The Times and Trials of Klightus
Otherwise known as The Shy Guardsman on sup/tg/. The story of the Guardsman Klightus and Sister Bethany.
There are a few reasons why a noble family sent one of their number to join the guard. Most frequently it was so that they could come back a hero, raising the family's status.
Sadly, in Klightus' case, it was the exact opposite.
He'd never been good at the political game. He'd been captured by scum twice by the age of ten, and according to his father, he just didn't "get" it. After the third time, his father threatened to not pay the ransom next time. That was enough to keep him at home from then on. No, he was sent to the guard in hopes that he'd die. Maybe a glorious death, maybe one that would leave his family proud. But they just hoped he died quietly. That would be enough.
So far, he'd failed them in that, too. He'd been accident prone as a child -- he'd grown tall, and that height had left him awkward for many years. He'd spent a lot of time with the family's chirugen, and had picked up a lot. Now, he served the Medicae. While, true, he served in the field, so far he'd been spared front-line combat for the most part.
Most of the time. This wasn't one of those times.
"Klightus! Where in the Emperor's name are you?"
"On m-my way!" He fell into a sprint, shrapnel kicking up dust that stung the eyes. He paused behind the cover of a tree, firing off a couple of shots at the traitor scum. Needed to clear his path. Needed to get to the wounded. He needed... A glance revealed a traitor Russ drawing bead on his location. Klightus wasn't sure if he should be honored or insulted that they felt to use that much overkill on him. Either way, he needed to move. It didn't take much to convince him to sprint again.
The tree exploded, throwing him off his feet. For a long time, there was only a high-pitched whine and a throbbing inside Klightus' head. Distantly, he became aware of a pain in his bicep. A shard of wood. Without thinking, he pulled it out. That's when he really noticed the pain. Unfortunately, he didn't have time to dwell on it.
"Klightus, if you don't get your ass over here RIGHT NOW, I swear I'll send you to the Emperor myself!"
Finally, he found the two soldiers in question. Their cover wasn't good, but that didn't matter. All that mattered was that one of them was lying on the ground. Klightus fell to his knees next to the conscript. He'd taken shrapnel to the face -- the man could be saved, but the eye couldn't. Better to take it out and get the guy shooting again than grant him the Emperor's Benediction.
He'd just worked the biggest shard of shrapnel free when the cover started to get peppered. Klightus snatched up his lasrifle and glanced. A group of them were making a charge. Damn traitors. With the sudden odd high-pitched whine in the air, he could barely think. Gritting his teeth, he took aim and fired...
Only for the traitor to explode. Klightus blinked and looked down at his lasrifle. That... shouldn't have caused that...
It was then that SHE landed. Right next to him. If his sphincter hadn't of been the size of purely theoretical particles before, it was now. She looked down at him, one of her ice blue eyes hidden behind her white hair. A quick look to the injured conscript, and she returned her attention to the advancing traitors, her bolter blazing into life again.
Klightus didn't need any more of an order. He spared one more shot downrange, only scoring a glancing blow, before returning his attention to getting the soldier back up and firing.
It was an hour later before the battle was done. Klightus limped back across the battlefield, clutching his arm. Every step sent fire up his leg and into his back. He'd twisted his ankle at some point -- at least, he hoped that he'd twisted it. He was afraid to check. He shouldered his rifle and bent down to pick up his helmet. He wasn't going to get flogged for losing it. Again. It wasn't until he pushed himself back up, grimacing the entire way, that he realized that one of the Sisters was standing in front of him.
He pushed his eyes slowly up to her face. Ice blue eyes. White hair. Now he could see the fleur-de-lis on her cheek. He tried not to grimace as he made the sign of the aquila over his chest -- his arm might have been bandaged, but it still hurt like hell. "Th-thank you, s-s-sister, for your assistance in ensuring the Emperor's will... be done this day." There was a long moment before she nodded once, letting him drop his arms.
"You are bleeding," she said softly.
"Oh?" Was he? It took a moment before he remembered his arm. "Oh, this? I-I-I... It's nothing. It shouldn't be... um... infected or anything. I've t-treated it and said the litanies to-"
"Not that," she said, sounding a touch amused. A gauntlet pointed down at his leg.
And the piece of steel jutting out of it. That made him wonder -- was it the ankle that was causing him all the pain, or the shrapnel. His face began to feel as if a thousand pins were prickling it. "Oh, fiddle-dee-dee," he said, his voice breaking. "That will require a Tetanus shot."
With that, his world went black.
In retrospect, it was kind of funny that pain wasn't the first thing he noticed. Not that there wasn't a lot of it. Instead, it was the incense. But his eyes didn't want to open. The cot was warm. His body felt like lead. Lead and pain, but lead none the less. Nothing wanted to move. Nothing wanted to work.
But the incense made him force his eyes open. Medicae didn't burn incense. Nor did Medicae tents have that kind of roof, really. He forced his eyes down only to see... a statue. Saint... he couldn't remember her name offhand. A warrior hospitaller. Yes, he knew her. That, as well as sheets finer than anything he'd ever had as a Guardsman, told him that he wasn't with Medicae right now.
Klightus pushed aside the sheets, looking down at himself. Bruising, yes. To be expected. But it had already started healing nicely. His leg and arm were bandaged, as well as his ankle. From the looks of it, even the minor lacerations had been attended to. He... wasn't going to argue. With a wince, he quietly made his way out of the cot, kneeling before the statue. If this saint had watched over him while he was unconscious, then the least that he could do was give her proper thanks. Even if the fact that he was only in his undergarments made his skin stand.
"You are awake."
The voice made him jump, turning quickly to look at the source. Bad idea -- it made him woozy, seeing double. No, not double. There was only one of everything in the room, save for the two sisters before him. Two pairs of ice eyes stared down at him. Almost completely identical, save for a small scar on one's cheek.
"Careful," said the one. "You have been unconscious for some time. You lost quite a bit of blood. We feared that we might have to send you to His loving embrace."
Well, it looked like he'd failed his family again. Shame tinged his cheeks, even as he tried to deny that small point of pride deep inside.
The one who spoke turned to the other. "Tell Sister Superior." The other nodded and left the grand tent. It all felt so surreal.
But there were things that needed addressed. Looking up from his position on the ground, he forced words to his lips. "H-h-how b-bad was it?"
"Three days. Sister Bethany was forced to hand feed you. When the fever came, she tended to that as well. We would like to keep you for a few more days." The air was heavy with unsaid words. She looked away from him, back to the statue. "Your commander has demanded we return you to him as soon as you awoke. He was not pleased when I brought you here, but there was little that he could do. Keeping you here, however..."
Klightus found himself blushing as he looked away. "I th-thank you for your divine kindness, as well as your d-divine wrath against the enemies of the Emperor."
"You may regret those words." He looked back up to her. Her face was hard. "Sister Bethany will escort you back to your regiment. I believe your commander seeks to put you directly back into harm's way." She must have seen his wince. "This, most certainly, will kill you. However, Sister Superior has informed me that all of the transports are either in use or in need of repairs. I'm afraid that it will be a long trip."
Klightus was never good at politics, but even he could see what was going on. The commander had found a way to force their hand. Who knew how, but they were were disobeying by complying. By following the letter of the orders, they had bought him time to help recuperate. His ears felt warm.
Which left when the tent opened, letting in another blast of cool air. The other sister, Bethany he supposed, had returned, carrying his gear. His pack looked so very empty. With even, graceful movements, she placed it on his cot. A moment later, she made her exit again. To don her armor, he supposed.
"I expect to see my sister returned after she presents you," the more talkative sister declared.
That threat was read loud and clear. From his kneeling position, he made the sign of the aquila to her. "The Emperor's will b-be done."
The two of them stayed there for several long moments, neither moving. She expected him to stand. There was no way that he was going to do that with her there. Perhaps she sensed his discomfort, perhaps she grew tired of waiting, but regardless, she bowed her head to him and left him to change.
Not for the first time in his life, and he doubted it would be the last, Klightus silently cursed his body.
He took his time getting changed, out of stiffness rather than... anything else. By the time he left the tent, the sister was standing outside awaiting him in her armor, her bolter carried at ease. "S-Sister Bethany?" She nodded to him, her eyes closing slightly. Okay, this was kind of awkward. "I was t-told that you would... You would be escorting me?"
As if to answer, she retrieved a crutch, offering it to him. Great. They were walking. To Emperor only knew where. This might take a while...
The going was both boring and entertaining. His escort wasn't the talkative type, but... He had to admit, there was something about the cut of her armor... It also didn't help with her height. He was the tallest purestrain human in the regiment, but she... Perhaps it was the armor, but she came very close to looking him in the eye. That alone was enough to keep him somewhat distracted from the pain.
For every two hours they marched, they rested for fifteen minutes. She would come and look him over critically -- probably ensuring that he wasn't about to fall over. Each time, she presented him with a little bit of food, water, and painkillers. Which was both a good thing and a bad thing. By the fourth stop, Klightus wasn't feeling any pain, but he was also feeling rather woozy.
Perhaps she sensed this. Her ice blue eyes narrowed this time as she watched him, a slight frown on her face. Wordlessly, she wrapped an arm around him and guided him over to a tree. She didn't speak, but it didn't take much urging to get him to sit and rest against it. He smiled up at her to thank her, but already Sister Bethany was walking away, collecting twigs.
His eyes opened to find a fire going, the only thing keeping darkness from invading their small makeshift camp. He found a blanket wrapped around him. Honestly, he didn't remember falling asleep. He blinked twice, looking around. Her silver hair was the main thing that gave Bethany's position away next to the fire. With a smile, she brought him a bowl of some sort of stew. He tried to thank her again, but his throat felt thick and dry.
A few mouthfuls to ease the gnawing of his stomach gave him a little courage. "Sister B-Bethany? I..." She tilted her head curiously, the light from the fire playing on her face. "I don't... know what I did to deserve you treating me like this, but..." He swallowed hard. "I just wanted... to say thank you. I feel like I don't... deserve hospitality such as this. I'm just-"
She crossed the short distance between them. Somehow, Klightus found himself extremely aware of just exactly how close she was to him. An even expression on her face, she took both his hands, forcing one to take a spoonful of stew and putting it into his mouth. That... pretty much said it all. Shut up and eat. Blushing, he swallowed and looked back down to the simple silver bowl. With a nod, she settled next to him against the tree, taking up her bolter and pointing it into the darkness.
He didn't remember falling asleep again, but he did awaken briefly during the night. His neck hurt, and his cheek felt pierced. Opening his eye, Klightus found out why -- in his sleep, his head had found its way onto her shoulder. His eyes closed again, thinking that he should move.
Thinking was as far as he got.
It was subtle motion that woke Klightus up. The slight movement of the head caused by what it was resting on moving. He forced his eyes open, only to be greeted by a pair of ice blue.
He jerked his head away and found himself blushing all the way up to his ears. "Sorry, I-I..." He glanced at her and found her to be smirking ever so slightly at him. Somehow, he didn't feel insulted by it. She made her way to her feet, stretching, before she brought herself down to a kneel. Ah, right. Morning prayers. He should have known. Heck, she'd probably been holding off on them to let him sleep. That was... awfully nice of her. Almost...
He quickly pushed the thought out of his head as he forced his own body to move. Nothing more than the after effects of drugs, he told himself. And, no matter how much he wanted to believe it might be otherwise, he couldn't. She wasn't...
Right, stop that line of thought right there. Now that his neck simply hurt instead of feeling like it was going to snap off, he settled down himself for prayer. A prayer to the Emperor's grace, for seeing Klightus to safety and continued life, for gifting him with one of His blessed daughters, for His continued protection against danger both without and within.
It felt odd to pray in silence, but somehow he felt that it was better this way -- it didn't feel right to say them out loud if she was praying so quietly.
After an eternity of the only sound belonging to the forest around them, him singing all the mental praises and recanting every appropriate litany that he could think of in his head, she finally moved. He didn't feel right ending his prayers before she did. With this reprieve, he pulled himself up to his feet to wander off to the bushes.
The privacy wasn't just to relieve himself. Though the tear in his pants granted him the ability to see the bandage on his leg, he couldn't check the wound. Now, however, he could. They'd done a good job of taking care of him, but they'd stitched it up fairly soon. Frowning, he pushed at the sides, watching the opaque liquid seep out between the stitches. He would have preferred to keep it open a couple of days to keep infection from setting in. Still, he wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth.
With a sigh, he washed it off with water from his canteen before re-bandaging his leg. His ankle hurt, but that was a secondary concern now. His arm, however, looked like they'd had to dig in it. That wasn't surprising, considering that wood shrapnel had caused the wound. Had to get all the pieces out. After a moment's pause, he re-bandaged it. Best not to dwell, right?
Back at "camp," Sister Bethany had gotten the fire restarted. He had to wonder, did she sneak off to relieve herself... Yes, best not to think. Not while his neck was still stiff and the side of his face still hurt from resting on her. She looked up at him as he approached, a hint of a smile on her lips. Enough to make a man's chest feel tight.
"I j-just wanted to thank you again for..." She stood in one fluid motion, holding the bowl out to him again. Right. Klightus could figure out the total meaning. Quit thanking me, she was saying. Fair enough. He could focus on food for a bit. Leftovers from the previous night's meal, but he could live with that. Especially since he was finding that they had much better rations than the Guard did.
The star this planet orbited was threatening to set. Klightus' leg felt like it was on fire. He wasn't sure which hurt more, the ankle or the wound. Soon, though, they'd camp. He'd put his leg up and maybe sleep some more. That was always what he prescribed when a patient had a wound like his. Elevation and sleep. He kept going over facts like this in his head, more to take his mind off the pain than the woman leading the way.
Which only made it that more abrupt when she suddenly stopped. Her posture changed from purposeful to guarded -- that told him everything. His free hand gripped his lasrifle. He'd let go of the crutch if they came under attack, but for now he wanted to see what she saw.
He wished he hadn't. The scene of carnage in front of him was something that nobody truly wished to see. It looked like a camp of Guardsmen had been attacked. Probably a checkpoint in the supply route. It wasn't until he noticed one of the banners that he truly came to regret the sight.
As quickly as his leg would allow he moved to the first Guardsman he could find, rolling the body over. It had already become stiff and had started to rot. But the laurels were what Klightus was looking for.
"Thank the Emperor," he sighed under his breath. He looked up to Sister Bethany. "This is the Fifth. I was w-worried that it was the Third for a moment. I..."
"KILL THE SERVANTS OF THE IMPERIUM!"
There it was. That brief moment of panic whenever he was suddenly presented with combat. His head snapped up to the source of the voice; a group of the traitors were running out from the cover of a tipped cargo transport. They had lasrifles. They'd looted the bodies for their lasrifles. His mind was still reeling from that revelation when there was the sound of an explosion next to Klightus. Almost immediately, one of the renegades exploded.
Seems that Sister Bethany didn't have that moment of panic. Which was enough to break him out of his reprieve. He lifted his rifle, shouting the Litany of the Lasgun and firing. Almost immediately, however, Sister Bethany occupied half of his field of vision as she stepped in front of him. She was protecting him, putting herself between him and harm's way.
Well, bugger to that. Klightus might have been Medicae, but he was a Guardsman, and every Guardsman was a rifleman. Dammit, he was not going to let anybody die for him. The Litany of War poured from his lips as he took aim again. The Oath of Vengeance was screamed as the enemy charged. The Death Incantation spat out of his mouth, leaving his throat raw. He might die today, but by the Throne, he was not going to let go without a fight.
He was halfway through the Litany of Accuracy (surprise attacks never left one with time to prepare the litanies properly) when he noticed something landing nearby. It wasn't thought which propelled him, but instead instinct which slammed his body into Sister Bethany's hard armor, bringing them both to the ground a hair before the grenade went off.
The world was eerily silent for a moment, though that faded to a persistent ringing in the ears. As much as Klightus wanted to contemplate how long that ringing might last, they were still being shot at. Virtually being thrown off of the Sister didn't help matters any.
Klightus glanced around and saw two things. The first was a chimera that had somehow been destroyed. (If this group needed to scavenge weapons, how did they do that?) The second was the corpse next to it. It didn't take long for a plan to form.
Sister Bethany had already raised to a crouching position, her bolter firing. For as loud as it was, she was oddly silent, a look a pure wrath on her face. Good enough for him. He forced himself to his feet, slapping her shoulder and pointing at the Chimera. "Cover," he yelled before running towards it as best he could. His leg did not want to work at all.
Moments later, Bethany made a controlled retreat behind the Chimera. She used the cover well, at least, peeking out to fire controlled shots, each one hitting their mark. How many of these guys were there?
Klightus, though, had other concerns. Namely, the corpse in front of him. Long dead, no sense in even checking, but that wasn't his concern. It was the Guardsman's weapon. Since Bethany had her side covered, he moved to the other. Unlike her, though, he didn't fire.
Though the Chimera offered good protection against the lasrifles, it would limit one person's cover, making it easy for them to be flanked. Sure enough, within moments a traitor poked his head around to fire.
Unfortunately for him, Klightus pulled the trigger on the melta. Unarmored as he was, the traitor had no chance at all. Without waiting to make sure that he was dead (what was the point?) Klightus pushed around the corner, firing into the cluster of traitors quickly trying to backpedal from the heat. Those that dove out of the way met a grisly fate from Bethany, who had decided to leave cover.
Bethany's bolter fired one more time, with one last fleeing traitor meeting a messy fate. Gasping for air, Klightus leaned against the ruined Chimera. His throat felt raw, as if it might be bleeding. The entire battle he'd been screaming litanies and oaths in rage. Now, however, he was beginning to wear down.
Slowly, the high that he'd been riding ebbed out of his body, leaving him to actually be able to see his surroundings. To see Bethany march from corpse to corpse with a flamer, setting the defeated ablaze. Where she got it from, he didn't know. But he appreciated her zeal right now.
Or at least he would have. His body was beginning to communicate with him again. "Although my b-body is broken... Al... Although my blood p-pours away... Although my time may... GAH! End. The Immortal Emperor will greet me, and embrace m-m-me with His holy aura..." Klightus felt his body slumping to the ground, his leg no longer able to support any weight at all. "If only I r-remain... constant to Him... Through this time of..."
His hand went to the tear in his pants, gripping his wound. Bad idea. Glancing down, he saw red in the bandages. Plenty of red. "Of torment..."
Pain speckled his vision. Had he pushed himself too far? Would his family get what they had prayed for? The world began a slow, jerking spin as he slumped to his side on the cold ground.
Boots approached. He forced his eyes open again, looking up to Bethany. How weak he must look to her. How pitiful. She barely looked like she'd worked up a sweat, and here he was, fighting to remain conscious. Some hero of the Imperium he turned out to be. As her gauntlet reached out to gently touch his face, he let his eyes close.
Consciousness came and went. He was briefly aware of being alone. Then came the dim knowledge of being carried. He wasn't sure if he was dreaming or not, but he could have sworn that Sister Bethany forced him to drink something. Then warmth. Comforting warmth. The kind that made you think that you might have been released from your torment and taken into the Emperor's embrace.
Finally, his eyes opened. Somehow, he was in a tent. Somebody had made a pallet of blankets for him to sleep on, and had tucked him in tight. It was warm. Nice. Somehow, finer than the sheets he had back home, even if he was comfortably numb. Funny how situations like this could make creature comforts seem drastically different.
He rolled his head to the side. His eyes didn't want to focus. After a moment, he recognized what was lying next to him. His clothes. Including his personals. That made the brain come out of its fog a little more. He looked over to his other side...
...to see Sister Bethany curled up under a blanket. Not the same one as him, but they were sharing the pallet. That brought his brain as close to fully operational as it could get. His head turned sharply to stare at the roof of the tent, his eyes wide as saucers. His breathing came in sharp, shallow pants. He became aware of the fact that, despite his personals lying right next to him, he was wearing undergarments. Somehow, that was even more terrifying.
Curiosity, however dangerous a thing it might be, is hard to ignore. Klightus took a deep breath and looked back to Sister Bethany... right into those pale eyes. Immediately, his head snapped back to bore holes through the roof. Despite how out of it he felt, he still could feel his cheeks burning.
Sister Bethany, however, didn't say anything. Now that he thought about it, she hadn't said a single word since he'd met her. Odd. She rose and moved across the spacious tent to a stove, turning it on.
He couldn't help but look again. For once, she wasn't in her armor. She was in robes. Rather nice ones, somehow looking both comfortable and official at the same time. He watched her work, idly noting the small scars on her legs and arms. What little he could see that weren't covered by the robes. As she turned, holding a cup, his eyes couldn't help but wander to her neckline, noting a scar that ran across her shoulder, and further down...
But just as he was staring at her, she was staring at him. He blushed again, looking away -- he hadn't felt this embarrassed since he was thirteen and his sister caught him staring at one of the servitors. Though now the part of his mind that delighted in tormenting him wondered why he had never stared at any of the Sisters Famulous.
But then she was kneeling at his side, helping to lift his head. He let her give him the pill and took the recaf eagerly. The warm liquid spread through his chest pleasantly -- a sure sign of dehydration. It made sense. They said he'd lost a lot of blood, and with how hard they'd been pushing... and the further bleeding...
As if reading his mind, Sister Bethany moved the blankets, causing a moment of... Panic? Fear? It wasn't a happy emotion that shot through him, but he wasn't sure what it was exactly. It dissipated, however, when she started to unwrap the stained bandages on his leg.
He'd popped a stitch. Several, from the looks of it. A part of him knew that's what had happened, but that didn't make it any more pleasant to see. Somehow, wounds on other soldiers were easier to swallow than his own. "Um... Could... Could you get me m-my-my pack?"
She nodded once and stood. He'd briefly forgotten just how tall she was, and the angle... was enough to make his eyes firmly on a mark on the tent's ceiling. She returned a moment later, laying it down to give him easy access to the contents. What little there were left -- he hadn't restocked after the battle. Still, there was enough.
The needle and thread, both sterilized, were produced. He said a soft prayer, followed by three litanies -- it never hurt to beg the Emperor for a little bit of extra help. Especially when his hands felt so numb. That, though, was a good thing -- he only felt pressure when the needle pierced the flesh of his leg.
After the third time, however, shaking hands clumsily set the tools of his trade aside. Bethany, again, lifted his head to feed him some recaf. It turned out to be a bad idea, but to his credit, he managed to roll enough to keep from hitting the pallet. Sadly, rolling onto his bad leg was enough to make him actually feel it again. It and his arm.
His stomach emptied and shaking, he tried to find a position that was comfortable. Tried and failed. If Bethany thought any less of him, she didn't let it show. She pulled the blanket back around him and set about to cleaning up the mess.
He wanted to apologize, but his body just wasn't up for it.
When Klightus awoke later in the day, Bethany was already in armor. She sat on a stool, his lasrifle across her lap, anointing it. Yes, the Machine Spirit deserved appeasement. Twice now it had been in combat. He wouldn't blame it for needing a little attention.
He was content to watch her work, the white hair framing her face. The guided movements of her hands. The small nick on her jawline. The tattoo on her cheek, almost like a beauty mark.
She rose, carefully setting the lasrifle aside, and moved to the tin cup on the stove. She turned to him and moved slowly to his side again. When did she notice he was awake? She held the cup questioningly until he tried to lift his head. Once again, she helped him, holding the cup to his lips. Short, careful sips. No more than a single swallow at a time. Finally he let go, falling back...
The sun was setting. This time his head was clearer.
"Um, Sis... Sister Bethany?" She turned to face him, smiling faintly. "If you... If you don't mind me asking, uh, but are we... You know, s-s-safe here?"
That question seemed to amuse her enough that she left the tent for a few minutes. When she returned, she had an object in her hand. It's purpose was immediately obvious.
"M-mines. I see." He fidgeted a little, debating. "Did you put them, um, close to the camp?" A shake of her head. A wide perimeter. Right. "O-Okay. Then could you... get me my crutch?"
She looked at him quizzically for a moment until realization dawned. There was laughter of sorts -- quiet, more jerking breathing through her nose and a smile that reached up to her eyes than anything. But she had the decency to get him his crutch and grant him the privacy to go outside in peace.
They were still in the camp. She'd taken down the Commander's tent and set it up in a more secure location. The smell of burnt flesh was on the air still. Considering that he couldn't see any bodies... Well. Somehow, that told him to stay that much closer to the tent.
By morning he was feeling much better. Human, in fact. His leg still ached, but he'd refused one of her painkillers for it. Later, when he needed it. Besides, he wasn't sure how many she had. He did notice his pack was heavier -- she must have repacked it for him.
They paused at the edge of camp long enough for him to say a prayer for those who died. While he'd gotten dressed, she'd removed the mines. Though it would have been a pleasant surprise to any future scavengers, eventually somebody would come to reclaim the equipment here for the Guard. They didn't want to accidentally take them out on accident.
At least, he hoped they didn't.
For three days, they travelled. Each day, Klightus got a little bit faster. Each day, his leg hurt a little bit less. And each day, he found himself becoming more and more fidgety.
It wasn't necessarily because she didn't talk to him. Truth be told, he didn't really talk to very many people. He'd always end up stuttering, and then they'd laugh at him, even worse if they knew he was nobility. Fighting the urge to try and talk to people was always the hardest part. But there had always been people talking around him. Three days of walking, and he had no idea what to do with himself, to occupy himself.
Even with Sister Bethany, Klightus was lonely. And somehow, now that he was recognizing landmarks, it seemed to get worse. Simply knowing that they were going to be at the sight of the battle soon made him feel... dull. Hollow inside.
Sister Bethany must have recognized it. As they sat for what he was sure would be their last lunch together, she prepared what must have been the most extravagant meal thus far, giving him an extra large potion. It wasn't until he saw how small of one she herself received that he was finally stirred to words.
"Sister B-Bethany, you don-don't have to that. Here, t-take some. You need to keep your strength up as much as-" The glare that she shot him could both melt ice and freeze oxygen at the same time. Quickly, he drew back. "Then again, I'm n-not the type to insult a p-proper lady like yourself b-by refusing such a wonderful gift. That would be like s-saying that the Commissar had terrible taste in r-rotgut. ...Which he does, b-but you d-don't say that if you like your limbs. Um, I mean, thank you? ...And sorry?"
Judging by her smile and the way her shoulders were shaking, he was guessing that she was amused. That sent a small thrill up his spine. He'd done good, that time! His own smile was eager and earnest.
"Um... when... When I was young, there was a member of Orders Famulous... S-Sister Kandra. She ended up t-taking care of me. A lot, I guess. But, um, when I was six, I... sort of fell off a balcony. ...and through some glass. Um, you probably, you know, saw the scars. But anyway, while she was helping me recuperate, she told me... She told me two things.
"The first was that I should a-always trust in the Emperor's guidance, that H-He gave of Himself f-for humanity, and that through Him, I would find all that I n-needed, so long as I remained f-faithful and p-pure. And I have! But, uh, that isn't the important part." He drew a breath. "She also told me that... If I w-was ever in trouble, hurt, l-lost, or in n-need of guidance... or whatever... She said to always find an Adepta Sororita. That she w-would help me."
Klightus bit his lip. It stung a little -- he must have gnawed a hole in it at some point. "What... I'm trying t-to say that... I... Thank you, Sister Bethany. I... You and your Order came at the right time. For us, I mean. You s-saved a lot of Guardsmen, and... me. And you went out of your way to help... me." He looked down at his food, hard. "I... I don't know w-why, but... Thank you."
