The Sisters of Xandes II are a curious lot.
Pious to a woman, and seemingly loyal as the honored saints, yet their traditions are far from what one would consider ‘orthodox’ in the grand scheme of the Ecclesiarchy’s teachings.
For one, The Family of Faith do not demand celibacy from their sisters, in point of fact it is recommended they gift the church a new initiate within their lifetime.
This practice, they claim, was enacted to replenish their numbers over the course of their campaign to scour Xandes II of The Changer of Ways.
Our purpose here is to determine whether or not this Family of Faith has truly remained as pure as they claim. The recent loss of a Daemon Blade, and the method in which it was contained shall be scrutinized until I am satisfied, or the entire house of cards is brought down.
Ave Imperator, your loyal servant
-Inquisitor Halder Morn, Ordo Malleus
‘Domine libra nos…’
The hymns echoed in the stone room, a small alcove deep in the depths of the convent. Two inhabitants stood, one knelt, illuminated by three scant electro lumens. The light revealed a tapestry of ruined flesh, ripped and torn under the fierce self-ministrations of the lash.
The injured woman knelt in the center of a red stone Fleur De Lys, muttering prayers in tune with the one opposite her. The light provided was currently in use by the Hospitaller, who clipped and washed the mass of ravaged skin that passed for the Battle Sister’s back.
‘I can do little, save to ease the pain.’
The chant ceased, and the center figure lifted her head, bright blue eyes shadowed by grief.
‘I don’t deserve this.’
‘You will accept it,’ Sister Superior Elora snapped.
The Battle Sister nodded and continued the prayer, thumbing the beads in her fingers, and gritting her teeth as liquid disinfectant spread across her back.
‘Oh God Emperor, grant me the strength to defeat thine enemies, from your grace, I shall know no fear, from your hands shall I bear weapons of holy fire and purge the Heretic, the Daemon, and the Xenos.’
‘Domine Libra Nos…’ intoned Elora.
The woman in the center raised her head, lips set in a thin line. Elora finished the chant, brought her hands into the sign of the Aquila, and addressed the penitent woman.
‘You know what must be done.’
Sister Elora turned to the set of armour behind her, gleaming like obsidian in the flickering light.
‘Klara, wrap her wounds. We have no time.’
‘Where is she?’
Prioress Vetia did not look up from her parchment. She tapped the edge of her quill against an inkpot. Slate grey eyes scanned the requisitions order.
‘You will have to be more specific Inquisitor.’
Two fists slammed against the desk. Vetia offered Halder a brief glance.
‘Don’t test me,’ he hissed. ‘I could bring this convent down with a single word.’
A smile played across the Prioress’s lips.
‘Ah yes, but then you would have to explain to the High Ecclesiarch why an inquisitor of the Ordo Malleus deemed it necessary to destroy a convent of the faithful. The Daemon Blade, and its Thief, is amongst my people. Yet you waste time searching for a frightened sister. Why?’
Inquisitor Halder ground his teeth.
‘She ran, failed in her duty. You expect me to let that pass without some form of questioning?’
Vetia sighed and set the parchment aside.
‘I will grant you an audience with Sister Nova, once this matter is taken care of.’
She pressed a rune atop her desk and two Battle Sisters entered the room, bolters at the ready. Inquisitor Halder reached for the plasma pistol at his side.
‘Sisters Mecia and Valetta will accompany you. You have my word; The Family of Faith will cooperate, should you aid us.’
Halder narrowed his eyes and turned to leave, boots echoing through the halls, calling over his shoulder.
‘Do not take me for a fool, Prioress.’
Vetia sighed as the man left. The die had been cast, and now all she could do was wait and pray for The God Emperor’s deliverance.
The Hand walked amongst the people of Petra-Novus as a shadow. His master weaved and willed the world’s happenings to accommodate his path. Where there was darkness, a light would be provided.
Yet a shadow of doubt nagged at his mind. The runner, he could not see her within his master’s plan, where was she?
He shook the feeling and stepped into the service lift.
‘Citizens be aware: There is a general curfew in effect, non-essential personnel found outside their place of residence post 0900 will be found guilty of heresy and sedition. Ave Imperator.‘
A great grox of a man scoffed under his breath and crossed his arms. He bore the Cog Tattoo of a Mechanicus Thrall upon his forehead, one of thousands serving under the Tech Priests of Xandes II.
‘Who’re they to tell the servants of the Machine God their business?’
‘Servants of The God Emperor of Mankind,’ snapped a younger man, clad in the robes of a church novitiate. ‘The Family of Faith, The Sisterhood which has ensured our survival for millennia, while your masters cowered in the depths.’
The Hand smirked as change swept through the lift. Where once unity and cooperation had bound them, now fear and unease gnawed at their souls with every passing moment. His fingers itched for the hilt of the blade, a burning desire to enact change of a more… permanent manner. Yet The Hand refrained, contenting himself with the impertinence of the human ego.
The time for that would come, but not here.
He stepped off the lift, grinning all the while as two members of the Family’s PDF forces approached the roiling crowd.
What appeared as an unbroken landscape of icy tundra and innumerable glaciers guarded a web of steel and ferrocrete, one of numerous Manufactorums dotting the landscape of Xandes II.
