A Clash of Wills

The halls of His Seen Works ran the length of a city block. One of Gaillaco’s many churches, His Seen Works was home to Sister Jolian’s office and where Sisters of Battle Dovella and Marianna were headed. The pair passed dozens of doors until they reached Jolian’s. Only her name on a brass placard and a single purity seal marked it in the hallways of hundreds of doors.

Dovella lifted her hand to knock when Marianna thumped her palm’s heel against the door. Dovella lowered her hand, but said nothing.

Jolain, somewhat muffled, said:  ‘Come in,’ and the Sisters did as bid.

The small office held a modest desk where Jolian sat. Behind her was a stained glass window, silver panes set into a field of white formed the image of a skull with a spiked halo.

‘Sister Superior,’ Dovella bowed her head. Marianna did the same, and even Dovella’s servo-skull, Glint, dipped its chin.

‘At peace, Sisters,’ Jolian said, and the two Sisters relaxed. ‘Have either of you ever been to Ocampo?’ The two Sisters shook their heads. Jolian tapped a map spread before her.

Dovella and Marianna took a step closer and looked to where Jolian pointed, at Gaillaco. The massive city was situated along the south-west border of Palma Alternum’s third largest continent. Then Jolian drew her finger inland and tapped a place with no label.

‘It’s a small town, no more than two thousand people live there. I’ve received reports of thefts and, more recently, a murder,’ Jolian lifted the edge of the map and handed a folded piece of paper to Dovella. ‘I need you two to find out what happened.’ She motioned to the paper in Dovella’s hand, ‘You’ll find a pair of passes for the train there. It’s a two-day trip. I expect this to be handled by week’s end.’

‘By His will,’ said Marianna.

Dovella nodded.

‘And Marianna,’ said Jolian. ‘Being this is your first time in the libraries, I expect you to follow your Sister’s lead. She’s been going into the tunnels for years.’

As the two Sisters headed back to their quarters, Dovella was hit with a minor swell of emotion. She knew this place. Of course she knew most of Gaillaco, but there was something about this particular street that tickled the back of her neck. As she passed poured-glass windows lining shop fronts, Dovella stopped. The light from hanging lanterns and lumens reflected off the glass’s uneven surface, making the light dance in slow moving whorls.

She stood in front of the small chapel-shop, a place where prayers were bought and sold. Pretending to look at the shop’s interior, she tried to collect her thoughts. Come on, focus. The glass’s rumpled surface turned her view into a warped vision that began to churn her stomach the longer she looked. Buildings bent and twisted, their bases shrunk lumen pole thin and their tops bloated. The glass was made from sand minded from Palma Alternum’s largest continent, a thousand miles south of Gaillaco, also it’s least inhabited. A wasteland of rock and sand.

Dovella reached out to touch the glass, but stopped. Her thoughts had turned to the Warp and the last thing she wanted to do was make any sort of connection between herself and that foul place. It seemed impossible that the Warp could reach a holy shrine world such as Palma Alternum, but stranger things had happened.

‘Chaos takes root in the gaps between truth and order,’ Dovella muttered to herself, recalling a line of scripture as she continued on her way.

‘What?’ asked Marianna. ‘Are you alright?’

Dovella twitched at her Sister’s voice. Having been so lost in thought she’d forgotten Marianna was at her side.

‘I’m fine.’

No she’s not. She was daydreaming again. Marianna shook her head.

Dovella turned a street corner and the feeling of old memories resurfaced. She’d forgotten all about the sensation and chided herself for getting so lost in thought. It was a habit she’d fallen into during her many trips into Palma Alternum’s libraries to retrieve books and scrolls for her superiors. Wandering those endless halls with only a servo-skull to accompany her led to many hours of thinking. Since being paired with Marianna things had gotten a little better, but she still found herself deep in the weeds of recollection and memory without any idea of how she got there.

Her mind returned to the present and she tried to find the memory anchors that would lead to what she was feeling. A support beam of marble wrapped in ornate filigree steel was one of nine that held the dome covering the whole of Gaillaco. The dome was made of a plasteel frame into which were set panels of colored glass. The thousands of glass pieces formed an image of a line of scripture, and was so large the whole of it was only visible from orbit. Seen from space one could read, ‘Not by words, nor hopes, nor dreams; not even by faith, but works alone is His divine will done’.

