Artrald, Ian Cattes, Requiem, Whoever

Alternative Origins, Mass Effects, other writing

Category: Fear & Surprise

In Light, Chapter Eighteen

Up

Back

++++

Half a second has passed and the heretic’s pistol screams again and I’m still alive.

There was a red-robe between me and her when she started firing. He slams into me from my right, convulsing, sparking – I have my hands over my head – on my other side the voicewright is grabbing for me with a desperate precision – what are they -?

Their hand snakes out and I feel the cold click of the cable detaching from my armour. Middle of a firefight and they’re more interested in recovering their cable than in diving for cover? Alicia’s gun screams again and something hits my wrist with a hammer but the bolt goes spiraling away unexploded. She’d been aiming for the side of my head.

My duty is done. If that didn’t do it, nothing can. Now my life is no longer too valuable to risk. And somehow in that moment that knowledge goes into my mind and it’s like turning a key in a lock. What’s burning in my gut is not the fear that’s driving that voicewright into a shivering heap on the floor behind me. It isn’t the tearing black-and-white pain of my wounds. No. Call it freedom.

And there is something I have been wanting to do.

My left foot fizz-clicks, briefly immovable, perfect grip. Surge to my right. The suit has a surprising range of movement if your form is good. Pain is there; pain doesn’t matter. My form is perfect. I physically throw the dying tech-priest at my target – sure, Alicia is strong, but I learned on the barricade the value of dead weight even against our equipment. The body fouls her aim and the next bolt goes into the floor or something and then I’m on her. Left hook towards her still-unarmoured face and she hasn’t had time to draw that sword – barely she gets a block to me – I push forward and she did not expect a headbutt. There wasn’t much force to it, but I’m helmeted and she’s not and I think I broke her pretty nose. She staggers backwards and I keep on her.

A Palatine should be a veteran of a dozen campaigns. She should not be off balance from such a simple sucker blow – she should not have taken a simple sucker blow. Her foot should not have slid on the floor unless she wanted it to. She shouldn’t be fighting to bring her pistol to bear when I’m inside her reach. I keep on her. Right uppercut hits her in the midsection – she’s trying to summon her sword so I don’t need my left hand to defend me, I don’t care if this lets her get hold of another weapon she can’t hit me with – grab her pauldron as she tries to pull away and this time she sees the headbutt coming.

But this time I have leverage, and once more the Emperor grants me the strength of an angel. I see stars and taste blood and scream pain and horror at her and I do it again and she falls when I let her go and she doesn’t get up.

Autosenses don’t go grey when you’re halfway to passing out, they don’t care about blood on the inside and outside of your helmet both. The metal doesn’t let me down even as my flesh is failing. I can see Alicia’s honour guard. The ritemistress and the choirmistress. I can see them both.

On my right, Garvia. The ritemistress. The ritemistress’s name is Garvia and she is not aiming a weapon. She has raised her hands in some kind of – wait. She doesn’t know, she doesn’t know. What I told them about the Valkyrie, she bought it. She didn’t tune in when I broadcast. Maybe she was scared. Maybe she didn’t want to risk souring it. Whatever. She’s looking at the literal chaos in front of her and her helmet hides her expression from me. But she is praying – I (hope I) do not know the words – what she isn’t is a tactical threat.

The other one, the one to the left, is the lady who taught me to sing. She’s backing away, shaking her head. She’s talking over helmet speaker – no, she’s praying too – they think they’re seeing a miracle –

Her weapon comes up, though, and that’s enough to decide who’s going to die first.

The confines of the corridor are tight. I’m almost in her face by the time she realises that yes I’m coming for her and I’m not going to stop. The bolter screams at me and in the same sliver of an instant there’s a sledgehammer thunderclap on my right shoulder as the bolt realises it’s supposed to explode rather than deflecting. But there’s no critical system inside the pauldrons of my armour – doubtless the shrapnel is impressive, this is what full helmets are for – I hit my choirmistress with enough force to push her over backwards and I go down with her.

And again. This woman is supposed to have been training in martial arts since childhood. The instinct to counter this frenzied clumsy tackle of mine with a simple throw should be ingrained, natural, muscle memory. There’s a part of me that’s watching me do this and already thinking as if I’ve been dumped onto the floor on my back. But no. No, what she’s trying to do is to point her bolter at me as if it’s any damned use at all when I’m literally on top of her. We hit the floor with an earsplitting slam. That bolter is nothing but a lever- if she thinks I’m fighting to point it at her – I shift my weight and push down hard.

You can outwit the machine-spirit of a suit. It will follow through with sheer unstoppable mechanical strength when no human would. All I need to do is make it think I have my weight on top of it – as she struggles instinctively to try and throw me off, I put my toes down and lift my weight off her lower body. And so rather than throw me off to her left with all its strength, the suit twists her lower body the other way with equal force.

I drop my knees down and shift my weight backward and she’s trapped – once more she pushes instinctively – this time I pull. She’s got a deathgrip on her gun. Her arm snaps out straight and that’s exactly what I was after. Drop one hand off her gun and grab her wrist and pull as hard as I can, half lifting her off the floor – and if we were sparring this is where we’d stop, because now I have her.

That also means I’ve never done what comes next.

It takes a really spectacular windup and full suit strength to put a sarissa through armour. Unless, for example, you have the luxury of being able to put the tip of the blade inside the adjustable section at the shoulder joint and under the arm. Then you could even do it with failing oxygen-starved muscles poisoned by exhaustion and drugs.

The crossguard of my knife is a simple straight bar and the sound it makes as it hits the plates either side of the weak spot is tick and there’s no resistance any more.

One more target.

I stand as I turn –

I try to –

The condition monitor on the right-hand side of my vision is trying to get my attention. Apparently it’s been sounding audio alarms that I can no longer hear. Armour integrity. Fluid levels. Heart and breathing rate. Oxygen saturation. Blood pressure – blood toxicity – blood volume. I think it’s running out of excuses to give the Emperor as to why I’m not dead yet.

Apparently these excuses no longer run to things like the ability to stand.

With an incoherent animal noise I have a bolter in my hands and the target isn’t more than five yards away. The aimpoint of the bolter is a red dot in the world that makes more sense than anything else that’s happening right now. A steady red dot around which the world can revolve.

I can’t make the world stand still enough to take the shot. Damn you, Garvia, five yards away on your knees and you won’t stay still enough for me to draw a bead. Slam a knee down myself and the impact shakes my whole world loose. Stationary she dances past the aimpoint in the centre of the universe – there! – I pull the trigger.

And as everything before me dissolves in white, as pain once again fills the front of me with black-edged flames, as the servos of my damaged shoulder give way against the bolter’s recoil – as the weakness of the flesh finally overwhelms the grace I’ve been granted – the last thing I see is the flash of my bolts striking home.

God-Emperor of Mankind, into Your arms I

++++

What do you do, waking up when, you know, when you never intended to?

The final death toll will never be known. Practically everyone on the planet knows someone who knows someone who suffered worse than simply a week’s worth of terror. Population numbers will have recovered in a decade, they say. 

Order will be back to normal in a generation, I’m told. The people we brought out of hell with us – the same idiots we couldn’t trust alone with each other without armed guards – in the meantime they shall own this hive. The man who defended me on that first barricade was wearing a general’s stars before I was even out of surgery.

As for the hive’s spire itself, they say, we will not know for a century. The blow was not immediately mortal, but the great engines were dealt grievous harm, an injury that would have murdered anything lesser. Whether it will scab over, whether it will heal? The red-robes shall swarm like ants. If it can be done, it will be.

To the Imperium of a million worlds, though, there are five other hives. To the Imperium, of course, whoever prevented the complete social collapse of this place and its fall to the Archenemy, whoever prevented a cascade that immolated the planet, well –

What do you do, on waking up to discover you saved the world?

Imperial records shall not show that the Order was destroyed. That would be wasteful. It is no work at all for the Imperium to forget what it never knew. To waste is a sin.

I awoke and was a loose end. I suppose that I had never considered what happens to loose ends. I had never expected to wake. When the Lord Inquisitor looked me in the eye and asked what he was supposed to do with me, should it have been ever so surprising that I had no clue?

In the midst of all this, surrounded by talk of decades and generations and millions, of what import are a dozen people who never existed to begin with? I was convinced he’d have us shot. But he quoted Macharius to me: To waste is a sin, be it ever so venial: seek ever to avoid it.

For us, see, this was terror and pain like none ever knew.
For us this was grief and loss and life-changing horror.
For us this was the bonfire of all that had been our lives.
For him it was a day’s work.

And he wondered if a bonfire couldn’t be a forge-fire.

It’s impossible, as it turns out, to tell an Inquisitor that things cannot be done. His doctor did not even consider me particularly badly hurt: the front of my ribcage is metal, now, and one of my lungs. The thing I had been hiding in my mind, the thing I had not told Gennid about for fear he’d try to destroy us all, the thing that started this all – there are things I cannot remember now, cauterised like a scar, and that includes what the Inquisitor did to me and how.

The question of our origins and nature? It is completely amazing how explaining your problems to one who handles the fate of worlds will trivialise them. Apparently it is more than reasonable for an Inquisitor to have any retainers he wishes.

And, you know, he tried to give us an actual damned choice.

Any who wished could muster out and he’d see us situated amongst the hive’s new leadership, but if we’d rather –

Rakil interrupted him.

My dear sister interrupted the Lord Inquisitor and asked if the alternative was death, because otherwise she volunteered.

And he actually laughed.

++++

++End of testimony: Liber Secretorum, alpha++

++Shall I commit the file to the archive?++

Cold steady ice-pale hands remove the data-cable from the right temple; a grey hood is raised to cover hair cut helmet-short. What’s the difference, again, between a faraway look and a thousand yard stare?

++Interrogator?++

“Make it so.”

How do you know, if you are acceptably righteous? D’you just wake up one morning and decide not to be a heretic? Does someone tell you? How do they know?

“Thought for the day, cogitator.”

++Awaiting.++

“Blessed is the mind too small for doubt: thus is it written. The rest is left as an exercise for the reader.”

++So say we all.++

Black-painted lips quirk. “So say we all.”

In Light, Chapter Seventeen

Up

Back

++++

I’m standing in the Valkyrie and the ramp is in front of me. Alone and disguised. Anyone in the Order would’ve done what they could for their fallen before anything else: they are lying neatly behind me, suits locked, and the inside of the Valkyrie looks like the aftermath of a desperate battle.

Only I and the machines know that I spoke no rites for the dead heretics, that the indignities they’ve suffered are largely (entirely) my own fault. That I wasted half a clip of the Emperor’s ammunition making it look like someone had fired wildly and riddled the thing with holes from the inside. I trust in the Emperor, I tell myself, and within me is no room for fear.

Palatine Alicia herself has turned out to meet me. The most senior Sister on planet – squinting, I turn the Valkyrie’s auspex senses on her. I’m looking, I’m looking for… Throne, I don’t know. I guess I’m looking for some miracle that says it doesn’t go as far as her. That by some thunderbolt of chance the heretics consisted of four teachers and three security guards and we already got them all. The Old Lady is armoured, taller than her honour guard, and she’s beautiful like a killing blade is. Black fleur de lys tattooed on perfect honey-coloured skin under green eyes framed by short black hair – she’s helmetless, of course, for rear-echelon business. After today my sisters and I have more scars than she. Ankle length cloak and surplice of purple silk. The hilt of that sword sparkles with violet sapphires. The bolt pistol at her other hip glitters with golden inlays. She’s fluttering with the purity seals you’d expect of a holy woman, little strips of parchment with prayers of the Saint caught at the top with plaswax. They’re especially thick in some odd places – her belt, her upper arms – turns out she’s literally got parchment or cloth over every armour joint – blessed machine grant me sight beyond the visible –

By providence my vox is not set to transmit when I see/feel the concertina adjusters at her elbows and hips, the ones like I have. Nobody but the servitor pilot hears me swear at the top of my voice. The armour doesn’t think I really meant to bang on the wall that hard and robs the gesture of full strength. She is the Order’s second in command, the headmistress of our formatory, and she’s wearing novice’s gear and concealing it and that means she is a fake and that means it is every single one of th- of us.

I already, I already knew all of this. It’s what I was expecting and what I planned for and it punches me in the gut anyway.

The plan tastes like bile at the back of my mouth and this is exactly like that moment at the other end of the hive, when I decided we needed a truck more than I needed it to be quiet in my head.

I cue the damn ramp and I’m committed.

Auspex is recognising her honour guard, tagging both of them for me under voxnomen Amethyst. Teaching faculty. Good. My disguise has a chance: they might not know a random security guard much better than I do. The armed salute doesn’t involve the aquila and wouldn’t be expected to, so I don’t need to know if I should make one. And there’s no changing the plan now.

There’s a moment when the Palatine runs her eyes over the scene that greets her. A moment as she takes it in, and then she’s back on an even keel. “Sister… Silexa?”

I click my heels. “Reporting main objective success, Mother.”

“Explain,” she says, as coldly straightforward as a headmistress should be. “I send out four veterans. Four of us, equipped and armoured and invincible, riding in on a heavily armed assault lander. I get back, what. One single injured sister and a ship full of holes?” She shakes her head irritably. “Tell me of this ‘victory’.”

“Yes, Mother Alicia.” Subvocalising, as if I can’t manage more because of my injury. I’ve set my synth to mimic Silexa’s. I don’t know how she talks. Bets that the Old Lady will? “We were betrayed. The novices attacked us without even waiting to parley; they had some kind of allies with them, well armed. Sister-Superior Arabella and I exfiltrated with a useful prisoner.”

I can feel her scowl on my skin. “I can’t tell, kid.” Kid? I tense. You wouldn’t call a full Sister that. Nobody moves. Nobody makes a move. It’s like nobody but me heard that protocol breach. “Is your ‘useful’ prisoner the headless corpse in the battered armour, or the headless corpse with a hole punched right through her?” 

Yes. I did. I had to. I’d stolen her helmet. It’d have given me away. She was a heretic anyway. I stand as straight as my injuries will let me. I know how to take a dressing-down. “The former, Mother. Sister-Superior Arabella had identified that the novice had received the Heart of the Vigil-” Emperor guide my tongue, I’m guessing these words – “and asked her to pass it on and things… evolved.”

She raises eyebrows. “Tell me you didn’t come back to me empty-handed as well as defeated.”

“As I say, Mother, main objective success. She passed it on and I recall it.” Small movement of my helmet, I lift my chin with feigned pride. “I heard it, I recall it – but as she spoke she… changed, somehow.”

“Changed.” Her eyes widen. “Physically?”

“I don’t know, Mother. She tried to kill us. Tore straight out of a restraint harness and summoned a weapon.” I gesture towards the tattered surplice covering my torso armour, already stained with my own blood as well as Silexa’s. “Hit me first, and unarmed. My sisters weren’t so fortunate.”

A crease between her sculpted brows – “Hnh. Which novice did you say this was, so transubstantiated by the holy litany that she put down Arabella out of hand and nearly took out a whole Valkyrie?”

Swallow hard. Emperor, don’t let me down now. Don’t let her recall me too closely. I can tell my squadmates apart by how they stand, how they move, the rhythm of their voice even through a synth, the very scratches on their armour. Throne, please. “The prisoner was Novice Ellayn. A first-year chorister of ours, she claimed.”

“Really? Well, that shouldn’t have happened.” She gives a sidelong glance to one of her attendants. “Drabbe was highly specific. Innocents, for the choir, or they would not last long enough to transmit. Spotless, was a word a choirmistress used to me. Foolproof, I seem to recall, something that a ritemistress may have said?”

Cold, down my spine. My sisters and me. Beasts fattened for slaughter. Raised loyal and innocent and fake as no more than a component for a damned… Get a hold of yourself, girl. You can’t take the three of them. Trying will not get your objective achieved.

The Sister-Superior – Garvia, ritemistress – is shaking her head. “I am positive their indoctrination contained only the Lex Sororitas. I am positive the copy used was unadulterated.” A shrug. “Novitiate Ellayn was one of the primary cohort. Sheltered. Isolated. Top grades for indoctrination. The selection criteria were-”

Hatred boils acid in my gut. That, or the drugs that are keeping me upright. Emperor, I am so damn glad of this helmet You sent me. I am glad that Mother Alicia cannot see the snarl that crosses my face. I am glad that she cannot see just how much I want to avenge my sisters, how much I want to forget everything and see how many of these blasphemers I can take with me. I make myself pay attention to what they are saying. I think I see how I can get my objective done.

Alicia shrugs. Someone who’s supposed to have spent practically a century wearing that armour should know not to make a motion that it doesn’t know what to do with. “Human nature is a powerful force: it was too much to hope that all twenty were suitable, and some people will simply corrupt themselves.” She says it as if making a well-known joke. “Go on, Silexa. This novice spoke the Heart of the Vigil to you, and in her flesh you received a… miracle.” I can’t hide the tremor that runs through me at hearing that called that. “You were speaking of how you chose to interrupt that miracle with violence.”

“We could all have died in a blazing crash if you’d’ve preferred?”

Her eyebrows go up again. Did I overstep? If an actual Sister were to speak so to some kind of actual Palatine – well – she might escape with merely punishment duty if she put her face on the floor right now –

But Alicia just simply chuckles. I choke down another wave of hatred. “But you recovered the words, yes? You heard the sermon, and you retain it?”

I nod briefly. “It is impossible to forget.” That was even true.

“Well, then. Go on.” She flicks her hands to indicate herself and her entourage. “We await the wisdom of which you are chosen vessel.”

And – well. Here we go. Here’s the gambit. “No,” I say, matter-of-factly. If this fails I will fire fully-automatic, aim for her face, charge forward to throw their aim. Reckon I can take her with me. “Sorry.”

But she doesn’t even snap at me. She tilts her head, intrigued. Almost… approving. “You can hardly stand. You went out with what should have been complete overkill, and here you are barely limping home. Your squad is dead. Yet more of the irreplaceable assets with which we were entrusted are lost out there right now because you decided to exfil rather than fight to retrieve them. Do, please, explain to this audience why this incompetent wretch we see is fit to receive the honour for which she asks.”

“For every reason you just gave,” I respond, enforcedly level. “And one more, Mother.” I stand a little straighter. “I am asking for it because it’s the only way this is going to happen.”

If she were who she should be, what I just said would place me on a knife-edge. She should have me on my knees in penitence for the tone I’m addressing her in, even if I am correct – A Sister who is persistent in ill behaviour including but not limited to [yes, yes] disrespect and insubordination shall be disciplined, and if recusant after discipline shall be admitted to the Sisters Repentia to seek the Emperor’s redemption through exemplary violence. But all she does is raise an eyebrow, and ask me, “Did you truly just make a threat?”

I shake my helmeted head. “If I speak the words I risk what happened in the Valkyrie happening again.”

She leans forward slightly and fixes me with her eyes. “But that is a blessing.”

“Indeed? It would make the message die with us when we have the ability to spread it throughout the Hive.”

And here come the words, the tone that she should be using. “Are you saying that you presume to know better than me?”

There’s only one possible answer to that question. Some impulse makes me give the other one. “Yes, Mother. I am.”

“There,” she says, and she genuinely smiles and I want to hit her. “Was that so hard? ‘Sisters’, take note. My authority is, ah-ha, it is borrowed. Hers…” And she actually bows. “Silexa’s authority is genuine. It is that of truth. It flows from the Source. It matters not how she speaks it.” And that’s literally the fervour that I’d expect in this woman’s voice if she were speaking about the God-Emperor. But she’s, she’s not, is she. “You are authorised, sister. Let us proceed. Praise Him:”

shit, it’s a responsory, it’s one I don’t know – phrases bubble up from Drabbe’s words, things I saw on the wall, I snatch at one of the least awful – “Praise the… Lord of Nine Lights,” I say, and cannot hide the way it makes my whole body shake to let that out of my mouth deliberately.

And people I looked up to my whole life echo that title that doesn’t mean the Emperor, and the false Palatine smiles. Emperor forgive me. The words are bile in my mouth. I knew them for a name of the Archenemy and spoke them anyway. Emperor make those words into daggers in the ears that hear them. I can feel my lips drawing back from my teeth. Emperor walk with me.

And the false Palatine leads the way and I fucking fall in, and I try to focus on what I’m going to say and I just keep getting distracted by the image of grabbing her around the throat with both armoured hands and pulling hard in two directions.

++++

It’s simple, it’s all so very simple. The emergency system that will let my voice thunder from every vox in Baelis Hive is in a little tech-chapel off to one side of a meaningless little corridor. Nobody has even objected. This isn’t our facility, but the false Palatine outranks nearly everyone we could possibly meet, the simple authority of the armour we wear opens every door. I wonder aimlessly as we walk, how the heretics got this authority in the first place. Did they steal it? A generation of cuckoos slowly hollowing out the true, holy Order? Did they fake it, somehow steal the relics and trappings and fabricate credentials? When? Or did they fall? Were these good people, once, before for some unknowable reason they chose to abandon Imperial Truth for the powers of darkness?

…No.

I cannot. If I think about it, about them, this will all come apart. I know, intellectually I know, that violence will not solve this problem. That, yes, I could sucker-punch the Palatine and maybe deal some real damage before they stopped me. I could likely get my bolter into my hand before they reacted, likely expend half the clip before anyone hit me. I would go down with the Emperor’s name on my lips and His wrath in my hands. I could go before the Throne saying that I had died avenging my sisters and myself, and the Hive, and the Order that should have been and somehow isn’t – that if anyone had a right to hold her head high there, then I would –

Deep breath. I order my homeostat to get my pulse back under control and it does so ungently: it feels like a wave of static washes over me and my vision would go grey if not for the cold auto-senses. I cannot kill these people. I cannot avenge us. I will never know why any of this happened, I will never know how it was allowed to come to pass, I will never know how the Inquisition knew. But I can complete the mission I gave myself. I can do what I have decided is my duty. And then I will die.

There is no way I get out of this alive. I know that some of my sisters still live. I pray that they will forgive me for leaving them alone. I shall fall in striking a blow against the tool and lieutenant of the Archenemy, whose name is Panic, whose name is Disorder, whose name is Chaos. The weapons I shall bear as I fall are my voice, my determination, my human will. My pulse is enforcedly normal, my breathing measured. The tech-chapel is here. Let the Emperor’s will be done.

The Palatine’s authority is enough to secure the assistance of the priests of the Mechanicum. The lie she tells, it is that we have an urgent message for universal broadcast concerning a disaster in uphive: I almost laugh. Two of the three red-robes in attendance step out into the corridor to let me inside. Eyeing the walls – this place is tiny, covered in machines every square foot that’s not the door. Can’t tell what is and isn’t important: when the Palatine tries to stop me, I will not know what collateral damage to avoid. For a tech-shrine this place is large – twenty feet by six – and a tech-priest stands in front of me and one behind.

The red-robe before me looks up at me to give me the connection. I have to bend down so they can reach the port – they are four and a half feet tall – it hurts to bend, it hurts like white clawing fire. “Voicewright,” I say as I bend. (It’s their rank.) “Record what I say and have the spirits repeat it when I say ‘message repeats’, broadcast on a continuous loop. Ensure it goes out. As far and wide as possible. Every remaining part of the Hive if you can. No matter what happens.”

