In Light, Chapter One

by artrald

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We walk in the Light of Him who Saves.

I am not walking. I am kneeling.
The floor is burnished white marble. The lights are white, harsh, bright. It’s a metaphor.

And by His Will are we saved.

I am Ellayn. I am a novice of the Order of St. Ursula, selected at the age of five from among the schola’s orphans, selected for good genetics and healthy early development.
I
 note irreverently that the only reason the giant, golden, holy aquila isn’t casting a shadow is that there is a painfully bright luminator, just up there, dedicated to making sure that there is no shadow cast by the aquila. 

(Is it heresy, to point that out?)

We walk in the Footsteps of the Saint.

I am mostly walking in the footsteps of the other second sopranos. I am a chorister of the training convent, selected at the age of nine from among a class of thirty postulants, selected for purity of voice and progress with my studies.
(How do you know if you’re a heretic, anyway? Do you wake up one morning and decide to be a heretic?)
I am supposed to smell of the sweet perfumes with which I was ceremonially anointed, a week ago. I am terribly afraid that I smell of nothing except sweat and armour oil.

And so by Her Example do we save.

I am the junior member of this choir, selected by our superiors from the ranks of the Order’s trainees. I am skilled, but not the most skilled; nor am I unusually popular with my instructors.
I am honoured, to bear this role. I am also mystified.
Void’s sake, this is the longest time I have spent awake. Ever. It would be shame beyond my ability to bear if I were the first novice in a hundred years to be discovered asleep in her armour when her time came to raise her voice. I yawn, safe behind my faceplate. I won’t get the chance to rest my eyes for the next three hours.
(Well, I’m not a heretic, anyway. I am the model of a holy innocent, sleep-trained and indoctrinated. Let that be the last I think of heresy, Saint guide me.)

In Light do we stand Vigil.

I am, in age, seventeen years Solar. I am nearly impossible to tell apart from the full Sisters, if you cannot read our insignia, if you cannot see that my skin is unblemished by the scars of battle.
There’s a chrono superimposed on the bottom-right of my visual field. Fourteen seconds until the start of second soprano’s turn for today. It would be disrespectful to say my lines while propped up by my locked joints like a statue. I shift slightly, lifting the leg, torso, shoulder, elbow, wrist joints out of lock. My hands remain locked in the sign of the holy aquila, the symbol of the God-Emperor.

And there is no Darkness here but that which we bring to be Saved.

I am wearing a suit of holy armour that is probably a hundred times my age. I am in theory fully trained in its use, knowledge placed in my sleeping brain by hypno-tapes. I am honestly terrified of falling over sideways.
The words about darkness, they are true: the lights cover every angle. No seat, no altar, no statue casts a shadow here. The only shadows are those cast by the people who walk here. Time to speak. Time to join the choir.

“We walk in the light of Him who – Blesses.”

I have learned the tricks to speaking chorally. You can delay your voice by a tiny fraction and listen for the first consonant if you’re just the tiniest bit unsure. It detracts from the perfection of the effect, but not half so much as using the wrong word. This is the Blesses sequence, new this year. Like me. Thought it was. Best to be sure.

And by His Will are we Blessed.

I have the rhythm of it now.
We’re a formatory convent, tiny by the standards of the major orders. Five hundred novices, fifty teaching staff of various degrees of ordination, ten sisters-ordinary to run the place, and Palatine Alicia. The Palatine and her guard are symbolically absent from the service, just as St. Ursula’s superiors would not support her vigil: one of the teaching staff plays the role of the Saint. It’s Drabbe today, who teaches voice and athletics. She started on the second day, which means she’ll be the one speaking on the last day, the one to preach the sermon at the ceremony’s height.

“We walk in the Footsteps of the Saint.”

I have support. My suit has a vox, and that vox has a synth, and the synth does for my voice what the powered servos do for my muscles.
Would do, if needed. They tremble and twitch against their long inactivity. The machine-spirit of my suit likes the vigil as little as my body does. For all that both of them are alleged servants of my will. I must concentrate and quell the small movements of my muscles, those shifts from side to side that are natural to someone who’s been kneeling for, Saint preserve me –

And so through Her grace do we Bless.

– eight days now. Three to go. Sleeping as little as I can, upright with armour locked and paranoid alarms set, ignoring hunger cramps from an empty stomach that doesn’t know I’m getting intravenous nutriment. Rationing my suit’s water supply, mostly to try and minimise the number of times that it, uh, goes through the purification system: therefore let me add ‘thirst’ to the list of little discomforts to endure. We’re taught not to do that: it can throw off the suit’s homeostat and you get into a vicious circle. Everyone does it anyway.

