Haephestia’s footsteps echoed as she patrolled the salt-stone catacombs. At the end of her third circuit of the reliquary, Sister Superior Magdalene was waiting.
‘Well met, Sister Superior. How fares the defence? Scant news makes its way down to me.’
‘If you must know Sister, The foe amasses, we’re overrun with refugees, and it’s been weeks since the relief fleet made contact, Emperor protect them. Fortunately for you, your duty-‘
‘-Is to protect the relic, Sister Superior. I meant no disrespect.’
Sister Magdalene’s disapproving steel-eyed gaze speared Haephestia, daring her to question her place again. ‘Indeed. We are fortunate to have a sister amongst us with a familial connection to the Undying Saint.’
‘One of His many blessings.’ Haephestia eyed the bas-relief of her sainted relative.
‘Forget your previous failures, for you protect the Saint now. These doors open over nothing less than your cold corpse.’
‘Of course, Sister Superior.’ Haephestia bowed, making the sign of the Aquila over her breast. Magdalene silently stepped around her.
Haephestia fisted her hands at her sides as she listened to the sister superior’s fading footsteps before continuing her circuit. The Cathedral of the Undying Saint had been dug from the salt mines of the desert wastes where the Saint had finally fallen. She found herself on the threshold of the reclusiam again. A chandelier made from the bones of Saint Sebastiana’s regiment cast flickering candlelight on the gigantic doors. The salt slabs which formed them had been carved with an intricate depiction of Saint Sebastiana and her regiment embroiled in bloody battle with the traitor forces that surrounded them. The Emperor, in his grace reaching down from the heavens, his outstretched hand spouting lightning, wreathed Sebastiana in a halo and lifted her above the battle, marking her as one of his saints.
Lies. The word whipped through the corridor on a gust of salted wind, leaving Haephestia gasping and the candle flames flickering wildly.
The corpse god punishes his saints. Sister Haephestia turned in place, looking for the source of the words, but there was none to be found. Real gods raise their chosen above death! The whispers had been haunting her since her return from the athenaeum.
In her waking hours, susurrations floated about her in the dry air. In her dreams, she was haunted by the faces of her fallen sisters. She had returned from her mission without the tome they had been dispatched to recover, and without her sisters. How could she explain to the Sister Superior that her sisters scorned her, that they singled her out for derision because they envied the fortune of her birth? How could she explain that she did not feel fortunate but burdened? Burdened by a family that valued her only for her ability to bring honour to their lineage and weighed down by an anchor of unachievable duty. How could she explain that the towering monster in rotted armour, trailing a cloak of flies, had been kind to her? He spared her life. Little sister, he had called her.
Open your heart and open the doors. She placed a hand on the door, feeling the curve of Sebastiana’s carved relief under her fingers. Around her, the cathedral shook, and salt rained down in a fine mist. The battle drew nearer still. They hide the truth from you. Haephestia pushed the doors open.
Come in and put your troubles down, granddaughter. A column of light surrounded a marble altar in the middle of the room. On the altar, the head of Saint Sebastiana the Undying was encased in glasscrete. The head of Saint Sebastiana the Undying had been a dusty skull missing a mandible when Haephestia last made the pilgrimage. Now, raw wet flesh covered the cracks and fissures. Flakes of fish-white skin were visible on the pate and empty socket, a rheumy eye rolled in the other. Sister Haephestia watched in horror as a tongue, black and boil-encrusted, rolled forth from the rotting soft palate and the cloudy pupil fixed on her.
Haephestia was drawn toward the undying saint, her distant ancestor, a constant source of inspiration and insurmountable expectations. Distractedly, she pulled off her gauntlets and dropped them on the marble floor. The glasscrete cube lifted easily away. The grotesque tongue left a trail of shiny wet slime as it passed over the petrified lips. Haephestia crouched, bringing her dark eyes level with Saint Sebastiana’s single milky orb.
In that cloudy orbuculum of death, she saw the distant past-
Sebastiana, the very much dying, one arm blasted away to a bloody stump, face peppered with shrapnel, clawing over the bodies of her comrades, praying to any god that would listen. One listened…
The not-so-distant past…
Sisters Embury and Urvis, surrounded by cultists, the athenaeum burning around them while Haephestia clutched the tome to her chest, The stinking giant with the cloak of buzzing flies. ‘Fear not death! Embrace it and leave with your life, little sister.’ It was a request. Haephestia answered. She placed the heavy tome in his blistered hands and walked away. Behind her, Sister Urvis’s screams supplanted the roar of her flamer.
And the future-
A hidden door in the far wall. An emergency exit, and a potential entrance…
‘Sister Haephestia!’ Sister Superior Magdalene screamed as she pushed the salt-slab doors wide. Meters away, Haephesita cradled the Saint’s skull in the crook of one arm and shouldered open the hidden door letting a lumbering tide of death pour into the chamber. Haephestia watched as the Sister Superior drew her sword. Cultists wearing filth-caked robes clutching makeshift weapons in ulcerated hands clawed their way into the cathedral. Everything they touch decayed, centuries-old salt brick crumbled, leather dried and flaked. The sister superior resisted for scant seconds, but as they swarmed about her, her armour rusted and fell away. Her flesh failed next, boils erupting on exposed skin, eyes bulging as pus-filled the space behind them.
‘Fear not death, Sister!’ Haephestia laughed joyously as the screaming started.
About the Author
E. Nicole Gary is a scientist and Warhammer lover. She received her PhD in microbiology and immunology from Drexel university college of medicine and studies vaccine design and immune responses. When she isn’t writing scientific manuscripts, she’s reading, watching, and writing sci-fi and horror. She loves wine, crochet, chaos, and laboratory mice.