I'm not sure I am, really; winter is not my best time, I'm feeling pretty down about life in general, and it's a matter of the current of the moment whether that means I write less out of gloom or more, out of defiance. At the moment it seems to be the latter. This bit is mainly in flashback.
The grey knight moved the few short steps over to the twitching, thrashing mistress. Aule and Hasek were trying to hold her down and force her into the recovery position, but doing it with less than their whole hearts; she was trying to throw them off not to stand upright, but to kneel- she wanted to pray, search for spiritual guidance.
A moment's looking into her head, and the grey knight decided the two men had the right of it- she couldn't afford to pray, not from where she was now so far from the light. Treat it as a medical problem, and anything she might say or feel or do was just that- a medical issue, confidential. Anything she said before the golden throne, however massively inappropriate, she would never be able to unsay or ignore, and rise above.
There was a lot of that coming bubbling up. Whatever cocktail of psychoactives she had been hit with almost certainly included a euphoric, an aphrodisiac and a disinhibitor, and, Ignatius realised, her head is full of...me.
The militant orders of the Sororitas are not passionless, the Emperor is the sole light and meaning her life orbits around, and I was insensitive enough to let fall that bit of information about the collective ancestry of the Astartes, that was a spiritually dangerous mistake; and quite a predictably human one at that, which was the really annoying bit.
I suppose I was playing the spiritual guardian bit a shade to excess, small wonder that she fixated; perhaps there is a way not necessarily to restore things to the way they were- I could do that, could remove some of her memories but would it be just, would it not be better for her to face and overcome?
She knows she's been drugged, which might make the problem actually harder to deal with, might have to cut through her solution to impose my own. They had her on her side and curled up now, but she was still shuddering, breathing shallow and rapid, eyelids fluttering and heart racing as she tried to make sense of the bits of herself the drugs brought bubbling up.
If she wasn't fighting it it would be easier; as it was she was trying to think and reason, and that meant that she was dragging too much of the furniture of her mind into the firing line.
She was a bad mistress, the chemicals made her think, because she did it with reason and reason was the last thing it was about; she could never have been anything other than bad at it, because she had never understood that it wasn't about redemption.
It was much more simple than that; it was about recycling. Wringing the last drop of use out of the sisterhood's failures, as a deterrent to keep their sisters in line and as a distraction in the line of battle, the blood- stained carrot of a return to grace dangled before them- the old matriarchs knew their material.
She told them lies about glory and the golden throne, and tried to get them to repent and redeem themselves; all they were really supposed to do was inspire the rest with insane frenzy and get killed by the enemy as quickly as possible so their blood would not be on their sisters' hands.
That was a joke. A black, sick joke, enough to make her think that if that is the sense of humour of the universe then nothing, not it, you or me, makes sense. The truth was that as Hereticus, murdering their own was about all they were actually supposed to do.
They were, oh, you could talk about holy purpose till the spacebats came home, but the fact was that there were a trillion strands of the Imperial Cult, almost all of them missing something, and the orthodoxy had changed so much from pontifex to pontifex, age to age, place to place, were any of them right? were none of them?
Across the immense span of mankind there was no single coherent faith, there couldn't be; and given the shambolic state of the ecclesiarchy's educational side most people on the lower tier of the Imperium didn't even know that much, had hardly even been given the opportunity to be faithful.
Of course, the system blamed the people for its' failure to reach them, and lashed out at them for it. The holy sisterhood's job was to inflict hellish agonies on the unfortunate who had never been adequately told about something that really couldn't exist, and on those who didn't swear blindly to worship something essentially beyond human comprehension.
She had been right the first time, should never have wanted this, should never have demanded it; the penitent/damned soul's view was the truest one, lashed, tormented, denied and driven (almost?) mad for a crime she had confessed to and lamented so often that the details had actually become quite blurred in her head- but the reality of pain and obdience trumped the apparent reality of sisterhood and faith.
He had never asked, she was thinking confusedly, and it was true; he had never inquired about the crime that made her a penitent, or Albia's for that matter. Perhaps it was time to.
It was probably the defining experience of her life, her fall and rise (although by whose standards?) and it was only to be expected that what she was now flowed from it, was out of that mould. Hideous though it would be, memory lane likely led to a better place than the present.
Laure had been five years a sister of battle, and exposed to more actual combat than most- a squad leader, sister superior, involved in a Redemptorist purge of an agriprocessing complex when the eyes of the frothing psychotic who led it had glazed over with the effort of too much thought.
The Frateris Militia, such as there were organised, far from heeding the call of redemption in the wilderness had turned out to defend the community against the purge, led by their pastors and sargeant- confessors in the name of mankind. Which side was the God-Emperor on, anyway?