“In Light do we stand Vigil.”

I sound like the whisper of an angel, and that is before the synth kicks in.
It comes to me that this is perfectly good practice for the worst parts of duty, the parts Sister Croix won’t shut up about, the parts you can’t truly practice in a nice safe hab on a planet ten thousand years tamed. The privation, the cold, the repetitive but overwhelmingly important work of simple survival that nobody can do for you but yourself.

And there is no Darkness here but that which we bring to be Blessed: so say we.

I have the need to shiver. I do not shiver.
Mostly bare of people, the vast empty space of the cathedral is cold enough for icicles. As the congregation arrive and the place is warmed by their bodies and their candles, the ice shall melt: the ceilings and the gargoyles shall weep, and that is supposed to be symbolic. My armour is supposed to keep me comfortable in any temperature from void to searing flame. Its spirit believes that this is as comfortable as I deserve. Thus do we learn humility.

“So say we all: protegat Imperator, ducat Sancta.”

I have excellent High Gothic, fluent and accentless: everyone says so. I can even read.

One cycle down. A hundred and seventy-nine to go this sequence; eighteen more sequences until the ceremony. And apparently Saint Ursula did something identical without any of the technology that allows us to undergo her vigil thirty at a time. Knelt before the Autocrator’s palace till he relented, till he acknowledged the Emperor as the author of the wonders of his world, till he walked out to seek her blessing and permission to make of his hive a shrine. Throne on Earth, that lady must have been tough. Guess that’s why they call it a miracle.

The bell rings: our cue.

“We walk in the Light of Him who Blesses.”

As I said, the cathedral is vast. Truly enormous. Ten thousand in the nave alone, the assembled nobility and aristoi of Baelis Prime assembled to Hive Tertius for this ceremony. The more hardy or ambitious of the bourgeoisie are already here: I like to tell myself they’re here to hear our voices and not for the ostentation. Mortal voices, be they never so loud, wouldn’t make it even a fraction of the way. My synth could probably just about make a noise that would – if it were pleasing to the Emperor that the sweet sound of a second soprano be distorted into an unidentifiable inhuman mechanical roar.

And by His Will are we Blessed.

As I said, we have help. There’s a vox-caster in every pew, to which our voices are thrown by the machine-spirits, and the service proper will be broadcast throughout the hive of a billion souls. The synth need do nothing more than cover over the imperfections and weaknesses in my voice: actually, we have the amplification turned down to-

“-We walk upon the Path of the Saint.”

Focus, girl. You nearly broke your rhythm. Hundred and seventy eight and a half to go.

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(beep.)

In Light have we Stood Vigil!

(beep.)
What time is…(Beep.)What’s that…(Beep.)Irritating bloody…(Beep!)Holy Throne, what do you mean I’ve got(Beep!)ten seconds to… dammit… release suit lock, deep breath. I smell nothing but incense, anointing oil and sweet perfumes. No body-odour at all. What if my nostrils have merely gotten used to the smell? What if –

And let there be no darkness here save that which we drive before us!

We stand! My right foot is still asleep. I firmly instruct the armour to lock the ankle joint until sensation returns. The lights on us come up and our shadows are gone.

“Squad Agate, attention!” Twenty pairs of massive ceramite boots click in unison. The soles of my feet are five inches from the ground. I thank the Saint it was my right foot that betrayed me, the one I don’t have to move; I get nothing more than the strong impression of a stern look from the Sister-Superior.

“Present… Arms!” Click, two, three, click, two, three, click. The bolt guns we perform the drill with are the real thing: beautiful, ornate, bulky, heavy, deadly. Not, of course, loaded. I focus on my own movements, my own balance. Others may curse the weakness of the flesh, but at least my aching knees and the pins and needles in my foot distract me from the fact that there are literally a million people watching me right now and I’ve been properly awake for less than a minute. The Ecclesiarch walks past. The most important man on the planet bows – not to me, but to who we represent – and anoints the fleur-de-lys on my weapon with holy oil. It smells like regular armour lubricant.

“Shoulder… Arms!” Click, two, three, click. A score of black-robed adepts enters from stage-right; each bears a ceremonial case. One steps up before each Sister. Press the catch with a finger, hiss-click as the helmet unlocks. The slightly claustrophobic sensation as the auto-senses disengage and I’m back to seeing and hearing through my mortal eyes and ears. Lift the helmet, being careful not to trap my hair; my power servos make the thing light as a feather, but it weighs as much as a bowling ball. Place it in the case as it is brought before me, maintaining my balance and my bearing. 