They raise an eyebrow that seems to have its own dedicated window in the metal that covers their face. “Categorical request received. Clarify: continuously for how long?”

Forever. Until the stars burn out and the worlds end. I think of the longest period of time I can envision. “An hour,” I say as they twist the cable and it locks into place.

And I straighten, turn to the right as I do so, making it look like I’m being careful of the little input cable. Not at all that I’m giving the voicewright something to read.

This purity seal on my left pauldron is not a purity seal any more. It is an order from the Judge and the Interrogator bearing their personal marks of authority. I am told the people who need to will understand it. I see the techpriest bow their head in assent and the Palatine doesn’t see them wave a scanning wand over the thing, and the gremlin Hope puts its silvery claws in my gut.

I take the deepest breath I can still take.

Suit speakers off. This will go out only over the broadcast system. Pray for lag. Every second will count.

“All stations, all listeners. Stand by for the Sermon of the Vigil. Stand by and listen, for your salvation is at hand. Blessed are they who hear the voice of the Inquisition, for they shall surely find salvation.” Palatine Alicia is smiling. Radiant. She closes her eyes. Dammit: she is hearing me as I speak. She’s tuned her vox in.

Gulp.

“Disaster in uphive. Duration, indefinite.” I see Alicia frown. I carry on with the words I memorised. I speak the plain Gothic words as quickly as I can and trust the synth to make them clear. “Orders, all stations, see sideband primus, ration and discipline authority hereby released to local command under-” Her eyes snap open. An instant of blank surprise, a gift from the Emperor, I keep talking – “Under authority of Inquisitor Toth of the Hammer. Emergency protocol follows in clear maintain order under Arbites actuate life support and feed your people all other considerations secondary – protegat Imperator-” I can see the realisation as it crosses her face. In the same moment I duck and there’s a tech-priest between me and her.

“In the Emperor’s name station compromised-” A bolt-pistol screams and the tech-priest beside me cannons into me – hands over my head – “disregard all further message repeats-

++++

forward

RPG NERD GLOSSARY: SHARK REPELLENT

I keep using this phrase as if everyone knows what I mean. Let me unpack it.

Consider a buyable power in some kind of fantasy campaign. SHARK REPELLENT, it is called. What does it say on the tin that shark repellent does? It repels sharks, that’s what it does. Guaranteed. You have to spend meaningful resources buying it, resources you could have spent on the standard PC skill THRILLING HEROICS. But just you wait! When a shark comes along, it’s in trouble!

It is in trouble, right?

From the GM side of the screen, shark repellent is frankly a poisonous trap, and here is how.

Non shark encounter: Character A engages in thrilling heroics. Character B does not.

Shark encounter: Character B uses SHARK REPELLENT. Encounter goes away!

… But you didn’t actually control whether Character B had shark repellent. Maybe they didn’t take that class. Maybe they sidestepped that power. Maybe they will not be at the session. Maybe they will have a brain fart and not use it. Now do you balance sharks for the presence of shark repellent or not?

Let’s say you don’t. Let’s say that once per fiveish sessions, there’s a shark encounter. Maybe sometimes there’s a shark dungeon. Character B shines! Character A is sidelined! That’s OK, you all think, they get to have fun the rest of the time. But does Character B actually shine? They do their thing. They make up for being 90% strength 90% of the time with being 190% strength 10% of the time. But is this actually fun? It’s pretty much an I-Win button – have you seen the anime One Punch Man? I-Win buttons suck. This is the experience of a pre-Tasha’s 5e D&D ranger in a wilderness they’re expert in. This is one potential experience of a fifth level 5e D&D cleric versus diseases and curses.

OK, so you balance sharks for the presence of shark repellent. Now if character B is not present, the party must run from the sharks. If character B is present, the sharks are repelled and a balanced encounter proceeds. This is called the Rogue’s Dilemma – replace sharks with locks and traps – or the Decker’s Dilemma – replace sharks with computers. Whole screeds have been written about the Rogue’s Dilemma and I don’t propose to go into them, but suffice to say that design moved away from this direction for a reason.

Assume you’ve done one of the above… but now you want to challenge the players. Maybe you’re not thinking, maybe you didn’t think hard enough, maybe you just had a brain fart. The following train of thought is incredibly natural: let us create a shark that is immune to shark repellent.

So now I’m going to turn the screen around again. We’ve fought through the dungeon. Character A has been shining with their THRILLING HEROICS skill. Character B has been waiting. Now we get to the boss – a giant shark! Huzzah! Except, wait! The SHARK REPELLENT doesn’t work!

On TV, this is standard horror movie fare. You never expect the shark repellent to work. In tabletop, there’s often an expectation from a player who’s been waiting all session for their five minutes of being awesome that this will work. It’s got to make up for an entire session of waiting. It better be amazing! And you know what? It didn’t work. They used the situational power that’s supposed to be equivalent to on-demand access to thrilling heroics, and it didn’t work. The shark repellent didn’t repel the shark. You’ll have to fall back on thrilling heroics again. 

wait.

*

This entirely avoidable experience is distressingly common. I’m not saying don’t have situational abilities, necessarily.

I’m not saying this is impossible to get around. Many things get around it many ways. D&D 5e does it by providing a golf bag of different types of repellents and letting you swap them in or out, but it’s always had the problem where Turn Undead was impossible to balance, and it still doesn’t handle curses and diseases well.

I’m not saying it’s impossible for a DM to balance. Many can. I have tried. But the presence of highly powerful situational abilities that have to be planned for is pretty much a newbie trap for both players (Do Not Buy Shark Repellent) and DMs (Shark Repellent Must Always Work On Sharks). I call this the shark repellent problem. I thought everyone did. I think they probably don’t.

(thank you for coming to my TED talk)

In Light, Chapter Fourteen

Up

Thirteen

++++

Those parts of the tech-priest’s face not covered by the metal mask go pale with horror and they back physically away from me with neat little gyro-stabilised steps. “You… The Inquisition does not engage in humour and this would be in spectacularly poor taste if it… how do I… ah-ha.” They straighten, draw themselves up to their full height and look Gennid in the eye. “Bad request. Safety protocols prohibit my accession.”

Gennid curls his lip. “I am aware that the action I have requested is hazardous to life. Do you know what we are doing here?”

“Digression request denied.” They have the expression of a regicide player playing what they hope will be a fork between rex and mannulus.

He looks unimpressed. We don’t have time for this. “Override your damned protocols, tech-deacon. Are you a servant of Deus Mechanicus?” Their affronted expression is exactly what he was trying to provoke. And from his pocket he takes the wallet that I saw before, his credentials, the seal of the Inquisition. “This is the seal of Inquisitor Toth of the Order of the Hammer, which identifies me as interrogator and plenipotentiary. You are requested and required in the name of Deus Imperator to render to me any assistance that I should order, without constraint, without let or hindrance. And I have given you a direct order. Any further questions?”

“But you will hurt the turbolift.” It’s as if they are talking about some beloved animal. “Standing orders… (no, no, they are overridden by)… external-interaction principles… (no, unbelievable, we clearly understand each other)… basic human decency?” They spread their hands. “You mean to say that there is no other way beyond violence?”

“I would love to get our urgent mission through this mess without loss of life,” Gennid hisses. “You have five seconds to tell me how I can do that with available resources, before either you do what I told you or I have the Sisters tear that door open with their bare hands. Are we clear?”

“Insufficient data, as you well know.” They turn unreadable eyes to me. “Sisters, please. Be reasonable. If you sabotage that door your own mission will be performed less properly. Please do not -”

I hold up a hand. “Stop.” I hope the tech-deacon can decode the sympathy in my voice. “I don’t think you mean to tempt us into disobedience.”

The deacon’s eyes blink, once, with a metallic click. “If my choices are to repurpose the machines under my care -“ they pronounce the word as if it were actually poisonous – “or to be torn limb from limb in their defence? Well, I suppose-”

“Your choices are to preserve at least something of the machine and live to repair it, deacon, or to stand in the way of our mission.” I try to meet their eyes and hope they are still human enough to read my expression. “Please don’t make us find out what happens if you try that second one.”

Another moment. The little deacon is entirely unarmed and the top of their head wouldn’t quite come up to my chin. I hope they think I’m being logical. Don’t the red priests consider emotions to be against their religion or something?

And then they look away. “I concede,” they say, and turn to the workings of the door as if on a turntable. “Reconfiguring lovingly maintained turbolift terminus into pneumatic bloody murder cannon, Sister, aye.”

“The sacrifice of the Mechanicus is noted and remembered,” I say, but it doesn’t help: they hunch their shoulders and begin to type.

It hurts, to hurt someone else. I think that we’re supposed to learn to forget that. I’m not sure I want to.

++++

We stand to. We’ve sent Gennid back with Niwall – with Niwall’s body – and Pink, on the skybridge and hopefully out of the way. The vehicle depot is somewhat to the left of the concourse gate: we’ll deploy to the right of Magnus’ people, echelon formation, with me and Rakil anchoring the ends because neither of us has a working automatic weapon with a decent supply of ammunition. (Porsia wordlessly gave me the laspistol she took as a sidearm. Ideally there isn’t much in the way of shooting to do anyway. Like hell am I using any of my twenty-one remaining bolt shells).

“Small talk request: we have five minutes.” The tech-deacon doesn’t look up from their work. “You are moving downhive as if all the daemons of the Warp are after you.” (I blink a little harder than usual and my wound stabs with the drug-dulled memory of pain.) “As a pathetic attempt at quid pro quo – Might I dare ask if you started in uphive?”

“We… did, yes.”

“And might I ask further whether you have knowledge of the status of -”

“Gone,” I say, flatly.

And that makes them look. They do not pause in their work, but they swivel their head at what must be an uncomfortable angle. “I did not even tell you where in uphive I was asking about.”

“Doesn’t matter,” I repeat.

“Doesn’t…?” They stop, freeze mid-keystroke. Close and open their eyes in a deliberate reset. “Disaster?”

“Hardly.” I cut the word off neatly.

“Sacred Host.” They turn back to the terminal, start work again, the clicking of the keys feeling somehow reluctant. “Is… battle concluded?”

“For now.”

They nod, mechanically, dully. “You are… you cannot be retreating?”

“Not quite. The hive is falling into civil disorder given the recent disaster, of course. It’s … not going to blow over unless someone does something about that. That ‘someone’ is us.”

“By slaying a holy machine.” Another cadence of keys, a warning tone silenced with a gesture, and the chilling orange flash of the warning lamps that I’ve been taught to mind ever since I was old enough to take part in drills. “There,” they say with a narrowing of the eyes. “This place has stood without significant renovation since the revolt of two-eighteen, one of only two such stations in the hive: it has withstood a dozen riots, and would have withstood a dozen more save for this sacrifice. It-”

“Deacon,” I say, and I let a little gentleness into my voice. “Deacon, stop.”

“Why should I? It is important. It is a sacred thing, that which you call to be used as if it were so many munitions -”

I shake my head. “I think you don’t quite get it. The battle is over. It was ended. By the Imperium.”

“The hive-quake?”

Ignis ex altitudine,” I say, and the red-robe freezes completely immobile, statue-still, at the High Gothic words. “Fire from the sky. Nothing remains above hive-level thirty-five.”

“Why?” The question is reflexive. “Deus’ sake, why?”

“There was a reason.” I look them in the eye, I won’t let myself look away. “And forgetting our rank, deacon, forgetting our titles and orders, human to human, trust me. Blessed are the ignorant.”

Another moment’s immobile silence from them. Broken, snapped out of it, by a chord from the console behind them that they acknowledge with a start. “Three minutes, Sister. And if I may make some kind of attempt at a reply upon that unknown protocol you are using?” They duck their head. “Thank you for your… for your unusual candour. Quotation: zero greater than zero plus ignorance.” And they turn back to the console. “I shall give your team a countdown over vox from thirty seconds, audible until the first word of the Cave Arbitros.”

++++

“CAVE ARBITROS.” We speak as one. We don’t need to. None of the volume is coming from our vocal cords. And everyone knows these words. But the Cave Arbitros is choral, it has to be. Nothing about this is individual, nothing about this is personalised. This is the verbal equivalent of the Imperial boot. “CAVE ARBITROS.”

“ADVENIT JUSTITIA IMPERIAE.” I hear the words coming back to us from the public address system, audible at stunning volume over the roar of the crowd. The Inquisition is a higher authority, but the Arbitrators are a familiar one. To a populace that doesn’t speak High Gothic, what these words mean is that the Arbitrators have found their target: be somewhere else.

“IN NOMINE IMPERATOR.” Behind us now a high, building, mechanical squealing screech, the incoming turbo. Three seconds. The gate to the turbo shaft slams open. And just as planned, our warning makes them see this not as an escape but as a threat. And I can only pray that we’ve had enough volume to get everyone to decide that where they want to be now is as far away from us as possible. Or there is about to be a whole lot of blood.

“ADVENIT IRA JUSTITIAE. PARETE. PARETE. PARETE.” And on our last word every one of us secures for concussion. Hand before the face, eyes closed, teeth clenched, lips drawn back. Joints and magboots locked.

They brought the turbolift in as fast as they dared, and everyone without a powered suit will be in a brace position not unlike ours. The shaft ends here and the turbo’s airtight in the shaft: that gives it a lovely soft pneumatic emergency air cushion.

Unless, say, some complete bastard opened the lift door.

The sound is like being hit by a board, and we’re not even in its path – the combeads in our ears are nearly as good as ear defenders, and praise the Throne for that, but regardless I see stars. And while I’m at it, praise the Throne I have my eyes screwed shut and my hand over my face. Praise the Throne that I have an excuse not to see the shockwave plough into the crowd.

I can hear it, though. We can all hear it. The sound punches through my ears into the back of my head, into my gut, and we’re back there in a line again facing the mob and they’re screaming for us and I can smell the blood and the gunsmoke and our weapons have come up ready for the volley fire that’s going to be completely inadequate –

and the only thing that stops us pulling the trigger is that the thing I said next back then is the first thing that I think to say. “Agate,” I hear, calm, cold, professional, and then a moment later I realise that I said that – “At fifty.”

…fifty? The crowd is further from us than that already, and those that are standing are fighting one another to get away –

It’s enough, it’s just enough. That’s not blood that I smell, it’s just the smell of packed humanity. That’s not gunsmoke, it’s dust.

And here they come, to our left. Imperial troops. Not the charge I’d expected, but a slow lockstep march. Powered armour, bright blue – the general’s life company. Makes sense – they’ve got the best wargear. Arbitrator riot batons in their hands, rifles slung. Not that a baton isn’t a deadly weapon in their hands. Suit luminators on full, making the dust of their arrival into a wall of light – I finger-code an order to follow suit and it travels down our line. That clipped professional sister-superior gives them directions in curt battle language the second their channel shows up on her vox, outlines Agate’s part in the plan briefly, and off we go. That sister-superior is me.

“Stick to formation,” sister-superior says, just the order I’d have given if I’d thought for a moment. Behind us the real Arbitrators and the other troops are getting their heads on straight and looking to back us up. Ahead – dimly I can see them through the dust – people are crawling over each other like rats to get away from us. And I realise the armoured life company soldiers are keeping their step just slow enough that we’re not catching the crowd up. There are people on the ground, here. Not trying to get up, not trying to get out of our way, and not a few. Prone or fetal or motionless, prostrated or injured or – don’t look, just don’t look at them. Step over them, or around them. Make like they don’t exist.

Nobody’s shooting. We’re not shooting either. We aren’t shooting at them. They aren’t the enemy and we aren’t shooting at them and maybe I haven’t condemned them all to death. 

I’m aware of vox traffic. I’m aware it’s Magnus talking. It’s too far away to hear. The tech-deacon replying, of all people. A moment later and I hear our voice again over the ‘casters, the Cave Arbitros once more. Another moment and I realise it’s a recording.

And you know what, it’s only bloody working. 

It was loud enough, it was shocking enough to get through the madness, and somehow the mob has found a way to give way. Whatever it is they were running from, we’ve successfully made ourselves more terrible than it is.The Judge’s plan would crumple in moments if the crowd turned into a riot – except that now I’m seeing clearly I can see he’s thought of that, too. Arbitrators and militia are moving out to form a loose second line inside the armoured wall. They’ve got a motley assortment of breathers and facemasks on. Those grenades are riot-gas. But they’re not throwing them.

The civvies on the turbo, they’re moving too. Stunned, bruised, but surviving. There’s a familiar not-quite-sensation as my suit recognises more of its fellows, tells me instinctually where they are. Keyt with the busted knee. Jeny with the shattered ankle. Zade and Avhata and Rillith, their armour telling me they’re alive if not awake. Vanyssa, the one we left behind to play ministering angel.

And the crowd ahead of us is going. Wherever they came from, where they’re going now is away. This place is built to let people out of it. Just don’t think about the descent helices they’re going into and the long empty drops down the middle and whether there’s something there to stop them just – falling. The vehicle bay has short little walls and it has a tall heavy gate. My hearing is beginning to return to something approaching functional as the Scales of Law come up on the gate’s monitors and it judders and creaks its way down into the ground.

Everything is happening so quickly. Everything depends on being fast and smooth, on looking and sounding like cogs in the vast Imperial machine, as immovable as the pillars and gates of the very Hive. (But I have heard the Hive scream). Magnus’ voice on the vox details us to stick with the vehicles, Aqua to spread out in the onward direction and the light infantry to cover all our backs. Someone else is in charge, someone else is calling the shots. All I need to do is what we’re told. I don’t even need to brief Magnus, Gennid’s doing that. I needed this, Throne on Earth, I needed this. I’m coming back into focus.

Not just cargo-crawlers, they’ve found. Servitors. Actual stevedore-servitors, their pale metal-caged flesh making the least of them my equal in simple strength, steroid-bulked arms wrapped in massive pallet-claws, stiff steps following the tech-deacon like massive misshapen children after their teacher, as we make our way back to the lift with a crawler, as we head back to pick up –

Our sisters are there on the threshold of the shattered turbolift and Vanyssa is biting her mouth closed to keep back tears. Cold perfection of my armour brings me to attention, we make the aquila, we clasp forearms because even if you could hug in armour you shouldn’t. Jeny tells me I look like shit and I tell her that’s rich coming from her. And for, oh, a minute or two everything is as normal and fine as it can be.

As it can be when you’re wearing a life-support machine set to keep you conscious and sharp and lucid to the exclusion of all other concerns, and on top of that it’s pumped you full of the kind of drugs they give to raddled pit fighters to make sure the audience gets a show. When you’re loading your martyred sisters onto a flatbed crawler with the assistance of a dead-eyed baby-faced cyborg built for hauling crates. When you aren’t reading your own condition monitor because you have been told about gut wounds, because blessed are the ignorant.

And a tiny little man with a handlebar moustache and aqua-blue armour walks up to me with murder in his eyes and says he’d like a private word.

++++

It’s like being attacked by some kind of small and vicious animal. The little man is staring up at me like I’m not a head taller than he is, making up for the difference in height with additional bristling outrage. “Give me one good reason,” comes the aristocratic voice from somewhere behind that moustache, “for me to let you idiots travel with us one damned step further.” 

I take perhaps half a step back. “Excuse me?”

“This. All this.” He gives an abortive little jerk of the head. “On you. Your fault.” Anger is rolling off him like mist. “I should call you out right here.”

I just look completely blank at him. “Call me…?”

He growls like a tiny rabid canine. “I assume your people have rules for this situation. I assume I don’t care. I assume one of your girls can stand for you.”

I’ve – I don’t think I’ve ever been properly insulted by a male before. It takes a while to parse what he’s trying to do. People this size and shape aren’t ever shouting at me

“Your word. All this on your damned word. Have you any conception of what it was that word asked us to do? Have you? Idiot.” I’m not sure I feel offended, just… confused. “Have you any idea, have you any Throne-cursed idea how close your orders came to killing ten thousand innocent citizens? Sure you’d have loved that, wouldn’t you. The God-Emperor shall know His own, after all. Damned death cultist.”

Blink. “Are you… trying to challenge me or something?”

“No,” the little man snarls, “I’m inviting you to a formal dinner and dance. D’you…” His eyes widen as if he’s not sure he can believe what he’s saying, but he’s got this far, he keeps going. “D’you quarrel, mamzel? I’m at your disposal.”

I shake my head. “General, even if I had taken leave of my senses and wanted to knock your block off, it is entirely against the Rule – a sister shall not engage in local customs of  – do you want chapter and-?”

His eyes go wide and he draws back his hand. Some little corner of a memory somewhere – if the formula for a constrained duel is rebuffed, a physical blow is a challenge one can’t refuse, or something? I step back quickly, out of his reach. ”Stand down.”

He shows his teeth. “Oh, now you place a value on life-”

I’m not looking at him. “Rakil,” I say, warningly. I’m remembering some poor bastards dressed in beetle-white armour, and I’m remembering who killed them, and the helpless empty look on her face after she did it.

Because walking quietly on ferrocrete in metal boots is one of the things we learn. There’s a moment when he thinks I’m trying to sell him an old trick – look behind you! – and then there’s a moment when he realises that no, I’m really not. The little man flinches back away to one side, away from the massive shadow suddenly behind him, away from me, his arm coming up to ward us off. And Rakil just keeps looking at him with those eyes that have killed better men than him today. But she stays her hand.

And now it’s Porsia behind him. She clears her throat and he spins entirely around and she does nothing but raise an eyebrow and stare.
And now my suit tells me I have Vanyssa and Yasi behind me.
And now there’s only one way he can retreat.

I give the man a faint, black-painted smile that bears no kind of warmth. “Go back to your unit, Rorkel. We have a hive to save. Were you not briefed?”

And, well, I mean, credit to the man, he does not retreat. “You people. You bloody people.” He curls his lip. “You meet one crisis and now everything’s urgent, everything’s too late, everything has a billion lives at stake, nobody’s ever trying their best to help you, everyone needs threatening before they’ll do their bloody job. And before you know it you’re ordering up atrocities and states of emergency left, right and centre for no better reason than that you can. This time I was there to catch it. This time. Sister, the Inquisition’s got a reputation at command level, and not a good one, and here I see it’s got it for a reason-”

“ENOUGH.” The synth puts thunder into my voice to turn the gut to water. I moderate it with a thought, because my sisters’ poor ears have been through enough. “Do you want to hate us? Feel free. Get in line. But everything is urgent – everything is too late – you are actually a little short on the number of Imperial lives we would like to save today. And we have already wasted enough time here. If you wish to declare yourself our enemy, then get on with it. I’m sure your successor will be a loyalist.”

He takes that last word about the same as he’d have taken it if I’d been the one trying to slap him. Keenly aware of who is behind him. He flaps his mouth for a moment – his eyes waver from me to Rakil beside me – he decides to keep it shut.

And Rorkel brings his hands up in the sign of the aquila and his suit lends an inappropriate professional respectful snap to the gesture. We mirror it, ten of us in perfect unison. He goes.

My sisters disperse, wordlessly.