The biome shrine city of Petra-Novus squatted atop this particular web, a corpulent beast draining the labors of the Mechanicus to power the faithful.
In an age long past, the Adepta Sororitas and Tech Priests worked together to defeat the previous Hand and repel The Changer of Ways. Even now The Family of Faith held several descendents of a more personal union between Priest and Sister within their ranks.
Now they were at each other’s throats, resentment from below, and indignation from above. Add to that a certain Inquisitor’s arrival and fevered scrutiny from Holy Terra, and the planet of Xandes II lay atop a pool of promethium, just waiting for a spark.
‘And this… is the spark.’
The Hand began his work with a single cut from the blade, and smiled.
Her boot all but collapsed the man’s fist; his screams halted by the barrel of her bolt pistol.
‘I want his name. Give it to me.’
‘I-I don’ know his name! He jus’ asked for directions!’
Sister Nova ground her boot harder, expression dull as the telltale clicks and pops of pulverized bone reached her ears.
‘Where did you send him?’
She lifted her boot and turned to Hospitaller Klara.
‘Stay here, I’ll search for him.’
The woman nodded and turned to the fallen man.
‘Take care of yourself.’
Nova grimaced and slipped on her helm. A crowd had gathered outside the man’s shop, all of them staring with exposed contempt. The Sister Elohim holstered her pistol and swung the flamer off her shoulder.
‘Return to your homes. The curfew approaches!‘ she said, voice booming out from the vox grille of her helm.
‘Why don’t you listen to your own orders?!’ shouted a great grox of a man.
He and several others bore the tattoos and fatigues of forge workers. In their hands they held crude hand tools stained with blood. Nova flicked on the igniter for her flamer.
‘Your kind only put up that curfew ‘cause Holy Terra’s finally taken interest! What’s that about? Afraid to lose your hold, corpse worshiper?’
Nova grit her teeth and sent a burst of promethium into the sky. Men and women alike scattered, all save for the militant forge workers.
‘I am here to hunt down a threat far worse than you can possibly imagine. Return to your homes, I will not ask again.’
The lead man looked to the flamer and scoffed.
‘One day this is all gonna come crashing down on your head.’
Nova flicked off the igniter.
‘It already has.‘
The service lift was vacant, owing to her recent display. The curfew message played again, Sister Rena, of the Orders Dialogus’ mezzo voice echoing in the rattling cage.
She reached for her spare magazines and winced, lash wounds smoldering under her body glove. Hospitaller Klara had done her best, but a salve and bandages only did so much.
Nova closed her eyes and breathed deep, muttering a soft prayer to calm her spirit. She had let her frustrations get the better of her earlier, but an insurrection fermenting in the Manufactorum did not bode well.
She pressed the vox bead in her collar, ‘Sister Klara, report our findings as soon as you’re able.‘
The lift doors shuddered open, revealing a long stretch of darkened hallway. The internal visor of her helm flashed a series of runes, denoting an increase in humidity and temperature far beyond Mechanicus standard. She blinked twice, switching her visor filter to night vision.
What struck her as most disturbing was the lack of activity; no lumens marked the path, no vox skulls flitted between the halls. No sound, no life, or what passed for it within the Mechanicus.
As she progressed, the heat increased to the point that her armour’s coolant systems could no longer compensate. Sweat beaded on her brow, and her injuries itched in the heat.
‘What have you been up to, creature?‘ she whispered.
‘Ah, the runner.‘
She tightened her grip on the flamer. That voice, that damned voice.
‘Mocking me won’t get you anywhere,’ she snarled.
A faint chuckle eased through the humid air. She pressed her body against the wall, sweeping her gaze from side to side as she sidled forward.
‘You misunderstand. Had I been in your shoes I would have fled as well.‘
‘I’m not running now.’
She turned a corner and winced at the light. Nova switched off her night vision filter and blinked away the hazy afterimages. Below her lay the central smelter, a massive bowl of reinforced adamantium as wide as an Exorcist tank and twice as deep, which threatened to overflow with molten metal. A quick examination of the room revealed no personnel.
She could hear the tick of his tongue, as if he were deep in thought.
Nova soon came to the central cogitator, expecting to hear the ragged droning of Tech Priests and Servitors. What she found froze her in lock step.
The half human automata lay slumped in their service bays, twitching as sparks of electricity flew from severed wires. Tech Priests lay in equal levels of dismemberment, all with familiar wounds.
Purple crystals lined the wounds of one, yet no blood pooled around the corpse. The other looked as if he were composed of prismatic shards of glass, and just as fragile, if the shattered limbs were any indication.
Their fates had been the same as her sisters. Arianna and Cara, broken, defiled by The Changer of Ways. Power Armour or Mechanicus implants, all the same: nothing in the face of the cursed blade.
She whispered a prayer and moved to the nearest monitor. According to the warnings flashing before her eyes, The Thief had driven the automated systems past their limit and slain the minders. In time the forge would combust, sending shrapnel and molten metal into the manufactorum, the undercity, and the ice above.
