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Nightfall, by Doctor Thunder
Story idea by Manchu
It was well past third bells when Tella was roused from her bed. The insect net had been pulled back, and already a couple of ticks had leapt up onto her as she attempted to rub the sleep from her eyes. The humm coming through the floor felt all wrong to her, sporadic like a hiccup.
“We have to go, child,” a voice called out in dull metallic tones. Tella reached out and her hands found the rough skin of Harks, her family’s Grey Friar. His artificial eye glowed red dimly in the dark as it always did, providing just enough light for her to see his natural eye. Normally his eye was cold as stone, but this time she saw something she had never seen in his eye before. He was afraid.
Tella’s small feet made a patter along the corridor as she struggled to keep up. Brass cables snaking across the bulkhead stubbed her toes and brown puddles of slick oil stained the edges of her nightgown, but she didn’t dare complain. Soldiers and slaves were running in all directions, knocking each other over as they carried armfuls of scrolls and data-slates. Everywhere screams were mixed with prayers. Through the stained glass panels in the ribbed arches above, Tella could make out the beautiful golden command spire. She knew her father was captain of the entire middle belt of that spire, and even though she had never been there, she always thought of it as a safe place. Now that safe place was defiled. Metallic craft were latched onto the spire like ticks, worming and fusing their heads into the feathers of the Imperial Eagle.
Harks yanked even harder on her arm, and she quickened her pace yet again. With his other arm he carried his son Anthon, who was holding his shoulder and whimpering to himself.
They passed through a vaulted junction, which was nearly blocked off by a bonfire of scrolls and data-slates. The serfs would throw their armfuls then run off for another load, while the lexicanums and others with memory augmentation were being thrown in themselves.
Harks turned a corner and they entered the family shrine. Only half the candles were lit, leaving the statue of Saint Agatha awash with dim flickering light.
“Where are umma and oppa?” Tella insisted as she tried to catch her breath.
“Your parents won’t be coming with us,” Harks barked as he set his son down.
Tella coughed, there was something wrong with the air. It stung the back of her throat, and tasted like copper. Anthon began sobbing wildly, and Tella could feel the tears welling up under her own eyes. She scurried over to Anthon and grabbed his shoulders.
“Stop crying, you big nabby, you’re always crying,” she screamed. As she shook him, his hand shifted, and she saw white bone poking out through the black burned flesh on his arm. She screamed in fright and fell backwards, landing in the font and sinking down to her shoulders.
The entire world jerked to the left, as if all of reality has been grabbed and snapped at once. Tella and all the water in the font came out as a bubble and splashed against the wall. For a moment she floated in mid air, surrounded by thousands of wobbly spheres of liquid, then everything snapped back and she fell down, hitting the floor along with the rain of water.
Harks unceremoniously pulled a rack away from the wall, spilling candles and skulls over the floor as he reached into handholds and began lifting. Even through the coarse robes he wore, Tella could see his back strain and hear the servos whirr as a panel in the wall gave way and lifted. Brown and red dust drizzled out of the seams as he hefted the panel and set it aside, revealing a compartment formerly hidden from view.
The rotting torso of a man was there, mounted against the wall. His grey flesh pulled taught over his ribs. Black drippings cables poured out of him like intestines.
“Whom do you serve?” Harks asked formally.
The corpse moved its head, bits of dried flesh falling off its cheeks as it feigned a smile with empty eye sockets.
“The Emperor’s Captain, Lord Duncall,” the corpse whispered hoarsely, a fine dust passing over rotted teeth.
“How long do you serve?” Harks asked again.
“Till my master release me,” the corpse whispered spitefully.
“Prep the family longboat,” Harks ordered, “Fuel and air, rations and water, beacon and vox.”
The corpse hissed, and a necrotic ear came loose and fell to the ground.
“As you say, I serve Duncall, not his pet.”
“You fraggin’ half-breed,” Harks swore. “Duncall is…” Harks caught himself and his natural eye flickered over to Tella. “I am head of Duncall’s household, he sent me here.”
“The command must come from Duncall himself,” the corpse cackled.
From beneath his filthy robes, Harks produced a blade and pressed it against the corpse’s neck. “Grant me this request and I will end your sentence,” he growled.
“The end is already here,” came the hissing reply.
There was an explosion in the hallway. A perfect sphere of fire forced its way down the corridor, picking up men and women as if they weighed nothing at all. As a flicker of the blast turned the corner into the shrine, Harks dropped down, covering Anthon with his own body as fire washed over them. Tella was hit by a wave of heat that made her shriek in terror. Instinctively she curled up into a ball, the fire steaming though the water around her and searing her back. The pain shot up into her brain and she screamed louder then she had ever screamed before. It seemed to her like the entire world was suddenly made of pain. The edges of her vision became grey and closed in like an iris. A terrible acrid smell entered her nostrils and mouth, and somewhere in the back of her world of torture, she realized that it was the smell of her burning hair and skin.
Tella writhed on the floor. Rolling over she could see, through her collapsing vision, out of the shrine and into the smoldering courtyard beyond. The massive stone of the Forbidden doors lay in ruin, revealing the winding stone staircase that lead up to the command spire. There was a man standing there. Not only a man but a beast also, huge and ferocious, covered from head to toe in impossibly thick black armor. He leapt into the burning courtyard with astounding speed, pouncing onto the burned and writhing soldiers, breaking their skulls between his fingers as if merely popping a grape.
From the far end fresh units of guards ran in. The front rank dropped to one knee, the second rank aiming over the heads of the first. Their commander barked out orders and they opened fire. Red darts of energy hit the beast in black, melting tiny pockmarks into its armor that dribbled down red hot like wax on a candle. The creature roared in anger, and the guards stumbled backwards, dropping their weapons to hold their hands to their ears, blood trickling down between their fingers. The enemy leapt into the formation, tearing the men apart, throwing limbs and organs in all directions in a fountain of death and blood.
In the shrine, Tella sobbed uncontrollably as she crawled along the floor. The burned flesh on her back cracked, trails of blood dripping down and burning as they landed on the red hot floor. She could feel the skin on her knees and palms cooking, but it was distant and vague, her body awash with so much pain that it had overwhelmed the sensation all together into a kind of throbbing numbness. She reached out towards the burning pile that had once been Harks’ body but found no life there. Beneath it Anthon moaned pitifully.
Tella looked up at the corpse, tears streaming down her face and sizzling as they hit the floor.
“Please….please, help me,” she pleaded.
The corpse was burning, tubes bursting and spilling their black icor. Rotting organs fell out as the left half of the ribcage collapsed. In life, he had been a heartless killer, but his expression softened, and he nodded quietly as the fire consumed him.
There was a hiss of air around the statue, and it slid sideways on whining pistons, revealing the entrance to the family longboat. Tella grunted and groaned as she cried, pulling Anton out from under his dead father and dragging him along the floor with her towards the hatch. Suddenly the light coming from outside darkened, and she felt her heart stop beating. Everything grew icy cold as she looked up at the armored beast entering the room. Its breathing was steady and harsh, like standing before a munitorium compressor. It moved slowly now, the servos in it’s armor protesting as the thick plates moved around to accommodate it. Tella screamed in horror, scooting and pulling as best she could to close the final meter between her and the exit, but the black armored figure reached out a massive hand and wrapped his fingers round her ankle.
His head turned inquisitively to one side, then there was a hiss of black air and he removed his helmet with his free hand. His flesh was purple and bloated, his eyelids and mouth sewn shut with thick red thread. Only his warped nostrils remained open, and he brought them in close, so close that they rubbed against her face and head as he took in her scent.
Tella shivered with fear. Her body felt heavy like stone, and cold sweat dripped down her face, mixing with her tears. Looking down at the beast’s belt, she saw her father’s sword tied there. The hilt was covered with blood, and she felt her heart cry out in pain. Everything she loved was dead, and now she was going to die too. Her eyes closed, accepting her fate. It was better this way anyway. What was there to live for?
Then a new feeling began glowing in her heart. It was small at first, like an ember, but quickly grew in heat and intensity. He killed her parents. She held onto that thought like a glowing piece of coal. The anger rose within her, and she felt in that moment like her heart burst into flames.
Her eyes shot open, and she balled her fist and hit the beast on the snout. She balled her other fist and hit it again, then again. She screamed in rage, hitting the creature with all her might, over and over again. She felt indefatigable, like she was drawing upon the power of the sun itself. In her rage she bit with her teeth and clawed with her nails at the man’s bloated face. Finally, her hand found a piece of broken glass and she stabbed it into his snout. The edge of the glass sliced deeply into her fingers, but she pushed all the harder, piercing his thick skin with the tip and drawing a tiny amount of green blood that hardened before it even had a chance to drip.
The beast’s features twisted into a terrible grin, then it began to laugh. A deep bellow that escaped through the seams in the stitches in its lips. He gave her one final sniff, then released her ankle laughing louder and louder as it left the shrine and went into the hall.
Tella wasted no time, she scooted into the longboat, dragging Anthon with her. She could still hear the beast’s laughter long after the hatch closed, long after the longboat fired free from its moorings, long after she lost consciousness….she could still hear its laugh.
Last edited by Doctor Thunder; June 22nd, 2009 at 18:51.
“I’m going to be an adult today,” Tella thought happily to herself as she sat with the other students in the Librarium Hall. Row upon row of crumbling scrolls and tomes reached up to the vaulted ceiling thousands of feet above them. The torchlight reflected off the heavy incense burning in the air, giving the room a kind of arborous glow.
With her left hand Tella advanced her rosary beads each time she completed The Emperor’s prayer out loud, while with her right hand she transcribed the text on the fading and crumbling scroll onto a fresh one. But, while her hands and mouth could be fully occupied, in her mind she knew she was always free.
“Dutchess Duncall,” she thought to herself, deciding that she quite liked the sound of it.
“Lady Duncall,” that one had a good ring too.
“Madam Duncall.” That one sounded a bit too old for her tastes.
“Hey Tella, watch what you are doing,” came a whisper between prayers from Milliam, the young girl with short auburn hair sitting next to her. Tella broke her stride and looked down. The new scroll now read, “And it came to pass in the seventeenth year of the rein of fire, Lord Solar Macharius lead the conquest against Madam Duncall…”
“Frak,” Tella swore, placing her forehead down onto the wooden desk. “Now I’m gonna’ have to redo the whole scroll.”
“Silence, Focus, Worship!” Sister Tomara warned from the front of the class, holding a pain glaive, ready for use.
“Work is worship,” the students chanted in unison.
After a few more minutes, the hourglass at the front of the room emptied its final grains, and the students breathed audible sighs of relief. Genosha was an oddity among the schola progeniume. Essentially an orphanage for children with wealthy titles and lands to inherit once they reached adulthood, they had certain privileges not afforded elsewhere, such as a 15 minute break every three hours. Of course, the best benefit of all, was that although they constantly threatened to, none of the teachers would dare touch a student.
Tella was an orphan in every sense but the technical one. Without a male heir, her father’s title, merchant fleet, and lands associated with the Navis Nobilite were transferred to her mother’s family, who wanted absolutely nothing to do with her, which is why she had only seen them twice in the last nine years.