++++

It’s only as I get around to ordering my auto-systems to stop my hands shaking that I realise the Judge had been leaning against the wall in comfortable range to overhear all that. I straighten up. “Uh. Something for you, Judge?”

“Oh, maybe.” He pats the narthecium case slung over his shoulder, nods in the direction of Keyt and Jeny. “Your girls over there called a medic, ‘cause apparently someone was about to get his fool head kicked in.”

I wince. “Sorry to put you out, your honour.”

“No trouble. Better the one thing than the other, sure that’s written somewhere.” And he eyes me up and down. “Do we need to have a word about what he said?”

And, I don’t know, maybe it’s the drugs. Maybe it’s the fact that in order to keep me upright and lucid, the suit I’m wearing has me on pretty much the exact same cocktail of substances that the astropath’s guards were full of. Maybe it’s the way that I have not slept for fifteen days. Maybe it’s the way that I can feel that there is blood inside my suit, pooling warmly around the seal at my waist. I don’t know what it is. But I turn to him and some part of me sees his eyes widen as the rest of me just snarls at him – “Leave it!” The synth makes the sound into a crystallisation of violence. “All of you – just – D’you think I don’t know? Do you?” My fists are clenched. The force through them could splinter concrete. “What I’ve seen, what I’ve done, what I’ve allowed to happen – You know. You bloody know, because I’ve bloody told you, you know exactly who you’re talking to, and just now you’re going to come to me and-”

“All right.” He puts his hands up, very much like he might do if I’d pointed a weapon at him. “Not what I meant.”

Breathe, Ellayn. Deep breath. “I am no less a child of the hive than that man.” The world starts to look less like a tunnel with a possible enemy at the end. “I shouldn’t need to tell any of you whose side I’m on.”

“Sure.” Conciliatory tone. Not sure I’m in the mood. “He’s hurting, same as all of us. You know he lost family up there, just like we all did? Maybe yelling at you might bring ‘em back. You know the kind of thinking.”

“Sure.” I meant to mimic his tone exactly, but the synth has other ideas and there’s poison on the word by the time it reaches his ears. “And he’ll stay out of our way from now on, I think, or you might need that narthecium.”

“I’ll see to that.” He shoots the retreating fellow a glance. “We’d have a problem if he deserted. But that’s mine to sort out, all right?”

“That sounds appropriate.” I follow his gaze, past the soldiers getting themselves in order. I take in our refugees, the Arbitrators moving around them like sheepdogs. “The plan, though, that’s still the same? Escort half a thousand civilians through hell to that fortress?”

He makes a face. “You won’t go faster by doin’ anythin’ murderous. Sure, you girls can outrun a cargo-crawler, but the rest of us?” He pats the carapace of his armour, over his abdomen. “Not sure in my own case. And you reckon Gennid or Rorkel ever ran ten miles all in one go, let alone did each one in four minutes like you lot? You’ll need one of us at the far end, to get you in the door and show you which vox-chapel to use if nothin’ else.”

“Got you.” The sudden surge of adrenaline, the equally sudden return of calm, it’s not great for my head. “We’ll make sure that-” the world blurs for a moment – nnh – “Happens.” 

And, yes, he didn’t miss that. He raises a bushy eyebrow. “Talkin’ of narthecia. Permission to check you over for life signs?”

It’s inflected as a joke. It’s not one. I know that. “Whatever would I do if you didn’t find any?”

He snorts. “If your skin is that colour on purpose, I’ll have your makeup artist up on charges. Don’t know what happened up in the spire, but it sure as hell looks like it left a mark.”

I’d say that the blood leaves my cheeks, but there would have had to have been some there in the first place. The Judge won’t miss that, either. “I appreciate your offer, but… there’s nothing wrong with any of us that you can fix.”

He shakes his head gently. “I’m not the headmistress, sister. You can tell me more than that.”

“No, your honour.” I swallow. It still tastes horrible. “No, I really can’t.”

“Have to shoot me if you did, is that it?” His moustache gives a completely unrepentant twitch. “All right. Any service I can do you without you callin’ up the firing squad?”

“Are you a full surgical facility equipped for the respectful handling of the relics of the Adepta Sororitas, its staff properly ordained and catechised that they may operate upon a body sacred unto Deus Imperator?” Shrugging in power armour confuses the servos that hold the upper arms and pauldrons in their proper places. “There’s one thing we need you for, Judge. And assuming you can do it at all, you can’t do it till we get you where you’re going.”

He holds hands up as if in surrender. “Can I at least make sure that you’ll make it that far?”

“How long to your fortress?”

He shakes his head softly. “Twice round the helix. Fourteen miles on the via-magna. Call it less than an hour, Deus willing.”

And as I nod, my neck reminds me that the first real injury I took in this action should have put me in the hospital. “I will remain active for at least twice that.”

“You’re only standin’ up right now because your suit won’t let you fall down.”

“And you are asking if Him-on-Earth has granted me sufficient strength to see your mission through.” I give him much the same smile that I gave Rorkel. “You don’t need your equipment to answer that question.”

It’s like I said something funny. “Yes, ma’am.”

“You don’t need to call me that, Judge.”

“Yeah, I do.” He braces up, gives me the sign of the aquila. “Emp’ror protects.”

++++

Fifteen

In Light, Chapter Eight

Up

seven

++++

music.

Experience returns before identity, before memory, before time. For –
I have no idea how long for –
I exist without knowing where or what I am, it’s forever and it’s no time at all, and unknowing I grasp at these straws and they elude me.

Before I see anything, before I know anything, I can hear music, more familiar to me than my own name. The darkness is red and I feel viscerally horrifyingly awful, sick, disoriented. No idea which way is up.

It comes to me that that music could be the roaring of my heartbeat in my ears. That I can hear raised voices, people shouting. Sight claws its way back into my consciousness, confusing, jarring, jumbled. My sisters have me by the shoulders lowering me to the floor. Someone bending over me, a man with a beard. Light, bright light in my eyes, and I blink. A cool touch to the side of my neck surprises me: I flinch and my suit thinks I meant to backhand the medicae in the chest hard enough to knock him sprawling. The irresistible force of two of my sisters catches me by the arm and shoulder before I can do any more harm – without a hospitaller or ritemistress there is nobody to tell my suit that they are no threat to me –

and then it’s later. I… I am lying down, or as close as you can get in armour, propped up on the back-unit. My head is pillowed on something soft between my neck and the back of my collar. The strangling ache of my neck and a thudding new pain in my head are engaged in a battle to see which of them can kill me first. I cough weakly and a star ignites behind my eyes in a charming fashion. Voices, floating arguing voices as the world turns right-way-up. I can’t see the two of them, I was laid facing a wall.

“Did I somehow imply that my direct and lawful orders were in fact a polite suggestion, Arbitrator?” This penetrating and not particularly pleasant baritone is new. “What part of ‘now’ did your mind not apprehend? You-are-to-reverse-course.” A pugnacious silence. “And not when we have reached your alleged haven and offloaded your supposedly important charges. Now. Immediately. Forthwith. Go on.”

“I do hear you, Interrogator.” The note of careful politeness in Judge Magnus’ voice is the same one he was using to me earlier. “And as I’ve said, sir, I spoke to the one man we’ve got who can work this thing, and he says it’s not a question of won’t so much as can’t. We’re in transit between two shafts right now – we want the high-speed shaft if we want any journey to take less than a damn week, so we’re switching – and the machines won’t listen to a soul while they complete a transit.”

The strange man, the interrogator, growls in the back of his throat. “How long?”

“Barring any more hitches – with luck – forty minutes to an hour.”

“Too slow.” That clipped accent doesn’t come from any part of the hive I’ve heard of, more foreign than even Carnelian. “Stop the turbo. We’ll dismount, move around and find another.”

“With respect, Interrogator, we’re in a machine-level, not designed for unmodified humans. Even if we could get the door open, there’s no guarantee it’d be pressurised out there, doesn’t have to be a livable temperature-”

“More obstruction. The title I bear, the rosette I have shown you, they make me second only to my lord inquisitor and above him the Master of Humankind: surely you’re aware of the meaning of what I say?”

“Quite thoroughly, Interrogator – Ah, sister, you’re awake.” Suddenly it is that the judge is bending over me, his narthecium humming as it speaks to my suit systems. From the hot ice that runs in my veins in response, I’m pretty sure he just requested them to wake me – “How are you feeling?”

“Nnh. Do you want an honest word?” – uh. Shit. Not exactly the time for informality, this. The person I ought to be, she’d open her eyes and deal with the pain. Lose the pillow and any other sign of weakness. She’d say, “Tell me what you need.”

“Sister Ellayn, Adepta Sororitas: our guest is Gennid Morst, witch-hunter.” Magnus steps back with a slight bow. “Now, I’ve absolutely no inkling of which of us is in charge, except that as I’ve been repeatedly reminded, it ain’t some uppity policeman. So why don’t you and him have this argument now, let me know, h’m?”

“Sure.” I grit my teeth against a wave of nausea. “N…Need to come see you about medication in the near future. My sisters. Are they…?”

He adjusts something on his narthecium: there’s a corresponding visceral click from my suit’s homeostat and it’s like he threw a coarse blanket over the world, but my head stops thumping and things start swimming into focus. “Getting some shut-eye, I said I’d keep watch. I’ve filled your suit’s chem stores with my best analogues – pep is not as good as a night’s sleep, but it’ll have to do. Then this bugger woke up. And I really do need the two of you to sniff one another’s Inquisitorial butts, exchange secret handshakes or whatever, let me know what’s what. I have supplies to audit and patients to treat.”

That bastard. He knows perfectly damn well that I don’t have rank. Then again, he’s a legal expert, did this for a reason – bet there’s a technicality – my eyes unfocus slightly as I try to call to mind the relevant sections of the Lex without them spilling out my mouth, as the interrogator sits down on the couch opposite mine so I’m not having to crane my neck to talk to him.

The coffee-skinned man couldn’t be more obviously an offworlder if he’d had it on a sign round his neck. Big head, brown eyes a hair too big and far apart, his mouth and nose a hair too small, unnaturally gaunt and fragile-looking to my eye: I’d be a head taller than him out of armour. “Told you’re the reason I’m here,” he says gruffly. I get the irreverent impression that the little man’s coat is wearing him.

“We all know our duty,” I return, slightly cautious. “I had the best vox and the most combat endurance. Regret that we couldn’t save the rest of your team.”

“It is better to die for the Emperor than live for yourself,” he repeats in much the same tone as I said the prayers of requiem for my sisters. “As the Judge said – I’m Interrogator Gennid, given name of Morst. My principal is Inquisitor Toth: as per clairvoyances conducted on the Stiletto-” (the what?-) “before deployment and Lord Toth’s own eyewitness evidence upon initial confrontation, this heresy is a matter of warpcraft, not sedition. In other words -” he taps his cheek with a funny gesture of two fingers, and an electoo of a hammer lights up cerulean blue against his dark skin – “I’m not a witch-hunter. This op is Malleus jurisdiction, Sister, all of it, even the bits that look superficially like simple counterinsurgency. In fact -” he hisses out a breath in a foreign mannerism that’s probably supposed to indicate disbelief – “I wasn’t even fully cognizant that the Ordo Hereticus were even planning to contest that. D’you understand what I’m saying?”

Uh. The holy orders of the Inquisition shall number three: the Hammer of the Daemon, the Bane of the Xeno, the Scourge of the Heretic. Malleus – hammer. Like the hammer on his cheek, that I’m supposed to recognise. He’s a daemon-hunter. This little man hunts down and destroys creatures that not one in a million humans would own as anything more than a fairy-tale and a bad dream. Meanwhile the Sisterhood, we’re technically part of the Ordo Hereticus (and isn’t that a bad joke just now), so he’s asking me – “Apologies for my slowness, Interrogator: blame the sedatives. You’re trying to requisition our refugees? What possible use can they be?”

He pinches the bridge of his nose. Suddenly the man looks very, very tired indeed. Nearly as tired as I feel. “It’s your transport I need. My objective is to contact Stilletto as soon as is physically possible, auctoritate Malleus haec in instantiam. Given the lockdown on the Spire, vox-arrays are out of the question: that means the Astra Telepathica compound up on hive-level two.”

“I see.” (I don’t.) “There should be a quire where we are headed. With the supplies we just loaded, we should be capable of at least getting an advance party there as soon as tomorrow?”

He shakes his head violently. “Unacceptable. Too late. You are ordered to-” I raise an eyebrow and he was clearly expecting me to, because he stops mid-flow. “Sister, this is absolutely no time to argue precedence with me. You have already won these people’s respect: I shall require your assistance in-” He stops again. Snaps his mouth shut. I can almost see his mind working as he narrows his eyes. “Uh. I am not an expert on the symbols of the Adepta Sororitas, but – uh. Who did you say you were?”

Ice down my neck. Throne, but I am not in a good shape to be doing this right now. Here goes. “Sister-” (-Novitiate) “Ellayn, acting field command, Squad Agate.”

He stares, a little like a snake. His tone of voice has gone strangely slow and careful. “Lost your officers?”

“In the debacle upstairs, yes. We hooked up with Judge Magnus and the general of the hive’s defence forces when your lord and master couldn’t.” All true and no lie.

“And your surplice.” (Well, excuse me for not being parade-standard just now.) “Who’s your patron saint?”

The knot in my gut ties another loop. Now or never. I say it quickly. Yes, we’re the home team – “Saint Augusta Ursula Vigilata.”

A muscle tightens in his jaw, his eyes narrowing, hand making a near-involuntary twitch towards a holster – it takes every remaining ounce of self-control I’ve got not to so much as think of echoing that movement, because my armour’s spirit would take that as an order to go for his throat –

“Interrogator, listen to me, I was there, in the cathedral, all right, I saw it all, everything, front row seat.” Breathe. Slow my speech. “I was on that stage.” (I committed blasphemy same as the others.) “And when the Emperor’s wrath fell upon the thing that – that had – upon what my Sister-Superior had become, my squad, my squad was – m-most of my squad was – spared.”

A frown. He’s probably doing just the same threat assessment I am. He’s wondering whether he can get his sidearm in my face before I can take him down, and Holy Throne let him come to the same answer as I do. His voice is a skeptical growl. “Spared? For your holy innocence, I suppose?”

The words are automatic. “It is written that there is no such thing as innocence.”

“By whom?” He was expecting that.

“Saint Alicia Dominica, blessed be her deeds, in the Sisterly Rule?” I blink. “You should know we’re sleep-indoctrinated.”

“Al-leg-ed-ly.” He draws the word out. “Hmm. The Revilement of the Heretic, please, Sister, in its entirety.”

Frown. “There’s no single canonical version.”

His expression doesn’t alter. “What is the purpose of the Sisterhood?”

“The service of the Emperor, bare of let or technicality. His causes are our causes.” There is a particular flow to sleep-learned recitation. “In detail we differ and in purpose we are united. Thus speaks Saint Alicia Dominica, so say we-”

He interrupts me, nearly monotone in that offworld accent. “The Heretic is known to us by…?”

“…thought, by word and by deed, for just as our Faith drives us, so are they c-“ 

I guess if I were faking it, the rapid changes of direction would throw me off. “How is vox-band theta known to the Mechanicum?”

“Mantissa two-bravo-three-one exponent six microw-”

“Which heresies are you guilty of?”

“-Wha?” It’s a lot like hitting a wall and the strangled sound that comes out of my mouth completely confuses the synth. “I uh.” It is said the Inquisition can see guilt on you: I’d always taken that as a reference to the way that lying to someone wearing auto-senses is really really hard. But whatever it is, he wouldn’t need to be a genius to see it on my face right now. “Interrogator, the, uh.”

He doesn’t move. I’m too much of a physical threat. Any move he makes would have to be from surprise. “Take your time, sister.”

“Um. Sister-Novitiate. Sir. Training convent. Novice choir. Me, personally? I’m the, the youngest, age eighteen Solar, day after tomorrow. Great honour. Not even one full year since I took novice’s vows. No rank, no seniority, I’m gabbling, sorry.” Close your eyes, girl, breathe, get a grip. “I am… unsure that there is any heresy of which I am guilty: I am a loyal servant of the Emperor, beloved of all, and of his Saints. There is -” and here it comes, but I won’t lie to him and I already started so I’ll finish – “there are probably grounds for several counts of blasphemy, sir, which I can enumerate.”

“…Huh,” he says. “No need. Sleep-training is hard to feign and editing the scripts is impossible: the truth of your story is not impossible, just unlikely, and for the time being I’ll work with what I have.”

I cannot stop myself. “What… is that, sir?”

“A mystery.” Abruptly his stillness breaks. He pinches the bridge of his nose, the first motion he’s made since I stopped being a resource and started being a threat. “If it looks like an anatid, if it moves like an anatid, makes a noise like one, if it’s damn well labeled as one…” He shakes his head. “No. No time. We’ll return to this. Right now, however?” He makes that funny little alien hiss of incredulity again. “I happen to… need you. Whatever you are.”

“For what?”

His eyes are piercing. “Stop this lift. Better than anyone else here, you and your sisters can survive whatever is out there. I can write down my message. You are locals: you know your way, or better than I. And whatever you are or aren’t, you’re at least outfitted as heavy infantry. Force your way to the astropathic quire on level two and deliver my message verbatim.”

“… stop the lift? And probably kill half a thousand loyal civilians and soldiers, and the head of the hive’s Arbiters? And you?” It’s incomprehensible. “Interrogator, the Judge isn’t obstructing you because he doesn’t like you. He’s obstructing you because you are describing elaborate and pointless suicide.”

“Doesn’t matter.” That look in his eyes. He thinks he’s a dead man anyway. “I do understand and recognise the value of life, sister, especially mine. But truly I tell you, if this lift were packed to bursting with every single person of worth on this planet, except possibly Inquisitor Toth, it could not be worth enough to give me pause in sacrificing every one of them for this mission.”

“Uh. Okay. Okay, right.” Fanatic. And that’s me saying that. How do you talk to a fanatic? “I’m fairly sure that the Judge was saying that stopping the lift was pointless, okay, he’s not just being obstructive, he’s not that type. You want us to bust our way out of this shaft, somehow make our way to another one, somehow find another turbolift ready to take us to our destination on a machine-level where nothing stops, and do all this quicker than forty minutes?”

He makes a face. “By the grace of the Emperor are all things made possible. Can your engagement with this be taken as acquiescence to my order? Can you go and light a fire under Magnus?”

Sigh. “Interrogator, I’m telling you this as a loyal servant of Him-on-Earth, as someone sworn to serve the same Throne as you, but most importantly as a-a local. Machine-levels are death and leaving a lift between shafts is death and additionally nobody but a red-robe knows their way around a machine-level. Not even me, not without a map that’s in a helmet I don’t have. It is somewhere around ten whole levels between us and the quire – do you think we can cut through infrastructure walls into an ascent spiral, because the answer is we can’t – look, I can go on all day. Giving you what you asked for does not get you what you think it will.”

He practically snarls at me. “Are you aware of what the Inquisition’s mission is here on Baelis?”

“No?” The synth apparently doesn’t like me being shouted at and puts a power into my voice that really didn’t need to be there: but it does stop him midstream.

He shakes his head. Looks at me levelly for a silent moment. “Fine. Listen. If my message does not get through, sister, then not only are your efforts in vain, but so is everything you can see around you. If the Imperial warship Swift Stilletto of the Emperor’s Quick Response, currently geostationary directly over Hive Tertius, does not hear from me, within a deadline of-” he taps his wrist, I guess the shattered thing on that scorched plastek band was once a chronometer – “of all too damn soon? Then literally a billion people will die for no frakking reason. Including you and me and Judge Magnus and all your precious VIPs. You get it, now? You understand?”

I blink, a couple of times. Didn’t think it had been possible that I could feel any worse about all this. “Uh.”

“We done playing twenty-frakking-questions yet?”

I nod, dumbly. The pain-balm means that doesn’t hurt nearly as much as I was expecting. “I’ll… see what we can do.”

++++

The creepy aristocratic handmaid with the metal hands tilts her head at an unnatural mechanical angle as she looks up at me. “Should you be up, mamzel? Your colour is poor and your heart rate abnormal. Are you in pain?” Her lips don’t move. Her voice is almost a parody of demure politeness. It’s unnatural.

“Uphive geography,” is all I say. Maybe she’ll knock it off if I ignore it. “I’ll assume you’re most likely of anyone here to be familiar. I have a thorough, firm and pressing need to get to the astropathic quire on hive-level two as soon as physically possible. Advise me.”

“You are in pain.” She frowns. “I cannot read your vital signs perfectly through the suit, but it has been less than half a shift since you fainted, and you’ve not so much as eaten a bite. Should I ring for some tea, mamz-”

Sudden white-hot irrational fury. Half a second happens and her toes are just touching the ground and our eyes are level. “For the voice of the Inquisition shall be as the voice of the Emperor,” I say, and I make myself relax my grip, because her slender neck doesn’t feel armoured. “Blessed are they that hear it, for surely they shall find salvation. Pink, you might not have noticed, but I have had one hard fucking day. You do not want to be making it harder.”

“Very good, mamzel.” She doesn’t need to move her jaw to talk, and the tone of her augmetic voicebox doesn’t care to convey anything more than calm politeness. “I have bespoken-”

Sis-ter,” I growl. “Somewhat relevant to the situation at hand, would you not agree?”

“As you say, Sister. One moment.” I let go: she lands without a stagger. I wonder how much of her is still human. (I wonder what her masters are like, that she accepted that without so much as a blink.). After a moment more, she reverses the tilt of her head in a manner so mechanical I can almost hear the gears click.

“We may have something. House Omber – that is to say – I wish to report a potential solution, but if I might petition you to conceal that I was the source of-”

“Get on with it.”

“Indeed.” She spreads her hands in a fluting gesture that would be graceful if there were flesh on them. “The level two quire has a landing pad, an external one. I personally am a qualified pilot. House Ephraim operates an aerospace port on Lane Seven, two miles on a bearing of three-twenty from Spire on level twelve: it is inconceivable that we should not find a single functional craft, and even a dirigible would be faster than this lift by some measure.”

“Security?”

“It is fairly standard fare: riot barriers and a contingent of Ephraim houseguard. The airlane gate itself is incapable of closing for reasons of hive ventilation.” She wrinkles her nose in a disconcertingly human mannerism. “Ephraim go for deterrent over quality in their houseguard – past clashes paint them as very willing to display shiny toys and very unlikely to be able to use them worth a damn. In terms of loyalty, we shall conduct a poll of our clients, but it would be best to assume the worst.”

“That’s a thought for the day, right there.” I look down at her. “How many troops will your inevitable craft hold?”

Shrug. “You could berth a dozen in what we would call an intimate space for one, and carry twice that with a minimum-rated airlane drive.”

“Then that’s all the plan we need. Talk to Magnus about stopping on level twelve. I’ll handle the interrogator.”

She clicks her heels. “Sister, I.” Her voicebox is terrible at conveying hesitancy. “I meant it about self-care. Milady’s complexion is somewhere beyond alabaster.”