Those not slain by the initial blast would drown as the newly melted ice flooded their homes. If the blast took more, say the city generators, then everything would fall to chaos in a manner of hours.
‘You planned this from the beginning.‘
‘Not I, The Architect himself!’
The Battle Sister switched on the citywide vox channel.
‘Attention, this is Sister Elohim Nova Kräftig of The Family of Faith, all civilians must evacuate the area around Forge Gamma-12 immediately. Curfew is lifted for this time. Ave Imperator.‘
The message jostled V-1 Aternas Volker from the dull lull that passed for unconsciousness. He had been forced to shut down all non-essential systems as a wave of unfiltered information brought him to his knees, when the first stroke of ruin befell his brethren.
The temperature had risen in his sleep. Sweat beaded on his brow for the first time in years, and his lungs struggled without their usual mechanical assistance. He felt the machine spirit’s cries of agony as he stalked the empty halls.
Still he pressed on, determined to hold back the tempest, even if only by a fraction of a percent. The soles of his boots began to stick – noticeably so – to the metal grating. No time, he had no time.
Against his better judgment, he switched on his first mechadendrite and slid it into the access port of the nearest cogitator. His circuits sent lances of lightning down to his fingertips. A glitch he would rectify later.
‘What have you done?’ V-1 Aternas muttered.
He found the nearest source of damage easily enough, though the strain on his organics to maintain the image was almost unbearable. He shuddered as a burst of electricity found its home up his spine. He unplugged and shut off the tendril, heaving a weary sigh.
The heat singed the skin around his augmetics as he walked, every gasp of air like breathing through wet cloth.
V-1 Aternas stumbled to a halt and set a hand on a railing, all-too-human eyes straining to catch a glimpse of the damaged support strut through wavering heat mirages.
There, the faintest of incisions within the blessed plasteel. He allowed his mechadendrites to flicker to life and begin welding the divided pieces of metal together while his mind sorted through the data.
Judging by the forge’s current temperature there was no chance of avoiding a total meltdown, but if he could restore even a fraction of integrity to the struts…
He ceased his ministrations with a sigh. The forge was lost; all he could hope to do was retrieve the blueprints from the central cogitator.
V-1 Aternas paused to consider the humidity, the speed at which it was rising, and then compared it to the estimated time it would take for the forge to reach critical mass. The calculation took less than ten seconds, though the answer chilled his blood.
Twenty minutes. It would take at least fifteen to climb the stairwells, eighteen if his augmetics continued to malfunction.
V-1 Aternas muttered a prayer to The Omnissiah and began his climb to the white-hot sun forming above. Perhaps this Battle Sister could provide assistance.
With her message sent she returned her gaze to the monitors.
The Thief stood plain as day in a central walkway, smile plain as day through the grainy pict quality. Nova checked the slide of her bolt pistol and readied the flamer. She would kill him, or at the very least ensure he could not flee the forge.
All her wounds lay forgotten in favour of holy wrath; her armour was lighter than air, and her purpose as clear.
The winding maze of stairs and platforms blended into a mass of grey and black, shimmering like a million stars. Sweat ran into her eyes and she blinked it away, ignoring the pooling in the collar of her body glove.
She slowed in pace, realizing the metal grating was starting to bow beneath her feet. Smoke drifted off her armour, and the acrid stench of burning leather indicated the state of her holster.
Nova widened her stance to reduce her chances of falling through the floor. By her count she had less then three levels left, provided The Thief hadn’t fled.
He wouldn’t. The Changer’s followers always held a taste for theatrics.
Nova rounded the corner and drew down on the man.
He turned, grin stretched impossibly wide. He spun the eldritch blade, seemingly unbothered by the heat.
‘You are a troublesome one, aren’t you?’
The Thief stepped closer, and she squeezed the trigger. An orange plume of flame engulfed his position, but she heard no cry, no thrashing. She scowled and backed away, keeping the inferno trained on his position.
Nova spun, flinching as the cursed weapon narrowly missed her body. Within the facets of the blade she saw a field of stars enveloped in a dark purple nebula.
‘I cannot see you in the plan, you are an anomaly…’ he shrugged and set the flat edge of the blade on his shoulder. ‘Ah well, you won’t live long enough to cause problems.’
The leather strap of her flamer caught fire, and by the way the barrel was beginning to warp it would soon be useless. Nova cast it aside. The Thief remained still while she drew her bolt pistol.
‘Though I may fall, the daemon shall fall with me…’ she quoted, ‘…And I will know The Emperor’s grace, Ave Imperator.‘
She squeezed the trigger, eyes wide as he stepped aside, blade coming to rest against the collar of her armour.
The Thief’s smile stretched to encompass his face from ear to ear. She grimaced as his flesh cracked and flaked. A petrifying laugh filled her ears. When he spoke, she felt the thrum of every syllable in her breastbone, beating like a hellish drum.
‘As I said, you won’t live long enough to cause problems.’
Nova’s mind was flooded by The Thief’s laughter, raking her soul with invisible talons. She wanted to scream, to flee, to fall to her knees and beg forgiveness to He Who Sits The Golden Throne for her failure.
