Right, next bit following more or less directly on. Only a little windmill. Couple of notes in advance; the whole memory wipe thing, I hate the idea. Unfortunately, it's canon, and this is as much sense as I feel up to arranging for it to make.
And do track down the tunes; worth it. If you want to imagine him sounding like that, feel free.
Just because he was going to them didn't mean it wasn't an occasion for some theatre. he decided to be quite mischievous. 'Sacred Fire command, this is this is a small mixed Astartes and Guard detachment operating to your front. We are coming in, we will release a green flare, do you acknowledge?'
The disbelief in the vox op's voice was evident. 'Say again?'
Ignatius repeated himself; there was a long pause, then 'Acknowledged.'
They weren't going to be particularly welcome, by the sounds of it. He whispered to his three followers 'Stay close and quiet,' extended himself a little; this was more power than he had intended to use, but a little active masking was probably called for- the grey veil wouldn't get them all the way.
In the Uplifting Primer issued to all the Guard, it stated, infamously, "recite the Litany of Stealth to stop yourself being heard." That was heavily, endlessly mocked. Relatively few people bothered to look it up in the list of litanies and realised there were no words for it...
Ignatius was not sure whether to be fascinated by the lateral thinking that it had taken to translate the obvious idea of making no noise when creeping up on something hostile into Guard-ese, or depressed that the authors of the manual had thought that was the only way they could get the idea into minds boggled by recruit indoctrination and conditioning.
Either way, it was working, although the sound of the three guardsmen's eyes swelling in their sockets might be a bit of a giveaway, as they ambled- Ignatius restricting his pace to that a guardsman could move silently at- up to, through, the Sororitas front line.
Past the support troops, the biological and mechanical first aid stations; more sisters out of combat with shot up power armour than actual wounds by the look of it, the armour being tended to by the sororitas equivalent of techmarines- no, less, the equivalent of chapter serfs. Trained laity all in fleur-de-lys facemasks that looked stitched on, and their heads were interestingly awkward jumbles of theologies and loyalties.
Up to the holy relic. Bohr was trying to scream under his breath, Aule was subvocalising "we're dead, we're dead, we're so dead". Pessimists. The Marine decided to play it cool; summoned up a twist of green air, glowing faintly; tossed it a little way into the air, batted it with the nemesis force halberd sending it flaring brilliant, soaring away up and over the sisters' front line. From behind.
There was a brief moment of utter panic as they scanned around for the source, then Ignatius dropped the psychic blind, let them see him standing there, grey armour with book and sword symbol clearly visible, lascannon slung over his shoulder, force weapon; confusion succeeded panic.
Halberd at the trail, he saluted the holy hand; was very surprised, and thankful he still had his helmet on, when it returned the salute. He hadn't made it do that. What? Well...
It seemed to impress the sisters, though- which was probably a good thing given they were still somewhat trigger happy. Some of them went down on one knee with guns still pointed at him, most didn't know where to look; at their sisters superior to see how they ought to be reacting, at each other, at him.
Keep the initiative, must keep the initiative. Pop off the tin hat, look to the most senior sister present; glance at the heraldry, none of it personal- what was the sense in that? Personal pride submerged in unit identity, of course. Must remember that.
Wait a beat, look to her just before she emerged from the ruined building that was serving as their headquarters, the sister palatine- past forty, looked younger though- 'Ah, Sister Palatine Rheya. There is much I need to discuss with you, concerning your clash with the xenos.'
The grey veil was not something his majesty had been born with, by all accounts, but something he had learned to hide his presence- because presence and majesty he had in abundance. A little of it came through in the geneseed, actually a little of both. Perhaps Ignatius let just a little bit show.
It so often tends to be the case, that those who are good at something are those who were obviously naturally cut out for it, that every moment of their life seemed to be pointing them towards it- but the very best, the rare and special heroes, are those in whom it was not obvious at all, who had to overcome barrier after barrier in their path, and in the effort of transcending were made more than merely natural.
Sister Rheya looked exactly the part of a warrior-angel of the Sororitas, and interestingly, it troubled her terribly. She felt guilty about how easily it had all fallen into place for her, how well she had taken to it, how she had outstripped her friends and comrades.
The outer shell Bohr had mentioned was deep and tough, the mask of command more firmly seated on her features than the fealty masks of the lay technics on theirs; inside there was relatively little- sweat and blood and rites of passage, and the dim memory of another life left behind.