“So, you know how the Sisters were talking about that feeling you’re supposed to get during the Salvation Litany?” Milliam asked quietly as she rubbed her sore knuckles.
“Sure, the rapturous confirmation,” Tella acknowledged, adjusting the leather gloves on her hands.
“I finally got it last night.”
“Really? That’s great!” Tella praised, trying to keep the sadness out of her eyes. Though she never admitted it to anyone, she had never had a rapturous confirmation. She had never felt anything at all while praying to The Emperor, and it bothered her more and more with each passing day.
The heavy wooden door was kicked in, and Anthon entered, carrying a basket of fresh bread in one hand and balancing a second on his head.
“Salutations sisters,” he announced. “I bring an offering of The Emperor’s finest sourbread for your consumption.”
“Brother Harks,” Sister Tomara scolded, hands on her fleshy hips, “It is completely inappropriate for you to come into the girl’s librarium like this.”
“I know, right?” Anthon agreed as he tapped his knee onto the bottom of the basket, causing one small loaf to perfectly jump out and land on a student’s desk. “But you know how Sister Enso is. She’s just so slow I was worried these young servants were going to miss the nutrition they need to serve with servicious servitude.”
“I don’t think that’s a real word,” Tella whispered.
“You may be attached to the Duncall Household, but that does not elevate you above the commands of this Schola,” Sister Tomara shouted, the veins on her saggy neck visibly pulsating.
The Schola is mother, the Schola is father,” the students chanted.
“You’re right,” Anthon agreed, swapping baskets for the one on his head. “I submit myself to the pain glaive for one full hour.”
Slowly he knelt before her and raised the small nub which was all that remained of his left arm in a stance of offering.
“You know that the glaive can’t be worn on your right hand,” Tomara stated, heading for the door.
“Really?” Anthon smirked as he rose and continued to distribute the bread, “Then I guess I’ll just pray a bunch.”
Sister Tomara huffed in frustration as she opened the door. “I’ve had enough, I’m coming back with Sister Kender and a neuro-whip!”
“What are you doing?” Tella whispered as the door slammed. She had grown a full five inches taller then him, and liked to stand next to him to remind him of it.
“I had to get her to leave so I could give you your birthday present,” Anthon announced happily. “It’s not everyday a woman turns 16 after all.”
Anthon pulled out one last loaf of bread and tossed it to her. When she broke it in half she caught a glimmer of shiny metal, and removed a crude makeshift bracelet.
“Awww, that’s so nice,” Milliam cooed, along with several others.
So, do you like it?” Anthon inquired, smoothing his coarse robes.
“It’s terrible,” Tella admitted. “Did you make this yourself?”
“Sure did. Smelted the ore myself on top of the plasma furnace downstairs in the catacombs.”
Tella felt the blood rushing into her cheeks and knew that she must be blushing terribly. She fought against her desire to run out of the room.
Anthon smiled warmly, and reached out towards her with what remained of his left arm.
What are you doing?” Tella asked.
“I wanna’ shake your hand to congratulate the Dutchess.”
“Why can’t I shake your right hand?”
“Shaking right hands is for nobles. I’m just a red-blood.”
Tella’s nose wrinkled. “I don’t wanna’ shake your nub.”
“Come one,” Anthon teased. “You know you wanna’ shake the nub. Everyone wants to shake the nub.”
“I’ll shake the nub,” Milliam offered, and shook it heartily.
There was a loud crash followed by an extensive series of expletives in a variety of languages from the corridor beyond. Anthon and Tella ran out to find a curious man struggling on the floor next to a floorlamp, data-slates scattered all around him.
He had a black wide-brimmed hat, a long goatee that stretched down to his belt, and wore a shiny split-back leather coat with matching riding boots.
He reminded Tella of a character from one of the holo dramas they sometimes watched when they snuck into Sister Kender’s cell.
“How did you get stuck like that?” Anthon asked, trying to help the man to his feet.
“You know,” the man said in a thick foreign accent,” I’m not entirely sure, but somehow I’ve managed to get the hilt of my saber caught at the base of this blasted floorlamp.”
“Just unsheathe it,” Tella suggested.
“I would, young lady…”
“Dutchess actually,” Anthon corrected.
“My apologies. I would, but the hilt has a gene-sensitive grip, and the fething thing stopped working this morning. I can’t unsheathe it.”
“I know what to do,” Anthon announced, digging his pinky into his ear.
“That’s gross.” Tella gasped.
“We had the same thing happen to the furnace entrance,” Anthon explained as he dug out a healthy portion of wax and began spreading it onto the hilt. “Turns out that earwax confuses the little guy inside and turns it off.”
“You are the most disgusting person I know,” Tella admitted.
Anthon pulled at the sword and it drew free, allowing the man to stand.
“Well, you’re quite a handy fellow to have around,” the man praised.
“I know, right? You should see me juggle.” Anthon bent down and began tossing up each of the data-slates with his good arm, stacking them in a perfect pile as they landed in the man’s waiting hands.
“You know,” the man warned. “If someone from the mechanicus saw you blinding a gene-auger, you’d probably be executed.”
Anthon shrugged as he handed the man the last data-slate. “The point is it worked, isn’t it?”
“Yes it is,” the man agreed, with a curious smile.
“There he is!” Sister Tomara shouted as she waddled around the corner, pointing a wrinkly finger at Anthon.
Sister Kender followed closely behind, her light grey robes a stark contrast to the black her subordinates wore. Anthon raised his hand in protest, but Sister Kender had already flicked her wrist.
The neuro whip wrapped around his forearm, and purple lightning traveled from the grip and into his body. Anthon seized and convulsed, screaming loudly enough to draw the attention of the rest of the class, who came to the stone doorway just in time to see him collapse on the floor in a puddle of his own urine.
“I thought they didn’t punish students here?” the man asked.
“He’s not a student,” Tella admitted, covering her face in embarrassment.
A few minutes later, after Anthon was carted off for some “special punishment” and the hallway was cleaned up by the other serfs, the students were reseated and addressed by Sister Kender while the man with the goatee setup a holo projector at the front of the room.
“The Celebration of the Emperor’s Ascension is the holiest evening during the winter solstice. Let the hymns of the faithful piece the clouds to reach his holy ear on distant Terra. We have been blessed this evening with a rare visitor. One of our own alumnus, she was the first from Genosha to follow the pilgrim trail in ten generations. She has been to holy Terra herself, and climbed the eternity staircase with her own feet, and touched the doors of The Emperor’s Palace with her own hands. Sister Superior Mary Ekatarina of The Order Famulous.
There was a rush of hushed silence as she entered the room. Her white hood and cloak seemed to flow around her like ivory waterfalls. Her white hair hung on either side of her neck in perfectly formed braids held with silver clasps. Her face was flawless and kind, showing none of the age her hair indicated. She truly seemed to all present like an angel sent from The Emperor’s side.
“I want to be just like her,” Tella whispered out loud, forgetting herself.
Sister Ekatarina walked down each isle, allowing the students to touch her bare hands and feet, offering the Canticle of Adoration to the Emperor as they did so.
She stopped short when she came to Tella’s desk, and did not offer her hands to her as she had the others.
“Sister Duncall, you have applied to enter the Order Famulous,” she said in sweet tones.
“Yes, my lady,” Tella replied without averting her eyes.
“It is rare for one to give up so much. The Duncall Household has great possessions.”
“What are possessions compared to service?” Tella responded sincerely. “I only surrender that which already belongs to Him.”
“Well said, young one,” Ekatarina praised, though her expression was cold.
The silence was broken by the grunts of the goateed man figiting with the holo-projector.
“I had not planned on visiting here today,” the Sister Superior explained as she returned to the front of the hall. “My duties in this system were fulfilled this morning and my superior insisted. May I present…”
“It’s Tad,” the man with the goatee interrupted.
“Tad?” Ekatarina asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Just Tad,” he reassured with a smile.
“My Lord….Tad,” she repeated with a sigh. “When the Emperor ascended to his Golden Throne, to watch over and protect all of mankind from the foul xenos that pollute and defile…”
“Pollution is to be cleansed.” The students chanted.
“…He released his angels of death, the Adeptus Astartes. Immortal, Undefeatable, Unstoppable, these flawless warriors bring The Emperor’s justice to all worlds in the galaxy.”
Tad kicked the holo-projector and it sprung to life, revealing an image of a soldier, no longer human, but superhuman. More then eight feet tall, and unbelievably broad. The Blue armor he wore was fully powered and articulated, protecting him from head to toe.
Upon seeing it, Tella gasped in fear, and her heart began to race.
“…Is something wrong?” Ekatarina asked, looking straight at Tella.
“Nothing, Sister Superior,” she maintained, wiping the sweat from her forehead.
“Speak, Sister,” she insisted.
“Forgive me, I was just surprised, I didn’t know that I had seen a Space Marine already.”
There were subdued snickers throughout the room.
“Don’t be silly, child,” Sister Kender exclaimed, waiving her hand. “No one on Genosha has seen a Space Marine for a millennia.”
“I’m sure I have,” Tella mentioned. “He attacked my father’s ship outside of the Donovan gate.”
The expression on Ekatarina and Tad’s faces became cold as ice.
Tella was whisked out of the hall so quickly that her feet barely touched the ground. She was slammed against the wall, her eyes wide in shock at the strength Ekatarina possessed as she held her by the neck with one hand.
“Now, listen closely child if you want to live,” she snarled, her kind features twisted into a hateful scowl. “The Emperor’s Space Marines destroy His enemies, not his servants. I will not have you defile The Day of Ascention with such lies!”
“I would never lie to you,” Tella gasped.”
Ekatarina brought up her knee and struck Tella in the stomach with such force that her vision exploded in a cascade of lights. Tella fell to the ground and emptied the contents of her stomach onto the floor.
Tad drew his saber and placed the edge of the blade against Tella’s throat.
“My full name is Taddius Harokai, of The Emperor’s Holy Inquisition,” he explained. “If your superiors had not already decided to accept you into the Order Famulous you would already be dead. Now, I want you to listen to me very carefully. If a Space Marine attacked your father’s ship, then it was because your father had sinned against The Emperor.”
“Do you want your father posthumously declared a heretic?” Ekatarina asked.
“Of course not,” Tella shook her head.
“Then I will do you this one favor, and then you may never ask anything of me again,” Inquisitor Harokai said sternly. “I will leave your father’s name intact if you swear by your own soul to never speak of your encounter again. Do you understand?”
“Yes, my Lord,” Tella whispered, gasping for breath.
“Well then,” he said, resheathing his sword and smiling brightly again, “All is well. Let us continue with the celebration.”
As the twin suns set over the auburn hills outside the Emperor’s Temple of Agatha, Tella knew what she was supposed to be feeling joy. Instead, she felt like her heart was being torn to pieces. Was her father a sinner? Her memories of him were always of a kind and strong man, a man of faith who had taught her the first and second prayers all by himself. And the Space Marine she saw was very different from the one in the holo-projector. Why would an angel from The Emperor appear so twisted and unnatural?