The Thief’s expression shifted to one of confusion. His blade lifted from her collar, and he leapt back as a Mechanicus priest slammed a heavy hunk of pipe into the walkway.
Nova snapped out of her stupor and fired, the rounds taking two great chunks of grating out from under The Thief. He stumbled, letting out a curse as he fell. Nova made for the nearest staircase, Tech Priest hot on her heels.
‘What is your name?’
‘V-1 Aternas, Sister Nova.’
She nodded, though she doubted he could see the gesture.
‘Where is the nearest exit?’
‘Fifty meters to the north.’
Nova heard the rapid footsteps of The Thief’s boots and looked up, finding the fiend one floor above them. She took aim and fired, tearing a torso sized hole in the grating, but frustratingly not her target.
‘Save your ammunition.’
She heeded his advice and redoubled her speed.
‘Is it a lift he seeks?’
‘That would be the logical choice, though there are several that rise through the manufactorum. I assume he will take the central lift, which will deposit him beside the main entrance.’
Nova leapt to the next staircase, breath fogging the interior of her helm. The handrails were glowing a faint orange as she ascended.
‘Approximately five point three minutes to meltdown, I estimate four minutes to the lifts.’
‘Will we clear the blast zone?’
Aternas said nothing for a time as they cleared the final set of steps.
‘If we can beat him to the central lift, affirmative.’
Nova ignored the way the grating bent and warped under her weight as the enclosed space of the halls fell away to reveal a vast domed subsector, populated by rows and rows of cogitators and innumerable fields of circuits. Statues of Mechanicus Saints followed their pursuit of The Thief in silent approval. Nova could see their goal, an impossibly tall tower set at the far end of the room.
She caught sight of The Thief and fired again, ignoring the groan of protest coming from The Priest’s lips as it reduced a cogitator to shrapnel.
‘You cannot run forever!‘ Nova goaded.
‘Oh, but I can! It is the will of Tzeentch!’
‘Then why am I still alive? Surely your foul master would not be so foolish to overlook me? Has he abandoned you?‘
The Blade of Change struck out from within the nearest row, forcing Nova to her knees. His expression, once filled with joyous mockery, now contorted with unrepentant fury.
She rose to her feet, striking out with her free hand and twisting the bolt pistol to aim for his chest. Aternas took the position opposite her, mechadendrites snapping out in an attempt to ensnare the mad Thief’s sword hand.
‘One minute to clear the blast zone, sister.’
‘Forget that, kill him!‘
For the first time since this bloody affair began, something akin to fear descended upon The Thief’s features.
‘I am The Hand That Was Promised! You cannot kill what has never been truly dead!’
The blade swung down to meet her, but then his image blurred, and he was upon Aternas, pushing the Tech Priest back at a frightening pace.
Nova squeezed the trigger, cursing as a faint click reached her ears. She made to reload, but a terrified scream stayed her hands. One of the priest’s mechadendrites was encased in a familiar rash of purple crystals.
Nova reloaded, stomped the clean end of the mechadendrite to the floor, and severed the infected limb with a single bolt round. Her eyes scanned the room, finding The Thief as he rushed the gates of the central lift.
Her footsteps slammed against the floor in a cacophonic rhythm, almost in time with the beat of her heart. Sweat drenched her form, and a warning sigil stated that her battery backpack was in danger of critical shutdown. She dismissed it with a flick of the eye, readying her pistol.
Nova slowed her breathing as best she could, aiming between the rise and fall of her body, and squeezed the trigger.
As before, her shot missed its mark, but crucially it struck the control panel to the central lift. The Thief skidded to a halt, turning to offer a venomous glare. She smirked behind her helm.
‘How long Priest?’
‘Fifty seconds to forge meltdown. One minute-thirty to clear the blast zone.’
Nova heaved an internal sigh of relief. Her task was done.
‘You cannot run. Your master has abandoned you, while we will be greeted with favor at The Golden Throne.’
The Thief brandished the blade with a smirk.
‘Perhaps my master wishes me to slay you now, as proof of my commitment.’
Nova fired once more, smirking as the man was forced to dodge, not run.
‘If that were the truth, then I would be dead.’
The ground shook beneath their feet. The Thief looked between her and the sparking lift controls, his mask of calm slipping.
‘What? Not so sure of your immortality?’
The doors to the lift slammed open and a hail of las bolts assaulted Nova’s side. She ducked, cursing as The Thief took the opportunity to flee. Aternas fell into cover beside her.
‘I had him!‘ Nova raged, firing a single shot at the newcomers. It hit nothing, but it was enough to keep the fools at a distance.
‘We must flee.’
She spared the Tech Priest half a glance before nodding.
‘Lead, I’ll cover you.‘
Nova stood, taking slow measured steps towards the heretic’s firing line. Countless las-bolts struck, darkening her faded bronze armour to muddy soot. She resembled a spirit rising from the depths of hell, red vestments fluttering behind her as trails of blood.
‘Twenty meters to your left, follow the hall and you’ll find another service lift,’ Aternas voxed.
The Battle Sister let her gaze fall upon The Thief, who stood at the rear of the line, smirk held firmly in place as the lift doors shut. Nova took one last shot, striking the man closest to him.