The redemptorist had begun the updated version of the classic line, from an earlier inquisition of an earlier religion far, far in the human past, "kill them all, the God-Emperor will-" and that was as far as he got before she put her bayonet through his face.
She might have got away with that, but it was her behaviour at the inevitable court- martial that had really landed her in trouble. She had made things much worse for herself by her defence, though, saying that she had been thinking of the founders of their order, of the saints who had followed Vandire into error and spilt the blood of countless innocents in his name.
They had only and eventually, after being wilful-blind to all lesser sources of persuasion than the Throne itself, redeemed themselves by turning on, betraying and destroying him.
The murder of the redemptorist she might have escaped with a lesser sentence for, but the spiritual pride of comparing herself and measuring her actions by such holy names was too much, so off to the death squads with her.
Much of the torture under the old rule was psychological, deprivation and ostracisation, humiliation and self- abasement; inward wounds and long, deep, subsurface scars. The Sisters were, as a body, granted the mercy of being allowed to die usefully for the Imperium- or most often just the sisterhood- so being sent to the field already injured and broken would be counterproductive.
A sufficient degree of righteous insanity would usually do, and she and her sisters in error, unloved, self- hating, spiritually wrecked and ready to die just to get this hideous life over with, found themselves diverted to deal with a xenos threat- orks.
Imperial Guardsmen and Orks both covered an enormous span of competence, from the suicidally sub- moronic to the awe inspiringly brilliant- fortunately they overlapped for the most part. Not today; the guard were outguessed and out- warbossed, the bulk of the force drawn out in a series of meeting and holding engagements.
The Guard's Prime General (why that was the rank, the munitorum alone knew) had a core of heavy units to use to retrieve the situation, win one of the widely scattered sub- battles to start rolling up the others, and he set them on the march- and got it catastrophically wrong.
They moved, the orks moved, and sent their own heavy support lancing through one of the lesser engagement zones and caught the Imperial reserve armour, superheavies and artillery in travel order, in the flank as they were moving up.
The greenskin strike- Gorkzkrieg- was led by a Gargant.
With nothing else to commit and no other possibility of aid, the Prime General did three things; scraped together what of a scratch force from rear area units he could, sent an urgent call for assistance to the Astartes, and decided to see if the Sisters of Battle were tired of burning errant troopers at the stake yet and would like to do some good for once.
Resent the terms it was couched in as they might, they could not actually refuse, and turned out to try to blunt the spearhead. Under normal circumstances, the penitents would be marched, or harnessed to one of the transport vehicles of the sisterhood and allowed to run alongside it; if they fell, or rather when, they would be picked up, dusted down, allowed to rest on it for a little while- then kicked off to run again.
This time, they had been allowed to ride all the way, and they hadn't stopped for prayer breaks. That had been Laure's and her penitent sisters' first real hint that something was up. The second had been the crude, half painted mound of rust and scarring and green death spitting a dozen improbable kinds of fire as it lumbered over the horizon towards them.
Ignatius, reliving it all through her and trying to ignore the terrible state her soul had been in at the time, was fascinated. Delving into this- that had actually happened after all and was done with- was probably a damned sight safer way of getting her through the crisis of chemistry than using the now.
The sisters' attack brought out the best and the worst in the Orks. The best in that they were always, infinitely, utterly ready for a ruck and turned out to meet the Sororitas head on. The worst in that they completely lost sight of their original objective and gave the scattered and disorganised Imperial armoured column a chance to sort itself out.
That meant the full weight of the attack falling on the Sisters, which could have been equally disastrous. Ignatius was trying to make sense of the view from beneath the penitent's hood, and from Laure's confused impressions it looked as if the Sister Palatine in charge had got it right.
She had forbade the usual pre- battle spiritual preparation, undoubtedly promising to atone in orkish blood, in the interests of deploying fast, and had formed the sisters up in a move that the Grey Knight had thought was beyond them; form a hull- down fire sack and break the first orkish rush, then mount up and countercharge.
Ignatius found orks to be fascinating in theory, so different in their spiritual basis, but rather tedious to deal with in practise. He was usually happy to leave them to someone else to sort out, which it actually seemed as if the sisters were doing fairly well at.
The first rush of light vehicles and fast troops was met with a wall of fire, flamers and meltas and bolters, and then it was the sisters' turn. Penitent eviscerators were much more powerful than the standard chainsword; they had enough rending and mauling power to chew up lightly armoured or shoddily put together vehicles, and Ork Battlewagons fell easily into both categories.
Not that they fell easily in the military sense; Laure had an engraved-in memory of one of her fellow purgatorians, hood and hair and all the cloth and texts of her harness- dress blazing- caught fire from the sparks off the eviscerator as she laid about a battlewagon and it's crew.
She had been gored by shards and splinters, too, but showed no sign of letting it matter as she hewed into the wagon again and again, howling a banshee wail in which it could not be judged where agony and ecstasy ended and began.
