She rose from the mud of the battlefield, the stink of blood and waste, of metal and flesh, strong in her nostrils. The light was uncertain. Dark clouds spread across the sky like ink in water, their vast, amorphous shadows draping the wasteland like funeral shroud. How she longed for light to pierce that vast canopy!
All around her, men and women died. Some fell alone. Whether to a well-aimed shot or a stray round didn't matter; the end result was the same. Whether by accident or design, their lives were taken, bleeding away into the hungry earth. Others died in groups, blown apart by blind shells falling from the leaden sky. Their broken flesh lay all around her, raw, red scraps of meat seeming to dissolve into the sodden ground. Screams lit the rumbling gunfire like lightning flashes in a stormy sky. All around her, men and women died.
And, yet, somehow she had survived.
Slipping and stumbling, she made her way down a shallow, muddy incline. She did not know precisely where she was going, but she was in the grip of an unshakeable faith. She was certain her part in this battle was far from over. The Emperor will provide. That's what she had been taught in the convent. She believed that. She believed that the Emperor would provide a way for her to influence this battle for the Imperial cause. For His glory.
A few metres to her right, a handful of soldiers huddled against the wreck of a Chimera transport, mud-spattered weapons held in tight white-knuckled grips. It was their reaction that told her something had changed. Something profound.
They stared at her as she made her way slowly across the uneven ground towards them. It took her a moment to understand the emotions playing across their white faces. Shock followed by fear followed by wonder. Followed by awe. One of them, a grizzled corporal, his face a mess of scar tissue and stubble, made the sign of the aquila. Another bowed his head in deference to her.
She frowned. While she was used to some small measure of respect for her status as an honoured Sister of the Order of the Bloody Rose, this kind of behaviour was new. And almost blasphemously inappropriate. Could they not see that she was merely a servant of the Emperor as they were?
She drew nearer, intent on rallying them. It was a blessing that the Emperor had preserved their lives in the midst of this turmoil, but He had done so for a purpose and it was not to cower behind a vehicle while the world around them turned to Chaos.
A shell, screaming like a soul in torment, shrieked through the air towards them. Without thinking, she leapt out of the way, feeling a cold righteous anger suffusing her body as the shell hit the ruin of the Chimera and the men she was already beginning to think of as hers were mangled by the blast. A split second later, she began to understand why the men had looked at her with such awe.
Her leap out of harm's way had become something else.
She looked down on the battlefield from a height, she guessed, of some fifty metres. It was not high enough to see the entire front, but she could observe the disposition of those forces closest to her, take in the ebb and flow of the combat as both sides struggled to gain an advantage. A treacherous vertigo threatened to overwhelm her and she gasped.
This shouldn't - couldn't - be happening. She looked straight down and saw the crater where the Chimera had been, still smouldering from the heat of the detonation. But, it was not the impact crater that caught her attention. She looked down at herself. Around her battle armour, a faint glow could be discerned. It seemed as if the sun had finally broken through the clouds and, albeit weakly, was bathing her in its light.
But that was…
No. Her faith in the Emperor was stronger than that. And she felt His presence near, a comforting hand upon her shoulder, a cool, calm strength coursing through her limbs. Could it be that, of all His many servants on this benighted world, He had chosen her to be an instrument of His will?
Even as gunfire spat and cackled below her, even as men and women flung themselves into death's dark maw, even as the hated Enemy strutted in arrogant pride across this world, she bowed her head in acceptance of the obvious answer.
Yes, it could.
The glow around her body grew brighter. A righteous certainty fell from a point impossibly distant and yet, at the same time, intimately near and lodged in her heart. The warmth of the Emperor's grace built steadily in the exposed skin of her face and her mind sang with his glory.
She was the Emperor's servant.
But first she needed a weapon, one that would be suitable for the purpose for which the Emperor had chosen her. Hovering gently in the cold air, she scanned the battlefield and almost immediately saw what she wanted - no, what was destined for her to have.
Beating the powerful wings that, until that moment, she hadn't realised she possessed, she swooped down towards the limp body of a regimental commissar, his face twisted into a mask of defiance. Ignoring the half dozen or so cultist bodies that surrounded him, she knelt by his cold form and, with softly glowing fingers, closed his eyes, murmuring the Prayer for the Fallen Faithful in soft, reverential tones. Then, she reached across him and took his chainsword.
She examined it carefully. She had seen such things before, of course, having fought with Repentia squads on a number of worlds. It was a brutally efficient weapon. In her hands, however, it would become something else - a symbol of hope, an inspiration, a means to victory.