He never saw her reaction. He was too embarrassed. He'd started out so encouraged by her mirth that he just started blubbering, and now... Klightus focused on his meal until it was done, then kept his distance until they were ready to leave.
It was getting close to dark as they crested the hill, giving them a clear view of the battlefield. Klightus stopped, leaning on his crutch as he surveyed the area.
An entire regiment leaves a huge mark on the land. The scars were there, but there weren't any of the people. He did up the math in his head, and the numbers didn't quite add up. The only way that they could have been gone like this is if they started packing up within a day of the battle. Tops. For the first time in hours, he looked to Sister Bethany directly, but her hard gaze on the horizon gave him no sense of satisfaction.
Until her hand shot out, pointing into the distance. He followed her gaze, squinting. For several moments, he found nothing... and then, it looked like a Rhino transport, but... No, an Immolator.
Klightus opened his mouth to ask, but Bethany was already on a direct march. Well, at least she answered the question in her own way. Grunting, he walked, mentally repeating the words of his commissar -- move as if you have a purpose. He had a purpose, all right. Like finding out where in the Emperor's grace his regiment was.
As they approached, the Sisters took note. One in particular stood forward. "Sister Bethany." Her gaze turned to him. "Guardsman Klightus Gramon." He blushed at the use of his House name. "We expected you yesterday. Was there a problem?"
Bethany turned to look at him. It took a moment before he realized that she expected him to explain the situation. "W-we, uh, we found the remains of the Jignur Fifth Regiment. They... had been destroyed, I'm afraid. S-slaughtered to a m-man, as far as I could tell." He paused. The Sister's expression didn't make him want to continue at all. "We were also attacked b-by the traitors."
"I see," the black-haired Sister said evenly. "Sister Bethany, do you have anything to add?"
Bethany thrust out her hand. Klightus couldn't see what was in it, but gauging by the way the other snarled, he wasn't sure he wanted to. "It is as I expected. We've already had confirmation elsewhere." The Sister paused. "As you can see, the Jignur Third Regiment has already been called away to another location. Shall we transport you?"
Bethany shook her head. That seemed to surprise the dark-haired one. "I see. Interesting. Might I suggest that you camp here for the evening? If the two of you have been under fire, then you may wish time to rest and pray in peace."
Bethany nodded, and Klightus made the sign of the aquila over his chest. He was more than willing to defer to their judgement.
The chatter of the Sisters, even if most of it was prayer, was somewhat of a comfort to Klightus. It was something to focus on, to think about. A welcome distraction from his own mind.
Not so much when the dark haired one approached him. He stopped his work on the lasrifle to make the sign of the aquila. "I realized that introductions had not been made. I am Sister Intias. May I sit?"
"Um..." Klightus looked around. She shouldn't have to ask. It was well within her right to do whatever. "Okay? Is there s-something that you need?"
She eyed him evenly as she sat. "Perhaps. You seem nervous, Klightus. Is there something the matter?"
"No. N-no, nothing at all. No. I... I just... I'm not..." He felt himself blushing. "I'm not good. With people, I mean. I mean, I don't... I... should probably just shut up now." He felt like burying himself in his hands. Or under a large rock.
Intias didn't seem amused, at least. He wasn't sure if this was good or bad. "I see. Interesting." Bad. This was bad. "The battle that occurred here. I'm told that you were part of it."
"Yes, I was. I... I'm a M-Medicae. In the field. I... I participated, yes."
"I'm told that you fought, too."
He hoped she wasn't putting him on trial. "I d-did. There were times where shooting back was more important than treating w-wounds. You c-can't keep Guardsmen on their f-feet if your position is... overrun."
Her eyes narrowed. "Do you know why we took you with us?"
He glanced around, suddenly feeling claustrophobic. Even more eerie by the fact that they were sitting outside. "...Because I was wounded?" His voice was high pitched. He felt like he was a teenager again.
"Hardly." She leaned forward, her stare boring into him. "You fought bravely. You fought, and treated your fellow Guardsmen, despite multiple wounds. Many sisters noted the speed and skill you displayed. But you've not a single medal to your name. Only your laurels. Tell me, why is this?"
Klightus shrugged, honestly confused.
"To be truthful, either your skill is exemplary, and thus worthy of notice, or your comrades were not showing proper devotion to the Emperor's work. We wanted to know which was which."
He paused, taking in a breath. Things were starting to make sense. "Y-you suspect me of being a h-heretic?"
One of Intias' eyebrows raised. "That is one possibility, yes. Does this make you nervous?"
"No." His shoulders slumped. "No, it makes me... kind of guilty." His eyes found a spot on the ground that was apparently very interesting, even though he wasn't actually seeing it. "I.. You're w-wasting t-time on me."
"Are you saying you are innocent?"
He drew a breath. Why did part of him feel like crying? "No. I... I g-get afraid on the battlefield a lot. S-sometimes, I feel the urge to run away. So I charge. When I can. When I can't, there's a-always shooting."
He didn't dare look at Intias. Even now, fear was crippling him. "An interesting response. A confession to cowardice, yet an attempt to overcome it. I believe I understand why Sister Amalia and Sister Bethany chose the route that they did." He looked up at her. "To judge one man is a simple affair. To judge and purge an entire regiment, however, can be time consuming. Especially if they resist judgement."
She stood sharply. "I suggest that you be truthful in all matters, Guardsman Klightus Gramon. Be truthful, and guard yourself. If you are untainted, there is no guarantee that the taint of Chaos may not work its way into your soul."
As she took her leave, Klightus realized that he would get no sleep tonight.
They left the next morning as soon as prayer was done. It was nice to be able to hear it for a change; Klightus committed as much as he could to memory. Their prayers were more intensive than what he heard in the Guard and, honestly, they gave him more peace. Especially after the previous night. He needed whatever peace he could get.
Sister Bethany could tell that something was wrong. Maybe it was his yawning, or the fact that he couldn't bring himself to keep his head up, constantly looking at the ground in front of him as they walked. Her curious, concerned looks earned a half-hearted smile in return before putting his head down and continuing on.
Lunch, needless to say, was a miserable affair. Before, he'd watched in marvel as she turn rations into something that was not only hot but also fairly tasty. Instead, he just thought. Even after she gave him his tin dish, he spent more time thinking than pretending to eat. At least, until she knelt in front of him, her hand on his shoulder, her ice blue eyes looking at him worriedly.
"I'm fine," he mumbled, taking a bite to prove it. She didn't move. The only thing that changed was her expression. She wasn't buying it at all. With a sigh, he had to give in.
"Sister Intias t-told me," he muttered, doing anything he could from looking at Bethany. "She... told me why you're escorting me. B-because either I'm tainted or..." Klightus sucked in a deep breath. "Or my regiment is. And I... I've never been anything but loyal, Sister Bethany. Even in the tower, I said my p-p-prayers and followed the cult. I've never turned m-my back on the Emperor, not for one moment. I can't. But..."
He looked up at her, his throat feeling tight. "You have to believe. When you s-see everything that you've helped do, you have t-to believe in your orders. That what the c-commander or commissar tell you t-to do are the right thing. That they're p-pure. When you s-see a child that isn't a mutant who's been... You have to b-believe that they're right. That they do the Emperor's w-work unquestioningly. If you don't..."
He closed his eyes. "I've seen what happens if you don't. I won't be like that, a h-h-h-heretic. So you p-put your head down and you t-trust in them. And if they're t-tainted..." He clenched his eyes shut, focusing on what he needed to say, words that seemed to be caught in the back of his throat.
"I hope it's me," he blurted out finally. Now the words "I h-hope that I'm the one t-tainted! I hope that they're all pure, and that I'm j-just... I'm going to die, and I'm f-fine with that. I'm going to go to the Emperor's embrace. But... I've just been trying to keep all of them alive this entire time, and if they... aren't... If they're no better than the traitors, heretics in disguise, then I've... Then I've been..."
Adepta Sororitas power armor was not designed to give anybody but the wearer any form of physical comfort. Some might argue that it was designed for the opposite. But Klightus felt no pain as Bethany hugged him. The armor was somehow warm to the touch, comforting. For once her silence was welcome.
And, in time, he returned the embrace.
But the only good things that could last forever were the God Emperor and the Imperium. They eventually released each other. Klightus wiped at his face before looking up to her. Bethany had a serene expression. Sister Kandra had been right, it seemed.
"I'm fine," he forced out. A cough, and more firmly, "I'm better. Honestly. You... still have your judgement to make, and I have to live by it. I... For what it's worth, Bethany, thank you. I... This has been... We should finish our meal. We're behind schedule, yes?"
He gave her the best smile he could. Hers was small, but encouraging. As he ate, however, he couldn't help but still feel the memory of her hand stroking his hair.
Superstition is a powerful thing. Klightus firmly believed in the idea that if something happened a few times in a row, there was a good chance of it happening again. As the sun began to fall, a sense of dread came over him. Since he'd left the Adepta Sororitas camp with Sister Bethany, nothing good had ever happened at dusk.
He wasn't disappointed.
The sound of a truck made the two of them glance at each other for a moment before moving off the road they were walking, hiding behind trees for cover. The truck stopped short, the headlights blinding them. After a moment, the engine shut down and people started to get out. He couldn't make out what they were saying, but they sounded local. The headlights shut off.
As Klightus' eyes adjusted, he could make out one important fact: they were bleeding. He glanced to Bethany, her face hard as stone. She must have seen something that he'd missed, because her lip curled up in a sneer. He decided that he never wanted her to look at him that way. Already he was glad that he'd gone into the bushes just half an hour ago.
She flashed him one finger. He began to whisper the Oath of Allegiance quickly. He was halfway through the Litany of War when she flashed him the second finger. he finished the Litany of the Lasgun as she flashed the third.
As one, the two of them pushed their weapons out from cover, barely taking a heartbeat to sight the enemy before firing. Immediately, two of the figures fell, one instantly blown into his component parts. The other six turned and began to charge. "FOR CHAOS!"
Oh. By the Throne, no. Klightus sneered as he sighted another, the three providing defence from their wild shots. "Smite the foe," he bellowed as he fired, this time only scoring a glancing blow. "Smash the enemy!" This time, he hit the heretic in the chest, but the man kept coming. "For the Emperor we bring death!" True to his word, he man's face sizzled, causing him to fall. And then there were two.
Or three. Klightus caught a glimpse of movement from the back of the truck. He didn't know what it was, but the fact that Sister Bethany's next shot wasn't aimed at the cultists told him enough. For now, however, he ignored the monstrosity with the pick and took aim at the closest cultist. Keep them from tying the both of them up, from having to watch their backs. Basic tactics; don't let yourself be flanked.
By the time that he finished the last cultist, the warp spawn was upon them, charging for Bethany. Its great pick-like weapon made an evil should as it swiped through the air. Unfortunately, the very thing that had protected them from the cultists fire now was working against Klightus. Every time he tried to draw a bead on the hulking beast, the forest worked against him. He would have lost the two of them had it not been for Bethany's bolt pistol firing.
He moved quickly, trying not to be awestruck. Not by the warp spawn, but by Bethany herself. The glimpses he caught of her evading the beast's attacks despite her armor... No, they were too close to get a shot off, damn it. Klightus charged, his rifle held at the ready, his bayonet pointed firmly at the enemy. It struck home in the creature's shoulder, missing the mark of the head.
That, at least, got the creature's attention. It swung its massive arm, only clipping Klightus. From a creature that powerful, however, a glancing blow was still something. Klightus hit the ground, his lasrifle being flung from his grasp. His world spun, even as he heard the firing of Bethany's great weapon. As he lifted his head, he realized why; he'd landed on, and destroyed, the crutch he'd been using. Now wasn't the time. He pushed himself onto his hands and knees, glancing at the monster...
To see the evil weapon strike home on Bethany, impaling her.
The sound of the impact hit Klightus like a gunshot.
There was no thought. There was no sanity. Klightus was only dimly aware of his actions, of what was going on. Rage had enveloped him. It roared at her. There was something in his hand. It shook its weapon, sending her sprawling to the ground. Klightus jumped. His armor protected him from the protrusions on its back. It startled, surprised by the action. Klightus reached around and put the weapon under its chin. It reached back to grab him. He pulled the trigger.
Heat enveloped his world as the melta sprung to life, causing his hair to singe. It started to topple.
The two of them hit the ground hard. It was still moving. Not much, trying to grip its throat, but somehow the accursed warp-spawn continued to live. That was enough to keep Klightus' rage alive. He found himself on his feet, rushing over to it, and firing his weapon. He screamed the Litany of Penetration, the Prayer of Smiting, the Death Incantation, the Incantation of Battle. He even made a disparaging remark about the creatures heritage. And he continued to scream, until the fuel ran out and the melta went silent.
The thing moved no more.
His hand was blistering already. His face felt hot. But as he drew in shaking breaths, Klightus had other concerns. He moved quickly to Bethany's prone form, falling to his knees. She'd been hit in the gut, good. That was potentially better than the chest, at least. Far better than the head. But her armor... His hands worked frantically.
"Machine spirits, please. I don't know how to help you, but..." He pulled to no avail. "If you don't let me remove you, I can't help the one you protect. Now get. Off! Please, release your hold on her! Please..."
Her hand moved. Weakly, but it moved to a clasp. Before she fumbled it free, he'd already gotten another. His hands worked faster than they had ever before. He pulled, discovering that he'd missed a clasp. Finally, though, the breastplate came free, tossed unceremoniously to the side.
He wouldn't say that the wound was good. There was no such thing as a good wound. But he'd treated worse. If she was untainted, she'd be fine. He'd treated, and saved, people with worse wounds... with a fully stocked Medicae tent to take them to. He cursed himself silently. Klightus had no idea how far away they were from the regiment. Bethany knew, serving as his guide, so he hadn't considered it important to know. Now he cursed himself. There was no way that he could drag her anywhere in time to safely...
All thought stopped as realization set in. Assuming the cultists hadn't corrupted it, they had access to a truck. Given how fast they'd moved, he could get her back to the remains of the Fifth. There, at least, might be the supplies he'd need. And if not, it wasn't too much farther to the Sororitas camp. He set to work on treating her as best he could, sweating heavily.
For once, there was no "good enough" for him. She had to be as stable as he could possibly get her before he moved her. All of his meatball skills were put to the test. He prayed that the Emperor would find his effort fulfilling, that He would grant her the ability to make it.
Finally satisfied, Klightus picked her up as gently as he could. Her blue eyes looked up to him questioningly. "It's going to be alright," he muttered half to himself. For the first time since she'd been hurt, she winced as he put her in the back seat of the truck, taking a sharp breath between her teeth. He leaned down to gently stroke her face, giving her a comforting smile. "Don't worry. I'm going to fix you up. You're going to be alright. You're going to do fine. We're just... We're going to go for a little drive is all. Alright?" He nodded before pulling away, closing the door.
"Don't make me a liar," he begged the Emperor under his breath before getting into the driver's side. The thing was... he'd never actually driven before. He knew the incantation to start the vehicle from having seen it done, but actually driving?
But the incantation worked. In his mind, he followed the route, figuring up which way to go. Oh, he hoped that they cleaned up all the claymores. As the machine spirit protested somebody who didn't know how to work a clutch, he pulled out, more determined than ever.
The truck literally skidded to a stop. Yes, he'd run over some corpses, but right now he didn't care. The machine spirit was still grumbling about the drive as he bailed out, sprinting into the half-collapsed field tent. Fortunately, it didn't seem to be too ruined, and the supplies weren't badly ransacked. Good. Things were... They weren't looking bright, but he could do this. He turned on torches to illuminate the tent and rushed back out to the truck.
The sight of Bethany made his heart catch in his throat. She was... so pale. Her chest was barely moving at all. His triage work was stained red, and...
No. His jaw set hard, making his teeth ache. No. He was a field Medicae. And he could... No. He would save her. No matter what. With shaking hands, he carried her into the tent, placing her on the chirugeons table. Dropping his jacket, he paused only to wash his hands and begin the litanies. The prayers. Anything he could think of to draw the Emperor's mercy upon him.
Every single trick Klightus knew, he used. Tubes fed blood into her. His undershirt was wet with sweat. He sung hymns as he carefully made incisions, gave her injections, and irrigated the wound. But he had to leave it open. As much as the wound sucked into his own heart, he had to leave it open. Stare at it. Infection thrived in warm, moist places. He had to make sure that it didn't set in before he closed her up.
When he could do no more for her body, he found a stool. Sitting next to her, he began to pray. His voice was raw, but... He had to do something. He had to. Clutching her cool hand in his own, he placed his forehead on the chirugeon's table, and prayed through the night. What else could he do?
Klightus didn't know when he fell asleep. To be true, he hadn't planned on sleeping. Hadn't planned on much of anything. But at some point during the wee hours of the morning, his exhaustion overcame his willpower. His forehead was aching from being the only thing supporting his head all night, and his pants were... wet. He'd been drooling in his sleep. His angry bladder told him that much.
His eyes moved to the vitals auspex wearily. By the Emperor, they were stable. Heartbeat, blood pressure... The were stable. It didn't mean that they were out of the danger zone yet, but... It was a start. "You're tough," he whispered, his throat horse. "And strong. That... couldn't have killed you. Couldn't have..." He'd seen what could happen, blood loss could weaken the soul, and simple wounds could...
"I'll be right back." He paused, though. He found that he didn't want to let go of her hand. Every fibre of his being wanted to be here, right now. He moved, ever so slightly, shaking. Every moment, he shook worse as his hands moved, raising hers. He hesitated, glancing up to her face. But she was unconscious, she... It was safe enough. He pressed his lips to the back of her hand, rubbed it against his cheek. Finally, however, he gently set it down.
The sun was shining outside. It was almost noon as he relieved himself. He should eat. He should... do something, he told himself. As he looked back at the tent, however, he knew that there wasn't much that he was going to be doing.
Inside, there was no change. That felt like a band had been released from around his chest. A part of him, the part that tormented him so, feared that he would come back to find her dead. His eyes fell to his pack. He reminded himself that he should eat... in a moment. He crossed over to her again, once again taking up her hand.
"Sister Bethany," he whispered softly. "I... know you can't hear me, but I just wanted to say... I know your job is to judge me, but this has been the best time of my life. Even with everything. You've kept me company. You've worried about me. At least, I like to think so. You helped me with my wounds, and watched over me when I slept. You kept me safe. You... No matter what happens, I have no regrets. I'm... happy. But I want you to live so badly... so very badly that I can taste it. Seeing you like this isn't right. You just... Live. Please, no matter what, live. I... I think I..."
But the words wouldn't come. Instead, he put his head back on the table and began his prayers anew.
The ration didn't really have any flavor, but Klightus had learned long ago that you didn't expect flavor from a ration. He tossed the tin away, wiping at his face. Four days now. Four days now, he'd been here. He'd kept her sedated the last two, mostly for her benefit. Yesterday, he'd closed her up. As far as he could tell, she was untainted by the weapon, but he was far from an expert in these matters.
And this was only his third time eating.
He settled into the stool next to her once more. There was a visible mark where he'd been resting his head all this time, be it for prayer or sleep. Once again, he took her hand in his and began to pray again. His prayers had become mere whispers. Half the time, he wasn't even sure what to say. Any words just came out. Half prayer for her well-being, half confessional.
The cool fingers against the back of his head startled him. His head snapped up to find her looking down with heavy eyes. At him. His heart nearly skipped a beat as a smile came to his face. "I... S-see, what d-did I tell you? We... You got through it just fine. Just fine indeed. I-I..."
He bit his lip as words failed him again. But she smiled. That was enough for him. It was a lazy, tired smile, but there it was all the same. That was enough to give him more encouragement than anything.
"You're... P-probably hungry. I should... I want to warn you that I'm not a very good cook. I d-don't... Um." He stood up, looking around. "Right, um... Stay right there. I'll go... you know."
Bethany allowed him to pull away, but seemed content to watch him work. If nothing else, that made his heart fly.
"Alright, so w-we're here." He pointed on the map. "And here's where they are n-now... So..." He thought about it a tick. "Okay, this road should be the fastest route, assuming it hasn't been taken out by the f-fighting. At least, if they haven't moved..."
She looked at him curiously. It hurt her, he knew, but she'd taken to sitting up on her own. They'd moved her to a cot last night. Her recovery was going superbly, but that could have just been sheer stubbornness on her part.
"Oh, when I was a kid, I liked to explore. I got pretty good at navigating. But it, uh, it got me into trouble a c-couple of times. So... yeah. I don't get to touch the maps, b-but whenever we move out, I p-pay attention. I l-like to think about alternate routes and stuff. Takes my m-mind off the upcoming fighting."
They shared a comfortable moment of silence, each smiling a little at the other. Funny that. A few days ago, he hated the silence. Now he he actually enjoyed it. A part of him wanted it to last forever.
...But he knew, deep down, that it couldn't. They had to go back. And then they had to part, one way or another. Maybe he was just being a fatalist, but it was still the truth.
"Sister Bethany, I... C-can you make me a promise?" The sudden shift in mood made her brow furrow. "I... I know what's coming, and... No m-matter what happens, can you... Can you let my parents know? What happened? I... They're still my family, and despite it all, I s-still owe them the same s-sense of duty that I d-do the guard."
Her confusion was plain as day. Her lips parted and she slowly shook her head. Quickly, Klightus took her hand in his. "Please. It's not much. Just a message. Just... s-something. Let them know. I c-can't send one myself, the c-commander has never l-let me. He s-says I'm just a spoiled noble. B-but... Could you do this... one thing for me? Please?"
Slowly, her face softened. Pity and concern enveloped it. Her free hand reached out to stroke his cheek, oddly smooth against his rough stubble. But she nodded, smiling sadly.
He sighed, feeling another weight off of him. He was almost completely free of all the chains holding him down. Just one last one... He closed his eyes and leaned against her hand. "Thank you..."
"Oh, please, Machine Spirit, please..." Klightus performed the incantation again, but the machine spirit simply grumbled at him. There was enough fuel, so why did the truck just stop? In rage, he balled up a fist... and stopped. No. The machine spirit was injured. It had performed well, all things considered, and had decided that it was time to rest. He shouldn't take out his frustration on it.
A gentle hand on his shoulder drew his attention. Bethany was back in her armor, though he hated the sight of her in it. With the hole, he could see the bandages, and that... He didn't like that. Her robes were better. More graceful, too. She gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze, tilting her head.
"Are you o-okay to w-walk?" She nodded. "C-can you, uh, get transport back to the Sororitas once we get there." There was a momentary pause before she nodded again.
That settled it, then. "I guess we're w-walking, then. It hopefully w-won't take more than a day." It might have just been an optimistic opinion, but it also might have been the pessimism talking.
She had "volunteered" to make lunch for them. At least, when he pulled out the rations, she grabbed his hand and got out her own. He... wasn't going to argue. Besides, she was better not only at cooking but at making a fire, too. He suspected that just came with being a Sororita, though.
While stretching, he saw a color that didn't quite belong this time of year. Winter was coming, but he could spy yellow flowers. He glanced back to her, then to the flowers as an idea began to form in his head. "Um, I'm going to... the bushes. Okay?" Bethany rolled her eyes and waved him off. Good, that would give him time.
His plan, however, didn't turn out to be so well thought out as he'd of liked. Apparently, he had absolutely no skill. First, they wouldn't weave. "By the Throne." Then, once he got them to start weaving, where he started would become unwoven. "Oh, Emperor protect me!" Then, as if to mock him, the stems began to break. "Oh, come on now!"
Motion caught him. Bethany was leaning against a tree, an amused expression on her face. She was still clutching her side, but at least he didn't see any blood. He took a breath before shaking his head. "I was t-trying to make this..." He made circular motions with his hands, fighting to try and find the right word. "It was on s-some of the murals at home, this-this thing of flowers that you wear on your head. Well, girls do. Or so I g-got from the mural. And I saw these and thought that maybe I'd... I d-don't know, maybe make one? For you? To put in your hair? ...Does that make sense to you?"
Her shoulders were shaking. She was smiling. That was good enough for him. He grabbed the largest flower and pushed himself to his feet. He felt like... he felt like he should just run away, like the weight of the entire planet was on him. But still, he held the flower out to her tentatively, trying not to look too stupid. When she took it, he let out a deep breath, closing his eyes. Which left him completely defenceless for what happened next.
The feeling of her lips on his made him jerk, but her hand was already on the back of his neck, holding his head in place. His entire body stiffened, every muscle suddenly going taunt until it felt like his calves were going to have cramps. But he did relax, his hands moving to gently frame her face.
After what seemed to be such a blissful eternity that didn't last for nearly long enough, she broke the kiss, moving just inches away. Klightus' heart felt like it was going to burst out of his chest and she... was blushing. She honestly looked bashful over what she had just done. As he fought for something, anything to say, there was a sound behind them.
His hand went to his lasrifle, and hers to her bolt pistol. But instead of finding somebody trying to kill them, instead they found the pot boiling over. "Lunch," he said with a nervous laugh. Bethany, at least, smiled and threw her arm around her shoulders. In return, he wrapped his around her waist and helped her back to the fire.
Klightus heard the camp long before they saw it. There was no way that such a large number of Guardsmen could keep themselves quiet for long. But this was it. He kept his pace even, going through the marching drills in his head. Focus on anything other than having to say goodbye. One foot in front of the other, slow enough that Bethany could keep up. He had to present himself to the commander.
One foot in front of the other. Happiness was earned. One foot in front of the other. Happiness was spent in moments that one could reflect upon later. One foot in front of the other. Happiness was gained through devotion and sacrifice. And he had earned it well. And, in his opinion, he'd spent it well. The Emperor had seen his devotion and had aptly rewarded him. But, as with all things, it had to come to an end.
What a sight the two of them must have been. Her, wounded and limping along. Him, covered in blood, singed, his lasrifle slung and a melta in his hand. Guardsmen stared, but he didn't mind. Let them. Let them stare, make jokes. They didn't know. For once in his life, he didn't care what a damn one of them thought.
"Klightus," the Commander growled. "You were due to return to the regiment a week ago. They said that you had set off."
"Yes, s-s-sir," Klightus replied, forming the aquila. "They w-w-were unable t-t-to p-provide-"
"What kept you?" the Commander asked, looking at Bethany.
"S-sir!" Klightus swallowed. His entire body was shaking. "We found the remains of the Jignur F-F-Fifth Regiment, sir, where w-we were attacked by the insurrectionists. It c-complicated my injuries, requiring time to rest."
"You seem to be getting along just fine," Commissar Dariel responded evenly.
"Yes, s-sir." Klightus made the aquila again. "The stitches have h-h-held now." His throat felt like it was full of razor blades. "We then m-made our way back to where the Third w-was camped at. W-we were informed that y-you had moved to this location. A-after, we were attacked by cultists. Sister B-B-Bethany was injured in the f-fray, requiring we r-r-rest further. It h-has only been within the l-l-last day that we were a-able to finish the j-journey."
"Do you have anything to add, Sister Bethany?" The Commander sounded rather cross.
Out of the corner of her eye, he watched as she gestured to the hole in her armor, touched the bandages underneath, then smiled at Klightus with a nod.
"Guardsman Klightus," Commissar Dariel cut in with a bark. "Where did you get that melta?"
"F-found it, s-sir. W-with the Fifth." He paused to take in a dry breath, staring the Commissar directly in the eyes. "It's empty, s-s-sir. I... I used all of it on a-a-a single c-c-cultist."