There was some memory erasure involved in the process of becoming a Grey Knight- it happened fairly late on in the rites and transformations, and how the candidate reacted to being told it was to happen was actually one of the trials in itself.
The idea of it was quite terrifying, but the rationale did make a sort of ugly necessity. Nobody was born strong; everybody was weak in the cradle, panicked, frightened, dependent- vulnerable. The memories and the reflexes and reactions of everybody's youth, the period before reason, were still there- and they represented to the skilled probing mind wide, easy avenues of attack.
It was not merely necessary that postulants be reborn as Astartes, but that they be de-born as frightened children howling for their mother and lost in a terrifying adult world. That the child must not be allowed to be father to the man- that the adult warrior soul must have stronger foundations than natural life could give it.
The easiest and most direct way to fail the associated trial was, oddly, to simply accept the procedure. Anyone who had that little respect for the integrity of their own head was clearly not the right person to send up against beings of corruption and madness.
The postulant was supposed to object, to argue back, to try to come up with some kind of coherent reason why it should not be so- and equally, the chapter were confident that their reasons why it should would prevail. They had had ten thousand years of corporate experience to draw on, after all.
The first thing that each postulant was shown after the procedure was the pict-record of them being argued into agreeing to it. It reduced recidivism rates- probing for their own lost memories, friends probing for each other's- considerably.
And, when all was said and done, the memory eraser primarily actually probed for feelings and the memories associated with them, unhelpful things like fears and phobias and subconscious needs- memories of weakness. Losing that lot to a device simply saved time and energy that would otherwise have to be used to consciously suppress them.
Ignatius remembered rather more of his personal past than he suspected he was supposed to; then again, it had been a fairly strenuous childhood. Now, though, he was looking at someone who had basically self-administered the equivalent, and he was even less sure he liked the idea than he had been all those years ago. In fact, he thought she had tried to get rid of the wrong ones.
Adding up the total of the innocent dead that must lie at her door, given how many Ordo Hereticus inquisitors seemed to take the injunction that it was acceptable to punish a hundred innocents if one guilty man was taken too as a quota rather than a metaphor, and that Ignatius wasn't absolutely convinced that the sororitas' discrimination was even that good-
touching on her own memories, there were moments of doubt in there, some of them had clearly turned her stomach; literally in one case, there was a flash of one purgation action where she had been ill to the point of shaking too badly to hold her weapon and on the verge of blacking out, just after the burning crib, when he had consciously thought, how can we do this? This cannot be right. Three months old and flamered to death.
That had been her make-or-break. The turning point. She had looked to her fellow sisters, fellow rookies in their first real, live test, and thought; if I break, they might too. I can't let them down, what we are for- this is wrong, but I have to go on. What we are is right, what we do is right, told so many times- hammered into us. We do His will, how can it be- this is what we have to do.
As far as she was concerned, she had made the right choice, and never really looked back; as far as the Grey Knight was concerned, she had broken. I wonder how many of the other Sisters are in the same state, Ignatius wondered, physically brave beyond reason- but too spiritually cowardly to develop or listen to consciences of their own?
I can talk, he reminded himself. At least my enemies are about as openly evil as it's possible to get, and the closest you really get to a newborn among them (daemonettes' wild false promises notwithstanding) is a freshly made daemon prince. The sisters' are more highly stressed than mine.
But too damned many of them fail under the load.
The sister palatine paused, a tumble of half- formed thoughts fell out- I didn't let any of that show, did I?
Evidently he had, but she interpreted it differently and in her own way- 'We held them back and turned the tide of battle against them, Brother, we did not fail to protect the hand of the blessed Praxagora.'
Now that was a rare name, and it was a name from his own past that he had kept. There could hardly be very many, even in a galaxy as large as this. Could it actually have been? He looked at the relic and suddenly felt sure that it was. It would be just bloody like her.
'What, shade under average height, heavy-boned, very yellow blonde hair I bet she refused to wear in the regulation style, storm-grey eyes she had a way of looking away and thinking to herself for a moment, then turning back to pierce you with, left hook that could stop a grox, thought "homonyms" was a swearword? I knew her in life- we came to Sol on the same Black Ship together.'
The Sister Palatine narrowly avoided exploding by the looks of it, and most of the sisters- even the masked ones and the fettered ones- were reacting with angry, horrified disbelief. He hardly believed it himself- the long arm of coincidence strikes again.