Dovella grunted as her eyes fell and she was again left wondering why she was so prone to getting lost in thought. Yes, she could point to the many hours she’d been in the libraries, but that was an excuse. Maybe this is why Jolian doesn’t let me see battle. She imagined herself daydreaming on the field of war, killed while her thoughts were anywhere but on the action at hand.

Dovella looked over her shoulder at Marianna and saw her younger Sister’s brows lift. ‘What?’ she asked.

Marianna smirked. She doesn’t remember, but she’s trying to. ‘This is where we met.’

‘Here?’ Dovella stopped and looked into the alley. Really? She recalled the moment she met Marianna Diaz. How could I forget it was here? She told herself it was easy to do in a city as big as Gaillaco, where one alley looked like the next, but knew that was another excuse.

Marianna nodded. ‘Right here. Brick and I followed you and weren’t even trying to be stealthy about it.’

Dovella smirked and closed her eyes.

‘Are you really Adepta Sororitas?’ a small girl asked from behind Dovella. Standing in front of her was a boy in his teens. Big for his age. He looked down his nose at her, but said nothing. The girl, no older than ten, was wearing rags. A shock of white hair amid the rest that was a brown so dark it looked black in the shadows.

At first Dovella had been startled, then angry to have been cornered so easily, then indignant that these two worthless street persons would stop her.

‘You dare ask me anything?’ Dovella snapped at the child, then turned back to the boy and glared at him. He lifted his hands and took a step back, making it clear he had no intention of doing anything. Even shaking his head and nodding towards the girl as though to say this was all her idea.

‘Who are you?’ Dovella asked.

‘Marianna Diaz,’ the girl said, standing a little taller as she spoke. A sly smirk worked its way onto her lips and danced in her eyes.

‘Brick,’ said the boy.

Dovella bit the inside of her lip. She didn’t like that she’d been caught unaware, and the girl seemed to have planned the whole thing. The way she stood there, with her arms crossed, bothered Dovella. It made her uncomfortable that a child seemed so sure of herself, while she, an Adepta Sororitas of the Argent Shroud, was questioning her every move.

Dovella grimaced. I don’t have to be here talking to these two. ‘You dare corner a Sister of Battle?’ she said, trying to put some real weight into her words. They sounded empty to her ears; a parent trying to tell their adult child they’re in big trouble.

‘Corner you?’ Marianna scoffed. ‘Have you ever been off-world? Have you even shot at anything besides targets?’ Her eyes narrowed. ‘Have you killed any heretics or xenos? Ever? I don’t see any scars on you.’ She scanned Dovella’s face, hands, neck. ‘You’re just a scribe, aren’t you?’

‘I am not a scribe,’ snapped Dovella. How dare she. Dovella glared at the boy who, again, showed her his palms and leaned into the wall. ‘Out of my way, you pathetic child.’

Dovella stomped past the girl, her heart pounding. She wondered how it was that a girl could put such fear into her. She’d gone half a block when she stopped.

Marianna stood at the edge of the alley’s entrance, her arms crossed, watching the Sister of Battle. All she wanted to do was talk to her, but this woman was so timid. Not at all what she’d thought of when she’d seen other Sisters throughout the city. Maybe she’s new at it.

Dovella stared at the girl. Now what does she want? What am I supposed to do? I can’t ignore her now. She walked back to the girl.

Marianna spoke first.

‘I can help you,’ she said.

‘You can… What?’ Dovella looked over at the boy, still lurking in the shadows. He shrugged.

‘I followed you because I wanted to talk to you, that’s all.’

‘Why creep up on me like you did?’ asked Dovella.

‘Creep up on you?’ Marianna shook her head. ‘I didn’t.’

Dovella thought back. Is that true? She didn’t want to think that she’d made the whole thing up, but she’d gotten so used to seeing shadows in the libraries that it was possible she’d started to see them everywhere.

‘What about him?’ Dovella asked, and nodded towards Brick.

‘He’s my friend. I asked him to wait here in case you passed this way, just to ask you for a minute to talk.’

‘About what? What do you want?’

Marianna said: ‘I want to join the Adepta Sororitas.’

