‘T’ was the last letter Agnes drew with her quill. She indulged herself for a moment as she regarded her work.
‘Si hoc legere potes, nimium scis et occidi oportet,’ was the string of letters in High Gothic. Agnes had given each grapheme her full attention and drawn them with all the grace and beauty she could muster. This was her calling, and she would do her duty to the best of her ability. She recited a Prayer of Gratitude to the God-Emperor for blessing her with this chance to do His work before resuming.
She sat in the Sanctum Scriptorium with hundreds of other quill-bearers, all endlessly transcribing letters on sheets of parchment. All of them were connected to the Blessed Receiver machine through cables connected to the backs of their heads. Every letter that came into their mind originated from the Blessed Receiver, travelling down the length of the sacred cable, and arriving in their brains with a spark of holy pain. None of them knew why it was called the Blessed Receiver, as it sent information instead of receiving it. None of them understood the text they wrote, but they all knew it was in service of the God-Emperor, the Master of Mankind.
‘Candle!’ the quill-bearer behind Agnes called out. A servitor trundled up to him on worn-out treads and replaced his spent candle with a fresh one. As it went past Agnes, it muttered something about ink. Agnes said a quick Prayer of Forgiveness for letting her mind wander and went back to work.
‘Parchment!’ Another quill-bearer called out, a tinge of pride in her voice. That word was enough to make every quill-bearer stop writing and look up. A few started whispering quietly. The Mistress of the Sanctum walked up to the quill-bearer who had called out for parchment, the sound of her footfalls loud as thunder. Agnes cautiously rose from her seat to get a good look. The white-haired Mistress of the Sanctum was reading what the quill-bearer had written. After a while, she handed the parchment to a servitor.
‘Well done. You may leave early,’ said the Mistress of the Sanctum. ‘Adept, please disconnect the quill-bearer from the Blessed Receiver.’ Her words made everyone gasp. An early leave was something never heard of before, and acknowledgement from the Mistress was impossible. Agnes craned her neck and stood on her toes to see who was the quill-bearer that had finished her stack of parchment. The person was short and had the ugliest face Agnes could have imagined.
‘I heard her mother’s an Ogryn and her father a Ratling,’ the quill-bearer behind her whispered.
‘Really?’ Agnes asked.
‘Oh yeah, everyone knows it,’ the quill-bearer said. Agnes didn’t believe him but kept quiet.
‘I have good news for all of you,’ called the Mistress of the Sanctum as she returned to standing behind her rostrum. ‘Tomorrow, Adept Sindi shall be visiting us to inspire you all to toil harder for the Emperor.’ She ran a hand over her black dress and straightened her bronze aquila pendant. Everyone in the sanctum, including the Mechanicus Adept, seemed to hang on to her every word. Not a single grapheme was scratched.
‘I expect you all to welcome her with your best manners. Or else.’ She surveyed the room and nodded. ‘That’s all then. Carry on with your duties.’
Everyone returned to writing. Agnes focused and let the Blessed Receiver transmit the next letters into her brain. Meanwhile, the ugly quill-bearer was disconnected from the Blessed Receiver by a Mechanics Adept. With a burst of pain, the letter Q appeared in Agnes’s mind. She wrote as fast as she could, blinking away the tears and letting the next letter appear in her mind. The pain was good for her, she reminded herself. It told her that her worthless existence was of some use to Him on Terra.
Qui bibit sanctus est, sed non omnes sancti bibire. Sed qui aeldari tenebris det vinum daemonia captivorum, semper erit sub luce imperatoris. Agnes finished writing. Her hand trembled as she dipped her quill into the inkpot. Her candle flickered, and she felt the presence of someone behind her. She turned to find the red-robed Mechanicus Adept staring at her with three green eyes. It carried a crosier from which a smoking censer hung and had a beak in place of a mouth which vibrated when it spoke.
‘Quill-bearer Agnes Serfdottir, your performance is sub-optimal. Please slow down and write clearly,’ it said.
Agnes looked down at her parchment. She compared what she had just written to what she wrote before. The Adept was correct; her current calligraphy was bad. She felt a prickle in her eyes and realised she was crying. She was going to be punished, and she would deserve it.
‘Please rewrite the sentence on a fresh sheet and give me the other one. I shall dispose of it,’ the Adept said. Agnes did as she was told, relief spreading through her body.
‘Thank you,’ she whispered.
‘Please resume your duties, quill-bearer,’ the Adept said as it moved on. ‘And remember, haste is the enemy of the faithful.’
Agnes did as she was told, rewriting the sentence carefully. She wrote until her head felt like it was on fire. Until her wrists and fingers were swollen. When the gong rang for dismissal, Agnes still had a stack of blank parchment left. Doing her best to ignore the stack lest she gets dismayed, Agnes put her quill and inkpot in the box on her desk. She blew her candle out and got up.