“And when the Emperor grants me rest, I’ll get right on that.” I look her in the eye. “Pink, there are a lot of things around here I might be playing by ear: my endurance is not one. I have been standing vigils since I was twelve. I have been fasting regularly for prayer and training since first I took novice’s vows.” Sounds far more impressive if I let her imagine how many years that is. “And I’m no stranger to the sight of my own blood, as you might imagine. Look to your own people, will you, and I’ll see to mine?”

She bobs. “As you say, Blessed Sister.”

++++

See to my people, I said – well, at least I can avoid waking them. They’ll be pissed off enough having to get up after two hours’ sleep having gone down expecting eight. Manda volunteered for watch, looks like, and was asleep in little more time than the others: I take my gauntlets off and fix her a pillow, to take a little of the sting out of sleeping sitting up. I can keep watch well enough.

You can’t sleep easily in armour. The back-unit stops you lying on your back, the glacis curves and pauldrons stop you lying on your side, and lying on your front for long periods is uncomfortable, undignified, unstable and unnecessary. So what you do is, either you sit on something and lock joints, like Manda’s doing accidentally, or you kneel: there’s a trick to getting the legs and torso to lock and support you so your legs won’t cramp, passed down from novice to novice before each year’s Vigil. The last bit of the trick is to set the helmet collar just so, so it will keep your head upright and stop you waking with a stiff neck: they’ve improvised with scraps of purple foam torn from cushions.

The refugees have made space for us, out of something between respect and fear. Hivers one and all, only the highest of the aristoi have a concept of private personal space: the turbo is the size of a small warehouse, and they’ve pretty much made three camps within it for the civilians, another for the soldiers, one for the wounded, and then a circle for us.

I can smell food – they’re burning food-oil for fuel, I’m guessing, and apparently someone among the civilians at least knew how to cater. We literally can’t partake: it’s not a holy fast, not a matter of taking food out of the mouths of starving refugees, so much as the way we’ve had nothing but fluids for fifteen days at this point, and there’s no way on Earth we have the time and facilities for even a short-form rite of refreshment. If I just cram that flatbread and soylens into my mouth like an idiot, then the only one responsible for the resulting and predictable consequences will be stop thinking about food!

I pull up the terminal on my wrist. A proper sister would spend the time productively. I suppose I should be unsurprised that the rest of them have quietly told their equipment that I’m in charge – yes, Ellayn, you are responsible for the lives of all these people (and the rest) – I know what the admin rites are, I step through them like it’s a classroom. Fluid – we’re all filled up, and I guess the less I ask about where they found to dump our effluent, the more I’ll like it. They did mine too, which must have been fun with me flat out unconscious. Nutrient – well, we’re not likely to find any more out here. We’ve two more days before we go into true starvation. Sacramental supplies – well, as Magnus said, Arbitrator medical supplies will have to do. He seemed to recognise the Mechanicum names for the drugs. Just hope his ‘best analogues’ are anything like our actual stimulants and painkillers.

Med-sermon, next – I know the words, but I keep having to tell the thing to pause and go back. Typically you have one or maybe two runes in a report, and for training one of them’s something dangerous and the hospitaller asks you to help her triage: there’s no hospitaller here and the litany extends all the way to the edge of my little screen. Sprains, strains, cuts, concussions, burns, smoke inhalation – three cases of whiplash like mine – my own readout says I have a possible broken rib from the bit where someone hit me in the chest with a sledgehammer. I can’t feel it.

I’m not the only one drugged. Most of my sisters are on half or better dose of pain-balm to let them sleep, even through their exhaustion. I make myself read the whole thing, even for the dead, double back over my own section when I realise I’m not paying enough attention.

Niwall’s okay, at least physically. Keyt’s gone from a strained tendon to a displaced kneecap: there’s a note from Magnus here, saying she’s to keep off it unless it’s been her life’s ambition to have a metal leg. Rakil has burns to her face: apparently I do, too. I touch my cheek gently with an ungloved hand: it’s smooth, like plastic. Itches vaguely underneath, like the memory of pain. Literally half of us have at least one head wound, and of our eight casualties, six have (had?) head or neck injuries. Curse the wizened, dried-up little pencildicks who decided they’d rather have a good old leer at a couple of dozen holy maids than have us properly battle-ready – surprised they didn’t just have us perform in underwear, really – damn them, just fuck those guys, why can’t I just have one single bloody helmet, I wouldn’t even keep it for myself –

Breathe. Perfer et obdura, as it is written. Wipe my eyes. Tac-sermon I know, we’re on a lift, we’re fucked, move on. Loadout: most of my sisters have filled this out or their armour’s done it for them, with a motley array of borrowed weapons. The riot-guns must have been in one of the crates we got from the Arbites. Half of them have picked up shock-mauls and all – the nonlethal shock isn’t the point, I guess, so much as a decent plasteel club that should stand some power-armoured abuse – I’ll stick with my knife, thanks. Confessions –

who the fuck am I to be taking confessions –

Two. Niwall confesses to having liberated a glove from Sister Cira, on the basis that Cira has gone before the Emperor and He can grant her all the gloves she needs, while Niwall is stuck here with us, a close-quarter battle expert feeling utterly useless because she can’t throw a punch. I mean, they must have seen her do it. The other thirteen sisters, the eleven able-bodied and the two who can’t walk, must have watched Niwall go to where our dead are laid, kneel beside one of the statue-still forms and painstakingly convince her suit that it wants to let go of a part of itself. And they said nothing. And I want Niwall watching my back. Cira, Emperor, forgive her.

And Rakil confesses that she has no idea what the hell any of us are doing and no idea if any of this is right, and is going along with it all, with me, because she has no fucking clue what to do otherwise. The bitter little noise I make in the back of my throat isn’t laughter. I contemplate waking her so she can make the same noise.

I don’t. We’ll be up soon enough. Roughly in time to fail to say Compline.

++++

Nine

In Light, Chapter Six

Up

Five

++++

It’s taken us half an hour to make our way the two miles through the darkened commercia. Hugging the walls, keeping overwatch, long sight-lines. Most definitely not jumping at shadows, but if just one of those damn shadows were to move we’d be all over it before it could so much as twitch –

Never been here before, but I’ve seen pictures. This place is supposed to be a galaxy of light, a cornucopia of sounds and sights, a delight for any who can afford to appreciate it. Uphivers live well, uphivers consume continuously and conspicuously, and this is the kind of place they get what they consume: I can smell spices over the ever-present tang of anointing oil. But it’s dark, it’s quiet, it’s shut, it’s deserted. I mean, literally an hour ago this would have been the beating heart of the area, and it’s just flatly empty.

The main concourse, which we’re staying out of for perfectly sensible reasons so we don’t need to reach for dumb ones like just how giant sucking empty it is, should be crawling, day-cycle or night-cycle, holy-day or work-day. I mean, there’s the odd sign that people were here once, that something has happened, that we haven’t just walked into some kind of dream – storefronts broken or half-shuttered, luminator poles knocked down, signage broken – but where are all the people? I’m finding myself almost hoping that the heretics do show up, at least to put an end to this damned absence.

Nowhere in a hive is empty. I mean, this is what I guess outsiders wouldn’t get. There is literally no public space within Baelis Hive Tertius that doesn’t have people in it, no matter the shift, no matter the hour. The uphive day consists of one shift at your appointed task, one left to your discretion (for to be an uphiver is to have substantial personal holdings and latitude to manage them), and one for rest and relaxation: at every shift-change this entire street should be so full of people that every human could stretch out fingertips and touch another’s, and even in midshift you’d never have to turn your head to see another human, and that counts as lightly populated. To be alone in a hive is – I mean – my sisters and I are already feeling the pinch with only a dozen of us.

Finally we round the corner and the precinct’s there as advertised. The austere, solid lines of its facade are cast in a sullen neon red by four great luminators, the golden Scales of Imperial Law glittering and casting long fidgety shadows in the harsh white of our own lamp beams. And Barte the arbitrator stops short, swears under her breath.

“Problem, constable?” I keep my eyes up and scanning for trouble.

“Mmm-maybe. Doors shut. No challenge.” She pulls out a little hand-vox. “Precinct eight north, this is Scale Four, status, over.”

Nothing.

“Nor’west eight district, this is Scale Four calling all points, check in, over.”

Nothing. She frowns. “This thing should be able to reach anyone in the district. That call I made – an all-points request? – we should be getting our ears squawked off, the vox should be fizzing.” A nervous, abbreviated gesture to the precinct’s reinforced gate: her hand goes straight back to her gun. “You close that door if you’re locking down in an emergency and at no other time. Procedure, procedure is three teams sortie and one holds – there should be a whole response team in there, those shutters up there should be open, we should have a Tarantula tracking us right now. O-or the place should be covered in bodies and bullet holes and the whole place stink of riot gas. This just isn’t right.”

“They could be talking and we’re not hearing,” says Rakil at my elbow. “That tech-curse. I’ve heard stories of them spreading faster than headlice in a novice dorm.”

“Next move, then.” I give that gate an appraising look: to my eye it looks just like something from a training exercise. “Break in?”

Barte gives us a look of frank disbelief. “You serious? That’s nine inches of armour plate, that is.”

“Who do you think you’re talking to?” Cue vox. “Porsia, what do you think? Can we get in?”

She comes straight back. “Don’t see why not. That door’s steelcrys, you think? Opens inward? Bolts in the middle?”

I see the arbitrator nod. “Okay, Agate. Cut the bolts and break the hinge locks. Altos, overwatch. Sopranos, let’s take that door.”

The hinges are massive and well armoured, the gates solid metal. Our borrowed guns wouldn’t do more than char the paint. No kind of riot could possibly make those doors do anything they don’t want to. They’re probably perfectly good for their job. But that job just isn’t to keep us out. Hayla draws her sarissa, puts it just so against the crack of the door, low down as possible, and locks a hand out flat over the pommel as an anvil: Tandra steps up, takes careful aim, apologises to her sister (even armoured, this hurts) and kicks Hayla in the back of the hand with full suited strength. It goes in up to the hilt.

This is exactly like a classroom exercise. The mind’s eye would imagine you’d cut downwards, right, but that’s hard. You’re trusting to magboots to hold you to the floor, or all you’re doing is a one-handed pullup, and that’s not where the strong muscles are in your body. So what they’re doing is cutting upwards – Hayla’s hand on the hilt, Tandra’s hand over that, each sister bracing her forearm with the other hand, letting the power servos take the strain – and the blade simply slices the metal like it’s cutting hard cheese. The blade goes up along the seam for the full seven feet of the gate, pulls free, back in its sharp-sheath: and this next bit is one I am familiar with.

I’ve never played the Sister-Superior’s part – but just as clear, nobody else is going to. The words are right there in the sleep-learned Lex, I just need to think of the ritual and they almost say themselves. “Emperor of Mankind, in whose name we serve, by whose decree we exist.” Stand facing the door, shoulder to shoulder. Closed fist against the hard metal, and feel the slight shift in balance and posture as the armour recognises the rite and makes us one.  “Grant us this day and always that strength that is not ours to expect but rather Yours to bestow.” Draw back one careful step, six of us in mechanical unison: careful, because it’s like our feet are all tied together. I’ve seen a dozen novices try this and fall like dominoes. “Purify for us our actions and lend us in this moment the strength of angels.” Pull back, twist the torso, envisage the blow going into and through the solid object.

Deep breath, and six voices cry out, a single wordless shout as one. One single perfect thunderous step and strike, our armour keeping our movements in perfect unison. Resist the urge to close my eyes and grit my teeth at the crashing shock of the blow, as it travels up my arm in a fashion that I’m pretty sure that I ought to care about – these pain-balms, they’re really something. I feel something break and hope it was the door.

And praise Him, it was. The thing’s suddenly loose on its hinges: in the next moment we’re unslinging those stupid toy rifles again. “Second sop, speartip. Arbiters, with me. Firsts, you got our back. Stack up.” I hand-sign: three. Two. One.

The door slams open and we’re the only light. The Lex and our training are crying out in the back of my head to kill the lights and get down – we’re perfect targets – but how exactly can I do that when I can’t see in the dark? Rakil and I are the point of the spear, through together into an open, functional entrance bay. Move up by section and overwatch. Our luminators wash the whole place in yellow: one wide-angle, one following where the suit thinks we’re looking. It has to guess because we’re not wearing helmets (shut up) –

“Not even emergency lights,” says Barte softly. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

(Oh, really, constable? When did that start? I button my lip.) “Which way?”

She plays the beam of her luminator over a door on our left. “The vehicle bay doesn’t open from this side. Left here, then right: stores are at the back. Be aware, though, without power all the doors are -”

Rakil takes it off its hinges with an unscientific boot.

“Right.”

And in we go. Large flat luminator panels on the wall in place of windows – with the power on, this place would be brightly lit in antiseptic white, the Scales clearly blazoned on every wall. But it’s dark, and our lights fill the place with long, fingered shadows and paranoia. Everything’s deserted. We keep to hushed, clipped battle language, sharp gestures, quiet careful movements, watching each other’s back. Again – an hour ago, maybe two by now, this place would’ve been a bustling workplace. Where in the void’s name are all the people?

The door behind the sergeant’s desk is open. An office, behind it, open-plan: still dark. Again, signs that something happened here. The odd overturned chair. Spilled cup of recaff staining the short-haired synthpile of the floor black in the gloom. No bodies. These people are trained like soldiers, rotate regularly through midhive postings where they’ll at least see some kind of action, or that’s what I think I recall from lessons. Surely if there was violence, we’d be seeing some damage. This looks more like they all realised they’d forgotten something, got up and left in a hurry.

A sudden noise, earsplitting in the silence. “Contact!” I hear Barte yell. Training takes over – lights out, grab cover. The noise was a gunshot – she is carrying a riot-gun – I peer out, weapon levelled.

Yeah, genius, a helmet didn’t suddenly appear. Pitch black here. Of the nine of us in the building, only Manda and the arbitrators kept their damn lights on. “Lights!” I snarl, as if I hadn’t made just the same mistake, and sheepishly they come back up and I even succeed at not putting a burst of lasfire into any suspicious-looking shadows.

“Rat.” The other arbitrator, Vinsen, his voice shaking. “Throne’s sake, Barte, it was just a damn rat.”

“Like hell,” she hisses. “Like hell. I tell you.” She’s staring unblinking at the place’s central, spiral stairwell, weapon levelled. “Five feet tall at least. This is not downhive. That was not a rat.”

“Keyt.” I hand-sign to my limping sister: overwatch, those stairs. “Barte, which way?”

She doesn’t move. “I tell you. Something down there.”

“And won’t it get a damn surprise,” I say softly. “Which door?”

“Vinsen. Show ’em.”

Still shaking, he indicates with a nervous twitch of his hand: I kick down another door, and when a tide of heretics doesn’t come immediately boiling out, we follow through and do another.

“S-supplies, that one.” He gestures to an unremarkable bulkhead door. “Place has a loading dock, but if we’re locked down it’ll be shut.”

“Noted.” I give a hand-sign: Rakil tears off the maint hatch beside the door, grabs the manual handle and applies a bit of strength. The door rasps like a rusty hatchet. I suppose since we knocked down the front door there’s no actual point to being quiet.

Inside, the place is untouched. Abandoned. Nobody’s been in here. Little wire enclosure up here at the front, little quartermaster’s desk, abandoned. Big heavy cargo gate halfway down the right-hand wall. And then the stores themselves, racks and racks of boxes and barrels, drums and crates, untouched, lined up for us, all nice and clearly labelled in binaric and in Gothic letters.

I squint, subvocalise on the vox rather than let the arbitrators see me uncertain. “Uh. Porsia?”

“Here.”

“You read Munitorum code, right? I think these boxes are mislabelled.” I frown at the nearest crate. “Victor three six point echo four four one charlie?”

“Alternatively, Sister Ellayn’s just insufficiently ready to believe in miracles, and that crate truly does contain an armoured vehicle,” mutters Manda drily.

“One sec.” Porsia shoots Manda a firm glare as she trades up to the front of our formation – be much more effective if her suit hadn’t decided that meant Manda needed a spotlight full in her face. “Ah: I see the problem. Civilian codes, not military.” She raises her voice. “Vinsen. D’you know Administratum storage codes?”

The arbitrator nods slowly. “I… yes?”

“Excellent. You’re with me: we’ll work out what we’ve got here.” She cues the vox. “First soprano – can you work on getting the loading dock open?”

“Meanwhile, I’m on the armoury.” I back out of the storehouse, let them work. “Barte, seeing as we’re here. Feel like picking up some riot gear?”

“Yeah.” Audibly she takes a deep breath. “Yeah, all right.” She gives the suspicious staircase a jaundiced look. Rakil’s still there, she’s got overwatch, it’s fine. “Follow me, Sisters.”

We keep up a quiet chatter over vox. Not just because it’s so vastly hollowly quiet – if I were the first altos, still on guard at the entrance, I’d be getting skittish as hell if I didn’t hear anything from us inside. This place is like a sawtooth on the nerves.

Breaking doors is getting to be a habit. Room clearance is one of the standard drills, but it’s another thing entirely to be kicking down doors with the aquila and the Scales of Law on, to be checking corners in a building laid out for the comfort of uphivers rather than some abandoned downhive warehouse. The armoury itself is built more to look secure than to actually be secure: I guess a building’s worth of the hive’s security forces is supposed to balance that out. The door’s not locked, just unpowered, and I grab the manual handle and start doing what Manda did downstairs –

Okay, that’s the lock on the loading door now. Hope you’re nearly done up – Oh.” Ice down my spine. “Sssssshit. Holy shit.

I give her a suitably long pause to explain herself – you know, two or three madly pounding heartbeats – as I drop the handle, turn and sprint for that storehouse without explanation to the arbitrators. Battle-language. “Status. Porsia, status.”

Protegat Imperator.” That’s her voice, but nearly all I can hear of it is the synth – she’s not subvocalising, she’s whispering. And that’s not battle-language. “Imperator hanc in hora audi famula sua Porsia, Solium Terrarum me in extremis protege.” That’s High Gothic, a prayer from the Lex.

Three more rooms. I hear no gunfire. “Hayla? Tandra?” All I get over vox is a strangled squeak. A seasoned Sister, a Sister with a damn helmet on, would be confident enough in her armour to go straight through these fibreboard admin-cubes, not around like I’m doing. “Agate, cover and hold, status in one.” Vox-clicks.

The first thing is the smell. Salty, coppery, thick, intrusive – it reminds me of the cathedral. The only time in my life I smelled anything like this before was in the cathedral. It’s almost a physical force, almost a fluid to wade through. One corner left. The lasgun’s pistol-grip is slightly the wrong shape and the lack of a trigger guard is disconcerting. I can taste bile.

Last corner. Grit my teeth. Stay low.

There’s Hayla, down behind hard cover, looking forward. Tandra, there, just a little forward of her, and she’s covering the room. They’ve had the loading gate open, looks like they plugged in a portable powercell and opened it – can’t see through it from here, but that’s where the smell is coming from, thick and pungent as downhive smog. Porsia’s ducked behind a crate toward the middle of the room, but she’s been stationary there for far too long even if she was being fired on. And the arbitrator constable, the man, he’s standing there in the middle of the room with his jaw dropped open, his riot-gun half raised like he’s only just been introduced to the concept that it’s a weapon –

Okay. I move in, quick, drop down next to Porsia. Cover first, because if your sisters think there’s something wrong, they’re probably right. She meets my gaze as I go to one knee behind the solid plastek crate, and her eyes are as big and as scared as they were when she refused to take command up in the cathedral. Deep breath. No incoming fire. I take a –

look –

Slam back down again. Vox. Stick to battle-language, it doesn’t have swearwords. “Contact. M-moral threat in vehicle bay.” Other words it doesn’t have: charnel house. “First sop: withdraw one room.” Blasphemous altar. “Second sop: join on first, overwatch. Second alto, ‘ware vehicle bay door: overwatch. Ellayn out.”

Hellscape. Carpet of corpses, insane scrawlings, bodies – parts of bodies – nailed to the fucking wall

Act now. React later. Save it for confession. Breathe, damn you. I look my sister in the eye and she’s just shaking her head – “Porsia. Look at me, all right? Listen to the training. Regroup, secure, contain.” I can see her making herself take slow steady breaths. “I’d like you to fall back to the next room, okay, to Hayla. Hold that door, can you do that?”

She nods, three times, like she forgot how to stop.

“All right. I’ll cover you. Three, two, one – Move.” And she goes, head down. I swing my weapon out to cover –

surely there’s nothing alive in –

Okay, Vinsen. The arbitrator constable, he’s just standing staring frozen. Won’t have even our own level of training. Regroup, secure, contain. I make myself stand up, take steps towards that gate. Don’t want to turn my back on it. Tear my eyes away. The man is hardly even breathing.

I take hold of his shoulder. Gently: he’s breakable. “Vinsen.”

“N-nn.” He shakes his head.

I shove him, just with a flick of the wrist, not heavily, just enough to make him stumble. To break his line of sight. I get up in his face and he steps back further by instinct as he regains his balance. Ask the synth to put harmonics into my voice, bit of volume, bit of subsonic, enough to rattle his teeth. “Arbitrator-constable Vinsen, eyes on the floor and that is a Throne-damned order.” The snap in my voice produces the obedience I’m looking for. “About face. Get your butt behind my sisters where it belongs.” He’s trembling, walking like a man underwater, not going as fast as I’d like. “Move!”

… Okay, Ellayn. Now you’re alone

with –

there was a door control, they’d plugged one of the storehouse’s own portable power cells into it, that’s how they got it open –

It’s not real, it’s not real, not if I can’t touch it, I don’t have to go and poke it, it’s not my duty, I’m a novice. Lex says, upon potential compromise by moral threat: disengage, regroup, secure, contain, call it in and await backup (what backup?) –

this rune means ‘open’, so logically this rune is –

there are vehicles in there, cargo-conveyors –

I close my eyes for a long hard moment. “Agate. When the loading bay door is closed, it will be safe to re-enter the storehouse and the armory. Porsia and Vinsen, prioritise things to take. Post a watch, and bring the stores we require to the front entrance.”

Vox-clicks.

It’s Rakil who speaks up as I stand, slowly, eyes down, nerving myself to do this. “Ellayn? Where are you?”

“We can’t lump several tons of supplies from here to the turbolift,” I say, my voice tightly level. “Have those stores ready. Outside, in the street, not somewhere you could see into the vehicle bay from if the door was open.”

“You’re not doing this on your own,” she says. I can hear her, she’s on her way.

“No, you’re right.” I press the rune. I step over the gate as it rises like a fanged mouth. “The Emperor is with me.”

The door to the storage opens. She can’t see into the vehicle bay from there. I can hear her without the vox. “Dammit, sister-”

“As you were.”

I hear her come to a halt. I don’t look around. I don’t need to see her face.

The gate closes.

++++

It’s –

I can’t. Simply I can’t. Leave it, I mean. Them. Like this. It would be unconscionable. I am a Daughter of the Emperor, a servant of the Golden Throne (I am, right?) I, I should have a – if we’d been outfitted properly one of us, probably Hayla, would have had a flamer and we’d cleanse this whole damn –

“Don’t tell me she’s gone in there on her own.”

