if thy right eye should offend thee, pluck it out
You must treat it like a dance, the other woman had said, her lips curling in a wry smile. After all, she had continued, you are a lady, aren't you? She lifted up her arm, blocking the fall of a wicked blade with the shimmering gold of her bracelet, stepping back as the beast brought down his other weapon, allowing Sena to move in from behind her, her own sword shimmering with energy as it flashed once and cut through the bone and steel of the animal's pauldron, sheering it clean off.
Metal clattered to the ground, the beast stumbling back and howling in anger, its jaws wide, trailing spittle, its small eyes wide in its bestial face.
Grace is key, Wendinu had told her, standing at her back, hands correcting her stance, guiding her movements. A lady, she had said, must always be seen to move in a manner becoming to her status.
And if you can't do that, then you just mine the battlefield and blow everyone up, ka-boom, came the declaration of the other woman's accomplice, her gloved hands rising, her fingers splayed as if to mimic the anticipated explosion.
At the time, Yodonna had found the younger woman's comment asinine and grating, yet now, confronted with the beast, a small part of her began to wish that she had indeed mined the battlefield.
The beast threw its head back in a howl of frustration, its massive frame more than twice the size of them, taut, rippling muscles covered in a coat of curling wool and glistening gold and blue armour.
"Women!" it bellowed with rage. "What do you women want with me?"
The mask it wore, the metal seemingly driven into its face, seemed designed to give it the impression of a predator, a more ferocious animal, yet Yodonna knew a predator when she saw one, especially that which this creature yearned to mimic, and she knew that despite its pretence, it was very much a sheep in wolf's clothing.
She lashed out with her crop, not intending to strike at the animal, more for the satisfaction of hearing the knot of leather whip against the air around her.
"You're in my way," she answered firmly. "I thought I might ask politely, but I don't have the patience for such an approach."
The animal rolled its head, its eyes far apart, the blue plate of the mask giving the impression that they were closer together in the arrangement of the face, that it had more of the characteristics of a carnivore than some squeaking little herbivore camouflaged in steel.
From its throat, the animal let out a low, chattering lough, and beneath the mask, its snout wrinkled as if catching wind of their scent, a gesture designed to intimidate. Yodonna held her ground.
"Bitches in heat," it gloated, "I know your type. If it's a rutting you want, then there's no need for all the pretence, just roll over, and I'll see to you."
It paused, as if thoughtful, opening its mouth just wide enough that she could see the ugly tongue between the rows of its artificially sharpened, yellowed teeth.
"Or don't, I don't care," it mocked.
She made to reply, to open her mouth to bite back an answer deft and witty, when abruptly, the animal spat forth a wad of blood, the thick vicious substance rising up its throat and trickling over its teeth as it eyes widened in sudden, recognisable fear.
Hayami Sena stepped back, flicking the blood free from her Kiramai Sword with a gesture of her wrist, armour that once shimmered like emeralds now shot through with the dull lustre of storm clouds and turbulent waves.
"That's enough of that, I think," she said firmly.
Incredulously, Yodonna looked at the younger girl, partly with disbelief, partly with a sudden, burgeoning sense of admiration. To think that this sliver of a girl might become her ally, her servant; to think that such a fraction of a girl might garner such strength.
A lady, she recalled Wendinu saying, lips twitching with amusement, never overplays her hand, yet when called upon to take up a stance on an issue, should always do so in as decisive and graceful a manner possible.
The animal staggered backwards, blood erupting from the wound in its chest, a choked cry rising up as it fell to its knees. In her right eye, she felt the familiar twitch of that unspoken power, that unwelcome visitor exerting authority over her.
She tightened her grasp about her crop, tensing herself for what she knew must come, for the reason she had sought out this beast.
There was no doubt that her hand had been guided by the Emperor in her previous confrontation, that following her awakening, she had been manipulated by his whims, his desires; that she, who would have once willingly served such a master without question, had been made a fool of, had been used against her will.