Eyes front. Look through rather than at the priests seated in ranks on the dais. And from memory, then, the first verse of How Glorious Their Hands. Try to appreciate the honour; remember that it is a sin to take pride in myself. I am nothing but a vessel for the gifts of the Emperor. And the verse ends, and the people join in, and despite myself it is hard not to be caught up in the splendour and glory. Smile. Smile when you sing of glory, or you sound wrong. The ordeal is almost over.

The hymns and opening prayers done with, the initial readings complete, Sister-Superior Drabbe is to speak for the Saint this year. She steps up to the dais to our left, all power and grace; maybe with another decade of power-armour operation I’ll look that smooth. Of course, her suit is nobody else’s, not the pensioned-off relic with which I am honored. It is adjusted to the strength of her body, not to the standard formula laid down in the Sisterly Rule.

A deviation from script. Drabbe raises an eyebrow slightly as she ascends the pulpit, curiously similar to the expression she adopts when it is found that yet another novice has run headlong into a wall during morning calisthenics or toppled over sideways on guard duty. The teleprompter, I can see from here, is broken. 

Never mind. Any of us could recite this. The works of the saints are not sleep-taught, but learned in classrooms under strict tutelage. She begins to speak.

Her voice is sweeter than I remember, sweeter than it was this morning when she was speaking the responses. Hesitant at first; I am unused to my favourite teacher sounding so… young. Yet with growing confidence and strength she hits her stride. The exposition of the Saint’s miracle, the description of the Saint’s lone ordeal. She will go on to speak of the similar vigil that we have just shared, and spiritually to invite the congregation to join in our ordeal. The words are in the back of my head almost as if I could read them: but from Drabbe’s black-painted lips are beautiful, inspirational, transcendent, uplifting. I didn’t know she could preach like this. She must be blessed. Inspired.

And she isn’t casting a shadow. I manage to keep my expression level. There is no spotlight to follow her and erase her shadow, like there is for the choir and the furniture; it is supposed to be symbolic. But she might as well be transparent, or some kind of hologram. A crack like thunder, as she bangs an armoured fist onto the lectern as she raises the other one to the Saint: she’s solid enough. Some of the priests have noticed as well. One of them is openly staring.

And though the words are familiar as the back of my own hand, I’m caught up right with the others. I see the sermon with new eyes, today. I see blessed mercy and compassion written all over Drabbe’s achingly perfect face as she speaks so beautifully of the transformative power of our shared ordeal, invites all her listeners to stand vigil in their hearts with her. She steps out from behind the lectern to speak to the people more directly and the light that is placed there to illuminate the aquila’s shadow seems to halo her with purity and holiness. The vox-caster system crackles and falters for a moment; she doesn’t skip a beat but simply raises her voice, heard effortlessly at the back of the… vast… half-million-seater… cathedral. 

What?

And, okay, now I don’t recognise the words. She’s departing from the text – but it doesn’t matter. We’re there with her. The break from tradition doesn’t matter as she turns to us, beckons to us, dubs us her sisters in truth. We look at one another; the four here of higher than novice rank step forward. Uncertain. She has them face the congregation, as her words leave trails of fire through our hearts. If she asks – no, when she asks. They will follow her through hell. And I’ll be with them.

But what does she ask? She asks us to pray. We kneel.

Let us pray. We raise our voices, sisters, brothers, kin in faith, the great host of Your people assembled, o Lord that is on Earth and through the warp and the weft of the Universe. Lord of Nine Lights, we worship you as you stand beside and among and within us, as we stand in vigil now.

My lips move almost by themselves. I know these words and I couldn’t say from where. I’ve waited all of my life to say them –

Lord of Change, we bow –

There is a commotion. Heavy footsteps on the marble floor. Ceremonial guards step out into the aisle and cross shock-glaives, barring the interloper’s way – there is a discordant crash as they are brushed aside by some unstoppable force. The eyes of my Sisters on the dais widen. A deep, masculine, resonant voice, not penetrating and carrying like Sister-Superior Drabbe’s pure tones, but just projected with sheer crushing volume.

“SISTER-SUPERIOR ALETHIS DRABBE.” My ears are ringing. The man’s voice is a solid wall of sound. “YOU STAND ARRESTED FOR THE CRIMES OF HERESY AND BLASPHEMY.” I can’t believe my eyes. I can’t believe my fucking eyes. The figure that’s speaking is six and a half feet tall, armoured not in the glossy black of the Sisterhood or the brash kaleidoscope of the hive’s upper houses but in a matte Imperial grey. “I COMMAND YOU, STAND DOWN AND BE PROSECUTED IN THE NAME OF HIM ON EARTH.”