‘There is no hole you can dig deep enough, creature.‘
‘Oh, but I’m not fond of hiding Sister. I believe that’s your specialty.’
Nova cursed and found her way to the lift Aternas specified.
She sighed and holstered the pistol, looking for the best place to brace. Aternas settled into the nearest corner, ducking his head and coiling his remaining mechadendrite into the grating that passed for the lift walls. She took his lead and knelt in front of him, arms outstretched and head bowed.
‘Where does this lead?’
‘If we survive, Servitor Processing. From there we can take another lift to the surface, which will deposit us approximately one kilometer from the entrance to the manufactorum.’
Nova muttered a litany under her breath and waited for the end of the countdown.
The ice fields shuddered as a dying sun cast its light upon the city of Petra-Novus. An impromptu snowfall descended, delighting the ignorant masses within the biodome and disturbing the informed. Tech Priest and Battle Sister alike rushed to the scene in an attempt to quell panic. From his vantage point high in the convent, Inquisitor Halder could tell they would fail.
His fists tightened at his sides, and he felt a powerful need to kill something. He turned to the sister closest to him.
‘Surely, the Prioress will have need of you.’
The woman shook her head, expression unreadable behind the blue lenses of her helm.
‘Our duty is to assist you Inquisitor. In whatever way you see fit.’
He grunted and pressed the vox bead in his ear.
‘Lexa, Domien, ready up. Our prey has shown his hand.’
Their acknowledgments came as two clicks over the vox line. Satisfied, Halder made for the nearest lift. If he were lucky, the fool will have incinerated himself in the blast; but as was with most beings associated with The Ruinous Powers, luck was likely not on his side.
‘I am sure you are aware of this Thief’s power, as such I will not insult your intelligence. The likelihood of death should you come into direct contact with this creature is not only high, but guaranteed.’
He drew his plasma pistol and checked the state of the cooling coils. Good for about thirty shots he gauged. Should have had it checked before landing, but no time for that now.
‘Ave Imperator!’ both women intoned.
Halder chuckled softly to himself.
‘The Emperor Protects!’
The lift doors opened, and he stepped into the courtyard.
The Hand seethed, fingers flexing on the grip of the blade, eyes scanning the faces of the men that had come to his aid. He knew none of them, yet they bore the mark of his weapon. When had he…?
Do not ask questions… rattled the grating at his feet.
He scowled. Direct orders were never part of the plan. He felt his path in the wind, the mutterings of madmen and the rust on an old handrail.
Your task is not complete, only then may she fulfill her desire. The lift shuddered. You know your purpose, finish it.
The Hand swung his blade in a wide arc, willing the final change upon the hapless thralls. A burst of azure flame lit the interior of the lift as they writhed and groaned.
‘Be my wrath!’
They could not speak, but he knew they understood the command. His final task would begin soon, and it would not due for him to be late.
Nova groaned as the lift ceased its sputtering. The heat still clung to her frame, trailing off in tendrils of smoke. The portions of her vestments that still remained reeked of scorched metal and burning dye.
The force from the blast had cast them about the lift like a child’s doll, though what came after was far worse; a wave of heat so strong she feared a daemon of Khorne had manifested within their cage.
Even sealed inside her armour, she had felt her skin prickle and blister. The machine spirits within her visor let out a dirge of warning sigils, motor function reduced to seventy five percent, emergency oxygen tank ruptured, visor systems unresponsive. She felt sluggish in her second skin, having to wrench her body just to examine the wreckage of the lift, and the state of her companion.
Aternas shuddered from his wounds; half his face was marred with blisters, skin the color of blood.
He gasped and untangled his mangled mechadendrite from the wall.
Nova snaked a hand under his arm and tugged.
‘No time,’ she kicked the doors, still hot from the forge’s blast. ‘Lead Aternas.’
He staggered through the opening and gestured to the left.
‘Here, if we follow, it should lead to a service lift, meant only for the servitors.’
His every breath was a trial, body swaying like a censer at prayer. Nova threw an arm over his shoulder and took his weight. Rows and rows of unfinished servitors followed them with hollow eyes, their steps like hammer blows in the gathering silence.
‘Stay conscious,‘ she barked, noting the way his head hung low. ‘Or I’ll leave you here.’
He chuckled, though the sound was more akin to snapping embers in a fire.
‘Go, leave me.’
She grit her teeth and pushed her body forward.
‘I will, when we reach the surface.‘
Aternas said nothing, feet dragging alongside hers.
The lift came into view soon enough, a scant twenty-meter distance, though all she wanted was rest. Aternas stumbled and she was forced to hoist him up.
In the lift, she willed her spirit, in the lift.
Nova’s gauntleted fingers tugged at the seals for her helm. Her companion groaned as she jostled him in its removal.
‘Why didn’t you run?’
The question burst forth with more malice than she intended. Nova took a quick breath of fresh air and started again.
‘You had all the time in the world, yet you stayed. Why?’
Aternas straightened his posture and met her icy blue stare with twin hazel, pain and determination furrowing his unburnt brow. It was with a slight start that Nova realized this was the first time they had seen one another face to face.