In this world, Aule had just injected her with the product from all four eggs, which should make all the difference. In the relived glorious nightmare, Laure had just realised she was making the same sound.
There was still the supermonster to deal with, the gargant. She had started off after it, briefly felt the touch of her mistress' whip- a move to restrain her by her domineering, smothering surrogate mother- but it flickered away as the mistress read the situation and herded her fellow bloodwomen after her.
Several had already fallen, most had been hurt but the wounds of the body that slowed them down were less than the wounds of the soul that goaded them on; dripping blood, sweat and orcish ichor they ran down the huge, brutal image hydraulically shambling towards them.
Their berserk charge was a leap through fire of which few details were solid enough to remain, and fewer of which she wanted- one penitent trying to help another pulling on her harness, dragging her- leaving her legs behind;
the soul- shivering wail of another, ripped in a hundred places by an ork fragmentation bomb and unable to force herself on, despairing at the realisation that this was as far as she would go and salvation still far beyond- she would not be able to reach out and touch the Golden Throne.
The mistress herself was brought down by a fantastic absurdity, a giant, maybe five metre wide, metal ball on a stick- a spigot mortar that wobbled lazily through the air and crunched open when it landed in front of them, not to detonate but to release the orks' own suicide troops- bomm snotlingz.
The little crazed green things spread out at first, noticed the mistress and converged on her; she brought many of them down with flickering electric whips, detonated some of them and ruined most of the rest, but there were too many. Her armour was tough, her faith- driven flesh possibly tougher, but it could not be enough.
As she died Laure felt- too many things, everything. Towering hatred for the sour, stone- faced, stone- hearted harridan who had made her life a misery and wanted her to die; and also love for the guide who had found her torn in mind and spirit, put her back together and pointed the way to redemption; a dozen, a hundred things, and none of them mattered more than determination.
A powerful love- hate relationship was more or less exactly what should exist between the penitent and her mistress- no, from the penitent to the mistress, who was required to consider the errant scum from a more official and brutal point of view. Laure was less good at that, she empathised with them too much.
She believed herself less good at infusing her penitents with that do-and-die reckless hunger, not good at the business of pushing them down hard, so that they bounced back hard; she wanted them to see the face of god, not- as she had done- race after death and touch the divine on the way. Salvation was a possible accident that attended their doom, nothing more.
Not that her fellow penitents, in the reliving of it, had thought anything of the sort. Less than half had survived to try to board the gargant; Laure remembered vaulting onto the giants' foot, with her sisters chainsawing hand and foot holds into the crude, fireblacked skin of the base metal leg. All of them, strangely, reverent enough not to mock even an alien and hostile god by looking up and seeing what was between its' legs.
Gargants were god- machines of a sort too, depictions of the two great ork deities; not that they were a devout people, unless you counted war as their church- which was possible.
It did have to be said for them that they were consistent, all Gargants tending to look much more alike than such cobbled- together monstrosities really should; whereas in the course of almost three centuries of rattling about the Imperium from one disaster zone to another, Ignatius had come across such a variety of Titan designs that if they really were all in the image of the Deus Mechanicus, he must be a very funny shape indeed.
Which actually, being home- based on the actual old world of Titan and within psychic spitting distance of Mars, it was possible to notice that he was. Yet another dark secret to keep.
Laure remembered chopping a wedge out of the gargant's leg to use as a foothold, picking up the slice of metal- burningly hot but what of it?- and throwing it through the eye of one of the orks trying to stop them;
of another ork literally dropping on them, she caught it on the edge of the eviscerator but was knocked off by the impact, one of her sisters caught her by her chain harness, and Laure glad of the pain.
Scrambling up into the belly of the giant, half designed war machine, the fight in the engine room; her sister who had helped her, her fellow bondswoman and sufferer and seeker for redemption and only friend in this vale of tears ripped apart in the gears of the alien god- machine.
One of the handful of them left slicing at one of the boilers; shearing off a panel, and the flesh dissolving off her bones in high- pitched wailing, the sisters having the inspiration to make for the exits before the orks did, as they started to be cooked and blasted to death by high pressure steam.
The eruptions from within as, engine crew dead and dying, more of the boilers guttered out and shut down or overheated and blew up; and from without, as the Gargant slowed and made an easier target, and what was left of the Imperial armour caught it and started pounding it.
One fewer of them left, as a Shadowsword's volcano cannon melted and sheared away a huge slab of the ork monstrosity's flank, the reflected and channelled flash blinded another sister, and she stumbled onto an ork's choppa- carving its' chest open with her dying reflex.
The survivors- four, now- living, how with the wounds they were all carrying, and in flux calling on the Emperor's grace to lift them out of the ranks of the damned; one place to go. They carved their way to the bridge, beyond exhaustion but bodies an irrelevance, looking for something to use as a springboard to make the leap to absolution and grace.