The Commander and the Commissar shared a glance. The Commander nodded. Commissar Dariel's hand moved to his side. Klightus squared his shoulders back, bringing himself up to his full height, and closed his eyes.
"Can't you do anything right?"
His brother's words stung his ears.
"You spoiled noble brats are all the same! Trying to get something for nothing. You can send a message to your family when you've earned it, but I don't see that happening."
The Commander never liked him, simply out of birth.
"You are nothing but a disgrace to this House! When are you going to contribute something to it?"
His mother's love...
"Looks like you got the good recaf. Hope you don't mind if I have some, do you? Heh. Of course you don't."
Why would the other men respect him?
"One more time, Klightus. One more time, and I'm not paying the ransom. You aren't worth it!"
How his father's words cut deep...
"Do us a favor and have the decency to do something right for once in your life and die quietly."
Yes. Finally. He would do what his family had always wanted. They wouldn't have to worry about him being a burden any more. For days he'd been worried about this plan, but now... Now he found it strangely liberating. He was free. He was happy, happier than he'd been in his entire life. He'd done his duty, but he could understand why none would see it. None except Bethany, and who would she tell? Who could she tell? No, a Guardsman doesn't seek out glory. He seeks only his duty, right?
He couldn't complain. In a short week, he'd found love, peace, and a place in the universe. The Emperor had seen his devotion and rewarded him. And now, by the simple guilt of telling the truth, he would be sent to His embrace at peace and happy, completing his duty to his family. Who could ask for anything more?
Klightus opened his eyes to look down the barrel of the gun and found himself smiling.
A gun which veered wildly off course when Bethany's gauntleted fist connected with the Commissar's face. The shot went wide, missing Klightus completely, forcing his smile to fade into confusion. Even more so when Bethany stepped forward, pointing her bolt pistol firmly at the Commissar's head. Klightus' mouth opened, but nothing came out save for a small squeak. The only movement from the Commissar was his breathing.
After what seemed to be an eternity, she turned to Klightus, fixing those ice blue eyes on him. Tears ran down her face, a face twisted into a visage of fury. That same gauntlet raised to slap him in the face, right across the cheek still tender from the flamer. Klightus staggered, fighting just to stay upright, tears misting his vision. He'd much rather of been shot than suffer that.
He righted himself slowly, his hand cradling the stinging cheek. He barely got his eyes opened when Bethany grabbed his shoulder and swung him around so he was facing away from the Commander. Placing an arm around his shoulders, she looked at him, her face full of concern. That look, those tears... Klightus decided that he hated that sight on her. Bethany nodded once to him. That was all the communication he needed. Wrapping an arm around her waist, the two of them began to limp out of the encampment.
"Klightus. It is good to have you home."
His face split into a wide smile. "Sister K-Kandra," he said warmly, forming the aquila.
"There is no need for that."
"We are all s-servants to the Emperor, Sister Kandra." The two of them spent a long moment smiling to each other before he stepped through the door. "I take it that they are w-waiting for m-me?"
"No," she said flatly. "Please, allow an old woman a few surprises." Was she old? There were wrinkles in her face, but at the same time...
"Then have they been derelict in their duties?" That took her by surprise. Yes, he had been learning. He opened his mouth to explain... No. No matter. This all worked out surprisingly well. "Then please, stay here a moment. There is one m-more surprise that I believe you will be able to appreciate. I c-can find my way."
It felt good to walk through the halls. To look at the murals. Especially in his uniform. It was a little hot in his greatcoat, but... Well, he didn't mind. Not at all. He made his way through Gramon Tower, easily finding the sitting room.
Both Mother and Father were there. They looked well, of course. You couldn't not, with their status. Mother had that look about her that said she'd just been through a rejuvenation treatment. Good. He was glad to see that she was keeping up appearances.
"Klightus," his father said flatly. "You live."
They both rose to get a closer look at him. "Y-yes father. I still l-live."
"And the Guard has let you come home between signings?" his mother asked. He could feel the venom in her words.
"No, Mother. I am n-n-not going on another tour with the-"
He'd forgotten about his mother's left cross. But he didn't stagger. He didn't dare. Now wasn't the time. He slowly righted his head, glaring down at his mother. "Feel better?"
"How dare you," she seethed. "You were to be a hero of the Imperium. You were to-"
"I hope we're not interrupting anything." The looks on his parents faces were priceless.
Klightus turned slowly to look behind him. Despite being twins, he could instantly tell them apart. "Mother, Father. I would like you t-to m-meet Sister Amaia." She bowed her head only the slightest touch, her ice blue eyes glaring daggers. "Sister Bethany." Bethany didn't bother with even the barest hints of politeness. There was a flash of white behind her. "And Katla Gramon. Come h-here, Katla..."
The little girl peeked out from behind Bethany, hesitated, then ran to Klightus' embrace. He looked at his parents. Oh, yes. This would be interesting...
Klightus forced himself to his feet slowly, folding his hands over his chest to form the aquila to the statue one last time. His leg still hurt, but it wasn't enough to bother him now. A week, maybe a little more, and he'd be right as rain. The past fortnight had been good to him in that respect. In others...
His return to the Sororitas camp hadn't exactly been met with fanfare. Indeed, many of them now openly treated him with suspicion. Sister Bethany's silent testimony didn't seem to be enough to satisfy them; for a while, he was subject to constant interrogation. It was getting better, though. Yesterday, he'd only had to spend an hour being questioned by a Sister Superior. Apparently, they were starting to honestly believe that he wasn't tainted.
When he wasn't being questioned, he spent his time any number of ways. Technically, he was free to move about the encampment as he wished, but he tried to stay out of people's way and keep his head down. Much of his time was spent in prayer or learning this Order's history and practices. A good deal was also spent in physical therapy -- his arm was healed to the point where he only felt pain when he pushed it too hard. He had to admit, as much as he knew about being a field Medicae, he could learn a great deal from the Chirugens here.
A gentle hand on his back reminded him of the other way that he spent his free time.
He turned to find Sister Bethany smiling shyly at him. She was in armor, which meant that she was going to go out on a mission. He didn't like that. She still wasn't doing the greatest; her limp was still blatantly obvious. But he wasn't the one to give the orders, and he would never doubt the will of the Canoness. "How are you d-doing?"
Bethany touched her armor where she'd been wounded -- either she'd received a replacement, or they'd patched her up well. She smiled a little at him and raised her eyebrows. Good, she was alright. Either that, or it was her stubbornness talking. Her face screwed up in concern as she reached out, her hand hovering just over his leg.
"I'm f-fine," he said warmly, taking her hands. The two of them spent a long moment staring at each other in silence before he spoke again. "You have a mission." She nodded, glancing down at her armor. It had their standard pack on, but it looked more like the first time he'd seen her. "How long b-before you leave?" Her slight frown spoke volumes. Very soon.
He placed his forehead against hers, closing his eyes. "May the Emperor g-guide your blows, and smite your f-foes. May He grant you His b-blessing, granting trials and hardships that you m-might overcome, and His supreme blessing upon their completion. May He... M-May He bring you back to me safe and whole. Ave Imperator."
Klightus' eyes opened, to find hers staring back at him. The blush on her cheeks made his feel hot. He began to pull his head away, only for her to press them together again. This time, her eyes closed, her lips silently moving. He couldn't make out what she was mouthing, but it didn't matter. To receive a blessing from a member of the Sororitas, or even just a prayer... That was more than enough of an honor for Klightus. Bethany just made it sweeter.
"Ave Imperator," he whispered softly. That made her smile again. They squeezed each others hands, a sign of support, of... Well. Bethany glanced behind her, and Klightus didn't like the look on her face. It meant that she had to leave now. She looked back to him apologetically for a moment, one lip caught between her teeth.
And then she kissed him. It wasn't a long kiss, but it was enough to make his breath catch in his chest, to make his head swim. He wasn't even aware that his hands had come up to frame her face gently. He only realized it when she broke the kiss. His eyes opened slowly to look at her. She smiled and brushed her thumbs across his cheeks. He couldn't help but smile at her demand.
"Go," he said weakly. "B-before I want you t-to stay any more than I already do."
Nodding, she released him, taking a step back. Oh, that was painful. It felt... good to have her so close, and now... She paused to look back at him, giving him a tender smile before leaving the tent.
Klightus sighed to himself, running his hands through his hair. Getting longer than regulation length again. No matter. Nothing that he could do about it right now; he didn't want to bother the Sisters for something so inconsequential as that. He sighed again, wishing he'd asked for a lock of her hair or something. Or had given her one of his. Something to keep her close even when she was away.
But his thoughts were ripped away as the tent opened again. He looked up to see her moving quickly towards him, his breath catching in his chest. His mouth opened to speak.
Words weren't coming, though, when she rather quite angrily grabbed him by his uniform shirt and pulled him close. "What did you do to my sister?" she growled.
No, not Bethany. They may have looked alike, the scar the only difference in their faces. This was Sister Amaia. And... not quite the greeting that he wanted, either. "N-nothing," he stammered. "She w-wanted to see h-how I was doing! She... w-wanted to let me know that she was leaving!"
Amaia pulled him closer, staring into his eyes until he flinched away. "Is. That. All?"
If he wasn't sweating before, he was now. But he also wouldn't lie. "She k-k-kissed me?" Instinctively, he flinched, prepared for the strike. When it didn't come, he held it for several seconds, he opened one eye.
She was staring at him evenly, her head pulled back a little bit. "She kissed you?" He nodded, not even trying to get the words out this time. "Is this the first time?"
His throat felt horribly dry as he swallowed. His tongue felt several sizes too large. "N-no." His voice was cracking in fear. "She k-kissed me once before. When she was p-p-presenting m-me to the regiment."
Amaia seemed to consider this for several long moments. He couldn't even begin to imagine what was going on in her head. Sadly, the few things that he could imagine almost universally ended with him on the wrong side of a bolter. Or a flamer. Or a melta.
Instead, in a sudden flurry of movement, he found himself rather violently thrown to the floor. Amaia's arm was pressed against his throat, those ice-blue eyes boring into him. "Guardsman Klightus," she said in an oddly even tone. "She's been virtually dancing since she returned from that little... excursion. So, I swear to you, should you hurt my sister, even one little bit, I will make you wish that we had decided you worth purging the moment we first laid eyes upon you."
Klightus nodded his acceptance, unable to form words right now. Or, to be honest, breathe. Frankly, he was thankful that he'd already used the facilities. But Amaia seemed to accept this answer. She stood slowly, staring down at him. "The Canoness wishes to speak with you."
With that, she turned, stalking out. Somehow, Klightus thought to himself, this day was only going to get worse.
"And you must be Klightus."
He stood at attention, his hands folded over his chest to form the Aquila. Though the Canoness spoke with a kind tone, she was the equivalent, or better, to his Commander. She'd survived countless battles, and the fact that she wasn't barking at him was itself a testament to her grace. "Guardsman Klightus, Field Medicae of the Jignur Third Regiment, r-reporting as ordered ma'am!"
The woman's lips quirked as her eye looked him over. "At ease, Guardsman." He quickly found himself standing at parade rest, his eyes still focused straight ahead. "You're caused quite a stir, you know."
"Yes m-ma'am. I'm sorry ma'am."
"I'm used to being called other titles." She seemed entirely amused by his behavior. "Tell me, Guardsman, do you fear me?"
"No ma'am. You d-do the Emperor's work. You act of His w-will. If you find me lacking, I will be purified so I do not offend H-His eye." Though his back was sweating...
"A proper attitude," the Canoness said. He would never get used to augmetic eyes. Or, at least, somebody with only one of them. "Or at least, the proper words. But that is neither here nor there. I have need of you."
"I am b-but a humble servant of the Emperor," Klightus professed, bowing his head.
"But aren't we all?" She smirked. Somehow, that didn't help. "There is a regiment that is about to move so that they might retake Litmore City. Are you familiar with it?"
"They say that within the end of the millennium it will become a hive, much like two other cities here. From what I have learned, it is a worthless place, more likely to breed the sin of taint than faithfulness. However, if the planet is to be purged from the Chaos within, we must cleanse these cities. As such, for the initial assault, I am assigning a squad of Sisters to assist the Guardsmen. However, your cant is slightly different from our own. I would appreciate somebody who can be dedicated to assisting in the communications between the two of us. Do you understand?"
"Yes ma'am." Oh, did he understand, and it sent shivers down his spine. He wasn't stupid -- there were times where it took minutes for him to give a simple message. The fact that they were expecting him to do this on the battlefield...
"Good. I've taken the liberty to notify your Commander of this already." Oh, this was so not going good. "As well, I believe that you are familiar with one of the Sisters you will be traveling with." That made him perk slightly. The possibility of working with Bethany... "Sister Amaia." ...or the woman who had just threatened to make the end of a flamer seem like a vacation. "I suggest you prepare your gear and make haste, by the grace of the Emperor."
"His will be done," Klightus replied quickly, giving her the aquila again before turning to leave.
It took a while for Klightus to get to the Rhino. If there was one thing that he'd learned, it was that the Sisters put symbols of the Emperor everywhere. He'd been trained well, too -- salute every one of them. Still, it was strange. He'd always thought that the Sisters would attack as one whole group, but there seemed to be plenty of groups heading out for one location or another. Scouting, perhaps? Trying to find the largest concentration to assault?
Either way, he decided it was above his pay grade.
The flash of blue staring at him told him he'd reached the right Rhino at last. He gave Amaia the sign of the aquila, and she motioned for him to get in. Moving to the back, he paused to once again salute each of the Sisters already inside individually. Only then did he quickly stow his lasrifle and found his way into a seat. At least he was only sitting next to Amaia, with only armor on the other side.
"Glad you could join us," one of the Sisters said as the hatch closed. He found himself blushing a little. "You'll be serving as liaison between us and the Hygar Ninth Regiment. Do you know what Celestines are?" He shook his head. "You'll find out." That didn't help his nerves any.
"I'm Cordelia, Sister Superior of the squad." That explained the authoritative nature to her voice. "You know Sister Amaia already, I'm told. She vouches for your combat abilities."
Klightus looked at her, met by an even stare. Swallowing hard, he decided to try a risk. "N-no doubt she w-wishes to verify for herself that I am t-t-t..." He winced, focusing. "Taintless."
"I told you he had a stutter," Amaia said plainly.
"You didn't say that he had a brain," another sister cut in. A quick glance revealed she was... a Hospitaller? They were the inspiration for Jingur to make the Field Medicae. There was something about her voice...
"He should have some," said Amaia, looking at another Sister. "Or the taint of corruption. He is a noble, after all."
That got the Sister's attention. Leaning forward, she examined him in a new light. Her brows were pushed together, making her face look even more weathered. "What House? What planet?"
"Gramon," he said, feeling himself blush under the new scrutiny. "Of Jingur IV."
"Ah," she said, settling back. "I am Julianne. My father was Kleber Gundersen of Globus."
That said a lot. She was either the sole survivor of her family or a bastard child. From Klightus' guess, it was the latter. He'd long since discovered that everybody in this Order was either from a shrine world or an orphan -- given that her father was a noble on Globus, that was out of the question. So, bastard child, mother died. Right. In his mind, he pegged her as the oldest here.
"I am Quintilla," said the next sister. "Across from me is Sister Ephrael." The other sister nodded, her features hidden behind her helmet. "She doesn't talk much, but given you were with Sister Bethany, that shouldn't be too bad. She's a chatterbox by comparison." She paused for half a breath, her finger tapping against her kneeguard. "Now."
The Rhino lurched into into motion, forcing Klightus to put his hand against the armor. Quintilla grinned and continued. "Stay behind her unless you like being set on fire."
Right. That told him everything that he needed to know about Sister Ephrael.
Klightus' head was whirling, trying to process everything. Amaia didn't give him the chance. "You can't see her from here, but up front is Sister Nyze. She actually trained with Bethany." That got Klightus' interest. "She didn't quite make the cut, but she picked up the preference for two boltpistols. She doesn't trust the machine spirit to drive. She's a little... odd."
"That is hardly fair, Sister Amaia." Klightus looked back to the Hospitaller. "She is a true warrior, and I dare any of you to keep up with her once the combat starts." Her eyes turned to Klightus. "I am Sister Plath. It is a pleasure to meet you, Guardsman Klightus."
Now Klightus recognized what was odd about her voice. It was almost as if she were... singing every word. Still, he bowed his head in reverence. "It is an h-h-honor to meet you, Sister Plath. I hope to l-learn by your example."
Her eyebrows rose in surprise for a moment. "Truly? ...Ah, yes, that's right. You are a... combat medicae, I believe it was called? Tell me, how did you end up in such a position?"
He felt uneasy under the scrutiny. "I l-learned a bit about medicae procedures as a ch-child. C-combined with my c-combat skills, I was deemed worthy for this p-position, and given f-further training."
"They speak of your skills, but where did you earn them?" Sister Julianne asked quietly.
Klightus shifted slightly in his seat. He didn't like being the focus of attention. "I w-was trained b-by Sister Kandra, of the Orders Famulous. When she l-learned of m-my destiny to serve with the Guard, she began a strict regime. After morning p-prayer, I would descend the tower and then ascend it again as fast as possible. Then breakfast. Then came f-fencing training, followed by a physical training regime. Training with pistols and the las came after lunch, interspersed with p-pain resistance t-training. After dinner, she would have m-me drilled on protocol b-by a former Sergeant."
"That sounds fairly strict for a noble," Sister Cordelia mused to herself.
He found his eyes closing as old scripture studies came to the forefront. "And thus, the Light shown b-by His Majesty is reflected upon the s-souls of all humans. It is this Light that b-brings Joy upon the Hearts of Man, much as a mirror c-casts an image. Yet this mirror can become w-worn and tarnished. It is only through Hardship, Struggle, and Pain that can cleanse the Soul. Only He brings Joy, and through the Struggle of Man, guided by Faith in His vision, can one hope to receive His g-gifts, and to be Welcomed into the God Emperor of Mankind's Embrace. Ave Imperator."
"I'm unfamiliar with that particular scripture." Sister Julianne frowned a little, thinking.
"Ostagarian," Sister Ephrael's voice filtered through her helmet.
Klightus nodded. "C-correct. Ostagarianism is a-an offshoot of the Thorian belief. W-we believe that happiness is granted through duty, d-dedication, sacrifice, and the righteous adherence to the Emperor's will. Through faithful adherence to His will, He will allow a person true h-h-happiness, in this life and the hereafter. Decadence, and turning away f-from His will only give the illusion of h-happiness, but allow damnation to g-grow within."
"An odd view for a noble to have," Amaia mused to herself.
Klightus was about to answer when the Rhino had a sudden burst of speed, making him quick to brace himself. After a moment, a voice came over the speakers. "Forgive me, Sisters, but I just got a vox from the guard." The going became a lot more bumpy. "They're trying to gain purchase within the city for our arrival, but they are encountering resistance. Cultists are sending meat to the grinder. I am taking a shortcut. Hold on!"
"Harnesses," Sister Cordelia barked. Everybody reached up for their harness, puling it into place. He barely got his snapped into place when there was a sudden lurch and a sense of weightlessness. Moments later, the Rhino came crashing back to earth, slamming him back into his pack painfully. It didn't seem to slow the vehicle down any, though. Still, he had the feeling that by the time they got there, he'd be covered in bruises. Again.
"Here," Amaia said, offering a hand to Klightus. He took it, and she withdrew, revealing two vox beads. "One for our channel, one for the Guard. You'll tie into our vox network, boosting your range so long as you're with us." He nodded, working them into his ears. Better not to question. "Also, I left a little something in the bottom of your pack in case you need it."
That earned a surprised blink out of him, but he didn't have time. The sisters were already putting their hands together, bowing their heads in prayer. He actually enjoyed praying with them a great deal -- their prayers felt more comfortable than the simple Litany of War.
"Get us into a good flanking position," Cordelia barked.
"How many do you want me to run down?" came Nyze's cool response.
"Just get us into position and allow the machine spirit to do its duty."
"By His grace, I see them in the distance."
Amaia nudged Klightus. "That's your cue."
The moment of truth. He took a deep breath. "How l-long until we get there?"
There was a heartbeat's span of time before Quintilla responded. "With how fast we're going, I'd say seven minutes."
Great. He unhooked the metal harness and slammed it up until it locked, using it to pull him to his feet. The Rhino hit a bump (or maybe a hill, at this speed he couldn't tell) causing him to almost fall into Sister Plath, had she not moved to catch him. Quickly, though, he righted himself, using what handholds he could to move to the front of the vehicle, opening the door to look out. At least that gave him a visual, no matter how bad.
Klightus nodded, touching one hand to his ear. "Kirol N-Ninth, do you c-copy? Over."
There was a pause before the machine spirit whispered the reply into his ear. "This is Kirol Fifth. Identify yourself. This channel is dedicated for communications with the Adepta Sororitas, over."
He swallowed, closing his eyes. "Kirol Ninth, this is Guardsman K-Klightus Gramon, of the Jignur Third Regiment, acting l-liaison between the Adepta S-Sororitas and the Guard." He paused a beat to think. "Code Sororitas One. We a-are on approach, over."
"Confirmed, Sororitas One. What's your ETA? Over." At least he sounded more agreeable now.
"K-Kirol Ninth, ETA in five minutes. We are approaching on your seven in a-armored transport with intent to perform flanking maneuvers. Upon disembark, w-we will allow the Machine Spirit to assume control. Repeat, on fast approach in a Rhino on your seven with intent to f-flank. Upon disembark, the Machine Spirit will provide s-support. Over."
"Sororitas One, roger that. We are eagerly awaiting your arrival. Kirol Ninth out."
"Ave Imperator." Braced as he was, it probably wasn't the best bet to try and look back to yell at Cordelia, so instead he hit his vox bead with his shoulder. "It's done, S-Sister Superior. They are awaiting our a-arrival."
He spared a quick glance down to Sister Nyze and almost said hi, but thought better of it. She was focused on driving. Instead, he focused on their path... and kind of wished he didn't. He didn't even want to think about how hard she was pushing the machine spirit. That worry only became worse when she didn't slow down.
For a brief moment he thought she might plow through the very guardsmen they were here to help, but to her credit, she found an opening. Instead of plowing through guardsmen, she began to move through heretics and traitors, trying to find a good position to deploy.
Only there wasn't a good place, just places that weren't as bad as others. He heard the two weapons on top firing madly. From the sound of it, two storm bolters. Good. Finally, however, Quintilla stopped hard, sliding sideways and slamming him into the hull.
"Everybody out! For the Emperor!" Klightus was only vaguely aware of Cordelia's command, but nobody else seemed to be. As he was still righting himself, they were grabbing their weapons and hauling out. He didn't need to have his wits about him to follow suit -- he'd been through enough hot deployments.
He came out behind Julianne. She had... some sort of large spear, and a bolt pistol. Behind him was Sister Nyze, already sprinting for the front with her twin pistols firing, and Cordelia taking the rear. No matter. He sighted a heretic as he finished the Litany of the Lasrifle and fired. That was the one good thing about being as surrounded as they were -- no lack of targets. Just point and keep firing, saying as many litanies and oaths as can while you go.
But the Rhino was moving, and with it his cover. Klightus kept close to it, almost shooting from the hip.
"Nice to have you with us, Sororitas One." The voice in his ear was grim, but manageable. "You're going to want to move to our position ASAP. They've been setting off blasts in your area, and we're worried about the upper levels."
"R-roger." Klightus paused in his firing to put his hand to the vox bead. "Sisters, they advise that we push towards them q-quickly. This area could c-collapse any minute."
"Thank you, Klightus." Surprisingly, that came from Amaia. He was surprised by how little chatter there was. Oh, they were yelling. Curses and oaths of fury and righteous vengeance. But there wasn't much in the way of direction. Apparently, they all knew what to do already.
But something felt... off. They were making good progress towards the Guard, but... He glanced around for a moment, pausing to shoot at another traitor who had come into view. Everybody was focusing on the Rhino or the Sisters and not him. ...Sisters.
He looked around frantically, shooting again when a shot grazed his armor. Finally, he saw what he was looking for, or rather, didn't see it. That great spear with the box. He stopped dead in his tracks to look, ignoring cover. There was a throng of them not charging, and even facing away. There.
There wasn't any thought, just that sense of duty. He fired from the hip as he charged towards them, ignoring everything else. If somebody came too close, they got a healthy dose of bayonet, but otherwise he kept the las focused on the throng. There was a soldier on the field who needed his help, and he wasn't about to abandon her.
"Klightus," Cordelia barked. "Where are you going?"
"Juliana!" He fired again. "Juliana, do you copy? Over!"
A flash from inside the throng was his only reply. He lifted his las, only for his target to explode. The one next to him did the same. Cordelia was offering cover. Good enough for him. Lowering his weapon, he began to sprint. Just how many of the residents had taken up with the heretics? Did the entire city participate in the rebellion or something?
As he flung himself into the crowd, he fell into a simple yet effective pattern. Stab, strike with the butt of his las. Stab, strike. Stab, strike. A flash of movement, she was still in there. Stab and strike. Scream the Emperor's wrath. Stab, strike. They were pressing in too deep, overwhelming her in sheer numbers. They weren't doing much damage, but they were preventing her from fighting back through the weight of their bodies. Stab and strike. The twists amongst them were the worst, offensive not only to the Human form, but also to his own efforts.
A meter away from her, he felt the rumble. The kind of rumble that tells you that everything isn't going to be okay and no matter how much you were thinking that this was going to be a bad day, you were wrong. It was worse. Behind him there was a scream of metal snapping, the groan of stone collapsing. The ceiling came tumbling down. It gave a pause to the fighting, killing plenty of the traitors to the Imperium, but the way back to the other Sisters was now blocked. If they weren't crushed.
"Sister Julianne," Klightus screamed. He had to help clear enough out to give her room to fight back. One thing at a time, and right now it was killing as many as possible. Ignore the ringing in the ears and fight. Ignore the dust in the air and fight. Even as the traitors began to drop around him, he kept pushing himself. He was faintly aware of the fact that his upper lip felt strangely wet, of the pounding between his ears, of the blurring of his vision.
There were... cultists in the distance. He could barely make them out, just standing there. "Julianne!" He thought he heard her give a reply, but he wasn't sure. He could barely hear anything. He forced sluggish arms to move, trying to draw a bead. The first shot went wild. He blinked, trying to clear his vision. The second shot was closer. His legs felt as if they might break under their own weight. His third shot hit. He didn't know why he was focusing on them and not the throngs, but it was important.
Klightus fell to one knee, laboring to draw breath. His head felt like it was going to explode. He looked over to Julianne. She was a blur, her silver armor a dark blur as she was fighting freely now. His head drooped, and he became aware of little red dots on olive drab. Dots that seemed to grow.
And then he became aware of the ground rushing towards his face.
Returning to consciousness was something that Klightus almost didn't want to do. The throbbing of his head was enough to make him wish he'd stayed out. As he tried to keep it from exploding, he realized something rather important, important enough to make him push the pain aside.
He wasn't wearing his helmet.
In fact, his armor and his gear was all gone. He sat up, looking around in brief glances, as much as he could with the throbbing. He seemed to be in some sort of cell. No, that couldn't be right. The last thing he remembered...
The cultists. His hand went to his face, wiping at it. Dried blood under his nose, on his cheeks, his ears. Whatever they'd done had worked a number on him. He let himself fall back, trying to figure something, anything out.