'Didn't you know? As a child, she said that she could hear the Emperor's voice in her head. That sort of thing gets people's attention. Her home world's arbiters suspected her of arcane talent and packed her off to be sanctioned, and we met on the ship. Actually, we nearly escaped.'
Ignatius had always wanted to retrace that and see whether it had simply been some kind of elaborate test, or if the millennia-old ship had been that badly time-worn and decrepit that a pair of twelve year olds- granted, one of them had later gone on to become an official hero- had stood a chance of busting out. He suspected the truth would be closer to the latter than the Inquisition would like to know about.
'She did not go quietly- the last I saw of her was being carried away after being stunned into unconsciousness, for trying to club a guard and steal his power maul. I suppose the combative spirit...anyway, they tested her and found she had piety enough for three but not a psychic nerve in her body, and a segmentum from home and nobody caring enough to send her back, they just packed her off to the nearest schola progenium.
The rest is your history of her, not mine, and I see it goes from history to hagiography pretty sharply- actually, Sister Palatine, given that I've just managed to reduce half your commandery to bogglement without really getting off the small talk, perhaps we should be discussing things in private?'
She gave a tight, controlled nod, and the banner- waver and the celestian bodyguard moved off with her into the body of the bombard-blasted transtube station; to what had probably been part of the offices and behind the scenes operations rooms.
There were a few pieces of equipment, but nothing that could really qualify as a seat for even a human sized suit of power armour, never mind a Marine's. That meant that Ignatius would be left with no choice but to loom over her. Possibly necessary on principle, but not the best way to get what he wanted. Hm.
'You recognise the chapter heraldry, you should know I'm a daemonhunter- chamber militant of the ordo malleus if you want to be technical about it. You purge the corrupted, I hunt down and destroy the corruptors. I prefer to speak plainly and bluntly, because it reduces the chances of accidentally telling somebody something that would hurt them.
You are actually correct; this fight was about the hand.' He gave her a quick precis of what the Eldar had wanted it for and what they had intended to achieve by it.
'Diabolical. Fiendish. We would have been honour bound to, also, to seek to exploit our piety against us so-' Well, she had worked that much out.
'And tell me, sister palatine,' Ignatius moved to close that door, 'would the campaign of vengeance you have just conceived of not constitute exactly the kind of weakening and diversion of the Imperium's shield that they set out to achieve?'
'Oh.' she said. Seemed to accept it, though.
Time to shift back on to the forward foot. 'I was actually here for a reason, anyway. You know this world was split apart by a patchwork of cults- many of their leaders, many minor and aspiring heroes of evil, are in the city now. Squabbling with each other.'
'Decapitation, brother?' Rheya asked.
'Of their lord and master, the ethereal abomination who masterminded the corruption of this world and who is my proper prey. He'll have to turn up sooner or later if only to sort out the mess. Blast and banish him, they should fall out among themselves and leave the city ripe for the cleansing. I do have one slight technical problem.'
She reeled slightly, taking in what he had said, trying to force her brain to cope with the plain unadornedness- the starkness- of what he had just said. Trying to restate it in her own terms. Ignatius decided to short circuit the process.
'Decapitation missions are not supposed to start at the feet and work up. I need to get in at it, and to that end I need a strike team, a few peculiar souls who can stroll into the heart of darkness and keep their composure, and it was actually one of your misfits that caught my eye.'
'I'll describe her to you and you can tell me if I err. In one word, stubborn. Seriously out of step with her sisters, her own way of doing things. Willing- in fact takes the lead- in some, refuses to do others to the point of being willing to be flayed to her backbone rather than obey. Will fight, won't pray.
You had high hopes of her once, before her awkwardness became too much to bear. You assigned her penance, but she did it and then went back to behaving exactly the same way. Assigning her to the repentia was a last resort; you're still not entirely sure if she failed you or if you failed her.'
'Sister Albia.' the sister palatine realised.
'How much better would it be for her to have her stubbornness directed against the real enemy? And their mistress- I had the feeling that she would be wearing a penitent's harness herself, under her armour, if she could.' Ignatius pointed out, and noticed another flare of recognition from the palatine.
'I am not quite sure I grasp the right path in all of this. We must pray for guidance.' Rheya glanced at the leader of her bodyguard.