All around her, quill-bearers were gingerly rising and rubbing their wrists. The Adept intoned a prayer to the Blessed Receiver, waving the crosier from which the smoking censer hung, and all the sacred cables disconnected from the quill-bearers by themselves. The Blessed Receiver wound the cables back into itself, and the Adept bowed to its machine-spirit in gratitude.
‘Give thanks to the God-Emperor!’ the Mistress of the Sanctum called out before turning around to face the gigantic mural of the Emperor Vigilant, bearing flaming sword and flowing quill. All bowed before the mural, giving thanks to the Master of Mankind for the opportunity to serve Him. While her threadbare smock didn’t protect her from the Sanctum’s cold, Agnes felt warm looking at the Emperor’s sword. Everyone shuffled out of the Sanctum and into the hallways of the Bibliotheca Magnus.
The Bibliotheca Magnus was one of many libraries dedicated to the Emperor where books were written, stored, and destroyed, all according to the Will of Him on Terra. Grey armoured guardsmen were posted throughout the entire length of the hallway, their sharp eyes keeping watch on all. The quill-bearers were shepherded into the mess hall, where they took trays from a stack and went over to the food servers. Their food cubes were received with murmured thanks to the God-Emperor, and the quill-bearers made their way to the mess tables, making sure not to make eye contact with any Guardsmen.
Agnes ate her food in silence, savouring the artificial flavour. Flavour was a rare treat, and Agnes meant to feel every morsel with her tongue, relishing the taste. She finished her food as slowly as she could and then put her tray back on the stack of unclean dishes. She left the mess hall and made her way to the sleeping quarters. She went into her designated quarter, where she lived with fifteen other girls, and climbed to the top of the bunk where her bed was. She searched inside her pillow, a ratty cloth with some foam in it, and pulled out her one prized possession.
She had scrimped and saved whatever funds she could to purchase it. It was a small picture of the Revelation of the Lectitio. It showed the Emperor Vigilant bequeathing His wisdom to His favoured son, Guilliman, as the Primarch wrote his wisdom down in the Lectitio Divinitatus. Archangel Sigismund, the Son of Guilliman, delivered the Lectitio to Eufrati, the First Saint. It was a beautiful picture, and each time she looked at it, Agnes felt her love for the God-Emperor increase. But what she didn’t tell anyone was that her love for Lord Guilliman was second only to her love for the Emperor. The Emperor was the Master of Mankind, but Agnes knew deep down that Guilliman was the Master of Quill-Bearers like her. How else would he have known to write down the Emperor’s wisdom? Agnes uttered a quick prayer to the God-Emperor and then guiltily whispered a longer one to Guilliman, asking for his gift of writing so that she could better serve the Master of Mankind.
She didn’t remember going to sleep. But she was awoken by a guardsman screaming in her quarters. She scrambled out of bed, half-awake but fully afraid. She was marched along with the other quill-bearers to the baths, where she washed herself and was given fresh clothes. After being made presentable, the quill-bearers were escorted to the Cathedra Magna, where Sister Lucendra gave a sermon on the importance of duty. After the sermon, they recited the Litany of Hatred, followed by the Catechism of Loyalty. They all bowed down to the fresco of the God-Emperor and his nine sons battling Horus and his nine devils. Agnes’s eyes lingered at Guilliman’s patrician visage.
‘Lord Guilliman, guide my quill! Let me serve the God-Emperor true,’ she whispered.
They exited the Cathedra, made their way through the hallway, and entered the Sanctum Scriptorium. Agnes made her way to her seat and sat down. A fresh stack of parchment was sitting beside her old stack from yesterday. Her inkpot had been refilled, and a fresh candle had been placed on her desk. The sacred cables snaked out of the Blessed Receiver, and a Mechanicus Adept connected it to the socket in her head. The reconnection pain made her wince, but she recited the Prayer of Gratitude to the God-Emperor to master it. The Mistress of the Sanctum walked into the room, pendant swaying, head held high. She stopped at the rostrum and faced the quill-bearers.
‘It is my pleasure and duty to present to you, Adept Sindi Bullook of the Administratum,’ she said, and the sun seemed to shine brighter into the dreary sanctum.
Adept Sindi was as beautiful as an Imperial Saint. Her unblemished skin was the colour of burnt copper. A silver electoo, pulsing with a soft glow, started from her throat and made its way up her jaw, covered her right cheek and temple, and half her forehead. Her grey clothes were plain, adorned with but a single golden aquila on her chest. The entire sanctum watched her gracefully ascend the rostrum with bated breath. A woman armed with a lasgun accompanied her, standing behind the Adept with her finger resting on the trigger. Agnes didn’t know whether to write or not. A quick look around informed her that no one was writing.
‘The Emperor Protects,’ Adept Sindi said, signing the aquila on her chest.
‘The Emperor Protects!’ everyone in the Sanctum chorused. Even the Mechanicus Adepts blurted something in response.