That power-armour is not like mine. I have one little purity-seal, the Catechism of the Saint, attached to my right pauldron two weeks ago when I was ceremonially anointed for this duty: that grey suit fairly flutters with them, drips with them. And I’ve never seen one, but I’m fairly certain that the thing that reaches up and around the back of his helmet in a nearly organic fashion is a witch’s hood. And on my surplice is blazoned the quill-and-scroll of Saint Augusta Ursula: whereas on his there is the upright black-and-white barred I of (it can’t be how can it possibly be) the Emperor’s Holy Inquisition.

A signal, finger-code from Sister-Superior Finlye on the podium. I can’t believe it, but to be ordered is to obey. Attend to chain of command. My heart is pounding. They’re going to disobey the Inquisitor, they’re going to stand up to this affront. We can’t be the blasphemers: we’re the Sororitas, the Daughters of the Saint. He, he must be impersonating an Inquisitor. It can’t be us. So he’s a heretic. 

Weapons free, she signs. It’s hard to operate power armour when your hands are shaking like a leaf – the spirit keeps getting the wrong idea, almost disobedient in its enthusiasm. I free a sickle-magazine with my left hand; a clatter tells me that Sister Niwall has dropped hers. I fumble my right hand onto the pistol grip of the bolter, eject the blank mag with a flick of the thumb. Bring the loaded one up, seat it in the slot front first, push forward and let it spring back. A moment’s irrational surprise that I am missing the calm red ammunition counter in the corner of my vision: yes, Ellayn, that would be the way you’re not wearing a helmet.

Sister Drabbe kneels, and although I can’t see her behind the shoulder-to-shoulder wall the four Sisters have made I know she has placed her sword point-down before her, and she starts to speak.

And as she opens her mouth, I feel my own mouth open. I don’t know what the words are going to be till I’ve said them, I don’t even properly listen to them. I can’t feel my synth engage, but my voice is perfect, a mote of light among a growing multitude. We shall drown out this interruption! Is this what a miracle feels like? I can taste blood – my actual throat is bleeding – it doesn’t matter.

We speak as one. Sisters and priests and congregation together. The floor shakes and the very air trembles and Holy Throne the Sisters have drawn their swords. Without breaking their chant they hold the weapons before them, activating the chain-mechanism as one, and the Inquisitor continues his heavy, measured tread.

From his belt he has freed what looks for all the world like an officer’s baton, an intricately carved ceramite swagger-stick, and he holds it before him like it’s a match for their weapons. His voice reaches all the way down into the brain and speaks to the little part of everyone that remembers the prehistoric night. “STAND. DOWN.”

My hands might have wavered. My legs might have turned to water. My armour does nothing of the kind. The Saint’s blessing holds me steady. The words enfold me and encircle me and flow through me. The targeter of my bolt gun ticks softly to me: if I had my helmet on, I’d know what it was trying to tell me.

It’s like time has come to a standstill. He steps forward. Again. The tread of doom. The Sisters-Superior raise their blades to bar his way.

And everything happens at once. No mortal will ever know who tried to strike first. The Inquisitor – nothing that big should move that fast. Finlye’s the instructor in sword drill, she takes the advanced students. Somehow her blade goes as wide as an idiot novice’s, cuts nothing but empty air, there’s a thunderclap as the end of that rod touches her seemingly gently on the gorget and she hits the floor in the same instant like a discarded poppet doll.

Her – our – three sisters strike in the same instant, determined to make him pay: but it’s like a dance, and the Inquisitor’s calling the tune. He doesn’t swing the cane like a sword, but more like a shock-baton – it contacts Sister Feist’s blade and they rebound from one another with a force and violence to throw her to a knee, but he was expecting that and she wasn’t –

She’s not helmeted. None of us are, for ceremony’s sake. Do you know what happens when you kick someone in the face with a power-armoured boot? I can’t look away, my voice falters, I –

A metallic clatter, familiar, a sound of sanity and normalcy. I realise my hand is on the cocking handle of my bolt-gun and the grey-armoured figure barely fifteen yards in front of me has just murdered my history teacher with as much consideration as I’d give to swatting a fly. I draw it back and release. Clatter. Helmet or no helmet, I have iron sights. The Inquisitor is a perfect target. I pull the trigger.