“You telling me I should open th-that thing up again?”

I have no choice but to step on this corpse and it crunches as I trust my weight to the cold dead surface and I bite my lip, firmly remind my stomach that it’s been empty for more than a week, there’s literally nothing to throw up besides a swallow of brackish water from the suit’s catchpocket –

“Can it, sisters. We’ve got our orders. First alto, overwatch – I do not want a surprise. Second alto, help us in the storehouse – don’t touch that! Second sop, armoury. Move.”

I can’t exactly leave them pinned to the wall. It’s but the work of a few minutes to –

this corpse has been literally bisected down the middle and either painted with blood or it was done when they were still –

“Leave that one. It’s not on the list.”

these bodies, I think they were supposed to be laid out in the shape of writing, the words continuing in splashes of reddish-brown where they ran out of pitons to secure the flesh to the wall –

I can’t avoid reading it, it would be nice to say I didn’t understand it, it would be nice to say I didn’t know –

 I –

every word of this –

God-Emperor, Holy Throne forgive me, I don’t even have a hose to deface these foul symbols daubed on the wall with the blood of innocents –

foul symbols? This is what I was literally singing – these are my own damn words, the ones that none of us can remember –

“Yeah, just load all of the powerpacks. Reckon Aqua’s quartermaster can be the one to work out if they fit.”

it sounds like bitter laughter, it’s another moment before I realise it’s mine. I’m not likely to forget those words now, am I –

that head, that severed head, it was looking at me staring eyes focusing on me-

Throne forgive me I can’t unsay words but I can erase this I can deface it I can fucking destroy it –

“All right, that’s enough.” 

she can’t be talking to me

“Start a second row, here.”

I’m shaking, I’m covered in blood (no, I’m not, it beads and runs from the suit like water on oilcloth), I’m exhausted, I feel sick, but damn it all (literally) I am not leaving this – fucking –

Right. Okay. And their blasphemous, makeshift altar breaks easy –

“She is on her way, right?”

 “What exactly would you do if I said no?”

this response truck wasn’t part of their little display, it lights up when I sit in the seat, guess I’m not too much bigger and heavier than a big heavy man in Arbiter riot gear, guess the pedals were already built for someone in heavy boots, guess that’s the power cell gauge, thirty per cent should be plenty –

“Emperor protects, sister, she’s on her way right now.”

clutch, clutch, where –

button, side of gear lever –

It’s surprisingly like driving a Rhino, actually, except the thing doesn’t try and pin me to the seat and embed its nose in the far wall when I give it a tiny bit of throttle –

the gate at the far end, it’s not powered, but I tell you, what sort of thing is a great deal like a battering ram if you grit your teeth?

At least the vehicle bay doors weren’t heavy. I round the corner. I help them load. Nobody meets my eyes or notes the brownish red of my footprints or the stains on the truck’s tyres, nobody says a –

Mental note to try and refill my suit fluid levels if there’s any going. I’m down a swallow or two of brackish water and half a stomach’s load of desperately bitter yellow bile.

It doesn’t take the little black truck long to get us back to the turbo.

++++

Seven

In Light, Chapter Four

Up

Three

++++

My last magazine. One dozen bolts between me and the baying horde. I’ve flicked my pistol to semi-auto to make sure each one counts. Try to take a deep breath. Try to steady myself. Ten yards is the high-water mark the crowd left last time. Ten yards is where we showed them the Emperor’s fury and stood them off. Ten yards is the range. 

And once more our line erupts in shocking terrifying flame, our fingers tightening almost in unison on triggers and touch-runes, and at the same moment they hurl themselves forward. Ten yards is nothing.

I tag a priest that I could have sworn I’d met before all this started, and his head explodes and the one behind him trips over his body and is trampled. That man in dress armour not a million miles from the stuff the general’s people are wearing, and the bolt takes his leg off at the hip. The one who tries to hurdle his body and she comes down in pieces. The one pointing a stumm-rod at my face. The one just now lighting a flare. The one wielding a ceremonial flagpole like a spear, and oh Throne they’re not going to break. To either side of me the troopers are just holding down the trigger, spraying shots into the mob like hosing down a fire.

Our shooting is having some effect. The momentum of the crowd is slackening. The ones that can see us, fear us. They’re not going to hit us at the run. But we’re not going to scare them off with gunfire this time. That group with the shock-halberds, the ones who must have been ceremonial guard: they will be here first. Almost without thought I kill their leader. The one behind him is within reach and he darts forward: in the same moment I twist, catching the halberd’s thrust with my left forearm and deflecting it high, shooting him in the chest. A descending blow aimed at my elbow joint and I sway aside, a snap-shot in that direction yielding a scream.

They can’t use the length of those weapons because the crowd is carrying them forward. The one right in my face isn’t there by choice, and I punch him under the chin with bone-cracking force, and I hammer my sarissa down into the side of his neck with my left hand. He spits blood at my face as he dies and I flinch back –

And that saves my life. Swung from an angle, a crackling halberd blade comes down an inch in front of my face and glances off my pauldrons and gorget as it discharges harmlessly. I aim my pistol down the haft – I squeeze the trigger and the wielder’s convulsive clutch bounces the recharging weapon into my face.

Even at half-charge it’s like being struck by lightning. Everything goes white. I think I may have screamed – holy Throne, that hurt. My hair stands on end where it’s not matted with gore. Blind for that moment and hopefully not more, I throw up my arm to cover my face: another thrust deflects from my forearm and hits me squarely in the chest. I feel my abdomen and leg joints lock into solidity for a fraction of a second and the weapon’s blade snaps.

My vision’s returning: don’t play anvil, they’d only need to be lucky once. An awkward scything backhanded cut with my sarissa and they’re howling for my blood: I give them another bolt and shrapnel pings off my armour as they scream. One last round left and I put it through the face of the one in the front. Drop my pistol and the maglock secures it into its holster as I knew it would, swap the sarissa point-up in my left hand. They’re climbing over corpses for the honour of dying at the hands of a Daughter of the Emperor. Bring it on, you recusant fuckers: the sheer volume of my suit speakers might be enough to stun and dismay.

A heavy-muscled man comes for me with a dress saber that’s hardly seen a sharpening-wheel in its life, let alone a fight: I grab the blade in my right hand and it bends, use the leverage to pull him forward onto my knife. I don’t expect him to grab my hand: there’s a terrible mad light in his eyes as he grabs hold and pulls, pulls himself onto the blade, throws his weight suicidally onto my arm.

Instinctively I meet strength with strength, but he’s a big man, got to weigh eighteen stone, and he’s trying to put every ounce of that onto my arm. His legs buckle as bloody froth comes from his lips. He’s trying to pull me down, spending his life to lever me out of line, and if I go down I’m dead, armour or no. The nameless carcass of metal we used for the barricade, it creaks alarmingly. I hammer my fist on the back of his unarmoured head and now he’s dead twice over, but it’s not enough: he’s still got a death-grip on my arm. Another one comes in, just wielding what looks like it used to be an organ pipe, and I have to block with my right forearm.

The lessons are ingrained: don’t play punchbag. Don’t play anvil. Nobody ever won a bout simply by taking a beating. No matter how desperate your condition, hand to hand, if you can hurt them, do. The next blow I catch on an open palm, grab the improvised weapon and just shove as hard as I can. The man’s eyes widen, his jaw drops at the strength my armour lends: his crude club is torn out of his hands and I feel the other end strike his chest with a terrible jarring impact.

Enough to shake the corpse on my other arm, in fact.

The sarissa tears itself free in a spray of bright blood, all of my weight and all of the dead man’s combining, suddenly driving the terribly sharp blade through bone and flesh with a quickly vanishing amount of resistance – I flail for balance –

I fall backwards off the firing-step.

The first thing you learn in armour is how to fall over. Because trust me, the first time you try to walk in what are effectively four-inch platforms that try to move your feet for you, you’re bound for the floor. The right thing to do feels exactly wrong – your body’s instincts scream at you to put a hand out, and if you do that the arm joints will lock and you’ll pivot unexpectedly onto front or back, and you’ll be viciously reminded that in armour you weigh three or four times what you’re used to. So what you do instead is, you go limp entirely, and without active conscious input the suit will do what’s best for you. It’s the oddest feeling, like you’re suspended inside it on springs as the armour spreads the impact across as much of you as it can, as the helmet cradles your head at the perfect angle to avoid concussion –

All of which is approximately furthest from my reeling mind as I overbalance, flailing, disbelieving, coming down with a staggering amount of momentum, arms outflung like a falling angel, the sarissa spinning away to stick point down in the deck. My head snaps back and I see stars – holy Throne no please don’t let me have broken my neck – everything hurts – nnh.

Don’t stay on the ground. Never stay down. In training bouts it’s an automatic forfeit if you could have stood and don’t, even if you went down because Niwall kicked you in the gut with the point of her toe and all you want to do is throw up. I half-roll right, ignore the sudden fire from my neck: if I don’t fall over and die right this second then anything else can wait. Lean on my right hand, get a foot under me. The world spins: grit my teeth, concentrate on the move.

A yell. The man who’d been to my left, the injured one, has stepped across in front of me. He’s got the haft of a shock-pike from somewhere, just the broken haft, and he’s fending off strikes with it, playing hero. As I watch the thing snaps in the middle and he throws one broken half at his unseen attackers. Has to dodge the next swipe. He’s not going to last forever. Get up, damn you!

My mag-boots decide this is an excellent time to start helping. I don’t know, maybe the fall was supposed to be some kind of object lesson? Nevertheless, you-know, judge not a gift of providence: suddenly my footing is rock-solid and suddenly my balance is perfect. My nausea and pain can wait their turn. Amazing what just that one touch of blessed solidity will do. Emperor look upon your Daughter: by Your grace and the gifts of Your bounty, God-Emperor, make me invincible in this hour.

The next blow aimed at the man, I step up suddenly and fend off with an open hand: this weapon is a window-cleaning pole. Grab, pull, twist: mine. Take it in both hands for leverage. I don’t bother changing ends of the thing: jab one guy in the throat with the butt, thwack another one around the side of the head, whip it upwards quickly and then down onto another in a skull-splintering blur. An incoming swing and I angle the haft to deflect it into the barricade, jab the attacker in the chest and the pole goes in and sticks: mindful of being pulled again, I let go with a vicious shove.

There’s something wrong with the angles. This attacker’s strike is awkwardly aimed, as if I’m not where I was supposed to be: I reprise with an open-handed blow at his midsection and he can’t block it, the impact folds him up. Another jab from yet another of the ceremonial halberds, but it’s actually somehow coming down at me, and I can see the waists of the crowd as if they were somehow going –

up – Emperor’s name, we’ve done it –

A confusion of white cloth; a staggering impact around my head and shoulders and I feel the whole lower half of my suit lock, my mag-boots keeping my footing, my suit joints effortlessly denying this attempt to throw me from my feet. My neck explodes in pain. Someone has literally jumped – fallen? – on top of me, scrabbling, unarmed: blindly I grab her and throw her to the floor with all the force I can muster and she’s not getting up. There are more people coming over, so many, all at once: it’s like, it’s just like the front rank of the heretics simply rose up and spilled over our barricade like a wave.

There’s an exercise we do in hand-to-hand class, not an armoured exercise, just part of our training regimen, something I’ve been doing since the earliest days of our training. A student from two classes above stands in the centre of the mat, and the entire of the class goes for them, four at a time, timed intervals. And from age twelve, more often than not, if there was a choice, that older student was me. The reflexes kick in. I’m bigger than the people coming for me. I’m stronger. Keep moving, keep turning, keep aware, eyes up. Neck hurts. I’ll live.

I have to step down from the firing-step to get fighting room. I put my shoulders into a punch and the man’s literally taken off his feet. Someone leaps off the barricade at me and I grab them by the front of their ornamented tunic, carry their momentum over into the ground and drop my armoured weight on them as they land, and they don’t get up again. Stand up, catching movement in the corner of the eye, and I just have time to identify that it’s not a sister of mine before I hit them and then they hit the ground.

Something between my reflexes and the suit’s spin me around, twisting a laspistol out of another screaming heretic’s hand, step inside and give an elbow-strike to the face with the force to send her spinning.. A man behind her that I don’t recognise, raising a broken shock-halberd high for a blow against someone on the floor, and I pull him over backwards into a knife-hand blow of my own. Unarmoured people break when you hit them that hard. No time or need for a follow-up: turn, hands already up to ward off the next attacker – there’s nothing there but a – lift shaft wall.

Wild-eyed I look around. Who’s next? Who’s coming? The world has been divided into threat and not-threat nearly forever. I can feel my heartbeat pounding in my throat. That shape there, is that – no, that one’s dead, I think I killed him. Further ahead – Sister Keyt with her back to the barricade, slumped to the floor, staring straight ahead – the guardsman, the wounded one, a dress saber bloody in his hand – Sister Manda, carrying a gun that’s the wrong shape – Sister Niwall just standing there staring dumbly much like me, her bare hand covered in fresh blood, clenched into a fist. I breathe, a convulsive shudder. Can’t think. What now?

Sound. Sound over the vox, a voice, hoarse but he’s speaking recognisable Gothic. “…sounds like the fat lady to me, people: bloody good show. Units to check in in five, please: irregulars, if you can hear this, form on Captain Topher. Rorkel out.”

We did it. We did it. By Human Will is the Heretic denied. My hands start shaking uncontrollably and my suit stops holding them steady. Swallow hard: my mouth tastes of blood. Select our squad band on the vox, drop my voice to a subvocal mutter and let the synth turn it into words. “Agate, status report. Check in by sections?”

“First sopranos.” That’s Porsia. The knot in my stomach unclenches slightly, to know she’s all right. “Out of ammunition, not one bolt left. Think Hayla has a concussion, and Cira a-and Berres are out already, of course.” The vox doesn’t transmit the long slow shuddering breath she takes. “We can’t do that twice, Ellayn.” No shit, sister.

“First alto. Limited weaponry.” Manda won every gunnery contest I ever saw her in: of course she looted a gun first chance she got. It’s probably the squad’s only working firearm now. “Medicae for Jeny if there’s one going – she fell badly, her ankle’s hurt. Zade and Avhata are with the wounded already.”

Pause. I can’t see all the rest of my section. Niwall’s over there, trying to wipe her face clean with a hand that’s completely covered in blood. Keyt’s let herself down to sit against the remains of the barricade –

“Second alto.” Yasi’s voice cracks. “Verien’s dead. I’ve s-sent Vanyssa to find a medicae, she’s bleeding bad. Rest of us… we live.”

So. Rillith was a casualty already, that’s why I couldn’t see her – but Rakil’s not there, moving or not. I call her name – see Niwall’s eyes widen as she realises the same thing – scan vainly back over the bit of barricade that she was holding, see nothing but the dead. No, wait – there. I can just see her outflung hand. She’s at the bottom of that heap.

Cue the vox. “Second soprano, a hand here please, Rakil’s stuck. Rillith is with the wounded. Dry on ammo. Anyone with specific concerns -” I bend down to lift a broken body out of the way and the synth doesn’t transmit a yelp born from a sudden star of pain at the base of my neck – “Call me. We’re all we have, sisters, we look out for one another or we fall.”

“Okay, I got one.” That’s Rowyn, second alto. “What are we doing here, sister? I-in whose name?”

Pause. Bite off the urge to retort rather than answering her question. No, this is important. “All right.” I know the whole squad can hear. “Objective-immediate: survive. We’re escorting all the loyalists we can find and we’re getting out of that madhouse upstairs. Objective-overall?” I swallow hard. “Sister, it’s not like I have some kind of revelation, some understanding you don’t. We’ve all seen the same. We jumped one way and it’s like half of everything jumped the other. We don’t have a sister-superior or a confessor o-or any superior of any kind here to tell us what to do. Tell you what, though. We’ll have a fuller debrief at vespers observance. When we’re not digging people out of piles of dead. Work things out then, all right?”

“Vespers.” Rowyn sounds like she’s holding back incredulous laughter, even through her synth. “Middle of all this, world gone mad and you’re going to say frakking vespers.”

“Are we in holy orders or not?” I clear my throat. “Look, the one thing I do know is the answer to the second half of your question. In whose name?” I pick up another dead body under the armpits, drag them away from my sister. “We’re doing this for the Emperor, for Him-on-Earth. You heard the Inquisitor. You heard the battlecry from our lines just now. There’s one, precisely One in whose name we serve. And about all I know is this.” I drop the corpse on the floor. “We’re on his side.”

“Emperor protects,” says Niwall, and the vox transmits it as an unearthly, floating whisper.

We echo the words, the oldest and simplest of all of the prayers. And I hear Rakil’s voice join the chorus and I dig harder.

++++

The Arbitrator medic is a man in fabulously ornate ceremonial armour, blue, black and gold. Bushy grey beard, the ageless weatherbeaten look of a body-clock frozen at forty by juvenat. “Close your eyes and hold your breath.” I comply and there’s a spray of something that stings in every little cut and scrape. “Look here, please.” A bright light. “And here.” He frowns. “That hurt you?”

“My neck.” I feel like a postulant again, explaining an errant black eye to an unsympathetic housemistress. “I fell.”

“Hmm. Turn to the left again: and now to the right?” Okay, ouch? “Ah, I see. Prior chem?” I give him a blank look. “What-have-you-taken? Stims? Pain-balms, fettle, quil, pep, sand…” he waves his hand, vaguely – “Like you’d anoint a machine, but for a person? You eat it and feel strong, or awake, or whatever?”

Oh – sacraments – “Vigilance, standard dose, fourteen days ago and this afternoon.” I call to mind the relevant sections of the sleep-taught Lex Sororitas and the words bubble up almost unbidden. ”The Sacrament of Vigilance is known to the Mechanicum as the muriatic salt of C-fifth-paremphetazine, ingested, one and one-eigth dram, slow-release. Its purpose is-”

“Pep.” He flicks a finger over the rotatory collar on his narthecium. “Enough pep to flat-out kill anyone not wearing a damn life-support machine, you realise. You know how much we aren’t taught about battle-sisters, interrogators and other angel types who decide that being half invulnerable means you need to go ‘n find the other half?” A scowl. Belatedly I realise it’s an attempt at bedside manner. He lifts my matted hair aside, touches an administrator wand to the side of my neck and a coolness spreads from the touch. “This is a pain-balm, all right? S’posed to warn you about drivin’ or operatin’ heavy machinery.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I respond drily, and he actually smiles for all of an instant. Hang on, wait a minute. Bushy beard, black and blue and gold dress armour – “Your honour. I didn’t know you were a medicae.”

“Thought Arbitrators don’t get ill, what?” Level gaze. “Not here by accident. Mind favouring me with a tac-sermon, lady?”

Well, this I can do. Shoulders back, eyes front, my armour’s height meaning it’s like I’m talking to the aquila on his helmet crest. I give the report in battle-language, rapid-fire, just as per drill. “Sir. Thirteen strength, reporting operational recode assault medium was tac heavy, nomen Agate, actual Ellayn for sarn’t Croix fallen. Plus four cas, three fallen. Negative on organic medicae. Endurance unsupplied two days plus five, dry ammunition, sir.”

He blinks. “Well, I suppose if I ask, I get. Be obliged if you’d repeat that in plain Gothic?”

“Um.” I colour, slightly. “We’re, you-know, three of my sisters are dead. You’re basically looking at a dozen walking wounded and four proper casualties here, but I guess you knew that if you’ve got as far down the triage list as me. I suppose I’m in acting command, I’m sister-novitiate Ellayn. Our officers are-” I squeeze shut the mind’s eye, seeing the inquisitor kick my teacher in the face- “We’re all that’s left. Voxnomen for our squad is Agate. But if you’re looking for a miracle from us, your honour, look again. We, we’ve spent the last of our ammunition, we’re down to hand-weapons.”

“Understood you that time,” he grates, “and that’s about what I thought. But just so’s you know, those thirty per cent casualties you report, that’s the lightest of our whole lot.” His mouth is set in a flat line. “I mean, you were always going to be, but for as long as we’re stuck with one another, your squad is literally our best by strength as well as experience and morale.”

My poker face just won’t cope with that one. I cover my instinctive incredulity poorly with a cough. The gesture to cover my mouth, you can’t do it in armour, you’ll punch yourself in the face.

He scowls. “Sister, I do realise that your type don’t get out much, but it’s like this.” He nods towards the corpse-strewn wreckage that used to be our barricade, the exhausted defenders slowly gathering into little knots of same-coloured uniform at irregular intervals. “These are what you’d call ceremonial units. The general’s life company’s an honour posting for washed-up old soldiers who don’t have the caste-code to rate juvenat work – they might have powered suits on, but you saw what I’ll laughingly call their marksmanship, and that was their strong suit. The honour guard, meanwhile, that’s where you send your kid if you want them a military record without actually ever having done anything beyond stood in a tidy little line and drilled with a rifle twice a week. Not to mention that that uniform ain’t armoured worth a damn. They’re not exactly carryin’ a full load of ammo either. My arbiters go everywhere fit for duty, but there are six of us left and our suits are unpowered – and as for the irregulars-”

“Your honour!” I blurt, and realise I’ve interrupted the Judge, but now I’ve started I’ll finish. “I’m honoured by your regard, really I am. You look at us and see us with, with our bolt guns and our holy armour and the fleur-de-lys, and you know Sisters get juvenat early, y-you probably can’t tell us apart. So you reckon you have yourselves a baker’s dozen veterans in real wargear, and you want us front and centre. Possibly because you’ve seen the Adepta Sororitas at work before and they made an impression?” I spit blood on the floor, resist the urge to wipe my mouth with an armoured hand. “Judge, what you have here is the Order of St. Ursula girls’ choir. The convent on this planet is a training facility, a-and all the instructors are dead: when I said acting command, that’s because every Sister or better is gone. This isn’t juvenat you’re looking at, your honour: we’re sisters-novitiate, we’re -” I grope for the downhive slang-word – “we’re juves, your honour. I mean, yes, I’m thirteen years a martial artist, but that’s because we start at four, for Throne’s sake.”

The expression darkens further still. “You been spreading that around, have you?”

“Not yet.” I realise as I’m saying the words how much of a novice I really sound. “Nobody asked, a-and we were too busy-”

“Right. So from now on, Blessed Sister – though by rights and law I can’t give you orders – it is my very strongest suggestion that you keep some of those pertinent facts to your damn self.” He flicks his narthecium’s case closed, as if to underscore. “For absolute bloody truth, your appearance back in that chapel felt like the chap sitting in that Throne on Earth had taken a glance over in our direction and gone ‘you know what, that Magnus fellow, he could do with a bit of a hand’. Right? And that was me feelin’ that, this stonefaced hardbaked git. Your rank and file are lookin’ over and seein’ that we’ve got the Emperor’s own daughters with us, the universe’s turned around and smiled on us for a change. And if all He’s given me is a dozen half-trained juves in training gear?” He shrugs. “Well, I’ll put ’em to work and still not believe my luck. I’m tellin’ you, lady, you’re the Emp’ror’s gift to this endeavour.”