The temple doors that stood before her were tall and wide, worked from the finest alabaster marble and adorned with golden trim and grand copper statues of the saints.
“You will now enter the sanctuary of Agatha, wherein lies the Oracle of His Truth,” Sister Kender explained. “This is your Rite of Acceptance. When you emerge you will be an adult and a member of the order.”
“Till he take me,” Tella chanted.
“Do you abdicate your inheritance?” Kender asked.
“His glory is my inheritance,” Tella chanted.
“What is your fear?”
“To die my work incomplete.”
“What is your joy?”
“To serve every second.”
Sister Kender nodded approvingly and turned to the representatives from the Order Famulous in their white hoods and cloaks. Tella noted that Sister Ekatarina was absent from the group.
The doors opened slowly, revealing a room as bright as the noonday sun. A perfectly flat wall of water fell directly before Tella, acting as a mirror.
“What do you see?”
“I see The Emperor’s handmaiden,” Tella responded.
“One more thing, Kender mentioned. “What you see when you hold the Oracle in your hands is for you and you alone, it is never to be shared. Do you understand?”
“Yes, my lady.”
Tella passed through the wall of water and the doors closed behind her. The room was stunningly beautiful, with white marble arches and buttresses. Dominating the far end before a pool of water was a massive stained glass window depicting the Emperor in his golden armor, sword aloft, with Saint Agatha at his side.
She removed the leather gloves from her hands, revealing the thick wrinkled scar tissue on her fingers and palms. She ran her fingers through her curly blonde hair one final time, then picked up the waiting vibro-razor and shaved her head bare. Now the deep scar tissue on her neck and back were visible.
She removed her student’s robes, and replaced them with the awaiting white garments, tying them snugly at her waist with a chain of azure rosary beads, followed by the white hood and cloak of the Order. She stepped forward into the still pond of water, creating ripples that extended out in perfect spheres to all corners of the temple. The water was only an inch deep, giving the impression that she glided on top of it as she moved.
There before her, suspended perfectly in mid air, was a sphere of flawless crystal. For the next three hours she chanted all of The Emperor’s prayers, from the first to the thousandth, all perfectly from memory. Her body grew weary, but she refused to slow her pace or show fatigue.
When she finished, she opened her eyes and reached out her hands, but was unable to touch the oracle. Something stopped her. Tella reached out again, but a force pushed her hands away.
Her brow wrinkled in concern, and she tried again, this time with all her strength. For a time, her fingers came closer and closer, but when they were about to touch, she was shoved backwards. Tella stood up, and felt tears begin to well in her eyes.
“Why?” she asked aloud. “Is it because my father was a sinner?”
She ran up to the oracle and reached out again, and was thrown back with even greater force, smashing to the floor on her side. She held her shoulder in pain as she rose. It felt as if she had been kicked by a pterrahorse.
“What does this mean?” she asked to the silence around her. Her tears were flowing freely now. Her fears of rejection were completely overwhelming. Her worst nightmare was coming true.
“Why won’t you accept me?” she screamed. “In what have I failed you?”
This time she ran towards the Oracle, splashing water all around her and nearly tripping over her cloak. She leapt at the crystal sphere with all her might, and was throw back with such force that it threw her against the doors at the far end.
Tella held her side painfully and coughed up blood, but the physical pain was nothing compared to the pain she felt in her heart.
In the Temple of Agatha, on the Day of Ascention, during her Rite of Acceptance, Sister Tella Duncall wept bitter tears.
“The Emperor, is my Lord and Protector,” Tella prayed as she lashed the neuro whip across her back, refusing to let the pain show on her face as the energies played across her skin.
“The Emperor, is my Father and Savior,” she continued, whipping herself again.
“I live and die only for him.” She whipped herself one final time, blood trickling down from the self-inflicted wounds on her back. Though she knew it was not allowed, she added her own final line to the prayer, barely above a whisper.
“Please, let me feel something.”
Tella waited long moments, but felt nothing.
There was a knock at the rusted door of her quarters. “Preceptor Duncall,” a young voice reported, “The Delegation from Rynas has arrived.”
Tella arose and caught a glimpse of herself in the water as she washed her face. The juvenat therapy had straightened her arching back, and smoothed the wrinkles on her face. After 70 years of aging forward, suddenly aging in reverse felt bizarre to her, and she had to keep reminding herself that she no longer needed to walk slowly, or ask others to carry things for her. Her body was now exactly as it had been at the age of twenty, with the exception of her eyes, which looked as tired and grey as she felt.
Other then a few essentials, her room was completely bare. The row of shelves above her bedmat contained only a single dusty crude bracelet that had been placed there. Tella took a moment to braid her hair, then pulled the cilice off her shelf. A band of brass with spikes pointing inward, she placed it around her right thigh and tightened it until the pain was so great that her vision began to fade, then backed it off one notch.
Though she would never admit it aloud, there were few things Tella enjoyed more then looking out of the command deck of an Emperor Class Battleship. Whether by design or by accident, the view was expansive and majestic, brass statues of thousands of saints lines the archways stretching upwards to the buttressed ceilings, each holding a single wax candle that serfs spent their entire lifetimes replacing and lighting.
The stars were particularly bright that day. A full third of the skyline was dominated by a swirling purple storm hundreds of light years across. Officially it had no name, but over the years Tella had come across some older scrolls that referred to it as The Eye, although she couldn’t fathom why. At the base of their view before them lay the arcing horizon of the planet Yemahoit, with its green oceans and hazel skies. Tella noted that this would probably be the last day Yemahoit would have oceans.
A space had been cleared for her on top of the command throne mesa, around which was a full fifty stories of concentric rings, each containing thousands of servitors, runners, and lesser commanders that monitored and ran this city-ship.
The Delegation from Prova arrived with all the pomp and shine Tella expected. Magister Shinara was particularly noticeable as he wore his family’s traditional golden plate-mail.
“The honor is mine, Preceptor,” he said loudly as he bowed. “I have not had the pleasure since you negotiated the cease-fire between my grandfather and the Spicing Clan.”
Tella bowed slowly, forgetting that her back was no longer stiff.
“I am pleased that your house has prospered under The Emperor’s light.”
“You look extremely well for a woman of your age,” he added, his eyes flickering over her body.
“I assure you it was not of my volition,” Tella explained. “The Arch Cardinal practically forced the needle into my arm.”
Shinara laughed and began introducing the members of his family. Tella rarely bothered to learn their names anymore, and instead simply sorted them into the usual categories. There was the ambitious younger son, the drunken trophy wife, the incompetent uncle, the floundering addict, and the overwhelmed heir.
The Delegation from Rynas immediately filed a complaint upon their arrival at the command deck, claiming that Prova was being given special advantage by being allowed to greet the Preceptor in private before negotiations had commenced. It was only after Tella suggested that Rynas be given equal exclusive time did they withdraw their objections.
Serfs brought in a long table, the height of which Tella has specifically calculated so that the Provans could sit in their luxuriously upholstered chairs, while the Rynas could kneel on their straw mats on the other, and neither feel disadvantaged. The food and drink provided had been meticulously researched, thousands of possible choices narrowed down to those that would be considered equally appropriate and inoffensive by either side, while still representing the traditions of each world.
From beneath her white cloak, she produced and lit a censor of incense and swung it back and forth methodically as she spoke. In the back of her mind she counted, making sure that each delegation received her gaze for an equal number of seconds, and an equal number of syllables.
“Yemahoit is in open revolt,” she began, “And has claimed to withdraw itself from the Imperium. In a few hours, the population will be cleansed and the process of rebuilding, along with the opportunities for expansion, will fall to one of your houses.”
She paused a moment for effect. Rynians always listened with their eyes closed, so she took special care that her speech did not include physical gestures.
“I have studied the bloodlines of both your houses meticulously. King Midah of Prova, your strongest claim falls through your grandfather’s cousin, who was wed to Prime Minister Kabuyeh of Yemahoit during the Mining Guild Wars. Magister Shinara, your strongest claim falls on that of your first wife, who was third in line to the Yemehoit throne.
The holo-projector in the center of the table hummed to life, displaying the hundreds of relevant family trees, and highlighting the relevant links.
“As you can see here, between you two, there are an additional thirty one lesser connections that could be claimed. I have given each of these a weight as prescribed by the Acts of Succession handed down by the High Lords of Terra themselves.
A heavy copper scale was brought to the table, along with a number of weights. Tella held up each weight and explained the history of the bloodline claim it represented. When all the weights were placed, she lead them in prayer and removed the pin. For a moment, the plates remained even, then slowly, one side fell.
“Colonization and Rebuilding rights are awarded by The Emperor to Prova,” Tella stated clearly. “If tithe minimums are not maintained during the first forty years, rights will automatically pass to Rynas without appeal.”
There were a few tense moments in the silence that followed. It was not uncommon for weapons to be drawn over such matters. Only when the Ryans nodded acceptingly did Tella allow herself to exhale.
Admiral Rifta clapped approvingly from where he observed them in his command throne. Beneath his pristine uniform his body simply seemed to dissolve below the waist and behind the ears into a tangle of golden cables that made him the living core of the ship’s controls. Standing behind him, hand on her pistol grip, stood Comissar Gena, ready to execute him at the slightest sign of disobedience.
“Out scout ships report the second battlegroup has scattered what remains of the insurgent fleet at the edge of the system,” the Admiral explained in brassy tones. “We can now safetly move into high orbit for planetary bombardment.”
“Belay that order,” sounded a squeaky male voice that seemed distantly familiar to Tella.
Sister Superior Mary Ekatarina glided in amongst the delegates and made room. “May I introduce my Lord, Taddius Harokai, of The Emperor’s Holy Inquisition.”
Tad strode sternly up to the table and leapt up onto it, crushing the gardenias with his riding boots. Everywhere faces grew concerned, and several people fell at his feet and began confessing their sins openly.
“Stop that,” Taddius bade, kicking one of them away, “I’m not here for you…yet.”
The other members of the Inquisitor’s retinue joined him, the stunted Lexmechanic Hanover, the portly Master Dialogous Bendit, and his successor, Acolyte Anthon.
Tella’s jaw popped open and it took her a second to regain her composure. Anthon didn’t look a day over twenty, and was much taller and broader then she remembered him. His face was tanned and traveled, and he wore a long leather raincoat that reached down to the floor. As he smiled and waved to her inappropriately, she could see that his left arm had been replaced by a fully mechanical prosthetic.
“May I ask why I must delay the attack?” Admiral Rifta inquired, concerned. There was an audible snap as Commisar Gena unholstered her sidearm.
“Hold your fire, my good Comissar,” Admiral Rifta beseeched. “I have no intention of disobeying an order from the Inquisition, I merely want to understand so that I may comply without getting in his way.”
“I’m sorry,” Inquisitor Harokai said, pinching the bridge of his nose. “In my line of work we aren’t accustomed to explaining things. I’ll give it a try. Down in the Royal Palace archives are important documents that must be recovered before they are destroyed by your bombardment.”
“They are traitors,” Comissar Gena barked mercilessly. “What else needs to be known?”