When first she had come looking for these beasts, it had been in the name of the Emperor, it had been as means to snuff out any competition that stood against her. Now, the rules of the game had changed.
Her eye twitched once more.
As with any dance, Wendinu had said, her perpetual smile unfaltering, the key is timing.
She swallowed hard.
"Sena," she said softly.
Her servant needed no further prompting, Sena reached down and snatched up the creature's belt, tearing it free, amongst a handful of wool, and holding it out before her in her gloved hand. From a pouch on the right side, she pulled free a small white book, no bigger than the palm of her hand, its cover immaculately white, its pages blank.
With disinterest, she tossed the belt away, the animal choking on its own blood behind her, its eyes wild, its body going into shock as it struggled to comprehend its mortality.
"Mistress?" the girl asked, her voice again doubtful.
Yodonna tilted her head to one side.
"Do it," she commanded.
Sena nodded. Slowly, she pulled back her arm, and then with sudden force, drove it forward, smashing the blank tome into Yodonna's face with such strength that her head was thrown backwards, the weight of the book absorbed into the flesh of her face.
Unbidden, a scream rose from her lips, bile rising in her throat as she staggered, hands reaching up to clutch at her face, the crop slipping from of her grasp, a flickering staccato burst of light blurring her sight, driving through her head like a needle slipped through the bone of the skull and into the meat of the brain.
"Sena," she gasped, staggering backwards, doubled over. "Sena!"
"Forgive me," Sena #5 whispered, mournful regret in her voice, terrible sadness for what she must do next.
She stepped forward, seizing her mistress by the hair as her headdress toppled away, falling to the ground, pulling her head back, so that, through the shuddering lights, Yodonna found her gaze turned upwards towards the roof of the warehouse.
With her other hand, Sena lifted her sword.
In the distance, Yodonna imagined she could hear the cries of her ravens, Huginn and Muninn, whispers from across time and space of the old world, the time before the Emperor, before Yodonheim. Somewhere, clawing for breath, the beast they had confronted gave up the ghost, collapsing into the dirt, its passing unmourned for, uncared for.
The blade pierced her eye, driving deep into both the root of the organ and the tome lodged in her head, and she screamed in agony, her voice shrill and piercing, the pain enough to drive her wild. A recollection flashed through her mind, and she remembered the first time she had lost the eye, standing before the well, sneering Mímir watching over her as he laid out the cost of his wisdom.
Exciting a pain unlike any other, Sena pulled back the blade, tearing free the book from Yodonna's head, its cover stained blood red, no longer unsullied, the contents of her eye soaked into its untouched pages.
Her breath heavy with pain, Yodonna straightened her back, pushing her right hand against the gaping hole in her face to stem the tide of blood. She reached out with her left hand, opening it, and staring with intent from one remaining eye at her servant.
Sena inclined her head, plucked the book from the edge of the blade, and carefully placed it in Yodonna's open palm.
In her chest, she felt her heart hammering like the hooves of her splendorous eight-legged steed of old. With her sole eye, she gazed down at the weight of the book, the blood red cover, the garish, twisted depiction of the elder thing it depicted on the cover, ugly and unspeakable, the being to who's monstrous will she had been enslaved for so long.
With dry lips, she mouthed the title of the book.
A moment passed in which she could hear the blood pumping in her ears, could feel the absence of that which had been gifted her, that which had been so used to control her for all those long, long centuries, a frail splinter of the old god driven deep into her skull.
Her lips twitched, and with sudden fury, she folded her hand over the book, crushing the shape of it into dust and ash until, when she unfolded her fingers once more, there was only the ugly core of it left, a milk white orb with a writhing, shadowy iris, the fleshy membrane of the organ mounted upon a plate of back metal, framed on each side by four fragments of bone, teeth perhaps, claws perhaps.
Again, her lips twitched. She did not name it aloud; she knew exactly what it was.