The untouched skin was pale and sallow, as was the case with most Tech Priests. Yet his hazel stare still held a spark of vitality not quashed by augmentation. A pointed jaw matched his high cheekbones in their severity; a surprising fact given most Tech Priests had their lower jaw replaced.
‘It is a Tech Priest’s duty to preserve the holy relics of cogitator, circuit banks, and forge,’ he said, bringing her back to the moment. ‘Failing that, it is to preserve the holy blueprints. Now I wish to repay the trespass upon The Omnissiah’s divine Forge with wrath.’
She recognized the fire behind his eyes, the same fire that drove her now, towards vengeance.
‘If you can fight, you may follow. Otherwise, I shall leave you in the care of a Sister Hospitaller and that will be that.’
He removed her arm from his shoulder.
‘I can fight.’
Nova took one last lungful of semi-fresh air and slipped on her helm.
Inquisitor Halder cursed as a burst of autogun fire found his position. A member of the PDF collapsed, one third of his head pulverized.
‘Domien! Where the hell are you?!’
‘Almost there,‘ came the response.
Halder risked a look and found his second rushing atop the opposite rooftops, Sister’s Mecia and Valetta in tow. He turned his attention to the heretics.
They had been caught in the open; their lead vehicle struck by mounted bolter fire. Pinned as they were they couldn’t advance, every vehicle might as well have been composed of parchment, for all the good it would do them.
Halder checked Domien and the sister’s progress. They had cleared the first roof without being spotted, and were well on their way to the third, where Lexa had caught sight of the bolter team.
The Inquisitor turned to the men at his side, some no older than twenty.
‘We move to the wrecked Salamander when the bolter team is slaughtered.’
‘We’re goin’ out there?!’ squeaked one of the men.
Halder offered him a withering glare.
‘We are, unless you want to be overrun and torn to shreds by self righteous fools.’
The sudden decapitation of the man closest to him was more than enough to convince the PDF troopers. As one they formed up behind Halder, while Lexa took up her Absolution Pattern Rifle and sighted the windows.
‘I’ll have you covered. More or less…’ she said.
Domein and the sisters stood at the ready.
The resulting explosion sent a wave of dust over the combatants; flashes of las and tracer fire were their only guides as combat was joined. Halder’s first shot hollowed out a man’s torso; his second sent a spray of molten slag over an unarmoured mob of dissidents. Their agonized screams shook the resolve of others, who fled as the members of the PDF flooded the barricades.
‘Excellent work Domien, Sisters. Form up on the command Salamander, we’ve wasted too much time on these—’
A bestial shriek filled the air, chilling the blood of those in attendance. Halder spun, eyes widening at the sight of three unholy beasts charging their position from the direction of the forge.
‘All teams fire at will!’
Nova took several measured breaths as the stream of terrified vox chatter filled her ears. She only caught brief snatches of it, but the situation above ground had gone from bad to worse. Insurrection from the forge thralls, murder of Mechanicus and Ecclesiarchy personnel, violence without a target; all due to this Thief, this ‘Hand That Was Promised’. She turned to Aternas and pulled the hidden blade she kept sheathed in her gauntlet.
‘It’s not much, I’m sorry.’
Aternas held it at arms length.
‘Point it away from yourself when you run.’
The lift ceased its motion, and Nova held her breath. Muffled sounds of combat eased through the thin metal. She racked the slide on her pistol and tugged open the doors.
‘Find cover quick.’
An icy breeze gathered up the remnants of her vestments. Her armour heating systems sputtered, then mercifully kicked into life.
Nova knelt behind a man sized spool of wire, sighting a group of sisters pouring flame onto a mass of gibbering pink flesh, all roiling tendrils and shrieks that felt like icy daggers threading her heart.
One of the sisters was swept up in a flabby tentacle, howling as another reached up and tore her in half. Nova felt her blood catch fire at the sight. She wanted to charge forth, a litany of war on her lips and retribution pouring from her bolt pistol.
‘—ter Nova, please respond.‘
The crackle of static broke her away from the scene of terror.
‘Who is this?‘
‘I am Lexa, a member of Inquisitor Halder’s retinue.‘
Nova felt her blood chill. The sounds of battle fell away and her eyes searched the ruins opposite her for a sniper.
‘Do not be afraid, The Inquisitor has had time to examine the facts, and believes you can provide assistance.‘
She turned to Aternas, who nodded, evidently receiving the same message.
‘What would you have me do?‘
‘Meet us at these coordinates. We found him.‘
The-Hand-That-Was-Promised stalked the familiar halls, seen and not seen, a shadow within memory. The blade hummed in his hand as he marked them, a flick of the wrist here, a twist there. Woman after woman, all taken within his master’s web, as a spider would take a fly.
He could see the end clearly now. By the time she understood the depth of her failings, how insignificant she truly was, then the final piece could be laid; and the plan completed. The blade pulsed a dark purple, glimmering with the light of captured stars.
The change took place shortly after, cries of surprise, a burst of weapons fire, and all went silent. A figure was dragged into view, struggling against the iron grip of his newly captured assistants.