“With all due respect, mistress Gena, your responsibility is on this one rebel planet while mine is on the hundred that will come after it. Loyal planets don’t just secede without reason. I need my suspicions confirmed.”
“And what about my responsibilities?” Magister Shinara spoke up, despite the protests of his wife. “At the end of the month the tithes will be due to the Adeptus Munitorium. How can I pay them if we are still waiting around up here for your investigation?”
Anthon placed his prosthetic hand on Shinara’s shoulder and began crushing the golden armor plate. “I suppose you’ll just have to increase the amount of xenos weapons you sell on the black market to make up the difference.”
Magister Shinara grew pale as death and his eyes grew wide with fear.
“Don’t worry,” Harokai said, waving his hand. “As I said, I’m not here for you. One of my associates is coming for you shortly. Admiral, I need to borrow a hundred Storm Trooper squads and their Valkyrie transports, it should only take a couple of hours.”
“But, my lord,” The Admiral studdered, “The reason were planned on bombarding the royal palace is because it is protected by an Omicron class defense array. None of our landing craft will be able to fly within a hundred miles of the palace.”
“Leave that to me,” Tad said with a curious smile.
“We require one other person,” Ekatarina announced coldly, pointing a finger at Tella. “Her.”
“Me?” Tella wheezed.
The Yemahoit CIC was alive with activity. Targeting servitors called out ranges and calculated trajectories in their dispassionate tones, while all the compiled data was displayed by the holo-dome as a real time model of the planet and the surrounding fleet.
“Where the feth is the Black Legion,” Commander Keine asked aloud, blood trickling from the corner of her mouth as she chewed on a piece of flesh from a severed arm. “Did they abandon us?”
“No sign no word,” Leiutenant Sampin reported, her hands dripping with icor as she pulled the heart out of a body lying on the floor. “But I am detecting a number of enemy ships breaking formation for orbital insertion.”
The holographic display zoomed in close on the small formation of ships.
“I count a hundred dropships and one cargo frigate, projected flight path puts them right on top of us.”
“What are they, suicidal?” Keine snickered, taking another bite. “Prepare all weapons batteries, fire as soon as they are in range…Wait, you said a cargo frigate?”
“Can a cargo frigate enter low atmosphere?”
“I don’t think so sir…”
There was a bright flash from the holo-dome, momentarily blinding all of the sensors. The servitors went berserk, seizing and cavorting, murming to themselves in their basic numeric language rather then translating into high gothic.
“What the frak is going on?” Keine demanded.
“Everything is over-tasked.”
Keine walked over to the holo-dome as it reset. Instead of just a hundred dropships, there were now hundreds of thousands of target blips descending down towards the Royal Palace.
“What is this?” she asked, spitting out a bone fragment.
“They must have detonated the cargo frigate.”
“They did what?!”
“The dropships are descending amongst the debris.”
“Order the battery captains to ignore the debris and target the dropships.”
“The augers can’t tell the difference, sir.”
Around the descending Valkyries, it seemed as if the whole world was on fire. Fuel tanks and cargo crates tumbled and exploded. Enormous support ribs spun and whirled, and larger chunks of bulkhead collided like asteroids as the Dropships pilots weaved and dove among a sea of violent flame.
A Valkyrie jinked to the left, barely missing a huge tower as it tumbled over, threatening to club it, only to be struck by a plummeting girder that skewered the dropship and detonated its fuel tanks.
A blue pillar of energy shot up through the mass, vaporizing a chunk of bulkhead and causing the surrounding Valkyries to scatter away from it.
Another beam shot up, clipping a dropship. It listed lazily to one side before colliding with a spinning armor panel that cleaved it in two, ejecting its flailing passengers out into the atmosphere.
Now dozens of beams came up wildly, streaking past like rain drops and destroying whatever they came in contact with. Two more Valkyries were destroyed by lucky impacts, while a third was caught in the blast of a detonating engine capacitor.
Inside her transport, Tella was loosing the fight against her stomach as the craft bobbed and weaved violently. She held onto the landing harness with one arm, while advanceing her rosary beads and canting the prayer of evasion with the other. Anthon, on the other hand, looked relaxed enough to take a nap, and hadn’t taken his eyes off her since they got in.
“You still have it, don’t you?” he asked with a grin.
“Have what?” Tella panted, losing her grip on the harness.
“The bracelet I made you,” he clarified. “You still have it, don’t you?”
“Of course not,” Tella insisted. “I threw it away when I took my vows.”
“Yeah, sure.” Anthon said, smiling brightly.
“And what about you?” Tella asked. They told me you died of red fever.”
“That was just a cover,” Anthon explained, waiving his prosthetic hand. “Turns out this big guy needed someone to carry his bags.”
“It’s the only reason I keep him around,” Harokai chided.
Tella grew angry and kicked Anthon in the shin.
“You’re a terrible person. All this time you let me think you were dead.”
“That’s so sweet of you to worry about me,” Anthon laughed.
There was a deafening crack and the entire ship was thrown to the left as a defense beam passed dangerously close by.
“You still haven’t told me what you need me for,” Tella asked, trying to straighten her cloak.
“You’re an expert in noble bloodlines and you still haven’t figured it out?” Ekatarina asked derisively.
“The Royal Archives are bio-encrypted, and we don’t have time to crack it,” Harokai explained. Before she married your father, your mother was part of the King’s household, so it should read you as part of the Royal Family.”
“Why not just smear earwax all over it?” Tella asked spitefully.
“Do what?” Hanover asked, his artificial eyes bobbing this way and that like a crab.
“Nothing, nothing, she was kidding,” Anthon maintained.
A nearby transport exploded, and dozens of fleshy impacts could be heard as the passengers collided against the hull.
“I’m too old for this,” Tella insisted.
“You think this is bad? Just wait till you hit three hundred,” Ekatarina warned, scornfully.
“Don’t be such a nabby, Tella,” Anthon chided folding his arms behind his head, “In all likelihood we won’t even make it to the surface, so just enjoy the ride while you can.”
With incredible skill, the remaining Valkyrie pilots lifted up the noses of their craft just as they broke through the clouds, slowing their descent and allowing the bulk of the debris to pass down below them. Three more dropships were destroyed as twisted flaming chunks of metal crashed down on top of them.
Reality fragmented for a moment as millions of tons of wreckage crashed down on top of the void shields that protected The Royal Palace, their mass slipping and twisting into the pocket dimension created to capture and contain them, but the barrier’s capacity was designed for incoming warheads and energy beams, and were completely overwhelmed by the mass shoved into them. Explosions all around the perimeter of the palace indicated the destruction of the void generators, and the valkyrie pilots nosed-over again and descended down onto the palace roof before the backup systems could be activated.
The Valkyries formed a circle, allowing their troops to disembark in the center while the dropships absorbed fire from the hundreds of turrets that dotted the ramparts of the outer walls.
Dropships exploded left and right, but they did their job, protecting the troopers long enough for them to plant meltabombs on the roof and blast an entry point. By the time the final dropship was destroyed, all of the remaining assault force had managed to enter the palace.
There was a rush of necrotic air as the stone doors to the Royal Archives slid open. The crypts beyond reached too high and too far for the group to see, even with the illumination for their halo lights. Rows of bones and tomes intermingled with dimly pulsating data slabs and summoning initiators.
“Looks like I owe you a drink,” Anthon laughed as he ran into the room and disabled a security auger.
“For what?” Tella asked as she removed her arm from the recognition port on the other side.
“We weren’t sure if it would recognize you or take your arm off,” Harokai explained as he rubbed the dust off of the directory carved into the entrance sarcophagus.
“You bet AGAINST me keeping my arm?” Tella asked incredulously.
“Yeah, I was never any good with numbers,” Anthon chided as he produced a crystal-tipped spear and jammed it into the ground.
Hanover scooted in as best as his hunched frame would allow and selected a cable from those protruding from the back of his neck and slammed it into a port on the sarcophagus.
“A triple barrier?” he scoffed. “Why not just hand it to me?” His eyes retracted into his skull and began shifting rapidly beneath his lids as he and the defense spirit dueled a trillion times in the space of a heartbeat.
“Something is wrong,” Ekatarina explained as she stood there with her eyes closed, as if able to hear past the silence. “Our forces in the main hall have already been over-run.”
“What?” Harokai, asked, turning his head, “By how many?”
“I see six palace guards.”
“Impossible,” Tad surmised as he ran over to her. “Show me.”
Ekatarina touched her hand to his shoulder and his eyes closed as well. They both flinched in unison as if being injured by some unseen hand, and Tella wondered what strange device they must be using to accomplish it.
“Okay, new plan, everybody, we’ve got to get out of here as soon as we can,” Tad explained, concern in his voice.
“Working on it,” Anthon assured as he placed another spear in the ground.
“Please tell me I’ve got good news in there,” Inquisitor Harokai yelled as he ran back to the sarcophagus.”
“Afraid not, boss,” Hanover reported. “There was definitely a dramatic population shift over the last twenty years.”
“Emperor’s Teeth,” Tad swore. “I’m so sick of being right. Okay, Tella, Kat, and Bendit, I need you to grab as many passenger manifests as you can carry, section CC, isle 32, row 10, numbers 324-576.”
“Roger,” Ekatarina and Bendit, yelled, sprinting off into the darkness. Tella stood frozen for a second, then ran off after them as well.
She could feel distant rumbles of explosions and gunfire as she sprinted through dusty cobwebs and half-illuminated preserved corpses. She turned a corner and nearly ran into her companions as they climbed up a spiral staircase of stone to reach their quarry.
“Our forces in the eastern corridor are failing,” Ekatarina reported, handing Tella a stack of moldy tomes. “I’m not coming back for you if you fall behind again.”
“You don’t like me much, do you?” Tella asked, struggling with the weight of a second stack being handed to her.
“Since you asked, that’s it exactly,” she grunted, grabbing a stack for herself. “Now, can we please get back to work?”
“Work is worship.”
As they ran back towards the archive entrance, the sounds of gunfire were very close now, mixed with the screams of the dying. Tella’s heart was pounding in her ears, and she sung aloud the litany of The Emperor’s protection over and aver again as they ran.
Anthon had nearly completed a perfect circle using the crystal spears, and as he readied the last one, a Storm Trooper was hurled into the room. His body crashed into the Imperial Eagle sitting atop the sarcophagus, breaking it in half and sending entrails down upon the floor below.
Three palace guards entered the room, crawling on all fours along the walls and ceiling like insects, their hands and faces covered with thick dripping blood.
Ekatarina screamed and fell to her knees in mid stride, scattering her tomes about, holding her hands to her temples in pain as blood trickled out of her nose.
Anthon’s prosthetic hand flipped back and he fired a blast of green energy from the exposed barrel, but the guard had already leapt sideways and rebounded off a statue. Bendit breathed in deeply, then regurgitated an impossibly large glob of green phlem that struck the guard in mid leap, and adhering her to the wall where it immediately hardened. The guard wailed inhumanly as she struggled.
Quick as lightning, another one of the guards leapt from the wall, hands extended like claws.
