face. “She doesn’t even have a father because of you! She doesn’t know anything of her origins, and you want to set her up the same way you set up Immanuel? To take the hit while you all pat your precious, beloved selves on the backs for a job well done? Is that it!?”

He locked eyes with her, and even through her wrath, she could see deep down Akrasiel felt sorrow for telling her this, so much so she was almost taken aback by how he kept a straight face. This close, even with her faded sense, she could tell he was moments away from weeping over it. It cut her heart in two.

She backed down, both of them defeated by the words said. He didn’t want to deliver this message, and she would never have been in a place to accept it. Neither would come away better from this.

“Was there anything else?” she asked, her voiced tempered down.

“Only that you are free to intervene in the way you see fit best. I will not hold you back any longer.” He began to walk away from her, his image fading with every step. “I am sorry, Abaddon. No one deserves this punishment,” his voice faded with him, “Not even Lucifer, and certainly not you.”

He faded into nothing as he hit the curtains, and the silver light she failed to noticed before faded with him, leaving her and the still silent Matriarch bathed in dull gold. She managed a deep breath, watching as her curse simmered back down into coals before moving to Matriarch to bring her back online.

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