She closed her eyes. She had learned so many prayers in the convent, but the words she now spoke were new to her. This was her prayer. Her faith. Her appeal to the beneficent God-Emperor of Mankind.
"O righteous Emperor, imbue this humble instrument with your might. Let those who turn away from You tremble at its appearing. Let those who worship You rejoice in its light."
Her wings beat once. Twice.
"Let the sinner and the heretic fear its touch!"
She was soaring now, her wings powerful, majestic.
"Let Your light burn their flesh and sear their souls!"
Eyes tight shut, she let her wings take her where they would. They were the gifts of the Emperor. She would trust in His providence.
"Make it Your instrument!"
The Emperor's glory was heavy upon her. She wore it like a mantle, a cloak that burned around her with an impossibly pure flame.
"Make me Your instrument!"
She opened her eyes and looked at the little men fighting like ants in the sucking, all-pervasive mud. She saw explosions bloom among them like livid flowers, obliterating little knots of soldiers and sending others flying, their bodies twisting and broken.
She finished her prayer and her voice thundered across the sky.
"So let it be!"
All across the war zone, men and less than men looked up to the sky. It seemed, for a split second, that the sun had finally broken through the cloud cover - a sun borne on wings of even brighter light.
She looked at the weapon in her hand and nodded in sombre approval. Her prayer had been answered. The chainsword had lost its links, melted away as the Emperor's glory touched it, re-fashioned it. A holy white light shimmered along its surface, and, as it ignited into an elongated tongue of pure brilliant fire, she saw the deaths of scores of heretics dancing in its flames.
Her words echoed around the Imperial lines, a rumbling thunder of answering devotion. Gripping her sword of light tightly, she swooped down towards the battlefield once more, angling, with one beat of her mighty wings, her body towards the Enemy.
There was work to be done.
* * * * *
"How long has she been like this?"
Canoness Fianna Beatrice Schoenfeld glanced across at the man in the dirty greatcoat and sighed. It irked her that the man was even present in this room. For him to speak in such an impertinent way was almost intolerable. Almost. She bit back a caustic reply and opted for something more factual. And brief.
The man sniffed. "Pity. It's probably too late, then." He stepped forward, his dark brown eyes fixed on the other occupant of the small, almost entirely bare, room. "What's her name again?"
Again, Fianna bristled. Even though the girl was just a novice, she was worth ten of this thuggish man.
"Marianne. Her name is Marianne."
The man nodded. "Nice." He observed Marianne for a long moment, his face perfectly still, although the fingers of his right hand tapped out a complicated syncopated rhythm on the surface of his greatcoat.
Marianne was seated on a simple, threadbare rug that occupied most of the floor space of her novice's cell. She was kneeling, an act of simple devotion, but her body was rigid, the thin muscles of her arms locking the limbs in place. Even the fingers of her hands, splayed out on her thighs in front of her, seemed to be fixed in position. Her mouth was open slightly, as if perpetually on the verge of speaking out. Her eyes were clenched shut.
When Fianna had been first alerted to Marianne's state, she had asked Sister Hospitaller Teresia to examine the young novice. Nothing Teresia had done had provoked any response. It had taken considerable effort to prise open an eyelid only to be confronted with a glistening expanse of perfect white. Teresia had stated that the eyeball had not rolled up into its socket as might be expected, but the tissue itself had undergone some sort of spontaneous transformation. Whatever Marianne was now seeing had nothing to do with her cell or, indeed, this reality.
The man turned, speaking softly.
"I'm sorry, Canoness. There's nothing I can do."
Fianna snapped. "Unacceptable. Marianne is one of my brightest novices. She is already many months ahead of her training compared to her peers. There must be something you can do."
The man stared at her for a moment. She returned his gaze fiercely. Everything about him repulsed her. The stubble on his scalp. The filth on his greatcoat and boots. The dirty brown overalls. The silent mockery of his eyes and the sardonic twist of his mouth.
The fact he belonged to the Inquisition.
"Your master told me you would do your utmost to ensure Marianne's safety. Your master owes me. Your master told me that you were the best. That you would do your best."
Her anger had brought her a few steps closer to this despicable mockery of a man. She saw a flicker of fear in his eyes for a moment - not, she realised, because of her, but because of the man to whom he owed fealty.