Unfortunately, though, the more that his head cleared the more that panic gripped him. He'd been captured. >I won't pay your ransom again. Captured by the enemy. Cultists. His breathing was shallow and fast as his eyes darted about. >Why don't we have some fun before the Thrones show up? He looked down to see that he was scratching at his arm hard enough to draw blood. Blood. Under his fingernails.
Klightus curled into a ball, shaking. He gripped his hands so that he wouldn't accidentally hurt himself further. No. No, this couldn't be happening. He didn't want to die like this. Not for some twisted cultist's pleasure. Not as a blood sacrifice to their foul gods.
Terror gripped his heart as he heard the cell door open, forcing him to curl up even tighter. Hands roughly grabbed his arms, eliciting a squeak of fear as the hauled him to his feet, dragging him down the halls. Down stairs. And finally, through a door.
What he saw there turned his blood to ice.
There were four of them, counting the ones who held him in place. The entire room was lit up brightly, the signs of some foul false god adorning the room. A long table was set up, adorned with candles and far too much dark red liquid. Beyond it was the one that he guessed was the leader, who smiled evilly. But it was behind him was a sight that knocked the wind right out of Klightus.
Her head was lowered down against her chest, and thick blood stained her armor. She'd been strung up for all to see, her arms spread wide. He could take in every scratch, every dent in her armor, the knife strapped to her leg, but he couldn't see the wound that felled her. Horror crossed his face, and his entire body began to shake.
Amaia. Bethany. Amaia. Bethany. Bethany... Bethany...
"Good," the leader said warmly. "You are awake! I must apologize for the accommodations we left you in. Inhospitable, I know, but we were afraid that you'd run. I must say, we've been waiting for you for quite some time. Ever since the Adepta Sororitas landed on the planet, as a matter of fact. It's good to finally meet you in person... Klightus, isn't it? A right name, one that rolls off the tongue. It inspires courage, strength, and nobility. In fact, I'm even told that you are a noble! A very fitting name for a fine man such as yourself, hmm?
"Now, I'm sure that you're wondering why I'm taking the time to speak to you instead of strapping you to that table, yes? Of course you are. You see, as I said, we were expecting you. After we liberated this planet, the great God of Secrets spoke to us, oh yes. He sent us visions personally. He told of the one who would walk with the Sisters, and how we would... teach him. Uplift him from the lowly chains that drug him down, the oppression of the narrow-minded Imperium. We were told that he would bring this world into the very annals of history, and lead us to another world to turn into a perfect utopia... for us, the faithful. We weren't told how he would play a role in this, just that he would. For the faithful, that is enough. And you, my dear Klightus, are that man."
Klightus's eyes burned, and his head swam.
The cultist paused, looking at Klightus for a long moment before following his gaze. "Oh. Her." He laughed softly, then took a sympathetic tone to his voice. "I know, I know. It must be a shock to you. But you must remember, they are only human. Such closed minded fools. They know not the glory of our work. Ah, but you will. You will. In fact, I dare say, I was saving her for you, so that you might spill her blood yourself. Sadly, she just would not. Shut. Up!" He took a breath to calm himself. "Ah, but she did have something else that you will enjoy. Yes. The woman carried with her the bones of... Oh, I don't know. Some old saint of some sort or another. While we may not be able to allow you the gift of rending her from this life, we at least left you those to desecrate. We don't want to be anything less than gracious hosts, after all."
The leader turned to face... her... spreading his arms wide. He had a certain glibness in his voice as he spoke. "I know that you may resist at first, but some day, you will look back and see this as-"
Klightus' knee raised, and his foot came down as hard as it could on the instep of the man holding his arm. The grip loosened, allowing him to wrench it free in one firm tug, the same tug that brought his fist into the throat of the other guard. Quickly he jerked his arm back, bringing the sharp point of his elbow into the nose of the first with a satisfying crunch. The leader was just turning around as he took a step forward, lashing out with his foot to upend the table into the leader's gullet. "The Emperor is our guiding light, a beacon of hope for humanity in a galaxy of darkness!"
He pivoted, beginning a short mad dash. His shoulder fell, meeting the third cultist in the solar plexus as he plowed ahead. "As we serve Him, He is our greatest servant!" The cultist fell, and Klightus changed his direction again, shouldering the leader out of his way. "As we pray to Him..."
"Get him!" somebody yelled.
"His thoughts are only for us!" There wasn't a plan, per se. Just righteous rage. But the body knew better than he did, how to apply that rage which had built up. He made it to... her... and drew the knife from her boot. Spinning around, he barely noticed the cultist reaching for him before the knife sunk home, just under the armpit, deep into the chest, into the lung.
Another was upon him almost immediately. The blade lashed out, this time higher, both hands on it to drive it home into the eye socket with all his might. But still the fools came, rushing to their own doom. Klightus lashed out with a quick slash, only for his arm to be blocked. The blade spun in his hand to a new grip, his arms moved of their own accord as he struggled. It was a brief struggle, though, until he drove the knife upwards underneath the cultist's chin.
"And in the Dark when the Shadows threaten, the Emperor is with us, in Spirit and in Fact!" He shoved the gurgling body away, looking around frantically. Only one left, if he didn't escape. The leader. No, the cultist was still there, but he was retrieving a sword. Sword against combat knife. Not good.
The two spent a moment staring at each other before charging in unison. There were no word, just screams of rage. The sword raised, and Klightus dropped into a slide, impacting hard with the cultist's legs. Somehow, the knife came free from his hand, scraping across the floor. The cultist didn't lose his grip, though.
Klightus latched on and the two began to struggle. Rolling on the floor, the cultist had a marked advantage -- his strength was superior, granted to him by his foul god. But Klightus had the Emperor's wrath within him... and better flexibility. A childhood of his brothers picking on him helped as well.
He rolled the cultist onto his back, hands on wrists, and slammed his head into the cultist's nose. That lessened the unholy strength. And it felt... good. "Burn the Heretic!" He slammed his head home again. "Kill the Mutant!" His head came down again. "Purge the Unclean!" Again and again, his head impacted with the cultist's face. Each time, he pulled back a little farther, putting more force into the strike. Finally, the fight had fled from the heretic completely.
Unfortunately, the divine wrath and adrenaline were waning in Klightus as well. He rolled off the prone form, sprawling onto the floor. His arm reached blindly, searching. A slight pain in his finger told him he'd found what he was looking for. Grasping it, he forced himself back onto his knees, plunging the knife deep into the cultist's chest. Panting heavily, he crawled back to the other cultist still breathing. Half-breathing, gasping for air from a punctured lung. It wasn't mercy that granted the killing blow, but hate.
Only then, with his enemies dead, did Klightus allow himself a few minutes of respite. To catch his breath. To allow his mind to return to him.
He became aware of a stinging pain in his collar. Looking, he realized that the sword must have hit him, just enough to make him bleed. He pressed his hand against it, letting his head drop, but there was nothing he could do at the moment.
At least, for himself.
His strength returning, his eyes fell upon her. The blasphemers had killed her. He pushed himself off his knees and onto his feet. "I'm sorry," he said weakly. "I'm s-so sorry I f-failed you." Gently, tenderly he pushed her head up to look into her face, her open brown eyes... Julianne's eyes.
He let out a puff of breath, his eyes watering. He didn't know why, but somehow he'd gotten it into his head that this was Sister Bethany. Or Sister Amaia. A guilty joy flooded through him. He was happy that he had not lost Bethany, or that she had not lost her twin, but at the same time... He was feeling joy over the death of a Sister. Emperor preserve him from taint.
Klightus worked at the binding holding her body against the wall. Several times he cut his hands, but ignored it. A punishment from the Emperor for what he had felt. When the last of them gave free, she fell to the ground, his own strength unable to support both her and her armor.
On her back, the sword was still there.
The saber, and the sheath, had once been sealed closed and affixed to her armor. No wonder they had left them to her -- they couldn't get it off. But now that seal had cracked free. Klightus pulled once, his arms screaming at the resistance, but it came free. The seal holding the blade in the sheath crumbled beneath his hands. A sign from the Emperor, if any.
He pulled the blade free. Etched along it were the tales of a noble house, and of one noble in particular. This man, he guessed, was her father. The one who had not claimed her. If Klightus had to guess, the man had left her his power saber when he died for some unknown reason. There were questions that begged answers, but now wasn't the time.
Sheathing the sword, Klightus rolled Sister Julianne back over, looking down into her sightless eyes. She looked weathered, yes, but not the kind that comes with age. He could see that now. It was the kind of weathering that a veteran wears. Truth be told, once you looked past the weathering, she didn't seem that old at all. Perhaps as old as Bethany or Amaia.
"Sleep," Klightus said softly, closing her eyes. "Know that you have g-given m-me the power to do what m-must be done. I will s-see you back safely to the S-Sisters. This I swear."
In the corner of the room was a greatcoat that must have belonged to a Guardsman, stained in blood. The symbols of the Guard and the Holy Emperor were still upon it, undefiled. Klightus drew the blade again, taking the coat into his left hand and holding it high to his side. His eyes closed as he remembered his lessons, shifting his weight to the balls of his feet and assuming a proper stance. A few practice swings, parry, riposte, lunge.
His eyes opened, the skills not lost, and he made his way out of the room, searching.
Three cultists showed that Klightus was rusty, but he was managing. Skills came back quickly when it was do or die time. But now he was paused by a door. The opaque window was marked with the symbol of the Arbites, the word "Evidence" printed underneath. That explained where he was. He opened the door.
Inside, the gear of countless Guardsmen was stashed haphazardly. Packs thrown in, lying on the floor. His eyes spied his and one other thing that caught his interest. A wooden box with a clear glass front. Inside rested skeletal remains.
This had belonged to Sister Julianne.
Klightus moved in quickly, searching through the gear. It took him a few minutes, but he found his own pack and webbing. With shaking hands he opened the pack, dumping the contents on the floor. It was there that another sight amazed him.
A melta pistol, emblazoned with the fluer de lys. His mind worked back, remembering what Amaia had said to him. It seemed like a lifetime ago, but it still brought a smile to his face. He wasn't going to bother with the greatcoat any more. Now he had a ranged weapon, too. And the opportunity to quickly tend to his shoulder.
With delicate care, he placed the box containing the saint's remains (Saint Valmir Vincencius according to the box, though the name was lost to him) inside before donning his gear. There were no weapons, but still...
Feeling stronger and infinitely more confident with the saint's remains and a ranged weapon to compliment the blade, Klightus continued on.
Soon, a stairwell greeted him. His ears pricked at the sounds below -- angry voices. Creeping silently, he made his way down, hugging the wall as best he could.
The sight below him was of another holding area. Unlike the one he had been in, these cells were full. Full of Guardsmen. Klightus could only count five cultists in the area, including two guarding the stairwell, their backs to him. Good enough. He waited until he was close enough to hear their breathing before activating the power saber, two quick slashes ending their miserable lives.
He didn't wait for the cultist to finish her curse. With a scream, he charged, the melta lifted up to fire. The battle was a quick one -- the cultists were only armed with stun batons -- but the entire time the Guardsmen yelled and cheered their encouragement.
As the last cultist fell, a cheer rose from the cells. Klightus turned to look at them, panting. Immediately, one voice rang out above the others. "You there! You're not with them, and that's good enough for me! Let us out!"
Klightus approached the cell slowly, eying the man. "Who a-are you?"
"I could ask the same thing." The man was scarred, and held a stony look on his face. "Sergeant Henroth Draken, Kirol Ninth. The bastards dropped a level of the city and trapped us. Used some sort of sorcery to knock us all out. When we woke up, they... They've been sacrificing us, I think. A few at a time."
"Klightus G-Gramon, Guardsman, Field Medicae. Jingur Third Regiment. I'm the l-liaison with the Adepta Sororitas."
"That explains the melta." Somehow, that made Klightus more self-conscious. "Let us out. We'd like some payback. You found our gear?"
Klightus pressed the button to open the cell door. "N-no weapons, but I found the rest. P-probably gave out the weapons." He paused for a moment. "I'll show y-you where, but then I need your help in t-transporting a tier-one asset to the Adepta S-Sororitas."
It didn't take long for them to get back to the sacrificial chamber. The men were obviously eying him, especially his sword and melta. Klightus tried not to think about it too much, lest his chest seize up. He was shaking from their scrutiny enough already. As they collected Sister Julianne's body, he noticed something in her ear. A vox bead. With great care he took it from her ear, putting it in his own.
"This is K-Klightus of the Jignur Third t-to Sororitas One. D-do you copy, over." Nothing but static was his response. He stepped closer to Julianne and tried again. "This is K-Klightus of the Jignur Third t-to Sororitas One. D-do you copy? Please r-r-respond, over."
"Klightus?" Sister Superior Cordelia's voice crackled, carried by the vox bead's machine spirit. "I can barely hear you. Where are you?"
That's right, they didn't use proper communication protocols. "Arbites holding area. I've g-g-got some of the Kirol N-Ninth with me."
"And Sister Julianne?"
He was silent for a long moment. "We've s-secured her r-remains," he said sadly, looking at her face as four Guardsmen lifted her body.
"And the Simulacrum Imperialis?"
"S-secured. It h-hasn't been defiled." He paused a beat. "Where are you?"
"The Courtyard of the Emperor's Light."
He looked to Sergeant Henroth. "C-Courtyard of the Emperor's Light?"
The Sergeant nodded. "That was one of our primary objectives. I know where it is."
He nodded, putting his hand to the bead again. "We are s-securing transport and will meet you there."
"May the Emperor grant you speed, Klightus. We're looking at some heavy fighting."
"Ave Imperator." May the Emperor's light shine upon them all.
The Courtyard of the Emperor's Light was a courtyard, true. But it ran straight up, granting a clear view of the sky high above. As the truck pulled to a stop, Klightus' tailbone tingled. He didn't even want to think about falling from the top. Scaffolding stood on the sides, apparently for workers to carve out symbols to the intricate stylization out of the stone.
Even more worrying was what was on the opposite expanse of the giant courtyard. He could see the dots that were the collective forces of the heretics. They were probably amassing for a final push to try and destroy the loyalist forces.
As he jumped out of the back of the truck, Sister Quintilla approached. "Klightus! Praise the Emperor, you're still alive."
He gave her the sign of the aquila. "H-how long was I gone?"
"One day, four hours, eight minutes, forty-seven seconds since we lost contact with you until your boots hit the ground." He blinked at her, and she grinned impishly. "I keep track of time. You'd be surprised how often it comes in handy." She paused, her smile fading. "Sister Julianne?"
He moved to the back of the now-evacuated truck, opening it. Sister Quintilla began to say a soft prayer as she collected her Sister's remains. Even with her power armor, she was straining. As much as Klightus wanted to help, somehow, he found himself hovering next to her, wringing his hands uselessly.
At least, until they approached Sister Superior Cordelia. Immediately he found himself on one knee, his hands folding the aquila over his chest. "Thank you for returning Sister Julianne's remains to us, Klightus." She sounded... depressed, saddened over the loss. "And the Simulacrum Imperialis?"
He removed his pack, opening it to present the saint's remains to her. She removed the box containing them slowly, smiling when she saw that it was still without taint. "Thank you, Klightus. Though others may doubt, I will defend your honor and your purity. Truly, you are one of the faithful." She nodded to him. "Now, I must prepare."
As she turned away, Klightus made his way to his feet, putting his pack back on. It didn't feel right to be without it. When he turned, he found Sister Amaia staring at him. Immediately, he saluted her with the aquila... and then hugged her. "Thank y-y-you."
There was a long awkward moment before she pulled herself away, staring at him in confusion. "For what?"
Klightus felt himself blushing as he found something interesting on his boot to stare at. "F-for a moment, I thought... I thought that you had died. I know that y-you and Sister Bethany... I knew that if you had d-died, it would have wounded her g-greatly. The thought of h-her being wounded so... It scared me. I can't..."
"And what about you?" she asked angrily. "If you'd died it would have hurt her, too! If she feels about you the way that... Why did you do something so stupid?"
That was a good question, wasn't it? Her anger made him recoil a little, but she did deserve an answer. "B-because I love the Emperor, too. He p-protects our spirits and guides us. Above all else, even l-l-love, I m-must perform my duties t-to Him and the Imperium of Man first and f-foremost."
There was a long moment of silence that chewed Klightus apart on the inside. Finally, Sister Amaia turned and stalked away. He let out a long breath, his head hanging.
A hand on his shoulder startled him. "Relax," Sister Nyze said. "You're only mostly screwed."
How comforting. "Is there anything I-I should know?"
"Hmm." She crossed her arms, looking across the courtyard. "Things aren't looking the best. We're best up close and personal, but you guardsmen aren't. They heretics are looking to make a charge, we think. So we're going to have to either meet them halfway, where they can flank us easily, or wait for them to reach our line. That won't be any better, because it will reduce the effectiveness of the Guardsmen. Reinforcements are on the way, but the only ones who might get here before the fighting starts are the two Seraphim squads.
"The Rhino's still operational, but that can only help so much against those number. By the Throne, they should have sent two regiments. Still, with the Simulacrum Imperialis, that relieves a lot from our minds."
Klightus bit his lip, his mind whirling. But Sister Nyze patted his shoulder ruefully. "I'd better get back up front."
He watched in silence as he could see the mass of heretics across the wide expanse growing. He didn't even register Sister Plath tending to his shoulder with care. They'd hit critical mass soon. As soon as the enemy would hit critical mass, they'd charge. By the Throne, he didn't like that. Something. There had to be something they could do...
"Choke point," he muttered to himself.
"Pardon?" Sister Plath asked.
He looked to her for a moment before brushing away her hands. "I'm g-going to create a choke point," he said quickly as he put his pack back on. "Or at least s-something to slow them down. That way, the S-Sisters can move closer, and still keep the Guardsmen at range." He made sure that the sword was secure against him, nodded to Sister Plath, then sprinted for the front lines. And then past them.
"Klightus!" Sister Amaia's voice was carried by the machine spirit in his ear. "What are you doing?"
He didn't respond. Instead, he ran straight for the scaffolding. A quick glance revealed that the assembly as mounted to the wall, probably to keep it from toppling. Fair enough. He had an easy fix for that -- namely, a quick pull of the trigger on the melta that reduced the mounting to slag. Five per level, with mountings every other level. Six sets of mountings in all. Quick work, really.
As he began to climb to the second, and then the third level of the scaffolding, the heretics began taking shots at him. From that rage, they were wide, but enough to encourage faster movement. Oh, how he wished that he'd been able to find his armor...
Two mountings down of the third set, and the scaffolding shook. He turned quickly, the melta brought to bear, revealing a pair of ice blue eyes and a concerned face staring at him. He took a sharp breath as Bethany stepped towards him, a look of confusion on her face.
No time to explain. Verbally, at least. He pointed at the mounting, then shot it until it melted free. He held his hand vertically, then slowly tipped it horizontally. Bethany seemed to get that, drawing her weapon. Quickly, Klightus shook his head, pointing to the other set of scaffolding across the courtyard. She nodded, understanding his intentions perfectly. She turned, activated her pack, and shot across the courtyard to leave Klightus to his work.
As he worked, he could hear her weapons firing. Excellent. The third set freed, the fourth, the fifth... He was working on the last set of mountings when he heard the whine of Bethany's jump pack. Glancing back, he saw the other scaffolding toppling over... By the Emperor's grace, it stayed together as it landed on the ground. Between the two of them, the final mountings were freed from the wall. At this height, all it took was one push to make it wobble, and a little more to make it slowly tip.
As gravity began to do its job, Klightus remembered the downside to this plan -- he was on top. He looked to Bethany, fear filling his face. She, in turn, grabbed his pack straps and fired her pack. There was a moment of near weightlessness as they dropped, but her pack wasn't designed to carry two people. They landed, hard, sending them both sprawling onto the ground. But despite the scrape on his arm, they were alive. The choke point might not have been very tight, but it was still something.
As they ran back towards the line, he saw the squad of Celestians loading up into the Rhino. Klightus found himself smiling. There was the possibility of winning this now...
Tiny white flakes fell from the sky. The temperature was dropping now, forcing Klightus to huddle into his greatcoat. Here, on top of the hill, the wind cut to the bone, chilling a man through and through. But he wouldn't move. Not now. Not with what was ahead of him.
The snow wasn't bad yet, but it was going to be. Oddly fitting, he thought to himself. His eyes were focused on the field below, watching as another squad marched out upon it. Next to him, Bethany reached out to put her hand on his knee, but he couldn't pull his eyes away from his responsibility.
He didn't know how long they'd been sitting there like this. Sister Quintilla could tell him, but she wasn't here. He wasn't even sure if he could find the words right now.
"Bethany?" Amaia's voice was soft, somewhere to his right. "May I speak to Klightus alone for a moment? Just a moment. I..."
Bethany's hand left his leg reluctantly. He could hear her stepping away, and Amaia approaching. Just like he could hear another squad march out onto that field.
"Klightus," Amaia said as she settled down. "We've received word back from Departmento Munitorum. They've approved your position with our Order as Liaison. Officially, you're still a Guardsman, but you will move with us." She paused for a moment. "It's also earned you promotions. Congratulations, you're an officer." She sounded like she expected him to respond.
Sadly, he was forced to disappoint.
"I... am not sure how to say this. I'm sorry. I allowed my judgment to be... clouded." She paused for a moment, sitting next to him. "For as long as I can remember, Bethany and I have been equal in everything. Though I a Celestian and she a Seraphim, we have always been equal. The biggest difference was her vision, after which she said nothing. But..."
Another squad marched onto the field.
"When she returned with you, she was different. She had found a happiness that I... I suppose I was jealous. So I hung to the belief that you weren't pure, that you had bewitched her somehow. When that failed, I held to the belief that you would put her before duty, or the other way around. That the Emperor would not be first in her eyes. Now I see the truth. The both of you put your duty to the Emperor before your own... happiness."
There was silence for a long moment before she spoke again. "I suppose that the only thing which I might be able to say is that you have my blessing. Though, admittedly, I have not yet been able to rid myself of the jealousy."
The silence seemed to stretch to infinity. Soon, though, Bethany's arm was around his shoulders as she sat with him, Amaia on the other side. Together they watched the field in silence.
Happiness comes at a cost. You must perform your duty, endure pain and hardship, and sacrifice. Klightus knew this. And, as the Sisters activated their flamers and purified another squad of the Jignur Third Regiment, he knew exactly the weight that his happiness would bear upon his shoulders for the rest of his life.
And yet, as he gently rested his head against Bethany's, he still wouldn't give up that happiness to be rid of this weight.
Klightus moved quickly off the transport, getting out of the way. He was one of the last ones on, and he knew the routine. Last on, first off. Unfortunately, as the Sisters moved about their business, he had no idea what to do. As the Sisters moved with purpose on the Emperor's Wrathful Mercy, he was left looking around blindly.
Move like you have a purpose ran through his head, old words from many a Sergeant. Now those words seemed hollow. Moving like you had a purpose meant that either you had a purpose, or had a way to pretend that you did. All that he could do as he watched the Sisters move with practiced ease was adjust his pack, desperately hoping that somebody would help him.
"Lieutenant?" a voice called out. He turned, as a slightly portly cleric approached. "Lieutenant Klightus Gramon?"
Klightus gave the man the sign of the Aquila, which the cleric dutifully returned.
"It's good to finally meet you. I'm brother Giselbertus. They told me that you might need some assistance getting to your quarters." Giselbertus seemed amused by this.
"I thank you for being polite," Klightus mused, mostly to himself. "I p-probably would have stayed here until I s-starved to death."
That earned a laugh out of Giselbertus and a clap on the shoulder hard enough to rattle teeth. "You will do well, I think. Come, let us be off."
The going was slow. Klightus had never been aboard a ship of the Adeptus Ministorum before, had never observed the sheer concentration of symbols of the Emperor that the Ecclesiarchy had bestowed upon it. It took a great deal of time to stop, face each one, and form the aquila. What should have taken an hour took almost three.
But at last Giselbertus stood in front of one door. "The, ah... Deparmento Munitorum has reportedly sent everything that you will need for your duties. If anything is found to be lacking, you're supposed to send an official request and it will be handled with the utmost expediency."
A chill went down Klightus' spine. This meant nothing good. But Giselbertus was pushing on. "Your quarters, sadly, serve as your office as well. The Canoness wished for you to have something more befitting of your station, however this was the best that could be spared on such short notice. I attached a document explaining the peculiarities of our ship to the back of your door, including a map. You may need them for some time."
"What is g-graced to me, I accept w-with humility." Klightus wasn't sure what else to say. Just from what little Giselbertus said, his head was swimming.
Then, with a smirk, the cleric opened the door. The sight within made his eyes bug and his heart threaten to stop.
By size alone, it was large enough to house an entire squad comfortably. Perhaps two, though three would cause infighting. Golden symbols of the Emperor adorned the walls... where he could see them.
Unfortunately, most of the room was blocked from his field of vision. Numerous tomes were stacked in front of him. Countless data slates piled into a mountain, threatening to collapse at the merest jostle. Flags strewn nearly haphazardly. And even those were hidden by massive stacks of paper, nearly as tall as he was. Some taller.
"Throne of Holy Terra..."
"Language," Giselbertus cautioned. "Remember, you're on an Ecclesiarchy vessel."
His tone softened as he looked into the room. "But I understand. Much of this is paperwork that you must fill out with as much expediency as possible, to be turned in when we arrive to resupply. I don't know what all is in it, but it apparently deals with your new status. I would offer up one of our Adepts, but I doubt that they would understand much of it." He paused a breath. "I made sure that there was a clear path to your bed, if you hug that bulkhead. I also made sure that nobody put anything on it. Somewhere in here is everything of yours from the Pious Bolt."
"Th-thank you," Klightus whispered softly. He felt like running away. Or crying. Or... something. Without entire control over himself, he took a step forward, his fingers working the buckles on his pack.
"Emperor grace you." There was sympathy in Giselbertus' voice.
"Emperor g-grace us all." Klightus was barely aware of the door closing behind him.
A rapping at his door made Klightus look up from his work. The only way that this would be anything less than a blessed distraction is if it was more paperwork. His hand had begun to cramp an hour ago and wasn't getting any better. "J-just a m-minute!" Setting form P-IG-S/ORM-SS/DLP-OSG/LT-320DM to the side (why he had to fill out his own promotion paperwork was beyond him) he rose from the bed, shimmied his way along the mountains of paperwork, and finally opened the door.
A red-haired woman grinned up at him, crossing her hands over her chest in the aquila. "Klightus! How's it going?"
"Um, g-good." He returned the aquila, that familiar sensation of inferiority creeping over him badly. "And y-y-yourself?"
"Can't complain," she said cheerfully. There was a pause as she eyed him. "You have no idea who I am, do you?"
"Forgive m-me," he said quickly, lowering his head and pressing his palms tighter against his chest...only to be rewarded with a hard slap to the shoulder and a laugh. "Sister Ephrael, silly. Remember me?"
He looked back up to her with amazement. Of course he remembered Sister Ephrael, but the last time that he saw her she was in armor, her helmet in place, wielding a flamer. And not saying more than one word responses to anything. "Of course! Er... C-c-can I h-help you?"
"I was thinking more that I could help you." She looked past him and let out a low whistle. "Somebody really doesn't like you, do they?"
The thought had occurred to him, actually. Three hours ago.
Reaching down, she picked up a bundle and pushed it into Klightus' hands. "Here, get changed. We don't have a lot of time." With that, she nearly closed the door on his face.