“Throne help us all.” The words leave my mouth without my thinking brain really having noticed: too late to cram them back in –

“So say we all, sister.” He grimaces. “Tac-update for you, proper one, while we’re keeping things to ourselves. We’re right and properly fucked. But we’re less fucked now than when you’n I met – and less then than when all this shit started.” He meets my eyes, like perhaps I’ve got something to say: I look down. “Any chance you can help that trend carry on in the right direction?

Bite my lip. Tastes vile. “Only one answer to that, your honour.”

“That’s how you know it’s His will.” He braces up, clicks his heels, makes the sign of the aquila as if he’s the one who’s supposed to be saluting me. “Senior staff in five, just over there.” He clears his throat. “Means you too. Get your head in gear.”

++++

Five

Fear & Surprise, Chapter Forty-Two

Previous

Up

*

North with all haste rode the Six and the Herald:
North and to Haven in Andraste’s name.

Raven Cassandra, noble and unbending,
Beside her Thom Blackwall, a life’s debt unpaid,
Jenny, Red Jenny, the blade in the shadows,
Dorian Pavus the master of lore,
Solas, the ancient, the keeper of secrets,
Morrigan, witch of the wilds and the ways:

With them rode Power and with them rode Hope,
Mounted on Swiftness and Purpose were they.
And there by their side was the Bride’s only Herald,
Solemn of countenance, constant as day.

The tale of the Herald would end where it started:
There above Haven where Sanctuary lay.
The tomb of His Bride all defiled and broken
Would now by the Truth of the Maker be cleansed.

Canticle of the Herald
fifth stanza, verses 1-8
Chant of Light

*

The camp was a mess. I mean, we’d won. I’m sure the red templars’ camp looked a dozen times worse. But a forced march by magic doesn’t exactly make for an orderly set of supply lines: exactly who were we loading onto horses and barreling halfway across Orlais only to stop a couple of miles short and pitch a few hundred tents?

We didn’t have the luxury of waiting, though. Got the feeling that if Solas had thought he could have done it himself, he’d’ve been gone last night, probably sprouted wings and flew or something. Didn’t even wait for what we had to be packed up, not after that council of war. Those of us who needed such things could make do with our saddlebags. The army could follow at their own pace: we’d go faster with just the half-dozen of us, on the way back to Haven, and rough it for the couple of nights we needed –

Josephine caught up with me as I was doing up the last strap. I opened my mouth for an apology, to point out that I’d have been finding her to say goodbye just as soon as I was sure I wouldn’t be holding everyone up –

She took the bag out of my hand and dropped it on the ground and stopped the whole world.

Her right hand holding the back of my head, the left grabbing my tunic, pulling me against her like she’d never see me again and like nothing else mattered, and at least that last was true. Nobody else existed. Certainly not the wolf-whistles from the Chargers. I couldn’t tell you how long we spent on our first kiss. I could tell you that that’s how long ‘forever’ takes.

Look, not to brag. I know perfectly well that it could have been almost absolutely anyone who’d had my unbelievable fortune and misfortune. That she’d made me for this part from the moment she’d realised what it could mean for her, made me like a sculptress with a block of marble. But it wasn’t anyone else. It was me. And in the moment our lips parted, her eyes said that a deal was a deal, and she didn’t regret a scrap of it.

I started to choke out her name and she silenced me with a smile that took my breath and danced with it. “Max,” she breathed, “come back to me.”

“I did give you my word,” I managed. “Don’t know if I keep it. I don’t know if that’s how this ends.”

“I know,” she said, a little more firmly, her hand still flat on my chest. “But your promises are not what this is about.” And she trailed a finger down my cheek. “You’re not a stupid fellow. You’ll figure it out.”

“I love you, Josephine.” It said itself. Everyone heard me. Had I thought to first say that with Krem in the middle distance joking about how badly he’d get it for throwing a bucket of water?

“Josie,” she said, with the slightest air of triumph. “I’m relatively certain we can bear the familiarity. Go,” she said, and her smile didn’t quite stop my heart, “my lord.” And somehow she’d picked up my pack and it was in my hands. “And I shall see you in Skyhold.”

It wasn’t until that night that I realised that she’d slipped a folded piece of paper inside my tunic. I read it in moonlight with the unromantic excuse of a call of nature. Didn’t smile. Didn’t do anything . Dropped it in the trench and shat on it. Bet that part never goes in the Chant.

*

There was only one road from Orlais to Ferelden that didn’t involve a three-hundred-mile detour up and around the Frostbacks. Only one route you could take soldiers or wagons quickly and in number, and it was our high mountain pass, it was Skyhold. So riding north with all the speed the mages could lend us, we thought to find the castle either under siege or more likely with a large army-shaped hole through it – but we didn’t. It was fine. It was unmolested. Those commanding walls were completely unmarrred. No giant misshapen bastards seen, no legions of red-eyed slavering psychopaths, no ser: quiet, really, it had been.

Well, now we mentioned it, there had been a drake on the northern horizon. Couple of nights ago. Even odds we’d be too late. But, you know, the world hadn’t ended yet, so down the hill to Haven it was.

And it wasn’t that the arrogant bastard hadn’t bothered to bring an army. He’d left one there, you see, in the ruins of the village at the foot of the mountain. The remains of the army he’d brought, the ones Vivienne had brought down the mountain on, and the vermin that had come to claim their share as it was uncovered by spring’s thaw. What was it we always said, about rifts and corpses? About rifts and animals? So all Corypheus had needed to do was leave us a nice little present of a couple of dozen rifts, and it was as good as if we were facing that army in life. Counting wasn’t my strong suit, but those muck-drenched broken rotting bodies in their rusted armour – there could have been a good couple of thousand, and that was before counting the hideous misshapen things that once were rats and ravens.

And against that we bore three swords, three mages’ staves and a bow: but at least we were on home ground. The walking dead weren’t exactly the type to know the terrain and take advantage. Meanwhile, I’d run every path up and down that hill well enough to know them by heart, and Cassandra could navigate this holy place with her eyes closed, and she and any one of our mages could tell the enemy’s numbers and disposition even through the driving rain.

Because, yes, it was raining again. Clouds were gathering, and their pattern was so familiar to me that it took Morrigan to point out that that great spiral was unnatural. The storm would only get worse, said she, and Solas’ teeth showed as he said we should be thankful for small mercies.

But none of the mages would spare the power to keep the rain off us, even as Dorian spun himself armour of sparkling light and Solas cloaked himself in crawling shadow, and the rain seemed to pass through Morrigan as if she was not there. Blackwall caught my expression and touched his knuckle to the brim of his helmet, half in salute, half as if to say that at least we were wearing hats. And Jenny quoted the Chant, because of course she did.

(To she who trusts in the Maker, fire is her water.)

We moved out. Cassandra in the lead, Blackwall on her right hand, me on her left. Jenny putting arrows in anything that looked too much to handle; Dorian measuring his strength out expertly, making sure they didn’t get up again when we put them down, and the other two mages keeping themselves in wary reserve, watching the weeping sky for dark wings.

(As the moth sees light and goes towards the flame,
She should see Fire and go towards Light.)

The water rattled off our armour and turned the steps into miniature cascades; a grudging couple of words from Morrigan and our footing was firm and steady even on rain-slick stone. The blade was light in my hands. The enemy were relentless but they weren’t anything worse than I’d met before; Krem’s patient lessons had stuck. And Cassandra and Blackwall fought like two halves of the same person, because here in battle when nothing else mattered they could be together.

(Those who oppose thee shall know the wrath of Heaven.)

Their numbers didn’t matter. Forward we went. Another rift, and we pushed forward: Dorian ventured some real power, igniting our blades with a terrible light that the demons seemed actually to fear, and before it faded I was stood beneath it. Reach, grab, pain, twist, pull, and this lot of corpses dropped motionless as the demons that rode them were suddenly hauled back into the Fade. By now it was as natural as swinging a sword. It hardly even registered that this was the same place as the first time I’d ever done this. Mud was falling from my armour in frozen flakes. Forward was uphill. Suited me.

(Field and forest shall burn.)

They blocked the great stair, three walking corpses on every step, and Cassandra and Blackwall gritted their teeth. The spell that makes someone tireless, it’s bad for their health: it takes years off their life, it’s as big and obvious as a storm of fireballs to any mages watching, and a simple disjunction will knock the target instantly senseless. You don’t use it without good reason, and even though this counted, Dorian decided there was an easier option.

(The seas shall rise and devour them.)

The mage stepped forward, spun his staff, held it there in the air before him, and the howling storm before us was bent to his hand, each raindrop freezing as it struck until the stair was blocked not by ravening monsters but by icy statues. And every step we took, I realised, Dorian was changing the words of the spell’s breathless litany, brow furrowed and eyes flickering back and forth in concentration, cutting a space out in which we could walk unmolested even as he leaned grey-faced on my arm. And without pause we took advantage, and Morrigan’s spell kept our tread safe and sure; our footsteps were dry for the instant before the downpour reclaimed them.

(The wind shall tear their nations from the face of the earth.)

When it happened, it was too fast even for me to duck. A shadow, half-seen above us in the unnatural storm. The crack of a pair of great wings. A sensation of terrible claws descending, almost too quickly even to catch a glimpse. And Solas had a hand raised with the blurring speed of his kind and the stooping dragon rebounded from us as if it had struck solid stone: and he and Morrigan didn’t even trade a glance. One moment she was beside us; the next there was a gust of heat like the opening of an oven door, a sensation of glorious plumage of every colour and none, and there was a second shape rising into the storm like an arrow, and the fake dragon screamed.

(Lightning shall strike down upon their insolence.)

We couldn’t see the duel too clearly as we climbed. By this point I was half-carrying Dorian, but his blizzard was still doing its job and it still wasn’t freezing us. The thing that Morrigan had become was smaller than the dragon’s stolen shape, and fast as heat-haze across the plain, and she was no less crafty than her enemy in the air: abruptly it changed its tack, dropping all pretense that it had ever been a dragon, spinning from shape to shape to find a thing that she could not harm, taking shapes out of nightmare and myth and things never imagined outside the depths of the Fade.

But if it thought to overcome the witch in a contest of imagination, it was sorely mistaken. It bit her, to find that it had bitten razors; it burned her, to find that she was fire itself. It shrank, to find she hunted it; it grew enormous and she blasted it contemptuously with a Circle spell for banishing bad dreams. It grabbed her and she was not solid: it tried to pull away and it was she who had hold of it.

And it changed tactics again: if it couldn’t kill her, perhaps it could split her off from us at least. It folded its wings, suddenly stopped trying to fly, and it simply fell; and she fell with it, and we lost sight of the pair of them.

(And they shall cry out to their false gods for salvation and hear only silence.)

We were thirty yards from the summit when Dorian finally tripped over his tonguetwisting spell. His legs faltered along with his voice and he and I nearly went over backwards; the air filled immediately with the high sharp sounds of splintering ice, as the frozen corpses we’d been picking our way around started immediately to tear themselves free of his failing grip. Cassandra yelled to run and there was nothing for it but to do just that; I dragged Dorian a couple of heavy steps upward before Blackwall came up under Dorian’s other arm and we bulled him up the slope before the demons could get their act in gear. Cassandra before us clearing our path, barging the things out of the way while they were still partially trapped in ice; Jenny behind us trying to slow them down, hoping that demons needed hamstrings too.

We hit the top of the stairs and Blackwall basically dumped Dorian on me and spun to join Cassandra and Jenny. They knew their business – get me and the mages to the top, keep us as unmolested as they could. If we could solve this, they lived: as Varric would say, happy thoughts, Max. Suppose it wasn’t that surprising that the three people I could see weighed more on my shoulders than all the people I couldn’t.

The place was just as my mind’s eye recalled. Ruined walls by turns smashed and melted, cracked ground baked to pottery and glass and drenched by this overwhelming unnatural rain. The sensation of walking on thousands of graves. I took the lead now. Dorian leaned on his staff like an old man. And the sensation was growing that Solas’ body was nothing but a simple puppet moved by some great dark entity that masqueraded as his shadow.

The centre, the great shallow bowl that once had been filled with snow, the rain was turning into an ankle-deep lake. Morrigan’s spell on our boots was fading; the water wouldn’t come within a yard of Dorian, Solas barely seemed to notice it, and apparently I had to lump it and wade. But that was the last of my concerns right now.

(Maker, my enemies are abundant.)

Around the tall, dark, lopsided figure in the centre of the basin, the water bubbled and steamed. Strange and fascinating patterns came and went from moment to moment, curling steaming lines like red-hot wires lashing back and forth in the water, almost forming familiar shapes, almost making words I nearly recognised. A finger of twisting cloud reached down from the storm above him, the Maker’s world itself complaining at his magic. The orb of thorns around his neck was dripping like a heart freshly carved from a sacrifice. And as he turned to face the three of us there was the same feeling I’d had the last time I was here. That the world was a picture painted on thin cloth, that if I reached out my hand it’d tear right across.

(Many are those who rise up against me.)

And just like before, when I’d met the spirit of faith, everything threatened to come apart into different leaves and it wasn’t clear what was happening and what was imagination. I levelled my sword and didn’t and stepped forward and hid behind Solas and spoke fearlessly and couldn’t marshal my disobedient mouth into opening. Dorian downed a flask of lyrium he was carrying and he struck without warning and he cautiously erected defensive wardings and he turned abruptly on his heel and went to join our rearguard. And Solas –

uh.

The rest of the world was darkness and every part of it was something that Solas might have done. Each one was just a spell, just a bit of magic I wouldn’t be surprised to see from any mage. Each one on its own wasn’t over imaginative. But it was like he didn’t know what Corypheus would do, so he tried doing everything at once to see what would work.

(But my faith sustains me.)

Corypheus raised a hairless eyebrow and showed misshapen teeth, and stretched forth a finger and all of the possibilities flaked away save one. He’d been given a choice, I realised: Solas had wordlessly given him the choice of how this would start. And he’d chosen to parley.

(I shall not fear the legion should they set themselves against me.)

“Welcome, friends,” he said, without the slightest trace of warmth. “Do come in; take a pew, if there’s one left. How are you today? Have you come far?”

“Fine, thanks. And not awfully far,” I said, not moving, not blinking too much. The water would slow down any attempt I made to rush him and the footing on the smooth ground wasn’t great. “How’s the blasphemous magic?”

“Oh, fine, fine.” A smirk. “I did notice power walking here with you. Not yours, though, I feel. Do tell me that is because you have hidden your light in hope to take me by surprise, rather than because you refused to take it up? Do tell me this encounter will be more interesting than our last?”

The Maker is my strength.” Still a large part of me that didn’t believe it was me saying these words. Felt unreal, and not just because of the magic. “Blessed are those who, who stand before the corrupt and the wicked and do not falter. Blessed are the righteous, the lights in the shadow.

In their blood the Maker’s will is written,” said Dorian drily. “Give it up, old man. Literally a knife to your throat here.” (And mine, Dorian. Way to make a body feel useful.)

“Is there?” The monster cocked his head. “Well, of course you teach your people not to value the one thing of value they actually have. What do you offer me in exchange, Dorian? What do I gain, for the loss of this little working of mine? What is your offer?”

“Continued existence,” he said. (Solas. Solas, as far as I could tell, had vanished.) “The traditional bargain of a magister’s duel I offer you. Bow to us and be bound, and you’ll endure and may perform such work as you’re able. It is always preferable to live than not to.”

“Oh, how generous.” The words dripped scorn. “To live for another heartbeat, another instant. You know, of course, what he has done to me. That while your little slave there breathes, I do, and no longer. You truly believe I’ll come meekly, and settle for t some paltry two-score years as your pet?”

“Rather than die here and now?” Dorian smiled thinly. “Of course you will. Better any scrap of existence, no matter how poor, that’s the point.”

“Do you know what a false dichotomy is, Dorian Pavus?” The ancient creature looked away from us, up at the sky, and I saw Dorian’s quick abortive defensive gesture as if he expected an attack from any movement. “It isn’t a question of live or don’t.” A smile, he had, or I think it was supposed to be. “What’s the phrase from your Chant? There was no word for earth or heaven, for sea or sky? Dear boy, I only have a knife to my throat as long as that phrase has any sense to it.”

“…Bring it all down,” said Dorian, hollowly. “You truly mean to rend the Veil entirely.”

“Do try to keep up,” he snapped, but Dorian shook his head.

“First rule of vevilosarics, ser. There is a line between the conventionally impossible and the completely nonsensical. You are sitting on the branch you intend to saw off. Do you truly have any expectation that having broken the line between dream and not, that you yourself will remain unbroken?”

“Unbroken?” Corypheus snorted. “Not at all. But you said it yourself, didn’t you? Ever it is preferable to continue than not to.”

And Dorian’s eyes widened, and in the next instant killing golden fire had gathered to his hand: and that fire wasn’t for Corypheus.

It was for me.

But the blow didn’t land. That one strike, that one instant, and Corypheus had crossed the space between us, the patterns under his feet shifting to make him their centre wherever he went: and he’d caught the lance of Dorian’s spell seemingly casually in one hand. “I do hope,” he said to me over his shoulder, “that the two of you have talked this over. Expecting this, were you, young man?”

So, you know. I hit him with my sword.

I’d had it balanced casually over my right shoulder. Put my left hand on the pommel for leverage and unwound in a horizontal cut at elbow height. Just like cutting at a pell. He wasn’t trying to dodge. The blade whistled. I put my whole body into the blow and my blade was sharp as a chisel and I caught him right on the elbow. The sword was still moving when it grated on his spine; I took my left hand off the pommel, put it on his back and pushed with the tainted hand, and –

He reached up with his other hand and tore a hole in the sky.

But no. That hadn’t happened at all. He’d done that before we even started to talk to one another and suddenly demons were everywhere –

no, wait. I started talking, some flavour of bollocks not unlike what Dorian (would have) opened with, and Dorian stabbed me, physically stabbed me in the back with a stiletto, and –

Or was it that we’d started talking like civilised people and right in the middle of a sentence Dorian had said a word that sounded like a mountain falling and the ancient horror had simply come apart like rotten cloth in a high wind –

The real duel was on, and immediately it was clear that Dorian and I were out of our depth. Standing on the sidelines of a fight like this, back in the old elvish ruin, I’d thought the difference between Dorian and Solas had been simple power. But standing here in the middle of it? No. No, the difference was knowledge, was experience.

This was an intellectual challenge. A thousand things could happen, a hundred thousand. Every choice had consequences, every decision spawned a hundred more. Every spell has a dozen counterspells, and every one of those has a dozen more, and so on, and so on forever. The reason Corypheus’ magic always seemed to work is that he always picked a future in which his opponent had guessed wrong. It was how the Venatori had got their people across the sea and to Redcliffe exactly on time. It was how they always had seemed to be where we weren’t.

And then here where everything was so nearly broken, it wasn’t the case that one reality was real and one was not. Any of them could be happening. In a very real sense, all of them were. And Dorian and I were pieces in this game simply by virtue of lack of experience, while Solas and Corypheus were players. How could we even fight something like that? Did Solas just expect us to be the best game-pieces that we could?

Corypheus’ hand had gone to the orb of thorns. That happened everywhere. That was his handle on all the different possibilities. It sat on the world like a stone on a rubber sheet and held all the futures together, and he turned it this way and that as he considered the path of least resistance, and every movement he made with it felt like sandpaper and salted razors over the palm of my left hand.

And it came to me that if Corypheus was the centre, Solas was the horizon. They’d defined everything worthwhile around here as being part of their struggle, and then Corypheus had asked for Solas’ next move and Solas had made every single conceivable move at the same time, and he’d laughed. And because I was linked to that bloody orb I could see it all, see what the two of them saw.

No wonder they were insane. I closed my eyes, screwed them shut. Didn’t help. I could still see it all laid out. There was a moment, few minutes’ time, where Morrigan would return from having torn the great fear-demon to shreds, where Solas could finally reveal his true understanding of the orb and they’d crush their foe like hammer and anvil: but there were a thousand ways Corypheus could triumph before then, a thousand ways he could remove the concept of victory from the dictionary before we could win.

And Solas spun ever more webs and loops of decisions and improbabilities, dancing ever on before Corypheus’ slow and creeping advance of counterspells and solutions. Now at last Solas began inserting himself into these futures, appearing from nowhere, taking a dozen different shapes, drawing on magics I was pretty sure we didn’t even have names for. The terrible knowledge that Solas only had this chance because my death meant Corypheus’ destruction. The sick feeling of knowing that it was Solas’ blade arrowing for my heart and Corypheus turning every blow. The slowly mounting fear that I could see Solas pushing harder and harder but I couldn’t see him winning.

But in magic, knowledge is literally power. And Morrigan had sent Josie a dream while she was distracting Solas with that little show of strength. And Josie had slipped a tiny scrap of parchment inside my tunic when she’d kissed me. And this wasn’t part of Corypheus’ plan or Solas’s. All it had said was, Morrigan says the orb of thorns is itself a rift.

And in every potential world what I did was the same, as the two players thought of me only as a playing piece. In every world I reached out my hand. Some of them I was burned and bleeding and ravaged, some of them I stood alone on a blasted plain as Corypheus laughed at a broken sky, some of them I was meant to be swinging a sword or putting a steel toecap somewhere unsporting or turning a clever phrase – it didn’t matter. I stopped what I was doing and in every single one I reached out my hand. Pushed it towards Corypheus like through treacle. Grabbed the orb, and an unearthly frost instantly covered my arm to the elbow. Twisted it out of his hand. Pulled it back towards me, and the chain around his neck broke, and for an instant I held it all in the palm of my hand and thought was erased and I could see everything.

And by complete reflex – just as I’d done every time I closed every rift I’d ever met – I opened my hand. And the orb dropped, discarded, unthinkingly thrown away.

The orb struck the surface of the water and it dissolved like a drop of ink.

My ears rang with tangled echoes. Corypheus shouting wordlessly and somehow in that moment powerless to do anything. Solas snarling for me to stop, to think, that I didn’t know what I was doing, a dozen other arguments overlaid one on top of the other. But none of that had actually happened.

What had happened, what had really happened, what everyone would remember at the end of the day was really quite simple. Dorian and Solas and Corypheus had duelled, and half-ignored I’d walked straight up to the ancient horror, pulled the orb out of his hand and smashed it.

And Solas had seen the thing leave my hand, and he’d let out an inarticulate shout and sped suddenly after it, artifice and power cast to the wind, a helter-skelter run ending in a headlong dive that finished a good seven feet too short, and the orb had smashed on the ground and Corypheus had folded up and collapsed like a dead body. And Solas tumbled to a soaking heap in the water and the clouds overhead were suddenly nothing but clouds.

And I didn’t have a brand on my palm any more.

*

The rifts had closed. The walking dead had fallen where they stood. I doubt anyone in the world cared the excuse Cassandra and Blackwall had for the fact they were leaning on one another and holding tight. Jenny, ashen and limping, was gleaning back her arrows and cursing all humans for accepting victory too quick. And I couldn’t see Morrigan at all.