"And I just have," he said quietly. "Canoness, your novice is in a psychically induced fugue state. She has, to all intents and purposes, removed herself -"
"Marianne is not a psyker," retorted Fianna, angrily. She spat that last word out as if the very presence of it in her mouth were an affront to her sense of devotion and righteousness.
The man cleared his throat in a way that could have been deferential. "Well, I'm afraid you're almost certainly wrong there. Your novice possesses at least one psychic talent - enough to book her a place on the Black Ships if it had been reported properly." He blinked once. Twice. A thin tongue snaked out of his mouth to wet his lips briefly. "I've seen this kind of thing a couple of times before. I'm guessing that Marianne here used to have particularly vivid dreams, that she was very devout - more so even than the levels of devotion usually required by the convent - and that she didn't have many friends among her peer group, preferring to spend her time in prayer and meditation. I'm also guessing that you and the convent hierarchy thought this was all a very good thing."
Fianna's mouth hardened into a thin line. "Take care. Your comments could be construed as unduly flippant. I'd be tempted to say blasphemously so."
The man held up his pale, delicate hands in defence. "Not so, Canoness. Not so. I'm just…" He let out a short, shivering sigh. "I'm just trying to explain. She has become fixated on a particular desire. Her talent probably lies in something like psycho-projection - the ability to make her thoughts become reality for others. My guess is that, if she'd been properly trained, she'd have been pretty good. But she wasn't. She slipped through the net. She came here. She believed." He licked his lips again. "It's a powerful thing, belief. From a psychic point of view, I mean." He glanced across at the figure of Marianne. The novice's limbs were still locked in place, but they were not still. Her whole body quivered with a powerful inner tension. She was like a drawn bowstring. Taut. Waiting. "Rather than projecting her thoughts outwards, she has turned them inwards. She's created a world for herself. She's living in it now."
Fianna frowned. "Then surely it's a matter of pulling her out of that world. Of bringing her back." Her eyes narrowed. "Unless there is corruption?"
The man shook his head. "No. There isn't. Far from it." He moved past Fianna to squat down in front of the novice. Marianne's hair was a deep, lustrous brown, cut in the severe style favoured by so many of the Adepta Sororitas. Her face was thin, the skin pale, flawless. "I can sense the general shape of the dreamscape. She's perfectly peaceful in her own way. She's found purpose."
Fianna watched the man's bowed back and frowned. He had said something else, something she couldn't quite catch. For a moment, she thought it had sounded like 'I envy her'.
The man straightened. "But she's dying. Even I wouldn't be able to last this long without serious physical deterioration and I've had training. Your novice hasn't got long left."
Fianna felt an intolerable sadness stab at her heart. Marianne had reminded her so much of herself when she had entered the convent. So full of hope. So serious. So earnest in her devotion. So faithful. The girl had been everything she had once been, but now…
"Take me in."
The man stared at her. "What?"
"Take me into the dreamscape with her. I know you can do it. I've read your file." Fianna glared at him defiantly.
The man was shaking his head. "I'm sorry. It's too dangerous."
Anger flared within her and, once more, she felt a wave of disgust that she, a Canoness of the Adepta Sororitas, should be beholden to this… abomination.
"Too dangerous, psyker? We are sworn to confront dangers wherever we find them, you and I. I wasn't asking your permission, worm. I was giving you a command." The man stepped back, involuntarily. Almost as if she had physically struck him. She pressed home her advantage. "Don't force me to go to your master and tell him that you refused to do your duty."
He licked his lips once more, glanced away. He shoved his hands in his pockets for a moment, took them out again, ran them over the bristles on his scalp.
"Fine," he said quietly. "But you won't be able to do anything. The structure of the dreamscape is too deeply embedded within her subconscious to…"
"Spare me the psyker cant," said Fianna, coldly. "Just do it."
He nodded, beaten. "Fine. Alright." He sniffed. "Give me your hand."
He held out his hand and she reluctantly placed hers within it. Turning towards the rigid form of Marianne, he reached out his other hand to touch her…
And suddenly she was somewhere else.
* * * * *
It had started with the assault on the makeshift ramparts near the far end of the enemy lines. Marianne had identified them as a weak point when airborne earlier. With a rag-tag band of soldiers from different regiments, she stormed the barricades, her presence more effective than nax or slaught or any of the other combat narcotics with which the Imperial Guard supplied its troops.