As he began to unwrap the bundle, she continued speaking through the door. "Sister Cordelia heard that you were getting buried under paperwork. While we understand the necessity of such things-" Her tone said the opposite of her words. "-We know that you're supposed to be serving on the battlefield. You need to keep up with your training. Plus, we thought a break might help clear your mind a bit, especially since we didn't see you at lunch."
Had he missed lunch? There wasn't a chrono in here to tell. Or at least if there was, it was too far hidden to tell. Klightus shook the heavy robes out, blinking as a black jumpsuit fell to the floor. After a moment's hesitation, he began to disrobe. Already a sinking sensation was developing in his gut.
"So since it's almost time for close quarters training, she told me to come and fetch you." She paused a moment. "You don't talk much, do you?"
"N-not normally," he confessed. "I'm... surprised, actually. That you, you know, are t-talking as much as you are."
"Oh?" She paused for a moment, then laughed. "Oh, right. Sorry. When I'm in armor... It's hard to explain, actually. It's like... There's a barrier between me and the world. Everything is filtered. It lets me focus more. Separates me from everything, so I can see the battlefield more clearly, make better decisions. When I suit up, I feel like the Emperor lets me be apart from the heretics around me. From everything but my appointed duties."
Sister Ephrael laughed a little again. "Kind of like now. I mean, we're talking, but not really. Only instead, I feel like I could say anything, you know? And you might respond, but... It's silly, isn't it?"
Klightus zipped up the bodysuit, working the seam closed. "Not really. I m-mean... We aren't talking to each other. We're talking to a door. And the door is responding. W-we can say things that we normally wouldn't to another person, because it isn't another person. It's a door."
He opened the door, biting his lip apprehensively. Ephrael looked him over for a moment before reaching out to adjust his robes. "We don't have anybody as tall as you aboard the ship, I'm afraid. These were the biggest that we could find that wouldn't risk falling off of you. Some of the other sisters are working on making you a more proper set, all three layers. They're also talking about dying them green to make you feel more at home, but I think red looks good on you." He felt himself blushing and looked away. "Aww, like now!"
A quick change of subject would hopefully knock her out of the teasing. "W-where d-did you find the bodyglove?"
"We didn't. We found out by accident that the Kirol Ninth had some when we were fighting alongside them." She smiled at him oddly. "We thought that if you were going to be staying with us, you would be training with us. So some of the other Sisters and myself gathered tokens and performed various blessings in exchange for a suit. It took them a while to get one that would fit you, actually. But the Commander's assistant has a good eye for measurements, or so we're told. How does it fit?"
They were making robes for him, and had worked to trade for something on his behalf. He found himself looking down with renewed appreciation. He expected to be a burden, but instead they seemed to be welcoming him.
"A little s-snug," he admitted. "B-but like a pair of boots, it should become used to me in time." He smiled softly, giving her the aquila once again. "Thank you, Sister Ephrael. This is... Thank you."
"Don't thank me yet," she said with a grin. "I still get to beat on you with a practice sword."
The two of them hurried into the training hall, or at least one of many according to Sister Ephrael. Already, the sisters were practicing, with several Sister Superiors wandering amongst them, correcting them or offering input. It didn't take long for them to retrieve swords, despite several dour glances from both Sisters and Sister Superiors.
That did nothing to make Klightus feel at ease.
Despite Sister Ephrael's use of a flamer, she seemed just as comfortable with a sword. Try as he might, Klightus couldn't score a single touch. His left hand moved uselessly, the robes weighed him down.
"One moment," he muttered, working at the clasps. Finally, the outermost layer of the robes was free, taken in his hand. That was more comfortable. Now he felt better on the balls of his feet. He might be rusty, but as he pointed the practice sword at Sister Ephrael, his confidence was slowly rising.
Now he was able to more accurately deflect her attacks, and began to score his own tags. Within half an hour, he had surpassed her score. He might have forgotten, but even after years, the body still knew. It just needed reminders. If he kept up at this rate, by the end of the month he would return to his prime.
"Sisters!" Sister Superior Cordelia barked out. "Attend to your places for a lesson."
Sister Ephrael didn't even give Klightus a glance. Almost mid-swing she moved away, quickly assuming her position amongst countless other sisters, kneeling before the Sister Superiors. Which left Klightus standing awkwardly in the back.
"Lieutenant Gramon, come here." That's just what he wanted, to be trapped in front of all these Sisters under the scrutiny of the Sisters Superior. But there was no denying the request.
A Sister Superior he didn't recognize addressed the crowd. "As some of you may know, Lieutenant Gramon is to serve as a liaison between the Adeptus Sororitas and the Imperial Guard. He is well versed in the ways of the Guard, and will be studying our methods in order to better facilitate future efforts. Today, he will be helping us in a demonstration and a lesson."
The Sister kept talking, but Sister Cordelia approached, whispering harshly. "Stand firm, do as you're asked. Though none would doubt the Canoness, not everybody is welcoming you aboard with open arms. This is a chance to put them at ease." By making him all but tremble with fear. How fair. "Move through the demonstration aptly, put all your effort into it, but don't get too flashy. Focus on martial prowess."
With that, she stepped away, leaving Klightus to look upon the sea of faces looking towards him. Well, they were looking at the Sister Superior who was talking, but they might as well have been facing him. He kind of wished that he would have gone to the bathroom earlier.
"Lieutenant Gramon, would you be so kind as to show us your fencing stance?"
No time to think about his bladder. Instead, he rose his arms and rolled onto the balls of his feet, as if preparing to face an enemy.
"It looks a little ridiculous, doesn't it?" There was a room-wide murmur of agreement. "This is the fencing stance of a noble, ladies. Remember, no matter how foolish their stance may be, some nobles are considered the most fearsome opponents you can face with a blade inside the Imperium. Let us take a closer look to see why.
"First, notice his feet. He stands on them to be prepared for movement. Lunging, disengaging, dodging... These and more are aided by the wide stance and how little of the foot touches the ground. Observe how they face the opponent, not shying away. Higher, see how he points the blade at his enemy. He does not hold it to cleave an enemy. He holds it to parry an attack or to deliver a quick, precision strike. This is not the stance of a chain blade, but of a much more elegant weapon. Now, for the last, and most peculiar aspect of this stance, Novice Lenora will assist by attempting to strike him. Novice! To your position!"
Immediately, one of the younger girls bounced to her feet and took a position opposite Klightus. He took the time to tuck his sword and the outer layer of the robes under his arms to give her the aquila. Only when she returned it did he resume his stance. If he was supposed to put on a show for them, he may as well make a show of honor.
When she moved, she charged. A simple swing made his body react automatically. The robe against her blade, pushing it deeper in as he moved to the side, past her. He spun quickly, tagging her side from behind. A quick flick of the wrist made the practice blade touch her shoulder.
"As you can see," one of the Sisters Superior called out, "had he so desired, Novice Lenora's head would be removed from her shoulders. A most inconvenient wound indeed. Quick strikes, but with a power blade, still most efficient for their task. Remember, Sisters, should you have to face a noble you will face a foe who relies on physical grace more than power."
"Sister Solla, may I face him?" Klightus couldn't identify the source of the voice. "As a matter of honor between our duties?"
"Of course, Sister Plath." As Sister Plath rose, Sister Solla continued speaking. "Lieutenant Klightus was trained as a Combat Medicae, a somewhat lesser version of our own Hospitallers utilized by his home planet's Guardsmen. They are expected to perform all the duties of another Guardsman, including carrying the same amount of gear, while still providing the role of a chirugen... and carrying their gear as well."
Sister Solla continued speaking, but Sister Plath was in position. They gave each other a salute before taking up their stances. Though, Sister Plath took up a different stance from either Ephrael or Lenora, perhaps due to being a Sister Hospitaller instead of the Orders Militant.
What surprised him, though, was when she started singing.
"Beyond eternity, Enduring always, Are you, the leader of the choir, God Emperor of all Mankind!"
She lunged forward, but stayed out of perfect striking range, making probing strikes. Even still, Klightus' childhood called back to him, of Sister Kandra singing hymns. The Hymn of Marching War, if he remembered correctly.
"For you Emperor, We defend the holy cause, Bright Father, gloried in Immortality!"
Klightus found his voice joining in with hers; though not the singer that she was, they two of them found an easy harmony as well as a balance between their movements, as if the hymn were guiding them.
"For you Emperor, We defend the holy cause, Bright Father, gloried upon that day, The earth is shadowed, An evil place, Those who are wicked shall perish, Who do not take what our Master has put forth!"
Finally, he moved as though to deflect her blow with the robes, only to stab through them. With her vision blocked from his movements, the stab struck true. Sister Plath accepted her defeat in good grace, exchanging the sign of the aquila with him before departing... only for one of the Sister Superiors to motion to another Sister.
And so the great cycle began. Sister after Sister approached to duel with him. The faces and names became a blur, lost to the sheer weight of numbers. Time and time again, he scored a tag. Fourteen, by his count, earned one on him. The number wasn't due to a lack of skill, either; truth be told, most of them had the edge of skill, but less in the way of fighting somebody who didn't focus on a direct path.
Of those who tagged him, Sister Nyze was the most memorable. She'd deflected his blade and pushed forward, smacking him in the cheek with a closed fist. It earned her a harsh word from a Sister Superior, but Klightus didn't mind. It kept his ego in check. With how well he was doing, it was almost necessary.
As the last one stepped away (a gentle touch of his blade to her cheek) Sister Solla addressed the assembled. "There are many reasons why so many of you have failed today. Lieutenant Gramon, what is your opinion?"
His arms ached. His entire body ached, and the robes felt like they were made of lead. And they wanted him to speak? He drew in a breath, trying to get his heart to still enough.
"You all are used to opponents w-w-who strike without thought, b-blinded by the light the Emperor shines through y-you. You are unfamiliar with opponents who rely on treachery and d-deceit." Another breath as he tried to think of something else to say. "Y-you all did well, however... You have a radius of attack that you easily c-cross, adapting accordingly. M-my radius is larger, but I compensate with my other hand. If it held a weapon, I w-would have used it many times. This y-you can expect from some n-nobles in combat."
"Aptly put," Sister Cordelia said to the crowd. "I encourage you all, if given the opportunity, please ask Lieutenant Gramon for the chance to train against him. As you learn to combat against his style of swordplay, he learns more of our Order. Thusly, we all prosper under the Emperor's watchful eye."
"You are all dismissed," Sister Solla said. "Bathe and prepare for service." Klightus stood at attention, giving them all the sign of the aquila until they left. Only then did he let the exhaustion get the better of him, leaning against the wall, his hands on his thighs. His legs wanted to cramp so badly, and hunger gnawed at him... but he couldn't eat yet. Even if food was being served, he needed time to rest or else it would all come back up later.
A gentle hand under his chin brought him back to reality. Sister Plath smiled down at him, applying a salve to his swollen cheek from the blow he'd taken. "She struck you well," Plath observed.
"I'm g-glad," he said as strongly as he could manage. "They needed to see another w-way to defeat me."
"I pray that they do not utilize such methods regularly during practice," Sister Solla mused. "I am surprised by you, Lieutenant Gramon. You've earned a great deal of respect this day, and not just from those you fought."
"I simply d-did my duty," Klightus said, forming the aquila over his chest as best he could with dead arms.
"A duty you could have refused," she chided him.
He shook his head, earning a glare from Sister Plath. "If I am to act as... liaison, they m-must trust me. And that m-must be earned, not bestowed. Though, I f-fear that I am not as physically capable as you."
"That much is obvious," chimed in Cordelia. She sounded amused. "You will have to miss this service. It is not as grave an insult to not appear due to recuperation than to fall asleep during it. If you wish, we will have it voxed to your quarters."
"That would b-be appreciated." What he wanted was a pot of recaf, a meal, a week-long nap, and to set mountains of paperwork on fire. Sadly, only one or two were viable, and not the two he wished the most. [With the understanding that these files may very well see themselves within the hands of Lord General Militant Prospero Wusterburger, please fill out the following information accurately and succinctly without error.]
[Please take the final numbers provided by form IG-DM/DLG-LV/KJ4-8391/TRB (hereafter 8391/TRB) and apply them to the first blank. Then retrieve the final totals from IG-DM/DLG-FM/5OR-5576/TRB (hereafter 5576/TRB) and apply them to the second blank. Compare the final numbers from IG-DM/DLD-PP/SOQ-4877/TRB (hereafter 4877/TRB) and IG-DM/DLD-WD/SOQ-1376/TRB (hereafter 1376/TRB). Subtract the final numbers of 1376/TRB from the final numbers of 4877/TRB. Should this result in a negative number, please fill out form IG-DM/DLG-87/SOQ-9001/TRE in order to proceed. Once this is done, put the total in the third blank. Divide the numbers gained by filling out form.]
A knock at the door broke him of his concentration. "Just a m-moment!" Anything was welcome at this point. Perhaps it was due to how tired he was, but all the numbers and letters were beginning to blur together. Quickly to his feet, he shimmied across the room to the door, tentatively opening it so he didn't hit the person on the other side.
A woman with augmetic eyes in robes (not the red ones of the Sisters, he noted) greeted him, a covered tray in her hands. "Lieutenant Gramon?" she asked hesitantly. "The Canoness noticed that you have missed two meals now, and thought it wise to have one delivered."
Had he missed another meal? "Thank you," he said graciously, taking the tray. "I d-don't have a chrono, and I... uh..." He glanced back at the paperwork, then back to the woman with an apologetic smile. "Thank y-you."
"She also suggested that I might be of service to you," to woman said, glancing to the paperwork. "I am Clare Friemann, an Adept for the Ecclesiarchy. Though I am not versed the the ways of the Imperial Guard, I may be able to expediate some of your work load."
"Oh?" He blinked in surprise. "Thank you! B-by the mercy of the Emperor, thank you! Um..." He glanced around and spied a chair by the desk, buried under paperwork. "R-right, give me a moment..."
Klightus shimmied carefully with the tray (pausing in horror when he bumped a stack of data slates in fear that they might tip over) to the bed. Once his hands were clear, the two of them worked in concert to clear the chair, careful not to disrupt the order of the papers.
He gave her the ones that he had been working on. "Here. This appears to be m-mostly m-math. When y-you finish that, w-we can find something else for you t-t-to do."
"There is one more thing," Clare added. That made Klightus pause -- temporary additional duties were never a good thing. "The Canoness would appreciate your company for a private breakfast."
That made him wince. He'd have to get a chrono and soon. As it stood, he'd have to skip on sleep tonight to make sure he made it. "V-very well. It would b-be an h-h-h... An honor."
She smiled and began looking over the papers. At least he had a meal.
The sight that greeted him underneath the tray cover was an appealing one. Reconstituted and cooked grox meat, some sort of thick starch wafer covered with nuts that he couldn't identify, a bowl of some sort of bacterial porridge, two digestive biscuits, and a large sealed cup of what appeared to be tea. Had he gotten this in the Guard, he wouldn't have eaten it -- an obvious precursor to some elaborate prank. As it was, though, he wasn't going to turn down a meal this large from the Sisters.
The two of them fell into silence as they worked, he content to read a bundle of papers as he ate, her silently working the numbers. He was halfway through the porridge and the starch wafer (which proved to be an excellent scoop which softened nicely thanks to the porridge) when Claire piped up.
"Klightus," he said absently, absorbed in instructions on how to properly file promotions paperwork. "Just call me Klightus."
"Yes, Klightus. I believe that I have your annual budget figured up."
"Hmm?" He hadn't exactly heard her, trying to figure out who his direct superior was supposed to be, exactly.
"Your annual budget for requisitioning gear from the Departmento Munitorum."
That broke him from his reprieve. "I h-have a b-budget?" He put the papers aside and rose from the bed. He had to lean on the table to look over her shoulder.
As his eyes moved to where she pointed, they threatened to bulge out of his skull and his chest felt as if it were compressed to the size of his cup of tea. "Emperor's teeth!"
Clare recoiled slightly, looking at him as if he might strike her. "Is that not enough? I may be able to find a way to increase it..."
"N-no!" He looked up to her and put up a hand. "N-no, that's not it at a-all! This... This is... m-more than I've m-m-made since joining the G-Guard. In total." He swallowed, running a hand over his face. "H-h-how?"
"Lieutenant Gramon... Klightus, wake up. Klightus..."
He became slowly aware of his surroundings. Clare standing above him. A half-eaten digestive biscuit in his hand. A cold tray next to him. A stack of papers on his other side. And a rather uncomfortable amount of pain wracking his body.
"I... I f-fell asleep?" He was having trouble pushing through the fog in his brain.
"Yes," Clare said. She looked worried. "You were exhausted. I thought you needed it." She paused for a moment, concerned. "It's almost time for your breakfast with the Canoness."
Now the fog was gone. He sat upright, blinking the sleep away. "M-my kit. I n-need to shower..."
She took a step back as he forced himself to his feet. His muscles didn't want to work. "I took the liberty of writing a list of directions to the men's showers. There's baths, but I didn't think you had the time. I also wrote some morning prayers for you that you could say in the shower. They're not quite the same, but they'll work. Also, your robes! Shield robes are waterproof and stain resistant. Just get it a little damp, wipe it off, and it should be dry by the time you get there. Don't forget to shave!"
He'd found his pack was fishing out his kit. Pausing, he turned to her, giving her the aquila. "You have b-been a tremendous help, Clare. You should h-have left and slept y-yourself."
That earned a smile out of her. "It's not a problem. I work second rotation anyway. Oh! You had three visitors, Brother Giselbertus, Sister Bethany, and Sister Amaia. They left when they found you were sleeping. None left any messages. I also left you a list of everything that I did while you were sleeping. It was most educational!"
He finally got a hold on his kit, though his grip felt weak. "Th-thank you. You can do whatever task you normally would. I have t-to-"
"Of course," she said, lowering her head and giving him the aquila. "Emperor bless you."
"And you," he said thankfully before hurrying out the door.
The shower hadn't lasted as long as he'd of liked, not nearly enough to loosen tight muscles. But he was clean, and so were his robes now. That, at least, saved him some time. Freshly shaven (only one cut, a surprise considering how quickly he'd worked) and good to go, he'd only stopped back at his room to drop off his kit before hurrying to where the directions indicated.
"You're late," the Canoness mused more to herself than anything.
"F-f-forgive me," he muttered quickly, falling to one knee and folding his hands over his chest. "There are m-many symbols of the Holy God Emperor of Mankind a-a-a-"
"And you had to salute each one." She sounded amused. "I will forgive you for showing proper reverence where it is due." She paused a beat. "And what of Adept Friemann? Should I be upset that she did not leave your room all night?"
That made him pale, to say the least. "N-no! I-I fell asleep and she... she just kept working as b-best she could! I..."
"Relax, Guardsman Gramon... Or, rather, Lieutenant now, isn't it?" She seemed most pleased with herself. "Arise. I am familiar with Clare. She served as an assistant to one of my own Adepts for two years. She finds more joy in her work than any pleasures of the flesh could compare to. And I have no doubt your motives are pure. Please, sit. Share a meal with me."
His legs didn't want to let him up, but soon enough he found himself in a surprisingly elegant chair.
"I usually eat with the other Sisters, however there are occasions where I must dine privately with others. The captain of the ship, for example, occasionally requests my presence. There are other times as well... But I get ahead of myself. How do you find your quarters? Are they acceptable?"
Klightus decided honesty was the better part of valor. "I would n-not know. I... There is s-so much paperwork to be done that I c-cannot even begin to view it fully."
"Ah, yes. I'd heard about that. A pity. You should have time to finish it all, though, before we reach our next destination. I am told that the... navigator says that it will be about three months before we arrive." She didn't sound like she was fond of the navigator. But then again, Klightus always thought of them virtually being mutants himself. "I also heard of your little... demonstration yesterday. For you to delve into such actions your first day on the ship is surprising."
Something about her put Klightus at ease. She had an elegant grace about her, one that almost defied her undoubted proficiency in carrying out the Emperor's wrath. "It w-wasn't my idea in the s-slightest. S-Sister Ephrael brought m-me."
"Oho! You must have made a good impression on her, then." She paused as a servitor poured a breakfast tea for the both of them. "You made quite the impression all around, I'm told."
"At a c-cost." He paused, then smiled sheepishly. "I m-missed service."
That earned a chuckle out of her. "And a meal! I was almost afraid you'd died! Two meals in one day... We can't have that. You've lost weight since the first time that I saw you." That made him blush. Apparently, she had a good memory. "Tell me, did the vox carry the sermon well?"
He found himself shaking his head. "I am afraid n-not, Canoness. It was... hard to make everything out. P-perhaps the m-machine spirit is displeased?"
"I will have it looked into. Ah."
Servitors appeared carrying the meal to be laid out before them. It made Klightus think that his head would never recover from the confusion. Poached egg, some sort of toasted starch wafer, a steaming meat that most definitely wasn't grox, juja fruit, some sort of fruit spread for the starch wafer, a sauteed tuber, some sort of pudding he couldn't identify, and a starch cake. Some sort of juice was served with it, the blue coloring lost on him.
"Ah, yes. Confused, are we?" She laughed a little. "You, my dear boy, are of noble birth, yes? But you have spent much of your adult life serving the Guard. No doubt, you are far from familiar with eating a proper Noble Breakfast these days. This is understandable, perhaps even commended.
"However, it does me little good. Frequently, when we arrive to a world the Planetary Governor will wish to speak with me. Perhaps even dine with me. I find that accepting these invitations, though completely unnecessary, only aid the Sisterhood in the long run. We are the Daughters of the Emperor, followers of His Divine will. Yet governors are a strange lot, sometimes balking unless placated. Though I will not stop in my mission for any reason, I fighting my way to simply perform it only slows all of us down. Two hours may save us days of drudgery."
She paused to sip her tea. "Sometimes, there are members of the Guard there. A commander, perhaps, joining us at dinner. Often, they say things which I can barely comprehend. I have gotten better at understanding the shorthand that the Guard utilizes, however having someone there who can assist me would have advantages. In order for you to do that effectively, you will have to relearn how to eat like a proper noble, and to adjust your body to their meals. So..."
She indicated the meal before him. "Twice a week we will dine."
Klightus found he couldn't argue with her reasoning. She'd learned how to play the game of the nobles to her advantage, and expected him to participate. Great. The last thing that he needed was more talking. But for now, he merely bowed his head and began eating with as much grace as he could remember.
By the time that he was done, he'd remembered which fork was which and that he needed to take smaller bites. He wasn't in the mess. He could savor the meal, and try to enjoy the finer points of it. The Canoness seemed content to simply eat in silence, watching him eat. Somehow, he had no doubt that eventually she would begin to point out any mistakes he'd made.
"How was it?" she asked. "Good. Though I m-may need a digestive." He smiled a little. Like this, it was easy to forget who she was.
"I'll see that you have one." She paused for a moment, tilting her head. "Those robes suit you well."
That got him blushing a little. "They s-say that they're dying a set g-green."
"Pity." She set her napkin on her plate, and the servitor moved to retrieve it. "Before you go, there is one more thing that I'd like to ask of you. Is there anything that you wish?"
That made Klightus think for a moment. But the most pressing issue came to mind faster than he'd thought. "A chrono w-would be m-most appreciated."
She threw her head back, a laugh escaping her. "Let it be known that Lieutenant Klightus Gramon, of noble birth, was asked on this day for that which he wished, and did respond that his greatest desire was that of a chrono! Oh, I don't know if that speaks more of your strength of character or your fears of sleeping in!" She smiled softly, nodding. "But I approve. I will see that one is delivered to you."
With that, Klightus rose, forming crossing his hands over his chest. "M-may the Emperor grace you."
"May He grace you as well."
By lunch, breakfast had already evacuated him. The Canoness had a point -- his body was no longer used to such rich food. Not even the digestive helped. But true to her word, a young cleric had delivered a chrono. For once, he was bound and determined not to miss a meal.
Clare had spent the night to good use, it turned out. A great help indeed. She'd organized a great deal for him, arranging stacks by their apparent order and need. She'd also discovered, much to his surprise, that a great many of them were forms that were only to be used as-needed. Many of which were either requisition forms or forms for after-battle reports. That was something that he was going to need to get used to.
He'd have to see if he could arrange some sort of storage for those, keeping only a number on-hand. But that could come after lunch, a meal that would hopefully not pass straight through him.
The ship's version of a mess was familiar enough, but also far different at the same time. He wouldn't go so far as to say it was any less organized, but it was less optimized. Prayers and blessings were played over vox, helping to keep his mind off of how agonizingly slow the line moved.
But eventually he reached the front of the line, received his meal, and moved off to a table. The lessons he'd learned with the Canoness were promptly forgotten.
"Klightus!" A nudge to his shoulder greeted him as much as Sister Ephrael's voice. "Glad you could join us for a change," she teased good naturedly. A pause followed as she looked down at his tray. "Or not. Are you in a rush to get back to your spires of paper?"
He realized that almost three quarters of his food were already gone. Eat it now, taste it later. "N-no," he said sheepishly. "Old habits d-die hard."
"Well, relax." She sat down next to him. "Save for the time before lights out, meals are our best time to talk amongst ourselves." With that, she bowed her head and began a quiet prayer to the Emperor. The irony was not lost on Klightus. As soon as she was done, she grinned at him. "Heard you had a helper last night."
"C-Clare, yes." He found himself smiling. "She's s-saved me a lot of work."
"Good. Gonna finish it all this millennium?"
"Hopefully," he said with a smile. "P-perhaps even by t-tomorrow."
"That's my boy," Ephrael said, nudging him with her elbow.
He found himself blushing faintly at that. "W... Why do you care?"
"Because she adopts people," Sister Amaia said, sitting down across from them. A moment later, Bethany sat down on his other side. "Normally, it's just novices, but she seems to have taken an interest in you." She blew on her porridge. "You'd better watch out."
"It's nothing like that," Ephrael grumbled.
"Truly?" Amaia raised a slow eyebrow. "It has nothing to do with your brother?"
"No!" She shifted indignantly. "It's just... He's going to be serving beside us, training with us, and acting in our interests. I have to know that somebody's watching his back." She looked to Klightus. "Until some of the others actually see you in combat, they'll think you're trying to take advantage of our hospitality. To further your own career of something. I saw you charge after Sister Julianne. I watched you return her to us, with the Simularcrum Imperialis intact. If you were trying to do something like that, you wouldn't try to get yourself killed the way you do."
"And what makes you think he's trying to get himself killed?"
"He's an Ostagarian!" She rolled her eyes. "You need to read more on cults of the Emperor, Sister." Klightus finished his meal and put his hands in his lap. He was content to watch the two talk. "Ostagarians think that all those who remain pure will strengthen the Emperor when they die, and in return, He will grant them true happiness when they join His embrace."
Amaia looked at Klightus evenly. "No offense, but if you were just trying to die, you're doing a miserable job of it."
Klightus felt himself shrinking on the bench. "N-no, I..."
"See, now you're embarassing him! Besides, that's not the way it works. They have to die striving to complete their duty. See, to them, duty is as important as prayer. Your duty strengthens the Imperium, His holy task, and what He sacrificed Himself for. Humanity." Ephrael paused a beat. "I'm not explaining this properly. If I remember it correctly, and correct me if I get anything wrong Klightus, it's like this..."
But her words were lost to Klightus at that point. He felt a touch on his leg. His eyes darted to the side, to Sister Bethany smiling at him ever so softly. Her pinky finger intertwined with his under the table. The two of them could debate the finer points of his religious practices all day. He was more than content.