“Look out!” Tella yelled, throwing in her shoulder and shoving Ekatarina to the floor. The palace guard streaked past where Ekatarina’s head had been only a moment before, shredding the stack of tomes in Tella’s hands into shreds.
Inquisitor Harokai drew his saber and with a flick of his wrist it was bathed in a golden field of energy that licked over the surface like flame. The guard leapt at him, even faster than before, but his aim was true. He slashed out, perfectly timed to decapitate the guard when she reached him, but her motion stopped impossibly in midair. For an agonizing heartbeat she floated before him as his blade passed harmlessly through the air, then her leap continued, tackling him to the ground and impaling him with her fingers. Harokai yelled as he hit the floor, his attacker’s fingers protruding out the back of his shoulders.
Anthon took careful aim and released another plasma blast, which struck the guard square in the shoulder, rolling her off of her prey, and passing so close over The Inquisitor’s chest as to singe off his long goatee.
The remains of the palace guard landed at Tella’s feet, little more then a head. The face twisted and snarled, lips moving as if to curse but no sounds escaped other then a gurgle of escaping blood. But it was the eyes that truly horrified her. They were soulless, like a doll’s eyes, and when she looked at them she felt a chill run through her that seemed to seep into her very bones.
The last of the screaming and the gunfire in the hallway ceased and dozens of palace guards began crawling into the room like a wave of insects.
“Get in the circle,” Harokai coughed, rolling himself in between the spears. Tella grabbed some of Ekatarina’s scattered tomes and slipped into the circle of spears with the others. A dozen guards leapt towards them, claws extended as Anthon plunged the final spear into place. Reality fractured all around them, and for a terrifying moment Tella could hear the chittering of thousands of voices and the touch of thousands of cold hands.
Then reality healed itself and they were all standing on a glowing pad, surrounded by stacks of archaic dripping machinery.
Inquisitor Harokai and his group began laughing. Cheers of celebration rose up from serfs nearby.
“Signal the fleet,” Tad coughed, “Tell them to begin the bombardment immediately.”
Tella didn’t know where she was, but she knew it felt safer then the archives. As she removed the gloves from her hands, she noticed Ekatarina looking at her. Her face was pained, as if she was forcing herself to do something with great difficulty.
“It looks like I was wrong about you,” she finally admitted quietly, and offered her hand in apology. Tella managed a tight smile and took her hand. The second their skin touched, Ekatarina’s face grew pale, and she snatched her hand back.
“What’s wrong?” Tella asked, concerned.
“Er, nothing…it’s nothing,” she insisted, standing up and walking away.
“Welcome to the La’mibara,” Anthon said warmly, helping Tella to her feet. “Inquisitional Black Ship.”
(Co-written by both Manchu and Doctor Thunder)
“Please,” Tella whispered, whipping herself.
“It has been seventy years,” she said louder, whipping again.
“I have given you everything, what more do you want from me?”
Still she felt nothing.
Tella screamed in frustration, and flung the neuro whip against the wall. Grabbing the rosary beads around her waist, she pulled at them until the thread snapped, and threw them to the ground. For a moment she cried while the beads clattered on the floor, then began gathering them up again.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered quietly, rubbing the beads between her fingers.
The black door to her temporary quarters aboard the La’mibara opened with a pneumatic hiss and Harokai strode in, followed by a trio of cybernetic servitor serfs managing a large crate.
“Well,” he began with a smile, “As they say, I have good news and bad news.”
“How dare you come in here without permission,” Tella barked, rubbing her face with her sleeve and gathering up the rest of the beads.
Harokai looked around the room, and noticed that all of the elaborate and expensive decorations had been taken down and piled into one corner. “I see you’ve renovated the place a little.”
“I had to,” Tella grumbled, gathering up her composure. “Poverty is one of our vows.”
“Oh yeah,” he mentioned to himself, biting his lip.
Although his stance appeared relaxed, Tella noticed that his hand was on his saber, as if ready to draw it at any moment.
“Anyway, the bad news is that you are dead.”
“Yup, you were still planetside when the bombardment of Yemahoit began. Ekatarina is with Arch Cardinal Eeeson right now leading a fasting vigil on your behalf. You won’t be up for sainthood, naturally, but I’ll see if I can pull a few strings and get your name carved into The Wall of the Fallen.”
Tella could only stare at him, moth agape, completely unable to speak.
“Welcome to the Inquisition,” he said with a smile.
“B-but,” she stuttered, “you already have a member of the Order Famulous on your staff, what benefit could you possibly receive from having two?”
“Good question,” Harokai praised as he stepped aside so that the servitors could set the crate down in the center of the room. “You’ll find that even the best juvenat has its limits. Ekatarina’s body has become resistant to the treatments. She probably won’t survive past the new year.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Tella said sincerely.
“Don’t be,” he assured, unscrewing the bolts on the crate. “She hates me fiercely, so I’m sure she’ll be quite relieved.”
The front wall of the crate was lifted away, revealing a priceless suit of Sororitas Power armor glistening brightly in the artificial lighting of the room. The Sisters of Battle protected the cathedrals and lands of The Emperor’s church, and were the most visible symbol of The Ecclesiarchy’s influence and power. In the past, Tella had always kept her distance from these sister-warriors, so this was the first time she had even seen a suit of their armor up close. Each of The Emperor’s thousand prayers were inscribed into the surface in hair-thin etchings, and the sacred symbols of The Church embellished the suit from helm to greave. The holy robes of purity were built into it, but with buttons along each side that could be undone, allowing greater freedom of motion during battle. It was truly a habit first and a weapon of war second.
“But,” she protested, “I’m not a militant order.”
“You are now,” he said with a curious smile.
As she stepped off of the Aquila-class Lander’s lowered ramp, Tella’s left leg jerked and she felt herself begin to fall. A hand instantly caught the young novice from behind and steadied her.
“Remember,” Sister Merofled whispered, “let the servos do the work.”
Tella had put her power armor on for the first time only a week ago. Yet, with gracious assistance from the Battle Sisters of the Order of the Sacred Rose, she was now capable of a range of movement that seemed impossible only a few short days before. Many obstacles remained, of course.
The inside of the suit was studded with brass spikes that could be extended or retracted at will, turning the suit into a full body cilice. The pain focused her mind and will, and Tella appreciated the thought and care with which the armor had been created.
As she realigned herself, Tella noticed Sister Austrechild subtly step back into formation in front of her. It took her a moment to realize that she had just benefited from tactical cover.
“Merciful throne,” Tella worried, “if Mother Veneranda saw that…”
But the sisters’ kindness, and Tella’s own clumsy inexperience, seemed to have escaped their superior’s notice. Tella had not expected such warmth from the Sisters of Battle. Contrary to their dour reputation, these women had welcomed her with genuine affection. They taught her, between vigils and fasts, as much as they could about wearing power armor and firing a bolter before she faced this day, her first test in the field.
Tella did not feel prepared. Not once in her life had she ever expected to find herself overseeing a mass execution of heretics, and as her squad began singing the hymn of elation, she raised her voice to the heavens with them in unison.
“May He Who laid my path give me the strength to walk it,” they chanted in unison following the final verse.
Mother Superior Veneranda marched the white-armored sisters in parade formation some two hundred meters from the landing platform to a stout, golden domed fortress. Fearsome two-headed eagles, gilt with gleaming ruby eyes, perched at the summit of each buttressed corner and the tall iron-framed portal was wrought into the grim heraldry of the Ecclesiarchy. The huge skull at its apex glowered over the plaza spread out before it as it had for centuries beyond count. To the people of Janos, this was a place of penance and absolution: their capital city’s Chapel Confitorium.
The heads-up display inside Tella’s helm identified their location as Reconciliation Center One-One-Zed, and brought up several versus of scripture for her to ponder as they marched.
The thousands-strong crowd parted reverently as the sisters crossed the plaza to the steps of the Confitorium. The sick were laid at their feet in hoped of being healed, but their pleas were ignored. A few raised their hands and drunk in deeply the sweet sounds of their songs of faith. Tella did not divert her gaze from the back of Sister Austrechild’s head but she could already tell this mass of lay-civilians was entirely composed of women and girls. Even through the thick armor of her suit, Tella could palpably feel their terror. The next hymn began, an older composition known simply as The Battle Crossing.
Squads Alef and Lamed continued up the wide stone stairs before Veneranda halted them at the Confitorium doors. She ordered the sisters face outward and they turned as one, their weapons clapping in unison against their snowy breastplates. A long double rank of Janosian Planetary Defense Troopers stood between them and the crowd. Further squads of PDF flanked them to the sides and rear. Completely surrounded, Tella now saw that many of the women were quietly crying while clutching at daughters or granddaughters. The younger ones openly sobbed.
At various points across the plaza, huge braziers sent up clouds of incense. Missionaries in gas masks stalked the crowd, swinging billowing incensors to catch those who were furthest from the braziers. As they breathed in the smoke, the crowd calmed somewhat, their eyes growing faded and distant. At the behest of missionaries, some of them began to bow and make the sign of the aquila across their chests.
Tella’s helm displayed the depressants that were being filtered out of the air before it reached her, and remembered that during the briefing prayer session, Veneranda had mentioned that the Jansoian troopers had been inoculated the day before. She wondered if the troopers understood why they had been given those shots.
“Novice,” Venernanda called through the helm’s vox-comm.
“Yes, Reverend Mother?” Tella answered evenly, double checking her stance against that of the others to make sure she was doing it right.
“Step forward and allow Grand Curate Sigeric-Clodio to address the crowd.”
Tella had been so entranced by the hushed agony in the plaza that she had not noticed her superior guiding the wizened Ecclesiarchy official down the line of Battle Sisters. The Grand Curate was clearly ancient, held together no doubt by augmetics nearly as old as the Confitorium itself. But any artificial modification was completely hidden by his opulent vestments.
“Yes, Reverend Mother,” Tella affirmed, careful to let her muscles merely guide the armor’s servos. An inward sigh of relief and simultaneous prayer of thanks punctuated the successful maneuver. “Hail, Most Esteemed Reverence.”
“They are so young . . .” the clergyman wheezed, looking out onto the crowd. His own eyes were yellowish, rimmed in sickly pink, and the left one was completely clouded over. Tella wondered if Sigeric’s courage was wavering, and said a silent prayer for his fortitude.
“And what do you make of the sacrifice we offer up today, my daughter?” he asked distantly.
“It is to His glory,” Tella replied sternly.
“We pray that it is so,” he said, taking the brazier she offered him that allowed him to address the crowd.
“Thirty decades have I shepherded this flock, and nary a single whisper of heresy,” he groused.
“It is not our place to question…“ Venernanda began, but the old man raised his hand. “As an Amalathian, I do not even think of questioning the commands of the Inquisition. This is because I know my place exactly, Reverend Mother.”
At the wave of his gnarled hand, servitors carried a tall, ornately carved ambo to the lower landing of the Confitorium stairs. A third servitor, upon whose shoulders rested a golden vox caster, stood in front of the ambo while the two others knelt behind it so that their bodies formed a ramp. The Grand Curate mounted his pulpit.