The enemy were rabid fanatics, blinded to the truth by their own lust-fuelled dogma, but the Imperial forces were possessed of a righteous fury, born of a complete conviction of the rightness of their cause. Only minutes before, they had felt the cold grip of despair clutching their hearts. Now, they saw a living manifestation of the Emperor's grace fighting in their midst. They flooded the barricades and Marianne was at the fore, the sword of light cutting huge swathes through the cultist ranks. The cultists didn't stand a chance.
It would have been tempting to press on, cutting deeper and deeper into the enemy lines, but that would not have been the best use of the resources the Emperor had gifted her. With three powerful beats of her mighty wings, Marianne took to the heavens, holding her sword aloft, its blade shining like a beacon under the glowering sky. Her voice sang with passion.
"To me, sons and daughters of the Imperium! To me and victory!"
They came in their hundreds, some marching, others racing across the battlefield in battered transports. Within a few minutes, her dozen or so troops had grown into a force of over fourteen hundred. While her delay had given the cultists some time to regroup, their efforts were pitifully inadequate when compared to the force she had now assembled. Screaming a fearsome battle cry, she swooped down towards the newly-formed cultist defences. A crackling inferno of las fire erupted from the Imperial forces and, although the cultists held for the first ninety seconds of the charge, they were quickly and brutally overrun.
This time, she did not stop. In the heart of the enemy's territory, deep in the ruins of ancient hab blocks, was the foe she sought - the vicious, Chaos-corrupted former Guard sergeant who had betrayed his Emperor and his race in surrendering his soul to the ruinous powers. As the Imperial forces poured through the gap in the enemy lines and raced across the wasteland, she allowed herself a small, grim smile of satisfaction.
It would soon be over. The final cleansing of this world was near.
It seemed to take no time at all for her to locate the enemy headquarters - if one could dignify the ruined ramshackle building with that title. Chaos troops poured out of it, their bodies monstrously transformed by the dark gods' powers. Snarling her disdain, she hurtled towards them like a thunderbolt, the light from her wings intensifying until it seemed they might ignite with the divine fire of the Emperor's glory. Where other cultists might have cowered before this light, however, these warp-twisted monstrosities held their ground, leering at her with misshapen mouths, their black eyes glistening like boiling tar.
Her sword flared still brighter in her hand and she gasped at the pure perfect brilliance of the blade. She swung it in a tight arc, aiming for an ugly, warp-tainted head. The creature attempted to duck out of its way, but Marianne was simply too quick for it and the blade scored a deep gash across its shoulder. It growled in pain for a second or two, before shrieking in agony as the righteous light of the Emperor immolated it in a matter of seconds.
By now, the front wave of her troops had joined her, a mixed throng of guardsmen, sisters and engineers, led by a Kasrkin corporal from a recently decimated Cadian unit. They poured their fire into the warp-twisted flesh of the enemy. Although that flesh had been strengthened by the malign magicks of the cultists' perverse devotions, it nevertheless could not stand such an onslaught for long. The chaos troops were cut down, their blackened bodies twitching and flopping in the dust like monstrous deep sea creatures suddenly flung out of water.
An angry, animalistic bellow echoed around the ruined hab block and a huge figure darkened the doorway through which the twisted chaos troops had emerged. As it stepped out into the light, the Imperial troops around her took involuntary steps backward. She understood that reaction, but, for her part, she viewed the monster that stalked towards her as being worthy of nothing but contempt.
She took in its appearance with burning eyes. The favour of the ruinous powers had fallen generously on the former Guard sergeant, bolstering his physique, twisting it into a corrupted conglomeration of muscle and bone. Foul, spiralling horns thrust their way out of his head; massive hands curled into wickedly sharp claws; the slabs of muscle that composed his chest and abdomen were adorned with blasphemous runes and secret sigils; a third eye stared unblinkingly from his forehead, smouldering dully with a sickly amber light. He smiled viciously, black-flecked drool falling from his open mouth. In his hand, he carried an axe whose blackened blade was streaked with blood. Still grinning viciously, he broke into a loping run, the axe held high above his head.
Her face an impassive mask, Marianne took to the air, hovering some two metres above the blasted ground for a moment, before darting forward almost too swiftly for the eye to follow. She held the sword in both hands now and, if anything, its flame was longer, brighter, hotter. The surrounding Imperial troops shaded their eyes against its pure brightness - or else allowed themselves to be struck blind as an act of ultimate devotion to the God-Emperor of Mankind. Light and dark careered towards each other. The sword swung towards the axe and…
* * * * *
Gasping for breath like a drowning woman whose head had just broken the surface, Fianna found herself back in the cold, spartan cell that belonged to Marianne, the girl whose mind she had just seen into. The girl who was moments away from death.