The afternoon service, dinner, and the evening service seemed to go by as a blur. A chance encounter with Giselbertus lead to almost all the excess paperwork being packed into boxes marked PROPERTY OF THE DEPARTMENTO MUNITORUM and loaded into a storage area. He also put in a request with the captain (apparently neither an official title nor a rank, since the man wasn't with the Imperial Navy) that a "small but respectable" storage area be set aside for him.
Giselbertus said that the chances were about equal if the request would be granted or denied.
After evening service, with so much spare room left to him, he decided to take stock of things other than paperwork. The data slates and tomes... he could get to tomorrow. For now, however, he was focused on everything else. The symbology of his new office that had been delivered. (As well as the realization that he'd had a chrono all this time, buried beneath everything else.)
The thing that drew the most of his attention was his duffel. All of his personals were inside. A book of hymns. A holo pict of Sister Kandra she'd smuggled him as he'd left; Mother and Father had forcibly forbade him from having anything beyond his name that would link him back to his House. A glow-globe that he'd had since he was a child. A proper writing kit, far better than the one the Deparmento Munitorum had provided. The cilice undershirt that a sergeant had forbade him from wearing. An eikon of Saint Kristof Heiligener, who had been raised on Jingur. A book on medicae procedures.
With a smile, he turned on the glow-globe, setting it on his desk. An old scratch on the surface from when Claus broke his nose cast an odd appearance on the wall. He chuckled at the memory before turning out the lights, the room illuminated only by the glow-globe. It had been an extremely productive day, and tomorrow was only going to look better. He might even be able to get some more fencing in. With that warm thought, he stripped to his shorts and climbed into bed. Time to appreciate his own room the way that a person was supposed to.
He was just starting to fade off to sleep when the sound of the door opening forced his eyes open. Old habits made him pull the covers up around his chin, an extra layer of protection against a potential bar of soap.
No bar of soap was thrown. Instead, the glow-globe dimly showed a form in robes creep in, gently closing the door behind them. They moved across the room carefully to the bed. Leaning down to look at him, he finally got a clear look.
"B-Bethany!" He relaxed, sitting up. "It's p-past lights out for f-first rotation. What are-"
Her lips on his prevented him from finishing that thought. That was... a good way of telling him exactly why she was here. It didn't last long, though; breaking the kiss, she sat on the edge of the bed, running a gentle hand over the side of his face.
"Bethany," he murmured quietly, only to be shut up once again. This time, though, she put a hand on his chest and rather forcefully thrust him down on the bed. With a mischievous smile, Bethany moved over him and across him, sliding underneath the covers. She pulled his arm out and moved against him, her head resting on his chest. After a moment, one of her legs intertwined with his, and her arm reached around his bare stomach. After a moment, she let out a contented sigh.
Not that it helped make Klightus any less uncomfortable. Soon, though, her breathing changed and her grip on him went slack. Slowly but surely, he found himself becoming more comfortable. Slowly, he found himself relishing this experience
"Bethany..." He gently shook her shoulder. The fact that the glow-globe had burned out hours ago didn't seem to be helping her any. "Bethany... It's an hour b-before..."
That seemed to make her lift her head. She looked over at the chrono, blinking. In an hour, the Sisters would be waking. Better to get her back before then so that he didn't meet the business end of a bolter. A hand found itself on his stubble.
"I, uh..." He took a break, his thumb stroking her neck in the darkness. "I c-could see your face. Until the g-glow-globe went out. As you slept, I m-mean. You l-looked so peaceful and h-happy that... I j-just couldn't sleep." He felt so foolish and stupid saying it out loud.
But a kiss to his chest, then his chin, and finally his lips told him that his sentimentality wasn't entirely viewed as stupid. They remained like that for several long moments before she slowly, reluctantly made her way over him and out of the bed. Her hand trailed across his chest, his arm, and their hands caught.
"Don't w-worry," he said softly. "I'll b-be at breakfast. M-maybe also at sword practice."
That thought seemed to please both of them.
The next two days seemed to fall into a comfortable pattern. He worked on familiarizing himself with the layout of the ship, some training with the Sisters (as much as his body would let him), and his nights with Bethany curled around him. One dinner was spent with the Canoness. Though his memories were returning, his body was still having the same problems with the food. Oddly, this continued to amuse the Canoness more than anything.
It was the fifth day, however, that introduced two more changes to Klightus' life. The first came as he was changing into his robes for afternoon service in the form of a knock on his door.
"J-just a m-moment." He looked in the mirror to make sure that the robes hung properly on him. He was glad for having two sets now, though he alternated between them. Partially because he didn't want to offend anybody, but partially because everybody said that the red looked better on him. Assured of his appearance, he hurried to the door and opened it.
"Lieutenant Gra... Ah, I mean, Klightus. Hello." Clare smiled up at him cheerfully... or at least as cheerfully as she could, considering how tired she looked.
"Clare. It's a p-pleasure to s-see you. Is there... something that I can, ah, do for you?"
"Um, no." She glanced behind her to a servitor. "It's more... I'm afraid that I have some good news and some bad news." That made his heart sink. "The bad news is that since you've gotten your Guard paperwork squared away, or at least most of it, I'm not sure really which it is, but I'm rambling. Since you have that at least mostly taken care of, there's some paperwork for the Ecclesiarchy that needs taken care of."
Indeed, the servitor seemed to be carrying a large crate of it. The Administratum was trying to kill him, one page at a time.
"The good news is that I've been assigned as your assistant in all matters concerning paperwork!" That brought her bright smile back, as much as the bags under her eyes would allow. "It means I'm on first rotation, sure, but it also means that I can learn the war cant of the Guard a bit, and maybe eventually help you out with that!"
Klightus blinked, her words slowly sinking in. He looked back into his room for a moment before shaking his head. "I c-can't. No." He looked back to her -- she seemed absolutely devastated. "I can't d-do that to you. I'd n-need another desk, another ch... Another chair. I m-mean we can't b-both play the part of officials if one of us is sitting on m-my bed..."
That brought a smile back to Clare. "We can see if we can get one easily enough. You need it for your duties, after all!" She looked inside, nodding. "Then I'll see if we can get a tapestry to hang there, and then put that flag up there. That way, it would create a division between your bedroom and your office in a way that makes sense. Plus it would give you more of a sense of privacy."
He blinked, looking around. So far, he hadn't thought about that at all. But it made sense. Already she was trying to make things easier, trying to prove her worth. He couldn't help but smile a little. How often had he tried to do that himself? Wasn't he still trying to do that?
"Alright. B-bring in the p-paperwork, and if you have time before service starts, f-find a desk and chair for yourself. Then w-we can go through everything after service and g-get started."
The rest of the day had been spent getting his room up to speed. He had to admit, it had needed a certain feminine eye to make it from purely utilitarian into something that was truly presentable. Clare was even ever so pleased when she found bookshelves that were only in a little need of refurbishing. When asked if they could take them, they Adept in charge seemed more than glad to give them up.
Now, however, wasn't the time to be thinking about things like that. Now was the time to nuzzle his head into Bethany's hair. They'd become increasingly comfortable like this. Every night she sneaked into his room, curling around him before falling asleep.
Until he heard the door open. Old habits, again, die hard, though this time he pulled the covers over Bethany's head. Footsteps padded to the opening between the tapestry and the flag. The light of the glow-globe illuminated a fairly irritated face.
Amaia marched calmly to the bed, throwing back the blanket. Klightus was frozen in mortal terror. He couldn't even look down to see how Bethany was responding to this. All that he knew was that he was in bed with Amaia's sister, which must have obviously looked far worse than it really was. He hoped. The fact that she just stared at the two of them for a long moment didn't make matters any better.
"Are you two just sleeping?" she asked harshly. He gave her his braves squeak of fear, but felt Bethany's head nod. "Nothing that I should feel particularly wrathful about?" Another squeak, but this time Bethany shook her head.
"Fine." She stepped back out. Klightus thought she was leaving, but a moment later she returned with a pillow, tossing it onto the far side of the bed. "It's not like a campaign. I haven't been able to sleep well for three days now, thanks to you sneaking out." With that, she climbed over the two of them and laid down.
This didn't help Klightus relax any, even after both Amaia and Bethany had fallen asleep. Partially because there was a stranger in his bed that could quite easily turn hostile. Partially because he could feel her back on the arm wrapped around Bethany. But also partially because now one of his legs was completely uncovered.
Emperor, he prayed silently, please let Sister Amaia get used to sleeping alone. Or get me more blankets.
Klightus slammed his shoulder into the door, helped by three others. The first impact nearly sent them all sprawling, but a Sister joined them. "Novice!" he bellowed loudly. "Get." He paused from an impact that rattled him. "The." The door shuddered with another impact, a howl of fury on the other side. "Block!"
What the novice lacked in initiative, she made up for in speed. Within moments, the block was in place, allowing them at least a few moments of respite from the savage horde. Klightus looked to the one who helped them, only to find Sister Ephrael moving off.
Almost immediately, Sister Amaia was upon him, grabbing for his hands. In recent years she'd taken to counting his fingers -- a small ritual to assure herself that he wasn't trying to perform his various duties while injured. Again. He waved her off, though. "Cordelia."
Amaia put her hand to his chest to stop him, but he pushed on. Everybody was too quiet. He moved quickly to the rest of the squad surrounding the prone form, pushing his way through. The sight that greeted him...
The Sister Superior hated losing members of her squad. She was willing to sacrifice them in the name of the Emperor, but she'd always hated any loss. She'd provided covering fire for everybody from the first time he'd been in battle with her. When she'd given the order to fall back to the church, the only building with the fortifications to allow them to regroup, she'd once again taken the rear, ensuring that everybody else could get inside. She was the last one through the door...
...and had received a round to the face for her loyalty.
Klightus stepped back, taking a deep breath. He shouldn't let this shake him as much as it was. He couldn't do anything to help her now; she had earned her place with the Emperor. But he could do something for the rest of them. When in doubt, make yourself useful. His hand went to his right ear. "Namah Six-Seven, this is S-Sigma One. Do you copy? Over." He paused a beat, biting his lip.
"Namah Six-Seven to Sigma One. We read you. What's your status? Over."
He let go of a breath that he didn't realize he'd been holding. "Sigma One to Namah Six-Seven. We found the bulk of the xenos f-forces in sector t-twelve, just outside the city of Ayin. We have fallen back to a church inside the city p-proper and are under attack. Can you assist? Over."
"Sigma One, confirm sector? Over."
"Namah Six-Seven, sector twelve. Over."
There was a long pause before there was an answer. The voxman sounded worried. "Sigma One, we have no assets in your area that we can commit to engagement, over."
Oh, no. No, the Commander was trying to let them rot, to let the liaison unit die so that he could have more freedom to act as he wished. Klightus' jaw tightened. "Namah Six-Seven. N-need I remind you that I am in direct contact with Inquisitor W-Wiprecht Eigen and speak under his authority. Please inform your commanding officer that I n-need conformation on what assets you can provide, over."
Each tick of the chrono that went by only fueled his anger that much more. He was putting a lot on a simple hunch. There was the possibility that there were no local assets that could assist. But with each tick, the chances of that being the case drew more and more slim.
"Sigma One," the voxman said at last. "We can have our Leman Russ', six Chimeras of troops, and two Hellhounds in your sector within an hour. Over."
"Namah Six-Seven, may you m-move with the Emperor's guidance. Sigma One out."
Klightus took a deep breath before touching his left vox-bead. "Klightus Gramon to Inquisitor Wiprecht Eigen."
"Lieutenant!" The Inquisitor sounded pleased to hear from him. "Have you found the heretics?"
Klightus had to remind himself once again not to use the Guard war cant. "No, sir. I'm afraid that we have f-failed to find any sign of them. However, we're trapped in a church in Ayin. It does not appear defiled." He looked back towards the door. At least the Guardsmen in his retinue were working on fortifying it. No telling how long it would last, though. "We found the b-bulk of the xenos horde."
"Show me Ayin on the map," the Inquisitor barked to somebody. Then, back to Klightus. "And the townspeople?"
"Sent to the Emperor." He heard a noise of displeasure on the other end. "S-S-Sister Superior C-Cordelia has been sent to His Embrace as well." It hurt more to say that out loud than he cared to admit.
"Gah!" Now the Inquisitor was getting upset. "Can the Guard help you?"
"I h-had to invoke your name, but they are sending armor. An hour, they say."
"I'm sending forces your way. The Seraphim squads should get there before the rest of us." His voice said that it would take time.
"The dome is shattered, s-sir. That will be their best entry point into the church."
"May the Emperor preserve you and grant us speed."
Klightus lowered his hand and took a deep breath. All that they had to do was hold their position until reinforcements arrived. They were, in essence, the bait for a pincer attack. That would work, at least. As he looked around the church, though, he realized it would be harder than just the fighting.
The Sisters, as well as the two novices, were clustered around Cordelia's body. None of them were saying anything. It didn't take much to figure out what was wrong -- their morale was broken. Cordelia had lead the squad for years before he'd even encountered them. She was loved. And now she was gone. Their loss was echoed in the few Guardsmen with them.
And if they were to have any chance of surviving, of destroying these foul xenos, they needed to pull back together. His mind went back to the Jingur Third. What would the Commissar do? They weren't fleeing or showing cowardice.
A speech. But that wasn't exactly Klightus' specialty. His brain worked furiously, trying to come up with something, anything that might pull them through this. He reached farther back, to his childhood. What would Sister Kandra do when he lost his will?
In that, he found his answer. He closed his eyes, and let his voice do the work.
"Praise, Mankind, the Throne of Terra; To His feet thy tribute bring. Fortified by his dominion; Evermore His praises sing: Ave Imperator! Ave Imperator! Praise to the Immortal Emperor!
"Praise Him for His grace and favor To Humanity in distress. Praise Him still the same as ever, His sacrifice, we do bless. Ave Imperator! Ave Imperator! Glorious in His faithfulness!"
Voices joined him now, resonating within the church as if joined not only by the sisters, but some invisible choir as well.
"Fatherlike He tends and protects us; Well our feeble frame He knows. In His hands He gently bears us, Rescues us from all our foes. Ave Imperator! Ave Imperator! Widely yet His wrath flows.
"Frail as breath on the air we flourish, Blows the wind and it is gone; But while mortals rise and perish Our Emperor lives unchanging on! Praise Him, Praise Him, Ave Imperator Praise the Immortal God Emperor!
"Mankind, help us to adore Him; Yet behold Him face to face; Stars and Void, bow down before Him; Dwellers all in time and space. Ave Imperator! Ave Imperator! Praise with us the Emperor of grace."
Klightus looked amongst the assembled. The Guardsmen had their hands folded in the aquila, still seemingly lost in the hymn. The Sisters, though, had all joined in. Even Sister Ephrael. Their resolve had returned. Now they stood with purpose.
"Sister Ephrael," Amaia barked. "Move Sister Cordelia's remains to the alter! Nyze, Quintilla, move these pews. When they come through the door, they'll move down the hall. Use those to slow them down."
Klightus, meanwhile, was removing his pack to rummage through it. "Guardsmen!" They hurried over. "Sister Quintilla is a master of timing. Prepare your grenades. She will order one through f-four at specific intervals. When she does, cease fire and throw a frag at the door. Get it as c-close as you can. That's our choke point. Remain in cover, but affix b-bayonets just in case." He looked over his shoulder. "Sister Quintilla! Thirty second delay between grenades!"
Two bolt pistols, but only three spare magazines. He could have sworn he packed four. "Novices!" They moved, apparently happy for any guidance. He offered each one a bolt pistol and a spare magazine. "Make each shot count. The one with the m-most kills gets the spare mag. When you're out, switch t-to your las." He shoved the spare mag in his pocket and double-checked to make sure his melta pistol was at his hip. That confirmed, he pulled the Hellpistol from his pack and donned it again.
There was the sound of wood splintering. "To cover," Amaia shouted. Sister Nyze and Quintilla stopped carrying pews (only four, Klightus noted) to run back. Two Guardsmen took the closest positions to the door, only for one to be roughly yanked away by Sister Ephrael.
"You, you! B-behind those pillars!" The two Guardsmen moved quickly, not having to be told twice. Having Ephrael closest to the door made sense: it was hard to charge through a column of flame.
"Nice to see that you aren't planning on dying," Amaia mused, joining Klightus behind a pillar.
"C-can't let you die," he said with a smile as he drew the power saber. "Bethany would have my hide."
As the heavy door began to fall under savage xenos blows, all of them took up aim. "Funny," Amaia mused to herself. "I was going to say the same thing."
Klightus ran his hand over the stitching, lost for a moment. This one had come from... This one had come from a piece of bark. Yes, a piece of bark lodged itself in his arm from when a tank had tried to kill him. His eyes went to the trousers, searching the fatigues over. There. The same tank had taken offense to him for the second time. Or maybe somebody nearby. That blast had sent a piece of metal into his leg. Somehow, he hadn't noticed it until Amaia pointed it out.
The memory brought a smile to his face. That had been worlds away, a lifetime ago. Funny how time changed so much. He'd been so scared then, utterly terrified of his own shadow. Perhaps if he'd known then what he knew now...
No matter, he told himself. He pulled the trousers on, followed by the shirt. They didn't fit him right any more. A better diet had done him a world of good, it seemed. Problematic. He looked through the closet until he came up with his first greatcoat, the one he hardly ever wore even when he was with the Jingur Third. A long history of disuse indeed.
"There you are!"
Klightus spun around, startled. Almost immediately, his face broke into a wide gring. "Wiprecht! What are you doing here?"
"Just arrived, actually." The other man stepped into the room, closing the thin door behind him. "You know, I'll never quite understand why you separated your room so that Sister Amaia's room was the first door."
"Her preference," Klightus admitted. "She claims it in case of assassins, though we both know the chances of one of them making it this far. Is... Is it t-time to-"
"Relax, old friend." Wiprecht sat on the edge of the bed, smiling. "I haven't seen you in many months. I'll keep the hounds at bay, but only if you grant me the small favor of your company."
There were two faces to Wiprecht Eigen. There was the one that he wore when performing his duty, the one that everybody saw. A face of harsh devotion to duty. To a select few, however, there was another side to the man. A face that edged on childlike zeal, excitability, and a lust for life. He'd long since decided Klightus worthy of that face, and was already relaxing into it.
Which was in stark contrast to his appearance. A truly massive man to begin with, made all the more massive by the armor he wore under his outer layer of clothing. The back of his head must have been removed at some point, replaced with a metal dome. An old burn scar ran along the side of his face to the dome from some old battle, making the cheerful expression on his face seem that much more out of place.
"I suppose I can." Klightus settled into the sole chair in the room. "Tell me, how did your one adventure without me go?"
Wiprecht laughed. "Throne of Terra, I wish they all could be that easy. Imagine... Imagine a stream, teaming with fish. Now imagine those fish all jumping out at you, begging to be caught. Any easier and I wouldn't of even needed to step on that mudball. A nice change of pace." He leaned forward, grinning. "And what of you? I haven't seen you since you were hollowed by the hulk."
They'd stumbled across a space hulk and had risked a hasty exploration. The conscript assigned to Klightus had fallen and gotten lost. When he'd gone to rescue the man, he'd gotten separated from the rest himself. A harrowing experience, if any, but he'd gotten the job done... and then some, though the experience had left him drained for some time.
"We dropped him off, much a hero to his people. I hear that he's being elevated to nobility for what we brought back. Picked up a new one, got into a bit of a tussle against some cultists. He's still getting used to his augmetic arm."
"You know that's not what I'm asking about! Speak man! Speak! I will find the confessor, drag him here and wrench it from your lips if I must!" Despite the harshness of his words, his tone was jovial and his eyes smiling. That was the quality that Klightus felt honored to see.
"Relax." He rose to his feet, retrieving a pict viewer. A brief glance at the image brought a smile to his face before he offered it to his companion. "I made a copy, just for you. So you can view it at your leisure. Thank Sister Ephrael."
"When I see her next, I will." Wiprecht smiled down at it, nearly unable to sit still from his giddiness. "There are many, my dear Klightus, who would be envious of your position alone. This, this is what they should be truly envious of!"
"And those men have no sense of duty."
"And a lagging faith," Wiprecht admitted. "Tell me that it isn't the greatest perk, though. I dare you."
That earned a laugh out of Klightus. "Only a fool would lie to you. Though I have been accused of many things, I would never be quite so foolish."
The other man leaned forward, barely able to contain himself. The smile on his face threatened to split it in two. "Then, for your honesty, I wish to give you a gift! I've made arrangements for your inner circle to all receive rejuvenations! Save for the rotational positions, of course. They haven't earned it."
Klightus' mouth fell open. "But I..."
"I see a wrinkle!" Wiprecht pointed with glee, almost launching himself off the bed. "The whole four of you!"
"You just want us to remain as you remember us." He shook his head. They were still a little young for the procedure, rather young. "Your sentimentality will be the death of you. ...What about Sisters Nyze and Quintilla?"
"I'll even throw in Sister Plath, if it makes you say yes." He laughed and pointed. "Besides, you still owe me! You lost the bet fair and square!"
Klightus grinned. He could negate that bet with one of the four favors he was still owed... but you didn't pull that kind of thing on Wiprecht. "Fine! I concede! Rejuvenation treatments for all, then!"
"Ha! That's the spirit! Now you're sounding like a right and proper noble!" By his expression, Wiprecht instantly regretted his words. Quickly, though, he pushed on. "Anyway, when this particular venture is over, we'll be stopping off at Beingun. I've heard a nasty rumor that you're switching to a chain blade."
That earned an eye roll out of Klightus. "I've been using Sister Julianne's blade for far too long. From my understanding, it's all that's left of the House that spawned her."
"Illegitimately," Wiprecht reminded.
"Even so, her true father had it sent to her in the Progenium. No, it deserves to be laid to rest with her remains, not used by..."
"Then we shall lay it to rest after this! I chose Beingun for a reason, Klightus. I'm told that House Mercer creates some of the finest power sabers in the sector, so I'm arranging for one to be created specifically for your hand. I figure this will lower me to... What? Two? Three bets I owe you?" The older man paused, grinning from ear to ear. "Unless you'd like to try and keep the score more in your favor, of course."
Klightus found himself smiling as he put his elbows on his knees. "And what did you have in mind, good sir? That my little inner circle, as you so eloquently put it, will kill more mutants than yours again? You always accuse me of cheating..."
"Which is why I suggest something else! There will be more than thinning the mutant herds down there. I have no evidence, but the Emperor has put this feeling in my bones."
"Which means you're sure the bet will be in your favor." He thought for a moment, debating. "If there are only mutants, neither of us win. If there's heretics aplenty, you win. But if we stumble across archeotech that would be of notice to the Priests of Mars, no matter how trivial, even if heresy does abound, I win. Does that sound fair?"
"You're stroking my ego with an easy bet," Wiprecht said, standing. "I like it. I'll take that bet, and if you win, it will be two favors in your name. One if I win. Now, as much as I would like to stay and chat, if I'm going to perform my end of this bargain of ours, I must speak to the Canoness. Am I the only one who finds her creepy? Yes? Ah, well."
Klightus rose to his feet, but Wiprecht was already walking out the door. You got used to that with him -- it wasn't until he put on his serious face that he seemed able to focus on anything. Strange man, at times. A valuable reminder that not everybody fit a preconceived mold; a lesson he'd been told applied to himself as well.
With a private laugh to himself, he pulled the greatcoat on and turned out the lights. There, in the darkness, he allowed himself a moment to shudder with fear.
Amaia met him near the transport, frowning. "I don't like this," she groused quietly.
A quiet protest could only mean one thing. "She's asleep?" Klihtus whispered.
"I doubt that she'll wake up the entire trip. I'll wake her when it's time." She frowned, her ice blue eyes narrowed into slits. "You're avoiding the topic."
Klightus tugged nervously at his greatcoat. "I n-need to do this."
It was then that her arms wrapped around him in a comforting hug. Amaia's attitude had changed over the years. She'd long since fully accepted him as her brother; no small part of that was the loss of Sister Cordelia. Though all Sisters were prepared for death in battle, they were still human.
Klightus had learned after the fact that almost all viewed Sister Cordelia as family. Within the squad, she'd been the oldest by far, her age kept in check through rejuvenation treatments. Amaia especially had looked up to her Sister Superior. Though the rest had survived the battle against the loathsome greenskins, everyone knew the squad had been broken.
Apparently, this had caused some harsh words between Amaia and the Canoness. Klightus had heard about it only second-hand, but entering the wrong door unannounced had revealed to him the red welts on Amaia's back. Though she never spoke of it again, his own retinue had changed. Bethany, Amaia, and Ephrael had been assigned permanently to him, with the understanding that one novice and one conscript would also serve alongside him.
"You may not always stand tall, but your back doesn't bend, does it?" Amaia pulled away, taking a moment to brush a lock of hair away from his face. "We should have cut your hair like a conscript's."
Klightus let out a laugh, more releasing stress than anything. "It's better this way. More b-befitting my birth."
"I'll never understand nobles," she said with a roll of her eyes. "Come, let us be off then to see this madness of yours through to the end." She made her way up the steps. "Though I reserve the right to purge if I see the necessity."
Somehow, that thought frightened him more than anything else.
"Klightus. It is good to have you home."
His face split into a wide smile. "Sister K-Kandra," he said warmly, forming the aquila.
"There is no need for that," his old tutor said warmly, taking him by the shoulders.
"We are all s-servants to the Emperor, Sister Kandra." The two of them spent a long moment smiling to each other before he stepped through the great door. "I take it that they are w-waiting for m-me?"
"No," she said flatly. "Please, allow an old woman a few surprises." Was she old? There were wrinkles in her face, but at the same time...
"Then have they been derelict in their duties?" That took her by surprise. Yes, he had been learning. He opened his mouth to explain... No. No matter. This all worked out surprisingly well, despite the ever-increasing knot in his chest. "Then please, stay here a moment. There is one m-more surprise that I believe you will be able to appreciate. I c-can find my way." He paused, then smiled childishly down at her. "I still r-remember."
"Of course, Klightus." There was more, he could tell. It was in her eyes that she wanted to speak to him more. But he was no longer her protege, and she could no more command him than she could the governor. Which was good -- he wasn't about to bend on this.
It felt good to walk through the halls. To look at the murals. To remember his youth, a lifetime ago. Especially in his uniform. It was a little hot in his greatcoat, but... Well, he didn't mind. Not at all. He made his way through Gramon Tower, easily finding the sitting room.
Both Mother and Father were there. They looked well, of course. You couldn't not, with their status. Mother had that look about her that said she'd just been through a rejuvenation treatment. Good. He was glad to see that she was keeping up appearances. It was only proper.
"Klightus," his father said flatly. Klightus expected to hear more surprise. "You live."
They both rose to get a closer look at him. "Y-yes, Father. I still l-live."
"And I had thought that with the Fifth all but decimated, you had fallen with them." He could feel the venom in his mother's words. "Your name does not appear with those serving, but no matter. I suppose that the Guard has let you come home between signings, yes?"
"No, Mother. I am n-n-not going on another tour with the-"
He'd forgotten about his mother's left cross. But he didn't stagger. He didn't dare. Now wasn't the time. He slowly righted his head, glaring down at his mother. He could taste the blood in his mouth. "Does this make you feel b-better, Mother?"