Solas’ shoulders were shaking, his face only about an inch out of the water, and I couldn’t tell if he was crying or laughing or panting or what, as the pale, exhausted Dorian backed off raising his hands. He wasn’t going near that.

I took a halting step in the elf’s direction. Guess it was my responsibility. Guess I owed him that much. He heard the splash of my footstep and looked up and what was etched into the lines of that ancient face was a bitterness deeper and older than nations: but he was laughing. Laughing at himself, at Corypheus, at me, at the sky that showed not the tiniest scar of what had happened, at the beating rain, and it was the utter opposite of mirth. He pushed himself up off the ground, and his simple robe was plastered to his thin frame with muddy water.

“Well, Herald,” he said, and his smile was ghastly. “I suppose they do say that the time of my kind is over.” He gestured vaguely at the spot where the orb had fallen, at the motionless body of Corypheus. “D’you deem this sufficiently ‘over’ for your purposes? Shall you finish the task, and sink that sword of yours into my heart as well?” He shook his head, looking down at the place where the orb had disappeared. “I suppose there’s no point asking you how I failed, and where? How it was that I did not demonstrate sufficiently that your cause was my cause?”

I shook my head. “The Inquisition’s cause was your cause. That was never in doubt.” I cleared my throat. “Fen’Harel.”

He closed his eyes, then, a long moment. “Truly?” Pinched the bridge of his nose. “The slanders of a generation of elves who lived and died before first your ancestors’ grandfathers’ myths were told, still enough to turn friends against me after a millennium and change? Was that all that it was?”

“I’m pretty sure that if I accuse you of being a liar I’ll be wrong,” I said. “Doubtless you could say that in today’s world you are nobody much, simply a practiced magician with some very old knowledge. Doubtless you truly aren’t Dalish, if for no other reason than that there were no Dalish when you were born. Doubtless someone somewhere even named you Solas once. But truth and honesty aren’t the same thing, are they?”

“Oh, what was I to say?” Disgust in his voice, a teacher met with a trivial and stupid question. “Hello, there, Lady Cassandra, I’m the Dread Wolf: you know, the one the elves refuse to worship? Anyhow, I live in this world too, so what say we forget the part where you’re against everything I’m for and the feeling is mutual, and let’s work on patching this hole in the sky?” He opened his eyes, and his pupils reflected the light. “Don’t worry, my lady, upon my storied honour we’ll part as friends when this is done.”

“How about, I don’t know.” I met his gaze levelly. Felt like staring down an animal. “Maybe that you knew what was being done, and how, and why? Maybe that you knew what was up there? Maybe that the orb was yours?”

“Indeed?” He snorted. “I could even have pretended that it had been stolen.” My eyebrows flew up at that one, and he gave a crooked smile. “Yes, Herald. I allowed the Venatori to find the Orb; I allowed them to give it to Corypheus. While all of this-” he flicked his eyes up at where the hole in the sky had been – “was a miscalculation…”

“You can say that again.”

“You don’t understand.” He uncoiled himself, got to his feet. His skin and his clothes were shedding the water like oilcloth. “D’you remember when I swore and tore up all my notes, that first day when I fixed the brand onto your palm so it couldn’t devour your soul? It was the realisation that I’d overestimated the Venatori. I hadn’t expected them to balls it up quite so spectacularly; I’d been working on the assumption that I was the one who’d failed.”

I frowned. “But Corypheus. Was he not the real danger?”

“That fossil? A pattern of a mind, a few disintegrating memories wrapped around an ancient frame too decrepit to bear it? No match for me, not when he’d so obligingly put his head in my jaws.” He rolled back his shoulders. “I’d have brought his little cult to justice, of course – waste not, want not, no point antagonising one of the world’s great powers. But that matters little, now.” He curled his lip. “Thanks to you, my friend, my worries this evening look more like ‘where to find my next meal’ than ‘how to safely contain Orlais’.”

“All because Corypheus couldn’t keep hold of your Orb.” I shook my head. “So, uh. If you don’t mind me asking…?”

“Is he dead? Are you about to be dragged screaming into oblivion?” Solas raised an eyebrow. “What part of ‘immortal’ is it that you people lack the ability to grasp? No, he’s still in there.” A nod to the twisted corpse. It hardly looked like it had ever been alive. “If I were you, I’d build an elaborate tomb, full of traps and deathless guardians, beneath your nigh-unassailable castle. Get dwarves in to build you a proper sarcophagus: their locks last at least the century you’d need. Seal the door with lyrium and get the new Divine to bless it when they elect one.” His teeth flashed. “Meanwhile, dump Corypheus’ body in your midden and be done with the damned thing. Yes, he’ll live while you do; you needn’t care about hastening that end. He can’t be summoned while he has a body; he can’t be revived unless he’s retrieved.”

“I… see.” Deep breath. “So. What, uh. What now?”

“For my part?” Solas shrugged. “I had Divine Justinia killed by Tevinter catspaws in a bid to regain glories lost; my failure, however much that was your fault, endangered the entire world in ways you simply aren’t qualified to comprehend. I’ve stabilised the situation, and as a side-effect all of my catspaws shall very soon be dead.” He straightened, a glint in his eye. “If honour demands I die for that? If your story demands a villain? I’ll invite you to recall the definition of the word immortal.”

“What are you suggesting? A duel of honour? I win and you go away, come back in another age when the world isn’t full of obstreperous buggers with insufficient respect?”

He snorted. “Does this look like a fairy-tale to you, Maxwell?”

“A serving-man come from rags to riches, ends a titanic battle between the last god of the elves and the creator of the darkspawn, by putting an end to a power man wasn’t meant to have.” I shrugged. “You tell me.”

There was no trace of humour in the smile. “So, what? Shall we set one another riddles, after the fashion of my homeland, or cross steel after the fashion of yours perhaps? I win, and your people take my orders for your lifetime?”

“Fuck that.” I spread my hands. “Solas, I owe you. All else aside, I owe you. You have saved my life. You may never have been honest with me, but you have looked after me. You have taught me. You led us to Skyhold. You offered to help me run away, to stop being the Herald -”

“Because your dying free in obscure poverty would have served my purposes as well as anything else -”

“Whatever. Whatever your motives.” I put my sword away, slamming it into its sheath with a decided finality. “You say this is all your fault, Solas?” I shook my head. “You know best. But simply it’s this.” A nod to the mummified Corypheus. “He’s brought down. The sky is closed. The orb is gone, and the rifts are closing. The tale, if tale it is? It’s over. And I, for one, am looking forward to riding home in glory to the happy ending I don’t deserve. We never see one another again.”

He folded his arms. “So you’d call us well quit for that? A life’s debt, against your forbearance?”

“They’re always saying that the holy warriors hold their lives cheap,” I quipped. “We’ve been friends, Solas, or as close as. One day you might need something from me, and whether I owe you it or not will not be on my mind as I see if I can do it. One day I might be desperate and call upon a dread wolf that I knew once, and the balance of our mutual accounting will not be on your mind as you decide to listen or not.” I looked him in the eye, then I looked down at his feet as an elf would. “Can we leave it at that?”

And for answer, a cloud passed before the sun, and quick paws splashed through the water, and that was the last time that ever I saw him.

*

So I did just as I said. I rode home. The manservant turned master rode to the castle of the Maker’s Inquisition and from life into history, or that’s how it sometimes feels.

Yes, I ‘got the girl’, if you must – more to the point, she got me. The only man who’d ever do my Josie as a husband was the one she’d made out of whole cloth: if I hadn’t existed, she’d have had to invent me. The men who laughed behind their hands at someone finally being dumb enough to marry the Montilyet debts, were abruptly silenced when they realised just how lucrative it was to trade on the shortest route from the dwarvish capital to the west; it was amazing how much of the resultant politics were taken on by my good lady and silently disappeared in a haze of politeness, numbers and perfectly legal backroom deals.

Our life has been all the sweeter that we know very well that we made it ourselves. “Let the storytellers keep their tales of romance,” as Josie had wont to say: “give me an asset over an ornament any day.” Though it can’t have hurt that a man who can’t believe his luck makes for a husband who’d put his eye out rather than let it stray.

The Inquisition, formed to solve the crisis of the War of Apostasy, stayed around for the rebuilding. The mages refused to go back in their cages and the templars were broken: the Chantry made the mess my problem, and it’ll be a life’s work to solve. Love to say I had a solution. But I guess I don’t have a war, and I guess that’s more than the last lot could say. The whole bloody lot of ’em are flying my flag till we can figure out a way to stop them trying to murder one another the moment our putative back’s turned, and I put Vivienne on working out how that could happen.

And yes, there’s a Canticle of the Herald, people writing down anything that I said if they feel it was particularly good: and once the hideous embarrassment passed, I gave up keeping count of how much of the Canticle is made up of things my wife thinks would be expedient for people to learn by heart. Would the Maker have put me in her hands if that wan’t what He intended?

Dorian, he went back to Tevinter. He’d been Gereon Alexius’ apprentice once, and an apprentice is nearly as good as a child by their lights: everyone who could have owned his bond was dead, and he stood to inherit quite an amount, at least to hear his opinion of the law. I suppose we’ll see.

Blackwall and Cullen stayed on as the first two knights of the Inquisition proper. I offered Krem his spurs as captain of my guard, but he said he’d a prior loyalty and anyway his parents were married: I asked Iron Bull, but he just laughed and called me a cheapskate.

Varric, I opened my mouth to offer a position in the Inquisition, and Josie smoothly took over. Turns out that the Inquisition’s gratitude stretches to a bag of gold and fulsome thanks; meanwhile our personal gratitude appears to involve everyone concerned making a large amount of money in some complicated fashion. Who am I to complain?

Cassandra left. Being in the same castle as Blackwall was killing her, and the Chantry was choosing a new Divine and wanted her say. Last I heard they’d been arguing for five years; someone even mentioned Cassandra’s name, they say, and I like to think she considered it even as she shot them down. Nobody would ever be sensible enough to elect a high priestess who cared more for the Maker’s people than the Chant they sang.

Leliana – Nightingale – well, officially she accepted a minor title, stayed on as maid of honour to my wife. To be perfectly honest, I let them get on with the spy business and trust them to get me involved when it needs it. Someone tried to do away with them both, once – I found out the next day, when she gave me a stack of outraged and condemnatory letters to sign. The only piece of any of the assassins anyone ever found was the head that they sent with the letter to their employer.

Red Jenny made me swear two things before she went on her way: that she’d not be forgotten in the Canticle, and that I’d keep my clumping toes proper careful like a noble ought. I swore on the Maker’s Bride and on the Dread Wolf, and she went very still and said she hoped I meant that. I did. The terror of the Orlesian nobility went back to her terrorism, and occasionally we’d get polite little tipoffs from anonymous elves asking for convenient witnesses at particular places and times, and it was always nice to see whose plans we’d completely unweave by turning up and being honest and observant.

And one summer evening as my wife and I took wine on the balcony of Skyhold, great glorious wings caught the light just for an instant as their owner played with the wind in the lee of a distant peak. And whatever she was doing, I wished the Morrigan well, and prayed we’d never need to know what it was.

And my daughter shall be three years old in a month’s time. And her name is Justinia.

fin.

Fear & Surprise, Chapter Forty-One

Previous

Up

Next

*

Then did I see the world spread before me,
Sky-reaching mountains arrayed as a crown,
Kingdoms like jewels, glistering gemstones
Strung ‘cross the earth as a necklace of pearl.
“All this is yours,” spake the World-Maker.
“Join Me in heaven and sorrow no more.”

“World-making Glory,” I cried out in sorrow,
“How shall your children apology make?
We have forgotten, in ignorance stumbling,
Only a Light in this darken’d time breaks.
Call to Your children, teach us Your greatness.
What has been forgotten has not yet been lost.”

Long was his silence, before it was broken.
“For you, song-weaver, once more I will try.
To My children venture, carrying wisdom,
If they but listen, then I shall return.”

Canticle of Andraste
first stanza, verses 10-12
Chant of Light

*

Exhausted and shaking, just about not falling off, I’d barely got down from my horse when a faded blue blur resolved herself into Josephine with warm arms around my neck. I mean, a fellow could get used to this. Eventually she’d calmed down long enough that we could look one another in the eye, though it was fairly clear I wasn’t being let go. “So, uh.” I looked into her eyes and tried not to sink. “Miss me?”

“A little, perhaps,” she said. “Max, it looked like the sky itself fell in on that temple. Hawke said something about a duel of archmages-”

My eyes widened. “Is he still around?”

“Nn-no,” she replied, drawing the syllable out. “He said something about having done enough now, and stole a horse. What happened in there? You still have everyone you went in with?”

And she winced at my expression. “We do, yes, some definition of ‘everyone’. Morrigan is in Vivienne’s care right now, and, well, I’ll tell you if she’s all right when we find out what wakes up. The temple’s not a danger any more. We won the day, but he got away – When’s the war council?”

“Tomorrow. Morning, if we can.”

I frowned. “By then, the Elder One could be-”

“Max,” she said, and she was holding both my hands. “The Red Templars’ reinforcements turned up before ours did, and only thank the Maker that the dragon hove off when our mages stung it. Cassandra carried Blackwall as far as the healers’ station and then fell on top of him in a heap. Cullen is alive, but Vivienne is worried about that. Bull and Krem are hale, but the Chargers will only be good to go anywhere tomorrow because our mages are breaking Circle rules about the use of lyrium in healing. Our Templars were -” she pursed her lips – “Mauled. Everyone did us proud, and we didn’t give one damned inch, but I mean it when I say that half your war council isn’t functional enough to talk to.”

“Right.” That vertiginous feeling, I supposed it was the feeling of being in charge. They’d done that to give us a chance and we’d blown it. Deep breath. “Solas reckons we succeeded in backing the Elder One into a corner, and creatures with their foot in a trap do stupid things. Thinks we’ve swapped one apocalyptic danger for another.”

“And can it wait until morning?”

I bit my lip. “It had better, hadn’t it?”

“All right.” She squeezed my hands. “Jenny insists she’s all right to help you with your armour. Would my lord consent to join me for dinner?”

And I knew an order when I heard one.

*

“Here?” The voice, that’s what I knew first. It belonged to Morrigan: clear, firm, high, with that incongruous trace of a rural Fereldan accent. “You want to have this out before an audience?”

“You’re a smart girl.” That was Solas, a resonant tenor with an untraceable burr to it that I used to suppose was Dalish. “Guess.”

I opened my eyes. I was sitting, yes, in the big chair in Skyhold. Before me, as if I were holding court, stood the two of them; Solas looked like nothing so much as a puppet being operated by a giant and shadowy thing, while Morrigan was dressed as a fine Orlesian lady, mask and all. I was frozen. I could not move; I could not speak. I could see, I could hear, and that was more than enough.

“Fine, then.” She strode quickly across the hall until she was looking down at him from a distance of a couple of feet; she tore off her mask so she could look him in the eye. “How does it go? Fuck you. And fuck the ego you rode in on, you treacherous, backstabbing, overweening excuse for the feculent products of a diseased pigsty. It was not just that you set me up, you verminous offpsring of a rat and a cockroach, you delivered me on a silver platter: and when it looked like she was going to refuse to bite, you shoved me down her throat with both hands and a bargepole.”

Solas raised an eyebrow, and his shadow behind him deepened. “Did I truly sever our deal, yours and mine? Do you not feel repaid for what you have done, both for the comparatively minor favour of finding me the Maid of Ferelden and the somewhat larger matter that you defied my will?”

She slapped him.

The outline of her hand was red on his cheek and he touched it tentatively with a fingertip: then he met her eyes. “I would advise you,” he said in a voice as cold as bitter winter’s night, “not to do that again.”

So the second blow was with the back of her hand and it took him off his feet.

He rose, and I’d seen that terrible light in his eye once before, and it was when he’d told a man to kneel down or die standing. And Morrigan met his eyes coolly, and she smiled, just faintly, and she said, “Try me.”

And behind her the sun rose, and the light came in through the windows of the great hall, and all the shadows fled: and Solas was the one to look away.

“It worked, then,” he said, and there was a wary note to his voice.

“‘It worked, then’. As if you were speaking of a simply mechanistic… transaction, rather than the calculated violation of a trust you have never deserved.” She cast a glance in my direction. “He uses people,” she said to me. “Anybody younger than he is fair game, or anyone who infringes upon that pride of his, or anyone who must rely on him – He truly was my master, you know, at least briefly. Promised to me that he would teach me secrets, sight unseen, if I’d accept his teaching on that basis.”

“And do you feel that you have not learned secrets?” Here in the dream he had long, sharp teeth. Wolf’s teeth. “D’you not feel that you have gained, and immeasurably so, that you do and say what you have done tonight? And – remind me – who was it you are in the middle of blaming for that?”

Her eyes were hard. “My name, Solas, is Morrigan. I am the daughter of Flemeth of the Long Years, the storied witch of the Korcari Wilds. I may call none father; by magic was I conceived and made, by blood-magic, and for – or so I have spent half my life believing – one single purpose alone. For the Witch of the Wilds is immortal, but the core of her is human, and will not sustain the ravages of time unmarked. Lest she become a twisted being such as Corypheus, she must shed it periodically, like a snake her skin. And then she takes up a new body – a body brought to maturity and strength by a caretaker, the Morrigan. Yes?”

“By all means, don’t let me stop your words.”

“So it’s known to some that in allowing me to travel and train beside the Maid of Ferelden, my mother mis-stepped.” She was pacing, now. “The Maid and I tracked Flemeth down in her own Wilds, and with speed and cunning and luck we slew her, and that should have made an end; but of course it was not, for one does not live for eternity if one is so easily felled, and she was reborn with the aid of the Dalish archmage Merrill Kirker and the human troublemaker Hawke. And I have been hiding from her ever since.”

“In a hole which you left because I pointed out the stupidity of hiding from such an individual without planning for what to do when you can hide no longer; yes.”

“Except, of course, that I fled into the waiting arms of none other than -” She opened her mouth; her lips seemed to frame a word that was not the elf’s name. But she did not say it. “Him before me. Who as payment for my insolence, kept indeed his word that he would not sell me to my mother.” She growled the words between gritted teeth. “For he simply gave me away. For nothing. Because if knowledge is power, then secrets are weapons, and gaps in your knowledge are weaknesses in your armour – and the one crucial secret that I did not know was simply this.” Her eyes were a little too bright. “The Witch of the Wilds, the Lady of the Long Years, my mother, is none other than the one known to the elves as the Lady of the Moon, the Keeper of Justice, She Who Takes Vengeance, Mythal of the Shield.”

There was a moment’s pause, and Solas gestured to Morrigan to go on. “Yes?” he said. “And? You expect this to shock me, that I have done that which you most feared, that you confront me with it? Am I in fact not speaking, to all intents and purposes, with Mythal? With a part of Mythal’s soul in a body Mythal grew for herself, now come at last into her power?”

And Morrigan shook her head. “You never did have children, Solas. In all your years, in all your workings – you never created life from out of yourself, did you? You never looked down at it and saw it smile. As I said: gaps in your knowledge are weaknesses in your armour, flaws in all plans you can make. Cracks in the eluvi’an, as your saying goes. And there is something for which you did not allow.” She had the expression of the game-player in the instant before she collects the pot. “Every single thing you said concerning the properties of the creature you are speaking to was true: and yet, and yet indeed. Simple possession was never my mother’s plan for me, not since I demonstrated such unexpected competence as a creature in my own right. You have not rejuvenated an old god, Solas. You have witnessed the birth of a new one.”

Solas blinked. Blinked again. Tilted his head, exactly like Jenny would do when curious. Frowned. “Ah,” he said. “Well, then. That – has – likely torn it entirely.”

She raised an eyebrow. “I might have conceived of a dislike for you personally, my good man, and with some reason, but I’m not an utter imbecile. You and I may have started our relationship with a quarrel, but I do happen also to live in this world we are trying to safeguard.”

“And much help a half-trained apprentice will be, even one with a newly found and unlooked-for birthright that she’s no idea how to use. If it was simply power I lacked, dear girl-”

And the eastern wall of the great hall simply – one instant it was there, and the next it was nothing but motes of dust on the breeze. And the sunlight filled all that I could see, and Morrigan wore it like a cloak, and Solas was the thinnest of silhouettes, the shadow of a pole at noon. And the young lady tilted her head, slowly, and her eyes bored into him, and she said it again. “Try me.”

And I woke with a loud coarse cry and then had to spend a good while telling various guards that I was absolutely fine.

*

“So you are telling me you let him slip.” Cassandra pinched the bridge of her nose. “I suppose that you are aware how much we-”

“I did not let him do anything.” Solas’ tone was more penetrating than loud. “The humans lost their nerve.”

“Perhaps,” Dorian growled, “if we had known that your ideal picture of success looked exactly like everyone having their posteriors handed to them in a hat? That would have been nice. Perhaps we’d be celebrating victory as we speak.”

“You were welcome to join us on the front line instead,” said Blackwall, a bandage still tight in place around his head. “Perhaps you could have talked some Venatori to death.”

“Gentlemen, princess, please.” Morrigan shot them all what was supposed to be a quelling glare. “We have only limited time, here, and no reason at all to manufacture new quarrels-”

“And who are you?” Nightingale rounded on the witch. “I hope that I am not the only one here who has noticed that either you have served a dozen years at White Spire overnight, or you are not the woman who stood with me against the Blight?”

“Solas,” said Vivienne, an eyebrow arched. “Do please tell me that you can vouch that this is the same person you brought to us as an apprentice?”

“Not without more deception,” said Dorian darkly.

And Morrigan frowned, and Solas’ eyes didn’t leave hers as he spoke. “I am afraid that Dorian is, broadly, correct.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake!” I brought my right hand down on the table with a crash and it didn’t matter that I’d raised my voice, and just for a moment everyone shut their mouth. “D’you imagine that Corypheus is sitting on a nice little portable throne somewhere quailing into his morning gruel at the thought of us arguing? No. No, he isn’t. He’s laughing his misshapen tod off. Yes: this is a tent full of natural enemies. No: we won’t be pursuing that right now. I vouch for Morrigan personally.”

“Maxwell,” said Cassandra carefully, “you probably cannot see what many of us can. This woman is not -”

“Solas?” I cut her off. “Why, at heart, did you arrange for Morrigan to change as she has done?”

“The answer you want, out of all those possible?” He folded his arms. “Because our options begin to boil down just to brute force, and we needed a battle-mage with a little more muscle than me.”

The eyes of everyone in the room tracked to the witch. She shrugged. “Solas repulsed the Elder One once, but the dragon will be at his side when we meet again, or he’s an idiot. Two on one is unjust and unfair.”

“So,” I said. “Yes, it would have been nice to have known this plan beforehand, but here we are. I say again: what next?”

“The Elder One wasn’t just repulsed; he was balked.” Solas leaned on the end of the map table. “His plan, such as it was, was ruined. He will have changed his tack completely.”

Cassandra frowned. “Can this be turned to our advantage?”

“Well, it is better than our having entirely failed. He has learned of our efforts to counteract his magics; I won’t go into detail here, but in barely escaping us at the temple he discovered that what he was trying simply will not work.” He made a face. “My best guess is that, backed into a corner, he will set out to break as much as he can. His demon allies – the dragon and its ilk – still get what they want if that happens. And it is one of the few things he will believe he has the power to accomplish.”