‘You said you can help me. How?’ Why am I even asking this. What could this child possibly do for me?

‘I can help you stop being so jumpy.’

Beneath Ocampo, like much of Palma Alternum, there were libraries that hadn’t seen light in a thousand years. The libraries under Gaillaco connected to those beneath Ocampo, and beyond. The tunnels ran for thousands of miles creating a network of shelves filled with ancient texts collected from every corner of the Imperium of Man. The books, stacks of parchment, maps, and scrolls sat on shelves that were, in some places, as tall as the above-ground columns that held the city domes; and in other places short enough to rest an elbow on. The tunnels under Ocampo were closer to the small end of the extreme, the ceiling no more than ten feet tall in the highest places.

The libraries beneath Ocampo were pitch black, a darkness so deep it seeped into your skin and chilled your bones.

Marianna ran a gloved hand down her armored leg, her fingers feeling for the handle of the thin blade. The same one she’d used to take back her name. She’d known it was there, but touching it warmed her. A few steps ahead Dovella was crouched next to one of the countless shelves, listening and feeling. Marianna smirked. She remembered the day she’d told her elder Sister that listening only told half the story, to learn the other half you had to feel it.

Dovella kneeled with one hand on a bookshelf. With her other, she adjusted her helmet’s darkvision lens. She clicked it to the next setting to filter more of the dust from her view. There was so much drifting through the air in these parts. Forgotten ancient books that hadn’t been viewed in generations sent flurries of papersnow drifting through the tunnels.

A gentle shake pulled Dovella’s attention to her right. There it is again. She gestured with hand signs to Marianna.

Marianna nodded. She’d felt it too, a moment before her superior. They were getting close. The murdering thieves they’d been sent to track down weren’t far now. Ahead Dovella stood and signed to Marianna: ‘I’ll head this way.’

Marianna’s fingers twitched as she was about to reply, then changed her mind and instead scoffed and waited.

Dovella turned the corner to head down between a pair of shelves that reached a few feet above her head. She’d gone twenty yards when she spotted a blockage. Hundreds of books had fallen from their shelves to create a small mountain of rotted paper. There was no way to climb over the mess and be quiet about it. She looked back and, not seeing Marianna, bit her lip. She knew and didn’t tell me, damnit. Dovella turned back and flashed a few quick hand signs to her subordinate.

‘Why didn’t you say anything?’

Marianna paused. She considered how to respond, it was always such a delicate thing with Dovella. ‘Should I have?’

Damn her. She knew and said nothing, and now she’s trying to teach me another of her streetwise lessons. Something about how I should have been able to feel the blockage.

Dovella swallowed and signed back, ‘No. I’d do well to learn more from you.’ As the words left her fingers she felt a calm wash over her. It was always so hard to admit that her younger Sister did indeed know many things worth learning. And yet every time she managed to set aside her pride she felt better for having done so.

Marianna nodded and smiled, her expression hidden inside her helmet.

‘Take point,’ Dovella signed, and Marianna went down a couple more rows before taking a turn. Dovella wished Glint was with her, but the servo-skull’s machine spirit was too noisy when secrecy was needed.

The pair of Sisters walked through the dust-filled darkness for another hundred yards. They walked out from between a pair of shelves into a large opening. There were desks and writing tables situated in a semicircle, all facing a huge stone lectern set on a stone dais carved from the floor. Dovella signed to her younger Sister that this had once been a buried chapel, a hidden place of worship.

Long before the Order of the Argent Shroud took Palma Alternum under its wing of protection, the planet had been controlled by believers of false gods. Those that prayed to the true Emperor of Mankind were forced to hide and keep their services secret. The tunnels had provided them sanctuary.

Marianna lifted a gloved finger. She signed: ‘There,’ and pointed in the direction the sound had come from. A soft scuffle.

Dovella had almost missed it, but thanks to Marianna she was starting to pick up on things she’d never noticed before. She smiled to herself and nodded. ‘We’ll corner them.’

‘Like when we met,’ Marianna signed.

Dovella had to bury her laughter, recalling the day she walked into Brick with Marianna at her heels. ‘I’ll play Brick’s part,’ Dovella signed, then wondered how the boy was doing these days.

The Sisters split up. Dovella headed towards the sound that Marianna had marked, while the younger Sister headed off down between another row of shelves.