"How dare you?" she seethed. He felt her grip his collar, pulling his head down to eye level. "You were to be a hero of the Imperium. A monument to everything the Imperial guard is. You were to-"
"I hope we're not interrupting anything." He could see both his parents startle at the harsh voice behind him. Maybe he'd spent too long lost in memories on his way up.
Klightus turned slowly to look behind him. Despite being twins, he could instantly tell them apart. "Mother, Father. I would like you t-to m-meet Sister Amaia." She bowed her head only the slightest touch, her ice blue eyes glaring daggers. "Sister Bethany." Bethany didn't bother with even the barest hints of politeness. There was a flash of white behind her. "And Katla Gramon. Come h-here, Katla..."
The little girl peeked out from behind Bethany, hesitated, then ran to Klightus' embrace. He dared a glance to his parents as he hefted her up into his arms. "Your best b-behavior," he whispered into the girl's ear. She nodded and buried her face in his greatcoat. The poor dear must have been exhausted.
His father was the first to regain his composure. "It is a privilege to meet the three of you. I apologize for the lack of a proper-"
"I'm sure," Amaia interrupted, dryly looking about the grand sitting room in the same way she would a heretic's hovel. "Please forgive me, but we have traveled a long ways this day and have prayers that simply must be attended to. Might we inconvenience you for quarters to which we may attend these things?"
"Of course," his mother said, bowing graciously. "Sister Kandra? Could you please see to it that our son and his entourage are given proper quarters?"
Kandra stepped out of the shadows, her face even an unreadable as ever. "It is already done, m'lady." She turned to the sisters. "Please, if all of you could join me?"
"Klightus," his mother continued. "Your father and I would greatly wish to speak to you before you retire for the evening."
That caused the knot to tighten even further. "F-forgive me, Mother, but I must s-see Katla and B-Bethany to bed. P-perhaps afterwords." Much more polite than an outright no.
With that, the group made their exit, following close on the heels of Kandra. As soon as the doors to the sitting room closed behind them, Klightus moved closer to the Sister Famulous. "You should n-not have done that. They now know th-that your services are not entirely theirs."
"This is true," she muttered, sounding faintly pleased with herself. "But they should have already known this. Though, you surprise me. You've learned the game far more than before you left. Tell me, who taught you these skills."
"Perhaps I w-will introduce you before we leave." In a way, he hoped he wouldn't.
A half-muffled voice from his shoulder shook him from the banter. "Daddy, why are you stuttering so much?"
"Darling Katla," Kandra said, her voice soothing. "When your father was your age, he had a horrible stutter! One could hardly understand anything he said at all. Why, your grandparents would not be able to recognize him if he did not."
"That's silly," she muttered before burying her face back into his greatcoat.
A lie, but one that was acceptable for her.
Kandra lead them up one set of winding stairs and another, taking the back route, if he remembered correctly. Finally, she paused in front of a rather familiar door, one with familiar scars. His free hand reached out to touch one particular scar, from when Gislerus decided that he wanted to play Guardsmen and Xenos without warning Klightus he was the xenos.
"I prepared your quarters when I received your missive," Kandra informed him. "And you will be staying in the next room over."
But that was Dogmar's... Klightus' head snapped to Kandra, but she was already moving to show the twins the other room. "Your bags have already been stowed. Please join us after she has been tended to."
Five minutes to settle Katla down and say a prayer with her was far too long for Klightus, but there were orders to things. As he stormed into Dogmar's room, he was presented with another delay -- the girls were changing out of their armor. Quickly, he moved behind Amaia, his hands working.
"Machine spirit, please forgive my work so that you might be granted time to rest." His fingers worked the catch and he lifted the power back free from his sister's back, powering the armor down. Setting it to the side, he worked the first few clasps free before turning away.
"Kandra, would you p-please explain to me what is going on?" He moved behind Bethany and repeated the prayer.
"Forgive me," she said, lowering her head. "You have been gone for so long, it is hard to remember what all you have missed. Both Claus and Dogmar are dead, I am afraid." Klightus nearly dropped the power backpack in his hands. His blood felt like ice.
But Kandra was continuing. "Claus died quite by accident. You remember how fond he was of dueling, yes? He participated in a duel to first blood, however the first blood proved to be quite fatal indeed. Perhaps his own fault for not being armored. There was quite a scandal involved when it happened." He hoped that the scandal had ended in appropriate blood.
But Sister Kanda was pushing on. "Dogmar's death was slightly more... concerning. I saw him the night before his death. Were there ever one I expected to live to morning, it would be he. Rosy of cheek, moving with purpose and direction. He was quite pleased over something. In the morning, he did not come for breakfast. When I checked upon him, I found him... bereft of life, his spirit passed to the Emperor's Holy embrace."
"What did he look like?" Klightus asked as he continued working on Bethany's armor, careful to keep his back to Amaia. From how Kandra was speaking, it sounded as if it troubled her.
"It was odd. His veins were blackened, and though he must have died early in the evening, his body was still rather warm. Limp as well. His veins had blackened unnaturally, and his face was gripped as if with terror."
"Eyes. What did h-his eyes l-look like?"
"Clear, but pricked with red." Klightus could think of but two or three things in all his years which could cause such a condition. "But it is of little consequence, I'm afraid. The chirugen said that a vein in his head had given way, caused by too much spirits. He was entombed with Claus."
It would take some work to retrieve whatever remained of the body. Wiprecht moved with people who were far more familiar in such foul things than Klightus was. If he could somehow gain access to the body without earning the wrath of his parents...
"But I am afraid that the ill news does not stop there." For the first time in his life, he wished Kandra would shut up. "Less than one Holy Terran month ago, your sister Femke went missing." He pressed his forehead against Bethany's shoulder, clenching his eyes shut. "Your father has gone to speak with various members of the Arbites privately to no avail."
Bethany's hand was covering his, but he could barely feel it. "Pessolt? J-Johanna?"
"Alive and well, m'lord, though Pessolt has little to do with me these days. If I were to hazard a guess, I would think that he feels no further use of me until he has children of his own. As for Johanna, she married into Leichlin House four years ago. It was a political arrangement, one that was very prosperous for both Houses." She paused a breath. "Pessolt has moved his quarters upstars, with your parents. Your father seems to have plans for your younger brother which he has not divulged with me."
Klightus could hear his heartbeat in his ears. Deeper inside, a wall that he had built up through decades of absence weakened and finally broke.
The next thing that he knew, Bethany was dragging him away from the wall, Amaia holding his arms. He could barely hear her patient voice over his own snarls. "Klightus, brother. Calm yourself. The wall is stronger than your hand, and we will need your hand unbroken for tomorrow." Through blurred, hateful eyes he watched as she pulled his fingers free from the fist they'd made one by one, counting them.
Somehow, that one act of kindness made the fight flee from him, along with his strength. In their wake, they only left the grief and... something else. Something he couldn't identify. It was enough to make his knees give and his body shake with sobs.
This was not how he'd planned it. This was not how he hoped it would be at all.
Bethany maneuvered him to a chair, sitting him down. She seemed content to kneel before him, gently stroking his face, wiping away the tears. Even now, he couldn't look directly at her.
Amaia, however, was not so content. "Sister Kandra, might I ask you a question?" She paused. Klightus couldn't see what was going on. He couldn't see much of anything. "My brother has never spoken much of his family, though some we have been able to guess."
"What you observed might have been an indication, yes."
"Why does he hold such ferocity over their loss?"
That earned a bitter laugh out of Sister Kandra. "My dear. We are children of the Schola Progenium. Our parents are but distant memories, replaced by His Holy Light. You have not walked amongst nobles the way that I have. You cannot see. To them, their honor, their House, and their status is everything. Blood, no matter how soured through experience, is important to some of them. Though Klightus... Though he may not have been much to them, to him, they are family. No more simply put than that.
"Tell me, Sister Amaia, has he ever been like this before?"
That earned a bark of dark laughter from Amaia, no mirth present at all. "Hardly. He saves any wrath he might have for the enemy, the mutant, the heretic, the xenos. I have seen the Emperor guide him in combat, but I have never once seen him felled by emotions such as this."
"I see." Kandra seemed to think this over for a long moment. "Perhaps we should give him time to recover in peace? I would like to speak with you in private."
The night's sleep was fitful at best, and all too soon it was morning. Out of the four of them, Katla seemed the most awake and aware, asking constant questions. Kligthus was hard-pressed to keep up.
Some time during the night, Sister Kandra had gotten new clothing for both himself and Katla. Clothing befit of a noble for breakfast, to say the least. It was a matter of irony and pride that Katla was able to get herself dressed before him. The pride, however, was mostly on her part, ignoring the fact that her mother helped her. For his part, it had been so long since he'd worn anything but a uniform that he had problems figuring out how to get the sleeves to ruffle properly.
Finally, however, he and his daughter dressed per their lineage, his wife and her sister dressed in their robes, all made their way to the dining hall under his careful guidance. As soon as they passed those grand doors, Klightus regretted it.
"Ah, so the prodigal brother truly has returned!" Pessolt had lost weight since the last time Klightus had seen him, but had made up for it by wearing more layers. His hawkish eyes played over them fondly, though he didn't bother to rise from his seat. "Klightus, won't you please introduce me to your guests?"
He could feel Mother and Father's eyes boring into him expectantly. "P-Pessolt, this is Katla Gramon, my daughter." She made a proper show of a curtsy. "My b-bride, Sister Bethany." A slight movement of the head. "And h-her s-sister, Sister Amaia." A full nod from Amaia. "Everyone, th-this is my younger b-brother, Pessolt Gramon."
"It is a pleasure to meet the three of you," he said, rising at last. "Especially you, little one." Katla smiled bashfully as she stepped behind her father. That only made Pessolt smile brighter. "Please, sit, sit. I must admit, I am most surprised, but no less honored, by the company we dine with today."
A show, for their sake. Last night, he'd might have been surprised. By now, he had time to prepare how he would present himself to the Sisters. No matter. The four took their places. Oddly, Amaia positioned herself closest to Klightus' mother, with Katla wedged between Bethany and Klightus.
"Kandra has informed me of what the Orders Militant usually have for meals," Father said proudly. "I have instructed the cooks to prepare breakfast accordingly."
"Thank you," Amaia said gregariously. "It will be a pleasure to dine with you this morning."
"And what of you, Sister Bethany?" Mother's eyes were sharp as ever. Klightus found the odd realization that he'd missed them. "I cannot help but notice that you have not spoken. Is everything all right?"
Klightus opened his mouth, but Amaia spoke up before he could. "Shortly after we joined our Order as Novices, my sister was blessed with a Holy Vision by the Emperor himself. I am myself aware of her speaking only three times hence."
"Three times?" Pessolt seemed horribly fascinated by this. "Forgive my rudeness, but might I inquire as to what those might be?"
"Two of those times were in dire circumstances in our fight against corruption within the Holy Imperium. She called out, demanding that the heretics pay for turning against the Emperor's guiding light. In both cases, despite outstanding odds, we won the fight with fewer than expected casualties." She looked to Klightus, a benevolent smile on her face. "The third time was within the Chapel of Saint Thomel Knoedel where she, before the eyes of two assembled Orders, three representatives of the Inquisition, a Cardinal, and the eyes of the Our Father, the God Emperor of Mankind, took the hand of Klightus in Holy Matrimony."
Klightus looked away, his cheeks burning. A pleasant memory, to say the least.
"It must be difficult to perform your duties if you are unable to speak," Mother said thoughtfully. Bethany just smiled and shook her head. "How do you manage?"
"She c-can write just fine," Klightus said quickly. "And often, th-that is unnecessary itself. One can understand h-her intentions j-just fine, if they p-pay attention."
Mother looked as if she were about to ask another question, but the servants entered with trays. Praise the Emperor for small favors. As the trays were set before them, Father smiled and scooted his chair in a little closer. "Would one of you care to lead us in prayer?"
As one, the four of them put their hands together. As one, three voices spoke aloud with reverence. "Oh Immortal Emperor of Mankind, have mercy upon us. Emperor, please cleanse us from our sins. Master, bless this food to give us strength to purify Humanity of their transgressions."
Klightus was aware of a fifth voice speaking with them. Naturally, Kandra would know it by heart as well. "Glory to the Emperor, Defender of Humanity, whose Blessed Vision keeps us whole. Glory to the Emperor, whose Holy Light guides Humanity in its endeavors. Glory to the Emperor, whose Divine Wrath sweeps away our enemies. Glory to the Emperor, Immortal and Forever. Ave Imperator."
"Ave Imperator," his family repeated. He would have preferred it if they'd said it at the same time as everybody else.
Breakfast itself was rather simple, as far as nobility went. Some sort of egg which had been scrambled; thinly sliced strips of meat, which appeared to have been taken from the belly of a grox and fried; some sort of cut and fried tuber; and a pudding. All served with zhaza juice and some sort of milk to wash them down. Truth be told, he was still worried about Katla's digestive tract...
But Mother was eager to talk. "Tell me, Klightus, how exactly did you end up in the company of the Orders Militant?"
That was a conversation and a half. Klightus spared a moment to sip his juice before answering. "It w-was at the battle of Hentamar IV. The F-Fifth were fighting a p-particularly nasty group of h-heretics, and the Sisters c-came to our aid. I w-was injured, and they n-nursed me back to health."
Amaia chimed in. "Even as he was still recovering, he proved his purity, bravery, combat abilities, and skills as a chirugen several times. The Canoness saw these and decided to have him translate the war cant of the various regiments for us. He not only recovered several artifacts but was instrumental in winning several battles. It was then decided that he remain with us."
"Both the Third and the Fifth regiments were decimated in that fight," Father mused. "I'd heard that the remnants were absorbed by the Berith Seventh regiment, but heard no news about you. We had assumed that you had died."
"Not for lack of trying." Amaia seemed amused by the memory. "No less than three times did I personally see him charge into the enemy without thought for himself. You should be proud over his sense of duty."
"Indeed." Father spoke with a pleasant tone, but the undercurrent hinted at the truth. Klightus had failed the one duty they'd set before him.
"So now you serve as a translator?" Pessolt asked. He seemed genuinely curious about all of this.
"Officially I-I am the l-liaison between their Order and either the Imperial G-Guard or the l-local PDF for the Deparmento Munitorum. I keep b-both sides updated t-to the other's t-troop deployments, offer t-tactical advise, supervise j-joint operations, ensure compatible armaments, f-file after-action reports, and act as a-a Departmento Munitorum representative on the f-field."
"Daddy kills heretics, too!" Katla exclaimed proudly.
That earned a smile out of Amaia. "Indeed. He seems to fulfill his role mostly from the front line. Usually he just relays tactical information between the Canoness and the Guard over vox while fighting. Occasionally, however, he has been known to put both in their place."
That made Klightus' cheeks glow, but she didn't stop there. "He understands more than most give him credit for, and is wise in how he applies that knowledge. It would do no good to have our Celestines charge into artillery fire, for example. Even if he himself tends to ignore it." That earned a small chuckle from Mother. "But he does far more than that.
"Though not officially a member of the Ministorum, he does a great deal for us as well. He assists in training, teaching us about the Guard not only so that we might fight alongside them better, but so that we might more easily identify corruption within their ranks. His retinue includes both one conscript Guardsman and one novice Sister so that both might learn the value of the other. Between deployments, he stays with us, not only continuing his official duties, but also serving as a chirugen."
"Impressive indeed," Father said, nodding. "To wield such power is impressive. Tell me, what does your commanding officer think?"
Both Amaia and Bethany laughed at this, though Bethany's was seen and not heard.
Unfortunately, this did nothing to soothe Klightus at all. "T-truly, that is up to some debate. Um, officially, I technically am my superior officer, w-with only the Lord Solar or high c-command above me. I'm apparently the o-only one with such a job."
"It's an odd position," admitted Amaia. Apparently, she didn't like to hear him try to force words out. "Officially, he is the head of his department. Where his reports go is beyond me, as one can hardly expect the Lord Solar to read them, let alone his high command. It actually causes him some great difficulty. The first time he attempted to secure a new uniform along with other sundries, he was arrested. Because he isn't attached to a regiment and the paperwork lists no superior officer, they assumed he was a thief. Occasionally, we still have issues with this."
"It's n-not that bad, really. I j-just-"
Klightus' words were cut off by an audible commotion. The servants sounded upset, yelling over something. Klightus turned in his seat just in time for the heavy doors to slam open... Revealing Sister Ephrael, her leg still raised from kicking the door. Her hands were occupied with a storage crate, no doubt containing the gear of his office.
The young conscript, still little more than a whiteshield, moved around her quickly, giving a sharp salute. "Major Gramon," he barked nervously. "Inquisitor Eigen apologizes for the interruption at this early hour, but the operation cannot wait any longer."
"Inquisitor?" Father was on his feet instantly, followed by Mother and Pessolt in quick succession. His tone was surprised.
Amaia and Bethany were on their feet instantly, hurrying back to Amaia's quarters to don their armor and retrieve their weapons. Klightus, for the first time since coming to this world, felt himself calm. This was easy. Fighting was easy, you either won or died. Leading was easy, you found a hole and you plugged it. Preparing for battle was easy -- you just did it. Dinner conversation? With family? That was hard.
"Sister Kandra," he said, calmly wiping his mouth with a napkin. "Could you please take Katla to the spaceport and ensure that she is taken safely aboard the transport?"
"You trust me with much," she muttered as she made her way to her feet.
"Should anything happen to us, I trust you to care for her as you would me." A simple fact, nothing more. Now he turned to his daughter. "Darling, I expect you to listen to Sister Kandra like you would any other Sister while Mommy and Daddy are away, alright?"
His daughter's face lit up brilliantly. "Daddy always comes back. The Emperor wills it so." She wasn't stupid, she knew what fighting meant the possibility of death. But her encouragement was infectious, as was her faith. He couldn't help but give her a kiss before rising to his feet.
"M-Mother, Father, P-Pessolt, if you will excuse me, I must attend to m-my duties." With that, he turned to the assembled. "Sister Ephrael, Conscript Mekel, Novice Bess, with me please."
They made no hesitation in following him. He liked to think that they were as happy to get out from under the bewildered gaze of his family as he was.
The fact that Conscript Mekel helped him gear up only served to give Klightus more time to think. Even more so as they traveled to the entrance to the underhive. The more that his mind worked, the more uneasy he became. The more conflicted. In the past twenty-four hours, his life had been turned upside down, with a great deal of bad news heaped upon him.
There simply wasn't enough time.
Despite how he wished he wouldn't have had time to think, all too soon, he found them approaching the Inquisitor. Wiprecht pulled away from the assembled, his face stern as he approached Klightus. "Forgive me pulling you away from breakfast, but the Canoness saw no need to wait. She had late dinner with the Governor last night, paving the way for our work. I could only stall for so long without earning her ire."
"Understandable," Klightus said, his mind only half there. He debated for a moment before grabbing Wiprecht's arm, pulling him further away.
"I need to use a favor," he whispered quickly.
"Speak fast, Klightus, and I will see if I may grant it."
Now or never, then. He drew in a deep breath, not feeling comfortable with this at all. "We aren't using the PDF or any Guard f-for this purge. You don't actually need me here. I have m-matters which I must attend. Personal matters." He paused a beat. "I need to see a cleric, talk to some people. Attend to my family's crypt." He drew in a slow breath. "Please."
Weibrecht frowned for a long moment in some great internal debate. The servo skull connected to a socket in the back of his skull scanned the assembled Sisters. At last, he spoke in a hushed tone. "Will you need your retinue?"
Klightus shook his head. "Personal matter, l-like I said." Wiprecht's glare forced more information out of him. "Plausible d-deniability on their part. I shouldn't have to resort to violence, but if I must, I don't want Bethany or Amaia dragged into it. They're already on edge after meeting my f-family."
The other man sucked in a deep breath. He wasn't happy, that much was plainly visible. But he gave a nod, a firm hand clutching Klightus' armored shoulder. "Be careful. I can't pull you out of any trouble you pull yourself into."
Of course not. That would make him look weak. "Thank you, sir. Please, move s-safely, and may the Emperor guide your weapon."
"And yours, too." Klightus hoped he wouldn't need that blessing. "Clare, your adept, is here. I was hoping to have her fill out some real-time reports of your activities. It can wait for later, though. For now, I'll put Amaia in charge of your squad. Good hunting."
The temple wasn't much, but it was one that Klightus had always been fond of. It was the closest to his tower, though little more than a well-fortified hole in the wall, trussed up to look its role. He wasn't sure where to start, but as a general rule he found that if he was in doubt, a place of faith was always a good choice.
As he stepped inside, though, he couldn't help but find himself smiling. In all these years, it hadn't changed at all. How many times had he hidden here as a child? How many times did Sister Kandra bring him here?
One of the clerics disengaged from a quiet discussion they were having to approach. "Greetings, my child. I welcome you to the Temple of the Reflected Light. I am-"
"Brother Tobias," Klightus said, half of his face twisting up into a grin as recognition dawned.
Tobias blinked for a moment before laughing. "Emperor bless you, Klightus! Klightus Gramon! I didn't recognize you at first. Not in armor and... It's been years!"
"It has indeed," he said with a faint smile, looking around. "But it feels like just a year ago, you were trying to coax me out from under the pews."
"Indeed! Indeed it has! Now look at you... carapace armor, weapons..." He sobered up a little, nodding. "You've come far, lord Gramon. Farther than any of us could have imagined. Tell me, have you come to confess, or..." His words trailed off as Klightus' smile faded.
"I wished t-to speak to you a-a-about Dogmar."
Tobias winced, motioning Klightus to follow. He didn't speak until both were seated in a pew. "Of course you would wish to speak of him. A tragedy, what happened to him. Truly a tragedy. Though your parents worship at another temple, they insisted that his service be held here. So many nobles were packed in here, so many women sobbing. More came for that one service than I have ever seen here before, or I am likely to see again. We ourselves felt his loss terribly. There was a time when he was considering becoming a cleric himself, you know."
"Truly?" That was a detail that Kandra had neglected to tell him. "What happened?"
"Ah, Claus." The brother shook his head. "With his accidental death, so much pressure was put on Dogmar to be ready to assume the mantle of heir. He knew that he could not devote his life to the Ministorum and properly care for your House at the same time. He was so sad when he told us the news. In just one misguided stab of a blade, he went from being here every day, almost all day, to only appearing twice a week for service. At least..."
Tobias seemed hesitant to continue. That said at lot. Klightus put his hand on the brother's shoulder, offering a comforting squeeze. "Brother Tobias. Y-you have always been my guide when I have needed it. You sheltered me, and taught me the t-true meaning of being an Ostagarian. Please. Do n-not hold anything back. I know of the... unusual circumstances behind his death."
Tobias relaxed somewhat, nodding. "It was most odd, wasn't it? However, you only know the half of it, I suspect. He... had grown concerned before his death. He started visiting us again, seeking guidance from the Emperor. He would speak little, but he said that your parents had become... withdrawn after the death of Claus. He began to worry. A week... Maybe two weeks before his death, he came to me and asked if I knew of a Priest of Mars familiar with the underhive. I... I think that he suspected that one of the other Houses was moving against yours."
"Brother Tobias." Klightus looked in the other man's eyes, his own burning with need. "You h-have always been there in my times of need. Understand. M-my b-brother is d-d-dead, my s-sister is missing... If these are c-connected... If my brother was s-stripped of life by murder most foul, and my family torn asunder by the p-plotting of others, then he m-m-m... I must avenge him. I beg of you, help me. Help me shine the l-light of His righteous wrath against those w-who would harm the well-being of our Hive."
Tobias said nothing for a long moment. Indeed, he thought that he might have broken the man. But when his mouth opened next, he began to give directions...
Klightus was thankful for his uniform, for his ability to march when everything inside screamed at him to run away. People scurried out of his way. Though he still wore a heavy pack, he was dressed in armor and cape befitting of a Major. Who knew what his purpose was, with the purging going on?
The cusp of where the middle hive gave way fully to the underhive was barely fit for human habitation in Klightus' mind. Why anybody would live here, or lower, was beyond him. Better to give themselves to the clergy, the Guard, anything better than this. Still, despite his dislike, this was the next stop on his hunt.
The presence of the servo skulls was the first announcement that he'd reached the right place. He couldn't even count all of them, zipping around. But they seemed focused around one hovel, a hovel that bore the skull and cog next to the door. With the utmost hesitation, he stepped through the door.
The inner lair of a member of the Adeptus Mechanicus were rarely a comforting sight. All sorts of machinery laid bare, seemingly in disarray, greeted Klightus. In the middle of it all, a red-robed figure stood, holding a servo skull.
"A member of the esteemed Imperial Guard stands before me. One who bears weapons which hold the markings of the Ecclesiarchy. A rare trait indeed. He comes at a peaceful stance, obviously seeking knowledge. Perhaps the kind of wisdom that only I can afford." He stood fully upright, lowering one of his hands. Instantly, one of the three mechadendrites moved to stroke the servo skull. "I am Meinhart. Who are you?"
He took a deep breath, squaring his own shoulders back. "I am Major Klightus Gramon o-of the Departmento Munitorum, and a liaison to the Adepta Sororitas. I was hoping that you might have some information for me."
"I have a great deal of information. But what I have to offer depends on what you seek. Do you seek the knowings of the Machine Spirit? Information of my time as an Enginseer? My knowledge of flesh, servitors, maybe the use of one of my lovelies? Or perhaps you seek my theories? Maybe you just wish a primer of the Lingua-technis? Come, my boy, speak!"
Klightus removed the pict from his belt, holding it out. "H-have you ever met this man?"
The techpriest leaned forward to peek at it with his augmetic eyes. "Hmm. Yes, I have. And you are not the first to ask of him, but the first to ask and not be followed. Oh, yes. Two women, both followed from the shadows asked about him. They paid good money to learn what he did. One of them... did not fare well, but I could spare no time to watch."
"Who were they?" Klightus took a step forward, but a mechadendrites came up, warding him to keep his distance.
"I know not for sure. They spoke in currency, not names. Beyond my concern. They wanted what he sought, just as you do now." He shook his head ruefully. "None armed enough to do what I wish. But your machine spirits sing for battle! Perhaps we could make a bargain?"
The idea of dealing with this... man did little to sooth Klightus' stomach, but he had few options. "It would depend on what you want. Otherwise, I do have coin."
"Feh. Coin. Coin coin coin. Everybody thinks that coin is my driving goal. No! It is... Bah, wasted on you anyway. I will tell you, and then you will pay or do as I ask, yes?" Klightus nodded. "Good. Good. You see, my loves move about the tunnels of the underhive. Once the middlehive, if you would believe it! They are mapping, you see, finding the changes the hivequakes make, seeking out the patterns. Trying to find the entrances to what lie beneath the underhive.
"And believe me, there is more beneath it, if you can find it." He seemed pleased by revealing that tidbit. "But, you see, there is one area that troubles me. Guarded well, by those that reject the Omnissiah's favorite pets. They shoot my loves! Destroy them! Unacceptable! Unacceptable!"
Meinhart lifted the servo skull in his hand, looking into its face. It seemed to calm the priest down significantly. "Unacceptable." He resumed petting it with his free hand. "He sought this place, your man did. The women just wanted to know. None did anything about it." He looked at Klightus now. "You will want to go there, I am sure. I will provide you with a map, yes. But! I want you to take revenge. Glorious revenge, not for your Ecclesiarchy, but for the Omnissiah! Let none survive the wrath!
"Do we have a deal?"