'Brother, would you lead us in prayer?' the celestian sister superior asked. This had all the hallmarks of a theological trap. They had obviously been conferring among themselves; she knew perfectly well that most Astartes carried a radically different form of piety than the Sisters'.
'On your terms or mine?' he said, smiling at her from half a human height further up. 'Remembering that the Astartes predate and precede the Sororitas by some six thousand years. Mine, I think. Do you have a choir?' Accept that one head on, he decided.
A few minutes later, outside again and they were arranged around him in a loose half- circle, the front rank seated. 'This will be a short field service, a hymn, a prayer, a sermon, a closing hymn. Everyone, sing as best you can.
"Ey, Ukhnem! Ey, Ukhnem! Yeschcho razik, yeschcho da Raz!"
Ignatius had a good singing voice, the Sisters were left hopelessly behind- in the form that it had come down to them through the dark ages (as it was after all from far pre- Imperial times) it was scored for a large, deep-voiced male choir, and much as he was tempted to project into their heads, he wasn't quite going to go that far. The soloist's part would do.
Even conducting, or trying to, with the force halberd didn't stop most of them from slipping into rapturous trance listening to him- what a Space Marine can do with lungs larger than most people's entire torsos had to be heard to be fully believed, and he had chosen good material to work with.
The Emperor had been a man from the past himself, after all, and had built his Empire upon and in many cases and elements out of the bones of the past, and there was a surprising amount of such survivals littering the iconography. It was usually possible to tell which they were; the good ones. The ones that made their listeners' souls shake- and if not that, then at least their skeletons, especially with a nine- foot Astartes singing basso-profundo.
As he brought the old, old song to a close- and he had been quite mischievous in choosing it, especially as it had never actually been a hymn in the first place and singing what as far as anyone knew were the original words- most of the sisters had gone expressions, lost in the sound still echoing in their heads.
He tapped the butt of the nemesis force halberd on the ground, sending a thunderclap through earth and air that jolted them back to their senses. 'As this is to be a short service, this will be a short prayer. Holy Terra is- that way.' He pointed into the sky.
He could just about work it out from the radiance of the Emperor's will through the Astronomican, but it was a much more interesting mental exercise to guesstimate it from the time of the local day, the seasons of the planet and the star system's orientation, and then check to see if he was right. About fifteen degrees out. Hmph.
"Lord, teach us to serve you as you deserve, to give and not to count the cost, to toil and not to ask for rest, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to labour and ask for no reward, save that of knowing that we do Your will." That too was a survival from the past; the last six words of the original had long since been suppressed, as had the identity of the author, which was just as well for the composure of the Grey Knight.
He looked back at them, and they looked back at him, astonished. 'Yes, sisters, that is it. How long and complicated do you think it has to be? Said with devotion behind it, it is enough- said without devotion, nothing would be.
Hm. A sermon- very well, then; the song I opened with is a very, very old one indeed, and that fits because the topic of my sermon is Time. The human past stretches far behind us- and the future should stretch ahead at least as far again if we do our jobs properly.
There are three thousand generations of recognisably human or proto-human beings preceding you, who struggled against the universe, achieved what they could, some more some less, who lived and died- and passed on the torch.
You call yourselves the order of the sacred flame, but that flame is not yours alone; some six hundred lifetimes ago there was to be found a general of old earth proclaiming it to be essential that his troops possessed the sacred fire within them. You are never alone, even in your hopes and your pieties, for you are part of the human race.
The flame came from other hands, and it will be passed on in your turn- but consider the sweat and blood and toil and tears it took to bring the sacred flame this far, and what must be done to carry it safely onward.
Space and Time are vast, but we are here, and it is now, and that now is your duty. This is your moment in the long, turbulent history of the race, your clash with the vastnesses, as it was for so many others before you and so many yet to come.
Forever is, but look closely and it consists of ten thousand trillion little glittering points of now, human souls shining in the dark- shining on each other. Brightening each other by their presence. This is your now, and your duty and mandate, not merely to be of the sacred flame, but to be it, to live it, to shine.'
It was another very old tune that he chose to end it with, a fraction younger as if it mattered this far down the line, except this one was actually a hymn (more or less), and actually appropriate- almost frighteningly so.
"Vstavai, Strana Ogromnaya," he began.
As the echoes of that died away, the first to speak was the sister palatine. 'Brother- this special task, this sacred mission?'
'Yes?' he said, aware as she should have been minutes earlier that he had seriously overdone it.
'Can the rest of the commandery come too?'