Every few steps Dovella would pause to listen. There, she noted as the soft scraping noise came again. Whatever the source, it seemed to be stationary, someone shifting their sitting position maybe? The world seen through her helmet’s visor was rust-red and flickered as her armor’s powerpack stuttered.

Marianna listened between her steps, never needing to stop to hear where the sound was coming from. There’s silence to be found after a foot lifts and before it touches back down. It was a practice she’d learned from Brick and the other street kids she’d grown up around. Being able to run and hear where your pursuers are is a handy trick to know when you steal to feed yourself.

Dovella’s boot caught on the edge of a fallen book, knocking it over. She froze. The thump of the book echoed in her ears. She tried to still her breathing, but that only made it sound all the louder to her. Her ears filled with white noise, making it impossible for her to focus. Pull yourself together, she closed her eyes and grit her teeth.

Marianna smirked. She’d anticipated her elder Sister to make a sound. Had been expecting it, and the moment it came she was listening for the follow up. There. A louder scraping had come a second after Dovella’s misstep, right around the next corner. Marianna set off at a bounding run.

Dovella’s eyes flashed open. She headed towards the sound of running footsteps and as she reached the end of her row a frail body slammed into her.

The man wore goggles over bulging eyes and a cloth dust mask; he was dressed in an ill-fitting robe and wore bandoliers full of vials looped over his shoulders. A large backpack with a drawstring top made tinkling noises when he moved.

Dovella reached to grab the man by the neck, but he was too quick. He dropped to all fours and scuttled away from the Sister only to knock into the other behind him.

‘What’re you doing down here?’ Dovella asked. She tried to put calm in her voice, to compensate for the harsh metallic nature it took when speaking through her helmet’s vox.

Marianna didn’t need to hear his answer, she already knew. She grabbed the man by the shoulder and lifted him off the ground. Her power-armor assisted grip allowed her to drag him to his feet as simple as if he were a doll. She slammed him into a nearby shelving unit so hard his collarbone cracked.

‘He’s a sinseed oil maker,’ said Marianna.

‘Please,’ the man whimpered. ‘That’s not all I make.’

‘Speak,’ said Dovella.

Why does she care to hear what this filth has to say? Marianna slid her free hand to the thin blade on her leg.

‘I make medicine too.’

‘Medicine for who?’ Dovella asked.

The man yelped as Marianna stabbed her knife into the side of his head. She pulled the blade free and whipped the blood from it.

‘He was making sinseed oil. What else did we need to hear?’ She threw the man to the ground.

Dovella was glad for the helmet, her face was going through a myriad of emotions and it was good that her younger Sister couldn’t see them. Who does she think she is killing him like that? Without even taking a second to think. ‘We could have questioned him. Found out if there are more of them down here. Who he was selling to. And I would have liked to learn about the medicine he was making.’ Dovella said, gesturing at the twitching, still bleeding, body.

Marianna shook her head. ‘Sinseed makers work alone.’

Emperor, guide my words, Dovella pleaded as emotion filled her throat and she said: ‘You think you know so much. Think you’re so bloody clever. That growing up on the streets you don’t need anyone, huh? Have it all figured out, do you?’

Marianna crossed her arms.

Dovella took two quick steps and jabbed a finger into Marianna’s helmeted forehead. ‘The only reason you’re even Sororitas is because of me. Because I saw something in you then put the right words in the right ears.’ Oh no, no-no. Don’t do this. You’re losing control. Stop. But letting her feelings fly, to say what she really thought, felt so good. ‘You’re street trash. Do you think your secret is hidden? It’s not.’ You said I’d come so far, Dovella thought of Jolian, but this girl… She tests me in ways—and her lips parted in awe as understanding dawned.

Dovella took a step back and shook her head. You’re just another test, another lesson.

‘Care to continue?’ asked Marianna. She lifted her chin, daring her .

Why I ever thought it’d be a good idea to tell Jolian about you, I’ll never know. You’re sadistic, violent, uncontrolled, and so filled with anger I’m amazed the Emperor hasn’t struck you down. Dovella shook her head. ‘You shouldn’t have killed him, Marianna. We might have learned something useful from—’

Marianna interrupted her Sister, and said: ‘We wouldn’t have learned anything. Sinseed oil makers are—’

Dovella felt heat flush her face as she stepped back within an inch of her younger Sister. The scene, washed in red, was fitting for the anger that boiled within her. ‘Do not interrupt me. Have you no respect? Do it again and I’ll file a formal complaint about this matter, Marianna Diaz.’