Fortune- or grace- was with them; a lucky lascannon shot had severed most of the voice pipes, so the bignob had moved with his retinue to con the gargant from one of the gun turrets leaving only a mekboy, guards, gretchin trying to sort it out.
Laure split one of the ork boyz in half with an upward swipe, before he could react; another was faster, shot the penitent facing him with four shells from what seemed a crude orkish copy of a bolter, painted her across the room. Then it went click, and Laure and another sister tore him to bits, blades clashing and colliding in the ork's torso.
To spare her blade for later use Laure grabbed one of the gretchin by the ankle and started beating the mekboy with it, smashing one flailing, wailing green thing off the other; the other two sisters still alive attacked him more conventionally, but it was the two skulls meeting and cracking that seemed to be enough.
There would be more come running soon; the controls of the gargant were exceeding primitive, there weren't many options to choose from, and the sisters heaved on and pushed at everything trying to find the self destruct.
They managed to find and fire the fuze to the bomb in the magazine, and that was seconds before the bignob came back. It was too far gone then to stop, and the giant ork looked at them, charged- Laure leaped to one side and flourished her eviscerator like a matador's cape, catching the ork and spraying pieces of it around the room, but it was too huge and too plain orky to be stopped.
It also wasn't directly trying to kill them- although only her and Tamika were still on their feet, Vasha had been directly in it's path and she had bled it, but it had smashed her down and stood on her, shattering her pelvis. The bignob vaulted out of the open observation gallery- landed on his feet and ran for it down the hull.
The ork chieftain had made the sensible, Morkish- or was it Gorkish?- decision to leg it from the soon to be immolated gargant and come back for another go later with something not quite so explodey, and the two sisters, beyond thinking- they certainly wouldn't have meant to save themselves, that was not the point at all- gave chase.
That meant, in practise, chainsaw off the boss's command chair, throw it after him and ride it like a sled down the sloping outer face of the Gargant, chasing the ork warlord, zig- zagging around the broken and torn fragments of hull as best they could.
Not very well. They hit the steeply sloped lower surface of the thing and lost control, went tumbling down to earth, expected to die- landed on the side of a shell crater, sloping enough to break their fall from lethal to just enough to shatter bones.
Then the gargant blew itself apart, tons of crude explosive in the central ammo rooms blasting it apart in a firecracker chain of one touching off the next, metal fragments showering over the landscape. One of them- a tube, probably a gun barrel- nailed Tamika to the ground.
She screamed, and the scream drew the attention of one of the few survivors- the ork bignob whose gargant it had been, and he was very, very angry. Been hit by a few of the pieces himself, but that wasn't enough to slow a monster like him, or a fanatic like her, down.
Came lumbering towards them, down into the crater; Laure was starting to feel it- really should have been dead already, legs weren't working properly, vision blurry; stumbled towards him, too tired and broken to call for absolution or scream or pray to anything but oxygen.
Not enough, she remembered telling herself, have to try, this is it, the gate to the golden throne is on the other side of that big green bastard, I'm the only one who made it this far, for them if not for me. Dragged herself towards him.
The end came in three moves; the ork tried to outreach her and cleave her down with his snazzchoppa, but he wasn't watching his feet- crippled, dying Sister Tamika managed to get her blade round to slice him across the back of the knees. It was just as well she didn't care if the effort killed her or not, because it did.
The ork toppled forwards, and Laure met it with a massive swing of the eviscerator, starting behind her head, curving down and up in a perfect closing arc that she was sure had the Emperor's hand behind it, starting half way down it's ribs, up and through and ripping it's head in half;
but dead weight had it's day, and the body kept falling, the shiny, snazzy chopper catching her on the collarbone, slicing down into her lung, not quite taking the arm clean off her body.
That was how they found them- the ork dead, her fading fast but not beyond help, not for one who had redeemed herself in such spectacular fashion- even if the touch of grace had felt much more like terror and desperation at times.
And now- now she was here, on a cold rooftop in a city under siege, a mistress with one penitent to her name and- God-Emperor, he's psychic, how much did I say, how much did I give away?
'Nothing that you can't atone for in the blood of the Emperor's enemies.' Ignatius answered the unspoken question, and behind him there was a rising whine as an airtaxi, pilot operating under mental control, descended to the rooftop for them. 'I'm not going to let you talk yourself back into the harness, not on the Ordo Malleus' time. we have too much to do and duty, as always, comes first.'
"I beseech thee, In the bowels of God, think it possible that you might be wrong."
-Oliver Cromwell to Parliament, 1647
"It is good to keep an open mind; but not so open that your brains fall out." Attributed to James Oberg
Not part of the board consensus; here for mainly science- fictional reasons