People have written screeds of poetry about firing a bolter, how the whole world looks simpler and better when you’re in the middle of unleashing a tight grouping of mass-reactive half-inch calibre gyrojet penetrators towards a duly sanctioned target. On the range, I never saw it. The gun sounds like a wolf’s howl and an eagle’s scream and a brick to the face, and it hits you in the shoulder like it took a run-up. Without power armour, you lie down and brace, you squint your eyes and grit your teeth and wear aural protectors, and still it is violence and it is pain. But here, among the confusion and madness and blasphemy, the whole world has dissolved into me, that massive dark figure filling my sights, and my holy instrument of death. The thunder and scream and flash of the weapon discharge is my world as my suit joints lock against the recoil, thump-scream-crash-howl, a four-round burst.

I mean, I’m sure that someone in less danger for their life would agree that the way the Inquisitor spins to meet our ragged volley of fire, turning quickly to present each new round with another fresh and properly angled plate of ceramite, is beautiful as well. I could have sworn I just saw a bolt turn a right-angle in midair a foot from his back and streak off harmlessly. Approximate effect: none. The apex of our holy wrath, the hammer of the foes of the Saint, and against this creature we might as well be spraying water.

Over my suit’s vox circuits I hear someone yell. Blasphemy upon blasphemy. The airwaves should be utterly clear for the ceremony. I think that distorted yell was “Malleus!”

And what it feels like is that the sky falls in.

Bright flashes, above. A sound so loud it is like a box on the ears. A glance upward as I complete my burst – impossible sights, bright lights, what looks like the trompe-a-l’oeil ceiling opening like a flower and angels descending on wings of flame and… ropes? Nothing makes sense.

And through and around all of this, quietly and yet perfectly clearly, the pure sweet voice of Sister Drabbe speaks words that cry out to be repeated, that drag my consciousness scrabbling back to the here and the now and to my duty.

Thump-scream-crash-howl, I fire again. The Inquisitor in my sights is fighting like a mad thing. Despite all our efforts he has pushed through the Sisters guarding Drabbe, but she has anticipated this and raised her own blade; its purity meets the simple silence of his rod. The clash of energies overturns the lectern and knocks the fleeing priesthood down like ninepins. I swear one of my bolts went between the giant’s shoulder pad and the armour of his back, and exploded. He didn’t even seem to notice.

A coughing, stuttering yammer from above me, far louder than my own weapon, an ear-shattering assault upon the senses, and an eyelash’s breadth later a series of high-pitched frag detonations pretty much straight in front of me as the Inquisitor ducks. My face! I throw a hand up just in time – I feel red-hot shrapnel impacting here and there on my armour. I lower my hand to see devastation. Where there had been three Sisters valiantly trading blows with the man who fights like a daemon, now two of them are face-down in pools of blood and the third is on her knees.

Thunder speaks again, to my left. A rope of twisted blue-green lightning striking off towards… the tech-chapel? A precision strike. Lights flicker. Cherub-servitors swerve drunkenly off course. Static hits the vox like thunder. I’ve heard tell of the curses of the Mechanicum – never in my life expected to see one –

This isn’t an arrest. This is a precision military operation. Those are stormtroopers, stormtroopers on the wrong side, and my head hurts. Everything is wrong. Oh, my holy Throne, I just fired another four-round burst at the inquisitor. On purpose – Saint protect me, did I actually hit him?

Up on the dais, everything is going from bad to worse. The Inquisitor is fencing with Drabbe, rod against glowing blade – when did she get a power-sword? – and as they meet and cross and part again, I can begin to see the witch-lightning crawl over that strange weapon of his, darkness and centre and focus against Drabbe’s bright light and burning faith. He parries one of her blows with an open palm and it sears an ugly molten misshapen scar across his armour. He binds her blade, she hits him in the chest with an elbow-strike and the clash of energies sends them both rolling.

“For the saint!” Sister Drabbe’s face lights up in an expression of purest fervour, and in that moment she’s lifted from the ground, holy light spilling from her eyes like purple tears, covering her head to foot in radiance, spreading behind her into great bright wings as she stands surmounted by the gigantic ceremonial aquila –

“FOR THE EMPEROR.” The Inquisitor presses a stud on a box on his belt.

And fire ripples and blossoms along the top of the aquila with a scream of tortured air. And for a moment, there is silence, and then – slowly, yet with an inescapable speed – the blazing aquila falls upon Drabbe and upon the cream of the clergy of the entire planet with a noise like the hammer of the Emperor’s own forge. The shockwave knocks me from my feet and silence overtakes me.

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