Her face convulsed, forming into a snarl as she spat abuse at him, insulting everything from his point of origin, to the quality of his spirit. He chuckled, letting the blade accent his words as he placed it mere centimeters from her throat
‘I have no time, so I fear this will have to do.’
He struck her with the pommel. The Prioress groaned as the first wave of images struck her mind.
The Hand turned to the stonework and began his final preparations, the blade more akin to a painter’s brush then a weapon of war. He grinned, watching as a set of runes appeared, twisting and taking shape, as if they had always been there.
Halder’s column rumbled through the ruined streets, filled with rubble and corpses beyond count.
She sighed, all this for one man?
‘Your armour’s movement systems have been repaired to ninety percent efficiency, I advise you to avoid prolonged exposure to heat in the future.’
Nova nodded to the attending Enginseer and looked to Aternas, deep in conversation with Hospitaller Klara. His injuries would require further treatment; but for the time being he looked contented. Of course, Hospitaller grade painkillers would do that.
‘Spotters say the Hand entered the front entrance ten minutes ago.’
Halder hefted the bolter in his hand and racked the slide. Satisfied, he tossed it to Nova, who accepted it gratefully. The Enginseer was kind enough to provide fresh ammunition to the lot of them. The power sword at her side was a small comfort as well, though she doubted it would hold against the likes of the daemon blade.
‘You know your tasks. Feel no fear, you walk in the Emperor’s light.’
Nova took a breath as the assault vehicle slowed to a halt. She locked eyes with Lexa, and then the two of them sprinted for the convent doors. No bolter fire came, as the Inquisitor had predicted.
Under normal circumstances there were would have been over a hundred sisters at the ready in the murder holes, yet there was silence. She wasn’t sure whether to feel relief or terror.
Lexa and Nova slammed into the doors, the Battle Sister taking a knee as the Inquisitorial agent swept the room with her rifle.
Nova felt her breath catch in her throat.
Twenty figures stood stock still in the entrance hall, some in states of distress, while others were frozen in mid conversation.
‘What’s happened?’ Halder hissed.
‘They’re stone,’ Nova said, sweeping her gaze through the hall and recognizing a few faces. ‘Moving in.’
She heard two clicks and pressed on. Lexa taking to the stairs while Nova pressed through the stone sisters, doing her best to avoid their gaze. Her footsteps felt muted on the carpet.
‘I know you’re here, runner,‘ said a voice in he head.
Nova ignored the voice, easing open the door opposite her, bolter first. Her helm’s visor filter flickered and died, leaving her in darkness.
‘No words? I’m surprised, your Prioress had plenty.‘
A faint sobbing filled the halls, muttering under its breath about horrors unseen, the death of the sisterhood, and the fall of the Imperium. Nova pressed deeper, passing another frozen squad, weapons pointed at the exit.
‘You know they begged for their lives, these noble warriors of the faith. I suppose that’s a comfort, knowing they’re not infallible.‘
She shouldered her way into the cloister, again, a silent field of statues waiting amidst the gardens. These figures however were shattered, by explosive round or brute force she could not tell. She shivered, feeling a growing sense of wrongness fill the air, as it had in the forge.
‘Still no words?‘
A wave of nausea passed through her, and she felt as if something had just slid into place. A thousand ants crawled under her body glove, while the hair on her neck snapped and sparked with static.
She swallowed and stepped into the Chancel. Golden light streamed through the stained glass visage of The Emperor, standing above the angelic body of Saint Celestine.
The Hand stood in the nave, bathed in the golden light, yet untouched by its radiance. His blade lay mere inches from Prioress Vetia’s throat. Nova raised her bolter and advanced.
The blade twitched, cutting into the Prioress’s fingers. Vetia gasped and clenched her teeth as a familiar row of crystals pushed their way through the surface of her skin.
‘Move any closer, and the crystals will spread. Shoot me, and the crystals will engulf her in seconds.’
Nova let her finger hover over the trigger, teeth grit behind her helm.
‘What do you want?’
The Prioress shook her head, face stern despite the pain. The Hand contented himself with a smile, lifting the blade from Vetia’s hands and taking a few steps toward the pulpit.
‘I wish for you to understand yourself, runner. You were the first to see me, and live that is.’ said The Hand. A smile now spread to his ears once more. His eyes glowed a faint azure, a mirror to the lenses in her helm.
‘Why did you let me go?’
The question had been at the forefront of her guilt. Why her? Why not Arianna? Or Cara?
The Hand shrugged.
‘I do as I will, and my will is my Master’s. Who do you serve, Sister Nova?’
She fidgeted in place, eyes scanning the upper balconies for signs of Lexa, ‘I serve the Emperor of Mankind.‘
The proclamation made her flinch. He rounded on her, that blue glow raging in his eyes like flamer fire. He stopped a scarce five feet from her position, blade extended.
‘Who do you serve? Why did you seek me out?’
Nova felt her grip slacken on the bolter.
‘Myself, I did this for vengeance.’
‘You did this under my order,’ Vetia hissed.
Nova turned her gaze to the kneeling woman. The crystal had spread past the first knuckle of her hands. Horror tugged at her soul and she brought the bolter to bear.
The Hand let his smile widen impossibly far, skin flaking at the edges of his cheeks.