“My daughters of Janos,” his magnified voice boomed across the plaza. His voice carried authority as naturally as the clouds carry rain. “I address you in the Most Solemn Name of the God Emperor.”
He made the sign of the Aquila and his traumatized audience genuflected in waves. Many hundreds of them ceased to cry and looked up at him with glints of hope. As the Grand Curate launched into mesmerizing parables of faith and loyalty, Tella started to step back into formation.
“Stay at his side, Novice,” Venernanda commanded softly through the helmet vox. “Keep your weapon ready should his will waver.”
“Yes, Mother,” Tella responded, taking her place. For a moment, she grew concerned. From their position at the top of the steps, much of their view was blocked by the rows of PDF troopers between them and the crowd. Then, she realized that they were not positioned to fire on the crowd, but on the troopers should they hesitate.
“Let faith guide all your thoughts and words,” The Sisters sang aloud through their external speakers. Tella knew that identical proceedings were occurring at every Confitorium on this planet simultaneously, and she could not help but tremble at the power of the Inquisition.
The Grand Curate was finally getting to the heart of the matter. Tella was surprised at his bluntness. Clearly, he had great faith in his people even unto their uttermost desperation.
“It has come to the infallible knowledge of the Emperor’s Holy Inquisition,” he rumbled, gathering momentum to demonstrate his very deepest revulsion, “that a noxious and despicable cult has taken root among the daughters of Janos.”
The women gasped collectively. They had certainly guessed as much already. And yet Tella could understand why they had not dared believe it until now. Suspicious glares were thrown back and forth across the plaza and then shrieks of accusations, even confessions, although these latter could not be trusted. It did not matter now anyway. The Grand Curate paid them no heed.
“As I have taught you, my children, the sins of a handful can damn many thousands,” he shouted. Corruption must be stamped out absolutely, else it grow and fester anew to the ruin of all.” His voice became very low. “Some of you will meet The Emperor for salvation, and others will meet Him for damnation, but you will all meet Him this day.”
A great wailing went up. Some women tore at their clothes and their hair. Others dropped to the ground, writhing in fear and sorrow. A few collapsed from the shock. The masked missionaries redobled their effort with the swinging incensors. Those women who broke from the crowd, or clung to the missionaries robes begging for absolution, were discretely shown the Emperor’s final mercy by attendants with auto-cauterizing stunknives.
A shudder ran through the ranks of the Planetary Defense troops. Tella saw helmeted heads turn questioningly to their officers while the officers themselves cast furtive glances first toward the Grand Curate and then the Battle Sisters. The women in the crowd were their mothers, wives, and daughters. Tella chanted the litany of resolve beneath her breath.
“But wait!” the Grand Curate blasted, standing straight and raising his hands to the heavens, as if to part the clouds of pollution and let golden sunlight shine on these wretched sinners once more.
As he did so, the pilots of the sky plow lighters above reacted to the pre-arranged signal and activated their air-scrubbers. The Sisters of Battle sang in their angelic voices and the clouds above truly parted. Pillars of sunshine, aided by lighters fitted with mag-lights, descended down upon the crowd. Both the women in the crowd and the planetary defense troopers stood in awe of the apparent miracle.
“By the grace of the God Emperor,” the Grand Curate very nearly whispered those words before building his volume back up, “and under the personal authority of the Emperor’s Ecclesiarch Caritabertus LXVI, Primatial Lord of this entire sub-sector, the faithful who make good deaths”—he paused to reiterate—“good, painless deaths, in obedience to this charge under the immortal authority of the Imperium, accepting as much as penance, will be granted absolution in toto.”
To Tella’s surprise, cheers arose. Having come to the brink of damnation, some of the women stepped forward, eager to accept the painless death of their bodies to escape the eternal torment of their souls. Several hundred priests, accompanied by a multitude of servitors, slipped past the stunned Janosian Troopers and into the plaza, where women young and old lined up and began receiving the Emperor’s mercy.
“Conversely,” Sigeric growled at the many who hesitated, “any who persist in their heresy by resisting this clemency graciously bestowed upon you by the Emperor’s own divine hand, will suffer ipso facto excommunication and be burned alive as a witch forthwith! ”
At this second declaration, the rest of the crowd fell in line. The priests worked quickly and effectively, dispatching each woman swiftly before moving onto the next, the bodies collected by the servitors into makeshift piles at the feet of the troopers.
Tella breathed a sigh of relief. Sigeric-Clodio had convinced them, with but sparing use of psychoactive agents and rhetorical gimmickry, that they should accept death willingly. Although it pained Tella to know that there were probably many innocents among the crowd, she knew that ultimately that was immaterial. Whether or not The Emperor accepted their souls into his bosom was the only thing that really mattered, and their obedience made that a surety.
Then, a shot was fired.
The crowd went silent, and a priest fell dead to the ground, his blood mixing in with the blood of those he had already dispatched.
Tella’s vision zoomed in on a PDF trooper, arms shaking, barrel smoking. The woman of Janos had been pacified, but the soldiers could not stand by and watch. Tella closed her eyes for a second, she knew what was coming.
Her squad opened fire in unison, the reactive rounds from their boltguns tearing the trooper and his surrounding squad to shreds.
There was another moment of silence, and Tella prayed it would end there, but then another shot rang out, and then another. Two more priests died and their squads were likewise torn apart.
Now a flurry of shots rang out, and Tella knew there was no turning back.
“Squad Alef with me to the left,” Venernanda barked as she strode down the Confitorium stairs, “Sister Radegund, take Squad Lamed to the right. Novice with Lamed.”
The Sisters turned their external speakers up to maximum, their angelic voices carrying out over the sounds of gunfire and the screams of the dying.
The next few minutes were utterly bizarre to Tella. Beneath her armor, the weapons fire that struck her felt like the pattering of rain, while her own weapon tore the men to shreds three at a time. Hymns, prayers, and death all swirled around her in a mixture she never thought possible. Worship through killing. Service through slaughter.
Tella felt the excitement grow stronger and stronger within her. Even through the filters she could smell the death around her, and she began breathing it in. It was intoxicating. Her heart beat wildly in her ears. Every cell in her body felt completely alive. The power seemed to vibrate out from her bones to the very tips of her hair. Her hearing, her sight, everything became heightened, and she was aware of everything around her from the smallest particle to the largest statue.
In that moment, she felt closer to serving The Emperor then she ever had before.
“From the lightning and the tempest,” she chanted as she brought the butt of her gun down on the shoulder of a PDF trooper, her collarbone snapping like a twig under the force of the servo-powered armor.
“From the scourge of the warp,” she sang over the roar of her bolter. A Janosian Trooper’s chest blew apart and the force of his exploding innards knocked another down.
There was a crack like thunder, and Tella was thrown sideways. The world rotated around her as she cartwheeled through the air, then exploded into a world of stars and pain as she smashed into the marble statue of Saint Walton.
The display in her helm flickered in the darkness, then sprung back to life. Reacting to her injuries, her armor injected powerful stimulants into her body, that allowed her to regain consciousness and bring herself to her feet.
Sister Austrechild lay motionless at Tella’s feet, a thick fountain of blood pouring out of the fist sized hole in her chest. Her helm had split open, revealing the angelic smile that still played about her lifeless lips. Tella staggered, and reactive foam sprayed into the wounds where shrapnel has pierced her armor on her chest and arms, cauterizing them and preventing further blood loss.
Tella’s helm tracked the line of fire back to the far side of the plaza, where a PDF Leman Russ tank had rounded a corner, barrel still steaming.
Tella felt a terrible rage build up within her heart. It swelled until she felt like she was going to burst. From somewhere, she heard screaming that rose above the sounds of battle and hymns. It took her a moment to realize that it was her. She threw her gun to the ground and began running. Now the strength and energy she had felt before were different. She felt as if she were coming apart at the seams. She lost all sense of time and space. She lost all sense of who she was or where she was. All that existed in her world was her prey and her.
Tella sprinted right over a fleeing trooper, his bones crunching beneath her armored feet as she leapt upwards into the air. A second shot from the tank passed beneath her, sailing through the empty space where she had been only a second before and detonating into an expanding sphere of fire that picked up and swallowed everyone for twenty meters.
Tella landed and instinctively jinked left, a blue lance of energy sipping past her from the tank’s lascannon and striking the winged skull of the Ecclesiarchy. As she covered the remaining meters, her ears with filled with the sounds of a distant laughter.
She leapt up onto the tank, breaking the gunner’s neck and throwing his body over the side. The secondary hatch closed beneath the man’s feet, blocking her off from the rest of the crew. Roaring with frustration, Tella leapt down and began pulling on the handle. The muscles in her back and arms swelled grotesquely for a moment and the steel peeled back under the force.
She dropped down into the tank, grabbing the driver from behind and tearing out the side of his throat with her teeth. Warm thick arterial blood sprayed onto her face and hair as she swallowed. One of the sponsor gunners tried to scramble past her, but she kicked back, crushing his skull between her back and the engine block. She grabbed the second gunner and tore straight through his ribcage into his heart, taking a moment to take a bite of it while the tank commander slipped through an escape hatch.
The commander had barely taken three steps before she was on top of him.
“No, please!” he cried as she forced her thumbs through his eyes with a satisfying pop. Visions of a monster that had haunted her thoughts for too many years hurtled into the forefront of her mind. A huge thing in black armor that ripped men limb from limb. It howled in exaltation of the slaughter, using Tella’s own lungs to vent its lust for carnage.
She felt its lust course through her, as she pulled the man’s arm first out of its socket and then, with a wet crack, free from his torso altogether.
“ . . . leeees oh, leeees oh” he managed though his mouth was ruined. She pressed her face close in to his as she rained blow after blow into his teeth and gums, letting the blood splatter into her eyes and mouth. His pathetic mewling became a gargle in the back of his throat. “Tella, stop!”
It was her father’s face. Or was it her mother? Did she ever have a father? Had there ever been a monster that had murdered them? A trick! She crashed her fist again into her parents’ alternating faces. And then again and again. She didn’t care if it was them. Why did they die and leave her alone in this accursed, godless universe? She hated them, hated them, hated them forever. FOREVER!
The wall of rage collapsed in on itself and fell around her. Tears were streaming down her face, mingling with the blood of the man she had eviscerated. The noise of combat had almost ceased. The only gunshots came from far off, across the plaza.
Her eyes focused through her tears. Her hands and face were dripping with someone’s blood, though she couldn’t understand why. She felt panic and confusion. Her eyes darted around as she tried to remember where she was and what was happening. Taddius Harokai stood over her with a strange look on his face. Next to him was another man who wore a tall, wide-brimmed hat. There was no mistaking the emblem it bore. Another Inquisitor. Taddius looked back at him.
“It’s fine, Quiroga,” Taddius assured him. “She’s alright. Lower your weapon.”
Only then did Tella notice the pistol barrel pressed up against her temple.
“I-I think something is wrong with me,” Tella admitted softly.
“Yes, we know,” Tad said grimly.
Tella’s consciousness faded in from a dreamless sleep. Bright lights shown overhead, silhouetting several heads, hooded and cloaked, chittering over her intently in some machine language she couldn’t understand. She tried to move, but found herself securely fastened unto the table she lay on. One of the figures produced a needle from a mechanical appendage and jammed it into her neck. Fire rushed through her veins, then all went dark again.