Adept Sindi’s gaze swept across the Sanctum. She stood straight, her eyes commanding respect. Agnes felt a chill run down her spine. She would serve Adept Sindi. She would do anything to be part of her life. They would serve the God-Emperor together, filing all documents in the correct place and then having flavoured ration cubes for dinner. She would earn her place. They would retire late at night, with the satisfaction of having performed their duty to the God-Emperor. Maybe she would even have a room next to Sindi’s, her very own room. But if she had to stay in the same room with Lady Sindi, she wouldn’t complain. It was all she wanted at that moment.
‘I see you all, and do you know what I see?’ Adept Sindi’s voice was authority itself. ‘I see laziness; I see indolence; I see sloth. You are all worthless and replaceable parts of the Sanctum. But,’ she paused, looking imperiously over all the cringing quill-bearers, ‘some of you may show promise. Some of you may one day be blessed with an opportunity from the God-Emperor himself. Some of you may be chosen as Adepts.’
A gasp shot through the sanctum. Even the Mistress had her hand on her chest. Adept Sindi might as well have turned out to be Saint Eufrati herself. Most quill-bearers dreamt of serving the Emperor better, but the most they could aspire to become was Master or Mistress of the Sanctum. Agnes knew most of the boys, and a few girls dreamt of paying off their debt and becoming guardsmen. But being an Adept was impossible. You had to be born into a family of Adepts. One simply knew their place, where the God-Emperor had put them, and were content with what they had. But now, here was Adept Sindi saying they could become more.
‘I see disbelief on your faces. Cast off all doubt, for the God-Emperor takes the best of his people for himself. Those of you who pay their debts shall be taken by the Administratum to be raised up as Adepts. So work yourself to the bone and prove your worth to the God-Emperor, for He on Terra only takes the best humanity has to offer,’ Adept Sindi said. She made the sign of the aquila. ‘The Emperor Protects.’
‘The Emperor Protects.’ Everyone echoed her words back to her. Adept Sindi turned and bowed to the mural of the Emperor Vigilant. She and her bodyguard left the Sanctum. To Agnes, the world suddenly felt drab and dull. She vowed to repay her debt and become an Adept worthy of the Administratumas the Mistress of the Sanctum took her place behind the rostrum and cleared her throat.
‘Begin,’ she said, and the sound of hundreds of quills scratching away on parchment filled the hall.
‘E,’ was the last grapheme Agnes scratched out. Quid mittis, inepte? was what she had written. She had never written so fast in her life. Her hands shook, and her eyes watered, but she was determined to prove her worth. She willed the next letter in her mind, and the Blessed Receiver obligingly transmitted it down the sacred cable with a sting of pain.
‘Hoc textu non pro administratum!’ she wrote next. A scarlet droplet fell on the parchment, ruining the entire line. Agnes didn’t understand where it came from, and she didn’t have time to find out. She copied the letters to a fresh sheet of parchment and disposed of the old one.
‘Hic est liber carminum,’ she scratched out and then cursed under her breath when two more droplets of scarlet fell. Who used scarlet ink? Was the ink dispensing servitor standing next to her, dripping ink? She looked up, but no one was there. She cautiously looked to the ceiling of the Sanctum, but it was free of red ink. The Mechanicus Adept with the beak was patrolling the length of the Sanctum, and it noticed her looking up.
‘Quill-bearer,’ the Adept said as it approached. ‘Your ears are bleeding.’
Agnes touched her ears and found them wet. She looked at her hand and found it red. It was strange. She had gotten used to the pain, so she hadn’t noticed.
‘I would suggest pausing. You are in no shape to continue,’ the Adept said. Agnes shook her head as she gripped her quill firmly. She tore the ruined parchment into pieces and stuck them in her ears. Her mind felt like it would melt as she willed the Blessed Receiver to transmit information to her. It was a good pain. It was a pain worthy of the God-Emperor’s faithful.
‘No, I can do it,’ she said and raised her hand.
Her hand fell, and her body followed the next moment. Agnes landed on the floor of the Sanctum, her dulled mind wracked with confusion and pain. The Mechanicus Adept calmly bent down and appraised her condition with a mechadendrite that snaked out of his beak and into her bleeding ear.
‘Ruptured eardrum and compromised vestibular system caused by information overload,’ the Mechanicus Adept blurted to an approaching colleague in red robes.
‘Can the subject be salvaged?’ the other Mechanicus Adept questioned in binaric.
‘Cerebral structure is mostly intact. Subject will never regain sense of balance,’ the Beaked Adept responded.
‘Servitorization?’ the other Adept asked. The Beaked Adept nodded and summoned the servitor patrolling the Sanctum.
Agnes didn’t understand a word of what was communicated between the two of them. She was barely aware of her surroundings. When the servitor lifted her up in her arms, she felt lighter than a quill. She was going to be an Adept, she thought happily. Saint Eufrati had picked her up and was going to take her to Adept Sindi. Together they would be the best of the Emperor’s faithful.
About the Author
Ahmed Kamal Khan is an amateur writer who enjoys science fiction and fantasy stories. He has yet to finish his fantasy novel manuscript. One day, he might even write his third chapter. In his free time, he likes to make headway in his current attempt of a novel and tend to his lawn.