Marianna scoffed and shoved her Sister back. Dovella, so surprised by the move, was caught unaware and fell.

You insufferable whore, how dare you, and as Dovella seethed a hot tear slid down her cheek. She hated Marianna so much. This girl that grew up on the streets without parents. Dovella had looked into that and learned the truth of who Marianna was, before recommending she be admitted to the Schola Progenium. At the time it seemed that someone like Marianna might be a great asset to the Imperium, but she spat on authority and thought she was better than her peers and superiors.

Marianna took a step forward and offered her fallen Sister her hand, ‘You’re too proud, Sister.’

Dovella stared at the offered hand and gritted her teeth. She’s right. What do I really care that she killed him? The answer was control. She wanted to be the one to say when and how the man should die, and Marianna had taken that from her, but enemies of the Emperor didn’t deserve pity. Marianna had been right about that. Just like she’d been right about her plan to corner the sinseed oil maker. It galled Dovella that someone ten years younger could be so much better than her. Marianna was more composed, more selfsure, and a better warrior by all accounts. But it was her words that stung the most. As recognition dawned, Dovella saw that even now she was proving her Sister right again by not taking her hand. I am too proud.

She closed her eyes for a moment to collect herself and in doing so fresh tears spilled from her eyes. When she opened them her Sister was still waiting, her hand still offered.

Dovella reached out and took hold. Back on her feet she said: ‘You’re right. I am too proud. I’d do well to learn more from you.’

‘And I from you,’ said Marianna, pulling her elder Sister to her feet.

Dovella swatted dust from her habit, ‘What do you have to learn from me?’

‘Patience and contemplation.’

Dovella burst out laughing. Contemplation, oh that’s rich. Still chuckling, Dovella said: ‘Most of the time I’m lost in thought—I’m just that, lost. I don’t know if that can truly be called contemplation.’

‘But it’s as you’ve told me before, Sister, it’s all in how we look at things. And you’re only ever lost if you don’t know where you are.’

Dovella nodded. ‘I suppose you’re right.’

‘I envy you.’

Dovella was so stunned she opened and closed her mouth a few times, unsure of how to respond. Envious? Of me? ‘What for? Why?’

‘You think I’m aware. That I’m able to pick up on things that others miss. You’ve said that my years growing up on the streets of Gaillaco helped shape me into who I am.’ Marianna’s shoulders slumped. ‘You’re right, they did, but I had no choice in that. I was made into this,’ she waved a hand at herself, ‘by circumstance. By fate. I never get any rest. I hardly sleep at night. Every bump and sound wakes me. It’s not until I remember where I am, safe in my quarters, that I’m able to fall back to sleep. Even walking down a street, midday, where I shouldn’t fear anyone… I do. I see eyes follow me. Probably in awe. I know this and tell myself that’s the most likely case,’ she shook her head, ‘and yet I scan the reflections in windows to see if I’m being followed. Even eating with my Sisters I fear surprise.’

Dovella nodded. She’d seen how Marianna always sat with her back to a wall and never too far from a door where she could run if the need arose. She’d seen it happen a few times. Someone would spill a cup, tip their meal tray over, or there’d be a crash in the kitchen and Marianna would be halfway out of the room before anyone else had so much as looked up.

‘You’re always so calm,’ Marianna said.

Dovella scoffed a laugh, ‘If that’s true, then I’m too calm. It seems we still have plenty to learn from each other.’

‘I think that must be why Sister Jolian stuck us together.’

Dovella smiled. ‘I think you’re right.’

As the Sisters made their way out of the library tunnels, back up to Ocampo, Dovella thought how fortunate she was to have met Marianna. Yes, she could be frustrating and difficult, but at least she made things interesting.

About the Author

Delio Pera lives in Seattle, WA and works a full time job. He finds time to where he can and while he’s known of the 40k universe for years has only recently become a fan. You can find more about him, his writing, and the Peranine Podcast at his website.