Tella heard distant noises, like the ticking of metallic insects. She opened her eyes weakly and found the hooded figures turning and inspecting a large grey lump with their prosthetic limbs. It took her a moment to realize that it was one of her lungs, then all went dark again.
When Tella finally awoke, she found herself alone on the floor of a prison cell. The bars hummed greedily with energy, waiting for anyone careless enough to touch them. Her robes had been replaced with a rough woolen wrap, and an explosive collar had been fitted about her neck.
She became aware of a dull throbbing, and as she placed her hand on her chest, it was pricked by something hard embedded in her skin. She pulled her smock aside and found a long scar that reached from the hollow of her throat straight down to her belly button. The flesh had been crudely sewn back together with a black wire. She found similar scars on her back, arms and legs.
She had no real sense of how much time had passed, but as she pulled her filthy hair away from her face, she could tell that it had grown several inches longer since she had last been fully awake.
The cellblock doors opened heavily and Hanover hobbled in slowly, flanked by two Sisters of Battle. “Inquisitor Harokai would like to speak with you.”
Tella was lead by a chain attached to her collar. Her wrists and ankles were shackled, making ti difficult to walk. The two armored Sisters followed behind her, weapons trained at the back of her head, ready to fire at a moment’s notice. Above the sounds of her chains scraping along the stone floor, she could hear them softly singing the litany of purity.
After what seemed like miles of long corridors and pressure blast doors, they walked out into sunlight of a light azure sky. Glancing behind her, she could see that they were leaving a rusty unmarked pressure door set into the side of a cliff.
Birds were chirping happily as they walked out into the prairie beyond, which was dotted with tall bright yellow flowers, but Tella felt no comfort. Her mind felt overflowing with questions and doubts. Nothing made sense to her anymore. She no longer had her rosary beads, but still habitually moved her fingers to advance them as she whispered her morning prayers.
They came to a small rocky outcropping where Taddius sat quietly. Tella was beckoned to sit alongside him, and the guards walked away, leaving the pair sitting in silence. Tella was ready to burst, but she had enough experience with prisoners to know the protocol. If she spoke without first being spoken to, the collar would detonate.
“I need you to draw something for me.” Tad asked after an agonizingly long pause. “The Space Marine who attacked your father’s ship, what was the symbol on his shoulder pad?”
Tella froze in confusion, unsure of how to respond.
“Draw it for me on the ground,” he insisted, forcing a stick into her shackled hands.
“I-I don’t know what you mean,” she finally managed to force out. “My Father’s fleet was never…”
“Stop, just draw it for me, I don’t have a lot of time.”
Tella’s eyes narrowed. “I-If this is some kind of test…”
“I assure you, this isn’t a test. I ordered you to never speak of it again, and now I am rescinding that order, it is as simple as that.”
Tella hesitated, but then began drawing in the dirt before them.
“He had a six-pointed star with an eye in the middle,” she began as she drew.
“Emperor’s teeth,” Tad swore, scattering the drawing with his boot. “That’s the Black Legion. How could I be so blind?”
Tad slumped forward, rubbing his temples with his fingers.
“I-I’ve seen that name etched on temple foundation stones,” she admitted. “The Sons of the Emperor that betrayed his pure light.”
“Aye,” Tad confirmed. And they won’t be satisfied until every last human is dead. They’re working together with a madman named Fabius Bile to make it happen.”
Tella sat in silence for several minutes while Inquisitor Harokai mumbled quietly to himself, until he suddenly say up and asked her a question.
“What do you see?”
Below them was a small nest with three tweeting chicks being fed by their large white mother.
“A bird’s nest, though I don’t recognize the species,” Tella admitted.
“Two of them are Perras, but the third is actually another species called a Striker.”
“They look the same to me,” Tella observed.
“Aye, even their own mother can’t tell the difference. Several weeks ago a Striker ate one of the eggs and replaced it with one of its own. The Perra mother has been feeding all three ever since they hatched.”
The mother flew away to gather more seeds. As soon as she was out of sight, one of the chicks squawked strangely and grabbed onto its nestling, pecking fiercely at its neck and drawing out thick gushes of blood. Sensing the danger, the other chick began crawling away, peeping out for help, but the striker chick leapt onto it with surprising strength and speed. Inquisitor Harokai reached down and snatched up the striker chick before it could kill again and unceremoniously twisted its tiny head until it broke.
“The only reason why Perra’s haven’t been wiped out,” he explained, casting the corpse aside,” is because the local farmers know something. They know that strikers kill their adopted siblings exactly 23 days after hatching, so they watch the nests and pluck out the strikers.”
“Why show me this?” Tella asked, her patience waning.
“Because you are a Striker,” he said, turning towards her. “At least, that’s what I’ve chosen to call you. My order has designated your kind as Organism 196Y21BIO1.55, but that just doesn’t roll off the tongue as well. You are a living weapon designed with a single purpose. The genocide of the human race.”
Tad paused, allowing the gravity of the situation to sink in. “If you need some time alone,” he began.
“No, continue,” Tella insisted.
“Okay. We believe Yemahoit was first seeded with a Striker three hundred and thirty years ago, and they’ve been quietly breeding amongst the population ever since.”
“That’s really not a lot of time.”
Tad shrugged. “The average lay-citizen has just over three children, multiply that over fifteen generations it comes out to nearly forty five million people. When Yemahoit declared open revolt, we figure nearly half the population were Strikers, including most of the royal family and PDF command staff.”
“And my mother,” Tella concluded.
“I’m impressed,” he said. “You are taking all this rather well.”
“The truth is,” Tella admitted, “I’ve always known something was wrong with me. I’ve never told anyone, but The Emperor has never once answered my prayers.”
“Well, that makes sense,” Taddius said, wiping his brow. “I suppose it’s kind of a relief after all this time.”
“With all due respect, it’s not a relief at all. It’s like a nightmare I can’t wake up from.”
Tad nodded slowly.
“So, am I possessed or infected with something?” she asked, looking for a ray of hope.
“No,” he said, rubbing the back of his head. “Possession and infection both involve the corruption of a healthy human. As near as we can tell, you never were human to begin with. Your genes have additional base pairs, and your body contains extra organs and systems, though mostly in a dormant state.”
Tad sat forward and wiped the blood off his hands. “I know what you’re asking, and the answer is no, this isn’t something that can be cured.”
“How long have you known?” Tella asked quietly, a tear running down her cheek.
“A while now,” Tad assured. “Strikers only bear female offspring, so any world infested with them will experience a population shift as their numbers grow, with fewer and fewer males born with each generation. At the moment, it’s the best way to identify an infected world.”
“Is that why the women of Janos were purged?”
“Aye.” Tad confirmed. “And we’ve purged another ten since then, but its nothing but a stop-gap at the moment. We believe thousands of worlds may have been seeded, which could further spread to hundreds of thousands more. We can’t purge them all and expect the Imperium to survive.”
Tella’s eyes grew wide and she wiped the tears from her face. “The Mechanicus only has a handful of Genetors in each sector, there’s no way they could test trillions of citizens.”
“Aye,” Tad nodded. “I’ve had Hanover run countless simulations. Even if we mobilized the entire Genetor Subscriptorium, we’d only have a 21.7% chance of identifying an infected population before the infection reached irredeemable levels.”
Tad turned and looked at her for the first time, and she saw something she did not expect an Inquisitor was capable of. She saw pity in his eyes.
“I have no right to ask this of you, but I am out of alternatives. I need your help, Tella.”
“My help?” she asked in amazement.
“Yes,” he nodded. “We removed all records of it, but The Black Legion was there at Yemahoit before we drove them off. Somehow, they awoke the demonic nature of all the Strikers on the planet below. If we can learn what that trigger is, we can save lives beyond count. We can root out the strikers without culling the innocents. We can kill the weeds without burning down the whole orchard.”
“That’s why you had me train with the Sisters and sent me into battle, isn’t it?” Tella accused.
“Yes, we thought the rush of battle might be the trigger. We pumped you full of enough dopeamine to kill a rinox, but that didn’t work. Since then we’ve tried every toxin and drug we could think of. The best Genetors in the Imperium pulled your body apart looking for the secret. The only thing that came close was during the battle of Janos when Ekatarina probed your mind psychically. That managed to partially awake your true nature, but she couldn’t sustain it, and the exertion nearly killed her.”
“Witchcraft?” Tella scoffed. “You used witchcraft on me?” Of all the hypocrisy. The Inquisition exists to destroy witchcraft.”
“And sometimes we must use the tools of the witch to destroy the witch,” Tad fired back. “Don’t pretend to lecture me. You cannot begin to understand the weight of my responsibilities, nor the consequences if I should fail.”
Ekatarina walked over to them, her white cape and hood of The Order Famulous glistening in the sunlight.
“I’m afraid the real Sister Superior Ekatarina has been dead for nearly two centuries,” she explained. “Her identity was just part of my cover. My real name is Catherine Harokai.”
“Harokai?” Tella asked, looking at the both of them. “You’re his wife?!”
“Unfortunately,” Catherine grumbled.
“But, you said she hated you.”
“276 years of marriage will do that to you,” Tad said humorlessly.
A few hours later, Tella was lead by Anthon back to her cell. As she stepped behind the bars, the last of her composure she had been falsely maintaining gave way, and she fell to her knees. Her entire life, her existence had revolved around one simple fact. If she served The Emperor, her soul would be saved. Nothing else really mattered. Suffering of the flesh and mind could be endured, because they lead to the salvation of the soul. Now, that fact had been dashed from her lips, and she sat in terror of the void left in its place.
Tella dropped her face into her hands and cried bitterly. She cursed her flesh and wished she had never been born. It didn’t matter how many times she prayed, or how dutifully she served. It didn’t matter how much she sacrificed to The Emperor. She could never be saved, because she wasn’t human. She didn’t have a soul to save.
Tella screamed out in rage, tears dripping off her chin onto the stone floor below. She had denied herself every one of life’s pleasantries, and would receive nothing in return. Everything that might have made her happy she had withheld on the promise that one day she would be happy forever, and now that promise was revealed to be nothing but a lie. She had just been giving to the void, and it spitefully took everything from her until now she had nothing left.
Warm arms closed around her from behind as she cried, and she realized that Anthon had entered the cell and knelt behind her.
“I’m sorry,” he said as he held her. “Taddius didn’t tell me until this morning. I didn’t know.”
“What’s going to happen to me?” she asked as she sobbed, “When I die?”
“I don’t know,” he said softly.
“No more lies,” she demanded. “Just tell me the truth.”
“You don’t want to know.”
“Tell me!” She screamed.
Anthon held her tightly from behind and buried his face into her shoulder. “Your life essence will have no protection from The Emperor, and will be devoured by demons.”
The bridge of the La’mibara was unlike anything Tella had ever seen before. A transparent geodesic dome that allowed the occupants to see out directly into space. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust after the blindfold was taken off her eyes. A full three quarters of their view was dominated by the swirling purple and blue storm in space. Small lines and text appeared on the dome, identifying it as the eye of terror. As the lines faded, Tella noticed that they were made of millions of tiny metallic beads that arranged themselves on the inside surface of the dome.