“Does he?” Nightingale finished replacing the red pin in the temple of Mythal with a black one. “His forces were decimated, and your tone suggests more than simply engaging in a little burning and pillage, no?”

The elf nodded. “What he did at the Sanctuary of the Ashes was by accident. The same thing could be done on purpose. It would take all that he had to do it – but with little left to lose, it isn’t inconceivable.”

“So how do we stop him? What do we do with this information?”

“Well, there is the problem.” Solas looked down. “Our foe is immortal. The artifact that he will try to use to break the world open, the orb of thorns, it is bound to his soul: when he dies and rises anew, it goes with him. Toe to toe, I have fought him to a standstill, once. The quick unstoppable strikes that Templars can make are useless against an immortal foe: and what he escaped at the temple will not work again.”

“We know where he will be, at least,” said Morrigan. “The artifact can only be used in places of power, and this is not a land our enemy is familiar with, not since the Chantry has put so much effort into levelling it. He knows we seek him, and does not know we have few tricks left to us. And he knows of one place of power for sure: and furthermore, he knows that defenders are not there.” She reached out and tapped the pin on the map. The very first place that Nightingale had marked. “Solas and Dorian and I have until we reach Skyhold to come up with a way to stop the Elder One. This will end where it all began.”

*

Next

Fear & Surprise, Chapter Forty

Previous

Up

Next

*

The role of the wolf in elvish myth is a fundamental one. In modern times, of course, the analogy of the wolf pack and the Dalish tribe is a facile one: but any scholar of elvish lore knows that across ancient Arlathani culture it is the single most common animal to be depicted in their art, after the elves themselves and far more common than their herds or their prey. The wolf was considered the exemplar of the virtues of endurance, loyalty and constancy, without the deliberate cruelty inherent to a thinking being; in the elvish tradition of representative art, to depict someone as a wolf was a high compliment.

So why, then, is the only elvish god ever to be so portrayed the trickster figure, at once friend and adversary to the rest of the pantheon? Why is the betrayer-god the wolf, and not the god of loyalty, say, or the hunt?

It would be inaccurate to pretend there was a universally acknowledged answer to this question. Asking a Dalish keeper, of course, is as unhelpful as asking a revered father why Andraste’s death was required for the conversion of Tevinter to the Chant: their answer is simply that the truth is not required to conform to our notions of narrative.

Vestrel of Minrathous writes in Upon the Faith of Arlathan that the answer is in the name ‘Lying Wolf’, that is, the god of betrayal is the wolf that is inconstant, disloyal and generally lacking in the elvish virtues. But if this is true, then Fen’Harel is literally the only one of the elvish gods whose portrayals mean the opposite of what they would mean in secular art.

Meanwhile Arhaz of Llomeryn in his widely regarded History of Barbarian Myth claims that the modern understanding of Fen’Harel and even the Arlathani word harel are changed from the meaning they would have had in ancient Arlathan: that it is not that the betrayer-god is the wolf, but that the wolf-god somehow became associated with betrayal and lies in the folk-memory of the elves, and there are certainly no shortage of tales that paint the figure so.

But one hardly need, as Arhaz does, suggest that these creatures genuinely once existed, that one or other of these tales is founded in truth. For it hardly takes a mighty intellect to suggest that the event that precipitated these was the fall of Arlathan in the face of the rising Tevinter empire and the loss of those same virtues that once the wolf embodied. It hardly takes a great imagination to believe that the elvish slaves might see a rump state bereft of constancy, loyalty and endurance and conclude that their fall was due not to any failing of the state itself but to some great, divine betrayal….

excerpt, From Dalish to Dales: Elvish Art and Custom
Magister Gereon Alexius

*

I don’t know what I was expecting. Something grand, I suppose. Something massive and cyclopean and hieratic and all sorts of other words that mean ancient and terrifying. But what there was was almost unsettling in its mundanity. Small room, mosaic floor, one chair, suppose it had a bit of a throne thing going for it, a chalice of water sitting on one arm of the chair. But, I mean, Josephine’s office at Skyhold was better appointed than this and larger. Solas was walking like he was treading on broken glass, and the other mages were clearly taking care, but to me this place just didn’t have that air of foreboding about it. It felt almost – backstage.

Solas spoke, and quietly, as if not to disturb something sleeping. “The supplicants remained in the Hall of Winter and Midnight, spoke their case. The priests heard it, and then they would come here.” He gestured to the chalice. “They would drink, and they would see. They would walk out and declare judgement.”

“So, what do we do?” I whispered. When in doubt, copy the one you followed in here.

“We?” He bowed his head. “I do nothing, and you watch your step for fear of me. Oaths I’ve sworn, my word gone from me a long time ago. But I am not alone. This place is… holy. I do not think that you want it to be.”

“But you are, what, sworn to stop it being desecrated?”

“I am,” he said. “But I did not come here accompanied by imbeciles – or at least, not by three imbeciles.”

“The chalice is nonmagical,” pronounced Dorian. “Of course, the book of the Chant is nonmagical, too: but ancient elvish religion has always been assumed to be rather more direct and pragmatic. The stuff inside?”

“Hmm.” Morrigan tilted her head in a decidedly inhuman fashion. “The throne is enchanted only as the walls are, against age. The stuff… inside the chalice… Yow!” And Morrigan blinked rapidly and made a face that reminded me of nothing so much as a cat that had bitten into something horrid. She put a hand out, steadied herself on the wall. “Silence and perdition, what’s in that?”

Dorian was a little more circumspect. Looked to Solas for permission (the elf didn’t move, as if pointedly not looking), and then whispered half a dozen words of Tevene, stuttered to a halt.”Mostly water,” he said. “I think it’s a decoction of some kind of entheogenic, somehow maintained fresh, mushroom tea, to you and me. No enchantment on the cup, though, as I said.”

“Blind as a mole, you.” She ran a moistened finger over her eyelids, whispered a dozen words in some foul barbarian tongue, reached out tentatively –

Solas was the only one who didn’t duck at the harmless white flash.

“Conditional response,” said Dorian softly. “It reacts differently to you and to me, the outer layer clearly some kind of concealment. A sort of primitive contingency nest, somehow still active after-”

“Primitive, yourself.” Morrigan was still blinking her eyes to clear them. “There are four layers at least still active, and I’ve some notion that it’s faded somewhat: and yet it’s not an enchantment, it is a transient spell.”

“For values of ‘transient’ that exceed the age of human civilisation.” Dorian shook his head at it in mild disbelief. “Do you suppose the place remains holy if it’s unpicked?”

An almost disappointed twitch from Solas. Morrigan shook her head. “It’s effectively the only thing-”

I cleared my throat. “Excuse me.” She looked at me mildly, as if to ask why I was even still there. “Seems to me we’re doing this wrong.” I stepped up before the throne, beside Solas. “We’re in someone’s house and so far all we’ve done is discuss the decor. Right?”

Morrigan flushed, and for a moment her expression was that of a student caught in a trivial error. “Um. Y-es.” She cleared her throat. “Just, well, making sure you could see what you, well, just making sure you knew your environment, as it were.” A slightly nervous glance at me. “You are the holy man here, after all.”

And I tried to imagine someone sitting in the chair. An elf, she’d be, finely and strangely dressed, regal and without the nervous air of the elves I’d grown up with, and I looked her in the imaginary eye once and then I bowed to empty air. “Mythal, Lady of the…” shit, what did she actually do… “Moon and of Justice, I bring greetings as Herald of the Maker’s Bride. You’ve heard what is going on. You’ve seen us fight someone who’s your enemy like he’s ours. Hell, you know him better than we do, for your eye is…” something something, tip of my tongue… “long and your reach is sharp?” Solas’ pained expression in the corner of my eye. “He’ll come here again, the Elder One, and, and if he does everything will be awful.” I swallowed. “But you are wise, and you will have a way to make that not be. A-and my Lady is proud, and she is great, but I’m neither, and I’m in your house, milady. And it’s surely not outside the bounds of, of bounds if I asked you for some… help?”

“Well, well, well.” And that was genuine surprise and even something like warmth in Solas’ soft voice. “A petition. A prayer, be it never so artless. I’ve literally no idea how she will take that.”

“So uh.” I stood there motionless. “Solas, I swear to you that this question has nothing to do with-”

“While we live, Max-”

“R-right.” I looked at the empty throne. “What do we do now? I mean, i-if she answers.”

“I’ve told you already,” he said with a cat’s grin. “Get on with it.”

“Elvish rituals are usually almost foolproof, if you follow the steps.” Dorian frowned. “Door opened in ritual manner, sanctum entered respectfully, petition made. Wrong order, but that doesn’t matter to this rite?”

“Even so.”

“Right.” Dorian nodded to the chalice. “So to get your oracular experiential-” he caught Solas’ glance – “I mean, to get the ‘answer’ to your ‘prayer’, the next step is to pick up the chalice and drink the holy hallucinogen.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Dosed for elves, of course. Do we have a volunteer for high priest of the lady Mythal in this fallen age?”

I blanched. “I, uh. Think I’m taken.”

“Well, old chap,” said Dorian, “there’s a list of things you don’t do in ancient ruins and ‘deliberately consume poisons crafted by the ancestral enemy’ is on it. Morrigan, your own smart pace to the rear?”

She moistened dry lips. “I… it is something I have never done, and altered states of consciousness tend to interact poorly with… I dislike being out of control, I’ve a series of spells and contingencies that would interfere fairly vigorously, but I… They can in principle be unravelled.” She glanced nervously at Solas. “I assume that if our guide were permitted to do this for us, he would have.”

“Do not ask me that again,” was Solas’ answer. Perfectly reasonable of him, I felt. “Be very sure that you mean what you do and say in here. One thing I will say, though, is that the ‘poison’ of which you speak is there solely to open a door that would otherwise be battered down.”

Morrigan bit her lip. “I could make myself susceptible to that. Dorian, as far as I see it we’re neither of us unsuitable?”

“Wild horses, winged porkers and no way in all bastardry, does that clear my position up?” He shot the chalice a jaundiced look. “We already know the magic doesn’t like me: you want to mess up our only chance? You’re Chasind, aren’t you, Morrigan? One of the few peoples who a putative elvish deity or chained spell-contingency might legitimately not remember with hatred?”

“I’m as Chasind as Solas is,” she retorted. “But… Well.” She said the words with every evidence of distaste. “Somebody has to do it, and at least I don’t deny that she exists.” A glare in my direction. “I expect you to recall in future that you owe me for this. Strictly speaking, it could have been any of the three of us.”

“Unquestionably,” I said, but she was no longer listening as she started unspeaking her spells of protection with the careful self-conscious air of a warrior stripping off first armour and then clothing in public, though little changed about her to my eyes. When she didn’t stop at three, Dorian raised an eyebrow; when she was still going at nine, Solas smiled a quiet smile. Of course there were thirteen.

“Catch me,” she said to me, “should I fall.” Then she knelt carefully before the throne and reached for the chalice. “Lady Mythal, there are none in this fallen age and this place who’d be worthy to speak for you. So in the presence of those here who I’ll not name, and on the understanding that it remains my own to retrieve when we’re done, I pray you allow me to lend you what voice I have.” And she swallowed a deep draught from the thing and replaced it as hastily as she could manage.

*

“It’s curious,” said Morrigan hollowly. “This mushroom is one with which I am familiar, or at least second-hand. Its effects are supposed to blossom in a good, uh, a, twenty to thirty sul’ain, about half an hour, but there is a spell of creation here, to ram this down my throat properly. I can actually feel… it… accelerating, it’s, uh… Excuse me.” She turned, abruptly, and sat down leaning against the empty throne of Mythal, head thrown carelessly back, looking at the ceiling with an unfocused empty stare.

“So the draught affected you, then? It works?” I looked down at her carefully, as if she was about to dispense ageless wisdom and judgement at any instant.

“Nnnh. Definitely. Yes.” She rolled her head from side to side a little. “This is – It is a little like that time I was – drugged – but all I can see so far is the scrapings of my subconscious and the foam of the nearby…” She flinched. “Fade, have you ever looked, really looked into the shallow Fade?”

“You still with us?” Dorian said warily.

“Yes. Sulevian da,” she slurred. “Emma elvi’ra ma falennan dith’an atishaan, I do suppose.”

“She says,” said Solas in a tone of voice suggestive of humoring an elderly relative, “that she thinks the draught is working on her, and that its principal goal is the establishment of peace and quiet in which to talk: to which I’ll add that she’s speaking a hideous street patois.”

“Have you know I learned it from ‘n actual elf,” she said distantly. “Little dear, come you why to this mausoleum lost under a snowdrift of time?

I squared my shoulders and cleared my throat, but Dorian stopped me with a shake of his head. “That was just an echo,” he muttered. “If this is fishing, she just caught an old boot.”

“Rockpool,” slurred Morrigan, “fishing in a rockpool with my fingers. Give me a little while to – old boot, yourself, mortal.”

Dorian gulped. “Uh. No offence meant, I’ve no experience with situations in which ecstatic hallucinogens produce lucid interactions with -”

I elbowed him and he shut up. “Speak, my lady: your supplicants hear you.”

I can see that, boy.” Lines, the wrinkles of age, were showing on Morrigan’s face and that was how she’d always been. “I must say, though, I’m unimpressed. Both of you men perfectly able to do this and you’ve made the girl do it as if she were your personal slave?” She sniffed. “And you’ve no conception of the consequences of that. To the void with gallantry: is bravery dead, as well? Is loyalty?

“We thought only of what would be most respectful, my lady.” I bowed my head elf-fashion. “I offer apology if this has offended.”

Is it not rude to lie where you hail from?” Still staring at the ceiling, her face contorted into a parody of a witch’s smile. “Regardless, to business. You say that the creature you killed will return, and that you’re unwilling to defend this place, and that you’ve no plan that will survive contact with him a second time. That a fair summary?

“That’s, uh. Yes, my lady,” I stuttered.

Well, then.” She narrowed her upward-turned eyes. “This place. How’d you learn of it?”

“Our, our enemy was headed straight for it.”

A slight frown. “And the People: they still use this place, they still hold court here?

“No, my lady.”

Good!” She clapped her hands and looked straight at us and Dorian and I flinched. “I was beginning to believe you did not know how to speak without dissembling. You mean to tell me that this mouldy old ruin is a vital part of a plan to do untold damage to the world we share?

Dorian answered for me. “Pretty much, my lady. You’re familiar with the concept that the metaphorical can occasionally be made literal if you’ve but where to stand? It’s my belief that Corypheus wishes to identify himself with your worship and then break every rule he can, right here, and turn the metaphorical breach into a real one using the fading echoes of the last time he did that.”

Corypheus, you say?” Her eyebrows went up. “I do like it when people actually name their foes, it makes conversations so much easier. The magic you speak of is ancient indeed: one doubts that this world still contains the art to avert it, so you speak of…” she trailed off, tilted her head, very much like the elf she wasn’t.

Dorian spoke once he was sure he wasn’t interrupting. “Physically averting it. Making it such that he can’t do it because the tools don’t exist.”

You can’t cast someone out of a throne that isn’t there?” She folded her arms. “Have you thought through what you just asked, child?

“No,” I butted in. “No, sera, we, we haven’t. Maybe it’s different by your lights, but speaking personally, I’m not in the habit of praying for divine intervention for problems I can solve myself.”

A throaty purr of a chuckle that somehow belonged perfectly to Morrigan. “No, no, I suppose you aren’t. Square the circle, O Mythal, cut the halla deer in half and let both halves live, have the mortal enemies abandon their feud and share their inheritance in peace.” And in her eyes was a look of such ancient and long-suffering experience as to leave me feeliing about half an inch tall. “And nobody ever asks what would be the consequences if the impossible were accomplished whenever the people wanted.

“Make it so the circle can be squared, and suddenly you can’t use numbers to count things?” Dorian said.

Not atrocious.” There was a swirl of mist and Morrigan was standing, though Morrigan hadn’t worn her hair long and usually looked about half that age, and the two of us shrank back from her. “Oh, stop it,” she said. “If I were truly what Dorian fears, you ought to have started running well before now.” She brushed a flurry of dust from her robe. “The consequence for the action you ask for is insupportable. I’ll not give up what is here. That’s enough to tell you what to do, no?” Her expression, that of a tutor setting a perfectly reasonable question.

Dorian frowned. “Because of course you can’t just tell us-”

Because,” and she leaned on the word, “you’re not worthy to carry that solution out if you can’t work out what it is.

“Of course!” The Vint threw up his hands in frustration. “World on the line, risk of another Breach worse than the first, ancient horrors sauntering around Orlais on sabbatical from their storied tombs, and we aren’t worthy-”

“What is here,” I interrupted. Dorian looked at me like he was the only sane man in the world. “Lady Mythal, I think I’m missing something fundamental. What is it that is here? What is it that you refuse to give up? Can it be moved?”

And another demonic smile split Morrigan’s face. “I can see why she likes you: whether it can be moved is an entertaining question. It isn’t me, but without it I couldn’t be who I am: I can share it, but I can’t give it away.

“Power,” I said almost without thinking, and in the same instant Dorian said “Knowledge,” and we looked at one another, and it struck me that hadn’t Solas said they were the same thing?

A snort. “And there, I think, in a nutshell, is both why you people rule Thedas and why you shouldn’t.”

Dorian frowned. “Wisdom, then, I suppose: is that what you want us to say? That what you wish to protect is the act of worship this place enables, not the place itself?”

She looked at him as if he were a particularly dense student.”And therefore…?

“An oracle. You wish us to provide for an oracle of yours somewhere else.”

Her brows descended. “Is the book of your Chant holy?

“No,” I said, automatically. “It is the Chant itself that is holy.”

Just so.” She spread her hands with an elegant flutter. “One of those present shall take up the chalice, and this time they shall drain it: and they shall go forth from here as my –” she looked disparagingly at Dorian – “What passes for a language among quicklings is foul. Oracle is the word.”

Dorian cleared his throat. “And presumably this deal isn’t what you’d call negotiable.”

I remind you of who asked for whose assistance,” she said, and her voice was cold. “If Corypheus is allowed to come here with the place undamaged, he shall tear the Veil as widely and as hard as he can. The alternative course – to desecrate this place yourselves, to pour the chalice on the floor, no? – had you wished for that to happen, you were ill-served to draw my eye. One of you will volunteer; they will not be worse off for having done so. How would you put it?” That wasn’t a smile. “Knowledge. Power. That order of thing.”

“And servitude at best,” he returned. “Do you know what we teach, Lady Mythal, concerning spirits and deals with them?”

A snort of disgust. “For the last time, quick one, I and mine are no more spirits of the Fade than your own Maker’s Bride.

“For that matter, old one, I always wondered about her.”

But even if it were true,” she said, and she loomed over us in sheer presence if not in physical size. “The point is that this must happen. Even if you believe you are sacrificing one of you three to a fate worse than death: it must happen, or we all lose. And I could survive in the world that would come and you could not.”

“But,” I stammered, “your own people-”

Would be dead and worse.” Morrigan’s body drew itself up haughtily. “It is therefore that I am even dealing with you.” Her eyes glinted. “So choose.”

I swallowed hard. “Uh, my lady. Can we talk with Morrigan? It would not be fair to-”

Her reaction is the same as it was when she became my voice,” she said drily. “She believes it exposes her to risk that would be unacceptable in any other situation. She is unwilling, but at the same time she is physically capable of it: and sometimes one must do things one does not wish to. She wishes to remind you that she believes you are under an obligation to her, and of other irrelevant facts I’ll not speak.” An odd note to her voice. “She is so very afraid.”

Dorian nodded, slowly. “We’ll remember her. Solas, you know her best. I’m sure we shall have a way of memorialising martyrdoms when this is done; I’m sure she’s not the last.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Just like that?”

“Should we rehash what we said before she took that draught?” Dorian shook his head. “You are Andraste’s: you may not do this. I am our expert on vevilosarics and Tevene magic in general: I should not do this, even before we consider that I flatly refuse to. And she’s physically and mentally capable, even though it’s not particularly nice for her.”

“In other words,” I said, perhaps a little callously, “you’re unwilling and afraid, too. And here’s someone you could send in your place. I’m afraid that I just don’t believe your argument, that your unique skills are more useful than hers. Can you shift your shape?”

“Solas can,” he returned. “It’s rare, true, but it’s not what I’d call-”

“Solas understands your rift magic, too,” I said. “Yes, he likely wouldn’t teach, whereas you could: right now that’s a higher class of problem.”

“For crying out loud, she’d be the first to call herself an apprentice without formal-”

“Dorian.” I looked him straight in the eye. “If what you mean is ‘I can’t, don’t make me’, then say that. There are two other people here. Do you think I have not been listening when Vivienne’s spoken about the need to help a mage stay on an even keel mentally?” Deep breath. “But one of us has to, and all three of us can, and don’t pretend there’s an obvious choice.”

He looked away. Abruptly couldn’t meet my eye. Didn’t speak immediately. Chewed on his lip. At length he made himself say it. “I can’t, Max.” He shot a guilty look at Morrigan. “Don’t make me.”

I nodded. Turned to the witch and to the presence that held her like a hand-puppet. “Mythal, I am the Inquisitor, the head of our order. This is my decision and I take moral responsibility: you understand?”

She inclined her head. “Even so.”

“And Morrigan has done enough.” I bowed to her. “I should be honoured to take up the duty you have outlined.”

Truly, indeed?” The apparition’s eyebrows shot up and if that wasn’t surprise on her face she was an excellent liar. “Is that your.. .final answer, Herald of the Maker’s Bride?

I opened my mouth and in that instant something invisible had seized my voicebox: I could barely breathe, let alone speak. I put a hand to my throat.

And Solas broke his silence, and his reluctant voice had the same resonance that it had when he had called Tobias Hawke a fool. “Ta em’an da,” he said. “Mine.”

A pause. Distinct, it was, and icy. Morrigan’s vacant eyes came to rest upon the elf, and the very air between them wavered, as if it too wasn’t so thrilled about being in the way. “I wonder, young one,” she said, and frost formed on her breath and spidered out on the floor around her feet, “whether you might not have mentioned this little fact earlier.” She inclined her head.

“Crude of me to play this card, I admit,” he nearly whispered, and his quiet voice assaulted the ears as if he’d screamed. “I’d assumed that you’d have exercised your famous and arbitrary high-handedness and simply chosen the obvious candidate.” Was that a smirk on his face? “You’ve changed – old one.”

You haven’t,” she snapped. Turned to me, and I couldn’t meet the pitiless stare behind Morrigan’s empty gaze for more than an instant. “Thank your mistress for me, but I must decline,” as if I hadn’t literally just heard her and Solas talking. “The conduct I’ve seen in all four of you has been noted and remembered: and only recall this when you would be otherwise surprised by my oracle’s actions in future.

And she reached behind her without looking, and grabbed the chalice and drained it dry, and then her eyes rolled up in her head and she fell nerveless into my arms.

*

Next