The air was foul, to say the least. Choking would have been a better term. The smell of rot and ash clung to the air, invading the senses. A strange damp humidity made it even worse, leaving Klightus to wonder what exactly it was that he was breathing. He had the feeling that by the time he walked out, he might as well have spent a lifetime chain smoking lho sticks.
Klightus had been forced to put on his mask well before Meinhart had warned that the air would become "bad." That was worrisome indeed.
But anywhere that the air wasn't fogged with ammonia, there was light. Not necessarily because there was power, either. Some sort of fungus grew on the walls, emitting a red glow when the ammonia wasn't misting. Occasionally, pipes would lead down, some of which glowed a hot red. Even more worrisome, great pits sometimes appeared almost randomly, with a disturbingly frequent number of glowing toxic pools at the bottom.
Klightus was presented with traversing one pit that sank straight down through the tunnel he traversed. Though somebody had lashed a bridge in place, he didn't trust it in the slightest. It wobbled from the immense heat rising from the molten waste at the bottom of the shaft. No, instead somebody had carved out a ledge that ran around the edge, large enough for a human to pass. Not safely, but he trusted it slightly more than the bridge.
He didn't want to think too much about it as he moved -- the metal seemed slightly soft, as if it had not set properly. He kept his eyes on his footing, moving as quickly and surely as he could until he made it.
This was it. Close to the location that the techpriest had told him of. Whomever had taken control of this portion of the underhive had enough weaponry to destroy the servo skulls, and enough want to continue to do so. That alone was telling. They wanted their privacy, and if Dogmar had shown interest in it mere days before his death, that was enough for Klightus.
Meinhart had assured him that this was the least heavily defended area, and Klightus was inclined to agree. Only the foolish, the insane, or the desperate should trust that bridge. Drawing his blade and the melta pistol at his hip, he paused briefly. "Sister Julianne, thank you for allowing me to use your family's blade in the pursuit of Righteousness once again. May you rejoice in the Emperor's embrace. God Emperor of Mankind, please give me the strength of purpose to see this through, steady my resolve no matter the cost, and should I encounter your enemies, the power to smite them in your name. Ave Imperator."
With that, he began a slow, purposeful march into the passage ahead. No enemies would sneak upon him, no powers but the Emperor could stop him. This he told himself with every step.
Shortly, he came to a door, and behind it a different light ahead than the fungus. Some powered illumination, some from fire. Voices as well. Good. Now he would discover what his brother had died trying to learn. Now he would discover who moved against his family's name.
As he rounded the corner, however, the sights revealed the words he somehow couldn't make out. The pointed star that hung on the wall. The stained alter. The statues. The wretches chanting in front of an elegantly robed figure. "Chaos," he seethed.
Immediately the chanting stopped, all turning to cast their eyes upon him. The leader sneered to himself. "So the commander of the PDF deems himself worthy of investigating our little abode during our sermon. How fitting you should join us on this day. You will be much better than our planned sacrifice."
Klightus raised his blade, ready to lunge forward at the first one who moved. The leader, though, just raised a finger, smirking. "Tut-tut. How impolite. Elgast! Bring this one to me alive!"
It was then that one of the statues moved, rotating its head. A hulking form, far too tall and massive to be normal. The height of an Ogryn, clad in metal armor, bristling with spikes, claws, and mutation, both within the armor and without. It threw its head back and laughed. "For Chaos!"
There was something off here. Even for a Chaos Space Marine, this creature didn't look right. However, Klightus had not time to think -- already, it was charging. Klightus wasted no time coming up with a plan to defeat this monstrosity.
He turned and ran.
No thought, no time. The hulk didn't move as fast as Klightus did, giving him the edge of speed. But if Klightus chose to keep running, he would inevitably become lost, giving the creature the edge. Which was fine; he didn't have any intention of running any farther than necessary.
He sprinted across the bridge so quickly he wasn't even aware of the wobble, the shake barely slowing him down. The tunnel ahead of him branched many, many times. There was no telling how easy it would be to get lost, or how easily the cultists could move to cut him off. Perhaps it was foolishness not to bring Bethany, Amaia and Ephrael.
He glanced over his shoulder, stopping dead in his tracks. The corrupted traitor was already within sight. It charged relentlessly, advancing with a howling madness. The armor didn't look right, at all. Klightus had seen enough Adeptus Astartes to know that much just by looking at it in this light. Somehow, that only served to make it that much more fearsome.
One of its feet hit the bridge. Time seemed to slow as Klightus turned slightly. A second footfall, heavy. His hand moved. It crouched, ready for the pounce.
And Klightus pulled the trigger on the melta pistol.
Immediately, the bridge gave way, sending a shower of sparks out. As it toppled, the creature leaped... but it wasn't enough. Too late to make it to the other side, it fell out of sight. A moment later, he heard a screeching impact against metal. Steeling himself, he approached the edge, already knowing what he'd see.
The claws of the beast had imbedded themselves into the wall of the pit, keeping it from falling any further. It stared up at him, howling in fury. Naturally. Nothing was ever that easy. Klightus sighed softly as he fell to one knee at the pit's ledge. He watched as it ripped one clawed appendage free, striking higher, pulling itself up. It paused as he leaned over, his melta pistol pointed down, and pulled the trigger.
A few moments later, it began to laugh and continued its ascent. "Fear me, pitiful one! Your weapon does nothing!" Klightus said nothing, but didn't stop. "It doesn't even tickle! Soon, you shall be offered up on the spear, not the alter! Soon, all of the underhive will sing as one as we destroy your precious city!"
The melta finally stopped humming, but not by Klightus' will. The fuel was spent. Calmly, he re-holstered it and opened a pouch on his pack. "Great God-Emperor, Watch over Your servant, And bestow upon him the skill and patience..."
"Pray all you want! Nothing can save you now!" Its howls of laughter, though, suddenly came short. A clawed hand dug into the metal and pulled to haul itself higher, only to tear free a fistful of softened metal. It looked up with surprise as Klightus' intent became apparent.
"To time the moment, And make the kill." The grenade fell from Klightus' fingers, falling a depressingly short way before exploding in the face of the mutant. The force of the explosion ripped its claws free from the wall, sending chunks of its armor flying as it fell. Fell a long ways, as a matter of fact, directly into the pool below. Klightus could barely even hear the impact, but he could see it. A small sizzle, and then nothing more.
Klightus made his way around the edge of the pit much more quickly this time. He was expected, after all. A short sprint down the hall, and he rounded the corner. "The mutant you dressed up as a Marine is dead," he proclaimed loudly, drawing his hellpistol from its shoulder holster and firing at the nearest cultist.
Instantly, all of the wretches charged. Just as expected. As he shot the next one, they all became focused on the pistol, trying to overpower him so that he might not be able to get another shot off. They never saw the blade until it began to rend flesh.
A slash, a stab. Quickly, they fell to his blade, their flesh rent apart by the powerful energy field. Two, three, four. They seemed mindless in their assault, mindless in their quick deaths. All who charged died, by blade or by pistol, until finally only the priest remained, pressed back against the wall.
"You aren't with the PDF," the cultist cried in fear. "Who are you? What are-"
His words were silenced by a blade pushed into his throat a moment before Klightus activated the energy field, freeing the head from the body. A wave of relief washed over him. The battle, at least the worst of it, was over. There might be more, but not in a flurry like that. It never ceased to amaze him just how stupid cultists could be.
Stupid... The word resonated in his mind until he kicked himself silently. He should have interrogated their leader, not killed him immediately. Now, he was left with nothing. Unless...
His hand went to his helmet. "Klightus to Inquisitor Eigen, do you read?"
There was a pause before he got a staticy reply. "Klightus, this is Sister Reikhilda. I can barely hear you. I'll see if I can link you through."
Leave it to Reikhilda. After a moment, the vox crackled to life again. "Klightus, this is Wiprecht. What's going on?"
"You won the bet, sir." Klightus looked around, frowning to himself. "You may wish to come to my location with your retinue. I think I'm in the middle of their stronghold."
There was a long pause before he received another response. "Give me a vague idea as to where you are. I'll have my techpriest discern your location from there."
Within ten minutes, they'd finally got to the point where Wiprecht could at least draw near. Ten agonizing minutes of trying to explain levels, landmarks, and points of easy reference that could be used in the underhive. Unlike the rest of the hive, it was a labyrinth of disuse. By Klightus' best guess, assuming that nobody got lost and they all made it with best speed, it would be at least an hour.
An hour. He looked around the room again, bile churning in his throat. Seeing heresy in your home hive was a more bitter pill than anywhere else. But he could either stay in the sacrificial chamber, awaiting more heretics to arrive, or he could explore. Exploration brought the possibility of not only bumping into more of them, but also meant the possibility of exposing himself to artifacts of the Ruinous Powers. Staying meant remaining here, restless, staring at twisted statues and a sacrificial alter.
Though he knew it was foolish, Klightus chose a door at random, opened it, and began to walk through twisted, corrupted hallways. Whatever foul sorcery they had worked here had left its mark, indeed. The Sisters had brought meltas, he was sure. They'd have to put them to good use.
The original purpose of this area was lost to time. The walls were thick, meters thick in most places. Everything still seemed to vibrate slightly, though if that was due to the sorcery or some unseen mechanics was beyond him. He simply kept walking, peeking randomly into rooms, trying to distract himself from feeling the fool.
Opening a door just enough to peek inside, he was presented with someone's back. That made him call back upon previous experiences. People usually stood like that for one reason -- to keep somebody from crossing. Which meant that they were guarding it from somebody. Probably an entrance. Taking it out would clear up resistance for the Inquisitor.
Taking a page from Sister Ephrael's book, he kicked the door as hard as he could, sending the guard sprawling and revealing another on the opposite side of what appeared to be a long hallway. Klightus raised his pistol quickly, firing a shot at the far target. At that range it was a hard hit, forcing him to hold down the trigger for a moment to correct his aim. A much faster follow-up shot ended the one on the floor.
Two, on opposite ends of a hall. That could only mean one thing. Slowly, hesitantly, he made his way inside. Makeshift cells lined the walls of the hall. The first two were empty. The third held a man who seemed more than happy to drool on himself. Best not to let him out -- who knew what they had done to him. Klightus crept further down the hall.
"Who are you?" a woman demanded from one of the cells. He didn't lower his weapon as he turned to face her. Better safe than stabbed in the back. He couldn't quite make her out from the back of her cell. "I suppose that I should be grateful that you killed those bastards, but you can't be too sure down here with the vermin. Though you are rather well equipped for vermin..."
She took a step closer, but not enough for him to make her out clearly. "Let me out, please. Give me a gun. I can make it up on my own if you'll just give me a chance. Please! They... They tried to turn me from the Emperor's light. They said things... did... things. Please, either let me out or just kill me!" She stepped forward, grabbing the bars to her cell. "I won't become a pawn in their games!"
Klightus' brain wasn't entirely working any more. Slowly, he holstered his pistol. His hand moved up to his mask, unclasping the seals, pulling it down. The rancid air hit him hard in the face once more. But he wasn't able to close his eyes. He was absently aware of his mask hitting the ground as he pulled off his helmet, letting it fall as well.
"Is that... Klightus?" Femke took a step back, her hand going to her mouth. "No, no..." She took a step back as Klightus took one forward. "No... No, my brother's dead. This is a-another one of your tricks! It won't work! You're dead!" She fell back against the far wall, sliding to the floor. He could barely make out the words amongst her sobs. "You're dead... You can't be you... They told me you died... They said..."
He had to say something. Anything. Something to prove to her his identity. "Your porcelain doll was so strange, b-but kind of p-pretty." His voice sounded so weak in his own ears. "I... I just wanted to l-look at it. I d-didin't mean to break it. It... slipped. From my hands. And you g-got so mad. I wouldn't go down the main stairs f-for a year after without S-Sister Kandra there. Because you would always push me down them."
"And you always told Mother you slipped." Her eyes were the size of saucers as she stared up at him. "Are you... What are you going to do?"
Calmly, he activated his blade and struck once. He spent a moment staring at his handiwork before sheathing it. Yes, he decided, that would do nicely.
Almost immediately, Femke was against him, hugging him tight. To him, it was all so surreal. To have a member of his family truly happy to see him, beyond the curiosity, beyond the pleasantries, beyond even history. Honestly and eagerly happy to see him. He didn't know how to react to the sobbing woman clinging to him. All that he could do was wrap his arms around her, holding her tight.
"They tried to break me," she sobbed into his chest. "They... It doesn't matter any more, does it? They're dead. And of anybody who would rescue me, it'd be you. Tall, gangly, useless Klightus..."
For the first time, oddly enough, he felt at peace with her calling him that.
The peace was short lived, though. A loud clang of metal against metal somewhere caused them both to jump. "What the damnation was that?!" Femke cried, hugging him tighter.
"H-hide in the cell," Klightus said quickly. "D-don't worry. I'll take care of it."
"So you discovered a techpriest who has been mapping the underhive and a cabal of cultists, and managed to kill their false traitor marine whilst removing the head of their leader." Wiprecht frowned and nodded in appreciation. "Truly, you should engage in personal matters more often, Klightus. It would probably save the Imperium years of work."
Klightus wasn't stupid. He knew what Wiprecht was trying to do. Even with Clare making records of everything that was said, Wiprecht was trying to take Klightus' mind off of the other room. The Inquisitor's personal confessor had gone in there three hours ago. An hour ago, the screaming had stopped.
"It wasn't my intention, believe me." Klightus pulled his knees up under his chin, a feat in his armor. "W-would you please just... J-just tell m-me if she's s-still alive at least!" Bethany wrapped an arm around his shoulders, a welcomed bit of comfort.
"I would not believe it," Wiprecht said softly. "Here is a man who can stare death in the face. A man I have worked with on many levels throughout the years. Who handles everything thrown at him with the kind of strength and determination that even an Adeptus Astartes could appreciate. And yet, here before me, he is turned into a wreck of a man."
Klightus shook his head. Wiprecht, for all his good points, could never understand. Even if he were to try for another century, he couldn't understand why this shook Klightus to his very core. All that he could do was bury his head in his knees and try not to cry.
When the door finally opened, he jumped to his feet.
Hals closed the door behind him and walked right past Klightus, not even sparing him a glance. Instead, he walked to Wiprecht and nodded once.
"She is alive," Wiprecht said, heading for the door. "And is in a condition to speak with us. Please." He opened the door, looking at Klightus evenly. "After you."
Klightus ran past him, into the room. The ruinous symbols had been removed, but somehow it still seemed foreboding. Femke looked exhausted, worn. Covered in sweat, though she shivered as if cold. Her pupils were slow in reacting, but they were better than expected. He took her hand, and she gave it a gentle squeeze, trying to avoid looking at the servo skull that hovered above her.
"Hals is very thorough," Wiprecht said calmly, waiting until the three Sisters and Clare had all entered before closing the door behind him. "And she was in no condition to resist to start with. Starvation does that to a person. That said... I suppose I will let her live. Though I'll probably regret it."
"Thank you," Klightus said softly.
Femke licked her lips to speak. Klightus went to get his canteen, but she refused to let go of his hand. Instead, Sister Ephrael let her have a drink from hers. Finally, she could form words again. "I thank you for your generosity, Inquisitor Eigen. Though, I must ask... You seem less than... fond of me."
"Hmph." Wiprecht crossed his arms over his chest, not looking directly at any of the assembled. "Klightus, did I ever tell you about when I became an acolyte?"
He shook his head slowly. Wiprecht didn't really talk about himself much if he could help it.
"I was young, then. Only thirteen years old. But I somehow earned the interest of three different Inquisitors. Three, at the same time. So they all came to me at once, to interview me. To figure out which of them would add me to their retinue. They were all marveled by my actions, my abilities. And yet, the moment that I opened my mouth, two of them decided they wanted nothing to do with me.
"Why? Because I had a stutter that would put yours to shame. The third, Inquisitor Otmar Guilliman, stared at me for a long moment before shaking his head. He tried some methods, but they didn't work. So he took me to a forge world for one purpose." He tapped the metal dome on the back of his head. "A surgical procedure. Not the prettiest, but it worked, and left room for an upgrade or two."
Wiprecht looked over to Klightus. "So, when I met Klightus here... Well, he responded to the non-surgical treatments better than I did, at least. We've gotten him to the point where he can often go an entire conversation without a stutter." His eyes turned to look at Femke directly. "Until you even skirt the subject of his family. Then it comes back in full force. Tell me, why is that?"
Klightus looked away. He didn't like it when Wiprecht got quiet with his anger.
Neither did Femke, apparently. But she began to talk slowly. "Klightus was... He was the little one. Taller than the rest of us, sure, but still. He always acted before thinking. Leading with his heart. Always getting hurt, always tripping over himself, always getting into trouble. He always had the stutter, though. Always. But..."
She took a deep breath, shaking her head. "The boys picked on him, and he never fought back. We started picking on him, and he still didn't fight back. The only time I saw him fight back was... It was right after the second time that he got kidnapped. Dogmar took one of his toys... I don't even remember what it was. I was right there..."
"Baneblade," Klightus whispered. If he could shrink into nothingness, he would have been a happy man.
Femke laughed softly. "That's right... Eleven barels of fury. Anyway, Dogmar was taunting him with it, keeping it out of reach. Klightus accidentally... Well, bumped him below the belt. Not enough to hurt, but it was enough to make Dogmar mad. So he hit Klightus with the baneblade. In the face. And it broke. Klightus... just laid there on the ground for a minute, staring at the pieces. Johanna was laughing, but I realized he wasn't crying. Just... staring. Then..."
She shook her head, lost in the memory. "I didn't even see him move. Just one moment he was on the ground, and the next moment he kept punching Dogmar in the face. Dogmar pushed him hard enough to send him sliding across the room, but that didn't stop him. He just got up and ran. Tackled Dagmar right through the observation window, and they fell into the sitting room. I remember laughing, like it was the most entertaining thing I'd ever seen. It wasn't so funny, later. Dogmar got lucky and hit the couch right, but Klightus broke his collar bone."
She looked back up at Wiprecht, her voice regretful. "But it was always like that. The only time we ever cut him some slack was after his third kidnapping. But that was more because he settled into that harsh regime under Sister Kandra more than anything. But he still got plenty of it. Like... When Claus convinced you it was Dress Like Your Sister Day. Or when we had a Janus Simulacra. She was exceptionally well built. I made a big deal of it when I caught Klightus staring at, uh..."
She made a frustrated noise, looking up at Klightus. "By the Throne, it was so stupid! We treated you like dirt, and you were our brother!" Tears began to fill her eyes. "We were horrible to you, even Mother and Father. Yes, you weren't like the rest of us, but you honestly tried in your own way. You worked harder than all of us. And we were all so glad you were gone. No more accidents, no more passing out at dinner. No more trying to be patient to hear what you were trying to say."
Her hand covered his, gripping it as tight as she could manage in her state. "No wonder you survived. After what we did to you, there's no way you could have died. And after everything... Everything I've done to you, you still... You're the one who saved me. You're the one the Emperor lead to me. And then you..."
Klightus smiled down at her, shaking his head. "You're still f-family. How could I not help you? I m-mean... In the Guard, yeah, they picked on me, too. B-but... They still fought alongside me, and I s-still fought to keep them alive. I c-couldn't just abandon you. I swore that I w-would kill whomever was responsible for k-kidnapping you and killing Dogmar. And..."
But she wasn't looking at him anymore. He'd said something that made her look away like he'd struck her. He glanced up at Wiprecht, but he was making an avid point of not looking at Klightus either. Even the servo skull flew off so Klightus couldn't look at it.
"Emperor have mercy," Ephrael said from beneath her helmet, her voice tinged with disgust. Out of everybody in the room, even Clare, he seemed to be the only one who suddenly wasn't uneasy.
"What did I say?"
The door opened readily with his cognomen, accepting his identity readily. The spire was oddly silent, the footsteps on the marble floor echoing. Yet somehow, despite all of this, it only served to make him feel oddly claustrophobic. It did absolutely nothing for the trembling in his hands. Even the servants seemed to still and quiet when they saw the silent march.
The doors squeaked when they opened. Mother and Father were sitting, sipping a cup of tea. They looked... worn. Tired. Father set his book to the side, peering at him. "Klightus. How goes the underhive purge?"
"W-we're done for the day, F-Father. How are the f-forges?"
"Your purge seems to have increased the work rate. Your coming was better than we could have guessed. Everything is better than expected."
A voice rang out behind him. "And I suppose the news of my death only aided in this." Femke stepped out, walking into the room to stand beside her brother.
"Inquisitor Eigen sent you that l-little message," Klightus added, his face as hard as steel. "He found so much p-p-paperwork. So much correspondence that even I h-had to belive it."
Mother, for all her faults, seemed so dignified. There was no cowering, no fear. She knew what was going on, and knew better than to fight. "So you know everything, then."
"No." Klightus' throat felt dry, swollen. "There's o-one thing that I s-still don't understand. Why? Why do all of this?"
The two glanced at each other for a long moment. Finally, Father spoke. "Claus. You don't know what it's like to lose a child. You-"
"So you kill another a-and offer a third up for s-s-sacrifice?" He couldn't keep the fury out of his voice. His own vision danced and bobbed due to the tremors that wracked his body.
"They promised us," Mother said firmly. "Dogmar? Inherit the House? He spoke of increased wages, lesser hours, actually paying the mutants to haul away the waste. He spoke of education programs. Him? Lead the House? He'd destroy it. Even Pessolt, that little deviant... He'd waste it away everything that had been built here for his own perverse pleasures!"
"We needed a true heir," Father said calmly. "And we were unable to produce one on our own."
"And then the priest came. I don't know how he knew, but he spoke with us a great deal about it. He told us that he could bring Pessolt into his flock, to give him a focus, to keep him from allowing the House to crumble underneath his feet. He showed us rituals, that would allow me to carry a child again. It would work! He just needed help setting it up."
Father found his way to his feet, squaring his shoulders back. "We weren't stupid. We had a plan. Once the ritual was complete, mercenaries would come. While they were engaging in their dark rituals, the mercenaries would kill them to a man, and-"
"You t-turned your back from the Emperor f-for this?!" Spittle flew from Klightus' lips, his face turning red.
"And what did the Emperor do for us?" Mother countered. "We served him faithfully, and he only gave us one child worthy of inheritance, then allowed him to die! We both know what happens if the House falls! The forges close until another House can refit them for the designs they're permitted to use, and that will take years! Millions, perhaps billions will die of starvation! What then?"
There was silence. Klightus' face had grown almost purple in color from his rage. He could hear the blood rushing in his ears, almost so much so that he could not hear Sister Ephrael approach. Calmly, he took her flamer, still connected to her backpack.
Femke spoke quietly. "In retaliation for the attack on their stronghold, lead by the heir of House Gramon, cultists sneaked into the tower through unknown means. Though forces of the Inquisition were quick to the scene, their path of bloodshed was quick. Though they did not escape, the damage was done."
Klightus spoke, but his words seemed to come from elsewhere. They didn't feel like they came from him at all. "Herdeinus Gramon. Melicent Gluckshalt-Gramon. By the power invested in me by Wiprecht Eigen, Holy Inquisitor of the Ordo Hereticus, I do hereby deliver the verdict that he has passed down upon you. For the crimes of turning your back against the Emperor, he finds̶—
Wiprecht lifted his hand from the page, staring down at what he'd written. Even if he hadn't of been there, lurking in the background, even he he hadn't of had his servo skull recording the entire procedure, Clare had been there. Under his orders, she took careful records of everything involving Klightus. Every word, every story, every action.
Somehow, though, it still felt impossible to write now.
He set the quill to the side, looking over this small room. Some might call it a shrine, and they might be right. His hand passed over the helmet of Sister Ephrael, carefully avoiding the bolter hole on the far side. How many nights had they spent together? How badly he wished to have her back?
Forcing himself away, he found his eyes drawn to the pict slate. The sound was off, but the images repeated over and over. Katla, enjoying a very pleasant birthday. She was six... No, seven then. Sitting on Bethany's lap as she opened a present. At the edge of the screen, he could see a profile of Klightus, gnawing on his lips with nervous excitement. Wiprecht found himself lost in a sad smile as the girl received a small token from the shrine world of Solovei.
He found his eyes looking over other picts. The wedding of Klightus and Bethany. Them showing off Oldric. Their squad after the battle of Bantencamp Hadi, attending to prayers. It was enough to make a man's eyes mist.
Wiprecht retrieved a single page of paper, setting it in front of him. This took more courage than he cared to admit.
Otmar Guilliman, Ordo Hereticus
I know that it has been many decades since we last spoke. We have always been of differing mindsets about a great many things, and I fear that has soured our relationship. And yet, oddly, I still think of you as more of a father than the one who reared me. In times like these, I feel I should reach out to you for guidance or help.
You once said that of all of my faults, there would be only one which would kill me. My desire for contact with other humans on a personal level. My desire for friendship. I always scoffed at you, and continued as I saw fit. I know that it was a disappointment in your eyes that I would do this. However, in times like these, I fear that your concern may not have entirely been unfounded.
When I have a friend, I tend to keep a close eye on them. Partially out of professional curiosity, to see if they would betray me. You taught me that much. But also to ensure their safety as best I can, as well as to live their life vicariously. Many of them have moments of happiness which I know I will never have on my own.
One such friend, the closest of them all, is Klightus Gramon, the head of House Gramon on Nujema, centered within the hive of Yenbar. You may have heard of him once or twice; his illustrious career within the Departmento Munitorum acting as a liaison for the Order of the Wounded Hand proceeds him. In recent years, as a method of stepping down from his position with the intent of proper retirement, he has taken to training in the Schola Progenium on Ockohr Prime. He taught battlefield communication, and often assisted with fencing lessons. I am told that he was regarded highly by both his fellow faculty and the students there, becoming one of the favored teachers. He was accompanied by his wife, one Sister Bethany of the Order of the Wounded Hand, and his second son, Rudiger, who continued to serve as part of his retinue.
My sources tell me that all communication with Ockohr Prime was recently lost. The cause of this is currently unknown; truly it could range from a simple warp storm, to the accidental death of the astropath, to causes which I would prefer not to think of. I cannot interfere myself, of course, but I am told that one ship of the Imperial Navy has been dispatched to investigate. At the time of this writing, there is still an estimated four weeks before it arrives.
In these times, I attempt to console myself by writing a biography of sorts. Perhaps the word novelization would be better. Regardless, I do this not to fictionalize the events which propelled him to greatness, but for a more noble purpose.
You have spoken many times about how the Imperium needs heroes. Indeed, it was one of the few subject matters on which we both agreed completely. Heroes inspire the people, keep them faithful, and pacify them. Be they military heroes or saints, they are perhaps the first line of defense in the war for the purity of Humanity.
Should Klightus be declared dead, I wish to ask of your help. I wish to see him elevated to the position of Saint. I do this not for his House -- his daughter Katla is a more than competent leader. I do this for his status. Within these writings, I believe that you will find him to be a noble spirit. Though Ostagarian (I know of your opinion on them) in belief, he has shown the utmost humility and grace throughout his life, no matter the position he has taken, no matter what he has been forced to deal with. This, as an icon to the masses, will be most beneficial.
Please, Otmar. I beg of you. You have been instrumental in raising one other to the position of Saint. Read through my writings, and tell me that you find him worthy of your support in this endeavor. And should I never get to see my friend again, perhaps my final friend, please take up this crusade along side me.''
Wiprecht Eigen, Ordo Hereticus