‘I never said it wouldn’t spread, I merely indicated the ways in which it would.’
‘Do not let him distract you from your duty girl! Shoot him and be done with it!’ Vetia cried, the crystals past her palms.
‘Yes, please do!’ He spread his arms wide, the fear from the forge vanished. ‘Satisfy your desire! Kill me, and be done with it!’
Indecision stayed her hand. The man, the thing that killed her sisters and sewn terror across the planet was begging for death, yet the desire spoke of a plan unseen.
Nova looked to the Prioress and dropped the bolter. The Hand’s expression soured, he dared to step closer, and that’s when Nova lunged.
The man stepped just out of reach as she drew the power blade from her side and cleft the Prioress’s hands from her body. Her screams pierced the halls as Nova advanced, bolt pistol drawn.
‘Clever,’ the Hand muttered.
Nova watched as Halder burst through the rear doors, Aternas and sisters in tow. Together they formed a semi circle around The Hand.
The Sister Elohim threw herself to the floor as the thunder struck. The floor shook with every micro explosion, and she risked a look up.
The Hand ducked and weaved through the bolter fire, even igniting a few bolt rounds with a twist of the wrist. The flames passed over his frame like a stiff breeze, his grin fixed in its twisted caricature.
Nova turned to Vetia, who stared in disbelief at her ruined limbs. Nova winced, the cut had been imprecise, but it had stopped the spread of the crystals.
The woman scrambled to her feet, dripping blood across the white marble. Nova scooped up her fallen bolter, but hesitated as she drew down on The Hand.
His manic grin sent chills up her spine. Images of bones and flesh shattered like glass, of flesh sounding like wind chimes, of a forge unbound, of sisters who would never hold their children again flooded her mind. Rage steadied her aim and clarified her vision.
She did not feel the bolter’s buck, and witnessing the splatter of gore and fragmented bone filled her with such joy she wanted to sing.
Yet the smile on his face was enough to make her take pause. She rushed to the body and gathered the smiling face in her hands. Blue lenses stared into burning azure.
‘What have you done?!’
‘What must be done…’
His voice lost its ethereal quality along with his eyes.
‘Where?’ Nova pressed, fingers digging into the sides of his face.
His hand slid against the right lens of her helm, staining it red.
‘Do not fear. You will live to see it.’
Nova felt that same nausea from before. The-Hand-That-Was-Promised smiled, and released his hold on the blade. She cursed and dropped the body.
‘What ails you? You finished it.’
Halder had joined her, eyes never leaving the corpse.
‘He let me kill him, there’s something else here.’
She sprinted up the nearest staircase, tearing the helm from her head and shouldering through doors uncounted. That nauseous sensation remained, bile rising in the back of her throat as she drew closer to his last act.
An azure shaft of light streaked from the Prioress’s office, bathing the hall in its eerie glow. Nova saw tiny sparks of lightning cross her gauntlets as she stepped into the room.
Behind Vetia’s desk lay a series of ever-shifting runes embedded in the stonework. They writhed like serpents, curling and reshaping around a familiar symbol: that of an azure flame wreathing a simple circle.
‘You who freed my spirit, oh runner shall know my master’s coming. It will be your brood that shall ensure it. Prepare, for The Change will come.’
Inquisitor Halder stood behind her, expression equal to that of the stonework for all the emotion it conveyed.
She kneeled before him, head bowed.
‘I have failed you Lord Inquisitor.’
He ignored her and examined the wall of runes in further detail.
‘He would have killed us.’
Nova’s head snapped forward.
‘I failed! The Hand is loose, and Tzeentch will descend upon this planet due to my weakness!’
Halder turned to examine her, a single brow quirked in irritation.
‘Do you presume to know more than a Holy Agent of The Inquisition, Sister Nova?’
Her heart stopped as the man drew his plasma pistol.
‘I could slay you here and now. As you said, your actions led to this. Yet I believe we can turn it to our advantage.’
‘Xandes II will rejoin Holy Terra with the backing of The Inquisition. Your penance, Sister Nova, will be to lie ever watchful for this Hand-That-Was-Promised, and to never bear children of your own.’ He gestured to the runes. ‘This speaks of daemonic prophecy, and I will not permit it to come to fruition. You will remain here as a sister, but you will remain my agent.’
Nova fought back the tirade of protests she felt forming on her lips. The loss of a child unseen hollowed out her spirit then and there, equal to that of her fallen sisters. She nodded, gaze dropping to the stone.
‘Good, now stand, and bring your Prioress when she is able. This is a matter we will need to discuss together.’
Sister Nova turned to leave the room, feeling, no hearing The Hand’s laughter fill her mind in the echo of her footsteps.
You have done well, he seemed to say, rest now. Our dance will resume again soon.
She set her jaw.
‘Not while there’s still breath in my body.’
That’s my runner.
About the Author
Nicholas Gossage is a recent graduate from Fairhaven College/WWU with a BA in Writing and Directing for Film and Television. A two-year veteran of the Warhammer Community, his Battle Sisters vie for heretic’s blood. Examples of his work can be found on Instagram, Soundcloud, and AO3.