She blinked her eyes rapidly. Even now, in the cell, the afterimage of that final vision - the sword and the axe coming together, their owners locked in a grim fatal dance - lingered in her sight.
She considered what she had seen. Marianne's world was one where faith and righteousness triumphed over evil, where the Emperor's servants rallied to the cry of the pure of heart. The psyker had been right. Marianne had found purpose and peace in her dream world.
Fianna glanced across at the girl. She still knelt on the rug, body stiff, eyes screwed tightly shut, but the trembling had become more pronounced. It was a shuddering now, regular and heavy. It looked as if the girl might shake herself apart.
A scuffling sound caught her attention and she saw the psyker scrambling away from Marianne, his dirty boots leaving chaotic marks in the thin patina of frost that had somehow appeared on the stone floor. It was then that Fianna realised that, like the psyker, sometime in the last… however long it had been… she had fallen to her knees.
Tentatively, she reached out to Marianne again, her fingers brushing the taut skin of the girl's cheek. She was hot to the touch.
Without really understanding why, Canoness Fianna Beatrice Schoenfeld stood to her feet, reached out, took the girl in her arms and, somewhat awkwardly, climbed on to the simple bed in the corner of the room. The girl's stiffened body was light as driftwood in her arms, her thin bones like twigs.
Later on, she would rationalise her actions as the dutiful care that any high-ranking sister of the order would show for someone in her charge. But deep down, she would always know that there was something else going on, a deeper connection between the woman and the girl. The novice reminded her of herself. That's what she had thought, wasn't it?
Gently, she stroked the girl's face, brushing aside stray strands of hair with tender fingers. Elsewhere in the vast convent complex, ranks of Sisters sang their devotions to the Lord of Mankind, extolling His virtues and the wonders of His Saints. Who would sing for Marianne? Who would mark her devotion to the Emperor?
A discreet cough intruded on her thoughts and she turned awkwardly to see the psyker hovering uncertainly near the door.
"If I am not needed, Canoness…" he murmured. He ran a trembling hand over his face. She noticed that there were dark smudges beneath his eyes. She saw that those eyes possessed a haunted melancholy that had not been present before. He blinked once. And again. "I am… sorry, Canoness."
She smiled, although it was painful for her to do so. Marianne's shaking was more pronounced now. It made it difficult to order her thoughts.
"What… what is your name, psyker?"
The man seemed taken aback by the question. He paused, fingers resting on the door handle.
"Brecht," he said, quietly. "My name is Brecht."
Fianna inclined her head. "Then I thank you, Brecht."
The psyker looked uncomfortable for a moment. He bowed his own head in acknowledgment and left without further comment.
Fianna turned her attention back to the girl in her arms, rocking her back and forth as she would a small child who needed comfort in this vast, harsh universe.
Without any warning, Marianne's eyes snapped open and Fianna gasped in surprise. The perfect whiteness that Sister Teresia had observed four days ago was not perfect now. Tiny flecks of gold shone and danced across the blank surface of the girl's eyeballs like the light from a score of fireflies. The girl's mouth worked mechanically, but no sound emerged from her tortured lips. The golden lights blazed brighter and brighter.
The shaking of the girl's body seemed to reach a peak and Fianna had to use all her strength just to keep hold of her, but then the shaking abruptly stopped. Shortly after this, the dancing gold lights began to flicker and fade and Fianna felt a sorrow unlike any she had felt before.
Shortly after that, the tears of the Canoness splashed gently on the girl's cold face.
* * * * *
She held aloft the head of the warp-mutated sergeant. For all his ferocity, his might was not enough when arrayed against the righteousness of the Emperor's Chosen. All around her, Imperial guardsmen cheered. Some fell to their knees in veneration. Others wept with joy to be in the presence of one who had been so favoured by the Lord of Mankind.
But, her mind was elsewhere. Irresistibly, her gaze was drawn to the heavens where, even now, shafts of light were breaking through the clouds. Dropping the grisly trophy to the ground, she took to the skies once more.
She had won a great victory, true. But the accolades and approval of men were not what she desired. Determinedly, she flew into the sunlight. So bright and so beautiful. Its heat washed over her and she felt that she could lose herself in it forever.
This, she realised, was all she had ever wanted.
To feel the Emperor's touch.
To do the Emperor's will.
To see the Emperor's glory.