Beads collected over the surface, blocking out the view from outside but creating a new one themselves. Tella recognized it as a map of the pilgrim routes running through Segmentum Obscurus like veins in a body, with countless small icons moving around, representing vessels.
“I’ve been collecting this data for the last decade. The lives of hundreds of my kin were lost attempting to compile it all,” Hanover explained grimly. Despite the fact that she was shackled and cuffed, Tella could tell he was uneasy at her presence.
“We’ve traced the lineage of each of the seventy two worlds confirmed tainted back to a single individual deposited there. In each case, the method was the same, a merchant vessel is attacked but not destroyed. During the fighting an infant striker organism is left behind. In the chaos that follows the attack the infant is assumed to be an orphan of the deceased and, per standard practice, deposited on the next world traveled to. The beads moved impossibly fast as the timeline was reversed, showing attacks appearing as bright flashes.
“These deposit attacks appear random unless you overlay all of them over the last five centuries.”
The beads rearranged themselves, displaying the cluster of attacks arranged in an almost perfect sphere.
“In the center there is an abyssus, a place where temporal stratum intersect. The distance between reality and The Immaterium is very small there,” Catherine explained. “We believe that this is where Organism 196Y21BIO1.55 is created and given life.”
The beads fell away and they could again see out into space. At first Tella saw nothing, but when a nearby star winked out she realized that they were, in fact, in orbit of something, blacker then the blackness of space. At Harokai’s command a signal torpedo was fired, and as it detonated below them, the bright flash momentarily illuminated something that at first looked like a black planet covered with jagged ridges, but as the light faded Tella could see pulsating movement. It was as if an impossibly large collection of organs had collected together under mutual gravity and had fused together, sucking and throbbing with unnatural life.
“By the throne,” Tella whispered. It made her sick just looking at it.
“Don’t revile,” Hanover warned spitefully. “That thing is basically your mother.”
A slit of light pierced the darkness below and opened into a sickly eye, longer then the length of their entire craft. It focused on them with a soulless menace that Tella had seen once before. Catherine screamed in pain and coughed up blood onto the floor.
“Volcanus Torpedoes ready,” came the raspy brass tones from the Senior Magus, his one organic eye nearly overcome with countless mechanical insect-like mouth pincers. “These weapons are the last of their kind in the sector.”
“And their sacrifice will not be in vain,” Inquisitor Harokai confirmed. “Await my signal, and have the Astropath Choir attune itself to block out any interference.”
Tella’s blindfold was replaced and she was lead down onto the teleportation pad. Only once there were her restraints removed, and three dozen guards kept their weapons trained directly on her at all times as she donned her power armor. The sacred prayers had been filed off, and the Ecclesiarical symbols removed. The purity robes had been cut out, leaving it functionally intact, but bereft of any of The Emperor’s blessings.
“You couldn’t even let me have this one thing, could you?” Tella whispered to herself as she powered up the armor’s reactor systems.
Harokai and the others joined her on the pad and the ancient systems whirred to life. Reality shattered around them, but this time the ice cold hands felt closer, and the chittering voices nearer. Somewhere Tella heard laughter, but before she could turn her head, reality healed itself around them, and they found themselves in a living corridor of muscle and bone. Air rushed in and out rhythmically, leaving a whistling sound like breathing.
The sight before her eyes was so horrible it made Tella step back. Row upon row of human females encased in agony, cemented into the walls by a thick dripping mucous. Their bellies were large with pregnancy, pulsating black cables sprouting out in all directions.
Thirty rows of them rose above, their moans and screams melting together into a terrible combined wail that Tella could hear even after she shut down her external mikes.
Large black creatures resembling spiders crawled among the women, selecting those that were ripe and leaping upon them, tearing out their bellies with spincter-like mouths and sucking out the contents within and carrying them off into the central chamber.
Tella looked around as they entered the central chamber. Fifty similar hallways stretched out in all directions, the spider-creatures bringing their harvested contents to the center, where a column of twisting green energy descended down onto an alter of discarded bones and organs, upon which a lifeless fetus were placed one at a time.
The man standing over the alter wore a patchwork cloak made out of human skin, his back dissolving into multiple mechanical appendages that moved quicker then the eye could see, injecting, cutting, inserting and sewing, until finally he stood back and let the energy strand from above soak into the lifeless form. The small feet began twitching, and the man let out a laughter that echoed through the halls.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he asked through grey necrotic lips. “Only one in ten thousand survives the process, but every one that does is a perfect seed to be planted.
“By the authority of The Emperor’s Holy inquisition,” Taddius said, drawing his sword, “I sentence you to death by my blade, and the banishment of your black soul to the hell that awaits you and your master.”
“Who else but Fabius Bile could conquer a sector without armies and without warships? But with only that which I hold in my hand?” he cackled, ignoring Harokai.
A space marine in black armor emerged from the shadows and placed himself between them and Bile. With his helmet off, they could see that his eyes and mouth were sewn shut, and Tella fell backwards with terror. It was the beast.
It leapt forward with frightening speed, landing on Hanover and crushing him beneath his mass. Bendit released a glob of phlegm that rooted the space marine into place. Harokai and his retinue fired their weapons, tearing deep chunks out of the black armor. The beast twisted sideways, breaking free and slashing out with a clawed hand that caught Bendit at the waist, cleaving him in two.
Catherine stretched out her hand and released a bolt of purple lightning that threw the beast back, the wet living floor tearing up and apart under his bulk as he rolled. He stood up and raised his hand, drawing in the energy greedily. Catherine grabbed her raised hand, trying to force it down, but the beast pulled back and even more energy flew out of Catherine. Her body aged to dust in the blink of an eye and her bones and clothes fell lifeless to the floor.
Anthon released a blast of plasma that caught the marine in the knee, burning straight through and separating the leg from the rest of the body. Undaunted, the beast charged forward with its three remaining limbs and knocked Anthon backwards. Anthon spun through the air and was impaled on a thorn protruding from the floor, sticking right up through his chest.
Inquisitor Harokai slashed with his powersword, catching the marine at the elbow and cleaving the arm from its body.
Tella rose to her feet and took aim. Sweat was rolling down her face, and she had to force her eyes open through the fear. The servos in her armor couldn’t completely steady the tremble in her hands. She felt like she could hear her father’s screams. She whispered the prayer of fortitude and forced herself to fire a trio of shots at his exposed head, but her aim was off and the shots slammed into his chestplate, digging deep gouges into the armor there.
The marine grabbed Harokai at the waist with its remaining hand and lifted him aloft as he struggled. There was a terrible crunch as Harokai’s pelvis and spine were pulverized. Taddius screamed but kept his grip on his weapon, slashing down and severing the arm that held him at the shoulder.
Tella forced herself to run forward and get a better angle, then triggered another trio of shots at the bloated purple skin that had once been a human head. The bone and flesh were pulped and the beast finally slumped over dead at Tella’s feet.
Tella ran over and tried vainly to stop the flow of blood coming out of Anthon’s chest.
“Tella,” he said softly. “I’ve always…”
“I know,” she said, opening a cauterizing capsule and pouring its contents out onto the wound. “Try not to speak, you’ll tear up your insides even more.” She heaved at Anthon’s shoulders and with a wet sucking sound his body pulled free of the thorn. She rolled him onto his back and poured another capsule onto the entrance wound.
Deep laughter filled the room.
“Well done, my child,” Fabius praised as he clapped his rotting hands. “Now, emerge from your shell and finish off the Inquisitor with your bare hands.”
Tella heard a breathless word pass through her mind, then a terrible wave of sickness overtook her, and somewhere from deep with, a fury filled her up completely. Every memory and moment were swallowed up in an inexhaustible source of rage, brighter then a thousand suns. Reason, thought, and every other emotion melted before the incredible heat, leaving nothing but inexhaustible anger.
Tella grabbed the sides of her head and screamed, blood trickling out from her eyes, nose and ears. The rage pounded against the inside of her mind, and she felt herself crack and splinter as she tried desperately to hold onto who she was. The force withdrew, then pounded again, and the person she had been simply shattered.
Her body curled to the floor as it swelled and grew, her armor splitting and breaking as muscles and bones took on a new larger form.
“Hurry, and fire the torpedoes,” Harokai gurgled into his vox comm, blood spilling out of his mouth.
In orbit two golden shafts streaked out into the night. Relics of a bygone age, they slammed into the surface of the living planet but did not detonate.
“Duds?” Harokai coughed. “That is so typical.”
Her transformation complete, the beast stood up, her ruined armor barely clinging onto her new form. She stood over eight feet tall now, like an amazon of ancient legend, with black pupil-less eyes. Powerful muscles quivered and strained painfully over strong bones and sinew. She looked down at Anthon’s lifeless body strangely.
“The Emperor…” the beast growled inhumanly.
“Yes, say it, my child,” Bile beckoned.
“The Emperor…is my Lord and Protector,” the beast said, trembling with pain.
“The Emperor, is my Father and Savior,” she continued, struggling against every cell in her body.
“Impossible,” Bile breathed.”
“I live and die only for him,” she prayed in agony.
Every fiber strained in protest, yet she forced past the pain and willed her taloned fingers over to the vox on her wrist and activated it.
“The psychic trigger,” she said in gravely tones, “It’s my true name, the true name of my kind, Ka’alina’ari.”
“Tell the choir to transmit that message right away,” Harokai screamed into his comm as he lay dying on the floor. “That word is worth more then all your lives put together.”
“You fool!” Bile screamed, green spittle dribbling down his grey lips. “Your devotion on that corpse god is wasted. Don’t you know that the Emperor despises you?”
“I know that,” the beast insisted. “The Emperor will always hate me. But that does not mean I must choose to hate him.”
The beast dropped low and began sprinting straight at Bile.
“FOR...” she screamed, throwing her weapon to the ground.
“…THE…” she continued, gaining speed.
Tella tackled Bile backwards. Their bodies entered the flowing column on energy, polluting it. Atom by atom, they were stripped away through muscle and bone until there was nothing left. The polluted energy began twisting and contorting violently, then exploded outwards in a perfect ball of green fire that consumed everything as it expanded.
On the bridge of the La’mibara, the crew watched in amazement as the black world below was consumed from within, then disappeared as the green fireball expanded further outwards. The ship listed to one side, then was overtaken and destroyed as the fireball expanded further outwards, then was pulled back in, every lick of flame pulled back in through the abyssus until nothing remained but the flicker of cold stars and the blackness of space.
Bravo, then! I've been holding off posting because I didn't want to interrupt the story, but I've really enjoyed reading this. Thanks to you, Doctor Thunder for writing and posting this, and to Manchu for co-writing, of course.
Meh. I don't really know what else to say!
EDIT: Also, I can't rep you again as of yet, otherwise I would have done so. Just thought I'd mention it!
It built nicely during each chapter, but seems to taper off a bit near the end.
#25 - Relation to the original topic decreases with every single post.